Catherine Eaton’s Year in Reading, 2020

I’ll soon be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The ninth post is by Catherine Eaton (@sparrowpost), who blogs at sparrowpost.com. Catherine Eaton is a writer and editor living near Chicago with her partner, two cats, and six houseplants..

Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping had always been my time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.

Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.

The library soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol of life before the pandemic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by María Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space to breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.

Books have always been a refuge for me, but in this last year my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but also to examine the craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became for me an act of sanity.

I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years; the list below includes some of my favorites.

I read The Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore, which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and centers on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.

From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books let me find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I had read it as a teenager, but now as an adult I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.

Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

The next library book I read was Optic Nerve by María Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting. The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day.

One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplation on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant to me as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away.

Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She struggles to learn the local language and communicate with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly envelops everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move linearly which affects the art of narration:

To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.

Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in present-day Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.

I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after I returned it COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to Milosz’s poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’s poetry and life.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about half of it when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on the small joys that Gay encounters over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.

In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.

Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel concerns a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.

After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters’ lives over three summers. While their days seem quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.

The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.

Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.

The sisters find their way, each one in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith; after eight years of marriage she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. She was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.

Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read the new Pushkin Press edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. At the heart of Isolde is the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.

Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned due to their self-centeredness and desperation. As I read the book my sense of foreboding climbed higher and higher and when I finished the last page I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.

A King Alone by Jean Giono will also stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking novels I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alps and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:

It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.

A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances occur in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’s) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns, and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.

There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace. A Public Space announced their readalong of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’s translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge cast of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.

The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was and is a terrifying time). It was hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of these master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.

The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.

The novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, concerning the life of Maud Martha; they often read like prose poems. Each vignette follows Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.

One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle over whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and its on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark came into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it, I decided to make a map of it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.

While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on an Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.

Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”

There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. The New York Times critic Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”

During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family, but by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in slow decay.

The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel. Much of the story revolves around the family’s quest to find her a suitable husband.

The novel spans 1936 to 1941 and throughout there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising, as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.

The past lingers in the Makiokas’ clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara, and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amid family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.

Newspaper installations of The Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.

While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters throughout WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.

A few honorable mentions:

Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well. Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that, had she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.

Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.

It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.

“A wing’s beat and it’s gone”: Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines

Sightlines is the second collection by the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie I’ve read recently. Jamie would be an essayist even if she didn’t write essays—she has the temperament. She approvingly cites a friend, an addiction specialist, who tells her his job “isn’t to provide answers, only more questions.” In Sightlines Jamie’s fundamental question, arising again and again in different guises, is, “What is that we’re just not seeing?”

(This particular formulation comes from a fascinating description of what she learns after spending time with pathologists, who share with her the terrible beauty of the tiny pathogens that unwittingly enact such mighty change.)

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Asking herself what she might not be seeing allows Jamie to undo some longstanding oppositions. Chief among these are the distinctions between what’s remote and what’s central, and what’s wild and what’s cultivated. Jamie visits St. Kilda, Rona, and various other Shetland and Hebridean specks on the map: like so many others she is drawn to their isolation, but she soon begins to wonder why we don’t think of, say, Central London as isolated and remote. (I’ve often felt that way, coming down from the mountains to Banff, Canmore, and finally Calgary: not returning to civilization but rather leaving something vital behind.) Meditating on the corpse of a storm petrel and the metal birding-ring adorning its leg (the glint of which first caught her eye), Jamie argues that only a naïve belief in “a pristine natural world” would find it intrusive to catch a bird and make it wear such a ring. Instead, the man-made object only illuminates the bird’s startling life:

When I got the chart out, traced the route, measured the distance, and understood that yes, of course, on a southwest bearing, you could swoop via certain channels from the North Sea through to the Atlantic, on small dark wings, it was because this one ringed bird had extended my imagination. The ring showed only that it was wedded to the sea and, if anything, the scale of its journeyings made it seem even wilder than before.

This moment exemplifies the conclusions Jamie comes to on the basis of her attentiveness to detail. In this regard, a sentence from the opening essay is emblematic of Jamie’s method:

Once everyone is settled, the guide makes a suggestion: why don’t we keep silent, just for a few minutes, sit still and keep quiet, just listen?

The guide here has taken a group of travelers onshore in Greenland, but it could refer to Jamie herself. Perhaps what it means to be a guide at all is to be in a position to offer to gift of attention. Jamie differs from the tour guide only in that her preferred mode of paying attention is seeing, not listening. After I finished the collection I started to wonder about its title. What exactly is a sightline? An imaginary line from a person’s eye to an object, apparently, especially from the eye of a theatre spectator to the edge of the stage. But also the line representing the horizon in a perspective drawing. In both definitions seeing is connected to representing, to depicting the given, phenomenal world, to imitating it. I was reminded of an aperçu from an essay on observing a lunar eclipse:

Isn’t that what great paintings tell us? That to take the form of flesh, the form of a body, is difficult, vulnerable, and yet—partly because of that—sweetly enviable.

Notice again the importance of having a sightline, a point of view. How do we learn that being embodied is at once risky and desirable? By turning to art. Not because art is greater than nature, but because both partake of the same essence, which, paradoxically, is changeableness. The moon herself is described as “undergoing some Ovidian metamorphosis,” as if “she were one of those gods who want to stop looking down on us all, and instead participate, at least for a while; who want to taste the mutability of earthly existence.”

Mutability—and its accompanying fragility—is again evident in an amazing little essay called “Magpie Moth,” in which Jamie comes across a moth pinned down by the surface tension of the water of a lochan. Jamie decides to intervene, with mixed results, at least for the moth, but with the reminder, for herself, that even on a barren moor millions of tiny creatures are on about their business: “It’s all happening out there, and all you have to do, girl, is get your foot out of your eye.” “Magpie Moth” is Jamie’s contribution to that small but vital genre, the moth essay. In her decision to free the moth, she alludes to but counters the decisions made by Virginia Woolf and, later, Annie Dillard in essays each titled “The Death of the Moth.” Like these predecessors, Jamie begins from an encounter with this evanescent life form (moths seem, in Woolf’s work in particular, to stand in for the idea of the minimal—the basic threshold of intelligibility). And like them she moves from particular observation to abstract comment. Yet she pulls up short—“get your foot out of your eye”—never taking herself too seriously. I’m tempted to think of this down-to-earth quality as particularly Scottish, but I’ve no idea really.

Yet lightness is important to Jamie. It means more than self-deprecation or modesty or piss-taking. In “La Cueva,” an essay on a visit to a complex of caves in Spain filled with Paleolithic and Neolithic drawings, Jamie is led to think about fundamental human tendencies, as expressed in the way we talk about the cave art: “When we distinguish and segregate, we are serious-minded. When we make connections, when we say look, this is like a dress, like an owl, I am like you—then we laugh.”

(This could be John Berger, though, happily, less solemn.)

To make a connection is to acknowledge transience. In an essay on that topic, written in 1915, Freud, spurred by a memory of a walking excursion with the poet Rilke, broods on how constitutionally unable we are to recognize our mortality. Yet unconsciously we are aware of it, for otherwise we would not take such otherwise perverse pleasure in times of death and suffering. We would not find ourselves so stimulated by circumstances that remind us of our finitude. (Freud wrote the essay as the Great War lurched into its first full year.)

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As noted in the essay on the eclipse, mutability is Jamie’s great theme. The landscapes we admire didn’t always look the way they do now: nor will they persist. Even whalebone—the subject of two wonderful essays—is mutable, no matter how carefully preserved. A naturalist friend debunks the idea of natural harmony—catastrophes happen, people, places, species get wiped out. It is fitting that a book most consistently set along windswept coastlines ends by finding consistency in only two things, themselves of course emblematic of ceaseless change: “The wind and the sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.”

 

“Wonderful, Cheerful”: Marie Darrieussecq’s Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Now this is the kind of thing I like. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq has written a wonderful short book, an essay really, on the early 20th-century painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. It’s not a volume of art criticism. It’s not a biography. (In principle, I should love biographies. I love the bits and pieces of people’s lives. But anything that starts with parents and grandparents, or, God forbid, a family tree, ugh I just can’t do it.) You’ll learn a lot about Modersohn-Becker from this book, and about the circle of painters and writers she lived among, including, most famously, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but you’ll learn it causally, almost offhandedly. Darrieussecq says she is not writing “Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.”

Before discovering Darrieussecq’s trace I knew nothing of Modersohn-Becker, and I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did because both the artist and this book about her are wonderful. I’m tempted just to fill this post with examples of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Take a look at these:

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A word about names: Darrieussecq calls Modersohn-Becker by her first name. Normally, I can’t stand that kind of thing in biographies, etc. The familiarity feels unearned, presumptuous. Darrieussecq has her reasons, though. She won’t call her Paula Becker, her maiden name. Nor Modersohn-Becker, the name she took after marrying the painter Otto Modersohn. Nor even Becker-Modersohn, as the museum of her work in Bremen has it. As Darrieussecq explains:

Women do not have a surname. They have a first name. Their surname is ephemeral, a temporary loan, an unreliable indicator. They find their bearings elsewhere and this is what determines their affirmation in the world, their “being there,” their creative work, their signature. They invent themselves in a man’s world, by breaking and entering.

I like this passage. It begins conventionally enough, almost doctrinaire. But Darrieussecq isn’t bemoaning women’s victimhood. Women do find their bearings, they affirm themselves in the world. But it’s not easy. And so then comes the passage’s sting, a lovely little image of how this self-invention happens in a patriarchal world: women break and enter. Not to steal but to make a place for themselves, a task that is creative (they “invent”). If they won’t be invited they will enter however they can.

So I’ll follow Darrieussecq’s lead and call her Paula. Does Paula break into a man’s world? I’m not actually sure she does. But she does something more important: she becomes the person she wants to be. Paula has a marvelous insistence. For example, in May 1900, she writes from Paris, where she has gone to study, to her acquaintances Otto and Hélène Modersohn back at home in the artist colony of Worpswede near Bremen, telling them what she is doing and seeing in Paris. They must both come to visit, she urges. But especially he must come:

Dear Frau Modersohn, I know you are not well, what with all these flus and colds this winter, but if you are not up to the trip, do send your husband. Of course, he will say no; he won’t want to leave without you, but be firm, don’t give in to him. A week will suffice. He will return to you full of vivid impressions.

Modersohn says he cannot come. Then he sends a telegram: he is coming. He arrives on June 10th. Four days later, he returns in haste to Worpswede. Hélène is dead. Paula returns too and gives up Paris. The next year she and Otto marry.

But it’s unclear that Paula set out to pursue Otto. And as it turns out, their marriage is not really a success. Otto’s painting is not as good as Paula’s. He is not as imaginative and sensitive as his friend, Rilke. Otto admires his wife’s painting, but Darrieussecq thinks he misunderstands it, praising it as naïve and simple when it is neither. In general Darrieussecq presents Otto as a problem for Paula, not so much an oppressive patriarch but rather something like an oaf who has the power of the patriarchy behind him. (Though, to be fair, he will take care of the two small girls he has been left by each wife; he will tend Paula’s legacy assiduously.) Eventually Paula leaves him. Later they reconcile, briefly. After years of not wanting a child she gets pregnant, probably by her husband. The birth is difficult, and Paula is sentenced to bed rest. When she gets up, eighteen days later, she immediately collapses and “dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says ‘Schade.’ Her last word. ‘A pity.’” It is November 1907. Paula is 31 years old.

Always, throughout this short life, Paula is insistent. She is driven to create. She writes to her mother that something in her cries for air, and won’t be silenced. Her soul “hungers for something profound,” she tells her husband. And she satisfies that hunger. She works hard, painting all day, almost every day. Striking, beautiful paintings.

Being Here is beautiful too, but it’s not especially elegant. The prose doesn’t feel as freighted, as poetic, as portentous as some of the great essayists I love even though that style can grate (John Berger, or Annie Dillard, say). I don’t mean that Darrieussecq is a bad writer. Far from it. But elegance isn’t what she’s after. Maybe that’s one reason she is so drawn to Paula, whose figures (especially their hands) are often misshapen or bent.

Darrieussecq has a way with pithy, paradoxical observations (she is French, after all): “There is no sounder basis for a relationship than misunderstanding.” She also writes sentences that don’t seem fancy or clever but that strike a chord: “She must love her mother to write her such wonderful, cheerful letters”; “A sitting takes a long time. ‘My bum has gone blind,’ one of her models, an old man, told her.”

The book is episodic, filled with fragments. About a holiday she takes in the summer of 1904 with Otto and some friends in a nearby village, Darrieussecq offers “two highlights”: “Paula’s bed collapses; Paula and Heinrich Vogeler have a violent argument. That’s all I know about it.” The abruptness of the prose and the jaggedness of the short sections the book is divided into create the sense of the past as foreign and unknowable.I found myself trusting Darrieussecq all the more because of the fragmentary and partial nature of her representation.

Despite having been surrounded by other artists, indeed of having spent most of her life in an artist colony, Paula is in Darrieussecq’s portrait fundamentally solitary. Darrieussecq describes her as “a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”

Those paintings aren’t seen in this book, at least not literally. (In all the most important ways, Darrieussecq absolutely sees her, and helps us to see her too.) It’s strange that the book contains no reproductions, a fact probably explained by cost and copyright and similar practical concerns. But I think it’s also a choice on Darrieussecq’s part. Late in the book she writes:

The paintings exist. They are sufficient unto themselves. She does not say much about them. She rarely speaks about her art. … And anyway: how do you write paintings? You can describe their features, their shapes, their contrasting colours. You can express an opinion, criticize them. You can provide an historical perspective and put them into context. But write them? There is a huge gap between the words and the images. Dreams and projections arise from the faultline.

(Typical Darrieussecq: she complicates her own claim in that last sentence. The gap between painting and writing isn’t just an absence. It describes possibility as much impossibility.)

Darrieussecq doesn’t say much about the features, shapes, or contrasting colours of the paintings. She gives us some context, but no grand historical overview. Instead as I’ve tried to show she gives us bits of Paula’s daily life.

But Darrieussecq does have something like an argument to make, especially when it comes to telling us how Paula paints the female body:

In Paula’s work there are real women. I want to say women who are naked at long last: stripped of the masculine gaze. Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.

These women aren’t coquettish or exotic or provocative or any of the other qualities that Darrieussecq, in a bravura passage, associates with one after another of the great male painters of the European tradition.

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And her paintings don’t just feature real women: they show real babies, too. Darrieussecq is especially struck by a painting of a woman breastfeeding. It is “not sentimental, or pious, or erotic: another sort of sensuality. Boundless. Another sort of power.” Seeing this painting makes Darrieussecq wonder why she had never heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker before. And in that moment comes the impetus for the book: “I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Paula doesn’t just paint other women. She paints herself too. The book’s cover reproduces one of the now famous self-portraits painted while she was pregnant. Thinking about Paula’s paintings of her pregnant body brings Darrieussecq to one of the few times she inserts herself and her own experience into the text. (I actually don’t mind that sort of thing, but books in which the writing “I” is at least as much a part of the work as whatever thing or place or artwork it’s observing have become so commonplace that Darrieussecq’s reticence is striking.) After reflecting on facticity of Paula’s pregnant self-portraits (they show the reality of what they show; they are not allegorical, like, for example, a contemporary painting by Klimt’s called “Hope”), Darrieussecq explains that the only photograph of her in her home is a portrait taken when she was six months pregnant:

At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: ‘We’d like a normal photo.’

For Paula, pregnancy, like everything else that met her gaze, whether birch trees or chickens or old men, was normal. Ordinary not in the sense of unimportant but rather in the sense of being worthy of being recognized.

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When we think of modernist artists preoccupied by thing-ness or objectivity (and then with metaphorical or symbolist rejections of objectivity) we might think of Rilke. Another appealing thing about this book is that Rilke doesn’t steal the show. (Hard to avoid—he was pretty much a show-stealer, as best I can tell.) He is important—a phrase from The Duino Elegies, “Being here is wondrous,” gives Darrieussecq her title—but he’s not the star. Darrieussecq likes him more than Otto. I think she’s glad, impressed almost, that he and Paula never became romantically or sexually entangled. They were kindred spirits: the best artists of their circle; they respected each other. There was something like equality between them. Indeed, if anything Paula was the one person who could make him do things for her. (There’s a nice bit about some furniture left over from her Paris studio that she makes the eminently impractical Rilke dispose of. The whole business really flummoxes him.) But in the end Rilke fails Paula, saying of her to an interviewer in 1924: “The last time I saw Paula Modersohn was in Paris in 1906. I didn’t know her work very well at the time, or afterwards, and I still don’t know it.”

In the end, though, Rilke’s self-serving and disappointing dismissal of Paula doesn’t matter. Paula’s life was too short, but it was a good life. When Darrieussecq falls in love with Paula’s work she is struck by the feeling that she misses Paula. She regrets not only not having known her work before, but, more dramatically, not having been able to know her. The lovely thing about Being Here is the way it overcomes that gap, repairs that impossibility. It makes us feel Paula’s being; it allows us to be with her. It’s a happy book, it made me happy anyway. And can’t we all use more happiness these days?