More than a decade has passed since the events I’m about to recount took place. It’s important to state this at the outset because the early 2000s seem like a different world. It was possible then not to know things. It was conceivable that a writer could ‘borrow’—ideas, even characters—without committing a theft, and without stepping uninvited into another person’s life. The world has changed.
We often hear that a bit of distance from one’s work is necessary for any writer. Some reflection or rethinking of what a story was meant to do—all that tends to be beneficial. Perhaps I’m doing it here. On the other hand, I’m still convinced that my intention was to write fiction. No amount of self-questioning would change that, and after all this time, and a whole lot of distance, I am both without guilt and satisfied with the story I told.
When I cribbed Henry Webster from Jason, a fiction writer and my ex-partner, Henry had only a fragmentary existence in a green leather-bound notebook. Jason wasn’t aware of my occasional forays into his notes, although I doubt he’d have minded then. He wasn’t vain. Some artists are careful to let others see only their finished work. Not Jason. He simply thought the notes wouldn’t be of interest to anyone. He wrote them out by hand, and kept them on top of his writing table as if he had nothing to hide. They were, in his words, “just bits and pieces, scattered thoughts on characters and plot lines.” They helped him get started. Or else he’d work out problems, hurdles that would be there during a period of incubation. Sometimes a solution to a problem would just present itself, seemingly out of nowhere, but more often he’d have to word hard, searching for it along diverse lines of story and character development.
Henry Webster, when I first encountered him, was just an idea. Jason would return to him sporadically. There would be notes on other things Jason was working on, and then Henry would appear. Details were added each time. He was a composer, living in New York. He was married to a younger woman. His wife, a beauty, was involved with another man.
Henry Webster was slowly being coaxed out of nothingness, drawn into life with copious notes on his and his wife’s apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, on the new work he had been commissioned to compose in celebration of a prestigious music hall’s centenary, and on the reasons for his wife’s unfaithfulness. I read these sketches, at first mainly because Jason and I were heading for a breakup. I was curious to see whether Jason was projecting what he surmised about my feelings onto Henry’s wife. But there was nothing like that, I soon realized. Beautiful Liudmilla, a red-head born in St. Petersburg, Russia, wasn’t at all like me. She had immigrated to America as a 10-year-old in the 80s. Her parents, both engineers, found work quickly, and since she was an only child, they indulged and encouraged her. She studied piano, took dance and singing lessons.
By the time Liudmilla turned twenty-eight, she was a jazz singer à la Diana Krall, with a career about to take off. Jason described her as being involved with an unnamed writer. They had met at an airport in Los Angeles. She had been on her way to an audition, and he had just finished a book promotion tour.
The Websters’ situation was altogether different from ours. After five years of living together, Jason and I were winding down without drama or resentment. We had always been good friends. At some point we simply conceded that there would never be more to our relationship. Jason had been passionate towards me at the start. He would rev me up, he promised, and I agreed to move in with him. He tried. But finally, it was as if he himself had caught my sangfroid, my inability to unwind and focus on the personal instead of everything else.
We had known all along that it might not work. Jason grasped that I wasn’t drawn to him physically. I acceded to his request to live together because I cared for him—not romantically so much, but in other ways I believed mattered. Most importantly, there was his writing, his remarkable inventiveness, and while I feared that I myself wasn’t capable of such work, his achievements never failed to make me proud—of him, and of us. This is what it means to be a couple, I told myself. We share the pain and the glory.
Jason was good natured, considerate, always tactful and soft spoken. The old-fashioned word, gentleman, was a fitting description of him, I thought. Being with a successful writer had other perks. It guaranteed a certain amount of excitement in my otherwise uneventful life. I sensed in him a creative urgency that stimulated and cheered me. I also savoured the company of his literary friends, the joyful, snappy banter of our get-togethers. There were soirées with novelists and poets, visual artists, musicians, intellectuals of all stripes. We talked, drank great wine, martinis, and liqueurs, ate copious amounts of hors d’oeuvres. Afterwards, Jason and I made the kind of love we should have been making whenever we made love. Such nights, and the quiet, softly lit ones, when Jason read drafts of his work to me, were the highlights of our life together.
I was an editor, mostly of biographies and memoirs. I had never attempted to write fiction. At the time I was working on my own manuscript, a biography of Michel Arpant, the illegitimate son of Auguste Rodin. His story should be vaguely familiar to most people. It isn’t hard to summarize. Although the famous French sculptor would visit Michel and his mother throughout his childhood and youth, Michel never suspected Rodin was his father. His mother was from a sprawling, well-to-do merchant family. There were many cousins and Michel saw them often. He had thought of Auguste as a distant, kindly relative. He learned the truth just before he turned forty.
Michel’s mother had been suffering from a devastating illness. She wished to unburden her conscience before dying. She wrote him a long letter, explaining that her parents had known from the start, but agreed to not tell anyone, including Michel, out of reluctance to cause harm to Auguste’s reputation. Auguste, in turn, accepted his obligations towards his son and his former mistress, Michel’s mother, without any lack of enthusiasm. He loved the boy, but could do nothing else in the way of public acknowledgement. Auguste had a terribly jealous companion, Rose Beuret, and there were other relationship problems with another woman, the artist Camille Claudel.
Camille Claudel had been institutionalized in an asylum. She had met Rodin in her late adolescence in the studio of Alfred Boucher. She became Rodin’s student and model, and then his mistress. Camille learned a great deal from Rodin. An artistic Eve, she siphoned off some of his creative élan, and used it to turn herself into a sculptress in her own right. It goes without saying that she didn’t get the attention she deserved as an artist during her lifetime, but the tragedy of her life went deeper than that. She never managed to separate herself emotionally from Rodin. They were involved for nearly twenty years, but Rodin wouldn’t leave Rose to marry her, and Camille, neglected and brokenhearted, fell ill. Her brother and mother committed her to a psychiatric hospital. She remained in an asylum for 30 years. It’s unclear that her condition justified her being institutionalized in the first place.
Michel’s story is a happier one. By the time he discovered his real connection to Rodin, he was already a well-respected surgeon. He was known in the medical community for his excellent hands and sharp eyes. He had drawn well in his youth, but was encouraged by his mother, her kind but stern father, and by Auguste himself, to study medicine. When the truth was finally spoken, and after his mother died, Michel stopped practicing medicine and began to sculpt. Auguste was furious until he realized that like him, his son had extraordinary talent. Even though he had started too late to make a reputation for himself, Rodin was satisfied that it wasn’t a waste of time, and that in any event, his son’s creativity couldn’t be suppressed. He was even flattered by a certain imitative streak in Michel’s work.
There was nothing shabby about either Auguste or Michel. Why, then, was I drawn so irresistibly to Henry? I still ask myself this question because for a long time Henry was insubstantial—a mere idea. He was an outline I decided had to be filled in.
As Jason described him, Henry was fifteen years Liudmilla’s senior. He was serious, dedicated to his work. He was also self-centred, with a limited interest in other people. He loved his wife, but his work and his routine were important to him. The composition of music, particularly in the competitive world of New York’s music industry, required focus, stamina, and above all, lots of quiet time for experimentation — for trying, scrapping, then trying again.
Liudmilla had been in awe of Henry when she met him at 23 years of age. At 28, she was growing frustrated with Henry’s reluctance to go out or entertain friends. Now that Liudmilla had the chance, she wanted to see Manhattan’s nightlife from the glamorous vantage points of the music business. She wanted to experience what others like her, her immigrant girlfriends for one, could only dream of, or glimpse on Start TV, or Entertainment Tonight. This was the real beginning of her life she thought, and Henry, she realized with growing disappointment, wasn’t going to be there with her — or never willingly. He was digging in his heels already, and here she was only at the starting point of her career.
Soon after noticing Jason’s notes on Henry, I felt I could elaborate on the basic profile. Jason, as usual, had drawn faint portraits of a man and a woman. He had sketched in some personality traits, but it was impossible to say how he felt about either of them. By contrast, I liked Henry from the start. He was someone I recognized, like a familiar figure glimpsed from a distance. My own musician father had been similarly involved with his work. He had a way of gently ignoring people around him. As I matured, I understood that my father was immensely gifted, and, moreover, that he had the steely discipline to succeed as both performer and composer. He was also confident and assertive in a way that drew people to him. Henry, as I imagined him, was my kind of man: independent, retiring, set in his ways, but full of deep, nuanced emotions that he could channel brilliantly into his compositions.
And that is why I decided to appropriate him, to use him as a character in the novel I’d always hoped to write. It was a kind of theft, and I knew it. No matter how sketchy and tentative a life he had in Jason’s notes, Henry was Jason’s. Yet it was me Henry charmed — more like seduced with possibilities. He was an artist. There was his artist’s life, with his wife and her tryst, her final departure, and its impact on Henry and his music. I could imagine all of it, especially Henry’s resolve to keep working despite the rupture. The resulting music would polygraph his feelings with meandering, discordant melodies, abrupt pauses, or sudden noisy cacophonies of sound, ending with an indecipherable, reverberating crash. There would be a prolonged silence after, and then a new, delicate melody would emerge like the budding of a leaf.
I was intrigued by the problem of the main theme. How would I describe it in order to make it work on both musical and narrative levels? How would it have to be developed to mirror the spirit of a contemporary artist like Henry, with a fondness for unconventional forms, elusive patterns, and dissonant arrangements that were intellectually challenging, emotionally remote? It took a while to figure it out, but nine months after Jason and I separated, Henry was alive and kicking in my half-finished manuscript. He spoke to me in my dreams, played his compositions for me, and I responded with unqualified praise for his music.
My publisher, Sandra Birk, was reluctant to entertain my idea for the novel. “You’re a biographer,” she said bluntly. You’re fortunate. You have readers. Why confuse them with fiction? And why would you want to wade into all that, seriously.”
“It’s stuck in me,” I explained. “I can’t get past it, and I won’t be able to write anything else until I get it out of my system.” Besides, I told myself, it’s not just a story about a couple that comes apart. It’s also a paean to what Jason and I had together, our slightly odd relationship, one that was actually happy in its own way. Ultimately, Sandra agreed to read the completed first draft, and afterwards she was excited for me. She even admitted that with the right kind of marketing and cover design the book would sell and more than cover the cost of publication.
All things considered, there’s nothing extraordinary in this small tale of genesis. A writer takes an idea from another writer, runs with it in a whole new direction, develops it into something it never was at conception. Is it theft or inspiration? Whatever it is, in the literary world it happens often. Why make a scene of it? So here is where we come to the important part, that bizarre twist where life outpaces fiction.
Jason and I had stayed in touch. We spoke on the phone regularly, and got together for coffee every few months. I mentioned that I was working on a book, but told him it was my usual kind of project. I was silent about the rest. Then, nearly two years after moving out of our apartment, I found myself back there one afternoon, knocking at Jason’s door. I was overcome with a desire to confess in advance and apologize before my publicist said something to his publicist at some literary fest.
Jason let me in, looking a little discomforted. He had company. A woman with golden-red hair was stretched out with a book on his sofa. She stood up when I came in.
“Hello,” I said, “Sorry to barge in like this. I’m Jason’s ex, Rachel.”
“Rita,” she held out her hand, “a friend from New York.”
“Are you crashing here Rita?”
“Yes, and I’m so thankful. I’m booked for singing gigs in Toronto. Jason invited me to stay. Otherwise, I’d be at a hotel now. There have been way too many of them lately for me.”
Rita had a barely perceptible Russian accent. She appeared to be still in her twenties and striking. I noticed that she looked at home on Jason’s couch. “So you travel often?” I asked.
“Aha! All the time now. I’m touring, trying to promote my first CD. I’m really tired of it. It’s been five months already. I love the work of course, and I feel super lucky to do it.”
“That can’t be easy.” As if in a trance, I motioned to the wedding band on her finger. “What about your partner? Doesn’t he miss you?”
“I don’t think so,” she said pouting a little, and with a dismissive waive added: “Perhaps after we split up. That was last December. Maybe then, sure, for a while. But now he’s probably at his computer screen, working. He’s a composer, a very good one actually.”
“Oh? Is he well known?” I hoped I wasn’t sounding too eager or coming across as strange. “So much is being done with electronic composition these days. I’m interested in this stuff. ”
Rita nodded. “You might have heard of him. He’s famous in certain circles. Harold Wexler.” She shrugged. “He’s phenomenal really, and so original. Everyone who knows him says so.”
“He sounds inspiring. Don’t you miss him?”
“Sure, a little. But I have to tell you, it wasn’t easy living with him.” She looked at me intently, then rolled her eyes up. “He’s a workaholic. No one knows what it’s like being married to someone like that. He wasn’t into any of the usual things people do. I gave up a lot when we were together.”
“Oh? If you don’t mind me asking, what do you mean?” I realized that I was prying. Normally, I wouldn’t ask a stranger about her private life, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“He didn’t like socializing—you know, going out for dinner, drinks with friends, going on trips. I nearly went koo-koo in our apartment with him.” She made a small circular motion with her index finger at the side of her head. “It felt like a cage. Anyway, Harold likes being alone, doing his work.”
I must have looked puzzled. “But surely he realized how lucky he was to have you. He must be devastated.”
Rita smiled. “Rachel, every man wants an attractive wife, but not all of them know what to do with one.” She winked at Jason. “When you’ve been married for a while, things change. Sorry, I know that’s a cliché.”
She lowered herself back onto the couch, and continued, “Harold wanted me to listen to his stuff, sure, to cook meals, do laundry, keep our place tidy. But when things started getting serious with my singing — well, then, suddenly I was causing problems, as he saw it. I’d be on the phone with my agent, and he’d start shouting, ‘Rita, get off the phone. I’m hungry.’ Can you imagine it? I was trying to build my career.” She turned to Jason, “Sorry sweetheart, you’ve heard this a million times.” Then looking at me and shaking her head she said, “I was supposed to accept that — being there for him, his work, not mine. I decided, no way. And here I am.” She looked satisfied with herself, maybe even gleeful.
“Yes, here you are.” I smiled back at her. “Rita, I get it, and I’m happy for you. By the way, Jason is the best, and he’s a great writer.”
“I know.” She looked over at Jason with a tender smile.
My own smile at that moment wasn’t the least bit forced. I felt elated. I wished Rita luck with her singing career, hugged and said goodbye to Jason without giving anything away. Then I walked home, feeling entirely guilt-free. I hadn’t felt as serene in a long time. My thoughts were already on my manuscript, on the final changes I’d have to make to names and settings, and the need for a disclaimer.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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