How do we write atmosphere, and give it tension? What I learned from Eva Figes' Light: With Monet at Giverny

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

I have Ivy Goodman to thank for Eva Figes. Ivy, a writer I first encountered long ago, when asked to write a review of her collected short stories, A Chapter From Her Upbringing, for the Pennsylvania Gazette. Ivy has been an essential part of my writing and reading life ever since—her reach is wide, her mind is gleaming, she whispers the names of important books into my ear, and often sends something unexpected my way.

I am grateful for Ivy.

A few weeks ago a slender novel called Light: With Monet at Giverny made its way to me, a gift from Ivy. Its author is Eva Figes, a writer born in Berlin in 1939. Yesterday, while a single carpenter banged away on kitchen cabinets, I stole upstairs, to my son's room, to read. My son has the largest room in this old house. It feels empty with him gone. I'd never sat there before, and read in his chair, but that was the place to be, for oh, my, what a book this is, and absolute quiet is the sound I needed.

Light recounts a single day in the life of Monet, at his estate in Giverny. In the early morning, he rises to paint. Down the hall, his grieving wife does not sleep, and in the house grandchildren stir, and stepdaughters are about, the help, an anxious cook. We will watch Monet in his pursuit of light, in his return to his house, in his lunch hour, in a walk with a friend, in a stroll through shadows with his saddened wife, but we will also come see, thanks to graceful tricks of authorial omniscience, the thoughts and regrets and dreams of the others who have come to Giverny and live through this day.

Little Lily will wonder "for perhaps the thousandth time why the sunlight should be full of dancing motes, gleaming and moving, when the rest of the air seemed quite so empty." Alice, the wife, will "lose all sense of time, as though she had been in a different place, somewhere that belonged to the night and what was left of her night thoughts, where, habitually now, she spoke to those who had only existed in the dark of her own head for years." Marthe, the spinster aunt (and step-daughter to Monet) wonders "what it would be like to do something, anything, from choice." And Jimmy, Lily's brother, will allow a balloon to escape.

But light—on the river, above the shadows, through the slats of window shutters, on the crisp of rose petals, in the wine—is really the protagonist here, and Figes draws it out so spectacularly that I held my breath as I read. This is atmosphere as suspense. This is weather as plot, and I must quote at length from one of many brilliant passages to show you what I mean:
Five o'clock. The top of the willow tree still shone in the green light. The same light was visible on the slope beyond the house, and on the open fields between the railway track and the river. But the water of the lily pond was sunk in the cool shadow, and only the air above it still gleamed fitfully in the slanting light, soft and tenuous as it came through the trees, playful as mist on the substances of shadow below, which it could not disturb. It was as though a tangible split had occurred between sunlight, shadow and substance, and now earth and water were sinking into themselves, taking leave of the sky. Dragonflies and a swarm of midges could still cross the divide, hovering in the air above the depth of shadow, catching the fitful gleam, but the lilies had begun to close up their colours as the water darkened and the sky withdrew from its surface and stood high above the trees.
I read Light after reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and Melissa Kwasny's Nine Senses. I read it following review work on two other books. Like Kwasny, Figes reaffirmed for me what it is that I am truly looking for on the page, and what I must learn to do to be the writer I hope someday to be.


Adrienne said...

Ordering this immediately. Giverny is one of the places I've been that...well, to use the word favorite is to diminish its impact on me. And Monet's paintings - I've stood and stood with them for hours and hours. I cannot wait to read this!

Serena said...

I love books about this painter!

theresa said...

This is such a wonderful book and your review is lovely. Full of light and the sense of time passing...

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