Painting by Claude Monet/National Gallery of Art
by Peter C. Baker
One day last June, my girlfriend and I boarded a train at the Gare Saint-Lazare, in Paris, and rode it about fifty miles northwest to the city of Vernon, where we rented bicycles and pedalled another four miles to Giverny, the village where Claude Monet lived from 1883 until his death, in 1926. After Monet’s death, the house fell into disrepair, but, in 1977, funds were raised for an intensive restoration, and it opened to the public in 1980. Now some four hundred thousand people visit annually, between April and November, when the estate is open to the public. The house, the gardens, and the pond have been restored to something quite close to their original condition, albeit more visitor-friendly. I looked forward to seeing not just the place where Monet lived and worked but also the places described in Eva Figes’s novel “Light,” which is now entering its thirtieth year of existence.
I suspect not many American readers know Eva Figes anymore. If you do, it’s most likely because of her influential feminist tract “Patriarchal Attitudes.” Published in 1970—long before its title became a term on the tongues of liberal-arts majors everywhere—it carefully ferrets out the sexism in almost every aspect of Western civilization, with particular ire reserved for organized religion, capitalism, psychoanalytic theory, and the institution of marriage. If not “Patriarchal Attitudes,” you might know one of Figes’s three memoirs, which grapple with her early-childhood experience of fleeing Hitler’s Germany for rural England. Most of her books, though, are neither cultural treatises nor memoirs but novels—thirteen in all. When she died, last year, at the age of eighty, many were out print. Fortunately, “Light,” her personal favorite, is still available from Pallas Athene, a small publisher with, so far as I can tell, only one other novel on its backlist. At some point along the way, the U.S. edition picked up a subtitle: “With Monet at Giverny.”
It’s a slim book—ninety-one pages in all, describing a single summer day in 1900—but an amazingly capacious one. As the subtitle promises, it’s set in Giverny, the place where Monet produced many of his best-known works, including his paintings of water lilies. These are among the most widely viewed and most often reproduced nature studies in the world. What the paintings don’t show, however, is the dramatic extent to which their subjects were in fact man-made. As numerous biographies have detailed, the father of Impressionism was an avid student of botany; he employed and oversaw a team of up to seven gardeners and imported seeds from around the world. The pond in which the famous water lilies grew existed only because he persuaded local authorities to divert a river, and his garden was as assiduously manicured as any aristocrat’s lawn. He was painting nature, but a nature constantly modified in the service of his artistic project.
“Light” plays out almost entirely at the Monet residence, but the man of the house is often offscreen. For every passage describing his battle, waged on canvas, with the “luminous cloud of changing light” in which we all live, there are two passages showing us how the day looks and feels to the people around him: his wife, Alice; Alice’s children from a previous marriage; her grandchildren; Monet’s children from a previous marriage; their servants and visitors—for these people, Giverny was not a component of their lifework but, instead, a place where they happened to be employed, or to live some years of their lives. By moving between these perspectives, Figes attempts to bring Giverny to life—real life, which she often structures according to the same sorts of conditions catalogued and dissected in “Patriarchal Attitudes.”
When the novel opens, it is just before dawn. We are with Monet, looking out his bedroom window. “No sign of light so far. Good, he thought, I’m ahead of my quarry.” He heads out, tiptoeing past his wife’s bedroom to avoid waking her—or so he thinks. Figes jumps to Alice’s perspective, and we learn that she was awakened already by the noise of her husband getting dressed. She knows he’s excited by the day ahead, just as surely as she herself dreads it. Her daughter Suzanne (the subject of several Monet paintings, including “The Woman with a Parasol”) died the previous year, of tuberculosis. Alice has no career of her own, no paintings to paint, no vocation; all that lies before her, she feels, is grief and fatigue. Time is “weighing on her as her body did, almost all of the time, she must drag it about, it had become heavy as life now, and she would be thankful to lay it down.”
On page 3, we meet Françoise, who works in the kitchen and is making Monet’s breakfast on her own for the first time. She’s nervous; if his eggs and coffee aren’t just so, he might descend into a foul mood for the whole day. On page 4, we meet Auguste, the young man employed to carry around Monet’s easel and paints and, on this particular morning, to sit in the back of a skiff, bored out of his mind and dreaming of lunch, while Monet sits in the front, staring into the water and occasionally dabbing at a canvas. In short order, we also meet the children and grandchildren, each with his or her own hopes, dreams, and obligations, each aware that, at Giverny, it is the hopes and dreams—and even whims—of Monet that count most. (Whenever a “him” appears in Figes’s prose, it is obviously Monet.) Again and again, they wonder what he’s thinking, or try to anticipate what he might think. If someone steps on or otherwise disturbs one of his plants, he’ll be furious. If his morning painting goes poorly, lunch will be spoiled. When the family sits down to eat, they wait tensely while he tries the mushrooms; only after he approves do they start eating themselves. When he tells a story they’ve heard before, they laugh loudly at the punch line anyway, hoping to preserve his good spirits.
Monet, of course, pays no such attention to the members of his household. It’s not that he never thinks of them, and certainly not that he doesn’t care for them. It’s just that nothing about his position in life requires him to know too much about the nitty-gritty of their experiences. And so he doesn’t. When the soft, early-morning light passes, he puts away his canvas and lets his thoughts return to daily business: lunch, ordering new seeds for the garden, money he’s owed, and Alice’s unhappiness, to which he is deeply unsympathetic—even callous. She’s always been unhappy, he thinks, and her daughter’s death has become “one more pretext.” Figes gives him the following self-satisfied thought, perfectly poised between pompous attempts to describe and to prescribe: “Things are, and ought to be, simple.” He loves his family, but his painting is everything. During lunch, he looks down the table at his stepdaughter Germaine and becomes absorbed by the interplay of light and shadow on her hair and gown—so much so that he momentarily forgets whom, exactly, he is looking at.
That the powerless must understand the powerful if they are to survive—and that the powerful must, in some sense, fail to know their underlings in order to treat them as poorly as they do—is a central insight of twentieth-century subaltern studies, and certainly of important feminist works, including “Patriarchal Attitudes.” But to name these as the central themes of “Light” risks making it sound like the sort of dreary deconstruction that peels back an aesthetic surface only to reveal—surprise!—nothing but webs of power, oppression, and the like. Indeed, Figes was often accused—unfairly, I think—of using her novels as crude vehicles for her politics. Here the charge just doesn’t stick. She knows power and oppression when she sees them, but never asks us to deny or disown the enticement of the surface: we need not consider Monet’s accomplishments cancelled by the conditions of their production. (In fact, having read the novel, I find his paintings—all paintings, actually—more absorbing than ever.) Similarly, Figes’s rapid-fire shifts in perspective never seem frantic or destabilizing, even when, about a third of the way through the book, they start occurring more often, sometimes even mid-paragraph. Even as Figes reveals the ways in which life at Giverny was governed by gender and class, her prose—steady and languorous; attentive to rays of light, specks of dust, and ripples on water—reminds us that it was, at the same time, a place of great beauty and calm.
The character closest to Figes’s heart seems to be Lily, Alice’s granddaughter. With her mother, Suzanne, dead, and her American father in his home country on business, she is being watched primarily by her aunt Marthe, a slightly pudgy woman who everyone—herself included—feels has missed any chance she might have once had at marriage or children of her own. For both Lily and her older brother, Jimmy, the day begins with getting dressed. Figes makes sure we know how different getting dressed is for the girl, as opposed to the boy: for her it means being forced into the “appropriate” clothing, however uncomfortable, stifling layer over stifling layer, the layers connected by various buttons and hooks. It is one of the more poignant ironies of the novel that, in Lily’s mind, adulthood will mean not the expansion of such strictures into every corner of her life (again, see “Patriarchal Attitudes”) but, instead, a glorious release from them: “When she was big she would stop wearing all this stuff.” From her perspective, Marthe and Alice are the oppressors, the people who stop her from running outside in her comfortable nightclothes. She’s too young to wonder what it means that they’re wearing the uncomfortable clothes, too. She doesn’t know that her aunt Germaine is anxiously waiting for Monet’s verdict on a marriage proposal she all but knows he will reject. And, unlike us readers, she doesn’t get to see Marthe looking through the kitchen window at two of the servants gossiping, and wishing, wistfully, that it wasn’t her duty to scold them back to work.
Just as Lily helps us grasp the sneaky complexity of power roles, without quite attaining that insight herself, so, too, does she help us look anew at Monet’s work without ever breaking into the language of art criticism. As Figes tells it, Lily is the person who sees the world most like the way Monet hopes to paint it. She is the one who pays the most attention to the light—and to the choices a person makes, or might make, when he or she perceives an object. Here she is looking at a red balloon:
Looking through it was the secret, she decided, if you just looked at it the balloon seemed rather dull, a matte surface which would begin to wrinkle, its navel tied with twine. But its red transparency changed everything, the quality of vision, like closing her eyes against the sunlight, and seeing bright red through the lids.
This is quite similar to Monet’s constant thoughts about how he might push through “the bright skin of things.” He knows that if he can break through “the shimmering envelope” to “look through things” he might “show how light and those things it illumines are both transubstantiate, both tenuous.” This is the point of his labors and investment in the garden, and of the endless labors at the easel. Through a great deal of conscious effort and planning, and the sculpting of nature into something considerably more tame and reliable, Monet hoped to perceive something true about the world, or at least some small patches of it, without self-consciousness, as a child might.
In Giverny, we locked up our bikes, bought our nine-euro tickets, and walked into Monet’s estate. It was beautiful, but I walked through it alongside a few hundred tourists from around the world. Many were fiddling with their beeping, whirring cameras; others were trying to control their children, who were obviously thinking less about Monet and more about the gift shop, or the ice-cream truck they saw on their way in. “Growth obscured everything in time,” Alice thinks at one point in “Light”; this is true even in Giverny, despite the efforts of the Fondation Claude Monet.
At first, I found this disappointing, but, as we left, I decided that to be disappointed—or only disappointed—was to ignore one of Figes’s central points: the places where Monet painted were (and are) places in the actual world, always shifting, and always shot through with all the complications and constraints that existence in the world entails. If you sit on a pondside bench, watching the afternoon sun descend, it is not impossible to see the water as “Light” does. The key is looking through it.
Peter C. Baker is a writer living in Chicago.
[ Originally published on JANUARY 10, 2013 in The New Yorker ]