Friday, April 20, 2007

Reading. Oneal.

I found In Summer Light at the bottom of a box of old books. It is one of those "young adult" books I vaguely remember reading when I was in high school, but it appears to have made little impression on me. I come back to it now and find myself haunted by what I find there. No, haunted is the wrong word. Perhaps I should say that it has struck a chord that I missed all those years ago, which surprises me a little.

Seventeen-year-old Kate, recovering from a bout of mononucleosis (we used to call it "the kissing disease" in sixth grade), is forced to spend the summer with her family, her younger sister, her former artist mother, and her famous painter father, Marcus. She has not gotten along with her father for many years, as people who are struggling in the shadow of a famous parent sometimes do. I have always thought it would be hard to be the child of someone famous, a genius, someone for whom everyone always makes allowances, like Prospero in The Tempest. In a way Kate sees her father as Prospero, someone who expects the world to revolve around him, and it does. He is quietly contemptuous of his own wife's efforts as a painter - which she gave up after marrying him - and even more so of his daughter, who stopped painting after she won an award at school, after he merely looked at her first-prize painting and says, "it's a nice little picture."

I feel now - perhaps I understood this then and can't remember - that when he saw that "nice little picture" Marcus had that feeling of mortality, of the possibility of his own limelight slipping away. Of growing older, nearing the end of his life, the end of his career, and seeing his fourteen-year-old daughter, with the promise of youth, and the possibility of eclipsing his own fame. He is not meaning to put down his daughter's talent, at least not consciously, but now she is no longer a small child messing about with paints on the floor of his studio but a young artist, and some part of him feels threatened.

As the summer continues, Kate begins to paint again, encouraged by her mother, and a graduate student, Ian, who has come to the island to catalogue her father's works. And suddenly she sees that her father has grown old, and like Prospero in The Tempest, old and tired and asking to be set free, she has to forgive him, and reclaim her art for herself and no one else. And then comes the part that will stay with me forever now, when a rude young painter comes to dinner and makes comments about movements in art, and being outside the mainstream. Painting, Kate tells him, has to do with knocking yourself out day after day trying to get what you want to down on the canvas. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't, but every day you try. That's what painting is.

I never painted - I was never any good at it - but it came to me rather suddenly that this is how I feel about writing, that it is something I have to knock myself out doing every day, trying to get something down, trying to express something I think or feel, about whatever matters to me. And sometimes it works and often it doesn't, but I have to try.

Oneal, Zibby. In Summer Light. Bantam Books, 1986. pp 24, 68, 146, 149.

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