Recently, turning the pages of a newly released book, I’ve been reminded of the simple truth that different ways of reading can provide different kinds of pleasure.
Most of the time, whether it’s a newspaper article that we’re reading, or a poem, a novel or whatever else – we focus intently on what the language in front of us is directly presenting. We keep within a framework provided by the author because we want to follow closely the line of argument, or the plot, or the revelation of character, or the patterns of figurative meaning. The words on the page encircle ideas and images within which our attention is held. We try not to miss anything relevant, and so we stay within that circle, avoiding stray associations that might distract us.
But there is another, less disciplined kind of reading, which can yield another kind of pleasure. This happens when we move beyond the circle that the text itself has drawn around its subject matter, and let our thoughts wander off digressively.
This is what I call “reading at a tangent.” Being easily distractible, I often do it: I find myself thinking not so much about what’s within the text as about something that’s absent from it. It may be quite legitimately absent as far as the author’s apparent intention is concerned because it’s extraneous to the topic, off to the side at an odd angle. But to me, as a digressive reader, irrelevant associations can become absorbing.
I’ve enjoyed the experience of tangential reading while looking through Amanda Curtin’s just-published book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, a study of the life and work of a notable painter who (like me) was born in New Zealand and eventually found a home in Western Australia, but (unlike me) spent most of her life as an expatriate in France.
There’s much to admire in Amanda’s meticulously researched, imaginatively written and handsomely produced book, but I’m not offering a review of it here. Instead I’m just recording a few musings that it has brought to my mind – musings about possible questions and imaginary connections that lurk silently outside the circumference of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. In several passages Amanda indicates that she herself is aware of such possibilities but chooses not to pursue them, apart from a few speculative asides, because they are beyond the book’s scope. Fair enough. I’m not suggesting that she should have treated these things differently, just confessing to my own pleasurably undisciplined habits as a reader.
In this case what sets my reading off at a tangent is the fact that so many aspects of Kathleen O’Connor’s life remain obscure despite patient research. This is especially true of most of her personal relationships. Time and again Amanda scrutinises the available evidence in an effort to discover why Kathleen’s friend X seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour, or what may perhaps have been behind Kate’s coolness towards Y, or whether Z was really more than a casual acquaintance. Often the answers cannot be found. Kate was discreet, even secretive, and covered her tracks carefully.
This can lead a distractible reader (moi) to drift into a reverie about things that almost certainly didn’t happen to Kate but could conceivably have done so.
For instance, what if she had met Katherine Mansfield (who was also Kathleen until she adopted a pen-name)? Both spent childhood years in New Zealand, including Wellington, where they lived in the same street and went to the same school. Though KO’C was twelve years older, and left New Zealand when KM was only three, their paths might have crossed briefly in that little colonial outpost… Or later, as expatriates in London or Paris? Both women spent time to-ing and fro-ing between both those cities in the years 1906 to 1908, and again in 1914-16. Both, by then, were strictly dedicated to the vocation of an artist, though they differed not only in their choice of medium – the written word for KM, paint for KO’C – but also in their tastes. They were unlike each other, too, in temperament, and in their attitudes to men. KM was wildly promiscuous during those years; KO’C seems to have had a tendency towards ascetic habits.
But just suppose they had met, perhaps introduced by one of the many other antipodean-born writers and artists working in London or Paris: what would these two have thought of each other? Both tended to be severe in judging people, and my guess is that they would have irritated one other. If they had met after April 1917, they would have had one painful thing in common: each, by then, had suffered the loss of a brother on the western front. But they reacted differently to this trauma: KO’C wrote an embarrassingly sentimental verse tribute to Australian soldiers in general (which reveals not only a tin ear but also, as Amanda comments, an “emotional lack”), while KM’s response was to inscribe particular memories of her beloved brother into that great portrait of family and place, the story “Prelude.”
Still reading at a tangent, I begin to imagine other possible meetings of expatriate artists and writers in Paris and London during the time when KO’C was there. The New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins certainly did know KO’C, who was for a while one of her pupils and friends; but there is no record of FH ever meeting KM – though one of FH’s pupils while she was in Wellington was Edith Bendell, with whom KM had an erotic affair a couple of years later. So if FH and KM did happen to meet, and get talking about people they both knew, there might well have been some delicate nuances in their conversation.
Regarding the O’Connor/Hodgkins friendship, Amanda allows herself a passing conjecture about its sudden severance. “If there had been a romantic relationship between them, might that have contributed to the irrevocable nature of the estrangement? But I have seen no supporting evidence in Kate’s archives.”
What if those three – FH, KO’C and KM had at some stage shared a table in a Montparnasse café, reminiscing about Wellington days? And if that had happened in, let’s say, 1922, the little gathering of female expatriate artists could also have included Australian writer and painter Stella Bowen (five years younger than KM), who had moved to Paris from London that year with her novelist/critic husband Ford Madox Ford, and also the American painter Anne Estelle Rice (one year younger than KO’C), who previously lived in Paris before the war, then moved to England, painting a famous portrait of her friend KM there in 1918, but often visited Paris during the 1920s.
As far as I know, KO’C never mentions Rice, though they both exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in the same years, 1911-13. Nor does she make any reference to Stella Bowen, though it’s hard to believe she hadn’t at least heard of her. But then SB’s talents were considerably more versatile than KO’C’s; they extended beyond painting to writing, and her memoir Drawn From Life (1941, often reprinted) shows that she belonged to a much more prominent community of artists than KO’C ever did. KO’C, probably knowing this, might well have felt resentful. (I haven’t read Drawn From Life, but I’ve seen extracts from it in an absorbing chapter of Rosemary Lancaster’s book Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945.)
If those five had met together in 1922, surely sparks would have been flying. I’ve mentioned the tensions between FH and KO’C, and my surmise is that KM wouldn’t have found either of them congenial. As for SB, her literary circles were markedly different from KM’s. The previous year, KM’s husband John Middleton Murry had reviewed dismissively the latest novel by SB’s husband Ford, and the two men were intensely rivalrous editors of notable magazines. It’s likely that Rice, being close to KM and Middleton Murry, would not have been comfortable in SB’s company either.
Not a relaxed social occasion, I imagine. But all the more fascinating for that. It’s the sort of thing that can take shape when one reads at a tangent.