The Novel My Wife Will Never Read
Eugene Mirabelli on the Loss of his Wife and Renato After Alba
My ninth novel will be published this coming November. That’s not a large number of books, considering that I published my first when I was 27, and I’m now 85. My previous book was Renato, the Painter, which at 308 pages is not a remarkably long novel, but still the longest I’ve written.
When it was completed I thought it would be the right time to take a vacation with my wife Margaret, maybe a trip to Europe. We knew we wanted to sell the house where we had raised three children who now had homes of their own, and perhaps we’d move to a town near one of them. And I wanted to write one more book later, a shorter novel, something to round off my work, a happy ending of some sort.
First we’d see to the publication of Renato, the Painter. We got in touch with the publisher, Bruce McPherson, and set up a date to meet. But before that happened Margaret was struck down by a bacterial infection and, after 20 hours of merciless agony, her heart stopped and so did my life.
I met the woman who became my wife at the same time a publisher was readying my first book for publication. Margaret and I had our first date one clear autumn morning in a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was the same morning I was to go to Houghton Mifflin Company to look at the book jacket for The Burning Air. Nothing in my life had ever been so wonderfully important as getting a book published, but as we sat in the coffee shop, conversation with this engaging and beautiful young woman was becoming more important than meeting with my editor.
So I telephoned Houghton Mifflin, and told them I would be late. I hadn’t told her I was going to see my publisher, that I had a book coming out. How could I say that to someone I had just met? Besides, our conversation was to good to interrupt.
That first date was Wednesday, October 29—I still have the leaf torn from the calendar. I was a graduate student at Harvard, she was an undergraduate; we married nine months later—she was twenty-one. Our first year of marriage was punctuated by a series of missteps, bad surprises, pratfalls, small but real wounds, false starts, blunders, insecurities, and stupidities. All those things mattered, but at the same time they didn’t matter so much as the craving we had for each other and each other’s company.
Writing a novel had looked easy to me, even though I’d tried it a couple of times without completing one. Around this time a popular French writer, Francoise Sagan, was having great success in the U.S. with Bonjour Tristesse. Her books were short, lucidly written sexual affairs and I thought, “If that’s all it takes, I can do that.” During the day I went to class or taught, and at night I wrote. I had a small desolate flat in a semi- slum; the sitting-room wall didn’t quite reach the ceiling, as you could see from the thin line of light that appeared up there when I turned off my lamp. The neighbors shouted and knocked each other around; I played Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik again and again, partly to get them out of my head and partly in hope that I’d absorb Mozart’s elements of form. Besides, Mozart’s musical wittiness delighted me, almost made me laugh.
The story I scribbled away at was about a young love affair that ends not in marriage but in parting. I learned how to write as I went along, so that when I completed the last page I had to go back and rewrite the first part to bring it up level with the rest of the book. I was lucky: the book was reviewed favorably in the New York Times and in the book review pages that used to be a part of most newspapers, as well as in literary review magazines that flourished back then. Granville Hicks, a well-known critic for the Saturday Review of Literature, said I was a young writer to watch. Sales were pleasing for a first novel; there was a British edition and paperback sales in both countries. But it was clear that nobody could live on the royalties that flowed from that book. Margaret was happy to have me go on writing novels, since that’s what I wanted to do, but I decided instead to write a dissertation, which turned out to be a good move, for by the time my third novel was published Margaret gave birth to our third child and my royalties were still middling midlist.
At that point, the tightness, balance and precision in my first novel looked starved and stingy to me. I was beginning to appreciate the depth of the American vocabulary and the athleticism of its syntax. The buttoned-up 1950s were long gone. I was listening to the Beatles, getting my own sense of variety. I aimed to write books that could contain any word at all, sentences that could say anything, stories where people not only had transient thoughts and primary emotions, but also had ideas about life, had contradictory feelings and also tooth aches, caught colds or feared surgery, a world in which a baby might be born and somebody, anybody, might die—even if he were well liked and important to the plot. I was getting to like asymmetry. And, by the way, simple realism had lost its charm.
Now, about that eighth novel, Renato, the Painter: it’s a book I had in mind for some years before I got around to writing it. If I had any talent as a kid, it was in drawing and painting. But art classes in grammar schools of the 1930s consisted of tracing tree leaves in October and coloring them red, or making snow scenes in December by using white chalk on gray paper, and even those classes stopped after fourth grade. My senior year in high school I did well in math and physics and was editor of the school paper. I attended MIT for two years, quit with the intention of enrolling in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but ended up at Harvard. I became a writer, but my interest in painting never disappeared, and more of my friends were painters than writers. So eventually I wrote about Renato, who did go to the Museum School and did become a painter.
It’s always been difficult for me to compress a book I’ve written into three or four sentences, so instead I’ll quote from the book’s flyleaf, which I didn’t write. “Renato Stillamare may be the best painter of his generation—at least, he doesn’t know anyone better—but his canvasses aren’t in demand, and haven’t been since his last show at a Newbury Street gallery 25 years ago. Now 70 and retired from teaching at Copley College of Art, Renato’s retreated to his Boston studio where he is defiantly painting, painting, painting, determined to be rediscovered. Renato is a lusty, large-hearted, smart, opinionated, and occasionally intemperate man whose children (including the daughter by his accidental mistress) are all grown up and dispersed, whose best friend (whom he misses more than anyone) died years before, and whose maddening wife (the love of his life) lives in a condo on the opposite bank of the Charles. But his life is about to become much more complicated when the goth-bedecked daughter of a former student shows up at his studio with her little boy in tow.”
Margaret was especially happy that one of the arterial lines of the story was the artist’s actual work—everything from Renato’s priming his canvases to his dealing with gallery owners and patrons at the opening reception, plus all the other things he does in his desperate attempt to revivify his career. Though Renato’s plans sometimes collapse spectacularly, the book celebrates creation and life. At our Sunday brunches, Margaret always brought more food to the table than our guests could eat; she used to say she wanted life to have a certain abundance.
After her death, my children and friends helped me to keep going. I don’t know how my oldest daughter did it; she stayed at the house for the first month when I was more dead than alive. I threw the Renato book and everything connected with it into the garage, dumping it in with the busted furniture, disused sports equipment, and other junk. I couldn’t write and had no desire to. In fact, the thought of writing made me want to throw up.
After a year had gone by, I contacted McPherson & Co. again, and we had our first conversation about publishing Renato, the Painter. I remember thinking I was doing quite well, being marvelously sane while still crazy.
As anyone who has gone through it can tell you, the second year is no better than the first, just different. I can’t recall exactly when I began to write again. Renato, the Painter came out two or maybe three years after Margaret died, and I do know that some point after that I began to miss having a novel to work on. Or, to be precise, I began to miss having the feeling that I used to have when I had a novel to work on. Now, whenever I did think of actually writing another book, my mind filled with death.
But going over the galleys of Renato, the Painter, and reading the publisher’s material about him, reawakened my interest in Renato, his appetites, his women, his children and friends. One day I thought about visiting him ten years after the happy catch-all picnic at the close of that novel. By then he would be eighty and, yes, his wife would have died and his life would be in pieces. Renato had narrated the last book, he could narrate this one.
Unlike my previous novels, I began this one with no idea of what the story line would be. I just wrote. And I could write because Renato was the teller of his own tale and every horrific thing was going to happen to him, and not to me all over again. Renato had a well defined biography and personality that was different from mine, and though we shared many likes and dislikes, there were profound differences between us in the way we had lived.
Having his world in front of me and not my own gave me just enough distance from the subject to be able to write. At the same time, his life was roomy enough to allow me to bring into the book the personal things other widowers and widows had told me about their lives—the tidal emotions, the bizarre thoughts—and how they got through the first couple of years. That was important to me because the day after Margaret was torn out of my life I realized that the same thing was happening to other men and women all over the globe. My grief wasn’t unique, only the details were.
The novel itself is fragmentary; there aren’t numbered chapters, only passages of uneven lengths that are arranged in a chronological fashion to reflect the progress of Renato’s life. As the book begins, Renato’s world is literally colorless, odorless, and lacking sensations of taste. Fortunately, the monochromatic passages are alleviated by scenes from the past, scenes rich with the textures, colors and flavors that feed our sense of life. I relished those passages, and as I wrote, I found I was reducing the bleak passages and increasing those with a sense of life. Furthermore, though grief lasts far longer than the inexperienced can know, it does attenuate. Renato sees his friends more frequently and makes new acquaintances who begin to assuage his loneliness, though ever so slightly. He begins to taste what he’s eating, begins to notice the tempting color of ripe tomatoes, summer squash or bell peppers, and such colors lead him to his oils, acrylics and canvases.
As I went along I discovered that I wanted to bring in a number of views and philosophies, including those of Saint Augustine, Albert Camus, Lucretius, and physicists such as Erwin Schrodinger and Richard Feynman. I wasn’t interested in disembodied ideas, but in characters who held different views and who argued about life—what its purpose was or whether it had any purpose at all and whether there was anything beyond this sensuous material world and our material selves. Another thing that entered the novel as it matured was a sense of continuity and endurance and—hard to believe—the comic. That happens after the arrival of Leo Conti, the gallery owner who began showing Renato’s work in the earlier novel. Renato says that Conti is so crooked they’ll need a giant corkscrew to dig his grave. But he isn’t crooked, merely a little devious because, as he might tell you, he’s so passionate about selling paintings by painters he likes while never going broke.
While I was writing my way into Renato After Alba—untitled as I worked on it—the trajectory of the story became clear to me. It would do no one any good to write a depressing novel. At the same time, it would do no good whatsoever to write a book about Renato after the death of his Alba and not be true to the nature of such grief. The impulse for this and every other book has been to tell the truth. The truth is that love ends in loss. In a book about grief, the tragedy happens on page one, so we can forget about happy endings. But if we’re fortunate as readers and as writers, maybe a book can give us solace for being human.
Albany and Delmar, NY, respectively, have officially declared today, November 4, as Eugene Mirabelli Day.