“The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman”
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
Publisher: William Morrow
Price: $26.99 (Cloth)
Naslund’s new novel, “The Fountain of St. James Court,” is unabashed, take-no-prisoners literary fiction, no apologies offered. At 448 pages, this novel is for readers who appreciate serious writing. “Fountain” is thoughtful, elegant, textured, wise and finally rewarding.
In “Abundance,” her last book but one, Naslund wrote of Marie Antoinette, the much maligned and misunderstood French queen. Elizabeth LeBrun, a minor character in that novel, is the brilliantly talented young portrait painter for whom Marie and other aristocrats pose.
Naslund became fascinated with that young woman. What was her fate? Did she marry, have children? Was she caught up in the revolution?
Did she live and work into a ripe old age?
Naslund determined to write the story of Elizabeth and she has, but with a twist.
Naslund, nearly 70 during the writing of the novel, has told here in her ninth work of fiction the story of Kathryn Callahan, a 69-year-old novelist, originally from Alabama but now living in Louisville, who in October of 2012 has just finished her tenth work of fiction, a novel entitled “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman,” based on the life of Elizabeth LeBrun.
Naslund is neither a truly autobiographical novelist in the manner of Jack Kerouac or Thomas Wolfe, nor a writer of metafiction, that is, fiction that is self-consciously about fiction, but here she comes pretty close. This is not the playful cleverness of a John Barth or a Borges, but rather the work of a writer steeped in the novelistic tradition.
The reference to Joyce’s famous novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” is a kind of riposte, a tweak.
Why should there not be a novel about an artist, not a man and not young?
More important than the respectful poke at Joyce is the homage to Virginia Woolf.
Kathryn finishes her novel at about midnight and takes a copy across St. James Court to the door of her old friend Leslie, who will read it in the morning. As the next 24 hours pass, we will be reminded of the time by church bells and clocks and realize that Kathryn Callahan is a twenty-first-century version of Mrs. Dalloway, moving thoughtfully through her day.
In alternating chapters we follow Kathryn and then Elizabeth, her fictional creation. We are with Kathryn through a literal day and Elizabeth through her whole life as an artistic child prodigy, portrait painter to the aristocracy, wife, mother, escapee from the Terror and finally an old and revered artist in her garden.
Kathryn’s life comes to us through her thoughts, the stream of her consciousness, as she contemplates her writing career, her love for her son, her three marriages and divorces—after three strikes, are you “out”?—and generally, like Elizabeth, muses on what she has learned and how to move ahead, ”fully alive,” in contented “singleness.”
Both women had failed marriages and wonder why this was so: are men incapable of fidelity, steadfastness? Are husbands inevitably jealous of famous and successful wives?
In general, why are we humans so cruel to one another? Elizabeth, who just barely escaped the guillotine, has first-hand knowledge of this. And Kathryn knows “the capacity for cruelty, one human to another, existed just as much now as it had during the time of the French Revolution.”
And how shall we put the difficulties and failures of the past behind us while at the same time remembering to savor and celebrate our moments of success, even triumph, not letting them just fly past? Especially the artist should celebrate, for she has made “something for those for whom language and literature enhanced life.”
And always there is the question of beauty and truth.
The statue in St. James Fountain is Venus, goddess of love and beauty, and the fountain itself is “light, dressed in water.” Kathryn loves literature but also painting and music, especially Bach. Kathryn the novelist also knows: “No need to worship the Bible, when literature also had its truths. Its essential truths.”
Elizabeth in 1841, more than forty years after the terror, is living in Louveciennes. We see her in her garden in spring where she is almost too sensitive to the beauty of nature: “no painting can really capture the joy of nature I see about me in this green-blue moment.” “God’s love is present in the awakening of the earth.”
Both women refuse to be discouraged. As true artists, they soak in the world around them and look forward. There are 10, maybe 15, good years ahead.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”