Published June 1997
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Jane Urquhart uncovers the danger in art, in writing, and in life
Jane Urquhart doesn’t like to disappoint, so she wants to be clear: the new novel, her fourth, that she’ll publish in September with McClelland and Stewart is no sequel to its predecessor in print, 1993’s widely successful Away. “People have said to me – and they will, I’m sure, again – you mean there are no Irish in this book?” Built on stories from the author’s own Irish ancestry, Away was a fictional landscape that drew on the history of Upper Canada’s early settlers. “This book has nothing to do with Away, except in some sort of atmospheric way, and in some sense of place, I suppose. I thought about that for a few minutes, but I can only write what I write.”
Urquhart is sitting in her parents’ house as she says this, with the writing that she’s written, The Underpainter, massed thickly on a side-table in a stack of uncorrected proof-pages. It’s April, late in the month, in Colborne, Ontario, a village 90 minutes to the east of Toronto from which winter has only recently, grudgingly, evacuated. There’s a flag-flapping wind and a white-wine gleam in the sunlight, and the morning smells of wet earth and new greens.
If Away didn’t urge any of its Irishness on The Underpainter, neither, Urquhart says, did the earlier book’s success amount to any kind of pressure to perform the next time out. “I knew,” she says, “I was financially more stable than I ever had been before, and that it wasn’t necessarily essential that I publish a book sometime in the next 10 years. So I think it freed me in many ways. Which was kind of a surprise to me, because I thought I might have been worried, or had the sense that someone was looking over my shoulder.”
If ever there’s been that pressuring presence, she says, it was during the writing of her second novel, Changing Heaven (1990). “The first novel is a joy in that you can convince yourself it’s never going to be published, so you can write anything you want to. By the time you get to the second one, you know the chances are that it might be published, and that there’s someone out there, possibly, watching and waiting.”
Most of the year, Urquhart and her husband, the artist Tony Urquhart, live to the west, in Wellesley, Ontario, near London, but if such things as these can be mapped, this place may be closer than Wellesley to the centre of Urquhart’s world. Here, in Colborne, her parents and brother live; here, just south, on the verge of Lake Ontario, is the beloved cottage where she has spent every summer since childhood; here, too, is the land she evoked so vividly in Away.
Here, too, in the cottage, she wrote parts of The Underpainter, even though the book’s geography is largely drawn from elsewhere. The new novel is a story narrated by Austin Fraser, an 80-year-old American painter picking over the pieces of his life and work. There are significant Canadian landscapes in the life; indeed, the narrative retrospective is unleashed by the arrival of a letter, special-delivered to his house in Rochester, New York, from the north. A woman he hasn’t seen in 40 years has died and left him property on the north shore of Lake Superior. The legacy is as unsettling as it is unexpected, and over the distance of the next 300 pages he travels back to examine the ashes of the past.
As an artist, Fraser’s method is to work up a detailed preliminary study of a subject – a careful underpainting – and then, painstakingly, to obscure it under layer on layer of painted textures, submerging the specific. He seeks, as he says of one painting, to “remove the realism from it, paint it all out.” A significant suite of his paintings is, notably, called “The Erasures.”
Urquhart pinpoints the book’s origins to the east coast. “Everyone says, I’m sure, that their novel began with a visual image,” she laughs. “Well, my novel began with a visual image. I was in Newfoundland, standing on a beach in Brigus Bay, and I looked across to an arm of land that was sticking out into the ocean, and there was the most wonderful house I have ever seen. Very old, very weatherbeaten, up on a cliff looking down on the ocean. I said to Joan Clark, the writer, who was with me, ‘I want that house, it has to be mine.’ I’m very covetous about architecture. And she said, ‘Well, that’s where Rockwell Kent lived when he was in Newfoundland.’”
Urquhart, who studied art history in university, knew something of Kent, a New York-born painter dating to the early part of this century who was associated with Robert Henri’s Ashcan School. She had no idea that he’d settled in Newfoundland, let alone that he’d been unceremoniously expelled during the First World War – for singing German lieder from the porch of his rented house.
“Kent started me on the whole idea of an artist,” she says, “and an American artist, and how would an artist view our landscape and geography. I liked this idea of the other view of us, and I wanted to explore that, I wanted to really get inside that mind.”
If she didn’t get Kent’s Newfoundland house, she did begin to read into his life. At about the same time, a cousin presented Urquhart with a packet of letters she’d come across at a garage sale. “They were from a woman to a man, and they had clearly met during the First World War and they had clearly been lovers.” The letters would eventually furnish another level of plot. “They were so interesting and so moving, these letters, and while the characters in the book don’t refer directly to the characters in those letters, there was the feeling of terrible sadness attached to those letters that related in some way to the aftermath of that terrible war.”
When she first began to write, it was in the third person, although that soon changed. “It was a big surprise to me,” Urquhart says, “when the book decided to write itself in the first person. Within a matter of paragraphs, Fraser had started to tell the story. Every now and then I would think, ‘No, Jane, no, don’t do this.’ I would try to go back into the third person and it just wouldn’t work. He was going to tell the story and that’s the way it was going to be.”
She proceeded, she says, with only a vague sense of the book’s direction. “I didn’t really know what it was I was trying to find out,” she says. “But then I never do. If I knew from the start, I wouldn’t finish it, because I’m too lazy.”
Does she know now that the writing’s finished what it was she was trying to discover? “I think this is a man who has been able to remove himself quite coldly from the life around him. I think it’s a danger in art, I think it’s a danger in writing, too. This is about the artist as someone who’s withdrawn, who’s using life in order to make art, in order to perhaps develop a career. So I think at least part of what I learned was just this sense that you do have to be careful, and I didn’t believe that before I wrote the book. I used to think, anything for art, it lives forever, what else could possibly matter? I don’t feel that way any more.”
That’s maybe reflected in the way that the rest of Urquhart’s year is laid out. She has plenty of work to do, to be sure: there are last-minute fiddlings on The Underpainter before it goes to print, then later, for something new, she’ll set to writing a libretto she’s been invited to contribute to an oratorio that will be performed at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall for the millennium.
Come September, she’ll be out in frequent-flying support of The Underpainter’s publication. McClelland & Stewart will send her cross-Canada on a reading tour (including an appearance at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors) and she’ll also fit in visits to Britain, France, and Germany, where the novel is likewise slated for fall release.
All that, then, in the name of art. More immediately, there’s life at the cottage, which is not itself artless, but which dictates its own priorities. Some days Urquhart will paint (watercolours with none of Austin Fraser’s layers), most days,she’ll attend to a cherished scrapbook-diary, latest in a series she’s maintained for nearly 25 years.
“Otherwise,” she says, “I’d probably paint chairs all summer long. That seems to be the kind of thing I do. The summer before Away came out, I weeded the beach at the cottage. It’s four years later – I could do it again.”