herald

Saturday 18 August 2018

Con Houlihan: Cezanne inspired me to write

My most lasting ambition in my childhood was to be a painter, apart from being a ship's captain and a professional pugilist. The second and third disappeared and I was left with the first, until reality became too much for me. And yet that ambition left me with a great devotion to painters that hasn't gone away.

There were no painters in my locality in my youth unless you counted in-house painters who could be wicked caricaturists of their neighbours. Some examples have survived and it might be worthwhile to publish them some day.

Many years later in London you would sometimes find yourself in the company of real life painters, some of whom would clear a pub as fast as a greyhound would run 525 yards. That is about 29 seconds, and you had to learn to avoid their company. In Dublin many of the same experiences happened. There were a few famous painters who worked hard most of their time but believed that they had the licence to bore people out of their minds when they took a night off.

I was, however, lucky to get to know a little group who met often in Searson's Pub in Baggot Street or in The Waterloo House next door. They were all hard-working decent men and good artists, but when they went for a drink, they didn't make a song about their ability: they spoke of things more important than art, about races and football games and boxing matches. Indeed the leader of the group, if you could call him the leader, was a man called George Campbell, who often gave me the impression that he would rather be a sportswriter than a painter. That was some little comfort to me because painters and composers lived on a higher plane than writers: they work on a universal language, whereas we all know what happens to writing when it goes into translation.

There was also a man there who was never part of any group, though he was friendly with my friends in Searson's and he too gave the kind of impression that George Campbell did. It was flattering on behalf of my profession but it didn't change my perspective, especially in regard to painters. My thoughts were that they were the elite, and still are.

There is a great deal of truth in that it was Paul Cezanne who inspired me to be a writer. The man apart from the group, James Le Jeune, was a great admirer of Cezanne's also. We had more than that in common: we liked honest people, no matter what craft they pursued and that was why we had such great respect for the group of painters who used to come together next door. Incidentally, they were all from the North of Ireland and thus their honesty didn't surprise you.

James was a French-Canadian who had come to Britain during World War Two. He settled down in Dublin and in his own quiet way made his name. You could say that during his lifetime he was never famous but always respected.

There is one special memory of him that goes back to a dreary November evening about 30 years ago when it seemed that the sky would never brighten again. A visit to Waterloo House (Andy Ryan's) was in the hope of meeting somebody who felt as low as I did and there was James sitting in his usual corner and not looking the picture of happiness. After a few words he said: "Thank God you came my way. I'm going through a terrible bout of depression."

Of course I said "Why?"

He said: "For the last few weeks I have been working at a painting and it's not coming out."

It was clear what he meant and I said: "You will find a passage in Van Gogh's letters where he says that the greatest source of depression in the world is to be working at a painting that is not coming out and you know will not come out."

James lifted up his head and uttered his famous laugh and said "That's the best thing I've heard in years."

Now we will ask about the meaning of "not coming out". I think I understand it, kind of. Maybe you are walking through a field or maybe across a mountain and something smites and you are happy that you have the germ of an essay but when you go to put it in words, you can't find the right ones. Then you know about something not coming out.

DH Lawrence used to say: "I am like a tiger and when I miss the first spring I don't get what I had in mind." This is all too clear from his writings: when he was excited, he wrote magically; when inspiration left him his writing became dreary. It is true even of Sherwood Anderson who wrote two great books, Winesburg Ohio and his collected short stories about horse racing, and a lot of nonsense after that.

Cezanne, of course, was quite mad: he attempted to paint an apple in a way that when you saw it, you thought you had never really seen an apple before. Of course he failed. In later life he made several attempts to capture the essence of a hill behind his home. It is called the Mount Saint-Victoire but it is little more than a gentle slope. It obsessed him and he was still working at it when he died.

Thomas Wolfe almost certainly shortened his life by trying to capture the spirit of the America in which he grew up. The title of one of his short stories symbolises the impossibility of that quest -- Only The Dead Know Brooklyn.

There was a fair difference in background and in age between James Le Jeune and I, but we spoke the same language.

Fogra: My thanks go to my friends, Adriana and Diana, who brightened the last year and I send them very best wishes for the coming year

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