I expect a book by Margaret Forster to be good and this one is no exception. It is essentially the story of a painting, a variant of Gwen John’s The Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, as over the years it passes from one woman to another.
I knew very little about Gwen John before I read Keeping the World Away and now I want to know more. (Fortunately there is a list of books about her in the back of the book.)
The title of the book comes from a quotation from Gwen John’s Papers in the National Library of Wales:
“Rules to Keep the World away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); Do not look at people (ditto); Have as little intercourse with people as possible; When you come into contact with people, talk as little as possible … ” 3 March 1912
It seems from this novel that Gwen John was completely infatuated and in thrall to the artist Rodin. She became his lover and tried to please him by being tranquil and calm and striving for harmony in her life. Inwardly, however she “felt volcanic, as though burning lava filled her and would explode with the force of what was beneath it, her overwhelming passion for him.”
Her room was the image of how Rodin wished her to be and she painted a sunlit corner of it where it was “all peace and calm and serenity” in contrast to Gwen herself who “radiated energy”. She rearranged the room and painted several versions; with the window open, with an open book on the table, with flowers on the table, with and without the parasol.
I wished that the whole book had been about Gwen John. However, it’s about the painting and how its successive owners acquire it and what it means to each of them. It gets lost, is stolen, turns up on a market stall, is bought, given away and fought over. As each new owner is introduced there are links between them, but each time the painting passed to a new person I wanted to know more about each of them.
The painting is seen as expressing a yearning for something unobtainable, having an air of mystery, conveying a sense of waiting, of longing, of anticipation of someone’s arrival, painful, soothing or uplifting, empty, and symbolic of an independent, simple life free of entanglements. It becomes part of the lives of its owners. The novel starts with Gillian, the school girl reflecting that art speaks for itself, regardless of the artist’s intention. “She was convinced that art should be looked at in a pure way, uninfluenced by any knowledge of the artist or the circumstances in which it had been painted.” It ends with Gillian, the aspiring artist, reflecting on the nature of art and the purpose of this painting – “Had that not been its purpose? To keep the world away, for a few precious moments, at least every time it was looked at?”
I can’t quite agree with Gillian. I can see that seeing a painting in isolation from the artist can be a pure experience, but I’m always filled with curiosity both about artists and authors – who they were, when they lived, what was going on in the world they lived in and how it affected their work. However, I also think that a painting is like a book in that they can both be interpreted in many ways regardless of the artist’s or author’s intentions.
This is a remarkable book, which I’m sure I shall read again and again.
(This book meets the criteria for the Celebrate the Author Challenge – Margaret Forster’s birthday is in May.)