The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

October 24, 2011

“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.


Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

November 28, 2009

Two of my all-time favorite books are autobiographies. Of course, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has the contradictory subtitle: “As Told to Alex Haley”. Regardless, it is a powerful work. The insights into the arc of Malcolm’s life, the way his beliefs were formed, and the reasons those beliefs changed over the course of his too-short existence, are fascinating. As the best such works, it uncovers the making of a man, flawed, intelligent, and reflective.

Speak, Memory is even better. Nabokov is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists ever to work in the English language. The book is less revealing of the man than his artistry. But this, in itself, is another demonstration of his genius. Even in autobiography, Nabokov is uniquely inventive. And the prose smiles.

Boyhood fits nicely between these two works. Coetzee, like Malcolm (via Alex Haley), tells his story chronologically, but does not write a hagiography. Coetzee, again like Malcolm, discloses in almost frightening frankness some of his formative flaws. We see, as in the Malcolm X work, a progression of character overtime. There is growth, but sometimes it is a twisting, deforming growth.

Boyhood is not a conventional telling. Coetzee writes of himself in the third person. Brilliantly, I think. As intimate as this work is, the third person provides distance, a remove from the subject. We are not shown the author, but a boy the author once was. The effect is to free the reader to judge, to empathize, and to evaluate. And, like Nabokov’s work, the prose of the master is displayed in full. The work is not only the story of the author, but an independent work of art.

What has emerged, both man and book, is something beautiful. Terribly beautiful.

J.M. Coetzee is unflinching in his self-portrait. Always first in his class, the young Coetzee is a brilliant little misfit. The class, caste, and social systems of South Africa parse up the boys until Coetzee is left alone. He has an Afrikaaner surname, an English upbringing, no religion, a bookish disposition, and no interest in the male bonding rituals of youth. When his family moves, he is further isolated in the provincial town of Worcester, not least by the division of school boys according to religion during assembly. As a new student, he and several other boys are taken aside and asked their religion. The young Coetzee is at a loss, so the teacher gives him three choices: Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew. Amusingly in Coetzee’s telling, he chooses Roman Catholicism.

He chose to be a Roman Catholic, that fateful morning, because of Rome, because of Horatius and his two comrades, swords in their hands, crested helmets on their heads, indomitable courage in their glance, defending the bridge over the Tiber against the Etruscan hordes. [Later], he discovers from the other Catholic boys what a Roman Catholic really is. A Roman Catholic has nothing to do with Rome. Roman Catholics have not even heard of Horatius.

The young Coetzee becomes the target of the Christian boys for being a Catholic and the Catholic boys for being an imposter. Still, he is ultimately satisfied with his choice. Coetzee the man provides this brilliant glimpse into the boy’s mind:

If being a Christian means singing hymns and listening to sermons and then coming out to torment the Jews, he has no wish to be a Christian. The fault is not his if the Catholics of Worcester are Catholic without being Roman, if they know nothing about Horatius and his comrades holding the bridge over the Tiber (‘Tiber, Father Tiber, to whom we Romans pray’), about Leonidas and his Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, about Roland holding the pass against the Saracens. He can think of nothing more heroic than holding a pass, nothing nobler than giving up one’s life to save other people, who will afterwards weep over one’s corpse. That is what he would like to be: a hero. That is what proper Roman Catholicism should be about.

The young Coetzee is oblivious to the irony so skillfully deployed by the author Coetzee. I find the quote hilarious and profound. Coetzee manages to unveil the hypocrisy within and the emotional foundation for the sacrificial religions in one breezy memory.

The more frequent target of Coetzee’s penetrating insight is the young Coetzee. The boy can be petulant and cold. His treatment of his mother is atrocious. He covets her love, wants it all for himself:

He wants her to behave toward him as she does toward his brother. But he wants this as a sign, a proof, no more. He knows that he will fly into a rage if she ever begins hovering over him.

At the same time, he returns no affection to her:

His rages against his mother are one of the things he has to keep a careful secret from the world outside. Only the four of them know what torrents of scorn he pours upon her, how much like an inferior he treats her. ‘If you teachers and your friends knew how you spoke to your mother…,’ says his father, wagging a finger meaningfully. He hates his father for seeing so clearly the chink in his armour.

This quality is not endearing. Coetzee has a purpose in showing us this aspect. He is not simply showing us his flaws. His relationship with his mother is borne of his essential character, not only the author suffers for his art:

He is a liar and he is cold-hearted too: a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother. It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent. His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself.

There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.

I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.

Quarantine by Jim Crace

September 17, 2009

Quarantine is a thoroughly researched book, spare but with philosophical heft. The details are exquisite and the psychology penetrating. I could not help but be impressed by the work that obviously went into creating this book. The writing is lyrical to the point of being poetic (“Snails shrank into their shells, and mimed the secret life of stones.”). In fact, the lyricism actually started to annoy me towards the end of the book when it became, to me, too rhythmic.

QuarantineThe Booker-shortlisted and Whitbread winning Quarantine is a re-telling of Jesus’ excursion into the desert for forty days of fasting (his “quarantine”). Jesus takes up a relatively small portion of the novel directly. Rather, the interactions of six others who are in geographic proximity to Jesus during his quarantine are frontmost in the narrative. To tell too much about their interactions, or about Jesus’ ordeal, would ruin the story should you read it. You should.

The novel opens with Miri waking to find her husband, Musa, feverishly ill. Miri and Musa are part of a caravan of traders. Everyone is sure he will soon die.

Musa was paying a heavy price, his uncles said, for sleeping on his back without a cloth across his face. An idiotic way to die. A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs. Devils were like anybody else; they had to find what warmth they could or perish in the desert cold.

For Miri, “[h]is death would rescue her.” Even so, she provides dutiful ministrations to “lure the fever out”. Musa’s kinsmen and the other members of the caravan do not have the same obligations, so leave Miri in the desert with the dying Musa and some provisions, mostly unwanted or inferior goods.

[I]t was a crippling sadness for them too, make no mistake, the uncles said, but Miri had to stay behind, continue with her singing till the end, and bury Musa on her own.

Miri soon sets out to dig a grave for Musa, in preparation for his death. The work is quite difficult, but Miri finds happiness, if not in the work, at least in the future she now sees for herself. That happy future was a future free of the abusive, domineering man she had married. She is sleeping in the grave she dug when the remaining cast members arrive.

While most “cavers” (people who went out for quarantine) stayed closer to civilization, five came as far out as Miri’s and Musa’s encampment.

But those who made it to the perching valley where Miri – half open-eyed – was sleeping, and where Musa and the fever devil were bargaining in the final hours of his life, sought something more remote and testing than requiems and communal prayers. There were five of them – not in a group, but stung out along the road where earlier that morning the caravan of uncles had passed by. Three men, a woman, and too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth….

The first four — their problems? Madness, madness, cancer, infertility — had started their journeys that morning from the same settlement in the valley. Though they had observed the proprieties of pilgrimage by keping some distance apart, they had at least endeavoured to keep each other within sight and hearing.

These first four find caves near the grave Miri has dug. The fifth, Jesus, goes off a distance to find a nearly inaccessible cave in which to pass his quarantine. He is more devout than the others. They will break their fast in the evening, he intends not to break his for the full forty days.

The novel unfolds over the forty days of the quarantine, bringing these various characters into contact with each other. The group dynamics are as fascinating as they are convincing. Even more, the individual characters are drawn with a master’s touch.

As a reader, I did not only pardon Miri’s spiteful coldness toward her dying husband, I shared it. And, yet, Crace makes Musa sympathetically human too:

Two men in one; opposing twins, they’d said when he was a boy and couldn’t reconcile his bossy tantrums with his bouts of weeping….

Now that Musa was a merchant and an adult, fearful of derision and defeat, he had learnt to suppress the lesser, tearful twin. Life was too hard and unforgiving for such a weakling. Anyone could drive that tender sibling to an easy bargain. Anyone could trespass in his tent. Anyone could make a fool of him. So Musa kept him hidden, a lost companion of his childhood, and showed the world his tougher self, the one which beat and bargained like no other, the trading potentate, the fist, the appetite. Why was this splendid fellow feared but not much liked by his cousins in the caravan? It baffled Musa, and it made him fierce. They are simply envious, he persuaded himself. But during those late and bitter drinking vigils outside his tent, his judgment was more fiery, and much simpler; They hate you, Musa. Hate them back!

The remaining characters are drawn with equal skill and we come to know them intimately. Each has his own desperation and these desperations collide and combine in sometimes surprising and sometimes inevitable ways. Crace weaves a legend that is more touching and more convincing than the original.

Quarantine2I cannot say it is the easiest read. Partly this is due to the realism of the characters and Crace’s unwillingness to allow his plot to stray to serve the ends of mercy. Good people suffer and evil people prosper. Further, the very nature of a quarantine demands tedium. This book is almost as far from a thriller as one can get. Still, Crace is a good storyteller and this is a compelling story. Crace always keeps several balls in the air and teases out each mystery for maximum effect. Quarantine is a brilliant novel. On the strength of this work, I will definitely seek out more of Crace’s novels.


I do not want to give away any more than I already have for those who have not read the book. However, it is a fascinating book. As I said above, the prose itself is sparkling, but more than that, the story is terrifically achieved.

Musa is one of the great villains of literature. And this is his story, not Jesus’. Musa steals the spotlight from the first, even as he lays dying in the tent, abandoned by all. I kept wanting him to die, but, of course, he could not. Only towards the end did I really begin to fully understand that the story belonged to Musa, the enchanter.

However, I do not want to imply that other characters were not vital to the story or were not fascinating in their own right. Miri, Marta, and Aphas are all sympathetic and necessary. Jesus does have a gravitational pull on the others, though he and they interact very little. And Badu is an excellent surprise, kept nicely until the very end. Crace’s cast is almost perfect.

But it is not quite perfect. I was not particularly impressed with Shim. He was too flat a foil for Musa. Of all the characters, he is the only one that, at times, seemed to act only because Crace told him to act. I never felt I had an adequate grasp of his motivations and the power of Musa over him. I get that he was something of a charlatan himself, but that would have seemed to make him, in many ways, less susceptible to the charms and bluffs of Musa.

The structure of the novel is brilliant. We get to meet and become somewhat acquainted with the travellers before Musa revives and takes over. The slow disintegration of Jesus coincides with Musa’s slow consolidation of power. Jesus’ death and Musa’s fall perfectly balance the climax. And the final denouement is one of the best I have read.

The ending would have been too neat if Musa died. Besides, Musa has to spread his new gospel of Jesus. Who better to grow the legend of Jesus than Musa the charismatic and practiced liar? Not only does he have a newfound profit motive, but he truly believes.

Crace’s legend is so convincing in its details, it leaves me awed. This is the type of reworking that could go horribly wrong or wonderfully right. Going wrong is much more likely than success. But Crace pulls it off magnificently.

For anyone else that has read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have not read it, I encourage to read it and return with your thoughts.