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AUTOMAT, by Edward Hopper
I have a fascination with the paintings of the American artist, Edward Hopper. Somehow-whether by technique, imagination or subject matter-he is able to create the most compelling and evocative scenes, which stir my imagination.
One of my favourites is Automat an oil painted by him in 1927.
A young woman with a yellow felt hat sits absolutely alone in a barren restaurant drinking a cup of coffee. I look at this and immediately feel her isolation and loneliness as if it were my own. Is she running away? What thoughts are in her mind as she stares into the cup?
Right away, Hopper has got us speculating, as he does with all his paintings. Where did she come from? Where is she going? You’re caught right in the middle of a story which you can “read” backwards or forwards in time. I was so taken with this painting that the woman in it became the inspiration for a character in a short story, The Thief, and now a novel which I am writing. Struck by her isolation and self-containment, I called her Celia.
I search the painting to see what emotions Hopper creates and how he does it. Behind the solitary woman is a large window, blackened by an impenetrably gloomy night. The lights or reflections of lights recede into the background giving a murky, tunnel-like effect, leading to nowhere. The radiator, crouching at the left of the painting, seems just as isolated as the girl in the composition, but almost looks more communicative than her. The lonely,solitary moment is caught in time-permanently engraved on my mind.
Just think how many stories could grow from this one painting! Will someone, a boyfriend or family member enter that door, hoping to bring her back? If no one comes, where will she go as soon as she drinks her coffee? To a dingy hotel room? Onto a train to New York? That would be just like so many other Hopper paintings, which so often depict hotel lobbies, motels and railway cars. Or maybe she will change her mind and go back home.
Perhaps this painting speaks to me of the apprehension of the unknown as we proceed moment to moment through life. So often, we are unsure and tentative, fearing to venture out into the unfamiliar. Then again, maybe the girl is incapable of reaching out to others. After all, for me, Celia-the character in my story who was inspired by this painting- grew into a character that was desperate to get free of her self-imposed isolation from the world. And so, for me-art, painting, sculpture, and photography are so often an inspiration for writing. Of course, all art [whether it is painting or writing or music] speaks of its own time-that is, the time and place in which the artist lived.
Hopper painted much of his work in the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century, when rapid industrialization and urbanization were forcing people from their old dwellings and old ways of living. Consequently, so many people felt lost and displaced. And yet, the emotions evoked by his work are universal, whatever the time and place. Great art transcends time and place and touches a nerve in us all, which communicates those universal emotions and ideas to us. Just like a photograph, Automat is a permanent moment in time existing in a world which, at the same time, seems so transient.
And that is why such a painting as the Automat inspires me even today.
Osgoode Hall is a beautiful building in downtown Toronto, where the Ontario Appellate Court is located. When I began practising law in 1973, I can tell you that this was a very imposing building to all young lawyers. In fact the Law Society of Upper Canada was also housed there and that body oversaw the conduct of practising lawyers. And so, it is from that fact that I got the name of the first novel in The Osgoode Trilogy Conduct in Question.
Engraving by Walter R. Duff
If you would like a full tour visit www.osgoodehall.com
Engraving by Walter R. Duff
Writers always want to write a better novel or short story. And so, we naturally turn to writers we admire. I like to use images in stories and so, I often wonder how a writer can develop an image which governs the meaning of the whole story and breathes life into it. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a mental “word” image must be worth at least five hundred.
No Man’s Meat is a novella written by Morley Callaghan, one of my favourite Canadian authors. But no commercial house would touch it. It had to be published privately by an avant-garde house in Paris in 1931. And soon, I will tell you why that was so.
But, first to the story. Bert and Teresa Beddoes are a reasonably well to do married couple from the city [probably Toronto]. Frequently they stay at their cottage somewhere up north where the farming is poor and the farmers live a hard-scrabble existence. The Beddoes are laughed at as city folk.
Their marriage [they say] is one of peaceful contentment, loving and respectful, but it is clearly lacking in any sort of passion. They sleep in separate rooms in the cottage. (more…)
Magic in travel? You must be kidding! All we hope is to get there and back safely. When we consider the long lines, the cancelled flights, the rude security staff and the cramped seats on planes, don’t we all feel a lot like cattle being pushed and prodded from A to B? Now you’re asking for magic? Isn’t that a bit much?
Perhaps it is a tall order, but I’m thinking of those moments-and they may be few and far between-when suddenly, on your travels, you see or experience something that makes you view the world in a new way, from a different perspective. The world opens up and that, in itself, may be magical. Isn’t that the real purpose of travel-unless we’re talking about business trips? (more…)
Do you know the great novella by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice? If you haven’t read it, you may well have seen the movie. When I was in Venice, I was haunted by this story as I wandered through the narrow, twisting calles on my last trip more than seven years ago. In fact, I entitled the photograph below Death in Venice, which I took of a cafe on San Marco.
This is the second article in the Writing and Travelling series. Is there any difference between the traveller’s and the writer’s mind set?
Things to Think About Before Leaving-Still in Toronto.
I am a great fan of the writer and thinker Alain De Botton, and particularly of his book The Art of Travel.
In that book, he makes an excellent point which is relevant to my musings. Why is it that when we’re on a trip, we take such keen interest in everything we see. Our senses become acute and we photograph and take notes with great enthusiasm. (more…)
I’m planning to write a series of articles about writing and the love of travel–which I do love. The first couple of articles start at home. All of us are affected by where we grew up and where we presently live. If we try, we can use that sense of place in our writing. Here’s the first article. Please come back soon for more.
DOES YOUR HOME TOWN AFFECT YOUR WRITING
Starting Out At Home
Before I launch on travels to “foreign” parts of the world, I want to think about what I am leaving behind-Toronto, Canada-and how it, my hometown has affected me as an individual and a writer.
I’m one of those people who, for the most part, has lived in one city, Toronto, all my life. Definitely, Toronto, of today, is not the city of my early days in the 1950’s where most of the population was descended from immigrants from the British Isles. In the intervening years, Toronto has benefitted hugely from the influx of immigrants from every country on earth so that now it is full of life enhancing, vibrant contrasts. And still, it remains a pretty peaceful place. In my lifetime, the city has changed dramatically. (more…)
Here’s another favorite character of mine, Dorothy Crawford, widow of Richard Crawford, Harry’s deceased law partner, Richard. Have you ever met women, who have no idea how to live when the husband dies, because they have been so dominated all their lives? When I started in law in 1973, I met a lot of them. Dorothy is about to get the shock of her life about her husband in this chapter. Read on! (more…)
You are about to meet one of my favorite characters Gladys Giveny, Harry’s who is in each of the three novels in the Osgoode Trilogy. Gladys is caught in time many years ago in more ways than one.
That night, Gladys climbed down wearily from the bus. It swerved sharply from the curb, enveloping her in black clouds of exhaust. She regarded Mortimer Avenue balefully.
Dwarf maples lined her wide street of bungalows. Leaves hung limply in the evening humidity. Couples did not stroll on her street: there was no particular place to go. Children did not play on her street: the traffic was too heavy. Tonight, people stayed inside their boxy houses with the world blotted out by the whir of air conditioners. Gladys wished desperately for an air conditioner, but her sister, Merle, would not hear of it.
“Do you want to make me really sick?” Merle would whine as she fanned herself with a cheap, lacquered fan purchased from Woolworth’s last summer. “I got to think of my arthritis.” When Merle said that, it sounded like Arthur Itis. (more…)