January 8, 2017
How I Spent my Christmas Vacation
It was three Christmases ago that I spent my holiday immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of those perfect reading experiences you never quite get over. In homage to that, I had a vision of devoting my holiday this year to biographies too, because biographies require wide windows of time and focus and I can’t always accommodate such things in my ordinary life. But on holiday, I can, so I was all set to read Robert Kanigel’s biography of Jane Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, which I bought back in October, and also Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson biography, A Rather Haunted Life, which I’d had an inkling would be under the Christmas tree. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet, and the Painting of the Water Lilies, had not been part of the plan, but then we went to see the Mystical Landscapes exhibit at the AGO on Christmas Eve, and I have to tell you that I only had the vaguest sense of Monet and his water lilies beforehand, but the whole exhibit was a little bit life-changing. And Ross King’s biography has the most gorgeous design ever, the title fonts inside were gorgeous, and Chapter One was called “The Tiger and Hedgehog”. So I kind of had to, right?
It all turned out so wonderful, each life story captivating and connected in curious ways. Even more oddly, I’d gone offline for the week after Christmas (hence all the time for reading) and we were doing the Globe and Mail holiday crossword at the same time, and I kept coming across answers in the book I was reading—Hammurabi’s Code was something Jane Jacobs studied in her continuing ed courses, and then I got a synonym for “crafty” from translation somewhere in the Monet book, and also knew that Rodin was the sculptor from another clue. As always, the way that books speak to each other is always strange. What to say then about these three? That they’re all about three brilliant people who weren’t conventionally attractive, and it’s funny how the latter point is spoken in such lovable terms with Monet but with the women it’s an altogether different matter. Each character lives through a world war, Monet quite directly with World War One in France (and it’s fabulous to read about his insistence in his painting being included as “war work,” not just for reasons of nationalism, but also because it would ensure he received extra rations of petrol and cigarettes), and both Jane Jacobs and Shirley Jackson (via her husband) would come under suspicion of the McCarthyites. Jane Jacobs was shaped by coming of age during the Great Depression and Jackson by marrying a Jewish man with a terrifying awareness of the genocide being wreaked upon European Jews at the very same time, an awareness that would continue to haunt her.
I’ve spent most of my life with a blithe sense of living outside of history—I was ten in 1989 and everything after that was supposed to be easy, and not even 2001 and everything after would deter that sense until very recently. And what I really appreciated from these three biographies was what it showed about ordinary lives through vast historical backdrops, mainly that it goes on, and also that society’s pendulum swings. World War One, and Monet is painting and art still matters (and even matters more) and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, which was not quite the utopia I’d figured it as, all Summer of Love and civil rights. No, I hadn’t been thinking about the fight before it was won, that before the win it was all fighting. And like right now, it was a time of a divided America, a country at war, racial tensions, riots in the streets, so much injustice. Ours is not a brand new story, is what I am saying, and these three books offer remarkable context to the world we’re living in at this very moment.
This from Jane Jacobs: “I resented that I had to stop and devote myself to fighting what was basically an absurdity that had been foisted upon me and my neighbours.”
Another point that links these figures is that all lived vital, creative lives while firmly ensconced in a domestic scene, surrounded by children—although Monet, of course, is the only one whose stepchild basically devoted herself to subservience in order to facilitate his creative life well into old age; Jane Jacobs’ grown son, on the other hand, would decide to start a business importing bicycles from China but the bikes arrived disassembled and his parents were recruited to assemble 30 of them from directions written in Chinese. Not that his mother wasn’t happy to do so, but still. It’s funny to read about Robert Kanigel’s (whose previous biographical subjects have all been male) fascination with Jacobs being a wife and mother—that she did all she did, and made dinner too—not that her status as mother wouldn’t be used to dismiss her work, the ideas of a woman who was just a mother, oh no! Which reminds me of Shirley Jackson filling out a form at the hospital before she gave birth to her third child, when she wrote “writer” under “occupation” and the nurse changed it to “housewife.” But yes, for Jackson and Jacobs both, their domestic lives fuelled their creative work.
Interestingly, both Jacobs and Jackson lived in Greenwich Village too and frequented Washington Square Park, but a decade apart. I don’t think they ever hung out. And never with Monet—at least not until this blog post, of course.