A painting is a composition in shapes, textures and colours. A novel is a composition in language—which is flexible enough to include all of the above. A life can be a composition too, whose bits and pieces fit meaningfully together according to some principle of design. Painters and writers, while their common currency is structure, have long denied that their lives exhibit any particular aesthetic coherence. “Perfection of the life, or of the work,” according to Yeats, is the stark dichotomy that each artist must confront, and it is axiomatic that the latter takes priority over the former. Still and all, the potential must surely exist in the self-reflective artist in either medium for the life and the work to echo one another.
The possibility so much intrigues Helen McLean in this, her fourth novel, that she doubles the odds. The Man and the Woman is a sophisticated study of the lives of two painters. One is the Post-Impressionist master Pierre Bonnard, born in Paris in 1867, the other is Elizabeth, a young Canadian admirer of his work, whose artistic career begins in 1946 when she commences her studies at London’s Slade School. The last two decades of Pierre’s life overlap with the first two of Elizabeth’s. Given the elasticity of novelistic time, the span is enough to observe a synchronicity in their experiences in chapters that alternate between their points of view.
Elizabeth reads the notes and letters that Pierre has left when she visits his home in the south of France after his death in 1947 and it gives her deep satisfaction that her life is oddly parallel to his. Both painters come from middle class homes; both surmount grave but short-lived parental reservations about their chosen occupations; both obtain relatively easy access to serious artistic circles (in London for Elizabeth, in Paris for Pierre); and both find a devoted friend in those circles. On the surface, things come easily to them—romantic relationships, reputations, sales. They struggle, however, with the process of self-invention that characterizes the genuine artist. In their moments of self-doubt, the two are alike in being painfully honest with themselves. Where Pierre accuses himself of a lazy superficiality, “the dazzling colours and showy effects only managing to disguise, thinly, the flabbiness of the structures that lay beneath them,” Elizabeth, in a comparable moment, fears that she is too much under the influence of her “idol,” and in danger of “spending [her] life painting dreadful imitation Bonnards.”
The plot of this novel unfolds at a leisurely pace, tracing each artist’s early discovery of his or her métier, highlighting a timely success or two, and sketching in early love affairs. Pierre literally stumbles over the woman who is to be his lifelong companion on a street corner in Paris; Marthe follows him home and becomes his model, lover and wife. Never emotionally intimate, their marriage is one of mutual support and comfort, with Marthe providing most of the comfort. Elizabeth has a brief but companionable relationship with a dealer and connoisseur of the visual arts, but she does not find it sufficiently fulfilling to keep her in London. Her primary allegiance is to her art and in the end she departs alone for Sicily, where the light is more intense, and so is life. To the dismay of their partners, both Pierre and Elizabeth discover that the most worthwhile things are done alone.
McLean, who is 87 now, has spent a long time looking at things closely. Her career as a painter adds layers of specialized knowledge to her writing and her description of the physical world is precise. In her earlier novel, Significant Things, she noted that there is “something inscrutable … about the metaphysical significance lying hidden in common objects.” She pays close attention to Elizabeth’s cottage studio; to the body (dressed, undressed and partially dressed) of Pierre’s companion, the much-painted Marthe; to the floor plan of the couple’s rehabilitated villa in the south of France; and to the wonderful bathtub that is ensconced there as a tribute to Marthe’s fondness for its ritualistic ablutions: “sitting on four great clawed paws … a veritable whale of a tub, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight streaming down on it … sloped and curved at one end like the back of an armchair, and … so long that … even he had to stretch his long legs to plant his espadrilles against his foot.”
At the same time, it is impossible to overlook McLean’s symbolic use of space, especially the way she invokes it to reveal unspoken truths about human relationships and states of mind. In a sort of preamble to her story, Elizabeth makes the life-altering discovery that there are two sides to every canvas—the depth imagined by the viewer is in fact no more than a byproduct of the imaginary space in between them. She notices the psychological impact of the trompe l’oeil effect in one of Bonnard’s depictions of the interior of his home: “With a start, I realized that in the illusory three-dimensional space of the painting he was exactly where I was, and doing what I was doing—staring at the yellow wall and the radiator … and the reflected image of himself. It was uncanny. I half-expected my own head to appear beside his in the mirror.” Subtly, as the lines of vision of painter and viewer are drawn together, their emotional outlooks seem to follow. By the same token, spatial boundaries reveal not commonalities but divisions. As Pierre discovers in his daily life with Marthe, an “atmosphere of closeness and intimacy” can be negated, in life as in art, by the simple presence of “a strong vertical line,” one made by the edge of a screen— “a divided image that typified everything about their relationship.” In these examples and others, the author explores the notion of significant form—yet with the conventions of literary structure superimposed upon the visual and the spatial.
As she finishes her first important portrait, Elizabeth exults in her fidelity to nature: “Althea was alive, ready to speak. The whole painting was alive … I felt … as though I had been struggling my entire life to learn the grammar of a new language and suddenly found myself speaking it.” Challenged to explain his lack of interest in abstract, nonfigurative modes, Pierre wonders: “why would an artist deliberately impoverish his work by eliminating references to the inexhaustible variety of forms provided by nature?”
It is a good question, and it invites this further question: if art and life are so deeply aligned, how is it that lives can seem so shapeless and inconclusive? Those of Pierre and Elizabeth, although by no means chaotic, are as loosely stitched and apparently indeterminate as any that can be observed in real life. McLean makes a fine, if inscrutable answer to this unaccountable problem: life has form, to be sure, but just as Pierre Bonnard’s first studio is too narrow to permit him to step back and see what he has done to his canvas, in living our lives, we are too close to them to discern the patterns that are there.
Hilary Turner is a professor of English at the University of the Fraser Valley. She specializes in autobiography and the history of rhetoric.