The town of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-heek), where these works were done, is on the north shore of Lake Chapala, near the western end of that lovely lake down below Guadalajara. In 1989–90 we spent our third Mexican sabbatical there (the two previous ones having been in Tepoztlán, near Cuernavaca.)
The winter was quite uncharacteristically cool and wet that year, and the streets were being torn up to accommodate a new sewer system. Her health, too, was not what it might have been. She cracked a couple of ribs in a fall, had at least one bad chest infection, and generally felt below par. But once she got started, she got a lot of work done in less than five months of working days—a dozen oils (not all completed), a dozen completed watercolours, others in various stages of incompletion, and the magnificent finished-up drawing “Final Soliloquy.”
With one exception, she did not provide titles for any of the works that she did down there, so I have done so myself. “Final Soliloquy” is an allusion to one of her favourite poems by Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” “Sunset Lake” (the one possible exception) comes from a sketchbook where she has a thumbnail sketch of the lake and the words “Sunset lake.” But personally I go on thinking of it as “Lake of the Dead,” an allusion to Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist painting “Lake of the Dead,” and also to the fact that Lake Chapala was visibly shrinking because of the amount of water being drained off to Guadalajara. Carol herself took a number of slides of sunsets while we were there.
What follows now is this.
When I realized, near the end of this operation, that I ought to say a few words about Ajijic, I went back to my self-interview in 2000 (see the Tepoztlán and Seillons Afterwords) to refresh my memory—and then began to feel, on going through it, that there was quite a lot of information and texture there and that some readers might care to have it.
So here it is. I have left out two or three stretches that didn’t contribute enough, but what remains is verbatim. Word Count, on my toolbar, tells me that there are about 13,000 words here.
A word about the method. It was not a literary self-indulgence. It was a way of retrieving, more or less sequentially, as much as I could of what might be of use to someone doing research on her. A lot of the facts and feelings weren’t there for me at the outset. Memories had to be triggered, dates checked, documents consulted. Uncertainties and self-corrections had to be permitted.
When I sat at the keyboard I was writing shorter and clearer sentences than I would normally speak if I were being taped by an interviewer. (Most published interviews, I imagine, have been tidied up.) But I was typing as fast as I could, and saying all that I knew, or could remember, or felt at that point, and did not subsequently edit what I had said. In other words, I was being as truthful as I could, or at least as truthful as I’d be if speaking to a sympathetic interviewer.
But of course I may not have always got things right, and readers may wish to interpret differently some of the facts (as I thought them to be) that I present here.
A. I have no image of the border crossing. As I said in the letter I keep quoting from, we got into Mexico “painlessly.”
But it was Mexico..There was that instant feeling of strangeness, of being in a different country. A sort of dusty scruffiness of low-rise buildings and intermingled storefronts, hardware stores with clusters of things hanging outside them, stores without large plate-glass windows. Trucks and cars older and tireder looking. Mufflers less effective maybe. A plaza or two with trees and metal benches and a church. Nothing fancy, nothing special, nothing picturesque. Nuevo Laredo, not Laredo Texas. Mexico.
Q. And from there, how did you go?
A. Well, I would think via Monterrey, Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, and then southwest at a forty-five degree angle via Lagos de Moreno....
Q. Should I know that name?
A. No... until there was, a bit unexpectedly, a sign with “Chapala” on it, and we took that newish road and reached Ajijic without even having to go through Chapala itself, and dropped anchor around September 25 in the backyard of the Posada Ajijic, the Posada, the front part 17th/18th century I think, the interior garden charming, the dining-room and separate lounge (where the serious drinking went on) looking out onto the lake shore.
We had a bedroom-plus-living-room self-contained unit looking out onto the garden, one of several, the price moderate, a good base from which to start looking for something for the year. And the lake was lovely. More of that in a moment.
As to the driving again, driving in Mexico. We did at some point have some fairly steep and upward-winding driving, but I didn’t panic. And there was a plateau or high shallow valley at one point where there were a lot of Joshua Trees, you know, those tall cactuses with branches sticking out stiffly, and funny tufts or bumps at the ends of them.
We picnicked there, Carol preparing it as usual on... on what? I was about to say the tailgate, but that was Bony. I guess we spread a blanket. Opening a tin of pate with her jackknife. Bread, or maybe crackers? Tomato juice in those little individual cans that you tore a tab off. A piece of fruit probably. A cookie or two? Coffee from a thermos, filled that morning at whatever hotel it was that we’d spent the night in. It was nice. A routine.
So then, I mean in Ajijic, it was house-hunting for three or four days. The owner of the Posada was American-born, but it was to her perfectly bilingual son, in his twenties, that we mostly went for advice. There was a bulletin board in the entrance way where people could put up information about rentals. Also a couple of rental agencies. And the English-language library that I mentioned earlier, in a cactus-filled yard, where the one or two women at the desk didn’t spring forward to welcome us—prudence, really, since we were unknowns.
Q. What was Ajijic like? It would be helpful to know where you were doing your searching.
A. OK, a quickie fix. It was on the north shore of Lake Chapala, which is about fifty miles long and twelve wide at mid-point. Lawrence talks about it in The Plumed Serpent, though the geography doesn’t work out there, so far as I can see. It runs east and west, and narrows down to a point at the western end. Where we were, the opposite shore was about eight miles away. I’m looking at the relevant map in Caminos de Mexico, with its lovely landscape by José Maria Velasco on the back. Ajijic is about eleven miles from the western end, and the town of Chapala is about five miles east of Ajijic. Got that? Chapala seems to figure in The Plumed Serptent as Sayula, by the way.
Q. West... east...
.A. Ajijic was a village that had grown. The oldest part, a few blocks wide, sloped upwards two or three blocks from the lake. There was a formal plaza in it, the usual kind, with paths, flower beds, a tree or two, metal seats, a bandstand. And a block from that, on the other side of the street that we were on, after we’d got our house, was a large church with a large courtyard area in front of it.
I think that that pretty well was Ajijic back in the Twenties, maybe even in the post-war Forties, when American writers-and-artists, or wannabees, on the G.I. Bill discovered you could live and drink there cheaply, according to Norman D. Ford’s Fabulous Mexico.
Well, give or take a few blocks. And I don’t really know when the bandstand was put there.
Q. Had Lawrence visited Ajijic, do you suppose?
A. Oh, I would think he did at some point. He and Frieda, as I’ve just found by looking at Nehls’ Composite Biography, lived in a rented house in Chapala for a couple of months in 1923, number 4, Zaragosa Street, where he wrote The Plumed Serpent. And Ajijic was just down the road, relatively speaking, and the Lawrences liked walking. I myself walked to Chapala and back on one occasion. Their friends the American writer Witter Bynner and his secretary-companion Willard Johnson stayed in Chapala too at the time, but I don’t think they had a car.
And now I look at the book again, yes, the Lawrences would certainly have passed through Ajijic, since they visited Jocotopec at the western end of the lake, and at that time the lake-shore road ran through the village, a block up from the Posada. The Camino Real, royal road.
Q. Was their house still there?
A. Well, this is odd, isn’t it, and a bit saddening. I didn’t really know at the time that they had lived there. Hadn’t done my homework. I suppose because, well partly because, when we’d set out for Mexico this time, we still weren’t sure where we’d be settling and the Chapala area had still been very shadowy in my mind. It’s also a bit saddening, looking at that map, to see how little exploring we did in the car. We never drove all the way around the lake, I know.
Q. Would you have been more venturesome ten years earlier?
A. Maybe. Well, twenty years earlier, anyway. But I think our car troubles had something to do with it, maybe quite a bit to do with it. After those problems with the broken gas line, you didn’t feel really confident in the car any longer. And later there was that dirty gas coming back down from our visa trip to Texas. And more fuel-pump trouble in Ajijic.
No, the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation (Gerard Manley Hopkins) had rather gone out of our driving. As it had from my writing. But maybe also the area didn’t come across as particularly interesting. Kate Simon gives it almost no space at all in her Mexico; Places and Pleasures, I see.
Anyway, at some point some pretty fancy houses, hidden away behind their wall had been added, looking out over the lake. And a stone pier had been run out into the lake down by the Posada, when the water was still deep enough to warrant it. One of the biggest houses, in a huge garden that you could peer into through a wire fence, belonged to some obviously vastly crooked Mexican politico, if that isn’t a tautology, a former governor of the province. So maybe the rich, los ricos, liked coming and going by boat at some point. And there was a promenade running west from the jetty, past that estate.
So, to cut things short, the town had expanded east and west, more haphazardly to the west, where the cemetery was, more tidily to the east, where you had virtually a whole housing estate, including a fancy club with tennis courts and a marina, the marina now useless because the water was down so low. I mean really low, so that there was a hundred yards of sandy shore between the yachts in their stables and the water’s edge when we got there. Or more. The lake bottom sloped gently, so a drop of a few feet in the water level made a considerable difference. Oh, and housing developments had also gone on the lower slopes of the hills, on the other side of what was now the main east-west road.
Is that enough topology, if I’ve got the right word?
Q. It helps.
A. So, we checked out several houses—a sterile small house in the housing estate; a rather lovely house with a deep patio looking out onto a nice garden, but where the only space where Carol could have worked was the garage; a run-down house in the overgrown grounds of a large unoccupied house, near the lakeshore but some distance west from the centre of town, which I’m sure would have been horror-movie time on dark windy nights; and the family house of Raul and Luz Hugo in the centre of town, Marcos Castellanos #9, which we finally took.
Q. How was it?
A. We hadn’t wanted it at first, it was a bit too neat, had no view of the lake, no parking for the car, and Raul, a plumpish genial man in his later thirties, with fluent English, looked to me like a hustler when he stopped his large American-type car beside us as we were walking in the plaza to urge the house upon us, something could be arranged about our car, that sort of thing.
So I was unwontedly reserved and suspicious, and in fact Raul was trying to get away with something, namely rent the car to us but keep the garage, and the small room behind it, for one of his sons to live in. About which the proprietor of the Posada mercifully cautioned us, since there could have been problems with music playing loudly. Oh, and I think it was in Raul’s mind to open a shoe store in the garage.
Anyway, I hung tough, and insisted that we would have to have the garage (for extra payment), and at some point Raul, perhaps at the command of his quiet and very nice wife Luz, obviously the moral arbiter of the family, decided that we’d be good tenants and would be staying there for as long as we’d told him we would, and that we should be made comfortable.
So a door was put through from the house hallway into the garage, and we had the garage itself for the car, and the son didn’t occupy the small room, and I could go through the garage and up the stairs to the large L-shaped flat roof, from which there was a nice view, and in one corner of which there was a small roofed-over area where I could work (after we bought a sheet of plywood and a couple of trestles from some carpenters) and leave my materials overnight.
Q. And Carol?
A. Carol’s studio was downstairs, a screened-in but unglazed room-sized space between the two bedrooms, looking out onto the garden, lovingly tended and with a large avocado tree and a couple of lime trees and a banana tree or two and a lawn and flower beds and a circular seating area with a table and metal or plastic garden chairs and a sort of courtyard in a corner at the back with clothes lines. Lovingly tended, but too neat for Carol’s tastes, and with little scope for intervention on her part, though she did plant some flowers near the house.
Q. And the interior?
A. The interior too was obviously done with care, good solid furniture, pictures on the wall, ornaments on shelves, it was the family home of the Hugos, and they had now moved round the corner to his or her mother’s house, I forget which. I cannot at this point recall what Raul did for a living, but obviously he needed the rent money, which I think was about $550 U.S. I believe he rented out one or two other houses, and maybe he was making what I think of as deals, though I don’t know what. The shoe store would have been a money-loser, I’m sure.
But he turned out to be an excellent landlord, good about keeping the water tank on the roof filled (vital in the dry season), though we had to take care ourselves of getting the propane gas tanks for the kitchen replaced with full ones when empty, two linked tanks, so that you switched from the empty working one to the full reserve one and then had the empty one replaced with a new full one from the truck that carried them through the village. Which involved some nervous waiting for the truck to pass the house, and at times some visits to the gas company’s office.
Raul also at some point in the early spring decided to have a new bathroom built on the far side of our bedroom, not an unmixed blessing for Carol at work in her studio adjoining the bedroom on the other side.
His English was fluent, and he liked to talk. He fretted about the second of his three sons, about twenty years old maybe, who was trying to make it big as a professional footballer, but didn’t sound as if he would, since he seemed to like the good life too much already and not to have quite the requisite killer instinct. Raul described him holding back from a goal at one point from fear of injury. Evidently there were really hungry tough young players out there, I think Raul used the word Indio, who did not hold back. The Hugos were middle-class, essentially.
Q. How come his English was so good?
A. As was his wife Luz’s. I forget the family details, but his mother, a rather formidable person, we met her at the end, had been, or maybe still was, a schoolteacher in California. I mean an English-speaking teacher. She may even have been American. When you come to think of it, we were really pretty lucky to have landed where we did. It was a big help to be able to talk in English, though I guess that didn’t improve our Spanish. And it was nice that Raul was a son of the village.
Here is a handwritten letter from Carol to Marjory Whitelaw, dated Oct 25. I may as well transcribe the whole text:
We have made it—safe and sound though the trip over the border always has a new batch of perils. Actually we have been here almost a month and I have been very lazy about writing to people. It is very easy going and it is rubbing off onto me at a great rate.
It only took us about four days to find a house so that was lucky. And it is right in the centre of the village so I can do all the shopping on foot. We have two bedrooms, dining room, sitting room, kitchen (modern) [part of the living room] and I have a studio area and John has a whole large roof area—part of which is roofed over—to share with the chickens and roosters from next door [visibly and audibly, but they didn’t trespass].
The garden is delightful—very neat but full of good things such as orange, lemon and avocado trees—all laden with fruit. We tried to count the avocados and gave up at 300—our wily Mexican landlord tells us they will be ripe about February—so we are waiting impatiently. The orange crop is just getting ripe now and the limons [limes] have been ripe—forever—they are ever [illegible] and we use them all the time in and on everything.
It is the end of the rainy season and every once in awhile we have a warm cloudy day. In the night there have been a couple of good ole tropical thunderstorms which really do flash and boom around.
Ajijic is right on Lake Chapala on one side and tight up against some either high hills or small mountains on the other— It is small—about 7,000 population but is full of too many other gringos etc. We do try to avoid them when we can because they are a funny lot. However they have banded together and organized a nice little English library where we have joined the group in order to take out books.
Everywhere here is green right now and I fear for my painting. I came hoping I could get away from the “foilage” as Marina Stewart calls it but it looks like I’m stuck for the time being. We also have banana trees with their weird leaves about 10 ft long, and sexy flowers and fruit.
At the moment I’m not painting yet because I managed to get a nasty cold or infection of some kind that has settled in my feeble lungs and my bad sinus so I’m trying to rest a bit—and I just don’t have much incentive—or rather I am just plain very tired.
I hope you are staying well and out of hospital now—and also a little more peppy. I wish you could join me in the garden for drinks and gossip—we also have a barbecue—though we haven’t used it yet—I’m still trying to get my Mexican cooking under control—it takes awhile.
We get a good little newspaper here in English so we have been able to keep up with most things—at least the big events like the San F. earthquake. What a horrible thing the highway concrete sandwich was. We have been told that Ajijic is on the Mexican fault line but there haven’t been any quakes around here—actually we are closer to the volcanos.
I wish I could describe this place—The streets are all cobbled—hard walking, and not great for driving. Right now the place is a rage of colour with all the various flowers at the bloomiest. Mostly the huge flame trees are what impress with their masses of red orange flowers crowning them. The highways are crowded with hedges of yellow and orange sunflowers about 12–15 ft high and over all trails the vines of bright blue Morning glories—It is truly lovely! In the spring it will all be dry and yellow and dusty I expect. So I expect I will have two sets of paintings—a green one and a yellow one.
We are right across the street from the big Church—AND—the big church bell which gets rung off and on all the day starting at about 5.30 a.m. I’m getting used to it and it goes very well with the roosters who make a tremendous racket early in the morning. So that’s what village life in Mexico is like—Very peaceful and full of a great many manañas, chocolate peanut butter and papayas.
I’m going to close now so I can get this in today’s post.
Take good care of yourself.
[Marginal addition on first page] The lake is beautiful and is very endangered of[?] completely disappearing—but I’m not getting involved this time. There is a lot of attention being paid at last.
A. That’s what she wrote, but I think she meant mañanas. And I don’t remember any chocolate peanut butter.
Q. It sounds as though you were enjoying yourselves. What were you moaning about earlier about its being so much worse than Tepoztlán?
A. Yes, I’d forgotten how nice (up to a point) things had seemed at first before the unexpected winter cold that gripped after the sun went down, and the winter rain at times, and the streets a ravaged Somme-like mess of trenches and mud-piles, week after week, because of a decision somewhere or other that Ajijic needed a whole new drainage system. We had some lovely quiet evening walks early on, out onto the jetty and along the waterfront, under star-filled skies. And there continued to be nice things about Ajijic.
Q. Such as?
A. Well, eating in the Posada dining room made a change at times, as did eating around the corner from us in a moderately fancy small restaurant, the kind with dark decor and dimmish lighting and semi-ornate mirrors and maybe a guitarist. The English library was invaluable, especially for me—lots and lots of paperback thrillers, among other things, and Carol could chat a bit with the women at the desk. The supermercado, supermarket, was convenient for daily shopping, and a couple of times a week there was a street market. The plaza was pleasant to stroll around in.
And here’s another of Carol’s letters, this one to Milly, on October 19, and I may as well quote that in full too:
Well we have landed—safe and sound. Actually we have been here for three weeks tomorrow but I just couldn’t get down to writing before now. We are in Ajijic—just south of Guadalajara on Lake Chapala. And we have found a nice house in the centre of the village so we can shop on foot. The sun shines but we have hit the end of the rainy season so we have had a few real booming thunderstorms in the night. The mornings are always fresh and sparkling after a rain.
Our house is nice and has an extra bedroom with a double bed just waiting for company. The kitchen is modern and we have a huge dining table by the glass wall facing the garden. I have a good place for a studio and John has the whole roof—part of which is covered—to work on. So that has worked out well. — We also have a barbecue in the garden which is really pretty. It isn’t huge by Mexican standards but its nice.—An avocado tree, an orange tree and a limon tree all laden with fruit. Also bananas, coffee, poinsettias, palms, hibiscus, and several diacenas— etc.
I’m serious about you coming to visit—especially if you plan to visit Dan and Cathy in Austin. You could get a direct flight to Guadalajara and we are only about 1/2 hour hour away. If you arrive in the daylight we would pick you up — If in the dark you could get a taxi for not very much money to Ajijic — Lots of people do that. — From then on its a free ride — The entertainment here is simple—walks, just shopping around, we could go for excursions around the area in the car and visit other villages. We have chickens on the roof and roosters crowing all the time — Church bells — the main cathedral is just across the road from us.
It’s not hot. The days are lovely and warm—but dry and the evenings are cool and sometimes the nights are very cool right now and until January. We have had to scrounge for blankets.
I’m wondering if Dan and Cathy have found a house in Austin yet. We spent almost a week in San Antonio again and liked it as much as ever. It is a charming city to visit because of the canal walk ways. It makes for a great evening’s entertainment just walking along the canal—everything is so clean and beautifully cared for—it looks like a stage set.
That’s about all for now — It’s impossible to describe this place in a letter—cobblestones, animals, little shops, friendly villagers and a change from past visits, its clean. Someone has instigated garbage pickup and it really works. The streets are clean and a truck comes by every morning to take take garbage away — What an improvement! We have a phone — 5-33-70 - you have to get the overseas area codes from the operator and we are 2 hrs earlier than you.
It has suddenly clouded over and looks like rain - We have had rain during the day before - But I want to get this to the post office so I had better hurry. John has just gone off in his new sombrero to try to buy the Los Angeles Times so we can read about the San Francisco earthquake - it sounds bad from the bits and pieces we have been getting in our little English language paper here. We lived near that freeway that collapsed and I can just imagine what a disaster that could be.
So I had better go — Say [Save] the pennies you would have spent in N.Y. this winter and you and Curt come to Mexico. I[t] could be an easy trip for you. I don’t know what to say about your driving — It has both advantages and a great many disadvantages - We always feel greatly relieved when we can put the car in the locked garage (which we have) and forget about it. But on the other hand you do get to see more of the country - and the landscape is very special - Right now all the wild flowers are in bloom and the place is a riot of sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias and especially morning glories. Its gorgeous.
Gotta go beat the rain - Keep in touch.
I’d forgotten we stayed so long in San Antonio. But there weren’t literally chickens on our roof.
Q. You mentioned Chapala earlier, the town. What was that like?
A. It had its charms. It was only ten minutes away by car, and there was a news store there with magazines like Time and Newsweek, also the Los Angeles Times and other papers, and a modestly priced restaurant on the main street with good plain lunches, garlic soup, rolls, tortillas, etc. I mean, that was the restaurant we ate in. It wasn’t the only one. But the lake had receded, terribly, as I said, so that the jetty there ran out on dry ground.
What made the town interesting, though, was that it had been a resort town for the rich during the Diaz regime, back before the Revolution of 1910, the revolution. Diaz had stayed there, according to Norman D. Ford. And the architecture of a number of houses, and the formal gardens and promenade near the pier, which was at the bottom of the main street, recalled what you had from the same Belle Epoque period in Hyères, on the Provence coast, a sort of mini-Cannes. Lawrence says in The Plumed Serptent that in Diaz’ day “the lake-side began to be the Riviera of Mexico.”
The lake was lovely when we first arrived, very calm and Japanese, with graceful low hills on the far shore and herons standing around picturesquely at times. The range of hills behind us on the shoreward side of the town was wiggly, and Carol incorporated it into several of the works that she did there. The walled cemetery was another of those Mexican medleys, too, little wood or metal crosses next to mausoleums, etcetera, and at one point there were a lot of flowers and wreaths deposited there, maybe for the Day of the Dead, and Carol went there on her own one afternoon (I was in a black sulk that day, no idea why) and took photos. Slides.
Q. Where are they now?
A. In the blue ring-binder labelled slides. And you know, I’m glad I’ve just looked at them again, since in them you can see, I mean I can now see, what she compressed and transformed into what I knew was a cemetery watercolour, “All the Trumpets Sounded” (title mine). You can see a row of multicoloured wreaths in one of them, paper wreaths perhaps, like large flowers. You can see the hills. You can see some of the kinds of things that caught her eye there. But the slides themselves weren’t made until after we got back to Halifax, so she wasn’t copying. She was, you might say, no Mary Pratt.
Q. Did she take a lot of photos on that trip?
A. Not a lot. There are thirteen slides of the cemetery, and sixteen of variegated skies over the lake and the hills. In one of the lake ones you can see the hill form that figures in the oil I called “Lake of the Dead.” Most of this group were done at sunset. When Milly came down, she and Carol watched a procession in the village and Carol took twenty of that—floats with paper decorations, masked kids, paper-mache figures, riders in traditional costume (those huge sombreros).
Q. Good photos?
A. No, just tourist-type snaps. There are also about a dozen of vegetation and a big insect or two in our garden, presumably she was documenting forms. Her best Mexican photos that trip, I mean they’re good photos, are eight slides of Joshua Trees, those tall cactuses that you’d see along the road, I think in the more northern part of the country. We’d stopped for them, or maybe stopped near some of them for lunch, and she was obviously focused in them, I mean she obviously cared.
Q. Was she a good photographer, in your opinion, or have I asked that before?
A. I find that one a little hard to answer, since the bulk of her photos are in colour and I am not at home with colour. She wasn’t a people photographer, in the sense of wanting to replicate what one sees in the classic black-and-white photographers. I also think she had no interest in converting places, I mean buildings, streets, etc., into photos, as distinct from taking snaps that reminded her of places that she’d liked or found interesting. Or animals, like our cats.
But at times when forms interested her, particularly three-dimensional ones, she’d really set to and seize those forms, whether flowers, or a cat’s eye, or wiggly worm patterns on a wet beach, or stones in a rock pool, or wave-eroded tree-roots. There’s a lovely one of stones that she had composed, arranging them in a tidal pool, at Green Bay. She particularly liked beaches, I’d say, and what you could see on and from them, such as a rainbow over the water at Risser’s Beach, near Petite Riviere. She also, as I’ve no doubt said before, did some strong black-and-whites (enlarged) of textural forms, the Queen Street backyard trees and houses, the ruined hillside masonry among trees and bushes at Le Vieux Rougiers.
Q. You yourself weren’t taking photos on this trip?
A. I took some coloured slides of the jetty at Ajijic and the like. Total banality. You must remember that at that time I no longer defined myself as a photographer. I was writing, or trying to write, or pretending to be a writer of sorts. I simply wasn’t looking. There was no photographic desire there.
Q. Did you miss Cuernavaca?
A. Not consciously, no, I don’t think so. I mean, we weren’t sitting around talking about how nice it would be if we could drive into Cuernavaca. Chapala met several of our basic needs. And a few times we drove into Guadalajara, which was bigger, and far enough away to be a whole day’s project.
Q. And how was that?
A. There was a large shopping centre there, away from the gloomy splendours of the huge central plaza, and a large indoor market, larger than the one in Cuernavaca. We saw and admired the Orozco frescoes in one of the buildings, and hunted down a recommended seafood restaurant (disappointing), and bought used paperbacks at an English-language bookstore. We also went to an interesting crafts area on the outskirts of our side of the city, with lots of upscale crafts stores and manufactories in solid buildings, not street stuff, and numerous restaurants.
Relatively late we found and really enjoyed a large park with a Spanish Colonial, or at least 19th-century feel to it, and a major government craft store. We’d gone in by bus that time, so we were more relaxed. That was a happy day.
Q. So it hadn’t been all an error not going back to Tepoztlán?
A. I guess not. But there was something so special about the Tepoztlán—Cuernavaca—Mexico City nexus.
How about a break?
A. Ajijic had its events, too. In November I wrote, “At the moment the town is in the grip of a ten-day fiesta. As I write, an absolute barrage of rockets has gone off outside from the church yard, followed by a rousing performance by the town band.” At some point there was an impressive display of fireworks on those elaborate bamboo towers, like the ones in Tepoztlán, that were built for the occasion and adorned with fireworks, catherine wheels and the like, that went off in elaborate sequences, spelling out words, forming pictures, and so on.
At Easter there was an elaborate passion play that began in the large open space in front of the church, or maybe I should say cathedral, and climaxed in a procession, including the cross-bearing Jesus, that made its way distantly up a steep hillside trail until it reached a small shrine. On another occasion, when Milly and Curt were staying with us, there was a busy chili cook-out on the beach in front of the Posada, with bands and singers.
Q. So you had visitors?
A. Milly and Curt stayed with us for several days and were good company, enjoying Ajijic, Chapala, and that craft area on the outskirts of Guadalajara. I mean, they really did like being there, and one morning Curt, with his bad hip, quietly went off by himself and walked all the way up to the shrine. And Karen, Sergio, and their two kids stayed for a few days in April in one of the cottages in the Posada.
Q. Had you yourself made it up to the shrine?
A. Yes, and it scared me, since the trail was narrow, uneven, and had no guard rail.
In the first week of May Bruce Greenfield and Anne Higgins from the English Department flew down, stayed in the house, and left a fornight later, having had a few days off touring on their own by bus. During their visit we drove way up into the hills on the opposite side of the lake one day in search of a particular restaurant, and found a quite different landscape and architecture, rather Alpine, wooden buildings with steeply pitched roofs and, I think, shutters and occasional balconies.
We also drove with them, on Raul’s recommendation, down to the small town of Melaque on the Pacific coast, at the northern end of a bay with the better-known village of Barra de Navidad at the other end, a day’s drive. For one stretch of several miles, unfortunately for me, Raul’s confident assertion that there was a two-lane divided highway the whole way proved dramatically false, and instead there a terrifying winding road hugging the sides of gorges, so that I had to ask Carol to take over.
Q How was Melaque?
Q. Nice. We stayed in an ideal hotel on the beach, a nice room with balcony in the same clean bare-wood style as the hotel at Tecolutla, a large patio area on the beach under a solid thatched roof, with a bar and dining. The water was lovely, magical in the calm of early morning, with pelicans flying in line and, on one occasion, a couple of local women quietly chatting with water up to their necks. We had a great shrimp meal one day in Barra de Navidad, but unfortunately I’d completely lost my sense of smell and taste because of the altitude change, coming down to sea level from the plateau.
Q. So far everything sounds pretty idyllic, in a Chamber of Commerce fashion.
A. Ajijic wasn’t all roses, though, not by any means..
I’ve already quoted Carol’s reference to her “nasty cold or infection,” and it was a bad one, though at least there was a competent young doctor in the small clinic up on the highway.
In the letter in which I spoke of the fiesta, I also said that she had “fallen recently in a used-furniture store and cracked a rib.” It was a bad fall, the result of one of those unmarked steps that one doesn’t expect to be there, so that she fell hard and banged against some sharp-edged piece of furniture. I forget whether the doctor strapped her ribs or whether, which is more likely, she decided not to have it done because of her breathing problems. And she was unwilling to take codein because it was constipating. So she was in considerable pain for several days, bad enough at one point to make her cry.
And it got cold that winter, and it took me a while to figure out how to buy some wood, a scarce commodity, for the fireplace in the livingroom, the only heatable room. In February I said that “We’re still glad to be here, but ironically we appear to have hit the coldest and wettest Ajijic winter in living memory [not an exaggeration], and Carol’s studio has a morgue-like chill.” A day later, I said in another letter that her “unheated studio has too often been too cold to work in.” Even at the start of April, “there are a fair number of clouds around at times.”
Q. Which was unusual?
A. Yes, very.
Q. Was she able to work? You yourself were up on the sunny roof, weren’t you?
A. Yes. But I was under, my table was under, just a small roof in one corner, the north-east corner, overlooking the street. There was no way it could have served as a studio for her.
But anyway, I see that on February 12 I said that “Carol, despite her constant complaining about the chill in her studio, has managed to complete two respectable-sized oils and rough out a triptych....”
Q. You weren’t being flippant about the cold?
A. Of course not. And we really did have bad luck on that sabbatical—the first time for us, really, when we were unlucky. Not total bad luck, but rotten luck with the freak weather and the ravaged streets.
And Tepoztlán had shown us what a really nice Mexican climate could be like, which is to say virtually ideal for a good many weeks. And even as it was we had enough lovely days in Ajijic to show what it could have been like.
But that unexpected chill was very hard to come to terms with. Near the end of February I said,
As to our Edenic bliss. I’ve been reminded at times, a bit sourly, of the joke about the golfer who goes to Hell and is conducted, in a state of increasing ecstacy, around the perfect golf-course. Finally, after being presented by the Devil with an equally perfect set of clubs, he prepares to tee off and asks for a ball. “Ball? Oh no, I’m afraid we don’t have any balls.” Which is to say that, this winter having turned out to be the coldest and wettest in living gringo memory, Carol’s unheated studio has too often been too cold to work in.
So it wasn’t a happy Mexican year for her on the whole, not a replay of our magical first year in Tepoztlán in 1969-70 or even the toned-down second sabbatical year there, 1981-82, when at least there was Claude in her village on the road to Cuernavaca, and the oils that Carol worked on were all fully finished up and resolved, and the breakthrough with the watercolours occurred.
Q. What were the Ajijic oils you mentioned?
A. The triptych would have been what I later titled “Lost Garden,” with its gardenscape with medieval fountain in the left panel, desolate cemetery landscape in the right one, and spectrum of pastoral and industrial imagery in the centre one. She had problems with the central panel, problems of scale and integration, integration of diverse forms.
Q. And resolved them?
A. I’m not sure. The left panel, I’m morally certain, lacks some finishing touches, particularly in the fountain area. Maybe she’d have tweaked elements in the centre panel, who knows? It was an ambitious work, with elements she’d never used before, striped industrial chimneys (over in Dartmouth actually), fighting planes in formation, blast furnaces, a rocket rising, skyscrapers. The small blurred operating theatre in the centre recalls her surgeon painting from the early Seventies, but I don’t know what it signifies.
Q. She didn’t talk about the work? Where it was coming from?
A. No. But I suppose it was a discharge of stored griefs and angers, the kind condensed in her phrase “nasty dirty Man”, oh the fight about the Public Gardens, the devastation of the old Minneapolis that we’d known (I’m stretching there), and so forth. She’d done those earlier “ecological” oils, “Lamentation” and “Oil Slick.”
Q. Had you been seeing things on the way down to Mexico?
A. No, we virtually hadn’t been seeing urban stuff at all. No, wait, that’s an oversimplification. We had passed through those messed-up northern Mexico landscapes that I think of as being around Monterrey but may have been more extensive, the kind where you may have a stretch of “unspoiled” scenery, and then are suddenly back among industrial stuff.
And you had that squalid discarding of inorganic garbage along the sides of Mexican roads, including one near Ajijic. And there’d been the garbage problem too in Tepoztlán, plastic bottles littering the dry beds of streams, and along the water’s edge in Ajijic, for that matter. You were a good deal aware of grunge and dirt in those typical Mexican urban streets with rows of small scruffy stores, metal-working shops, and the like.
It was apparent too from the outset of our time in Ajijic that the water was being sucked out of the lake to nourish Guadalajara. Development was not controlled in Mexico. Except in preserved monuments like Zacatecas. You were more conscious of development, industrial development, in Mexico than back home.
And it was only the year before, 1988, that her mind had been full of gardens when she gave her garden talk, subtitled “The Search for Paradise in Western Art.”
Q. What about the other two oils you mentioned?
A. One would certainly have been the one I titled “Inner Spaces,” with its mingling of northern and tropical imagery, snowy landscape with lighted house windows inside the head-and-shoulders-like central form, which is surrounded by tropical, well I guess Mexican elements—vegetation, a butterfly, a large ant, a ladder, lighted candles. I see there’s a Christmas tree visible through one of the windows. She finished it, I’m pretty sure, before the new year.
Q. Yearning for “home”? Feeling incongruous down south?
A. I don’t know. I can’t read the painting. She had enough trouble with it to make me feel that it’s not all that good, but this may be unfair, since I was able to see more of its progress than I normally did with her oils, since one went through the studio into our bedroom.
She was also at work in separate small paintings on the kind of butterfly and trumpet flower that you see in it, I mean we have those paintings. They look unfinished to me, though I suppose she could have been aiming for a deliberate coarseness. Mimi Cazort liked them, I remember.
Q. Was she down there?
A. No, that was in Halifax in 1993, for “A Visionary Gaze.”.
Since I called the other two oils “respectable” in size, I suppose that the other would have been “Two Ways Up: II,” since I know the lovely “Stairs and Sky and Moon” came later.
Q. These titles are all yours, aren’t they?
A. Yes. They came to me when I was feeling my way towards the “Visionary Gaze” show in ‘93. And they came easily, apart from “Stairs and Sky and Moon,” [now “The Wall,”] which I’ve never been entirely happy with. I don’t mean I was inspired, not literally. That would be foolish and presumptuous. But you must remember that I’d lived with her for a long time, and had been looking since her death at a lot of her images, including a lot of the great watercolour ones from the Eighties, and had some sense of how her analogy-making mind worked. Osmosis, shall we say?
So I wasn’t consciously sayiing to myself, now what would Carol have called this picture? I simply looked at it—at them—and the titles came. Of course I was affected by the knowledge that these were her last works, and I guess I came to feel a summarizing as well as an exploring in them, and I suppose I was partly bringing out what seemed to be latent religious aspects of some of them, partly in reference to her. I don’t imagine that she herself would have given the great cemetery watercolour the title it now has....
A. “And All the Trumpets Sounded.”
Q. Which is a quotation, isn’t it?
A. Yes. It comes from near the end of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, but the form in which it had imprinted on me, in my boyhood, was at the conclusion of John Buchan’s First World War thriller Mr. Standfast. I may as well quote the whole passage as it appears there. It’s about Mr. Valliant-for-Truth.
Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who now will be my rewarder.”
So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
A. You see what I mean? And though I’m sure that on her own she would never have spoken of herself in such terms, I think that if she had asked me what to call it and I’d said immediately “And All the Trumpets Sounded,” making it general in its application, she’d have said OK. After all, she accepted “Symbol Junkyard,” didn’t she? And “Transformations,” as a title for the drawing of hairpieces on model heads by Ruth Wainwright.
My sister Deb recognized the quotation immediately when I sent her the catalogue, she said, and it broke her up, probably because applying for her to her dead ex-husband Geoff.
So with respect to “Two Ways Up: II,” there’d been a “Two Ways Up” oil from Provence in which a smooth new set of village-type outdoor steps and a beat-up old set are side by side. And in the Ajijic painting you have a fairly complex ascension going on in the larger right-side area—stone steps leading to a sinister doorway; a couple of short ladders; a zig-zagging path up through the hills. And in the left side area you have a single long ladder going straight up from a bunch of flowers, with a flying bird near the top. The figure in the doorway on the right looks sort of demonic, too, and there are vertical bars on the window beside the door.
Q You didn’t ask her about the symbolism? Had she read The Pilgrim’s Progress, do you know?
A. No I don’t. I don’t think it had been a presence in the Hoorn household the way “The Ancient Mariner”with the Doré illustrations had been. And Paradise Lost, at least the illustrations, also Doré’s. Milly would know, I suppose.
I did make one contribution to the painting itself, though. She asked me whether I thought there should be something more in the straight-edged area of flat dark-green paint that separates the two halves of it, and I said no, and she, accepted that. I was simply reacting formally, I’m sure. The right hand area was already very busy, and you needed a contrast, and I couldn’t think of any kind of thing that ought to go into the “empty” area. I was puzzled at that time by the demonic figure, though. Had no idea what it might mean or be. There’d been nothing like it in her work previously.
In the tape I did with Mimi in ‘91, there’s an almost inaudible bit where I may have been saying that she’d thought of putting a waterfall there. For all I know, she could have decided, once we got back to Halifax, that that was what she wanted.
A... But what I’d really meant to say was that when we were in Guadalajara on that occasion, at least I think it was that occasion, we were walking along one of the downtown streets, the cultural downtown, and came upon a couple of poorish women and an old-style pram, or maybe a pram-like box on wheels, parked there by the wall, and glanced in, and there was this man, or rather this man’s head, normal size, normal-looking, bearded, smiling, and a tiny torso and nothing else.
And he was smiling, a sweet smile, and he didn’t look affected mentally. And he thanked us when we left a few pesos. And the women did too. And his family must have been caring for him all those years since the presumably horrifying birth.
A. Yes, an image, you might say. Like the handsome legless man on some kind of skateboard near the Cuernavaca market, or the sweet-faced girl with twisted limbs dragging herself along the ground in one of the plazas there, or the also legless beggar who I’d pass on one of the Cuernavaca sidestreets on my way to my language lesson, parked there alone against the wall without any shade and presumably retrieved by someone later.
Q. How did Carol react to the man in the pram? Or box.
A. She was moved, how could one not be? It was like something out of Buñuel.
But, and here I’m guessing, I wouldn’t think that this would be something that might ultimately have surfaced in some drawing or painting of hers. Or could it have? You can’t be certain, can you? But sometimes thinking about what an artist doesn’t use can useful. And I know she didn’t in fact use any of the more or less sordid criminal images that she’d saved from those scandal zines Alarma and Alerta during our first sabbatical in Tepoztlán.
And she was a bit cross, as I think I said before, when I told her I thought she’d like some rather morbid/grotesque/ nightmarish Kahloesque works by a younger Mexican woman artist that were on dispaly in one of the Guadalajara galleries that we’d visited and where I’d been foraging on ahead as usual.
Q. Why was she cross?
A. Well, it wasn’t as if she was ignorant of the body’s potential awfulness. She’d done those four years as a nurse’s aide in the recovery ward in Minneapolis where the poor ravaged victims of “heroic” surgery, sometimes with half their faces gone, had been tended. In fact in one instance the man had blown half his own face off with a shotgun in a failed suicide attempt.
And the Elephant Man, both in the book and in the movie, had been really important for her, as had the British horror movie The Quatermass Experiment, in which a returned astronaut’s body was progressively taken over by a vegetable-like alien being. We had become aware of the Elephant Man in the early Seventies before the fashion for him, when I bought Ashley Montagu’s little paperback. So she could have appropriated the image, the way Noland did with his armoured Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly.
Q. So what would be the difference now?
A. Not necessarily any. She never used the Elephant Man image hereself in her art, I suspect because, well, because doing so would have turned attention to the grotesque exterior, the freakshow aspect, rather than to the sweet interior being. And so maybe now a limbless torso in a pram in art would be either too exploitative or too cryptic or too “literary.” But it was one of our strongest “Mexican” images during all our visits there.
Q. You spoke of not sleeping well when one drinks.
A. Yes, particularly at high altitudes, it seems to be a received wisdom. And true, I’d say
Q So were you drinking much down there.
A. Not seriously, at least I wouldn’t say so. I wasn’t getting drunk. A bottle of beer at lunch, maybe, a couple of sangritas—sangrita, not sangria—before dinner, a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, a drink before bed, a swallow or two, or three of vodka during the night. And we very rarely went to the lounge down at the posada, where the serious gringo drinkers were. They looked a pretty obnoxious crowd. Carol herself was drinking almost nothing by this time, except maybe a margharita before dinner.
Q. So the two of you weren’t mingling much with the locals? All that rich creative expatriate life?
A. Tennessee Williams in Chapala, etcetera? I’m sure all that was long gone. Or was carrying on, after a fashion, up north at San Miguel Allende. We didn’t even form acquaintances with the women running the library. Or desire them, speaking for myself.
Q. You weren’t doing much driving around in Mexico this time, it seems to me?
A. Apart from that excursion to the coast? No, not really. Not for pleasure. But at the beginning of March we drove up to the States to renew our visas, this time staying in a scruffy motel in Austin for several nights (March 6–10) and seeing several movies together—My Left Foot, Branagh’s Henry V, Apartment Zero, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, and The Fabulous Baker Boys.
And the return trip had its moments—the wrong kind. Evidently the gas that we took on in Texas just before crossing the border had been dirty, for on one of those long, straight, empty northern Mexican roads, when Carol was driving, the car started stalling each time she eased up on the gas pedal. That road would not have been a good place on which to have a breakdown, and God knows how we would have managed about getting help. Cannibals-and- Missionaries time, if you recall that old puzzle. I suppose we’d have had to flag down a car that would have given Carol a lift to the nearest town with a garage, rather than me going and she staying alone on the road, at the mercy of anyone who might come along.
But she nursed the car along beautifully, and on the outskirts of the town on which we’d planned to spend the night, Sabinas Hidalgo, we passed a garage with a VW sign, and next day a couple of kids split the underside of the car apart like a lobster and cleaned out the tank and fuel lines. We stayed in a motel at San Luis Potosí on the 13th, and were back in Ajijic on the 14th. I’m drawing here on a calendar with entries in Carol’s handwriting.
That wasn’t our only bit of car trouble that sabbatical, either. Early on, when we were in Jocotepec, the small town at the western end of Lake Chapala, the gas line started spewing gas once more. We stopped by the kerb, and I had the gumption to cross the road to where another VW was standing, and the driver directed us to one of those cluttery, dirty, al fresco small garages where in fact the mechanics knew their business, and this time we learned that back in Roanoke, and again in Laredo, two gas lines with slightly different diameters had been linked by a rubber sleeve, and that the end of one of them was slightly ragged, so that the sleeve was gradually weakened.
The join was properly made this time, in Jocotopec, but at some point in the new year, I think after our return from the States, there was trouble in Ajijic with the fuel injection. But again we were lucky, and again there was the deservedly well-reputed Mexican mechanical skill. The garage proprietor that we went to didn’t know about fuel injection himself, but made a trip into Guadalara to find out what to do. And he took care of the problem. But these things didn’t make for a feeling of relaxation about the final return trip north.
Q. You’ve mentioned three works by Carol. What else did she do there? I take it that the weather did improve eventually
A. OK, I see that on April 4, I said that “I’m happy to report that Carol, after six months of complaining about the weather, knitting sweaters, working jigsaw puzzles, cooking gourmet meals, hungering for visitors, and so on, has kicked into gear and is doing paintings that interest her.”
Q. So how did it go?
A. Well, we left Ajijic early enough in July to be on the road for my birthday on the 18th (according to an undated handwritten card by Carol.) And she would seem to have done the bulk of her work between then and our return from the States in March, once the weather had started warming up.
Less than four full months, in other words, with the visit by Bruce Greenfield and Ann Higgins at one point, and also I think, the two-or three-day one by Karen and Sergio and their two kids (they stayed at the Posada), plus several weeks of workmen building the extra bathroom.
Q. And during that time she did...?
A. I’ve already mentioned the lovely, glowing [“The Wall,”] with its rocky wall that turns at the top into hills with sky above them, its doorway with stairs ascending inside, its barred window with sky visible through it. The wall with door and single window appears in an earlier work, but I forget which. Maybe one of the watecolours? You can also, as I said earlier, see that configuration in a photo I took in Provence in 1962
Q. Which she would have known?
A. Oh yes. We saw it together during one of those coach excursions from Arles to Les Baux and so forth.
My favourite of the other oils is “Who Are Those People and How Did They Get There?,” two small naked figures that remind me of us when younger, in an Edenic garden with a plane flying overhead. “Garden Solitude” is a more literal representation of the area in the Ajijic garden where we’d have breakfast, lunch, and before-dinner drinks, when it was warm. It looks unfinished to me. Some of the paint is uncharacteristically flat and muddy.
The small “Cock Bright” is lovely, just the feathery bright rooster. The title comes from one of her favourite poems by Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” and I may as well quote the whole stanza in which it appears:
Fly low, cock bright, and stop on a bean pole. Let
Your brown breast redden, while you wait for warmth.
With one eye watch the willow, motionless.
The gardener’s cat is dead, the gardener gone
And last year’s garden grows salacious weeds.
All three stanzas of that section may be relevant.
A rooster is also prominent in the magnificent large drawing “Final Soliloquy” (Stevens again) that she did in the winter evenings in our sitting room. The old and poor couple next door kept chickens in their little yard, and there was a fair amount of crowing in the small hours. She combined views in the drawing—trees like those in our garden, plus the kinds of things you saw in the next-door yard, including hens in the trees and some corrugated roofing, with a stylised version of the Ajijic hills beyond. The large apartment building or hotel is entirely her invention.
Q. There was nothing like it there?
A. No. Nothing that size. Or configuration.
The old man died while we there, and there was a moving honouring of him, with a service in the cathedral and a number of mourners at the house. It was nice seeing other women sitting with the widow and helping her through the crisis.
Q. Carol must have appreciated that.
A. Yes. Particularly given her remarks in one of those interviews about how our culture has trouble dealing with death.
Q. “We have no wailing wall.”
A. Yes, and no Night of the Dead, at least not any longer, since I guess that All Hallows was the European equivalent, maybe even in origin. European. I don’t know if it made it to North America. God knows there’s enough of a feel of death in Munch. Death and the body. And in Bergman.
Q. Didn’t one of the reviewers comment on the presence of death in her own works?
A. I seem to remember something. I can’t say I see it as some kind of constant, let alone obsession, though as you know I miss things, like the moon symbolism in the movie Luna. Obviously there are works by her in which death or emblems of death figures strongly—the widow painting, the new winter grave painting, the cemetery drawings, “Head Wound,” “Major Surgery.” But so what? There are lots and lots of other works, including all the vibrantly “affirmative” watercolours. As she herself might have said, people are so squeamish nowadays. Me included—outside of art, that is.
Q. Which she herself wasn’t?
A. She had had so much close-up experiencing of death and dying, in contrast to me, who had had none. There was her father’s terrible death at home from colon cancer, and her mother’s hospital death from cancer, and the terminal patients in those wards she had worked in. And for all I know there had been visits to the house at Fergus Falls when Aunt Molly was caring for the two bedridden, nerve-degenerating uncles upstairs. What’s remarkable, really, is how unmorbid the treatment of death is in her works.
If you really want an obsession with sickness and death, go to Kahlo.
I’m pretty sure she, Carol, wouldn’t have cared much for the photographs of Witkin, Joel Peter Witkin. She loved the movie Freaks, and the Elephant Man, and cared for the unfortunate Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monsters, and the alien-infested returned astronaut in The Quatermass Experiment. But that was different, those were souls, individual consciousnesses existing with terrible handicaps.
Well, back to the Ajijic works.
The thickly painted small horizontal oil “Lake of the Dead” [now “Sunset Lake”] looks finished to me. She was interested in sunsets there at one point, even taking photos from the roof. The title is a play on Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” of course. And the lake, Lake Chapala, was literally dying, the water level going down and down.
The two portrait oils “Man with Book” and “Self-Portrait with Window,” which probably should have been called “Woman with Window,” are a melancholy conclusion to her long series of couple paintings. There’s no connecting at all there now, and both figures look sad.
Q. The one of the man, you, wasn’t in the Saint Mary’s show, was it?
A. No, but only because it didn’t fit in with the “visionary” theme.
Q. Had you posed for it?
A. I don’t remember. Briefly, probably. I had some input into the other one, though. The first time she did the face of the woman I said it didn’t look like her, which it didn’t, and she tried again and I said the same thing, as tactfully as possible, and she got mad and did the third version, the present one, and that did, does, look like her. The painting isn’t finished, though. You can see where she meant to put flowers below the window.
“Golden Coast,” [now “Labyrinth”] the last begun of the oils I would think, is fascinating, because so very different from anything by her previously. I mean, where does that Cretan-type bull come from? The landscape-in-process reminds me of Redon, as in his Cyclops painting. Very Mediterranean. But of course it’s all very inchoate and provisional still.
One interesting thing about it is that she said to me at some point, maybe after we got back to Halifax, that she would not want that one to be offered for sale, presumably because it was so unfinished. Which might mean, by implication, that she felt that most of the others were sufficiently finished, which isn’t the same thing as really finished, of course. I’m still sure that she meant to put some more flowers and foliage into those slightly muddy areas in “The Wall.”
Q. When did she do the watercolours?
A. Near the end. I cheated a bit in the Saint Mary’s show, putting two or three obviously unfinished ones into it with titles that implied that they were finished—“Must it Be? It Must Be” (Beethoven) and “It Is Not Finished” (with a play in my head on ‘Consumatum est.’).
Q. Obviously unfinished?
A. Yes. And I’m not just speaking formally. On one of her studio walls when she died were eight watercolours that I’m sure she considered finished, and on another wall were thirteen others, all taped up by her, and some of those so clearly unfinished that you can be sure that the others were too, even if you hadn’t inferred it stylistically, such as the one I think of as “Bridge in the Jungle” (she had enjoyed that novel by Traven years before), with its precision in places and uncharacteristic unfunctional muddiness in others.
“Chapel Hills, ““Sun Forest,” “What the Lightning Said” (echoing Eliot’s “What the Thunder Said” section in The Waste Land) and of course “All the Trumpets” all seem to me very fine, and it would have been very interesting to see what she did with the entirely new checker-board form in one of the unfinished ones, which I can’t help thinking of as “Endgame,” given her liking for Beckett, not to mention other considerations.
Q. You mean?
A. Did she know she didn’t have long? My guess is that she may well have suspected that something wasn’t right, seriously wasn’t right, and may have felt an urgency about getting down as much on canvas and paper as she could, but that she didn’t formulate things to herself in definite “dramatic” terms. And most probably she was painting for her next show, without necessarily thinking of it as her last.
When we were in Toronto in the fall for my talks and we went to the Nancy Poole gallery and she asked Joan Martin about having a show, she was very pleased, I know, to be offered one, and in such a friendly way, and I think it was originally going to be in the spring of ‘91. She didn’t like having to ask for a postponement, and until fairly late she thought there was a chance that she could still do it. She was looking forward to that show, that show in Toronto.
Q. And it was to be these Ajijic works?
A. Oh I think so. Somewhere or other there’s a reference to the show by Martin as “mixed media,” and that would certainly apply to the works I’ve been talking about—oils, watercolours, drawings.
Q. How might it have fared, do you think?
A. I’m no prophet. It would have been so very different from what I take to be the norms of Ontario art that it could have been savaged as sentimental, illustrational, and the other deadly sins, or simply dismissed, poof!.
On the other hand, depending I suppose, on the gallery’s reputation and clout, it might have been found different enough to be interesting. And God knows, there was enough skill on display in some of the works to make the naiveté of something like “Who Are Those People?” obviously deliberate. And who knows what final touches she might have given to some of the other works? She had a marvellous self-critical eye, you know.
And once again, I really had offered to give up to her my microclimate up on the roof, which was perfectly comfortable during the day, even mid-winter. But the roofed-over area would have been too small, to have been an adequate work area for her.
Q. Did she offer any general comments about the Ajijic experience?
A. No. She’d never summed up the second Tepoztlán one either, that I can remember. Obviously not all the Ajijic works had the old brio, the old panache. “Inner Spaces” still looks stiff to me, and “Lost Garden” may not be entirely resolved. Nor do three or four small oils that I haven’t mentioned look exciting as they stand.
But remember, we do not know what changes she might have made in the works that she brought back, particularly given the lift to her spirits of a Toronto show in a decent gallery, and the attendant challenges to her to show her mettle. And remember, she had gone down to Mexico this time, I’m sure, being doubtful as to what she’d be able to bring back at all, what with the problems of moving back into “major” oils again.
But there must have been things that satisfied her as they stood. “Final Soliloquy” is one of the finest drawings that she ever did, a bravura demonstration of expertise, and several of the watercolours that she finished were lovely, and she was opening up a variety of new directions, for her, in her oils. “Who Are Those People?” must have been particularly interesting for her, I would think, in what it showed about what could be accomplished with “naive” imagery and fairly rapid brush-work.
And in the one that I called “The Wall,” she had recovered her old certitude and clarity and all it lacked when she allowed it to dry before rolling it up for the return trip was a few finishing touches in three small areas, probably a matter of adding a bit more vegetation, and those she could easily have done when she fully resumed work in her Halifax studio, as she obviously planned to do.
And she had found her time down there visually interesting, even if Ajijic wasn’t her beloved Tepoztlán with its extraordinary enclosing hills.
Q. For example?
A. Well, she did “Final Soliloquy,” sitting on the couch in the living room at night when the wood fire provided the only winter warmth, starting at the top left corner, and patiently extending the imagery across the paper in all its interlocking stylistic complexities. It was obviously a labour of love, a brilliant recombining, and supplementing of elements observable in our garden and from our roof, though I have no particular recollections of her being up there at any time. She had been looking at all those things—establishing them three-dimensionally in her mind.
And the Ajijic hills, very different from those at Tepoztlán, provided her with fresh imagery, and the lake figured symbolically, as I’ve said, in one of the smaller oils, and the cemetery, different again from the one in Tepoztlán, in one of her greatest watercolours, and one of the cocks from next door, in that lovely small oil, and she obviously really studied the trees in our garden, even while being frustrated by its over-orderliness, which left no room for gardening intvervention by her.
Also, ironically, her initial prediction that she’d find herself being swamped by green again in her paintings after trying to break away from it turned out to be entirely false.
Incidentally, it’s just occurred to me to wonder whether in the unfinished “golden” painting with the bull, she might not have been embarking on a kind of affirmative re-doing of Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” “Northern” Böcklin modulating into “Mediterranean” Odilon Redon, two aspects of her own consciousness again, as in “Inner Spaces.”
Oh, and she’d enjoyed getting to know our intelligent young cleaning woman, Delia, to whom she wrote in Spanish in December after our return home. And she liked and I think was amused by Raul, our expansive and loquacious landlord, and really liked his wife. And I spoke earlier about some of the quieter pleasures of being down there, including evening walks by the lake before all those others arrived from the cold North, and our afternoon in that charming park in Guadalajara.
And she’d seen and admired Orozco’s murals, though I don’t know if anything would have come of that. Probably not.
Q. She’d seen some of Diego Rivera’s in Cuernavaca, hadn’t she?
A. And hadn’t liked them particularly.
Q. But no Kahlo?
A. Not that I can recall. But as I’ve said, a calendar of Kahlo self-portraits was on the sunroom wall when she died. It occurs to me that Kahlo may have been one of the few painters with whom she felt in some sense competitive, if only in the eyes of others, given their overlappings in a few ways, including bodily infirmities and perhaps the felt need to affirm herself as not Kahlo. Whose relationship with Rivera was obviously a good deal more vibrant than Carol’s and mine. And who had much more in the way of a sustaining art environment.
Q. When did she get the calendar?
A. I don’t know. In the fall of 1990 maybe? For all I know, it could have been a gift. But I don’t think I bought it. Not that my memory’s to be trusted about such things.
Q. It’s curious, isn’t it? In Provence and the Mediterranean, when the two of you discovered them...
A. She’d been in Venice before she met me, remember.
Q. But it’s not really the same. Anyway, down there in those landscapes there’d been precursors like Van Gogh, Bonnard, Monet, Cézanne, and she cannot but have been aware of them during her own engagements with the landscape, and yet once she hit her stride she came away looking like herself, didn’t she?
A. In her best drawings, anyway.. Oh, well, and her best oils from those years, like “Moon Alley.”.
Q. And in her “Northern” phase she’d had Munch and Kokoschka and...
A. So what’s your point?
Q. I’m not sure, except that maybe it would be interesting to know how present the Mexican artists were for hers once Mexico became a subject for her and entered into her bloodstream the way Provence had done earlier. After all, you were in Provence together, how many times?
A. Two summers, and a few weeks in 1962 and 1967.
Q. And in Mexico?
A. Three sabbaticals, and three other visits.
Q. Well, then.
A. I’ll take it under advisement. Whatever it is. But the answer’s probably no. No influences.
Anyway, despite all the handicaps, she brought back a lot of work and probably visual memories from down there, and I’m sure would have finished it all up appropriately for the show at Nancy Poole. I say “appropriately” bearing in mind her admiration for the late quartets of Beethoven and the late self-portraits of Rembrandt She was older now than she’d been in 1969-70 and 1981-82.
Q. Were you sorry to leave?
A. I don’t remember. Probably not. I don’t mean we were glad to leave. But Ajijic and that area hadn’t been special the way Tepoztlán and Seillons were, and I imagine I wanted to get back to work on the Toronto talks. However, I see that in an April letter I had said that “I feel a bit gloom-and-doomy about the return trip at the moment, since we’ve been having car trouble....”
Here’s a card that Carol sent to my stepmother in early July:
Thank you for your letter. We were still here to receive it but are getting ready to leave in two days time. The last month has gone very fast and we haven’t done nearly as much as we had hoped to. I guess we will have to come back.
The rainy season has started now in real earnest—and when that rain comes down it is straight and hard. It has brought a lot of insects with it. I am busy sweeping out the spider webs. But it has been good to see the dry gray and brown hills burst forth into bright green dense foliage.
I will be glad to be home again but we have a long and very hot drive. We will spend John’s birthday somewhere along the way.
We hope you are well but are sorry to hear that your eyes are bothering you.
Her handwriting is perfectly clear and firm. I’d forgotten about the rain. That would have made leaving easier. So would the fact that this time there hadn’t been any animals that had attached themselves to us.
Q. And no Claude.
A. And no Claude.
The night before we left, the Hugos had us in for dinner, and served us delicious little fish, we presumed from the contaminated lake, plus—ha!—pigs’ trotters. But I behaved with aplomb and took mine apart without flinching, to Carol’s private amusement.
One oddity: Even at the end, when we’d stripped almost every flat surface in the house bare, we couldn’t manage to find a roll of photos Carol had taken, I think of her watercolours, back in Halifax the previous fall.