Just finished Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which I guess is loosely based on an Australian artist’s collectives in the early twentieth century. The novel is narrated by a woman looking back on her time spent living at the collective as the friend of one of the daughters of the couple who own the property on which they all live. The name comes from the looseness of the parenting that the push to break paradigms and norms as an artist might drive people to.
- That last sentence might lend one to think that I read this novel as a condemnation of folks who intentionally try to rethink art and its place in and effect on our culture as parents. I don’t think the novel goes there necessarily, although their parenting skills are definitely not worthy of praise.
- The novel feels like more of a meditation on the costs of pushing any social envelope, and an examination of the consequences of artistic utopia (or its inevitable failing, perhaps)…
- And it is also absolutely feels like an extended meditation on motherhood…motherhood in many of its manifestations, and the difficulty of living up to social norms while also trying to create…
- First citation:
…I wonder why I am compelled to collect and to examine the often painful traces of the past, like a madman counting over and over the same dozen objects in a wooden box; objects others would have long discarded. (174)
I think I often do the opposite…but the image says alot about the narrator’s relationship with the world…
- Second citation:
I am angry with myself. I failed to speak from that compartment in myself, as that persona who represents motherhood, the one who knows my daughter will always in some way look down on me; will not know my dark places and my desires, my ambivalences, even toward her; will think herself wiser, braver, more modern, her inner life more intriguing, her challenges more compelling. I have cherished the self who knows this and accepts it. It is without vanity, able to resist the urge to be understood. (178)
This is one of the few places in the text where motherhood is directly spoken about by the narrator. She emphasizes the sort of foreknowledge and calm acceptance of the differences from her children that contribute to a self-idealization of being a mother that is nearly impossible to live up to.
- Third citation:
(as she recalls talking to Helena and Eva about writing a memoir, and they tell her how their life has already been chronicled) What Helena says is true, I think to myself. The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history. And yet those books are about Evan and Jerome…always, as in the monographs devoted to Evan’s life and work, the artist himself was at the center, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work. (204-5)
Another trope throughout this novel is the writing of art histories – I particularly find the idea that people in an artist’s life become events that help art historians better understand the artist’s work. Yuck.
- Fourth citation (after reading a note from Helena to Maria:
I remember that Helena longed for paradise, and was instead shut out.
In many ways the circle was Helena’s project, not Evan’s. Her utopian vision;
her attempt to make herself a family beyond the narrow lines of biology;her failure….she wanted to surround herself with people, to create a circle,
to be adored and needed and never disliked by anyone…Helena craved siblings rather than dependent offspring, people with whom she could approach the wordless understanding, the secret codes and violent closeness shared by sisters. (213)One reading of Helena’s ‘longing’ for sisters rather than children can simply be that Helena did not have the tools to process all of this. This is not our narrator’s take, I think…