The Montreal Review, January 2011
"La Belle Endormie
" (19 5/8 x 19 5/8, Oil on Canvas) Francine Van Hove
at Galerie de Bellefeuille
(1367 Greene Avenue
Montreal, Quebec, H3Z 2A8)
The man across the street was dead. That was all he knew. In the past year, they had seen him coming and going-less and less-than not at all. This morning, while putting on a work shirt, Robert had strained his lanky frame to the left until he could make out an ambulance just down the street. There were no lights or sound. People moved, but didn't hurry, their general lack of panic, the pronouncement.
"Something going on out there?" Jeanine had called, her voice still fogged with sleep. Robert moved away from the window, and said it was nothing. Just a few people already scurrying off to work. That woman who was always in a hurry trying to balance two large packages wrapped in butcher paper. A small sparrow hopping along the fence-post. After he dressed, he went down the stairs thinking. The man had been a Doctor, he knew that much. Always asking after his and Jeanine's health. A staunch Tory, he wanted to know if Robert was planning to vote, even when the General Election had just past. Robert had always smiled, said he planned to, and this had pleased the Doctor who grabbed his shoulder and told him it was good to do one's part. That men like him would keep steering the country and thwarting any present day Jacobites who might still be floating around-(flawed but good, God save her, save the Queen). That day, he did not go out and gather the paper til the ambulance had gone, figuring it one small way he could show his respect.
After Robert left, Jeanine rose and put on her pink robe, then went to the window. There was something going on down there. But he had not told her what. Not wanted her to be upset. But what did that mean? These days, didn't everything upset her? She didn't know what was wrong. She only knew that now and then there came a pinched feeling behind the eyes til even the boots in the closet were tired. Sole-worn, frayed laces. Objects, pressing in. Nothing yet done. The doorbell ringing and ringing and ringing.
An hour later, Jeanine got up and stood in front of the dresser glass. She picked up Robert's comb, and studied the few hairs left in it. Light and brown and fine and fallen out. He was losing more all the time. She set down his comb, then pursed out her lips, trying to create some kind of impression. She took inventory in the hysterical non-sentimental way all truthful women do. Lack of sleep posing as bruises at each side of the bridge of the nose. Loose skin down at the base of the chin. Vanitas, slaughtered and dead, before catching a single ray. She had never been the girl everyone admired anyway, so what was not much to mourn over. Once youth left the body, what was left for it but to be clothed? With a wool skirt. A light yellow blouse with wrists that wouldn't stay put. The green sweater with the stretched out collar (somehow defeated looking, even when her cousin Harriet had brought it to her brand new).
She was going to get dressed. It took her so long, didn't it. She often wondered if she had, if they had been able to have an infant, if it would have taken this long, if there would have been this many preparations. Fussing over someone else, especially one's child, that was a virtue wasn't it? But not when one fussed over one's own body. That habit, as opposed to providing the ongoing virtue of a nation, was merely wasting time. She sighed and reached under the stockings in her top drawer, rustled around, then went to Robert's desk and sat down. She needed to get started again. After a drink of water. She went back to the sink, and turned on the tap. She wasn't here to look in the mirror again, she'd just done that. But here, what was this? One hair in her left eyebrow too long-out of place, pale at the end. Hideous. She'd better pluck that, right away. But she was stalling. She went and sat back down, looked at her last few sentences and sighed. How to begin? And what was it she wanted to recapture? If she ever had captured it in the first place. Was there anything more than fleeting impressions-salmon neatly shucked of head and tail, the back of a blue dress already vanished into the crowd, a sudden flight of pigeons punching dark lines into the dusk, knife lying on a plate, wearing a thin coat of rhubarb jam? Whorls of lip-smudges covering a half empty wine glass. Eccles cakes stacked in the window, one stray currant sitting on the wax paper, triumphant absconder, looking ready for an epic journey. Whether there was or not, these silly things pleased her; overcame her, rather-so that she was always about to weep, just like poor C. Lamb, crying at the fullness of life.
"What does she do?" she once had heard one of Robert's friends ask.
Robert had not known she was at the top of the stair. Listening.
"Oh.she scribbles things down. It's helpful. For her...to pass the time. It helps her.get her feelings out, about things."
So that was his summing up. She shook. That day, she had thought it was from disgrace. But later, she realized it was not shame. It was fear. Rage. She realized later that she had been listening like her whole life depended on his answer. (What did she do? was not the question. The question was, rather, what did she believe in? New arrangements? Trying out a different pattern? She wanted to retrieve the glove in the damp grass, pawn fallen under the bench, dig up the tin doughboy buried face down in the dirt. A hundred times a day, she sucked in her breath, felt momentous, and didn't know why. Sometimes she wanted to run up to perfect strangers and exclaim, how close we came.at least this last time.how close we came to almost missing each other. They would only yank her away. Tell her she needed a glass of soda water. An overstuffed sofa and pillow stitched with a silhouette of Queen Victoria out riding. They'd tell her to pull in all four of her hoofs-to not let her mind go ranging so widely, jumping over hedgerows and strolling abroad at Milton's eight. Pare back, they'd advise. Focus. On the lace draped over the lamp, the old volumes of Eliot, and Gibbons. A feverish young ascetic clutching Thomas a Kempis and coming to her doom; Rome rising and falling rising and falling, dust and crumbling rock, Visigoths helmets and sandals safely tucked between closed bookends, faded covers).
Walking back home midday with a mushroom pasty in a sleeve, Robert glanced up at a man hurrying the opposite direction, a fact he noted since it was rare he had to glance up. The man had the look of someone who has just finished a disagreeable business and can check it off his list. Since their eyes met, they nodded, but they didn't speak, and Robert quickly looked down. Was that man wearing the same socks? One seemed lighter than the other, a rougher fabric too. A few steps later, he paused, looking up at his own bedroom window. He wondered if she was up yet. Dressed. But it was no good judging. He too had wanted children or at least one. But he had been able to adjust to the poor news quite quickly. Now all he wanted was to be able to go to the park with his wife or a short holiday to the Lake District without wondering about the next collapse. Just be patient. The doctor had said that. And he agreed. But he still grew irked on occasion. He, off to work everyday of the week, and her, lying there in bed. Looking more tired than he. He had time to run up-had planned on it, just for a few moments like he sometimes did. But for some reason, today, he suddenly hesitated and kept right on walking.
Jeanine stood up and stretched her head from side to side, heard it crack. She had a few more pages now. That seemed enough. It was coming too slowly, of course. As always. One could lose heart so easily. But then there was the work, (always the work). And work, she thought, when it is not killing, not fretting and maiming, affirms. Saves. But how did one get below the surface of things? How did one fall, say, into the golden bracelet on the arm of the woman she and Robert saw last week on the train. Could one concentrate so long that the metal heated back up and became liquid, so that one could dive down, and be submerged? Be submerged, yet remain distinct enough to witness; witness and rise with the gleam in one's fist--pearl in one's throat. Yet how long could one endure living in a space where everything amplified until a cricket scraping its legs moved from symphony to sandpaper in the ears? Until each drop of water hanging from the bathroom faucet filled and bulged to the point that it grew heavy enough to hurtle down, each splash a bomb dropping, obliterating a whole civilization, columns smashed back to dust, Latin disemboweled, and all the young girls hopeful white arms-yellow lanterns in gardens, silver trays-tatters of mica, unintelligible mystery-wasted. Walked over by another age's heedless feet. All the world sea-changed, trembling, just scrubbed and minted. One felt that. Standing at one's window one felt that. But she had found that when she closed her eyes and dove, the sea remained solid enough to skate across. A flash of enchantment-and then windows and pavement and iron fences were stubborn-un-refracting. And letting the curtain fall back? A shaking hand. Hand of an old woman. Something spent.
Robert went back to the office. Jules wasn't there. Late as usual. No doubt he was smoking out back. Young and entitled, he acted like he was doing the company a favor, not the other way around. His Uncle was one of the managers at the Norwich branch. That was what Ted had heard. It made sense. Favors were how one got ahead. They never said that at school, but Robert realized-too late-he should have known someone. He never would have thought he should have been someone. That would have been too presumptuous. When Jules finally arrived, Robert had already done the numbers for two accounts.
"Getting ahead of me again are you?" Jules asked, throwing his jacket down on the back of his chair. It was not a question.
"Oh I doubt it," Robert replied absent-mindedly. He and Jules knew the art of talking and not talking, a game he had perfected in the last years of his own father's life. The kind of comments you could take fifty years worth of and string together and realize you didn't know a thing about the person. Not a thing.
"Have you seen that girl before, Robert? Armenian I think. The one that works at the bakery across the street? Tall with red hair?" Jules asked, after sitting down. He leaned forward in his seat, his hands together.
"I'm not sure I have," Robert replied, though he had noticed her. Striking. You turned around without even realizing it, feeling ill and excited in the most pleasant way. Before you checked yourself and went on with your day.
"I'd like to talk to her, you know," Jules confided. Robert didn't take the remark as being in any way conspiratorial. Jules was thinking out loud and he happened to be there.
"Well good luck then," Robert said, picking up his pencil. With one especially brown and chipped bottom tooth, Jules wasn't a regular Byron, but he did have plenty of confidence and connections and some women went for that sort of bravado perhaps.
But Jules was not finished. "Robert?"
"Have you ever wanted something so much you thought you'd change yourself.into.anything just to get it?"
"Of course," Robert started subtracting, "but that never works."
He wished Jules would be quiet, and thankfully he was. The sound of the digital clock was the only noise now. Robert worked for a few more minutes before realizing, with a start, that he was still thinking about the girl and that was because she reminded him of his mother. Not the beauty. The way she walked with her hands tucked in her coat and her head down, slightly to the left, her lips barely parted, as if she was murmuring some line from a play, her only line, the only line life gave her, and therefore she was desperate to learn it, could never stop uttering it, just in case it might otherwise escape.
Jeanine was furying away now. She had been for the last hour. It had started simply enough. A single image. A small girl sitting on a park bench peeling an orange. But just as she got that down, someone suddenly pulled a sheet over a chair, pulling the thread loose on a scarf, unearthing the first notes of Handel's Messiah, chipping out a piece of gray tile for a Roman Bath in Tunisia or the Holy Land, tapping the bones perfectly preserved inside the body of a climber tucked deep inside a crevasse on a mountain with blinding white snow-splashing through the Hellespont-kneeling at the secret shrine carved in the heart of a green-green jungle-condensing to damp beads sliding down the prow of a Viking ship-clawing all the way down to Eden, beating away Adam's thin knuckles, til dirt tore to translucence.
November. The light already going. A hard time of year, Robert thought, as he paused at his own door. He turned around and drew in one more sharp breath of icy air. The few people still out on the street looked like pale imitation of themselves. Everything wan and listless, the tree branches overextended, stretched too tight. No birds. All the fire beat out and vanished long ago. Cold gut, and half a moon, already insistent upon itself. And a few more hours to spend with Jeanine, spend alone, wondering briefly at some wrecked ship sunk off another coast in the paper, then stare into the grate, at the dull carpet's faded roses, as the radio played a song that sounded like a room full of people laughing, dancing, happily jostling about and kicking up their heels, one bright creature safe from the uncertain future.
Was it revelation? Either that, or clumsy cobbling-piecemeal. Hand welded to webbed foot fixed badly to a badly cobbled together, mildewed ear. But the one right arrangement, the one perfect line-suppose it was nearer being found? Suppose she was coming closer to finding the word that would draw all the wreckage up, show ragged scraps of continent sanded down and fitted, but still contoured-dried, but still glistening.
"There you are."
Jeanine startled at the hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry," Robert said as she turned around and took one of them. "You're cold."
He squeezed her hand, then pulled and briskly rubbed his own two hands together.
"I didn't mean to sneak up behind you like that. But I thought you must have heard me come in."
"I didn't," she told him. "How was your day?"
"Fine. Now that it's almost over. And you?"
"Good. I feel like I got done." she shrugged, "at least some of what I was trying to accomplish." She turned around and looked up. She didn't try to explain anymore. And he didn't ask for any. That was their routine.
"I'm glad. That's good." Robert said. He hesitated, then moved to put his coat in the closet.
"I thought we could just have something simple to eat tonight. There are leftover pork chops. And I could heat up some peas." She looked out the window, at the building across from her. A light had come on in the window on the far left corner. Something must have happened over there today. Usually there were more lights on. She turned and briefly rested her hand on Robert's back (wondering, not without some shame, if it would bend terribly down, like his father's had there at the last) then went towards the landing. "Come down when you want," she called over her shoulder.
After Robert hung up his coat, he looked around the room, and sat down on the bed. Brief resurrections, were perhaps all that one could expect. Moments of butter sun, toast not burned black, or too pale, but pleasantly scalded. Him walking down and her looking content. Rested. And clean, neatly folded napkins. All the harsh words buried in some far away field, stillborn and not even a possibility. Passing the sugar. Her touching his hand, and her not startling, not pulling away. Both of them smiling. Like neither of them had ever been shocked or surprised-suddenly learned in one fell swoop-they had to lower their expectations-diminish them once or twice (and then again).
After tea, Jeanine left Robert downstairs reading. She'd kissed his cheek, and told him she'd be back in just a minute. He had looked up briefly at her.tenderly? At least that was how it had seemed. But she still needed to check. Just to see. For there were only so many visions that came, and for each one, a tongue torn out. In time, one grew bewildered. Distracted. Ate too much. Forgot to eat at all. Everything was conspiring against you. Turning you back. You could twist your heart on a nail. The edge of the banister. The bottom corner of the paper. If you wished. But it always came again. Morning. That old trick. Making you hopeful. That you'd do all sorts of things. Be kind. Write books. Morning. Whispering. Heat the brain. Stir the hot and glowing coals. Burn and burn. Before putting the mind up weary and rested-wrapping it away in cool lavender. With half an hour still. Before lunch. Time to re-arrange your hair. Make a visit. Start a new list. And all the while, the dead and the alive kept up their clamoring-insisting on being listened to. Coddled. Argued with. The dead needing their praise, and the living always needing everything-some faint reason. Had she completely failed them? She feared so. But perhaps there were only ever hints. A few silver glimmers occasionally flashing up to the surface. She took her notebook out of the drawer, then hurriedly flipped to see where she had been. She skimmed and skimmed over the words, devouring them like they were someone else's. She touched the last page. Shut the notebook, and put it back in the drawer. As failures go, it was splendid. It was splendid.
As failures go.
Jennifer Blair is from Winterville, GA and teaches at the University of Georgia. Her chapbook of poetry All Things are Ordered is out from Finishing Line Press.
Illustration: Francine Van Hove
Born in Paris in 1942, Francine Van Hove completed her studies in 1963 at the Lycée Claude Bernard (Paris). Her meticulously painted oils have always been well received since her first solo exhibition in 1971 and can be found in collections in Europe, America and Japan. Known and appreciated for the refined details of her subjects, Francine Van Hove is particularly noted for the transparent skin tones of her nudes, which she always works from life. The expression of beauty, sensuality, meditation and freedom is the philosophy behind this artist's work.
The remote world portrayed by Van Hove is peopled by nude young women. The lighting which exposes them is of a precise quality which makes their reality veer slightly, almost imperceptibly, away from everyday reality.
Her figures strike up very natural poses which make us feel the existence of a precarious yet exquisite dividing-line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Her figures (she paints from ''live" models) define certain canons of beauty. This aptitude is characteristic of an innate sense of stylisation which has always been felt as necessary by painters who tend to paint timeless subjects.
Van Hove's art possesses the essential quality of suggesting without proselytising. It abolishes the distance between emotions and their perception. The subtlest feelings, the most tenuous allusions she has set down come across to us in a startlingly precise fashion. And the vibration in that transmission is pure pleasure.
Van Hove's blog: www.francinevanhove.blogspot.com