In one of the sweeping statements she was famous for, Rebecca West declared that women were idiots, the word “idiot” from the Greek, meaning private person – the implication being that women are too bogged down in domestic affairs to see the big picture. Far less frequently quoted is the second half of the statement: that men, suffering the opposite defect – lunacy – are lunatics; obsessed by public affairs, they view the world as by moonlight, seeing only the outline and never the details of things.
I was reminded of this reading Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua’s The Retrospective, an overlong though weirdly intriguing treatment of clashing aesthetic visions and the two men who embody them. Here Great Artists butt heads over Great Issues, overlooking the human “details” and completely missing the point.
Yehoshua’s 10th novel and winner of the 2012 Prix Médicis Étranger (for works in translation), The Retrospective opens in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where – with his lead actress, long-time muse and some-time lover, Ruth – 70-year-old director Yair Moses has travelled to view a retrospective of his early films. He is startled to find in his hotel room a reproduction of a famous painting that, almost to the last detail, mirrors a scene he cut from a film he had collaborated on with his screenwriter decades before. The screenwriter, Trigano, never forgave him the excision, and sundered their partnership in a rage.
The painting, along with the three-day immersion in his work, prompts Moses to a reconsideration of his past. The process leads to a confrontation and an act of atonement that manages to be both far-fetched and predictable: It’s what we discover along the way that’s intriguing.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Yehoshua said he wanted to capture the competing forces that clash within him as an artist, i.e., “wildness and discipline” – here captured in the characters of Trigano, the hair-trigger idealist and uncompromising intellectual, and Moses, the settled bourgeois whose “sense of proportion” is meant to rein the other in. Thus, we have a snarling confrontation between the two, in which their aesthetic values are vociferated: It is the climax of the novel, and we are meant to be impressed.
And we might be … except that as these two artistic titans ram horns, it becomes increasingly clear that the battlefield on which they clash has been the body, and soul, of a person – Ruth. And it’s Ruth – the supposedly blank (mute, passive) canvas on which these two auteurs meant to express their visions – who, as the novel proceeds, becomes more and more the focus of our uneasy interest.
The first unsettling thing we learn is that, since she and Trigano were lovers, the then 22-year-old Ruth was not paid: “As the scriptwriter’s girlfriend she was available to work for free.” (“But you belonged then to Trigano,” Moses splutters. “Belonged?” Ruth counters; “What an awful word.”) We also learn that she was in effect raped by a co-actor in a scene characteristic of the kind her lover-screenwriter devised for her: “This animal dragged me into the bushes … and you let him do it,” she blasts Moses, still seething after 40 years. “… [You were] prepared to … hand over a young woman, barely an actress, to an actor who used the camera as an alibi for his lust.”
In fact, her treatment at the hands of Trigano was, we see, consistently, if vicariously, violent: In one film she is mute and deaf, in another she is raped, in still another killed, in yet another “Trigano was tempted to bestow a new disability on his beloved [!], making her lame or even blind.” Her treatment at the hands of her director is little better: From the beginning, Moses refers to her condescendingly as a “frightened female,” “confused and almost childlike,” who is “absent-minded” and ostensibly unable to navigate a foreign city on her own.
Indeed, Moses, who broke up his marriage for Ruth, seems incapable even still of sorting out his feelings toward her, viewing her as “the character he drags from film to film,” in effect his ball and chain – he even uses the word shackled – yet one whom he loves and still occasionally desires. He even holds her accountable for the rift with Trigano, because she refused to act in the scene depicted in the hotel painting (a scene another – female – character refers to as “perverse”).
By the time we get to Trigano’s thundering denunciation of her, couched in the majestic rhetoric of the wounded artiste – “She betrayed the calling I created for her; my art was born from her and for her. … I picked her out as someone who could make a daring dream come true” – there isn’t a woman in the world who isn’t going to roll her eyes. Damn the muse with a mind of her own! Whether Yehoshua intended such a reading I obviously cannot say. Possibly, looking at the big picture, he was influenced by the moon, and missed these revealing details. Possibly, Ruth has it right, and the last word goes to her: “Moses, it’s about time you realized things are hiding in your films that you didn’t know and didn’t understand.”
Toronto writer and editor Kathleen Byrne frequently contributes to Globe Books.