Eva Figes first came to American attention through a feminist tome entitled Patriarchal Attitudes (1970), but she has also produced, in addition to other nonfiction such as Tragedy and Social Evolution (1976), an impressive array of fiction, most recently the novel Waking (1982). In Light, she takes on a novelistic assignment that is supposed to be fatal: the treatment of artistic endeavor other than writing. One of the cherished truisms of modern narrative is that works of fiction come to grief when a musician, painter, or sculptor is the subject. The exceptions to this rule, however, should give pause to those who proclaim it. Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend, 1948) is a classic refutation of the principle; Light bids fair, in its more modest way, to be another.
The obstacles would appear quite steep at the outset. To enter the consciousness of Claude Monet, one of the least analytical, least self-conscious, and least verbal of major modern artists, would clearly require extraordinary powers of invention, not to say distortion. Surely the intense examination of the psyche that informs Waking would be inappropriate here, and it is not used. Instead, in a spirit very much in keeping with that of Monet’s work, the novella seeks the outer world with all the pagan gusto of its principal character. The title, in one sense, does announce the subject of the book, and its dappled prose renders that shifting light which it traces in all of its divagations and quirks. Many of the passages devoted to landscapes and shifting shadows recall the chapter from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) entitled “Time Passes”; the house and grounds of Giverny almost become characters in this text.
“Almost” is the operative word here. Figes realizes that the setting alone cannot be the protagonist, and she begins to sketch out very rapidly the interactions within the Monet ménage. She emphasizes the activities of ancillary figures in the household (such as Monet’s common-law wife, Alice, and her daughters, Marthe and Germaine), partly for tactical, partly for strategic reasons. The tactical reason stems from Monet’s role as the commonsensical, placid sensualist who believes that things “are, and ought to be, simple,” and the consequent need to look elsewhere for human complexity. The strategic reason involves a subversion of the reader’s expectations. Instead of providing a guided tour of the Great Man, Figes focuses upon those in the shadows who thanklessly make his sunlit existence as pleasant as possible. There is, at least potentially, a political feature to this shifting of focus. (Particularly curious for this theorist of patriarchy, by the way, is the gerrymandered nature of this patriarch’s clan. Monet is not married to the woman of the house, nor has he fathered either of the daughters remaining at home. Nevertheless, as the narrative establishes, his word is still law.) Also, the way the narrative gradually opens out into the household in general, at first emerging as if part of the natural landscape, is one of the chief pleasures of the text.
The culmination of this social treatment occurs in chapter 7, where Octave Mirbeau, a journalist and friend of Monet, visits for lunch. Here one sees the Monet clan truly en famille; every modulation in collective mood and every mutual adjustment of demeanor and interaction is noted with precision. Mirbeau himself is admirably rendered as well: a forward-looking, anticlerical fop with a journalist’s eye for rhetorical theatrics. Some readers will be reminded of Monsieur Homais in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Characteristically, Mirbeau twits the Monets for retaining servants yet is unhesitating in being served by them himself. Like so many public men, Mirbeau seems passionate about almost every topic but finally only as a matter of rhetoric; his proclaimed concern has about it a certain weightlessness, an air of self-promotion.
One of those present at the lunch—served, significantly, on the veranda, that intermediate point between inside and outdoors—is Alice’s granddaughter, Lily, the member of the household who, at nursery-school age, has most in common with Monet. The story provides many clues to their affinity. Both are in love with the outdoors, and with light itself. Among the most vivid passages in the narrative is the sequence in chapter 5 concerning Lily’s attempts, ultimately successful, to blow a large, complete bubble from her clay pipe. When finally the bubble evolves, “round, iridescent, and perfect,” it holds only for a moment—“enough for Lily,” however: “Memory holds the shining bubble, bright with the newborn glory of the world.”
What becomes apparent, to elaborate the crucial link between Lily and Monet, is that the project of Monet’s Impressionism, as Figes presents it, is precisely to render a moment, as is always said—but in so doing to defeat the onward rush of time; somehow to hold the bubble, bright with the world’s newborn glory. The early chapters involving Monet and his helper Auguste in the lily pond—which to the painter is like “sitting in the middle of an aquamarine bubble”—make this clear. It is not one moment in time, after all, that is Monet’s quarry: It is the repetition of that moment over many occurrences. The layerings of the paintings, then, accrete as a similar quality of light strikes the same setting over a period of time. The resulting “impression” is in...
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