Every so often, specially when time is lacking, I embark on re-reading books from my past. Sometimes I do it to prepare lessons for classes, like recently when I decided to take my students on a glorious journey through Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". Other times, I just want to see how I feel about the book the second time round. The latter is the case with Jane Urquhart's "The Underpainter". I was (literally) blown away by "Away", which was my favourite book of hers, but the other day a friend of mine insisted that "The Underpainter" was by far her best novel. Let's see how I feel about it this time.
"Each afternoon now, when I have finished my work, memory beckons me into the street, insists that I walk with her in the snow."
With these words, Austin Fraser, a seventy-five-year-old American minimalist painter, beckons us into his world—a world populated by the ghosts of his past, a world that has come to be as cold and fractured as the icy terrain upon which he has treaded so carefully his entire life. In the name of art, Austin Fraser has perfected—if not the craft of painting—then the craft of guarding the inner chambers of his heart from those who love him. In her stunning new novel The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart contemplates the weight of a life not truly lived and the consequences of sacrificing one's humanity for the sake of art. A series of canvases called The Erasures earns Austin Fraser fame in the art world. After painting a highly detailed narrative scene, he systematically "erases" the images with progressively lighter shades of color. Richly textured, multilayered, brimming with precisely drawn characters and unforgettable images that rise—and then disappear—from its pages, The Underpainter's narrative echoes The Erasure series. In a masterful twist, Jane Urquhart uses these paintings as an ingenious metaphor for the love that Austin cannot accept, and the people that he continually exiles to the corners of his mind.
It is, perhaps, the philosophy of Austin's mentor Robert Henri that most influences the solitary path of his life. About the emotions and sensation of life Robert Henri said to his students, "Each sensation is precious. Protect it, cherish it, keep it. Never give it away. When you are alone, without the distraction of the community and affection, this will be easier to achieve." While Austin admits that before meeting his teacher "neither community nor affection played a significant role in my life," he also says that the words of Robert Henri "gave [him] permission to remain aloof." Jane Urquhart surrounds Austin with a cast of individuals who, unlike her narrator, are intensely attached to the physical world and unafraid to love—or to lose. We meet Austin's eccentric mother—with her passion for visiting graveyards and taking her uneasy young son on vigorous walks through the wild rocky landscape of Rochester, New York. Austin's father is driven by the pain of Austin's mother's death to a life of riches and capitalism, and a china-painter named George finds respite from the carnage of World War I in the arms of a similarly shell-shocked nurse named Augusta. Sarah, a waitress who lives in the remote mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, is Austin's long-time model and mistress. For fifteen summers she gives both body and soul to Austin, who suddenly exits her life saying, "I have finished painting you." We also meet Rockwell Kent, a famous artist who follows his own advice to "get drunk and have a love affair"; and, finally, Vivian, the woman whose reappearance after many years irrevocably splinters Austin's life while driving the novel to its powerful climax.
In the end, Austin Fraser embarks on the very last canvas of The Erasure series. He begins to paint a portrait of himself incorporating "the love that I could not accept coming towards me, despite my cloak of fear, the implacable rock man, the miles and miles of ice." At last, he attempts to reach beyond the dark shorelines of loneliness and the endless snowy plains of memory, to a place where the creative process is no longer solitary, where the images of his past can finally remain vibrant—and unerased.
Have I mentioned that Jane Urquhart is Canadian?