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An Extraordinary Tour

The six weeks of travelling and researching have been exceptional – discovering new places, meeting writers and publishers in Europe, particularly in Budapest, and having intense time to write completely away from work and from my normal environment have enabled me to put lots of creative pressure on the next novel, which follows on from This is the End of the Story. It takes place during the timespan of the first novel, during one month in 1993 (a month we don’t hear about within This is the End of the Story even though its last chapter is set in June, 1994). It follows the protagonist of the first novel, Catherine, and is set in the early days of post-Communist Hungary, specifically in Budapest, where Catherine is researching the poet Attila József for a novel based on his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut during her time there, her sense of confused identity comes back to haunt her. Having worked to establish her perception of reality as linear and quotidian, she begins to dream the life of a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Moreover, in alternate chapters, this woman, Selene Solweig Virág, dreams Catherine’s life. Selene’s life is further complicated by a relationship she has on only one day in each of six successive years, a day when she slips through time to find herself with Attila József. (Whether the dreams — either Catherine’s or Selene’s — are ‘real’ and whether Selene (if she exists) actually moves into another time period or only imagines it as part of a stress breakdown in her life is of less concern than the interweaving of periods of political turmoil and personal perspectives on reality.)

It’s not a novel about time travel or reincarnation (is Catherine merely dreaming about Selene’s life or did she once live it?), but about alternative notions of identity as a metaphor that challenge insularity and the institutions that imagine they can crush people. Running under the narrative is an insistence that governments and power brokers cannot crush the soul of life and humanity and all that connects us. It’s also about alternative perspectives on time.

Einstein wrote that the ‘past, present and future are only an illusion’ and in Greek there are two words for time — Chronos is the everyday, linear sense, the time of clocks, but Kairos has a more qualitative sense — it is the right moment, the Now. In this vein, the existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, distinguished between living temporally and finitely and those rare moments when we suspend finite living and become aware of existing so that for an instant we are outside of time and ‘stand in relation to the eternal’. And Spinoza similarly talks of ‘timeless moments’, as John Berger points out in his brilliant book of radical essays, Hold Everything Dear. These are moments when the ordinary is made luminous, not in some showy fireworks-and-flashes way, but by providing a transcendent vision of the everyday so that eternity breaks into the present.

Such moments can be found in mediation, on a walk in a beautiful place, or simply in some unlooked for instant going about routine tasks and they can also be found in art and literature. Proust and Joyce both wrote about epiphany in this way and Proust’s notion of an involuntary memory containing the past has this sense of the eternal breaking in, of another kind of time that is qualitative and belongs to an eternal present. The best poetry contains this transcendence — as Berger points out, every pause in an Emily Dickinson poem is redolent with eternity.

The impulse to write something in which the transient and the contingent becomes one with the sublime and numinous, with all that connects us and all that takes us beyond the illusion of past, present and future, occurs constantly — and if anyone achieves it there will be nothing left to say. What more can be added to such epiphany? But, as exquisite and profound as some literature is, no one has yet taken us to this place of silence and so writers keep writing, keep circling the Kairos.

It’s something I’m striving to negotiate with in A Remedy for All Things — how do we make the life of poet who despaired enough to kill himself, the lives of those who took on an unwinnable fight in the Hungarian Uprising (many losing their lives), the life of a writer who struggles with personal loss and grief, the lives of anyone who resists living the life handed to them by institutions and powers, matter? One way is perhaps to use fiction and imagination to mess with the notion of linear time, assert with Cervantes’ Quixote that ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and we will resist the unreasonable, limiting, conventional world in favour of timeless moments.

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A Literary Novel for Teesside

Jan reading to an audience

‘Literary’ can sound pretentious, but is it any more than simply owning the influences that have helped to shape it? Nothing comes from nothing. This is the End of the Story is unashamedly Quixotic – but the characters are not cyphers, they are young women coming of age in a specific place at a particular time – the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside are as much influences as an archetypal Spanish novel. Nonetheless, Cassie plays a role akin to Sancho, whilst Miriam resonates with Quixote – the pursuit of truth and justice, even when the fight cannot be won; the power of perception, imagination and dreams; the reality of giants who would destroy us; the grace of religious and ideological tolerance and the harm of hatred and prejudice all feature, but, I hope, always lightly.

This is a novel of characters who are self-conscious of their influences. Miriam suffers from epilepsy, but looks to Dostoevsky to articulate the experience of her episodes, drawing on his diaries to give a visionary edge to her suffering. Like Quixote, she despises popular romance novels and romantic bards (steering Cassie away from the Canadian folk singer she listens to in favour of high opera, but with only partial success – so each of the chapters is the title of one of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs), but she will overlook her dislike of romance when it comes as French literature – and so Madame Bovary, itself influenced by Don Quixote, features as a metaphor for Miriam’s fear of betrayal.

And then there is Casilda of the Rising Moon, a novel for young teenagers, written by the Catholic writer, Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino – a novel that brims with knights and princes, saints and healers, unrequited love and religious fervour – an interpretation of the life of Casilda, about whom we know only a few ‘facts’. The facts and the story have merged and it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends.

So it should be with a literary novel – the news of the day, music once heard, books once read, great novels, intimate diaries written by literary masters and paperback romances go into the melting pot as ingredients to make something different – something also influenced by a time and a place, by memory or invention or something between the two.

What the literary novel asserts is that it’s never the end of the story.

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February 8, 2017 · 7:14 pm

Experiencing Poetry

What does it mean to read poetry? In Beautiful and Pointless, the poetry critic for the New York Times, David Orr, argues that there is no ‘ought’ in reading poetry; there is no answer to the question of ‘Why read poetry?’ except that if you do read poetry you will find that it is worthwhile; it makes a difference not only to how we respond to the world, but how we negotiate the world. Rather than arguing about whether poetry is alive or comatose, Orr is concerned with how people experience poetry.

That experience is at the heart of Cinnamon Press’s goal to publish poetry that is innovative and independent, whether in our collections and anthologies or in a poetry journal like Envoi. Many of the poets we publish write about ordinary life events – a seaside holiday, birth, death, relationships, the impact of economics or religion on everyday life… Many of the poems that don’t make it to publication are on exactly the same subjects, but what distinguishes those  that do make it is that they help us to negotiate this everyday world. At its best poetry assists us to pay attention to our perceptions and expectations so that the quotidian does not simply remain ordinary and familiar, but becomes the context for moments of epiphany or ecstasy; moments when we step beyond the familiar to gain new insights. At its best poetry allows us to experience the deep connections between language and seeing, a point eloquently made by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei in her fascinating book, which I’m currently reading – The Ecstatic Quotidian: Phenomenological Sightings in Modern Art and Literature.

I have also just been finishing off the selection and editing for Envoi 163 and reading The Ecstatic Quotidian has no doubt influenced the choices I’ve made, going for a diverse and rich selection of poetry that pushes us to see differently, to find strangeness in the everyday. It’s a pleasure to include poets like Susan Richardson, whose linguistic deftness takes on environment, mythology and personal identity; at once familiar yet strange; to immerse myself in David Olsen’s ‘Seaside Nocturne‘, a commentary on language itself,  and the failures of language, in a beautifully controlled single metaphor that is resonant of the everyday, yet takes us deeper with wonderful phrases like ‘I invigilate the dark’; to admire Ted McCarthy’s struggle with the gap between language and objects, the subtle playing out of William Carlos Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’ in the poem ‘Underfoot’, in which ‘each thing answers itself’; to join Roger Elkin, flying a kite with his dad, so everyday, yet so resonant with what is other and yet to come; to explore the universe with Daphne Gloag and Jonathan Taylor or journey with Bob Beagrie to unfamiliar cities that shift our perceptions not only of place, but of self.

Sadly, the reach of poetry may be small, but for those who experience it there is so much to delight in and be stretch by.


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The Author’s First Book

The Author’s First Book.

thoughtful review of Mark Charlton’s excellent non-fiction debut, Counting Steps

Counting Steps

find it at

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Lacking a heart without dichotomies

I’m on my travels again for Cinnamon Press. Last Thursday the launch of Sue Hubbard’s exquisitely lyrical novel, Girl in White, a fictionalised interpretation of the life of Paula Modersohn Becker told through her daughter’s search for her mother on the cusp of Nazi Germany (Paula died of an embolism six weeks after giving birth to Mathilde). It’s a story full of human contradictions – the clashes between loyalty and betrayal, the flashes of integrity and the accommodations that are made along the way. Above all it’s a highly particular story and I was reminded of that forcefully, reading the last third of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist on the train on the way to the launch. Leo, an academic mentor to the main character makes the point that,

As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify, but to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.

Literature disturbs the organisation … because it is not general …the intrinsic nature of the particular is to fail to conform … Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalising world — that’s where the battle is joined.

Leo sees the world in clear camps, and I would want to nuance some of his own certainties, but I resonated with his analysis that the antagonism between political solutions to suffering and narrative treatments of suffering often revolves around this dualism (perhaps false like so many dualisms) between the general and the particular. In particular the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several Roth novels, is unable to make the final leap to side with left wing influences in his life and join the revolution because, as he says of himself,

I lacked …a heart without dichotomies.

Of course a heart that is over-abundant in dichotomies can be reduced to a murky pool of liberal guilt and sentiment unwilling or unable to take any stand, but a heart with none would be ill equipped to empathise with Paula Modersohn Becker’s story or any human story. As a writer and publisher I hope to go on lacking a heart without dichotomies.


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But the chickens have light

In the little wooden house in the garden live my neighbours chickens: Salt, Pepper, Tommy and Twm (all female). Tonight they are the only residents in Tanygrisiau with lighting. The first bad weather of the autumn, torrential rain that seems excessive even in this little microclimate it he highest rain in the UK, and the power lines are down. The house is littered with magnetic lights running LEDs on batteries and torches in every room and the power cut came after we’d Skyped with Seth in South Africa, but it’s my least favourite feature of life in this remote village – the all-too regular power cuts. But a line of fairy lights and a cluster of blue flashing lights around the hen hut continue to twinkle on and off, powered by their own batteries to warn off foxes.

It’s been a bad day. Cottia, Jake and I dismantled and emptied my wardrobe to get into the loft (silly little hatch in a stupid place) so that we could store away some of Cottia’s boxes while she’s home for a year doing a post-grad certificate in mental health care. The boxes never made it up there. Jake discovered instead that he boxes already stored are all piled in one spot on boards that haven’t been properly laid on the joists – one of the bodged jobs that Meirion House suffers from that we inch towards righting year on year. We did get a rather gorgeous book cover designed and chatted to Seth briefly – I was about to transfer some money for him when I noticed a large bank account transaction for some sound equipment I’ve never even dreamt of buying. Two extremely long phone calls later and bank card blocked and destroyed I’m looking forward to filling in fraud forms and trying to puny account back together. I managed a bit more conversation with Seth before the lights went out.

I’ve just finished reading Booker short listed novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It’s exquisitely lyrical prose, bitter-sweet and never loses sight of ambiguity. One key phrase is, ‘Tomorrow’s rain is already on the horizon.’ It is. But even with the rain pouring down, the power cut and the darkness deep, the chickens still have their lights.


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Guest Blog from the 3 Quarks Daily – Elatia Harris Interviews Sue Hubbard on A Girl in White


by Elatia Harris



L., Cover, Girl in White, by Sue Hubbard, Cinnamon, 2012. The painting isPortrait of Myself on my Fifth Wedding Annivesary, by Paula Modersohn Becker, 1906, the Boettcherstrasse Museum, Bremen.

R., Sue Hubbard, photo by Derek Adams,

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and critic, based in London, who has written about contemporary art for 3 Quarks Daily since 2008. She is the author of Girl in White, a newly published work of fiction based on the life of Paula Modersohn Beckera pioneering German painter who died in 1907 at age 31, a few days after giving birth. In her short time, Becker worked with enormous dedication to paint authentically, and to focus on subjects outside the usual range of German painting of her era. She did not live to see the great transition of which she was a part. Rather, questioning everything, demanding love and fulfillment as a woman as well as freedom as a painter, she was among those who got to the very edge of the Modern. At her death, over 400 paintings and hundreds of drawings were found in her studio. 

ELATIA HARRIS: I am struck by how, as a critic and writer about art, you are very much in the trenches, illuminating the sometimes quite difficult art that is happening right now. Yet Girl in White is set in the early years of the 20th century. Did not only Paula Modersohn Becker but her era attract you?

SUE HUBBARD: It’s true I do write about contemporary art but I’m not a conventional art critic or an academic art historian. My first practice is as a poet. I started writing about art about 20 years ago, when a small magazine that published both art and poetry asked me to write about some artists. I have always seen art and poetry primarily as a form of exploration, a voyage of discovery to uncover the essential self. I am interested in artists and writers who push the boundaries, not for their own sake but to discover new things about the human condition. I’m attracted to the Romantics as well as to the early Moderns and existentialists, so I am quite at home with Paula, who was hungry to discover new things about herself and the possibilities of art.

EH: It used to be that Paula was most often mentioned as a young painter who possibly had an affair — if not, then a very intense relationship — with Rilke. I began to see around 1980 that she was becoming almost iconic on her own in Europe, perhaps less so in the US. 

SH: Actually I would not say iconic. Except among art historians, particularly feminist art historians, she has been largely overlooked, which is a real pity considering her paintings and her life. Her coming together with Rilke was interesting. He was a deep, lyrical, psychological and iconoclastic poet. And Paula had her own highly developed observational language.

EH: Your treatment of their friendship is wonderful to read. Is the Rilke connection how you learned about Paula?

SH: Not really, although I do love and have been deeply influenced as a poet by Rilke’s poetry. I discovered Paula in the mid 90s when my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin, was published. I was invited to give a reading in Bremen and visited Worpswede, the village where she lived in an artists’ community on the north German moors. I was taken by the landscape and the directness of the paintings and began to find out about her. There were many parallels in our lives. As a young woman in my 20s, I had lived in a remote part of Somerset in the west of England. At the same age, Paula went to live on the north German moors among artists to discover a form of freedom.

The Weyerberg at Worpswede, photo by Fritz Dressler

EH: Did she find it?

SH: At first she probably thought that she had. She had come from a loving but bourgeois family and she was very young. In Worpswede she met and married the older Otto Modersohn, a rather academic painter whom she respected. She also met the young poet Rilke and was very attracted to him, as he was to her. Paula was in many ways more intuitively free in her approach to painting than Rilke was, at this point, in his poetry, which was still rather flowery. I think he learnt a lot from her. She was complicated in that she was following her own heart and ideas, as an artist, but also wanted very much to be a woman with a woman’s experiences. Rilke on the other hand was a difficult, egotistical and neurotic man for whom poetry came before everything. It was perhaps because of this friendship that Paula, a passionate, restless and inquisitive young woman, began to find her relationship with Otto stifling and sexually unrewarding.


Self-portrait with Hand on Chin, 1906, Paula Modersohn Becker, Niedersachsisches Landesmuseum Hannover

170px-Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016  717px-Modersohn-Becker_-_Otto_Modersohn,_schlafend

L, Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906, by Paula Modersohn Becker, Ludwig Roselius Collection, Bremen

R, Portrait of Otto Modersohn, Sleeping, 1906, by Paula Modersohn Becker, Paula Modersohn Becker Museum, Bremen
EH: Timeless! But she didn’t just bottle it up and stay put on the moors.

SH: She longed to go to Paris to be part of the burgeoning modern art scene there. She left her marriage several times to do just that. She knew that if she was going to grow as an artist that she needed to go where innovation was happening. She had a tremendous hunger for life. She felt a pull between her Romantic love of landscape and being in the thick of a nitty-gritty urban existence, between wanting to be a good wife and mother and an innovative artist. Paula’s life was full of binaries and oppositions that I recognize. She was a Romantic as well as a Modernist, she wanted a career but also wanted to experience love and have a child.

EH: She was ahead of her time in owning those desires, as opposed to sensing them and never, ever giving them voice. At marriage, Paula became an instant stepmother – a huge responsibility she put her heart into. The scenes in Girl in White between her and Elsbeth Modersohn, of whom she took beautiful care, were so well done. A kind efficient mother who had her mind on the studio before breakfast, a child who wanted more — that must be deeply familiar to every young ambitious mother. You were a very young mother, Sue.

SH: Yes, I got married at 21 to an academic and lived in the west of England — being an earth mother, baking bread, growing vegetables and having three children. I loved it in many ways. I suppose some of this lead me to recognise in Paula a longing for romantic fulfilment and love as well as the desire to ‘be somebody’  as an artist, as she rather naively kept saying. I recognised too the disjunction between the Utopian life in Worpswede and the pull of dystopian Paris – in my case London. I felt connected to the countryside but also needed the debates thrown up by the city. It is interesting that part of west Somerset near where I lived is also peat bog with wetlands just like Worpswede.

EH: That’s a bit like your pattern even now – wild unplugged country, the wilder the better, alternating with the city.

SH: It is. I need both and escape when I can from the city, mostly to the west coast of Ireland these days to get away from the demands of being an art critic, the Internet and emails and other distractions. There like Paula, I walk a great deal. That is a great aid to creativity. I admire Paula. I think she was brave. I think she was also a good person. Love mattered to her. She was principled but she was also ambitious. She had to come to terms with the fact that life was not how she imagined it would be. So in the end my writing about her is nothing to do with eras, or periods or ‘isms’ but with a human story, with the struggle for self determination as a woman and an artist.

EH: The story of so many creative women is cut short by childbirth, either because they died of the complications, or because that was the end of them as artists. In 1906, the risk of dying in childbirth could not have been far from any woman’s mind. In raising three kids, were you a poet already?

Reclining Mother and Child, 1905, by Paula Modersohn Becker, Ludvig Roselius Collection, Bremen

SH: In a sense. I have written poetry ever since I was very young. But being a serious writer came later than that. I had to claim that for myself. It was only slowly, slowly that I thought I had the right, or the time to consider that I might be a writer. After the first few years of marriage I was left to  raise my children on my own and that was very hard on both them and on me. My relationship with my children — all adults with kids of their own now — is very real and living and matters to me a great deal. I feel that the compassion it gave me — having to consider others and not always me — helped me as a writer, though they might not see it like that!

EH: Paula had that active interest in others, that instinct to nurture. I am thinking of her portraits of peasants, especially peasant children. In her lifetime, she was following her star as an artist. And despite one devastating early review, she had the respect of most people who knew her. But her fame is posthumous. You represent so well in the book what it is to keep going doggedly, deepening your own art, not caring enough what others think to change yourself to suit them – but certainly capable of being hurt by their condescension and disregard.

SH: Paula was interested in others, the peasants, the quality of their life, the landscape and above all in art and its transformative power. But she died so young. I also think being German was a disadvantage. It is not so sexy as being French, is it? If she had been born a bit later it might have been different, she might have been part of all that Weimar republic stuff, or part of the Blaue Reiter. But she came before the great movements of psychoanalysis and women’s suffrage. But as I said earlier, she was brave, and her life does demonstrate that being an artist is mostly about doggedness, about finding the strength to keep going even though you are not sure exactly what you are doing or whether it will work.

EH: She got to me because she was painting ahead of her time, ahead of the art culture that produced her. She came before the Salon d’Automne of 1906, and died the next year. There’s the Paula in art history, and the Paula that no academic reading will ever truly uncover. Because I knew you first through your writing about art, I might have been a little surprised at Girl in White – it’s not primarily a novel driven by art history, nor is it a biographical novel. Indeed, it would be a wonderful novel if it were about a wholly fictional character, a dedicated painter who worked hard and died in the classically tragic way for young women just as she was getting things off the ground. I’m fascinated by how you incorporated her letters.

SH: I can almost not remember now how much was the letters and how much was me. Certainly the letters gave me facts and structure but an awful lot of the ‘relationships’ and the nitty gritty atmosphere comes from my imagination. The point of using the letters was to give me a narrative arc – the hardest thing for a poet. What comes most easily to me is atmosphere, texture, color, and psychological insight. But as a poet you have to learn to push the plot and story along. It was “my” Paula who interested me, in any case — not the art historical one.


Dorfstraße in Worpswede, 1897, by Otto Modersohn, Otto Modersohn Museum, Fischerhude


Birches in Worpswede, 1908, by Fritz Overbeck, Landessmueum, Oldenburg

EH: There’s a deep theme in Girl in White that I want to ask you about. You explore it through Mathilde, Paula’s grown daughter in the Germany of the 1930s — a historical character of whom not much can be learned. Worpswede represented some Utopian ideals that were a current in Germany from the Romantic era through the turn of the century — communitarianism, simplicity in living, the exaltation of the soil and the folk. Mathilde lived long enough to see the end game. Was engaging with this really frightening material part of what drew you to write Girl in White?

SH: In the late 19th century there was a sense of being subsumed by mechanization and industrialism, which is why the artists went to Worspwede, returning to the land and the peasants and the soil. By 1933 it had turned into something much nastier under National Socialism. ‘Blood and Soil’ and the peasants came to represent not something essential, as they did for Millais, but something Aryan. So this corruption of ideals does interest me.

I was not frightened by the material exactly, but rather wanted to consider that Romanticism to which I am drawn, which should be about things that are non-materialistic, about love, about essence, etc., has in it the seeds of its own destruction. It was so easy to take an ‘alternative’ approach and believe that the rural is better than the industrial for example, and to end up thinking ‘blood and soil’. I am interested that the fault line between the idealistic and the hideously dogmatic and cultish is so thin. One has to keep bringing oneself back to the center from extremes somehow. I suppose what interests me with Paula was that at that point it was all so apparently innocent. Could anyone have seen that German Romanticism would have led to the gas chambers? Yet within a generation it had done. I don’t think the Worpswede lot were proto-Fascists, except perhaps Carl Vinnen, who espoused what now seem rather unpalatable ideas, as can be seen in his interest in Langbehen’s revisionist book on Rembrandt. But did that mean he wanted to kill Jews and homosexuals? It is the slow slippage between states that is interesting.


Hans am Ende, Spring Day in Worpswede, 1898, location unknown


Birch Trees in a Landscape, 1899, by Paula Modersohn Becker, Harvard University Art Museums

EH:  Over the course of the novel, the image of the girl in white suggests many things. The way men first look at a girl — and perhaps paint her — on the cusp of adulthood, when she is most choosable, by their lights, for a wifely destiny. The way that a young woman, especially if she’s an artist, is always becoming her next self, always an initiate with worlds within and without yet to discover. Between the whiteness of the dresses and the birches at Worpswede, it’s hard not to feel the girl in white is the burgeoning Germany, too, that will soon lay its monstrous claims in the name of fancied purity. Deeply embedded in the novel are images which do multiple duty this way, reflecting the spirit of the age, convention in thinking about women, and also foreshadowing a very far territory beyond Germany — where the herding of young women into a costumed flock for a single appropriate fate is fundamental to an authoritarian society.

So you are writing like a poet in prose, with the most powerful and enduring images being those that deliver contradictions. I sense a particular dialogue between Girl in White and your upcoming poetry collection, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. Thank you for letting me read the poems — they are ravishing. I hope one day to be able to write about them. The collection will be out be out within a few months of Girl in White.


The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, poetry collection by Sue Hubbard, Salt Publishing, 2013. Cover painting by Chris Hamilton Emery

SH: I think they are both imbued with longing, with a sense of grief and loss, of what might have been. A struggle to reconcile with the world as it is, an acceptance that is not necessarily passive but is, to some extent, a giving up of anguish. And I am a sucker for unrequited loved – because it has so often been my experience. I think that there is this sense of longing in everything I write.

EH: I think so too! The longing on the part of Mathilde, Paula’s daughter, for a mother she never knew, whose death her birth occasioned, and whose existence was hushed up in Otto Modersohn’s subsequent marriage, is painfully moving to read about. And how Paula longed — for personal significance, for fulfillment. She didn’t just long for it from a sofa, either, but knew how to pay the price of pursuing it — the disapproval of family and society, the loss of security, comfort, and even the means to stay warm and keep to a proper diet. So much loneliness is involved too. One senses this in The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, as well.

SH: I think in the Yeats sense, as a writer, I am always looking for an appropriate mask, a persona that I can adopt through which I can explore my concerns, which tend to be loss, love, memory, how we create a sense of self, how we fall short of what it is we feel ourselves and want to be.


Self-portrait, 1906-7, Paula Modersohn Becker, private collection

EH: That Paula needed mask after mask to finally reveal herself to herself as an artist is compelling — there’s even one self portrait in which she seems about to remove a very thick mask that has shaken a bit loose! You have chosen a subject that illuminates these dilemmas, that have figured large in your own life, and that every reader who longs for anything, and sacrifices for it, will recognize.

Reading Girl in White had me thinking how much had changed, and had not, in a century, for women in the arts. In particular, there is Paula’s absolute refusal to seek the easy-on-the-eye in art, and her refusal to pander. Refusal to pander is a great attitude for any artist at any time — but 100 years ago it was not the selling point it is now. When you see a woman artist standing firm about that, so long ago, you know it goes absolutely against how she was acculturated. It’s awe-inspiring.

SH: ‘Refusal to pander’ is often the selling point for art now. We are not innocents. We live in a globalized, knowing, postmodern age. Saatchi didn’t call his exhibition Sensation for nothing. The transgressive IS often the new academy.

EH: And gender?

SH: I don’t think gender dictates everything now. An unmarried woman — Tracey Emin for example — can do just as well as a man. The problem is having a family, having to care about the needs of others. Art is selfish – Rilke understood that. It is a hard mistress, it is demanding. It is being single minded that is important.


Paula Modersohn Becker, and her daughter, Mathilde, 1907. Last photo.

With thanks to Elatia Harris, first published at

Sue Hubbard’s website is at

You can fine Girl in White at

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