Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

John Lent - Background to Monet's Garden

Craig McLuckie & Ross Tyner, Okanagan University College

One [print] was Monet's garden at Argenteuil, which seemed to him at the time like a distillation of all the summers he had lost. William McIlvanney, The Kiln. London: Sceptre, 1996: 134.
In the Journals, the writer makes plain the process of intuiting a book, its gestation period, changes, and revisions in the making. One of the earliest Journal entries on the subject of Monet's Garden is dated April 04, 1991; it gives an acute sense of the author's impressions, the sensory apprehension of the world he inhabits:
Got the wrong pen. Boy, am I down. Drifting around bookstores in Kelowna feeling rather blue. Isolated. From a lot of things. But I believe I'd feel isolated anywhere. I always discover things later on. But when I do, I really do discover them. At least there's that. I just see all of these empty, furrowed, pinched faces staring out into the air, wanting something. I am continually moved in the midst of sensing, too, all this hatred and viciousness around me. This is us. We don't know what we're doing. It's serious. (Journals, 04/04/91)
 Like the comments on Rushdie and several of the stories in Monet's Garden, there is an expression of the antagonistic forces at work in society--our dissatisfaction, but not our attempts to inquire into our state. Perhaps it is for this reason that Lent's next related entry offers an image, in draft, about self-scrutiny and one person's being in the world:
thinking: room

(a) outside room
his life: approaching doors
 `people pleaser'
 everything `out there'

 (b) check into motel
describe outside motel

 (c) the room:
move into enormous detail as
he starts to drink

 (d) scene of pure lyricism follows
where he defines his own room and walks
through a door into the world? (11 April 1991)

 It is, of course, the germination of "Room" (MG 33-47) ; and, in spite of a note that stresses the detail prior to drinking and the loss of the world after drinking, the initial image is what we are offered in the printed text: the italicized passages suggest another state of consciousness, but it is seems clear that the character does Not drink, that the italicized flight n the notebook is discarded, that the world of routine, lyrical routine, is reaffirmed at its close. Objects have impact, a strong material and intellectual presence for this writer.

 It is somewhat ironic that in the next entry Lent wishes the design "could be pushed to an almost lyrical collapse [,that he] needs to infuse [his] own style with that lyrical abandonment [he] admire[s] in other people's writing. [For example] Ian McEwen." (4 May 1991) The irony is that lyrical abandonment is something he achieves while maintaining control, control through the material: the room, a real, physical, motel room, takes on the weight of the individual's psychic space; it remains, however, a constraint, a hook to return to from abandonment, whether lyrical prose or alcoholic abandonment. The structure, then, begins, is intersected by, and ends with the material, the room, getting " a kick out of the car" (MG 33) and throwing the notebook "into the heavy blue Laidlaw dumpster" (47). But, in place of the psychic gloom experienced from the outside observing people's faces, is an epiphanic moment wherein the physical room, the physical car, the physical notebook offer the ability to experience life afresh, to take joy in the `little' day-to-day things. The realization is the sensational nature and pleasure to be extracted from things and moments.

 In the same way, the tactile nature of "Taste" (MG 65-74) first found expression in the Journal as a series of objects: "breaking apart of Almond Croissant. . . . bottled Evian water. [A] walk: Cafe au lait . . . [a] Cathedral: texture /smell/people . . . Strawberries . . . Bodies: slow/ritual/taste" (14 May 1991). Here, sensory pleasures lead to physical pleasure, where two people share and commune. The same entry in the Journals suggests a developing manuscript; added to "Room" and "Taste" is the title for a third, "2. Green Roof in the Rain (?)."

The 17 May 1991 entry goes further:

Eight sculpted short stories that follow this pattern: each story grows out of a random detail that occurs in the story before. . . . Purpose: to be drawn into the depth of the randomness---the sense of the heavy wheel of what happens around us. Thread: (Green Roof) these stories are not connected [i.e., to "Taste" and "The Room"] but it becomes clear that these stories are about the narrator. (emphasis added)
 There are two developing manuscripts, the stories proper and shorter pieces that focus on the narrator/creator of the stories proper.

 The development, as outlined in the form of a provisional Table of Contents, gives the flavour of what would become Monet's Garden:

The Room
Green Roof in the Rain
The Man Who Knew Everything
Baseball Weekend
Hookers in Lumby???? (Journal 17 May 1991)
What began as a single story, possibly "a little gem" (11 April 1991) has slowly developed into a larger "story/novella" (4 May 1991), transformed into a sequence (14 May 1991), with an artistic ("sculpted") focus, working polyphonically between the "unconnected" stories and the "Roof" pieces about the narrator (17 May 1991). Five of these titles do not survive further revision, whether anything of the original stories remains is unknown. On the 18th May, Lent appears to decide on a "Ring of short stories [where] if the opening story begins with a man in his yard getting ready to drive somewhere, then the closing story should return to that moment." The symmetry inherent in this design flies in the face of Lent's critical writings and his predilection for blues and jazz rhythms in his poetry. While a circular design stayed as the governing principle through the writing, ultimately the author returned to a design that is asymmetrical; one that invites more work on the part of the reader because of its openness. A further clarification of the structure appears in 18 May 1991:
1. Green Roof(a sequence of weird, lyrical passages)
2. Room
3. Taste
4. Lorna
5. Mom and Dad
6. Evelyn
It is particularly poignant that in wishing to make daily life fresh, to bring us to an understanding of consciousness in the ordinary, that Lent returns to a familial focus in story 5; poignant, because the 3rd June 1991 entry in the Journal records the writer's response to news of his father's death:
Midnight. Dad died this morning. Chaos. Susan flying in. Jude and I going up Wednesday. Am feeling unusual. The magic. In me. The confidence: that beautiful old paradox; gone. What will I do without him?
 The unintentionally truncated syntax speaks forcefully of the emotional turmoil, as do the desire to memorialize his father in a short story (06 June 1991) and the philosophical (detached) reading list: "Sartre; Marcuse; Merleau-Ponty; Wittgenstein; Gunnars; Wayman" (20 June 1991). The last two names are Canadian writers, one theoretical, the other solidly grounded. What the author retains for "Monet's Garden" is an epigraph from Sartre's War Diaries, abbreviated in the published story, along with a passage from Canetti. A search for meaning through reading has understandably replaced, for this time, a search for the truth of experience in writing. A passage from Wittgenstein underscores the emotional turmoil: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words" (20 June 1991).

 16 July 1991 marks a return and a desire to eradicate pain through humour: "Started a short story today called What Makes You Laugh. Possibilities. I want a string of them." An outpouring of titles follows, with "The Room", "Think of the People Behind You", "Taste", "Monet's Garden", and "Roofs in the Rain" being retained. The words of Monet are an apposite summary of the process: "I really am working terribly hard, struggling with a series of different effects, but at this time of the year the sun sets so quickly that I can't keep up with it" (Chilvers et al 250b).

Works Cited

Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne and Dennis Farr. "Impressionism," "Monet," in The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford at the University Press, 1988: 249b-251a and 337b-338a respectively.

Lent, John.. Monet's Garden. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1996.

_____. Extracts from the Journals. April to July 1991. Unpublished manuscript.

Postcolonial Web Canada  John Lent