The Underpainter is a novel of interwoven lives in which the world of art collides with the realm of human emotion. It is the story of Austin Fraser, an American painter now in his later years who is haunted by memories of those whose lives most deeply touched his own, including a young Canadian soldier and china painter and the beautiful model who becomes Austin's mistress.
Spanning decades, the setting moves from upstate New York to the Northern shores of two Great Lakes; from France in World War One to New York City in the '20s and '30s.
Brilliantly depicting landscape and the geography of the imagination, The Underpainter is Jane Urquhart's most accomplished novel to date.
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About the Author
Jane Urquhart is the bestselling author of five internationally acclaimed, award-winning novels. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and three books of poetry. She lives in Southwestern Ontario. She is the winner of numerous awards and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Stone Carvers and the International IMPAC award.
Reading Group Guide
Contemplation of a Life Not Lived AN INTRODUCTION TO
AN INTRODUCTION TO
"Each afternoon now, when I have finished my work, memory beckons me into the street, insists that I walk with her in the snow."
With these words, Austin Fraser, a seventy-five-year-old American minimalist painter, beckons us into his worlda world populated by the ghosts of his past, a world that has come to be as cold and fractured as the icy terrain upon which he has treaded so carefully his entire life. In the name of art, Austin Fraser has perfectedif not the craft of paintingthen the craft of guarding the inner chambers of his heart from those who love him.
In her stunning new novel The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart contemplates the weight of a life not truly lived and the consequences of sacrificing one's humanity for the sake of art. A series of canvases called The Erasures earns Austin Fraser fame in the art world. After painting a highly detailed narrative scene, he systematically "erases" the images with progressively lighter shades of color. Richly textured, multilayered, brimming with precisely drawn characters and unforgettable images that riseand then disappearfrom its pages, The Underpainter's narrative echoes The Erasure series. In a masterful twist, Jane Urquhart uses these paintings as an ingenious metaphor for the love that Austin cannot accept, and the people that he continually exiles to the corners of his mind.
It is, perhaps, the philosophy of Austin's mentor Robert Henri that most influences the solitary path of his life. About the emotions and sensation of life Robert Henri said to his students, "Each sensation is precious. Protect it, cherish it, keep it. Never give it away. When you are alone, without the distraction of the community and affection, this will be easier to achieve." While Austin admits that before meeting his teacher "neither community nor affection played a significant role in my life," he also says that the words of Robert Henri "gave [him] permission to remain aloof." Jane Urquhart surrounds Austin with a cast of individuals who, unlike her narrator, are intensely attached to the physical world and unafraid to loveor to lose. We meet Austin's eccentric motherwith her passion for visiting graveyards and taking her uneasy young son on vigorous walks through the wild rocky landscape of Rochester, New York. Austin's father is driven by the pain of Austin's mother's death to a life of riches and capitalism, and a china-painter named George finds respite from the carnage of World War I in the arms of a similarly shell-shocked nurse named Augusta. Sarah, a waitress who lives in the remote mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, is Austin's long-time model and mistress. For fifteen summers she gives both body and soul to Austin, who suddenly exits her life saying, "I have finished painting you." We also meet Rockwell Kent, a famous artist who follows his own advice to "get drunk and have a love affair"; and, finally, Vivian, the woman whose reappearance after many years irrevocably splinters Austin's life while driving the novel to its powerful climax.
In the end, Austin Fraser embarks on the very last canvas of The Erasure series. He begins to paint a portrait of himself incorporating "the love that I could not accept coming towards me, despite my cloak of fear, the implacable rock man, the miles and miles of ice." At last, he attempts to reach beyond the dark shorelines of loneliness and the endless snowy plains of memory, to a place where the creative process is no longer solitary, where the images of his past can finally remain vibrantand unerased.
ABOUT JANE URQUART
Born in 1949 in Little Long Lac, Ontario, Jane Urquhart was a child with passionate artistic ambitions. She often staged impromptu performances in a corner of the schoolyard, and as a teenager became fascinated with the works of Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Urquhart, who writes vividly about young love, grief, and loss, experienced widowhood at the tender age of 24 when her husband, an art student, was tragically killed in an accident. Soon afterwards she met Tony Urquhart, the painter to whom she has been married for over twenty years and the father of her teenage daughter. She has earned two degrees, in English and Art History.
Jane Urquhart is the author of three previous novels: The Whirlpool, which won France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1992, Changing Heaven; and Away, which won the Trillium Award in 1993, spent 132 weeks on the Canadian bestseller lists and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She has also published a volume of short stories and three collections of poetry. She lives in a small village in southwestern Ontario, Canada.
A Conversation with Jane Urquhart
Is there a reason that you made Austin Fraser an American artist, rather than a Canadian artist? Do you think that art, literature and painting especially, is perceived differently in America than it is in Canada?
It was important to me to make Austin Fraser an American, not because I believe that he represents a collective American personality or because I was trying to make a statement about how the American art world operates, but because I wanted to look at the Canadian society of the first part of this century from a vantage point that was both close enough to be familiar and yet removed enough to be able to view the landscape and customs of my country as "other." It seemed to me that by having my main character's hometown be Rochester, New York, I would be creating a situation in which he would be aware of the country on the other side of the shared great lake as a kind of easily accessible far shore, on the one hand, while, on the other, he would know that his intimacy with this far shore must necessarily be limited. He would not, for instance, be required to vote in its elections or join its armies. Although he would be comfortable in this alternative world which in many ways resembled his own, its destiny, in a significant way, would neither involve nor concern him.
Having said this, I do believe that, particularly during the time frame in which The Underpainter's story unfolds, there were large differences between the way that art and literature were perceived by society at large in the two countries and, to a certain extent, by those who were endeavoring to be a part of the art world. Canada was a very young country at the turn of the century, one in which the pursuit of culture was still viewed as a rare privilege. Moreover, it had not yet found its own Œvoice' or Œvision' and was apt to be very influenced by the two stronger powers with which it had the most contacti.e. Britain and the United States.
You have a degree in art history and are married to a painter. The visual arts seem to have a rather large presence in your life. How has this infused your own work, especially The Underpainter?
I find that the act of writing fiction is, for me, a very visual experience. Often I can "see" the rooms or landscapes in which the narrative is unfolding with my inner eye. In fact if I am unable to see the characters and settings of the world I am creating I know there is something wrong, that I have not fully entered the text. Perhaps my contact with visual artists and my study of art history have taught me how to look closely at the world so that I can store images for future use in my writing. I know, for instance, that making a careful drawing of an object, person, or landscape will bring one into a kind of exaggerated intimacy with what is being rendered and this has always fascinated me.
How similar do you think the creative process is for painters and writers, or any artist for that matter? Did you consider making Austin a writer rather than a painter?
I think there are both similarities and differences among all of the arts. The largest similarity is that the artist is by definition a person who stands slightly outside of society so that he or she can have a clearer view of the world one must draw on in order to create art. This is true even for performers who interpret rather than create original material. However, composing (literature and music) seems to me to be the most inward looking and solitary of the arts; something that is done alone in a room and that very rarely involves collaboration.
For this reason I never considered making Austin Fraser a writer. It was important to me that he collaborate, or at least consciously use other lives in his creations. He has a model for a time, and later he knowingly makes use of unaltered material from other people's lives. It is true that writers sometimes do this as well, but it is my feeling that the very best fiction transforms the facts that may have inspired it almost beyond recognition in order to strengthen the structure of the book.
You've said that while writing The Underpainter, you often found yourself angry with Austin Fraser. Why?
Often when I am composing a novel I find that I am not necessarily in control of the actions of the characters I have developed, that they will do things that I, as a person, completely disapprove of. This was particularly true of Austin Fraser. Although I was aware of his weaknesses and never lost sympathy for him, occasionally I wanted to shake him and force him to wake up and see how he was damaging those who cared about him, and ultimately how he was damaging himself. But there is, I think, a bit of Austin Fraser in almost everyone, including myself, so perhaps some of the anger came from the recognition of potential insensitivity on my own part.
How solitary is your own creative process? Do you find that you must "disappear" from your family and friends to complete a novel?
My own creative process is very solitary and, yes, at times I am forced by the work to disappear. This is particularly true during the creation of the first half of the first draft of a novel when I have not yet truly engaged with the material. Once I have a fully realized "other" world in my imagination I find I can slip in and out of both worlds without losing either and, at this stage, I take great pleasure in both my real life and the narrative I am working with on the page.
In the early stages of a novel I have sometimes physically disappeared and have gone away to another province or country in order to remove myself from the distractions of daily life. My friends and family are very understanding about this. But then, of course, they know I always come back.
What was the source of inspiration for The Underpainter?
The Underpainter was inspired by many things. I am very dependent on my intuition when a book is being born in my mind and find that I must follow any ideas, images, histories that attract my attention. In the beginning I found myself fascinated by Rockwell Kent's house in Newfoundland which I had spotted across a bay and later inquired about (not knowing that it had belonged to the American painter). Not much later a packet of letters written by a Canadian woman who had been a nurse in the First World War came into my hands. These were filled with a sense of such sadness and loss that I began to think about how devastating the effects of that war must have been on the young men and women who were a part of it. The letters were written to a young man who operated a china shop in a small Canadian town and who had also been overseas. This led me to a study of fine china and the art of china painting. Soon I became interested in exploring the different forms artistic expression can take; who is given permission to be an artist and who isn't, and what defines the terms "professional" and "amateur."
Did The Underpainter fall naturally into the first person? What was the most difficult part of writing this novel in the first person?
In the beginning I meant to write the novel about Austin Fraser and as a result the opening chapters of the first draft were written in the third person. Quite early on, however, I noticed that the narrative automatically slipped into the first person once I became involved in the writing. It was as if Austin himself were demanding to tell the story, and although I would try over and over again to force the text back into the third person, I finally had to admit to myself that this wasn't working.
With the exception of a few very short short stories I had never written in the first person, and once I accepted that that was the way this particular story should be told, I was quite intimidated by what lay before me. Not only would I be writing in the first person but the voice was going to have to be one quite unlike my own. Surprisingly, however, when I sat down to write I found that the voice came quite smoothly and naturally. Not only do I have to "see" what I am writing aboutI have to hear the cadence of the language as well. I had no difficulty with the rhythms of Austin's voice. They seemed right.
But there was one aspect of my usual writing style that I had to keep consciously under control, and that was my tendency to write lyrical prose. This is not to suggest that the poetic disappeared completely from my writing while I was working on this novel-as I've said cadence and rhythm are very important to mebut I knew that this male character would not be likely to present himself in a voice that was too exaggeratedly poetic.
Did the narrative of The Underpainter unfold as you wrote or did you know from the very first page what Austin's fate would be?
I write the first draft of any novel very tentatively, feeling my way as I go, and depending to a great degree on my intuition. I enjoy this process very much in that it is a bit like how I felt as a child when I was engaged in imaginative play. Children, you see, never know in advance what is going to happen when they begin to play with stuffed animals, or a doll house, or toy soldiers: the drama simply unfolds. And so, when I was working on the first draft of this novel I did not know for sure what Austin's fate would be. I knew what I wanted him to do, but I had no idea whether or not he would do it.
In subsequent drafts the writing becomes much more conscious, structure plays a much larger role, and the work becomes more like real work. By the time I was composing the second, third, etc. drafts I knew how the narrative would unfold and I was therefore able to alter certain paragraphs and sections earlier in the book in order to fit the pattern of this outcome.
Did you begin your career as an artist as a painter or a writer? Why did you choose to focus on writing?
From the beginning I was always a writer. I have almost always fictionalized everythingeven when I was a small child. I loved listening to the stories that the grandparents, aunts and uncles of my large Irish-Canadian family told about their ancestors, and I loved listening to the stories my father and his prospecting friends told about life in the forests of Canada. English and History were always my best subjects in school. In fact, I have often said that I became a writer because I wasn't suited to anything else: I wasn't interested in subjects that didn't involve narrative.
The truth is that I didn't choose writing: it chose me.
What are you writing now?
I am now working on a novel which takes place in Canada and in France during the years between the two World Wars and which involves War Memorials and the Roman Catholic Church. More than this I cannot tell you. I am still in the tentative, intuitive stage.
- How do Austin Fraser's Erasure paintings echo the narrative of The Underpainter?
- Austin Fraser says that, for the sake of his painting, he "trespasses everywhere and I thieved constantly." The most obvious example of this is his relationship with Sarah, his model and mistress. Do you think that Sarah understands that Austin is "mining" their relationship in order to perfect his paintings of her? If so, why do you suppose she continues to pose for him? Who else does Austin "thieve" from?
- Is there any character in the novel that does not allow Austin to exploit their relationship?
- Are there any similarities between Sarah's father and Austin's mother? How is Sarah's relationship with her father similar or differentfrom Austin's relationship with his mother?
- Why does Augusta need to tell Austin her life's story? Do you think that the fact that Augusta offered him her story, rather than him having to "thieve" it from her, changed the value of it in Austin's eyes? Was this a turning point for him? Austin is intensely interested in Augusta's storya woman whom he barely knew, yet, other than learning about Sarah's father, he shows absolutely no interest in learning the details of Sarah's life. Why is this so?
- What is the significance of Augusta's "lost girl in the woods" dream sequence? Are there other examples of characters disappearing, or feeling like they are lost in The Underpainter? Is this a theme that surrounds only the female characters? If so, why?
- Think about the topography of the places that are important parts of Austin's life: Rochester, Davenport, and Silver Islet, Canada. How do these landscapes mimic Austin's inner self? Why does he choose to paint the cold, rocky landscapes of the north?
- Compare Austin's minimalist paintings with George's narrative china painting. How are their respective choices of painting styles reflected in how they live their lives? Is it surprising that these two men remained such good friends for so long? What common bond do you think they shared? Consider Austin's friendship with Rockwell Kent. How is it different from his friendship with George?
- Compare George's occupation, china-painting, to the war. Could he have ever returned to painting idyllic narrative scenes after experiencing the chaos of battle? What is the significance of the shattered pieces of china found throughout The Underpainter? How is George's response to the broken china different from Austin's response?
- Do you think that the fate of Augusta and George would have been as tragic if they had not been involved in the war? Was George damaged more by the war than he was by Vivian's rejection?
- Do you think that George's art is inferior to Austin's art? Why is Austin so profoundly affected by Rockwell's criticism of his paintings of Sarah? Is his criticism valid?
- A very powerful scene in The Underpainter is the one in which Austin waits for Sarah at the hotel. For days, he continually visualizes himself finally opening up to her, finally givingand receivinglove. In the end, though, he leaves before Sarah even arrives. Did you know that Austin would reject this opportunity to regain his humanity?
- It has often been said that the essence of art lies in the way an artist lives, rather than in the way an artist paints. Is this true of Austin after the death of Augusta and George? What about at the end of The Underpainter?
"An engaging and moving exploration of love: mother-love, romantic love, love of country....Away is a melancholy Irish ballad sung on foreign soil, its words and music all the sweeter for being heard so far away from home."
The Washington Post Book World
"A vividly drawn and richly textured saga that follows the lives of three generations of women
. . . Enchanting and highly imaginative."
New York Newsday
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The narrator, Austin Fraser, is a successful painter from New York who is in his old age, reflecting back on his life. He is emotionally stunted and has suppressed commitment and genuine friendship his whole life. I've known selfish artist types like him, and so I had no sympathy for the character. However, the people who's lives he messed with--namely Augusta, George & Sara--were very interesting and likable, and their stories made up most of the book. Their stories traverse from New York to the north shores of Lake Superior and Lake Ontario, and over to the WWI battlefields of France.A LT friend with similar tastes as mine gave up on this book in the first 100 pages, and I can see her point. It got off to a slow start. But Urquhart is a beautiful writer, and I saw glimmers of promise so I persevered, and was rewarded for my patience. Urquhart is one of those poetic, atmospheric writers that are a treat for the senses.Recommended for: readers of literary fiction who are in the mood for a somewhat chilly, distracted, meandering journey.And a note: I've made this comment about other novels with a strong visual element (mostly books about painters, but also novels about archaeology and architecture): give the reader some illustrations! I can make a picture in my mind of what Fraser was painting, but I really would like to see what the author had in mind. Publishers could learn so much by looking at illustrated novels like the ones by Nick Bantock and Barbara Hodgson.
I don't know much about art, but I know that I like this work which is set firmly in the world of painting.It probably would enhance your appreciation of the book to be more aware of the art scene and technical issues in art, but there is plenty here to satisfy the art-ignorant reader such as me. Urquhart writes in a way that I enjoy a lot. Relationships between characters are explored at depth through both the description of the interactions and (more importantly for me) the characters own thoughts about their behaviour and their feelings towards each other. I think I identified quite strongly with the main character. Urquhart says this about him, towards the end of the book: "And how did I appear to Sara? Who did she see when she looked at me? A man in love with the stifling order he had imposed upon his own life." (p. 220)Urquhart's descriptions of the environment and the characters' responses to their surroundings was another particularly rewarding aspect of reading this book. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.
This is the second novel by Jane Urquhart that I've read and I am, again, amazed by the beauty of her writing. The Underpainter is the story of artist Austin Fraser who knows and understands colour and landscapes far better than he knows or tries to understand the people he is closest to.