Authors: Gail Jones
âI am waiting for this visitor so that I can tell my story and die.'
Victoria Morrell was once a great artist. She led the high life - living and working in Paris in the 1920s, mixing with the artists of the Surrealist movement. Her work was largely forgotten in the fifties and sixties, but was rediscovered in the seventies when she became something of a cult figure on the London art scene. She now lives as a recluse in Hampstead, London. And she is dying.
Anna Griffin is the young woman commissioned to write a biography of Victoria's life. In many ways their lives strangely intersect, since they grew up in the same mining town and share preoccupations with underground spaces, deserts and the many forms of grief. In a compelling double narrative, Gail Jones tracks Victoria's past as it intertwines with Anna's life. The stories Victoria tells enable both women to enter into new forms of sympathy and understanding.
Elegant, enthralling, and emotionally charged,
is both a novel of love and family mystery, and a meditation on the nature of artistic vision and obsession.
For my parents
As a painter might
The rain has made her luminescent and she is a pillar of shine.
She pops open her umbrella, holds it close above her, and is transformed to a domed shape, darkly vertical. The air is suddenly pale; it bears the appearance of onion skin.
How translucent the sky is. How awash and water-coloured.
For some reason this is the way she imagines herself, as a modernist composition in a hypothetical artwork, caught in the possibilities of the elements and their visual trickery. And later, when Victoria is dead, she will remember how on this day of their very first meeting she was so distracted she became soaked before she recalled her umbrella, and how as she stood catching pneumonia and feeling her legs swept by water from passing cars, she saw an apparition of herself there, sodden, aesthetic, saturated with questions.
Beneath the vegetable sky this young woman seems lost. But she is merely stalled by her own nervous and chilly apprehensions.
She says her own name, Anna, in a watery whisper.
For Victoria, however,
the same moment is the ribbon of a movie she is endlessly unspooling. This screen, its slick flickerings, a new face represented.
She can see the wet woman crossing the road, moving in a diagonal towards her house, and the redundant umbrella, darkly bob-bobbing, and the slow cars, and the leafless trees, and the backwards stretch of the grey road; and she can see the sky, which today is unusually shot and illuminate; it reminds her of a pool of spent semen, glistening mother-of-pearl.
For some reason Victoria can also see herself as though filmed, in the sly act of gazing. She is a profile in winterlight, a woman not entirely visible, and obscurity releases her face from time. She could be any age; she could be fifty or twenty-one. And for some reason it occurs to her:
I am waiting for this visitor so that I can tell my story and die.
What is a kiss?
A divagation, everything collapses.
(AndrÃ© Breton questioning Susanne Muzard)
With Kiss. Kiss Cross. Cross. Criss. Kiss
Cross. Undo lives' end.
Let us say that her memory
is like peering into a night-dark tunnel and waiting for the circle of gold up ahead.
She was born in a large house,
, named after somebody's mother, and it is both immemorial and vague â portals, columns, a white space hollowed out which must be, she supposes, the grand entrance hall â and she remembers sounds, ringing sounds, ricocheting in its emptiness, and a spine of thin pale light slanting on a bright chequered floor, and a pair of chairs with curly legs upon which nobody sat, and an indefinable atmosphere of cold and constraint; yet with these few details
remains merely an incomplete entrance, as though time has confiscated the rest of the house and left it blurred into history. But as she thinks about it now, as she rests her mind in this entrance, what disturbs her is not the dreamy incompletion of the vision, but complete and clear words spoken in a
woman's voice, saying
in response to some forgotten question, hanging there â this is how she considers it â like a streamer of smoke exhaled from shadows in a black-and-white murder mystery, smoke waving at the slightest disturbance of the air as someone moves with a rustle of heavy clothes across a corner of the room: it could be a grass-stained child or a corpulent father; or it could be a mother, a lost mother, shaped like an hourglass in grey bombazine and silk and traced only by these stirring, barely-there words.
Perhaps it is a fantasy, this voice, but she cannot relinquish it. And the simple phrase
â it may have been her mother â is the distant gold coin that she secretly aims for.
Victoria leans her cheek on the window pane and breathes at its cold surface so that she covers over the dull London view and the semen-coloured sky and the wet woman approaching her door from the street below. How can she speak her own life when so much exists as unspeakable images, wound filmic and narcissistic in this old, old head? Her past is not another country. It is her homeland of lost things. She inhabits the entrance to
like a prodigal daughter.
Your mother was an hourglass
, her nurse would say with admiration, and the child, denied a face, saw only a shape perpetually emptying.
Victoria pinches at the loose crepey skin of her neck, and remembers thumbprints that years ago bloomed
there, purple as pansies, when a drunken man tried to strangle her in a Paris park. Now she presses against her own throat as if to mime: don't say anything; resist this compulsion.
Kathleen. Flame tree.
How can she tell such things?
Her memory, she knows, is distended in darkness. Nor does she believe in the consoling dazzlement of something rushing into vision.
: she has already forgotten the name. I will not say too much, Victoria decides. I will sound sensible. Wise. Entirely plausible. And that young woman will be re-made Anna-chronistic: I will plunge her into my time rather than be made to feel old.
Victoria is afraid of meeting her biographer. Her fingers move lightly at the base of her throat. Sequins of dew are forming where her breath had been.
Before the window, waiting, this is what returns: a winter (when was it, 1942?), a bruised-looking sky, her own fall into tearfulness.
It was during the Occupation of Paris that Victoria saw a woman throw what she thought was a baby into the Seine. It was a bundle in a tartan rug â the load apparently heavy, the shape infant-imprecise â there were fringes, she thinks, or a tasselled border; in any case, she remembers seeing a woman throw a bundle into the river. Victoria paused for a second or two in a kind of dumb perplexion, then ran down the stone steps towards her, shouting. The woman stood still, transfixed, staring at the water; she did not respond to
shouts, nor did she turn to look. Victoria remembers an olive felt hat with a peacock-feather decoration: it seemed somehow incredible that a person in a hat like that could hurl a possible baby. The women stood together for what must have been only an instant â it was near quiet Quai de la Tourelle, it was December and windy, one or two people slowed or paused in their rugged-up walks to observe â and Victoria was at once shouting, trembling and peering into the water. There was no sign of the bundle. The River Seine was pale yellow and peaked with the wind. A bell rang somewhere in melancholy resonations. The faÃ§ades of the Ãle St Louis held up their sombre blind windows.
In her memory there was no hesitation at all; she leapt into the river. It was astonishingly cold and Victoria thrashed about heavily, groping before her. One of her shoes dislodged, so she kicked the other away, and felt her handbag, which until then she must have instinctively clutched, release and spiral downwards into yellow oblivion. For a moment she apprehended her own death-by-water approaching: shoes, garments, a self becoming liquid. For a moment she was tempted to cease thrashing and join the baby; and there she was, suddenly still, wondering which French verb form â
sink, sank, sunk
â would describe a willed dissolution, a corrupt fantasy of effacement.
The surface of her skin was freezing and Victoria was aware of both the intensities and the solitude of her body. There was a slapping sound of waves against the stone embankment and her own amplified breathing.
There was water wrapping her face, a swaying necklace of bubbles, and a grainy vision before her within which no baby was evident.
With her eyes open under the water Victoria was reminded of something; she remembered diving in the Swan River as a lonely child. It was warm then, and balmy, and the water was sun-lit. She would look up through pleats of wavy illumination to see brown jelly fish the size of fruit-bowls pulsating above her, light caught semicircular in their fleshy domes. Now, in the current of tenseless recollection, she half expected to see a baby-face heave jellyfish-like into view.
Ten minutes, and nothing. No drifting lit shape. No glimpsed floating hope.
She was clutching at the stone bank, pained by cold, when someone very strong stretched down to claim her. A man, perhaps forty, with a five o'clock shadow, seized her under the armpits and hauled her dripping from the water. Victoria remembers that his gloves were completely soaked, and that he wiped her nose, which was streaming, with the end of his woollen scarf, as though tending a small and errant child. The woman in the hat had in the meantime disappeared.
Victoria sat down by the Seine and in her humiliating confusion simply wept and wept. She wept for the baby as if it had been her own. She wept for Occupied Paris, and its many barbarities; she wept for her lover,
Jules, who was missing, assumed dead. She wept too for private things â her lost hourglass, the
All those irretrievable bundles that had sunk, or caught in tunnels, or washed away. The shadow-faced man became embarrassed. He looked down at his wristwatch, constructed an excuse, and hurried off in the direction of Notre Dame.
Rain began falling in faint blown skeins. The stone face of the Ãle St Louis darkened.
Still more immersion
, Victoria thought.
Still more immersion.
If Picasso had appeared he would have recognised his
: a figure all angles and distortion, jig-sawed by tears, a woman whose inner violence had left her faceted and prised apart. Victoria touched the surface of her own face and found it bevelled and acute. She had fallen into effigy, into teary abstraction.
On her bed, a foreigner in Paris, alone, misplaced, looking up at the rusty Rorschach of her water-stained ceiling, she listened to noise echo in dim zigzags up and down the dank stairwell and in the food-scented, dirty, unlighted corridors. Sometimes she rose for ersatz coffee or a lump of hardened cheese. If she thought of it she paid the boy in a nearby apartment a few ration cards and a kiss to bring her a demi-baguette, which she consumed with the detachment of one who has forgotten the function of food. Once he brought her some tiny oranges â a gift from his mother â and
Victoria left them beside her bed, five perfect baubles, so that she could marvel at the occurrence of colour in her life. In the morning the oranges were frozen solid. She thawed them segment by segment, vaguely pleased to have a modest and important task to perform.
She sobbed and she slept. She was woeful, blank. Outside sirens sounded and once she heard gunshots and exclamations, issue, sharply resounding, from an adjacent street.
In the unheated room her breath was a feather before her.
I am this frail,
And when at last she re-joined the world of the living, rising up with the same mysterious lack of volition with which she had earlier sunk, Victoria was so thin she imagined herself translucent. Upraised veins marbled her glassy skin. She was toppling, unstable, barely alive. She reached for the windowsill to support her as she looked down at the still-there world, the bicycles, the flapping banners, the strolling men in grey uniforms, and her two hands, blue stars, were unrecognisable.
Some time later she would see again the olive and peacock-feather hat. It was like seeing a monstrance held aloft, aglitter in a dim church. She tracked the woman to her home and one night confronted her, pushing her through the doorway of an apartment building with aggressive insistence. Light poured down on them both from a small iron lantern. Their features were distorted by stencils of diamond.
At this hour, in this Occupation,
Victoria remembers thinking,
is patterned with distortion.
Nevertheless she was surprised that the woman seemed not to recognise her. She forced her upstairs, pleased to have induced fear.
In one corner of the room was a narrow bed, neatly tucked and covered over with tea-stained lace, but on every other surface, messily strewn, were pieces of cloth, ribbons, feathers and beads. Simplified models of the human head, of burnished oak and teak, were lined against the window like puppet decapitations, and in the air hung the sweet wet-wool odour of newly pressed felt. This was the room of a milliner: finished and half-finished hats were piled against the walls.
The woman put down her small cargo of parcels and turned to face the intruder.
My name is Marie-Claude, she announced directly. Do you want to buy a hat?
When Victoria thought about it later, even years later, she recalled that the woman Marie-Claude was at once persuasive and poised. She conceded that, yes, she had been by the Seine at Quai de la Tourelle, and yes, she had hurled a bundle in a tartan rug. It had been her husband's clothes, she said, weighted with a few books. He had been a member of the Resistance, a hero, she added, and had died after torture by the Nazis in the offices at Rue Lauriston. His body had not been recovered. It was burned somewhere. Gone. I threw away his things, she said, because their existence appalled me. I could not sell them or give them away; I just wanted to fling them where they would be lost.
She had taken up a hat as she spoke and was stitching carefully: a trail of spherical jet beads composed an elaborate arabesque. Victoria watched the rhythmical lift and fall of her sewing, her concentration, her skill, the pretty inclination of her head, and decided that Marie-Claude must be telling the truth. The milieu produced a photograph of her husband and held it between her knees. The image was of a middle-aged man with a quizzical look, as though his eyeglasses were faulty or maladjusted; he was a scholar, perhaps, or a postman, or an office worker.
Victoria put her arm around Marie-Claude as a sign of her understanding. She kissed her warm cheek, relieved by the gift of an explanation.
In a recurring dream Victoria is diving in the Seine with an orange lantern, anxiously searching for an anonymous baby. She dives to the bottom of the river and sees there scissors, mirrors, corsets, cameras; she sees hatters' models, bobbing, as if underwater creatures, and trails of peacock eyes, iridescently staring. Her orange lamp finds each sunken object in turn, but among the
there is no found baby.
The water becomes immensely heavy. She feels herself begin to run out of air. And this recurrent dream always concludes the same way; it always concludes with drowning. It closes with Victoria's vision of her own body, naked and deadly pale, floating face-down in furrowed black water. She still clutches at the lantern which is almost extinguished. It contains the merest of lights, shaped like a diamond.