"Matisse, Russia, Sergei Shchukin-Threads and Co-incidences" by Deborah Fry September 2019

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It’s very hard to choose, but Henri Matisse’s painting, The Conversation, is my favourite of all his works.  It is a big painting of Mr and Mrs Matisse poised for speech but at that captured moment apparently silent, he standing, in a pair of blue and white striped pyjamas, hand in pocket; she sitting in her black dressing gown with green trim. They face each other and one feels the tension between them.  There is a balcony behind them and a garden beyond. For a long time I had assumed the conversation to be happening at night-time, but outside it isn’t dark so maybe night is just suggested by the pyjamas and dressing gown?  It’s a blue painting. Blue, very blue.  I love it for its blueness, for the atmosphere, for its intimate perspective into an aspect of Matisse’s life, for its sublime and eternal beauty.


In 2016 I went with my friend Linda to Russia, primarily to see my beloved Matisse’s big collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg and, most especially, The Conversation, which is housed there. The painting was owned by Matisse’s rich, fascinating Russian patron, Sergei Shchukin, and hung in a grand room in his Trubetskoy palace in Moscow at the beginning of the twentieth century until the Russian Revolution changed everything. There is a photo of that grand room (called the Gaughin dining room) with The Conversation hanging in it. The photo is in a wonderful, engrossing book The Collector: the Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces by Natalya Semenova. It was published in 2018 so I hadn’t seen it or known much about Shchukin when I went to Russia. Now I know how much we owe to him and his fellow contemporary Russian collector, Ivan Morozov. So many of the most beautiful and interesting early twentieth century European art works were commissioned by and/or purchased by them, firstly for their own pleasure but of course for posterity and for art lovers forever to relish. 


My happy journey through the book, The Collector, co-incided with a wonderful exhibition in October 2018 at the Art Gallery of NSW, Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage (not, alas, including The Conversation).  I had just come back from another trip, this time with my friend Mary to Israel and Jordan, the former to see Tel Aviv and Jaffa for the first time and Jerusalem again after 30 years; the latter to visit Petra which I had always longed to see and Wadi Rum, the vast ancient desert area nearby where Lawrence of Arabia had roamed.  We stayed a night in the exotic Jordanian town of Aquaba on the northern coast of the Red Sea on our way to Petra. How pleased I was to read in The Collector that, in 1907, the year in which his much loved first wife had died, Sergei Shchukin set off on a trip to the middle east, “Arabia”, and went to Petra after staying in El-Akaba (Aquaba) and then on to Jerusalem and Jaffa. I so love stumbling upon these unexpected reading co-incidences.

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But back to 2016.  Linda and I had each pre-bought two full-day tickets to the Hermitage and decided to save the Matisses until the second day.  Day 1 was fabulous but I was so excited I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Day 2 was a tragedy.  None of the Matisses and other Impressionist and Post Impressionist masterpieces were on display.  They had recently been moved from the Hermitage across the vast magnificent square it faces to their new home in the General Staff Building and were still being hung.  No entry to that new section. ‘No, nyet’ reiterated the big Russian man sitting on his chair guarding the closed door.  I pleaded, cried, begged, talked to anyone who would listen, … ‘We have come all the way from Australia; I have waited 50 years to see these paintings; we don’t mind seeing them not properly hung, could we just have a little peek; there was no warning of this on the website; will they be up if we come back to St Petersburg after we go to Moscow; is there someone higher up we can talk to…?’ No, no and no. Nyet, nyet, nyet.  A kind gentle woman in administration did her best to soothe us but it still felt no less than a tragedy.  We did go on to see some wonderful Matisses at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow… but not The Conversation of course.  The consolation was great but so far from sufficient.


So when the Shchukin book came out I couldn’t wait to read it - to meet the man who, at the beginning of the twentieth century collected works by then almost unknown and often derided, artists -  Matisse, Gaughin, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gough, Denis, Degas, Renoir…mentoring and financially supporting a number of them.  It’s a wonderful, fascinating book. 


Sergei Shchukin’s father had made his wealth from textile manufacturing , his mother came from a tea trading merchant family.  It wasn’t unusual for a member of Moscow’s business elite to become a patron of the arts in late Imperial Russia. The burgeoning number of industrialists invariably emulated their aristocratic forebears, embracing a cosmopolitan outlook and supporting various cultural pursuits. Sergei’s father, who had 10 children, bought neither books nor paintings but he loved Italian opera  and sent his eldest sons abroad to study business.  His mother and her nine brothers grew up fully integrated into Moscow’s artistic intelligentsia – she taught her children French for example.

  

Sergei was schooled at home with his sisters due to his delicate constitution but he outlived nearly every member of his family, purportedly because of his vegetarian diet, pursuit of regular exercise and sleeping by an open window in his bedroom even in the midst of a Russian winter when snow had to be brushed from the bed coverings. Contrary to family expectations, he took over his father’s business when the latter died in 1890.  Sergei brought to the production of textiles a good business head, ambition and a propensity for risk taking, all of which also characterised his habits as a collector of art.


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All of Sergei’s siblings became collectors of some sort of art, his eccentric and cosmopolitan younger brother, Ivan, moving to Paris in 1893 and presiding over a weekly salon at his home which attracted artists like Rodin, Degas, Redon, art dealers and notable visiting and ex-pat Russians.  Ivan’s extravagant lifestyle and later obsession with collecting old Spanish masters led him into serious debt and he suicided in 1908.  Thanks to him, however, the way had been paved for Sergei who, in 1899, commenced his visits to the salons and studios and art fairs of Bohemian Paris. He made his purchases, firstly Monet and Degas and then the post-Impressionists, Cezanne, Van Gough, Gaughin and, of course, Matisse.  He was castigated and ridiculed when he hung his avant-garde spoils in his palace and invited scandalized Moscow society to view them.  But he was a man of sangfroid; he persevered and his collection grew and grew.  He bought Picassos, Rousseaus…. some art which shocked even his own aesthetic sensibility.   He had an extraordinary eye. He bought works he reacted to with ‘psychological shock’, that is, those he immediately loved but also works he believed he would come to love if he walked past them hanging on his walls every day or stood in front of them frequently enough, just looking.  He ended up owning 38 Matisses and 50 Picassos  and many many other beautiful and iconic works.


A contemporary of Shchukin’s and another art collector to whom we owe a great debt, Ivan Morozov, was also the son of a wealthy Moscow textile merchant. He started buying Russian art and impressionist and post-impressionist works in 1900, a little in Shchukin’s shadow.  He was a more analytical and deliberate collector, relying on a team of advisors rather than his own eye or emotional reactions to the works. During his 11 years of collecting Western art, he bought 278 paintings and 23 sculptures.  He never opened his collection to the public. 


Schchukin, his second wife and their young daughter left Russia in secret on August 1918 to  settle in Paris and a few months later his and Morozov’s collections were nationalised.  The paintings were moved around over the following years, largely unappreciated. In the anti-cosmopolitan climate inculcated by Stalin at the end of WW2, the collections were divided between curators and hidden to prevent their destruction.  Some were displayed after Stalin’s death but their provenance was kept secret until the era of perestroika and glasnost. It wasn’t until 2017 in an exhibition in Paris that Shchukin’s collection was first distinguished from Morozov’s and his brilliance and consistent artistic judgment as a collector  acknowledged.


Not long after the AGNSW exhibition I went there again to see five 10 minute episodes of Sister Wendy’s BBC art talks. Sister Wendy, nun, art critic and historian, unlikely TV star of the 1990s and adorable, humble inspiration took us via many such episodes around the great galleries of the world and taught us how to look at art.  If you don’t know her, look for her on Youtube. You will adore her and learn so much.  In one of the episodes I saw at AGNSW that day she goes to Paris to the Musee d’Orsay for a Matisse exhibition and stops in front of…yes, incredibly, the big, beautiful, blue The Conversation!  My heart leapt for joy.  She notes that Mr Matisse stands tall and straight and powerful while Mrs Matisse sits small and low, her eyes black smudges, almost negated. She points out that in the ironwork of the balcony the word ‘non’ is spelt out and tells us that the Matisses separated soon afterwards, amicably. I hadn’t known any of that. Of all the Matisses in all the galleries in the world, how incredibly lucky I was that Sister Wendy chose this one to expound upon!


One day I’ll go back to St Petersburg (no great hardship!) and see the real painting at last, now aware of how much I need to thank Sergei Shchukin for his vision and courage in mentoring Matisse and for buying this beautiful interesting work. And you? Read The Collector and immerse yourself in the fascinating story of early twentieth century Russia, Shchukin and his family and the vast number of impressionist and post- impressionist paintings which live in St Petersburg and Moscow thanks to him and Morozov.   


"My father's books"

by Deborah Fry, July 2019.


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It was from my father that I learnt to love books. Perhaps I would have found my way to loving them anyway but fortunately for me I grew up surrounded by them; being read them, always getting them for presents, continually having my scope of interest stretched, being taken to libraries, seeing my father always reading and stockpiling them, hearing him talk to others about them and having conversations with him about them myself.  I don’t remember ever not knowing the joy of being read to and reading, of being drawn into another world, of learning, of being able, always and everywhere, to access the pleasure and escape of books. 


Until I was 12 we lived in rented homes – in Adelaide, England and Cronulla.  My father was a nuclear physicist and it was his job that took us from Adelaide where he and my mother, my brother and sister and I had all been born.  Books were always around of course but it wasn’t until my parents built their own house with a separate ‘study’ that the books had their own proper place on purpose built shelves.  My father had a desk in that study as well and a big comfortable armchair where he used to sit and read for hours.  The only telephone in the house was in the study too and I, as a teenager, spent a lot of time on it.  After school most days I would sit in the armchair talking to my friends with whom I had already spent the day talking; on weekends the conversations would be even longer. My father would keep coming to the door and interrupting to hurry me up, annoyed and truly mystified about what I could possibly be talking about for so long, trying to oust me from his chair and his room so he could get back to reading.  Because the armchair faced the bookshelves, there were many hours in the six years we lived in that house during which the titles and authors of the books, their spines and their places on the shelves imprinted themselves into my memory. Even now I could probably recreate their order on those shelves and find in my mind any book. Ask me and I could have told you long before I read them (and some I never have) where to find the art books, Dürer, Klee, Nolan… (tallest bottom shelf), how many Patrick White novels he had then (six), what the cover of The Tin Drum looks like, the colour of each volume of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, what Arnold Haskell wrote about (ballet), the titles of Freud’s works, who were the great philosophers through the ages, the names of Shakespeare’s history plays and much more. I do confess there were big scientific sections my eyes did not linger upon.  


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In the next ten years there was more moving around the world, books being stored and me no longer living with the family.  And then came another house for my mother and father, the last one. Another study, bigger, with shelves on four walls, not just one; many, many more books and of course an armchair in which to read them. Not living there myself, I didn’t spend purposeless hours in that study but when I visited I’d often go and just look at the books, taking the new layout into my brain, sometimes borrowing, looking things up, just being close to my favourites and familiars and noting new ones. Gradually the shelves filled and books flowed out into other rooms onto other shelves, the floor, bedside tables. 

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And then, my parents, 90 and 86, moved out of their home into aged care. The house was sold and something had to be done with the books. Some special favourites are now on small shelves or piled up on surfaces in my father’s new room.  His greatest anxiety and grief about this huge dreaded move had been about being parted from his books.  A lifetime’s cherished collection. I understood completely. Choosing what to take was too hard for him – how could he possibly know what he was going to need to look up, he asked?  I boldly, and with trepidation and heavy heart myself, chose for him - 60 or so.  He hasn’t complained much – one day pointedly noting that he “used to have” a physics text book in which he could look up tables of various “essential” things, and asking, luckily before it was too late, for the piano scores of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin so he can follow them if he feels like it when listening to CDs.


It won’t surprise you that I have built up my own too large collection of books and have run out of room to put them so I could only take a few of the collection most special to me. But how incredibly lucky we are to have a bookseller and book lover in the family, Tom of Grand Days!  He spent hours curating the books, lovingly but with his bookseller’s eye, casting a lot aside, but keeping many for Grand Days. 

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And now, when I spend time in Grand Days I see my father’s books everywhere.  I know them from their familiar spines.  In the modern fiction section, in ‘classics’ and Australian fiction, in philosophy and science and psychology, in history ancient and modern, biography, poetry and plays, ballet and music, art and architecture, essays and political discourse, literary criticism, sport, religion, linguistics, travel, the reference section of course….. His interests were extraordinarily wide ranging and the numerous contradictions in his make-up were notable. He was an atheist and rationalist through and through but Aldous Huxley was one of his favourites - he owned every one of Huxley’s books, fiction and non and a number of biographies.  Fortunately, another bookish grandson has taken all of them. My father was a scientist but loved literature and the arts.  He played the piano and learnt ballet in his twenties but played 2nd grade AFL and was a record-setting pole vaulter.  He taught me about marshalling thoughts and making sure you know what you are talking about. But he encouraged curiosity and questioning and challenging of oneself. We argued vociferously about many things - nuclear energy, feminism, Zionism, Freud, nature vs nurture, psychiatry… and maddeningly he often trumped me with “facts” which he held in his head or could look up in his library in an instant.  

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Some of the books which went to Grand Days are first editions; clearly “R.M Fry” kept up with what was going on in the literary world and prioritised buying books as soon as they came out – especially, and curiously, during his university student years and soon after when he had a wife and three small children to support on a miniscule new science graduate’s salary. Books must have been relatively cheaper then.  Many have his name in them and the date he bought them, many show evidence of his having read them thoroughly – pencil notes in his tiny neat writing in the text or on thin inserted sheets of paper. I marvel that he had the time for this concentrated reading and thinking over the years. There were many other aspects of life which absorbed him – his work, family, keeping fit, travelling, warm stimulating friendships, music, having fun.  It makes me feel sad and proud to see these books on the Grand Days shelves. Sad for obvious reasons. Proud of him and his huge span of interest and knowledge and his passion for books. And proud of Tom and Tamara who have created a beautiful bookish place where his books can be kept, perhaps for just a while until they move onto someone else who will hopefully appreciate and cherish them.  Lucky we in the family are to have a father and grandfather who passed on his deep book-love to us.  None of us, like him, could possibly imagine a bookless life.

"The Peregrine" By J.A. Baker . Deborah Fry, July 2019

My friend Rob recently gave me this beautiful wondrous book because he loved it.  I loved it too and gave it to Grand Days’ Tom. It isn’t new; it appeared in 1967, written by a modest, private man who lived all his life in a small rural town in Essex, UK.  It won the Duff-Cooper prize, the pre-eminent literary prize of the time and has been cited as one of the most important books in the twentieth century on nature writing. But have you heard of it?  I hadn’t.  For many years it was out of print but Baker’s writing is now associated with the resurgence of literature on nature and landscape by writers such as Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, Underland and more) who writes about Baker so passionately and lovingly and who played a large part in his rediscovery. The Harper-Collins 50th anniversary edition of The Peregrine (2017) has a wonderful Afterword by Robert Macfarlane.

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Here then is the bones of The Peregrine for you: For about a decade from 1954 to 1964, a myopic and arthritic office worker called John Alec Baker tracked the peregrine falcons (large powerful birds of prey) that hunted over the narrow geographical area marked by the flat marshes of the coast and landscape of his county. 


He pursued them on bicycle and on foot, watching through binoculars as they bathed, flew, stooped, killed and roosted.  He learned to predict their locations with an intelligence that began as logic and ended as instinct, and in a relationship that began as fascination and ended as obsession……After a day in the field, he would retreat to a spare room of his Chelmsford terrace house, and write up the details in journals that together run to more than 1600 manuscript pages…. The journals were coal to ‘The Peregrine’s diamond: crushed, they became the book. He collapsed ten years into a single ‘season of hawk-hunting’.

(From The Afterword to The Peregrine by Robert Macfarlane.


The reason Baker himself gives in the book for being driven to take on his mission is that,  ‘Before it is too late, I have tried to….convey the wonder of….a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa.’  And he cared hugely that the peregrine had endured a catastrophic decline in the second half of the twentieth century, mainly because of organochloride based agrochemicals, and he wanted everyone to care that much.

 

I started reading the small book at my usual fast pace but soon realised I was going to need to go back and start again because the tale and the style demanded, in the best possible way, concentration and time. I started to underline, as I do, words and phrases which struck me with their beauty and/or force. These at first were sparse but then almost every page became full of them; often sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. Underlining is a way of rejoicing in the pleasure, telling someone who isn’t there how much you are loving this reading.


The book has two short introductory chapters, Beginnings and Peregrines and the rest is  The Hunting Life (the ‘season of hawk-hunting’), divided into days from October 1 to April 4. There was a calming, meditative impact as I read which also slowed me down – in a lovely way. I felt part of all that Baker writes about, small and huge. It was a physical and sensual feeling– I’m sure my heartbeat, as well as my mind, slowed down and I smiled and laughed at times and read aloud for the pleasure of hearing the cadences and rhythms of the language. Day to day life disappeared for a while.


What makes it so wondrous? Is it the language?  Descriptions of nature?  The peregrines themselves? J.A. Baker’s passion?


It is all that.  But for me, it’s the words, the language, I love most.  I kept being reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favourite poet who I like to read aloud.  I thought, as I read, that J.A Baker must know and love him too. Could two people serendipitously use words and invent words and defy the rules of language to take one’s breath away in such a similar way without knowing each other? Later I discovered that, yes, Hopkins was in Baker’s bookshelves. Reading The Peregrine is like reading poetry –it’s sheer pleasure and you can’t hurry anywhere. At the same time tho, it is gripping like a thriller.  I wanted to read just one more day, one more day, to find out what happens next even tho it’s always a version of the same.  It’s never boring.  It’s a bloodbath. The relentless killing (by the animals) is brutal but simply about survival, not mindless or cruel so it isn’t shocking.  The killing by men is. I was also reminded of Ted Hughes- his poems which highlight the ferocity and sheer bitter endurance of nature.  His language is emotive and strong but also subtle and sensitive like Baker’s. I went back to listen to Hughes on Youtube reading his poem Crow. I wish Gerard Manley Hopkins could be heard on Youtube reading The Windhover or Binsey Poplars; or J.A.Baker reading from The Peregrine!


The language is more than just pleasure in and of itself tho, it’s a pathway into the world of wonder – of nature and the birds -  and that makes up my love of the book too. I was hooked via invitation to my mind and then all of me was taken over. Part of me wanted to go back to the beginning and systematically make a list of all the birds (and trees..) Baker mentions and look them up and learn about them all. Another part just gave in and let the words create pictures and characteristics which slowly became familiar but not in a way that requires systematization.  The peregrine is absolutely the hero/heroine. My breath caught every time J.A.Baker describes (and I pictured) it coasting, gliding, hovering, watching, bathing, soaring, stooping, killing, devouring….  Its powerfulness and muscularity and perfection!  He uses every possible adjective to describe the bird and invents more to convey his wonder and admiration, and love.  The bird’s whole existence is simple and pure and just… what it is, but reading about it is complex and overwhelming because you understand that the real point of our everything too, is just to keep existing.  But there is fun as well and extreme sensuousness in the existing- for the creatures that we read about and for us as we read.  The bravery of other birds who chase the hawks!  And the awfulness of the hunters and their beagles!  J.A.Baker sometimes anthropomorphises but not often and it always feels ok. I think he does the opposite too, even more subtly – pointing out how like the birds we are. From his descriptions of the days’ work of the hawks it seems that they miss their targets much more often than they hit. That’s interesting. Do they indulge in bit  of desultory action to fill in a boring afternoon? I like the rare times when Baker comes face to face, eye to eye, with a bird, especially a peregrine.


I needed to look up lots of words in the dictionary. I enjoyed that extra slowing down of my reading. Often the word was ‘archaic’ and I liked that.  I love the short staccato sentences without verbs, many of them following one after the other.  The writing is so rhythmical; Baker makes nouns and adjectives into verbs and vice versa.  He invents words and adds others together with hyphens… like Gerard Manley Hopkins does. He is a prince of the use of words and language. You want to read it aloud.


There are marine themes; colour is so important and manifold; words are repeated often-  because the same things happen in the same places, day after day. Lots of bits made me smile or laugh -  with pleasure, surprise, happiness. There are contradictions- such vastness  is conveyed but we know that we are in a confined area; timelessness is laid out in days.  There is such stark comparison between the world he and the birds traverse and ours. He says, ‘I hear a dead leaf loosen’.  Sometimes the writing is a bit self-conscious but in a nice way.  You couldn’t create such beauty and give such pleasure without the trying sometimes being a little transparent.  You see the man behind it and like him. It’s a nice surprise when you occasionally come across him too, cycling, looking through his binoculars, tramping through the mud and rain, waiting and waiting and looking.  Catching his breath too, over and over again. Hiding in his own stillness. He puts himself in more towards the latter part of the book, and lectures more often too, as the book progresses.  He has points to make all right. About us and our hideousness. 


As you read on it becomes much more sombre (while never losing the exultation).  Those points Baker has to make become clearer and stronger and his rage and distress are more evident.  Had he been consciously beguiling us towards this, a polemic about man’s wicked destruction of natural habitat?  It’s so modern and apt. His love for, and attachment to, the birds- the peregrine-  and the environment is much more evident.  He tells us more about his human activities – once he even describes looking out of the window of his house, the only time he isn’t in the habitat he immerses us in. But at the same time he almost becomes more bird than man. It seems as if the shame he feels about man is so unbearable that he no longer wants to be one


I love him, J.A.Baker, for doing the strange thing he was compelled to do and for the pleasure and the passion he induces with just (hardly ‘just’ -  beautiful, extraordinary, old and invented, wonderful…) words. Knowing that he was seriously myopic and suffered terribly from arthritis (medication for which led to his death at the age of  61) makes me love him more. He struggled and suffered to give us The Peregrine but you’d not know that from reading it. 


And if, like me, after reading The Peregrine you want to know as much as there is to know about its mysterious author and his largely unreported life, you will want to read My House of Sky: The Life and Work of A.J. Baker by Hetty Saunders.  This is full of wonderful photos and snippets about an, on the surface, ordinary life. Robert Macfarlane has written in this book too, this time a brief Foreword. He points out that the method of the biographer echoes Baker’s own pursuit of the peregrines – deduction when confronted with mystery. He says:


And I wonder:  who was the man who could write a work of such visionary power and such suppressed violence? What does it cost a person to compress a book of this intense energy?

…..Hetty has ‘looked into the wood’ of Baker’s world, and lit up his ‘lair of shadows’ to just the extent that it needs illuminating. 


There is more, much more I could tell you about the book and the man. For example about the skeptics who claim that Baker made up all or most of contents of The Peregrine or that he was mixing up his birds, mistaking kestrels for peregrines.  And about his patient and understanding wife, Doreen. But I won’t.  I’ll leave you the task of discovering it all for yourself.



 

"On Love: Stegner, Munro and Maxwell"

Tom Hespe; February 2018

 

I come from a long line of voracious readers. Those for whom summer holidays require a pile of books, siesta spots and, for me at least, ready access to the ocean. Cicadas and sunburn, champagne and mozzies all steadily buzz us into that equilibrium where one loses track of the days and navigates by novel.

 

Last summer it was Guiseppe Di Lampesuda’s one and only book. Set during the Risorgimento “The Leopard” took the Sicilian author twenty-five years rumination and a few months furious writing to complete. Released posthumously (after two serious rejections)  “Il Gattopardo” went on to become the greatest selling novel in Italian history and for good reason: the writing is sensual, generous, nostalgic and utterly Italian.

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This year was different. I chose the book for its cover, nothing more.  A sweet black and white photo taken at a time before the pill and after the bomb.  It shows two pairs of young lovers picnicking and canoodling in the woods; a self consciously youthful American homage to Henri Cartier-Bressons “Borde de Manrne” perhaps?

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I’ll admit I had never heard of the novel or its author but once finished was not at all surprised to learn that it is one of my mother's most cherished books, and if you knew her you would know what that means! Before I owned Grand Days my mother’s shelves had been my most dependable library and we are both pleased I can now return the favour.

 

Though I will not repeat it here the first line immediately reeled me in and by page 5 I had decided that this would be the book I would read to my father.  Nick’s illness was such that, as he wrote: “My life is quieter and smaller than it was. And I have less capacity to contribute to other causes and groups. But I am positive and happy. My family are very supportive and a vital resource.”

 

Smaller indeed it was, literally.  So I read to him, hoping to take us both outdoors.

 

“Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. Through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud, and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet, and orange spotted Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce”

 

The enchanted Vermont scenery seems-as they’d say up there-“something else” but, as the back cover reads, Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” “is a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.” Relationships, friendships, time and place.  Continuity, change and the inevitability of death.  To be able to tackle these profound subjects (and really what else is there for us mere mortals?) with such a tender touch was a revelation for me and, I suppose, most timely. 

 

“Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Checkov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories we are most tempted to lie……Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a away that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability. And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about friendship, drama expects friendships to be overturned. Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome…..Well too bad for drama. Nothing of the sort is going to happen. Something less orthodoxly dramatic is”  

 

Crossing to Safety really is one of those perfect novels. Written by a master at the height of his powers and wisdom at an age where perhaps life is “quieter and smaller than before” it brims with an honesty and joy that is rare. To my mind at least, the storyteller, (and in this case thus the author) is a diligent, grounded and gentle soul. A man with an eye for detail and a sweetness and generous capacity for love and wonder that has swept him though his whole life.

 

We didn’t get very far; not even the first chapter. Nick’s fatigue soon took over that afternoon and over the next week I greedily polished the book off alone. In a week he was gone.

 

A few weeks later. The world was the same but utterly different. Still summer, still holidays, this time Kangaroo Valley.  Alice Munro’s “The Progress of Love” was the book I picked up next.  Another author whose work I had somehow managed to avoid. Sometimes it’s good to wait.

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Raymond Carver made a big impact on me in my teens and early twenties. His sparse short stories are so illuminating and tender with an underlying pathos and coolness. They have the clarity of black and white photographs. Munro mines a similar vein- smalltown and suburban North American everyday life-but her touch is defter, deeper, less self-conscious with a lovely vividness and warmth. I’ve convinced myself it’s Canadian trait.

 

The language is direct and to the point but manages to be effortlessly evocative. There is a steady sense of momentum to her writing; each story is a perfectly crafted little universe populated by characters fascinating in their simple human frailty and beauty. 

 

 I got a call from work, and it was my father. This was not long after I was divorced and started in the real-estate office. Both of my boys were in school. It was a hot enough day in September.

               My father was so polite, even in the family. He took time to ask me how I was. Country manners. Even if somebody phones up to tell you your house is burning down they ask first how you are.

              “I’m fine,” I said. “How are you?”

              “Not so good, I guess,” said my father, in his old way--apologetic but self-respecting: “ I think your mother’s gone.”

              I knew that “gone” meant “dead”. I knew that. But for a moment or so I saw my mother in her black straw hat setting off down the lane. The word “gone” seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and sense of excitement-the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you.

 

The theme of love flowed through the following book which, like the previous two, began with the subject of death. William Maxwell’s mother died in the post WW1 flu epidemic when he was just ten years old and we are told this event had a profound impact on his life. Death, loss, memory and love are the recurring themes in his writing.  “So long, see you tomorrow” is a short novel set during the 1920’s in rural Illinois. Images of adultery and murder, farmers named Clarence and Cletus, hogs turkeys and chickens all belie the gentle touch that Maxwell reveals though his storytelling.

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What we, or at any rate I, refer to confidently as memory-meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixitive and thereby rescued from oblivion-is really a form of storytelling……Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

 

Despite the darkness of the narrative there is an underlying beauty and simplicity at work here too. Death is the framework through which Maxwell explores the universal experiences of love, loss, grief, family and friendship.

 

For readers the best books are like people. They become part of your life; milestones and reference points along the way. We may only spend a day or two with them but they are with us always. I am thankful these three books came into my life when they did and I am grateful for the wisdom contained within and, for a time at least, Stegner, Munro and Maxwell will be as one in my memory.