Alison Lurie: Real People (1970)
Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.
‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’
That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:
At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.
But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:
… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.
Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.
This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).