An extract from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: Like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith is a marvelous book –gorgeous language, innovative form, a moving story, and, best of all – it’s packed with art references! One of the main characters is Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance fresco painter of whom very little is known, but nevermind, Ali has created a story for him (her), and woven it together with the story of George, a teenage girl in modern day. There are discussions about art, love, gender and sexuality, death, and more, as well as a great cover (a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, an image which is referenced in the book) and inner cover images from Francesco del Cossa’s greatest masterpiece – an elaborate allegorical fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia (meaning palace of escaping from boredom) in Ferrara, which also plays an important role in the novel.
Smith’s prose is dazzling and clever. In the extract below Francesco talks about the gift of being a painter, and in the passage below that, he describes what he sees when he finds himself in modern day (the “votives” he speaks of are in fact our smart-phones and tablets):
“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.” (p. 42)
“I am wondering where it is, grave of my father, wondering too where my own grave, when the boy sits up, faces the woman’s house, holds his holy votive tablet up in both hands as if to heaven, up at the level of his head like a priest raising the bread, cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.” (p. 43)
The book is split in two parts (both titled part one), one which is centred on Francesco and the other on George. One of Smith’s experiments with structure was to vary the order of these two parts randomly from book to book. My book started with Francesco’s story, and I must admit that, knowing nothing about the book beforehand, I found it hard to make head or tail of it to begin with. So after some research I decided to skip forward and start over with George’s story. This made all the difference, by the time I got to Francesco’s section I had no problem understanding it. So if you’re having trouble getting through, don’t give up – just try switching it around!
Here are some images of Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, executed c. 1469–70:
Jamaican writer Kei Miller talks about writing “Fiction”:
If you ask me why I write stories, or novels, or poems, I would tell you it is because things that are real in my country, things that are factual, things that have happened and that continue to happen, have always had for me the quality of the unreal –the texture of fiction. This is what happens when you live in a country that is not the centre of the world; you become blessed with a kind of double vision. You see your life from the inside, and also from the outside — both locally and globally. You are conscious always of the reality of what you are living, and also the strange narrative of it. You become conscious of how this might be observed — sometimes unlovingly and without empathy –if you do not find a way to tell it right. In a way, this is how every writer the world over lives –this quality of being inside and outside at the same time — of living a life while floating above it, observing, taking notes. Often times I find there is not need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell.
Extract from The Texture of Fiction, by Kei Miller. Published in Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophesies. 2013.
Untitled Film Stills is a series of sixty-nine black-and-white photographs made between 1977 and 1980. In them Sherman appears as fictitious characters in scenarios resembling moments in a film. She used vintage clothing, wigs and makeup to create a range of female personae which she then photographed in apparently solitary, unguarded moments of reflection, undress, or in conversation with somebody off-set and outside of the frame. The ‘stills’ are set in a variety of interior locations as well as outside in urban and rural landscapes. They were begun shortly after Sherman moved to New York city with the artist Robert Longo.
Sherman has commented:
In college I began to collect a lot of discarded accoutrements from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, more for my own personal wardrobe as well as for the sheer fascination with what those garments stood for. It was easy and cheap to collect all kinds of things in those days. I’ve always played with make-up to transform myself, but everything, including the lighting, was self taught. I just learned things as I needed to use them. I absorbed my ideas for the women in these photos from every cultural source that I’ve ever had access to, including film, TV, advertisements, magazines, as well as any adult role models from my youth. The resulting photo shoots were very brief. In those naïve days, I would sometimes take only about six shots for one scene and move on to the next, so that with one roll of film I could have six different set-ups.
(Quoted in Contemporary Art: The Janet Wolfson de Botton Gift, p.99.)
Initially Sherman photographed the Film Stills in the loft apartment where she and Longo lived. She took many of the pictures herself using an extended shutter release; others, particularly those set in outdoor locations, required a second person to take the photograph, such as her boyfriend, friends or family. Sherman’s father took #48, in which she appears as a vulnerable young woman waiting with a suitcase at the side of a darkening country road.
Real film stills are not stills from the actual film but are photographs taken to encapsulate aspects of the film for advertising purposes, to be shown on billboards or in magazines or newspapers. Sherman has explained that she titled this series of images ‘film stills’ ‘mostly because I was thinking of publicity stills like you’d see around 42nd Street, in boxes of hundreds of them for thirty-five cents each’ (quoted in Taylor, p.78). She has said that her intention was that they would ‘seem cheap and trashy … I didn’t want them to look like art’ (quoted in Tomkins, p.78). Like real movie stills Sherman’s images evoke events in possible narratives which the viewer may invent or interpret in different ways, suggesting an original which never in fact existed. Like all of Sherman’s photographic series, they provide a range of fictional portraits, usually of women, in which the artist operates as actress, director, wardrobe assistant, set designer and cameraman.
“Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.”
From This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz