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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

The Ice-White Eye

  • Jane Urquhart (Author)
    The Underpainter. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Marlene Goldman

When Jane Urquhart spoke about the creation of her soon-to-be published novel at a reading at the University of Toronto in 1997, she expressed a sense of wonder. At one point, she confessed to the audience, "When I was a few chapters into the first draft of this novel, it became apparent that I would be telling the story from a man’s perspective. But not just any man—this was an American." Evidently, she herself was taken aback and a bit awed by the challenges she had set for herself.

Readers familiar Urquhart’s work will be equally impressed by the risks that she has taken in her latest novel. For the first time, she has written the entire story from a man’s perspective; it is also the first time that she has restricted the perspective to a single individual. The novel has clearly launched her in important new directions.

Following the lead of innovative writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Urquhart places the story in the hands an unsavoury and potentially unreliable narrator, the eighty- three-year-old painter, Austin Fraser. The novel opens in 1977, with the reclusive Austin living in his "great cold barn of a house" in his native Rochester, New York. Austin is overcome with memories because he has just learned about the death of his former model and mistress, Sara Pengelly. Austin shared fifteen years of his life with Sara, but, owing to his fears of intimacy, was never able to love her.

Within the antiseptic walls of his minimalist abode, Austin entertains his ghosts and labours over a series of paintings titled "The Erasures," which rely on the age-old technique of underpainting (a process in which preliminary layers of paint are carefully obscured by the addition of secondary layers oí painl and glazes, so that the original subject matter is obscured). The novel constitutes a record of his memories, which he translates into images and embeds in his paintings. He crams his canvas and, by extension, the novel, with the broken shards of his past; then, ever so slowly, he begins the process of obscuration.

The spiritual disease that paralyzes Austin and prevents him from revealing himself and forming close and lasting attachments, has long fascinated Urquhart. In her first novel The Whirlpool (1986), a similarly reclusive young poet named Patrick tells Fleda, the woman who loves him, that he cannot stand to be close to her. "Learn this," Patrick says, "I don’t want to be this close to you. Not now, not ever." This same fear of proximity plagues Austin; he, too, cannot bear the thought of disappearing into others. Whereas Patrick recognizes that he is ill, Austin rationalizes his neurosis and parades it as an aesthetic principle—the necessary distance between subject and object without which vision and art would cease to exist. For Austin, distance and coldness are essential to his vocation. As he observes, it is only "the ice-white dot in the middle of the pupil which makes the eye live."

In his reminiscences, Austin explains where he learned his credo, and recalls the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1920s and 30s. A pupil of the famous artist Robert Henri and friend of the celebrated painter Rockwell Kent, Austin is initially receptive to their antithetical approaches. Rockwell, who believes in plunging into life, advises Austin to do the same. As he says, "Women are like forests.. .. You can’t just enter them, you must let them enter you as well." By contrast, Austin’s teacher, Robert Henri, warns him to keep his distance from the world. Henri maintains that the artist "owns, controls and is therefore free to manipulate any subject—animate or inanimate—any subject that has, however casually, caught his attention." In the end, Henri wins the battle for Austin’s soul. At the age of eighteen, when Austin travels to his father’s lakeside summer property in Canada, the northern landscape near Thunder Bay captures his fancy, as does the body of Sara Pengelly, but he keeps his distance from both. Although certain stylistic features signal a significant departure for Urquhart, the novel’s account of the reification of both the Canadian landscape and the female body is a familiar theme in Canadian literature. Works ranging from Atwood’s Surfacing to Susan Swan’s The Biggest Modern Woman of the World all raise similar prickly concerns about the "ugly American," Canada’s relation to the United States, and the disquieting parallels between Canada’s identity and women’s identity in society. Austin’s attitude toward Canada and Sara specifically recalls Northrop Frye’s observation that, after the Northwest Passage failed to materialize, Canada became a "colony in the mercantilist sense, treated by others less like a society than as a place to look for things." As Frye explains, "a feature of Canadian life that has been noted by writers from Susanna Moodie onward is the paradox of vast empty spaces and lack of privacy, with no defences against the prying or avaricious eye." Austin, whose success as an artist stems from the fact that his paintings appealed to wealthy New Yorkers who "loved wilderness landscapes" and "wanted Sara’s fair skin," is, in many ways, a familiar plundering imperialist.

The novel explores familiar binary oppositions between American and Canadian, stasis and motion, and art and craft, to name only a few. Early on, we are told that Austin’s father works as a clerk in George Eastman’s factory; yet, his lively mother, who revels in the cycles of weather and nature, despises cameras because they "stop things" and "obliterate" everything outside the frame. Austin takes after his father; in 1920, when he first glimpses Sara holding a broom, he imagines "the sharp edge of a graphite pencil capturing the motion, the gesture. Freezing it."

Throughout his life, Austin subjects not just Sara, but everyone he meets to this same withering imperialist gaze. During his meetings with George Kearns, the sensitive young Canadian artist who runs China Hall (a shop in Davenport) and paints on china, Austin pontificates about the difference between craft and "real art." George, a poor Canadian craftsman, serves as foil for his snobbish American friend. Whereas Austin celebrates modernism, George recognizes that valuable traditions and ways of life are in the process of disappearing; he mourns the fact that before the war there were two worlds of art—the world of high art and the world of craftsmanship; after the war, there is only one world of art, Austin’s. Ironically, although Austin asserts his superiority over the lower-class Canadians whom he befriends, he would be at a loss without access to the vivid and gripping stories of their lives, which he uses as fodder for his art. Entire paintings are devoted to George’s youthful and ill-fated romances, first with Vivian Lacey (a heartless girl in Davenport) and, later, with Augusta Moffat (a shell-shocked nurse addicted to morphine). Whereas his Canadian friends throw themselves into relationships, life, and war, and are broken in the process, Austin chooses to preserve himself. In the end, he remains aloof and monstrously intact. Although, on occasion, the novel seems desperately chilly and readers may tire of listening to the narrator anatomize his failings as a human being for the umpteenth time, I suspect that even these irritating aspects are part of a larger trap laid for the reader. At one point or another, the reader will find herself either empathizing with the narrator or remaining a voyeur. Whether the reader feels compassion or sits in judgement, unmoved by the narrator’s loss, the novel performs its task of exposure: after peering into Austin Fraser’s ghost-filled canvases and staring into the ice-white dot of his eye/I, readers depart from the novel knowing whether they are as emotionally barren as Urquhart’s master underpainter.

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MLA: Goldman, Marlene. The Ice-White Eye. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 245 - 247)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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