Author’s Intentions v. Reader’s Perception

Sena Jetter Nasland’s ninth novel, The Fountain of St. James Court: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, is a good read, mostly. I did carp to myself about the sumptuousness of both the language and the settings. The book is a novel within a novel, no mean feat, eh? The outer shell shows us the life of a contemporary novelist (who has also just finished her ninth novel and who lives in Louisville, Kentucky where Nasland lives) and the inner narrative tracks the life of a French artist, a woman who becomes very successful at portraiture and escapes, by use of her money and her talent the horrors of 1789 revolution. Both of these women live in abundant luxury and succeed at their chosen careers. Admirable. But for women to be successful outside the home, while it was news in France in the late 1700s and early 1800s, is not news in our time. Both women seemed to me self-centered and privileged. Just not my favorite read.

However, in the inner novel the artist at one point visits an anatomist who displays the wax figure of a woman with her abdominal organs exposed. The artist is overcome by seeing that under all the beauty she has focused on is a terrible, ugly (to her) tangle of intestines that look serpentine and frightening. She descends, for a few days, into a stultifying funk, cannot paint, cannot enjoy her beloved child. She simply decides not to focus on this horror. She wills herself to return to her limited view of the world as beautiful.

Did Nasland intend to have me see the ugly inner workings of this woman’s psyche, just as the artist was confronted with the reality of the human body? Or did the author intend to teach me to adjust my own view of the world and concentrate on the beauty it offers? I’ll probably never know. Maybe she just wanted to tell a good story.

I am likely influenced by having also read this week Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde, a book I loved for its melding of the personal and the political, its portrayal of a man on what may be his last visit to Africa, where he reports on beauty and torment. Zona Verde is non-fiction, so he was honor bound, given his integrity as a writer, to show us both.

I am herewith reminded that all writers can do is write with as much honesty and skill as they possess. What readers do with a book is out of bounds.

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