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Image et Récit

 | 
Héliane Ventura
, 
Simone Vauthier
, 
Jean-Michel Lacroix

I. Les mots et la peinture

Views of Reality: Pictorial Art as Revelation

Waldemar Zacharasiewicz

Résumé

Cette étude traite de l'usage fonctionnel de l'art pictural dans quelques livres de fiction de Jack Hodgins. Sa conception se manifeste avant tout dans The Honorary Patron, dans lequel le chef-d'oeuvre de Egon Schiele, “Die Familic”, sert de catalyseur à l'exploration de la déception du protagoniste. L'ekphrasis de ce tableau perçu par un historien de l'art d'un certain âge, est équilibré par le “réalisme magique” des toiles d'un artiste canadien prometteur, dont la vision du monde face à une réalité complexe et peut-être absurde suggère une réponse individuelle au dilemme humain, qui, lui, est reconnu et en fin de compte résolu par le protagoniste. En revanche, les gens ordinaires n'arrivent pas à une connaissance approfondie des choses à travers l’art pictural puisqu'ils s'attendent à une simple représentation photographique des êtres et des paysages.

The essay considers the functional use of pictorial art in several books of fiction by Jack Hodgins. His concerns are strikingly manifest in The Honorary Patron, where Egon Schiele's masterpiece "Die Familie" serves as a catalyst for the exploration of the protagonist's frustrated hopes. The ekphrasis of this painting as filtered through the mind of the elderly art historian is shown to be structurally balanced by the "magic realism" of the canvases by a promising Canadian artist, whose world view in the face of a complex and potentially absurd reality suggests an individual response to the human dilemma, which is recognized and finally tentatively resolved by the protagonist. Unlike him ordinary people often fail to gain insights through pictorial art as they expert a mere photographic representation of people and landscapes.

Texte intégral

1While Canadian postmodernists like Leon Rooke or Michael Ondaatje offer daring experimental combinations of the techniques of literary and visual art and while their avant-garde creations benefit from the interaction of images and texts, the fiction by Vancouver Island writer Jack Hodgins furnishes numerous examples of a more traditional union of the "sister arts". In several of his books, especially his more recent fiction, this chronicler of his native region, Vancouver Island, who admirably recorded and reconstructed individual and communal life on the Pacific Rim, has often dealt with the problems and dilemmas of artists both embryonic and established. He has repeatedly introduced artists as major characters and explored their concern with the eternal problems of their profession, the methods and effects of the various artistic media, and especially with a pictorial representation of reality, both the human world and nature. Consequently he has also furnished relatively extensive descriptions of paintings and other works of art, has dealt with aesthetic issues, and has drawn his imagery from these spheres. This is most apparent in his last but one novel The Honorary Patron (1987).

2In one of his earliest stories, however, "Every Day of His Life" (1968), a would-be landscape painter already makes his appearance. Cryptic Mr. Swingler expresses his wish and eagerness to "paint the mountain" looming over Big Glad Littlestone's home and fascinates this single mother by his ostensibly complete preoccupation with painting the scenery from the top of her roof.

  • 1 Mr. Swingler is probably modelled on Flannery O'Connor's Mr. Shiftlet, the egregious swindler of t (...)

3There is an enormous difference between this dubious (calculating) character, who maintains that he might like to stay and paint this mountain "every day of his life"1 and the protagonist of The Honorary Patron, Jeffrey Crane.

  • 2 These are Gérard Genette's terms in Narrative Discourse (translated 1980), cf. Shlomith Rimmon-Ken (...)
  • 3 Cf. the author's admission in an interview with JoAnn McCaig, “Lines and Circles: Structure in The (...)

4By choosing an elderly professor of art history as a reflector character in this novel, which uses mainly 'internal focalization' and 'focalization from within,'2 Hodgins, no doubt, took a particular risk, for he had been primarily successful with earthy characters of a very different make-up, like the irrepressible Maggie Kyle in The Invention of the World or Madmother Thomas. The interests of the 66 year-old protagonist naturally lead to several visits to museums with a detailed consideration of paintings, and extensive debates on artistic issues. The raciness of other episodes and figures notwithstanding, some passages of the book hark back to the tradition of the Jamesian art novel. While the psychological analysis of the downward slide of the protagonist, of course, evokes Thomas Mann, whose Death in Venice served as an acknowledged pre-text for this novel3, the connection with the Jamesian tradition is enhanced by the use of the "international theme" manifest in the juxtaposition of objects of high culture from the Old World with the occasionally anarchic vitality and violence of the New World. It is true that the organizers and sponsors of the Pacific Coast Festival are eager to bridge the gap between the two "hemispheres". Both the aging art historian, who after a tragic adulterous affair in his stormy youth had a successful academic career in his European exile, and his hosts - his former lover Elizabeth Argent included-lack the crudeness manifest in the full-blooded, earthy, eccentric and sometimes even freakish characters of Hodgins' earlier books. Besides, there is less fragmentation and ambiguity in the seemingly linear plot line of the book than in Hodgins' preceding novels, especially than in The Invention of the World. As a considerable part of the action is also shifted to Europe from Hodgins' homeground, where he has managed to evoke a "sense of place", the appeal of this novel to admirers of Hodgins' fiction has been more limited. The frontier spirit in all its rawness apparent in his earlier books shows only in the presence of Blackie Blackstone and his clan. Yet in terms of the "international theme" encapsulated in the novel, the unscrupulous capitalist Blackie, who finally also takes the unprecedented step of touring the Old World as "an innocent abroad" (The Honorary Patron, [= HP] 410), seems an-admittedly much coarser-version of the type represented by Christopher Newman in James' The American.

  • 4 That Hodgins' concern with matters of art is serious may be inferred from the not coincidental fac (...)
  • 5 The term is here understood in the narrower sense of the word as employed in a recent essay by Jam (...)

5But the overall attenuation of the regional element in Hodgins' novel is compensated for by a gain in sophistication. The various debates or ruminations on artists and their achievements from the visit early in the book to the Kunsthaus in Zurich and to the Upper Belvedere in Vienna reflect a high awareness on the part of the author of questions of visual representation. Various objects and impressions tend easily to conjure up in the mind of the protagonist the art of painters like Brueghel (HP 212) or Franz Marc (HP 220), and there are allusions to Jackson Pollock's oils (HP 353) and to Marc Chagall (HP 397). These references show the author’s keen sense of color and form, which according to JoAnn McCaig's persuasive argument provides models for the structure of his books of fiction, but also suggest his familiarity with the methods used by graphic artists and painters4. His protagonist Jeffrey Crane's professional involvement also creates the proper conditions for the functional use of "ekphrasis"5. Offering verbal counterparts to graphic representations of reality, Hodgins employs this productive literary mode in a central episode early in the book. Indeed, the most striking example in his oeuvre of this well-established device is contained in the flashback to Jeffrey Crane's visit to Vienna in The Honorary Patron (54-57).

  • 6 This is Franz Karl Stanzel's term. The dominant narrative situation includes long passages in “quo (...)

6After the relatively slow opening of the novel, which uses a circular structure and largely employs a figural narrative situation6, with an episode in Zurich including a visit to the Kunsthaus (HP 27-35) and Jeffrey's explication of Wassili Kandinsky’s artistic goals, the first Canadian scenes provided in section 2 frame the flashback to Crane’s meeting with his close friends in Vienna (HP 47-66). A painting by Egon Schiele in the gallery at the Belvedere had almost been a shrine of pilgrimage for the expatriate protagonist, who has arrived in his native city on Vancouver Island, obviously corresponding to Nanaimo, (reluctantly) to take up his duties as "honorary patron" of the Pacific Coast Festival of the Arts. He recalls his recent experiences in Vienna, where Schiele's "Die Familie" regularly amazed him during his visits there. The reader is given an extensive description of the canvas, Schiele's "masterwork", and of Crane’s response to it.

Here, despite the tension that existed within the work, the mottled yellow and orange flesh of its three interlocking figures - separated by the bold outlining from the blurred confusion of dark blankets and darker wall behind them - achieved a sense of the collective life that was being celebrated. Yet the face of the naked wife, who sat on the floor at the side of the bed with her small child between her knees, was so full of unspoken thoughts that you could imagine just by looking at the dull turned-away eyes that she had plans, or memories, that the husband behind her could never guess. He, with one of his immense hands scratching his shoulder, the other arm draped over the raised naked knee, appeared, with his wide eyes and tousled hair, to be fresh from sleep and not yet sure whether this day was in the same world as yesterday's. Locked together in this bedside tableau, his knees on either side of her, hers on either side of the child, they could not be imagined apart - despite the noticeable fact that their arms, instead of reaching out to one another, were kept to themselves. And despite what you knew of their subsequent history (HP 46 f).

7The group with "[the] three interlocking figures [...] who could not be imagined apart" is vividly rendered as this "bed-side tableau" impinges on the senses and imagination of the contemplator. Through the emphasis on Jeffrey's belief that the painting would not be noticed by anybody else during his absence and the use of the deictic adverbial "here" the ekphrasis seems to be anchored in the experiential process of the reflector character, though the use of the second person of the personal pronoun seems to generalize the impression and also to allow attribution to an authorial voice. Yet the diction aligns the graphic verbal rendition of the use of color and the configuration of the three largely naked bodies, their faces and limbs, and their expressive eyes, with the well-trained, sensitive observer the protagonist evidently is. What Jeffrey Crane discerns in the bodies and the faces bears witness both to the separateness of the figures (note the "unspoken thoughts of the wife the husband could never guess"), and also to their belonging together. To the person contemplating the canvas and arriving at a very individual synthesis, something of the painter's own inner life and individual reality is revealed, but also-it is suggested-a trans-personal, universal experience. The canvas thus functions as a catalyst for Jeffrey Crane's philosophical reflection on his own dilemma and subsequently the human predicament.

  • 7 For a feminist perspective on this phenomenon cf. Mieke Bal, Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word- (...)
  • 8 Modem readers familiar with biographical research on Egon Schiele may question this daim. After th (...)

8Considering the current concern of feminist and other critics with the representation of nude female figures and the potentially aggressive "male gaze", voyeuristic on the part of both the involved characters and the readers7, it is significant that Hodgins highlights the "sense of the collective life achieved that was being celebrated" in this canvas. It is relevant that Crane explicitly regards the "erotic portrayals of little girls Schiele produced earlier" merely as preparations for the masterpiece8 and that the painting selected represents a couple not in a moment of passion and involvement with each other and erotic tension, but of bemused reflection or meditation, which leaves ample scope to the imagination of the observer. He can turn this moment of stasis "into a narrative of successive actions" or read the pictorial text as an account of States of being, of happiness anticipated with the child protected by the two overlapping circles of the parents. This felicitude, of course, was never realized, as the influenza epidemic was to carry off both the painter and his wife before their child was born. Yet irrespective of this fact Crane feels included within the "stable, monumental unit" (HP 55), one of the symbolic circles in the book.

  • 9 While Hodgins uses a reproduction of “Die Familie” thus emphasizing the centrality of Schiele's vi (...)

9Schiele's painting has apparently struck a responsive chord in Crane's soul, and he confides in his friend Franz his own deep, but frustrated desire for such a relationship and deplores its absence in his own life. He prepares the transfer of this imaginary scene from the painter's life to his own by speculating about the possible profession of the husband on the canvas with its sombre background. He might have been a miner in a shack in his, Jeffrey's, own home town on the Canadian Pacific Coast. The dialogue with Franz about the visual text triggers off Crane's confession of his own tragic love affair forty years earlier and the nightmares which have haunted him ever since. Contemplating the picture, whose crucial importance for the novel is foregrounded by the author's choice of a reproduction of the canvas for the dustcover of the hardback edition of The Honorary Patron9, Crane admits to an amateur's enthusiasm (even) in his professional field and, significantly, professes a belief in a System of values which goes beyond the acknowledgement of "excellence of form" in art. In a brief reference reminiscent of debates on aesthetic issues in modernist texts such as in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, Crane admits to having been "out of step with the century", off and on, and to have been looking for "beauty, dignity, that sort of old-fashioned thing" (HP 56). His sometimes unconventional methods in reaching out to his audiences in the past, however, not only show his histrionic talent, but bespeak an unconventional and even avantgarde stance.

  • 10 Cf. David Jeffrey's otherwise instructive and well-informed long essay on Jack Hodgins in Canadian (...)
  • 11 The centrality of pictorial representation in Hodgins' novel furnishes obvious points of similarit (...)

10It is apparent that the strong analytic impulse in the book, which in its concern with painting offers the reader certainly more than merely "an inadequately digested Robertson Davies"10 as one critic has suggested alluding to the vague intertextual links between Robertson Davies' third trilogy and Hodgins' The Honorary Patron11, takes its departure from the Visual text. The structure of the novel significantly provides for an episode (HP 391-93) comparable to the crucial scene at the Belvedere. In an episode tinged with irony which is placed near the resolution of the protagonist's tragic dilemma, after another unfulfilled and potentially tragic love affair with a young married woman, a chastened Jeffrey Crane is told about major contemporary visual art rooted in the region of universal significance.

11The trajectory of Jeffrey's private quest in the book, which eschews the dual plot structure apparent in The Invention of the World, is anticipated by Karl, Jeffrey's other friend in Vienna. After listening to part of the latter's confession Karl offers a tongue-in-cheek assessment of Jeffrey's projected though reluctant return home as a "mythic journey, an old man in search of his dream children deep into the caverns beneath the unfabled city at the edge of the Western world" (HP 66). While fitting into the sequence of allusions both to the motifs of the painting and the strain of references to realities beneath the surface, this slightly ironic comment by Karl is to come true in Crane's case to a surprising extent. The journey homewards turns out to be a kind of quest, which through a series of confrontations caused by Jeffrey Crane's new eagerness for rejuvenation and his passionate involvement with the moody Nordic beauty Anna-marie, Blackie Blackstone's daughter-in-law, leads to a catharsis. Crane's partial insight at the Viennese gallery, prompted by the unexpected invitation by his former love Elizabeth and the subsequent encounter with his favourite painting, one may argue, is balanced in structural terms by a deeper recognition, again underlined by pictorial means after another egregious error and a dramatic crisis. It is soon after the culminating episode in front of Jeffrey's own childhood shack, his show-down with an enraged Blackie, which Jeffrey survives relatively unharmed, that he, as a narratee, has the opportunity again to reflect on paintings and the complex, higher reality they convey (HP 370-76).

12A former pupil of Elizabeth Argent's, Neil Corbett offers - almost in a staccato rhythm - a series of curtailed descriptions of paintings and provides his own puzzled comments on them:

"Didn't you see those pictures he did, Mrs. Argent? Totally strange. A bunch of them." [...]
"One after the other, all the same size. The inside of those tunnels." To maintain his balance in this peculiar dog-like position between them, he put one friendly hand on Crane's shoulder, the other on Elizabeth's. "Dark, and dirty-falling beams and dripping underground creeks. Just what you'd expect." Crane, in fact, had seen the inside of those old tunnels, as a boy. He knew about the beams and the underground creeks. And the cold, the smell. "Only each of them has got something you wouldn't expect. A tiny white pony hiding behind a chunk of rock. A great red blooming tropical plant with a human face on every flower. One of them had this electric blue snake hissing down a pole and across the bottom. Makes you wonder what goes on in that guy’s head..." (HP391 f).

13These paintings were executed by the same young man whose canvases Jeffrey was asked to appreciate after his arrival in his home town. Unfortunately he neglected to do so due to his increasing entanglement with the "Shakespearean Hash" theatre group and his infatuation with Anna-marie. Having failed to keep an appointment and to evaluate these paintings as requested, he is embarrassed when he discovers a very positive review of the exhibition by the promising young artist, Joe Hobson, and later feels hurt when he is snubbed by the latter.

  • 12 Cf. Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, “Magic Realism in Jack Hodgins' Short Stories”, RANAM 20 (1987), 41.9.(...)
  • 13 David Jeffrey, while considering William Keith's scepticism concerning Hodgins’ subsumption under (...)
  • 14 Cf. Richard Sheppard's recent meticulous documentation of this phase in “Kandinsky’s Œuvre, 1900-1 (...)

14The appreciative notice in the Victorian newspaper establishes a connection between these paintings as later described by Neil and "magic realism". The unnamed reviewer aptly recommends that Joe Hobson should study at Mount Allison University where "all of the country's greatest magic realists got their education" (HP 245). The paintings Neil Corbett lists seem, indeed, to fit into the "magic realist" category, as they combine the everyday and mundane with the exceptional or marvellous, and depict objects "which do not normally belong together"12. Following Jeanne Delbaere, who has thus adopted the admittedly ambiguous label of "magic realist" for Hodgins' art of short fiction, one will grant the applicability of the term to Hobson's painterly practice, which graphically renders animals and plants in strong colors against the obscurity of the tunnels (HP 392). The young artist thus achieves an uncanny effect and arrests the reader’s attention, alerting him/her to the coexistence of the real and the magic(al) and conveying to him/her a vision of a "double-sided" reality13. It is important to note that the since abandoned caverns of the coal mines, familiar to the protagonist from his excursions in his youth, provide the setting for these grotesquely incongruous objects. It is also against this background that the key iconographic motif of the book recurs in a significant variation by the young artist: "his painting of a little group, a naked family huddled together in the dark like they are waiting for someone to let them out" (HP 392). Neil's seemingly perfunctory reference, which establishes an iconographic link between this canvas and the Schiele painting, and the following remarks show a general awareness of man's anxieties and thus go beyond the earlier "reading" of Schiele's canvas and its role as an index to unfulfilled desires on the part of the childless protagonist. Jeffrey's positive response to the composite projection of the young artist's mind into the paintings includes an appreciation of the latter's awareness of "dimensions of reality" usually ignored by the average mind. Neil Corbett's sketchy description of Hobson's canvases and his brief summary of some explanatory hints by the young artist also allude to Albert Einstein, whose emblematic face appears in several of the pictures. Neil reports Hobson’s speculation on Einstein's radical doubts and seeming threat to man's inner balance in a world of relativity, which the narratee, the informed art historian Jeffrey, again tacitly connects with Wassili Kandinsky's "exploding" canvases. By privileging the crucial phase in Kandinsky's career, in which14 he developed his theory of abstraction and held that "an ordered cosmos... was being overwhelmed by violent, primal chaos", Hodgins' protagonist posits an antithesis between Kandinsky's apocalyptic abstract art and Schiele's expressionism. After his ordeal Jeffrey Crane is ready to consider sympathetically the "courage and imagination" of both the young artist and his commentator Neil, and anew expresses his conviction of the relevance of ethical values to the sphere of the arts, a need to "keep things from flying apart" (HP 393). There is little doubt, considering Hodgins' outspokenness in some of his interviews, that the moral world view of the matured student of the arts Jeffrey Crane is also endorsed by the (implied) author. Having lived through a cathartic experience in his confrontation with Blackie Blackstone and having gazed courageously into the depths of the mining shafts Hodgins' protagonist is prepared to assume an affirmative stance. The composite ekphrasis of the paintings by the young local artist has provided glimpses of a revelation, which is at this point underlined in Jeffrey Crane's silent under-statement: "It seemed, at least for the moment, something worth travelling half the globe to consider" (HP 393). The near-serenity seen by Crane in Schiele's painting and its contemporary parallel - with the local variant of the motif - provides for him a counterblance to the abstract chaos and absurdity man is heir to in the 20th century.

  • 15 The Barclay Family Theatre (1981; rpt paperback 1983), 101-59 (future abbreviation in the text: BF (...)

15As a trained art historian, of course, Jeffrey Crane is in a unique position as regards pictorial representations. Several figures in Hodgins' work, however, resemble Christopher Newman in James' The American rather than Jeffrey Crane in their response to paintings, both landscapes and portraits, revealing their own lack of sophistication and their expectation that artists should offer a more or less photographic representation of reality. This is true of Carl Roote, one of the characters in Hodgins' long story "More Than Conquerors"15, which through the technique of multiple perspective and the extensive use of "narrated monologue" sheds light on one crucial day in the lives of three couples in a Coastal town on Vancouver Island. One of them is a Finnish painter and his wife, seventy-five year old Eli Wainamoinen and Sylvi, his 'perfect' and submissive wife, who anticipate and take part in the first major retrospective exhibition of his paintings in the ballroom of a local hotel. Echoing modernist dicta Eli repeatedly reflects on his art as "an act of violence, an assault on the pure canvas" (The Barclay Family Theatre, [= BFT] 107, 111). He is particularly proud of his painting entitled "The Builder", a portrait of Carl Roote, whose memorable "red and sweating", "coarse, hard" face (BFT 131) had immediately prompted a wish to have him as a sitter, a privilege for which the painter had to wait for five years. But the departure from strict realism and photographic precision in the rendition of the face with its "scowling eyes, like velvet blackberries,... the bone-stretched jaw, the skin creases,...the sudden thick nose" (BFT 132) is beyond Carl Roote. So Carl's embarrassed and annoyed response to an offer to acquire his own portrait can only be negative: "It hasn't got nothing to do with me. It don't even look like me... You laid out a hell of a lot of paint onto that canvas. Mr. Wainamoinen. A camera could of done better" (BFT 151). And consequently he does not want to have anything to do with the painting, and he shows his resentment and his fury, which in turn shocks and hurts the old painter.

16Though Hodgins also exposes the preoccupations and the limitations of the egotistic artist Eli Wainamoinen, who overtaxes his patient wife and seems partly out of touch with communal life, with the reality of insecurity and death, Hodgins accords him sympathy and understanding, allowing him to claim that his work might give "a glimpse into the harmonious world of truth" (BFT 133) and showing how his efforts are misunderstood. He is, as it were, punished for his egocentricity by a lack of understanding on the part of his public.

  • 16 The book aptly dedicated to Jack Hodgins’ younger son Tyler was published in Toronto in 1989.

17This dilemma is reflected in a more playful mood in Hodgins’ children’s book, Left Behind in Squabble Bay (1988)16, where young Alex McGuire, who is frustrated in a little pulp mill town on the West Coast where he has to stay "with the grouchest aunt and uncle", consoles himself by drawing a great crowded cartoon with caricatures of his neighbours. This exposes him to danger, when an inquisitive and then enraged schoolmate, Felicity Bogg, surprises him and tears out the page with the incriminatory material to tell on him, which initially aggravates his isolation and unease. Yet eventually the people come to see the potential benefits of a talent for caricature and his adeptness at making people laugh. Is there a veiled autobiographical note here, as Hodgins himself earned his reputation partly through the skilful and vivid depiction of the foibles of various eccentrics inhabiting his island (cf. Madmother Thomas)?

  • 17 Allan Pritchard, “Jack Hodgins' Island: A Big Enough Country”, University of Toronto Quarterly 55. (...)
  • 18 Cf. Joan Grundy, Hardy and the Sister Arts, London, 1979, passim, especially 18-70.

18When Eli Wainamoinen explains to himself why he has remained in the Coastal town on Vancouver Island rather than attempting to gain access to the big art market elsewhere, he affirms a regional concept of art, which for its basis requires a country "small and yet as big as one man can identify with" (BFT 120). This principle applies not only to Wainamoinen's pictorial art, but also to Hodgins' art of fiction, so that Allan Pritchard17, truly an expert on the author, can borrow Eli Wainamoinen's conviction "[This island was] a big enough country" for the title of an essay on Hodgins' fictional territory. Pritchard amply illustrates Hodgins' pictorial techniques of furnishing significant sensual and highly evocative details. When the painter reflects on his favourite subjects and admits his preference for the "cramped up-island inlets with storm-wrecked docks and crimson boats that bled their reflections into dark water" (BFT 107), this passage mirrors Hodgins' awareness of the contours/outlines and colors of physical objects in the landscape and allows one to relate his verbal art to that of Thomas Hardy18 and other writers with a painter's eye and a painter's skill. Sometimes verbal reproductions of landscapes are very vivid and are apt to function as a kind of chorus providing an echo or to serve as an "objective correlative" of certain emotions. This seems to be true of the architectural and anatomical imagery occurring simultaneously, e.g. in the scene at Lake Lindeman in The Honorary Patron, when Jeffrey Crane and Blackie are paddling their canoe past drowned cedars and the skeletons of other dead trees stick out not far from the place where Edward Argent committed suicide: "Soon they'd have begun to thread themselves through the stand of drowned cedars. All around, thick trunks soared up, skinned naked of bark and weather-flailed of softwood to pale-grey standing pillars of ribs-they might be bone, with their twisted and blunted branches a tangled skeletal canopy beneath the sky" (HP 152).

  • 19 Jack Hodgins, The Invention of the World (1977; rpt. paperback Scarborough, 1978), 155.

19While such graphic verbal reproductions of landscapes occur not infrequently in Hodgins' fiction, pictorial representations of settings possibly offering insights into a fundamental reality are less specific, but a recurrent motif in Hodgins' work. In The Invention of the World visual depictions of the coastline are the domain of Virginia Kerr, a university art teacher from the East, perhaps too transparently named that way-echoing Emily Carr, the prominent West Coast painter. Virginia is involved in a casual affair with Wade Powers during their summer holidays, which she spends on the West Coast occasionally painting landscapes. Her Creative phase, however, is disrupted, when Wade Powers questions the basis of her art and alienates, frustrates and angers her by expecting mimetic precision rather than artistic transformation with a distillation of essence. Through his naïve doubt of her art, which may also be prompted by his encounter with the mysterious stranger, Mr. Horseman, Wade spoils her pleasure in her work, makes her lose her vision and, in addition, provokes a termination of their affair. In the overall scheme of the novel, however, this prepares the way for the much delayed rapprochement between Wade Powers and Maggie Kyle, the Edenic resolution of The Invention of the World19.

  • 20 "With her unassisted eyes she could see that what she'd spotted well up in the branches was not a (...)
  • 21 In a letter by Jack Hodgins to the author of this essay dated February 3, 1992.

20In his most recent (historical) novel Innocent Cities, Hodgins seems to have largely abstained from including painters and pictorial representations, though the social functions in the colonial cities of the Victorian era might have given him ample opportunities for relevant allusions or even for ekphrasis. This reticence may have been due to the criticism of The Honorary Patron, as some reviewers thought that Hodgins' preoccupation with aesthetic issues had been taken too far in the earlier novel. While much of what happens in Innocent Cities takes place indoors, there are several memorable outdoor scenes close to the main settings, Ballarat and Brisbane, Australia, and Victoria, B.C., which introduce at least some pictorial associations revealing in this case a deeper, threatening reality. This is true of Kate Jordan’s slightly paranoic response to the lush vegetation on her brother-in-law's estate near Brisbane, where she is both attracted and repelled by the opulence of the jungle flora and her host's delight in naming every plant and his attentions to her. As the view of a giant strangler vine populated by their children is vividly rendered20, and as one remembers Joe Hobson's vision of tropical plants with human faces on every flower in the passage from The Honorary Patron quoted above, one may speculate whether in addition to an impression of an extraordinary hollow tree gained in a botanic garden in Australia21. Hodgins also had other sources of inspiration as, e.g., the romantic allegories of Philip Otto Runge depicting children emerging from flower-cups.

  • 22 Cf. his interview with Allan Lawson and Stephen Slemon in “Out on the Veranda: A Conversation with (...)

21But while there are fewer allusions to painterly practice in Innocent Cities with its meticulously rendered historical panorama, Hodgins has given a great deal of attention to another (applied) visual art, architecture. By placing a sensitive, likeable though slightly cranky practitioner of this craft, Logan Sumner, in the second focus of the novel, Hodgins repeatedly avails himself of the chance to portray Logan's daily struggle for artistic form in the face of his regular assignment to furnish fake facades in gradually expanding colonial Victoria. His constant reconstruction and renovation of the fronts and interiors of buildings indirectly contributes to the thematic core of the novel, which is, in Hodgins' own words, "a story about the revising of stories"22. Logan's professional expression in visual terms of this basic need to revise has a counterpart in his private life, as this normally reticent and eccentric architect and builder, who is eager to transform and reconstruct the reality of the young city, has commissioned a stonecutter to chisel an epitaph on the tombstone of his deceased wife. As he constantly adds later feelings to this epitaph this grave stone comes to reflect his moods and changes of vision. By paradoxically inscribing shifting emotions on a block of granite, the most permanent form imaginable for these sentiments, and by using a surface proper to receive both pictorial and verbal signs to engrave on it passing sentiments and later also utopian dreams, Logan articulates contradictory views of reality. He also functions as an instrument to introduce a metafictional dimension, which, together with the anachronisms of the novel, undermines its psychological realism, without, however, transforming the novel as a whole into an example of "historical metafiction".

  • 23 Cf. Roman Jacobson as quoted in Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric, 89.
  • 24 Cf. Donald Barthelme, quoted in Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coove (...)
  • 25 Cf. his interview in Rubicon 1 (Spring 1983), 63.
  • 26 Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric, 142, 181.

22Indeed, Hodgins' stance has not very noticeably changed in this respect since his second collection of stories, when seemingly reflecting on his task to present his view of reality he used a significant architectural metaphor. Hodgins has always seen a close analogy between the objectives of the verbal and the visual artist and has not-unlike other writers and structural critics-shown a keen awareness of the "profound dissimilarity between the spatial and temporal arts"23. When Hodgins, in his impressive semi-autobiographical story "The Lepers' Squint", ascribes to his substitute, the writer Philip Desmond, the moral strength to reject possible enjoyable distractions and to remain at his writer's desk in his study in Ireland imagining himself in the place of lepers squinting through the narrow hole in the cathedral on the Rock of Cashel, he uses metaphors which, in fact, suggest a close connection between verbal and visual signs. When thinking of the pleasures and responsibilities of his task with the material of his imagination he asserts his conviction in an appropriate image: "That words, too, were invented perhaps to do the things that stones can do. And he has come here, after all, to build his walls" (BFT 180). In the concluding phrase of this story Hodgins expresses an attitude different from that of postmodernist writers, who, as Donald Barthelme once did, contrast the "strength of stones" with the mere fluidity of verbal constructs24, and adopt self-reflexivity in a specific sense, just as cubist art did. While often introducing mysterious elements into his fictional communities, which have more stability than they have in postmodernist fiction, Hodgins has not totally rejected the traditional notion of the referentiality of language and the assumption that works of art mirror reality. Being less concerned with verbal surfaces and games exposing the problematical nature of language and communication than with the "comedy and tragedy of human life" and the "mysteries in human beings"25, he seems not to share the currently prominent conviction of "the [total] failure of language to achieve presence" in the way (iconic) pictures do, and he has not embraced the view that art generally "signifies not reality, but [merely] the process of perceiving and conceiving of it"26.

23As Hodgins seems to accept a fundamental similarity between verbal and visual art it is not surprising that architecture (in Innocent Cities, as to some extent earlier in The Invention of the World, where the neolithic circle on the Irish mountain has an analogue in the outline of the House of Revelations and the cabins of Keneally's Irish serfs), and pictorial art (in some stories and in The Honorary Patron) have alternated in supplying him with models, parallels, structural supports and major themes in his texts, and have helped him to focus his aesthetic and philosophical concerns, to reveal a complex and multi-dimensional reality.

Notes

1 Mr. Swingler is probably modelled on Flannery O'Connor's Mr. Shiftlet, the egregious swindler of the story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. Cf. my earlier comparison of the two texts in “From the State to the Strait of Georgia. Aspects of the Response by Some of Flannery O'Connor's Creative Readers” in Realist of Distances: Flannery O’Connor Revisited, ed. Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund (Aarhus, 1987), 171-84. Mr. Swingler seems ready to take out a licence and marry Big Glad Littlestone, something which literally sweeps this big woman off her dainty feet, but one wonders whether he is not going to take advantage of her as Mr. Shiftlet does of Lucynell Crater in O'Connor's story.

2 These are Gérard Genette's terms in Narrative Discourse (translated 1980), cf. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London, 1983).

3 Cf. the author's admission in an interview with JoAnn McCaig, “Lines and Circles: Structure in The Honorary Patron”, Canadian Literature 128 (Spring 1991), 65-73. McCaig, of course, stresses the fact that Hodgins significantly changed the outcome of the crisis of the old man overwhelmed by youthful beauty.

4 That Hodgins' concern with matters of art is serious may be inferred from the not coincidental fact that his younger son Tyler has attended art school and chosen the career of an illustrator.

5 The term is here understood in the narrower sense of the word as employed in a recent essay by James A.W. Heffernan, “Ekphrasis and Representation”, New Literary History 22.2 (1991), 297-316. Heffernan, who defines 'ekphrasis' as “the verbal representation of graphic representation”, examines earlier uses of the term and the application of a device well-known from a passage in the Iliad and regularly used in English poetry from John Milton, John Keats until W.H. Auden. On ekphrasis generally cf. also Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation Between Modem Literature and Painting (Chicago, 1982), especially 40 ff, 48, 189 f.

6 This is Franz Karl Stanzel's term. The dominant narrative situation includes long passages in “quoted” and “narrated monologue” to apply Dorrit Cohn's terms from Transparent Minds (Princeton, 1978).

7 For a feminist perspective on this phenomenon cf. Mieke Bal, Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Cambridge, 1991) and "The Point of Narratology", Poetics Today 11.4 (Winter 1990), 727-53. Cf. also Hans-Peter Wagner, “Learning to Read the Female Body: On the Function of Manet's Olympia in John Braine’s 'Room at the Top'”, lecture at the German Anglistentag, Stuttgart, 1992.

8 Modem readers familiar with biographical research on Egon Schiele may question this daim. After the talk on which this essay is based both Frank Davey and Arnold Davidson questioned Hodgins' harmonized presentation of Schiele's career and the assumed culmination of his art in the canvas of “The Family”, as his provocative portrayals of small girls, which had met with vehement criticism, seem not to have been abandoned and recur even in his last years. Another possible objection, however, was not made, namely that the woman induded in “The Family” is not modelled on Edith Schiele, who tragically died in her sixth month of pregnancy a few days before the painter. On this and on Schiele's earlier conflict with the law because of an alleged sexual offence with a minor, an affair for which he was briefly imprisoned in Neulengbach in 1912, cf. Christian M. Nebehay, Egon Schiele: Leben und Werk (Salzburg, 1980), 204 and 103 ff.

9 While Hodgins uses a reproduction of “Die Familie” thus emphasizing the centrality of Schiele's vision for his novel through paratextual means, the paperback edition replaced it by a different motif, one depicting a visitor with a suitcase in an art gallery, contemplating a landscape painting showing a fjord.

10 Cf. David Jeffrey's otherwise instructive and well-informed long essay on Jack Hodgins in Canadian Writers and Their Works, vol. X (Toronto, 1990), 187-239, especially 225.

11 The centrality of pictorial representation in Hodgins' novel furnishes obvious points of similarity with Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone, the fictional biography of Francis Cornish, the expert master restorer and sometimes forger of an old master. But the function of the pictorial art as revelation and the debate on aesthetic issues show the stamp of Hodgins' own concerns.

12 Cf. Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, “Magic Realism in Jack Hodgins' Short Stories”, RANAM 20 (1987), 41.9. Cf. also Cecelia Coulas Fink, “'If Words Won't Do and Symbols Fail': Hodgins' Magic Reality”, Journal of Canadian Studies 20.2 (Sommer 1985), 118-31.

13 David Jeffrey, while considering William Keith's scepticism concerning Hodgins’ subsumption under the label “magic realist” (cf. Keith, “Jack Hodgins” in his study A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada [Toronto, 1990], 195-213), in his attempt to offer analogues in pictorial art aptly refers to Canadian painters Alex Colville and Jack Chambers, rather than to the super-surrealism of contemporary Latin-American painting. When trying to account for Hodgins’ vision he also prefers the notion of a "psychological realism" deriving from Faulkner and his disciples in the English tradition (cf. especially Jeffrey, 97 ff).

14 Cf. Richard Sheppard's recent meticulous documentation of this phase in “Kandinsky’s Œuvre, 1900-1914: The avant-garde as rear-guard”, Word & Image, 6,1 (Jan.-March 1990), 41-67.

15 The Barclay Family Theatre (1981; rpt paperback 1983), 101-59 (future abbreviation in the text: BFT).

16 The book aptly dedicated to Jack Hodgins’ younger son Tyler was published in Toronto in 1989.

17 Allan Pritchard, “Jack Hodgins' Island: A Big Enough Country”, University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (Fall 1985), 21-44.

18 Cf. Joan Grundy, Hardy and the Sister Arts, London, 1979, passim, especially 18-70.

19 Jack Hodgins, The Invention of the World (1977; rpt. paperback Scarborough, 1978), 155.

20 "With her unassisted eyes she could see that what she'd spotted well up in the branches was not a bird at all, but the frock belonging to one of Lilian's daughters. At the moment, it was being worn by her own daughter. Freckled, red-headed Laura was up there, high in the trees, laughing down at the adults.
So were the others, the other children-faces laughing down from high in the tangled confusion amongst the leaves and branches, faces blooming out of various gaps and irregular holes in the trunk of the most peculiar tree she had ever seen, even in this continent of eccentric vegetation." Jack Hodgins, Innocent Cities, Toronto, 1990 (rpt. paperback 1991), 72.

21 In a letter by Jack Hodgins to the author of this essay dated February 3, 1992.

22 Cf. his interview with Allan Lawson and Stephen Slemon in “Out on the Veranda: A Conversation with Jack Hodgins”, Australian-Canadian Studies 5.1 (1985), 31-47, and his interview with Jeanne Delbaere in Kunapipi 9.2 (1987), 84-9. Hodgins' historical source related the discovery of a case of bigamy in 19th century Victoria and the ruining of reputations connected with it.

23 Cf. Roman Jacobson as quoted in Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric, 89.

24 Cf. Donald Barthelme, quoted in Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and William H. Cass (Pittsburg, 1982), 121.

25 Cf. his interview in Rubicon 1 (Spring 1983), 63.

26 Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric, 142, 181.

Auteur

University of Vienna

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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