The Underpainter

Overview

In Rochester, New York, a 75-year-old American minimalist painter, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings as he remembers the details of his life and of the lives of those individuals who have affected him -- his peculiar mother, a young Canadian soldier and china painter, a nurse from World War I, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and a waitress who lives in the wilderness mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, and who became Austin's model and mistress. Spanning more than seven ...
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Overview

In Rochester, New York, a 75-year-old American minimalist painter, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings as he remembers the details of his life and of the lives of those individuals who have affected him -- his peculiar mother, a young Canadian soldier and china painter, a nurse from World War I, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and a waitress who lives in the wilderness mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, and who became Austin's model and mistress. Spanning more than seven decades, from the turn of the century until the mid-70s, the story takes place in upstate New York, on the north shores of both Lake Ontario and Lake Superior, in France during the First World War, and in New York City during the '20s and '30s.
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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
A rich, multifaceted story, skillfully told.
Boston Globe
A lyrical novel with a deep. unsentimental connection to ordinary life. . .vivid enough to take your breath away.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Justly praised for her three previous novels, Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and Trillium Award winner (for Away) Urquhart here offers a brilliantly imagined exploration of an artist's personality and the world in which he lives. Narrator Austin Fraser, now 83, looks back over his work and his life and acknowledges that he has used the demands of art to cloister himself from human relationships. He was born and now lives in Rochester, N.Y., but many of his seminal experiences took place in Canada: a town in Ontario, where he befriended George Kearns, the proprietor of a china shop, and tiny Silver Islet, on Lake Superior, where Sara Pengelly became his model and mistress. Readily confessing that he used their friendship and love for his own purposes while withholding any reciprocal emotion, Austin meanwhile describes the style of painting that resulted: he underpaints the canvas with real objects or people, then deliberately erases the details: the final abstracted version resembles his own etiolated existence. Two well-known artists, Robert Henri and Rockwell Kent, figure in the story, and their stringently opposed theories of art are lucidly described. In vivid contrast to Austin's sterile life, the annihilating force of WWI sweeps like a firestorm through the narrative. Austin stays safely at home, but George and beautiful nurse Augusta Moffat experience its carnage and continue to anguish long afterward. Canadian writer Urquhart's evocation of time and place over seven decades and in three countries shimmers with clarity. In contrast to Austin's paintings, the various narrative layers accrete to a clear and stunning vision. Such is Urquhart's mastery of language and subtlety of construction that the book carries the tension of an unresolved love story, the surprising revelation of tragic secrets, the visceral shock of war's terrible suffering and the heartbreak found in the recognition of finality and loss.
Library Journal
From the perspective of advanced age, Austin Fraser looks back over his life as an artist and his summers spent in the lakeside town of Davenport, Ontario, and in the abandoned mining town of Silver Islet on the north shore of Lake Superior. Fraser's artistic method consists of underpainting a realistic depiction of a scene to which he then applies layer upon layer of obscuring detail. Urquhart uses this technique in reverse to tell her protagonist's story by gradually peeling back layers to reveal truths that lie hidden beneath. An emotionally hollow man, Austin experiences life vicariously through others. When World War I breaks out, he watches from the sidelines as his friend George joins up to fight in Europe. George returns haunted by his experiences and by his attachment to a young nurse shattered by her own wartime losses. Although Fraser never comes fully alive, the stories of his friends are compelling enough to give this quietly affecting novel its forward momentum. An elegantly written addition to collections of literary fiction. -- Barbara Love, Kingston Public Library, Ontario
Library Journal
From the perspective of advanced age, Austin Fraser looks back over his life as an artist and his summers spent in the lakeside town of Davenport, Ontario, and in the abandoned mining town of Silver Islet on the north shore of Lake Superior. Fraser's artistic method consists of underpainting a realistic depiction of a scene to which he then applies layer upon layer of obscuring detail. Urquhart uses this technique in reverse to tell her protagonist's story by gradually peeling back layers to reveal truths that lie hidden beneath. An emotionally hollow man, Austin experiences life vicariously through others. When World War I breaks out, he watches from the sidelines as his friend George joins up to fight in Europe. George returns haunted by his experiences and by his attachment to a young nurse shattered by her own wartime losses. Although Fraser never comes fully alive, the stories of his friends are compelling enough to give this quietly affecting novel its forward momentum. An elegantly written addition to collections of literary fiction. -- Barbara Love, Kingston Public Library, Ontario
San Francisco Chronicle
A rich, multifaceted story, skillfully told.
The Boston Globe
A lyrical novel with a deep. unsentimental connection to ordinary life. . .vivid enough to take your breath away.
Kirkus Reviews
A finely nuanced, lyrical fourth novel from the award-winning Urquhart (Away, 1994), featuring a successful painter who, in the entrenched isolation of his old age, recalls the chain of events that cost him his best friend and the one woman who loved him. Taken one summer during WW I by his mine-speculating father to the northern shore of Lake Superior, teenager Austin Fraser, already a promising art student in Manhattan, meets Sara, the miner's daughter who will be his lover, model, and inspiration for more than 15 years. Each June, he packs up paints and supplies to go to her, but at summer's end he returns to the city and forgets she exists, focusing instead on the images he's made of her. In a similar way he compartmentalizes his other summer friend, George, a shopkeeper on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario who paints porcelain and is much altered as a result of unimaginable suffering in the war. With annual visits, Austin keeps these northern contacts alive, renewing himself in the process, but in his rigorously defended self-absorption refusing to make further commitments, especially to Sara: When his closest city friend, the exuberant artist Rockwell Kent, points out in drunken bluntness both Austin's obsession with her and the degree to which he's using her, Austin ends his friendship with Kent immediately. The next summer he calls it quits with Sara as well, just like that, and soon thereafter, utterly blind or callously indifferent to what he's doing, he brings together the lethal elements that plunge George back into his wartime hell. Few stories have brought artistic narcissism to light so powerfully or thoroughly, but this is a painterly masterwork also in its ownright, poignant in each of its several landscapes and subtle in tracing the mingled nuances of love and pain.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780792722373
  • Publisher: Sound Library
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Series: American Collection
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 10
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet 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.

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Reading Group Guide

Contemplation of a Life Not Lived

AN INTRODUCTION TO
The Underpainter

"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 world—a 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 perfected—if not the craft of painting—then 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 rise—and then disappear—from 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 love—or to lose. We meet Austin's eccentric mother—with 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 vibrant—and 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.


AUTHOR INTERVIEW
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 contact—i.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 about—I 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 me—but 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 everything—even 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.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. How do Austin Fraser's Erasure paintings echo the narrative of The Underpainter?
  2. 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?
  3. Is there any character in the novel that does not allow Austin to exploit their relationship?
  4. Are there any similarities between Sarah's father and Austin's mother? How is Sarah's relationship with her father similar— or different—from Austin's relationship with his mother?
  5. 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 story—a 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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 giving—and receiving—love. In the end, though, he leaves before Sarah even arrives. Did you know that Austin would reject this opportunity to regain his humanity?
  13. 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?

Praise

"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

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