The Underpainter

The Underpainter

by Jane Urquhart, Tim Jerome
     
 

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In Rochester, New York, a seventy-five-year-old artist, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings recalling 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 First World War nurse, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and Sara, a waitress from the

Overview

In Rochester, New York, a seventy-five-year-old artist, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings recalling 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 First World War nurse, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and Sara, a waitress from the wilderness mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, who became Austin’s model and mistress. Spanning more than seven decades, from the turn of the century to the mid-seventies, The Underpainter--in range, in the sheer power of its prose, and in its brilliant depiction of landscape and the geography of imagination--is Jane Urquhart’s most accomplished novel to date, with one of the most powerful climaxes in contemporary fiction.

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
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780792722373
Publisher:
Sound Library
Publication date:
12/28/1998
Series:
American Collection
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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