The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

“If you like ‘introspective’ fiction — [Urquhart’s] books are only 20 yards wide, but they are 300 feet deep — you love her novels.” – Kevin from Canada

I adore introspective fiction.

Cracking open a book by an author previously unknown to you who turns out to be a favorite is one of the great pleasures of reading. The spot-on personal recommendations of bloggers is one of the joys of blogging. The Underpainter has been, for me, the happy confluence of both delights. As the foregoing quote suggests, Kevin from Canada suggested Jane Urquhart as an author I might like. He personally recommended this title to me and I am thrilled he did. I am as certain as one can be about such things that Urquhart will become a treasured author on my shelves. The Underpainter, at least, is a treasured book.

Urquhart does burrow and burrow into her characters and she does so while spinning luxuriously exact prose. She does not seem to go in for plot, although there is plenty of tension and, sometimes, desperate action. The fiercest intensity occurs in a simple sweep of the hand against stray hairs or two words spoken or three not spoken.

Austin Fraser, the “underpainter” of the title, narrates the story of his life. On a trip to Canada, the American artist meets and begins a relationship with a local woman named Sara.* The beginning of the novel describes Sara receiving and acting on a telegram. After describing Sara’s reaction, he tells us:

All of this is a very long time ago now, forty years at least. A very long time ago and purely hypothetical on my part. I did not see her leave her house, ski towards Thunder Cape, turn to watch the thin trail of smoke emerge from her chimney. I did not see her shake the dust off of her father’s underground clothes or strap the skis to his large boots.

The telegram she carries in her pocket, or has left behind on the kitchen table, or has thrown into the trash, the telegram I never saw but know for certain she received and read, has told her that I, Austin Fraser, am waiting in Port Arthur, in a fifth-floor hotal room, hours of distance away.

In his telling, Austin returns to this scene, as with so many others, giving us different perspectives and tunneling deeper toward that most precious metal: truth. Urquhart effectively uses repetition like this, whether of whole dialogues, of complete scenes, or of fleeting imagery, to draw the reader toward her key themes and reward her audience with a world of satisfying wholeness. In that “hypothetical” scene referred to above, the Austin Fraser imagined Sara standing near a window with a telegram.

The unopened telegram in her hand appears to have already darkened with time, darkened in comparison to the white snow around her house, the brightness of sun that enters the room.

She pushes a tendril of her hair behind her ear, a strand that has escaped the braid. This strand contains some threads of grey.

Ten pages later, describing a remembered scene rather than an imagined one, Austin tells of first meeting Sara. She was sweeping the veranda of a hotel while Austin painted. He is enthralled with her form, “the long tendon on the side of her neck and one vein there, pulsing”. He spoke to her, so that she would turn to him

She stopped sweeping then, pivoted, pushed a strand of hair back from her forehead and regarded me with surprise, as if she hadn’t known that anyone was there at all.

This second passage reinforces that the first “hypothetical” is cobbled together from Austin’s actual memories, mixing fact and imagination. The reality of the loose strand and the fiction of “the skein of grey I never saw in Sara’s hair” are blended for this false memory. It is fantasy, but a plausible fantasy. He has captured the look of Sara, her feel, and added something more. In both cases, she, at least seemingly, was unaware of Austin’s presence and, upon becoming aware, she fixes her appearance, however slightly. Sara becomes something more than just “a woman” or even “the woman”. She is a person and the past has weight.

The other thing I love about the hypothetical scene with which Austin begins his tale is that “already darkened with time” telegram. Particularly in retrospect, this seems best interpreted as a darkening in Austin’s mind. The time that has passed is between Sara’s receipt of the telegram and Austin’s imagining of it. The passage suggests that intervening events have darkened it, made it a symbol of sadness or pain rather than joy.

Urquhart peppers her tail with such deft foreshadowing, foreshadowing that betrays nothing specific but which creates a palpable atmosphere of strong emotion. I have not yet read The Sanctuary Line, the Urquhart reviewed at Kevin from Canada, but KfC’s comment on that novel could nearly apply here:

As is usual with Urquhart, there is a darker side to the story — the foreshadowing occurs early in the novel and that story line becomes increasingly dominant as it progresses.

The Underpainter begins with only hints of the darkness to come. The title is a hint and a metaphor too. Underpainting is the painting of a scene on the canvas prior to painting the final product. The technique is typically used to create a map or framework for the final painting. If underpainting is done poorly, the initial images show through in the final work.

Austin Fraser paints detailed scenes first, then paints over them, in both his art and his narrative. His housekeeper is baffled that he paints beautiful pictures, pictures so real the water looks like it would wet her fingers, then “always come[s] back and muck[s] around afterwards and ruin[s] them.” She says, “If you’d just let them alone, they’d be the most wonderful paintings in the world.” At several key points, Austin has trouble with his underpainting. In life, Austin also underpaints, but never manages a satisfactory finished product. He may “muck around” trying for improvement, but always ends by ruining whatever beauty or meaning he was trying to create or protect or discover.

Austin has his painting, his New York friends, and his relationship with George. George, his best friend, was, at a time, a fellow aspiring artist. George goes off to war and comes home from war, as does Augusta, one of George’s love interests. The two war veterans are profoundly affected. By contrast, Austin avoids that intense disruption to life, just as he avoids so many other entanglements in the world’s passions.

Despite their friendship, Austin both pities and scorns George who, rather than painting people on large canvases which end in galleries as Austin does, paints miniature landscapes on kitchenware for sale in a small town china shop. Austin does not disguise his disdain when talking to George:

“At least with a model you would have something to observe and respond to. Then what you do would be more important.”

Austin’s condescension, one of several threads of tension, is borne of a fundamental error. He tells what he knows of passion:

There is nothing in passion, really, except the sense that one should open one’s self to it. In many ways it can be as cold as anything else.

Austin believed that art requires a remove from the world. He viewed himself as a prospector (another recurring motif) mining for elusive meaning. The story of his life gives lie to this secondhand view of his. Meaning cannot simply be found and extracted. True meaning is lived.

Urquhart is a very skilled writer. Everything in this exquisite novel works together to emphasize the importance of taking care in the underpainting of one’s life. The Underpainter is a masterpiece, both of art and of craft.

*I added these two sentences after re-reading the original post and realizing I had forgotten to tell who anyone was before launching into the telegram scene.

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5 Responses to The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

  1. Kerry: Glad you liked it — it is some years since I read The Underpainter and your review sparked some memories. I think I should plan on giving it another read soon. And good luck with your future Urquhart reading.

    • Kerry says:

      The Underpainter is a definite highlight of what has been a very good reading year (in terms of quality) for me. Urquhart does manages some masterful technical feats in this book. The whole underpainting metaphor is absolutely great without being overworked or driven into the ground. It is done with subtlety and genius.

      Plus, she pulls you into the characters and the moment in such a compelling way. I never really understood Sara, though. If I had to point to a weakness. Her motivations and character remain elusive, maybe too lightly sketched….maybe that’s the point.

      Anyway, thanks for this book. I absolutely adore it.

  2. Sorry I didn’t comment on this before Kerry. You posted in 3 days after my lovely ma-in-law died. I meant to come back to it but clearly forgot. I too love introspective fiction … and I’ve been wanting to read Jane Urquhart. Your review (particularly your description of her style) … and your choosing it for kimbofo’s list tell me it’s one I must try to read.

    • Kerry says:

      Sue,

      Never apologize to me, of course. But thanks for circling back (and thanks to Kim for including me in her roundup). I do highly recommend the work for a particular type of reader. I think you’ll quite enjoy it, even if you find the protagonist frustrating. I cannot say I like him much, but he is an interesting character.

      • Thanks Kerry … and I don’t mind a frustrating or unlikable character if the writing’s good, the character is interesting. After all, who likes Grenouille in Perfume!? But many of us like the book!

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