FIRST GREY, THEN WHITE, THEN BLUE
MARGRIET DeMOOR (tr. Ina Rilke)
The Overlook Press
$25.95 hardcover, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: Magda in life—no less than Magda in death—was an enigma. A free spirit, alluring but private, loving yet remote. Where did she go during the years of her disappearance? Was it truly to the world of the stars? For her husband Robert, who wanted to possess her, body and soul, what Magda gave him was never enough. He murdered her, leaving her lover to discover her body.
Now, as friends gather for her funeral, the mystery of Magda's life is slowly, tantalizingly, revealed. Who really knew Magda, and what truths has her death revealed? First Grey, Then White, Then Blue, Margriet de Moor's first novel, is a story of perception, love, and mortality, told with a bewitching power. Margriet de Moor's novels and stories have been garnering high praise on both sides of the Atlantic, and her feel for physical detail, psychological nuance, and the quiet power of her storytelling have made her one of the most interesting and provocative contemporary writers. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue will be sure to captivate lovers of last year's The Virtuoso, while finding new fans for a writer endowed with the gift for mapping emotional worlds with unerring accuracy.
My Review: When eye specialist Erik drives down the dune where his house occupies the topmost bit on his way to work, he is surprised to see his childhood friend Robert's wife's dog standing outside the gate to Robert's family home. How odd, out of character for the animal to be unaccompanied in such a place and with no obvious signs of activity to explain the mystery. Erik stops the car, curious, and sets in motion the end of several worlds.
Magda, blonde Czech-German Jewish refugee child of WWII, lies dead in her bed. Robert has stabbed her with his father's Tibetan dagger. Erik is unable to process Robert's part in killing his own wife, who was also Erik's lover. Twenty years before, Robert had brought Magda home with him from a trip to Canada. The couple were passing through Robert's home town to cock a snook at Noort family on their way to live a delightfully Bohemian life in France's Cévennes mountains. Historically these Southern French gorges and peaks have sheltered those not in good odor with the central authorities. The population is largely Protestant in Catholic France. A renegade runaway Dutchman and his blonde Canadian wife raise not a hair on the locals' eyebrows. Robert paints. Magda tries to become pregnant. Erik, his wife Nellie, and their autistic son Gaby visit the Noorts for the first time in the late 1960s:
Only now does he remember that that triumphant voice provoked a vague feeling of revulsion in him. Did he perhaps begrudge Robert his exalted ideas? Robert told him that he forced things to have an affair with him.It's a cogent question, one that Erik doesn't make sense of until a decade or more after he's asked it. Walking into the murder scene, he finds Robert unwilling to offer more than the minimum of interaction. He isn't raging. He isn't much of anything, really. Murdering his wife of twenty years has hollowed him out, leaving only a Robert-shaped shell, unable or unwilling to offer any explanations or resistance to his arrest by police Erik has summoned.
"A love affair, don't laugh. If I had to I would force to make them communicate, yield up their confidences. What do you think of this stuff? Has quite a kick, hasn't it? Here they see the mouse as the symbol of the loyal Joseph."
Erik did not reply. He looked at the canvas in front of him on an easel, a life-sized woman's portrait. Although it was not apparently like her, Magda had undoubtedly sat for it. The portrait was painted in crude areas of paint, not with a brush but with the palette knife, and it seemed to him, much more than the landscapes and the still-lifes, first and foremost an account of work in progress, a fever, a battle with light and color.
He asked, "Can't you love the landscape, objects, a woman, without wanting to turn everything into something that belongs to you?"
The narration now shifts to Robert's point of view, examining the roots of his obsession with Magda. He's a bourgeois boy in rebellion against his father. He's gone to New York City to join the burgeoning art world's ranks. His ambition to be a painter is nothing his industrialist father understands. Not the newest, freshest idea? Well no but then again there is a good reason that evergreens become evergreen. The conflict between fathers and sons is eternal and bitter; the sons no less than the fathers carry scars that don't make for attractive viewing. Robert responds to Magda's departure, unannounced and unexpected, with his father's wounds being laid bare again:
He opens the French windows, leaves off all the lights, slips off his shoes, his tie, finds a box of black cigarillos—lights one, pours himself a whisky—which he has not drunk for years—lies full length on the sofa and puts the bottle within reach. Her absence annoys him beyond words."Why don't you love me?" The lament of each generation to the one before, a source of eternal anger and stress, and the genesis of much trouble between intimate partners.
Evening sounds penetrate from the street. Footsteps of people out walking, a stifled laugh, a cry of surprise and then suddenly a passing bus: how dare you disappear just like that, tell me at once where you've got to and what time you're coming home. He shivers. This cold draught has nothing to do with you and me, with our lives, with our evenings by the fire. But when he gets up he leaves the French windows as they are, open, he simply fetches a heavy overcoat which he puts over his legs when he lies down again. There is no love at all in you!
Robert and Magda spend many years in each others' space. I don't know if I'd say they form a family unit so much as they have the same center of gravity and revolve around it, grinding grooves into each other, wearing channels in the other's bedrock along which their shared rages can flow:
His embraces are rough. Through a curtain of tears he immediately pushes his tongue deep in her mouth, although he knows that she really hates it. He grips her hips with his knees. He presses his fingers into her shoulders and then in hasty panic removes them in order to fiddle with the zip of his trousers. He pays no attention to her face, he does not listen to the sounds she makes, there is too much to do. At this blinding hour, in this cell of heat and fury where he has lost all patience and is as abrupt as the blade of a kinfe, Robert Noort, idealist, artist, utterly exhausted man, thinks his wife has been gone too long, that he has permission to rescue her from the underworld and at the same time to look back, that he can even grab her, that he can bury his head in the sweaty scent of her armpit, that he can drag her back by her hair to her warm beating heart, her skin, her hair, her eyes—your body is what you are, return to it, come on! so that we can learn everything about each other that is worth knowing—and bathed in sweat, his trousers around his ankles, he tries with actions that are essentially simple and, moreover, as old as the world, to restore order.The confusions of love and hate, desire and domination, mastery and stewardship are all played out in de Moor's creations.
The confusion you are born with.
Robert's rage to possess meets Magda's Teflon emotional surfaces. Her own father, a Czech Jew, was betrayed to the Nazis in 1944 when she was perhaps six; her mother spent the rest of the war on into the postwar period looking for her one love's fate. Unable to find him or any news of him, Magda's mother took them as far away from Europe as she was able to do. Wide-open Canada, umbilically connected to mother England, takes in refugees from the titanic convulsion that wracked Europe for six long years. Magda's mother gets them onto a Swedish ship that will land them, ultimately, in Gaspé on Quebec's shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The crossing gives Magda some of her most coherent childhood memories:
Passengers, officers, a row of sailors at attention with the baby in a white cardboard box on a table. When I got close, I looked carefully. It was a sturdy, pretty baby, with a face that looked calm and even a little proud. Under its long-lashed eyelids it succeeded very well in hiding what it is like to be dead. Contentedly I noticed the dark pink roses laid around the body.How exactly like a child. I was fully convinced that the murdered Magda, even so far in time from her unnatural demise, would note so carefully the ultimate end of all life's journeys, short or long. It made complete sense to me. Magda's trajectory was not showy. It was longer, perhaps, than it might have been, or shorter than it should have been, but it was a low one and left few signs of its transit.
They had been made from sanitary towels. I had seen the women at work, the previous afternoon. They had carefully pulled apart the sanitary towels, which consisted of a pink and a white layer, they could use only the pink layer to fold wonderfully ingenious roses, twist them round and secure them with a tacked stitch. Tell me, I asked the baby softly, is it true that everything first goes grey, then white, then blue, and then you fly to the stars? By the way, what do you think of those roses? I think they are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Or did it? Magda was a presence, if not a star, in the spaces she chose to inhabit. She made an impression on people she met and she did this without any visible effort on her part. It might be as simple as her inner emotional landscape's silence, its immensity:
The spinning space. The night sky. A rising piece of land, blue as the ocean and equally impassable. I had not known such solitude since my childhood. I hunted cautiously for a cigarette, I wanted to let the others sleep, I wanted to smoke by myself and stay awake looking at the clouds obscuring the moon. I was exceptionally calm. I remember my calm, my emptiness deep inside. Trees...fields...a farmhouse like a boat under the stars...suddenly it occurred to me that my life with Robert had been a poem. Everything that mattered to me personally had taken a new twist in the light of that chance meeting. My eyes and skin: designed for other use. My past and my mother's: captured in words. My future—look: a sun-drenched plain that we were going to populate with mountains, trees and rivers that belonged to both of us. ... What I want to know is this. Would it also be possible to take that poem in my hands and drop it onto a stone floor? So that it smashed into fragments, into crude slivers... What I want to know is this. Among all those things it must surely be possible to find something which could not be swallowed up?These thoughts are the ones de Moor gives to a fleeing wife. A woman who, after close to twenty years with a man she selects on a whim as a teenager, leaves him with no more forethought or preparation than she chose to go with him earlier. Magda can't fill up the space she contains; Robert can't make a dent in her surfaces, let alone her interiority; and even an affair with his childhood friend, placing herself between Erik and his wife, Erik and his son, doesn't dent her formidable vastness. Most people stay inside the coloring book's lines because daring to go outside them means losing sight of boundaries. Magda is nothing but boundaries. She translates between languages as naturally as she adapts to living in new places. Leaving Czechoslovakia for the defeated Berlin of her mother's family; leaving Europe for Canada; leaving Gaspé and her solitary mother for a French life as a Dutch artist's wife; leaving France as her increasingly visually impaired husband reinvents himself as the savior of the business his father left behind. Nothing proves too great a challenge for Magda to adapt to, and that in the end was her demise. She had no solid, immutable core for her husband to break, satisfying his rage and hatred. So he had to kill her.
I read this book twenty or so years ago, and fancied it as a film. (A project unlaunched, alas.) I liked its spareness, and was completely unsurprised to learn that Margriet de Moor was trained first in music. I can imagine this tale as a song-cycle; a suite of voices telling the ordinary life of a group of ordinary people whose paths intertwine around war and tragedy. How simple, how baroque, how complete it is to make the fullness of a life into fiction. And how satisfying to experience that fiction. The Overlook Press edition of this book came out after I read the Picador UK translation; in fact, the editor at Overlook who acquired The Virtuouso and this novel for the US market was in my office once while I was an agent, and was deeply surprised that I had read the book. I've always thought that de Moor would have enjoyed that moment of mutual surprise each of us experienced, one that someone knew of her discovery and one that someone finally paid attention to his.
But first novels have flaws. The voices of Nellie, horned wife of Erik and betrayed best friend of Magda, is given short and unsatisfying shrift in the last 20-30 pages of the book. Gaby, the autistic son of Erik and Nellie, features in the book at too short a length for his presence to feel like more than a vase of flowers on the stage of this opera. If you take my advice and read this book, you'll stop at the end of part three and ignore part four entirely.
But I do hope you'll spend some time with Margriet de Moor and her quotidian drama. I still think of Magda fondly, a friend bobbing away from me in time's eddies.