By Hannah Calder
New Star Books
“Let me invite you up to see my etchings,” was, in earlier decades, a euphemism used in jokes and oblique references to seduction, often involving a collection of erotic images from Europe and an aging rake in a shabby ascot and smoking jacket or a pathetic Playboy wannabe.
Vernon novelist Hannah Calder deploys many of the elements from that sordid 20th-century trope in her new book Piranesi’s Figures, but to far different effect. Her text, which certainly involves etchings and the erotic, is a compelling and dreamlike tone poem of a book, illuminated by lyricism and deep human wisdom. The fact that she weaves this sumptuous dream garment out of the materials of dirty jokes and widely variegated scraps of cultural reference makes her achievement all the more impressive.
Piranesi’s Figures announces itself and some of the author’s robust ambition with its opening lines. “It was the kind of dream that could fill a book… The dream does its job. Then it leaves in its place a hole where a story can burrow in and root itself.” The dream invoked in this prologue involves Nineveh, Jonah, a whale split open, a story begun. The text that follows more than lives up to these unsettling, chthonic images, ranging widely from 18th century and modern day Rome to Heidelberg, London, and twentieth century Margate, juxtaposing Roman ruins with council house squalor, urgent and hopeless adultery to cross generational tenderness, profound depression with frightening mania. Canada, where the widely traveled author currently teaches English at Okanagan College, is invoked occasionally too in this layered and subtle narrative.
Like many classics in the canon of great novels, including Madame Bovary, a work often invoked in Calder’s book, Piranesi’s Figures is about marriage and its discontents, adultery and its consequences. Several couples move languidly through the story, anticipating, remembering or enjoying illicit sex or ruminating on the residuum of guilt and resentment left behind when the moist heat has faded from the room. But this is not Updike lite; Calder is as interested in formal narrative experimentation as she is in the simple biomechanics and political economy of desire. Her characters are often self-conscious about being trapped inside a book, and fuss with each other and the author about the proper staging of scenes or the introduction of new characters. And interwoven with the stories of Hilda and Florence, Mia and Bill, Jorgen and Violet and Stephen, all variously caught up in the game of erotic musical chairs that informs the plot are other images and implied narratives.
The 18th-century Roman artist Piranesi appears as a character in this book, as do a scruffy mob of the Roman beggars and street people who are featured in the foreground of his justly famous etchings of Rome’s ruins and monuments. Another crowd of dream-like figures that inhabit the book are group of mental patients whose art works were collected by a German physician who appears in Calder’s book as Dr. Grebing.
Calder told the Vernon Morning Star in a June interview that the fictional Dr. Grebing is based upon a real figure from the early 20th century, Hans Prinzhorn, whose collection of art works by institutionalized patients fascinated her as she worked on her novel, a work, true to its roots in dreams, that led to surprising metamorphoses as it developed. While she says in that interview that some of the plot elements in Piranesi’s Figures are based on her family history, and refers to the presence of the “character” Hannah Calder within the book as “tongue in cheek,” her account of her own experience in writing this book is one of ongoing surprise and discovery.
“What plans I had when I began were mostly all thwarted by the end,” Calder told her Vernon interviewer. “Reading the book was an experience of discovery for me and I found myself interpreting the book as if it had been written by somebody else.”
The book provides an experience of discovery for the reader as well. While some will find Calder’s experiments in narration a challenge, this is a book that rewards slow, careful examination. The author has bravely incorporated elements of her own autobiography with the broad sweep of western culture and presented the product of those juxtapositions in daringly innovative story telling. This is a book that is governed by the logic of dreams and the chaotic, fractal order of postmodern reality, but it is saved from incoherence and simply fashionable experimentation by the author’s disciplined prose and feel for the truly dramatic. This is a book that demands its reader think and feel strenuously; if you give it the energy it deserves, it will deliver a complex and satisfying reading experience. Not, in short, a paper back for the beach or the airport, but a work of serious literary ambition and substantial achievement. Highly recommended for when you return from the cabin and take up adult pursuits again.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes feedback and suggestions at [email protected].