Saturday, October 11, 2014

The figures of Beauty - Tour with David Macfarlane in Cararra's Marble Quarries While Exploring Love and Happenstance... Excellent Drama!

I must admit for me the latest book by David Macfarlane was more educational than literary fiction. He introduces readers into a totally new world for many who have no knowledge of one of the most beautiful natural stones in the world. For the average person in the U.S., we may not even see marble... My one and only experience was, surprisingly for me at the time, to see it in a bathroom stall on a university campus... I remember I used to touch it, marveling that something, probably so expensive, would be used in bathrooms! LOL  Of course as I thought about it, it was in a building that housed the mineral industries program so it did make sense. But I still remember that every time I was in the room, I would touch it and love the feel of the smooth wonder of stone and the markings that made it that much more attractive to me. So, of course, having read the book, I had to see and know more about the town of Cararra where much of the story is set...

The book has historical information about how the marble was originally formed and provides much information about the use and the business of the quarries there in the town--a town that probably wouldn't have existed if not for the marble quarry. It was the only company that provided jobs for the town people, but we quickly learn that the people of the town are not rich, nor are they involved in a safe or satisfying environment in which to work... It is dangerous; the loss of life almost routine... And the owner might not even be told about an accident until a day or two later, when the supervisor meets for this routine session. There is almost a separation--those who work the quarries--and those who are the artists and artisans who touch and chip and mold the marble into "figures of beauty" that will outlast the lives of those who created them... This is a story about those people there in Cararra or those who visited and never lost the memories of that time...

The Figures of Beauty
By David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane indicated in an interview that he had once visited near the Cararra Quarries and decided to stay...and fell in love... It was the basis for his latest book, but I had to wonder what happened to his real love affair...LOL... which, of course, has no bearing on the book, right?

This certainly is not a happy-ending love story, yet readers will find that we still are drawn in hearing about a young couple who fell in love one summer. The intrigue really begins however when a daughter of that young man decides she wants to meet the father who never knew she existed... And she tracks him down in Canada and discovers that there is a real connection which he keeps up through writing letters. But, even then, that also does not end happily...

Macfarlane includes a number of other scenarios of relationships that developed in Cararra. One other caught my attention, almost as much as the lovers. It was a young boy who worked in the quarry, not yet old enough to be more than a gofer-type for the men, but they enjoyed having him around... until he watched as a block of marble landed on a picnic table where his three family members, and others, were instantly killed... Death was taken for granted so that the young boy immediately realized that he now would be the oldest and must become head of the family... For, him, alone, his story is somewhat better...but at the end of his hard life, working with marble...readers must question whether it was worth it... This is Macfarlane's demand--that we look inside, question, and, hopefully, make some right decisions... regarding love, family responsibility, and to...ourselves...

Anna was her name. She was a sculpture, but, more, a free spirit. When her lover left her that summer, she may or may not have already known she would soon have a child... It is her daughter, though, that tells the readers about their life:

My mother had many lovers over the years but she never
married. She plans on dying, she said, covered in marble
dust with a mallet and a chisel in her hand.
"Such beauty," she exclaimed at one point. And then, as if
she were more irritated than pleased with her own intensity
of feeling, she whisked the scene away and continued walking.
"It can be too much sometimes."

At the edge of the field that surrounds her house,
at a place in the corner of the property, just beyond
the overgrown hedge that protects my mother's 
near-total privacy from the occasional wandering dog and even more occasional passing tractor, there is a marble statue. Nobody knows who carved it. Nobody knows how old it it. By the time you get back to the early twentieth century its provenance already begins to get murky. It had been left to my mother by my father when he died. That wasn't exactly the plan. But that's what happened.
Intermittently, the marble figure is a fountain, but that seems to depend on the mysteries of the water table and the runoff from the hills. Sometimes the low, faraway gurgle of approaching water can be heard from the depths of old tile pipes long before any water actually reaches the poised, waiting figure. It is a three-quarter life-size, partially clad woman bending forward to pour water from the jug she is carrying.
My mother stopped, stared at it intently, and then walked toward it. It was about twenty metres off the path that led directly to her house. This was a detour she often made. She would have been no more attentive had she just encountered the piece in the Bargello.
"There," she said to me, "Look."
The figure's upper body is naked. My mother pointed to the crook of elbow and forearm, and then, with a sweep of her hand, she showed he how the folds of the long skirt echoed the same angle, and how this resonance draws the viewer's eye into the mass of the piece as a whole...
"She is beautiful," my mother continued, "because her beauty does not only echo with what was. The carving rhymes with the space around it. Now. Do you see?"
..."It doesn't matter what really happened," she said to me that day. "Tell the stories anyway. That's all we ever do."

Readers will no doubt capture that, given the time, and the surroundings, most of what occurred outside of working hours was to share stories... Even Charles Dickens wrote of Cararra...Over and over throughout the book we hear of Michelangelo's presence in the town and love of their marble. David, of course, being the most well-known... He was known to come and actually go to the quarries to select the marble he would use. On of the intriguing stories told was that he had planned to carve one mountain that would remain there.
That location, unfortunately, has now yielded way for other types of products...

To make the story even more complex in enveloping the area at the time, readers also find themselves learning what was happening with the war efforts, especially with the Germans in 1944 and on into Paris in 1948. Of course, this is where we meet Oliver Hughson, who has received a small scholarship for touring Europe,  but was not able to get his money before he happened to get involved in seeing a murder! Fortunately, the police investigator believed him but told him to leave Paris immediately or he could be sucked into something that could not be controlled. So did that make it the fateful event that brought him into the vicinity of Anna?

It was not until 2009, however, that a young woman traveled to Cathcart Ontario, to meet Oliver... He had left Teresa's mother Anna when there had been illness in the family. He had moved back home with his parents and stayed, never to marry. When Teresa found him, ironically, he was sitting by the pool... When she saw it, she realized that the pool and the entire area around it, was exactly like one found on the "terraced grounds of a villa in the northwest corner of Tuscany... And that was the lead-in for another venue to be added to the book but I'm not going to get into that particular story, except to mention that the young boy who had seen his family members killed wound up there!

As usual I am attracted to the personalities of the characters. Anna will be "discovered" during her time with Oliver and when Teresa is older and, somewhat forcefully, seeking information about her father. To Oliver, she was a total and, ultimately, very welcomed addition to his life...

There was something about the militant swing of the young woman's arms that led Oliver Hughson to believe she had been hurrying in his direction well before she came into view. She was wearing a print dress. She was striding fiercely up through the garden. Her quick steps seemed as if they were the last of a determined journey. He had no idea who she was.
It was a hot day. He ware barefoot, vacuuming the pool. It was well into the afternoon. Oliver was wearing the kind of loosely fitting, muddy-brown madras swim-trunks that men in their sixties tend, for some reason, to wear. He had already replenished his drink.
Her hair had a halo in sunshine. It was the henna she used. It wasn't orange, exactly, but the name of no other colour that Oliver could think of came closer to describing it.
She marched resolutely toward the pool. She strode up the stone steps from the garden without hesitation. He guessed her age to be thirty==an underestimation, he would later learn, of exactly ten years...
The pool was a surprise. The pool was a surprise for everyone, the first time they saw it.
But she was not going to be distracted... Because that wasn't why she was here. Because now she was walking toward him.
Had Oliver been given time to make several dozen guesses, and had he been given a lot of hints, he might eventually have been able to figure out who she was. Her eyes were very much her mother's. So was her penchant for drama. She could have warned him.
"I believe I am your daughter," she said.
He was looking into the pretty face of a woman he'd never seen in his life. He'd never considered the possibility of her existence.
"My name is Teresa."
"My daughter?" Oliver's voice rose precipitously...

Teresa was so anxious to learn about his time and feelings for Anna and his thoughts about Italy and why he left and never came back. In fact, Oliver had learned very little about any of Europe during that "traveling tour"... Forced to leave Paris, he made him way into Anna's life and never left there until he returned home. Nevertheless Teresa was relentless in learning about him and when she finally had to return home, demanded he write to her. He wrote such wonderful letters to her, readers will discover...

"There are idiots who define my work as
abstract," the handsome, grey-bearded Romanian
once said. Brancusi spoke with characteristic
disinterest in diplomacy. In pronouncement, as
in sculpture, him imagination was free of any
obligation to the unnecessary. This was a quality
my mother adored.
And then there is Anna...she is so passionate about so much, but I couldn't quite get a feel for her work. It was her own comparison of herself to who she considered to be gods in the arts that left her still humble, but she seemed to compare herself more to Brancusi but checking out his work was not totally helpful... These were
perhaps somewhat like Anna might have done... Myself, I'm not totally into abstract and then when I found these two which I found beautifully realistic--

Brusco's Version of Rodin's The Kiss...

So I wound up still being confused about what her art might have been like...But then, again, while Anna knew much about the world of art, she really didn't know much about her lover, Oliver, often calling him stupido... Not a way to "Play nice" but she seemed to not consider that their breakup was due to anyone but Oliver... I felt sorry for Anna never really looking closely at more than her own artistic endeavors...

As you can see, there is no way readers will not have a learning experience with this book. The Figures of Beauty is not only sharing about these figures literally, but perhaps also metaphorically as we follow the paths of individuals who meet and share some part of another's life, then moves on, only to discover what beauty in their own lives may have been lost. I have no way to know whether my thoughts have any validity in what I saw in this book. But I do know that the romantic and familial drama is well worth recommending even if my absorption of the use of marble to create such figures is purely my own response...

Highly recommended to those interested in literary family and romantic drama...


David Macfarlane's memoir, The Danger Tree, was originally published in the United States under the title Come from Away. Christopher Hitchens described it as "intense and beautiful." Simon Winchester called it "a true masterpiece." His novel Summer Gone was a finalist for Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize. The Figures of Beauty is his third book. He lives in Toronto.

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