Exploring a Gray Area

Patricia O’Reilly’s novel brilliantly second-guesses the meeting between the Irish design legend Eileen Gray and the journalist Bruce Chatwin, writes Cristin Leach Hughes

 

the interview
There is a scene, towards the end of Patricia O’Reilly’s clever book, in which the Irish designer Eileen Gray manicures her nails as she makes the final, terrible decision to transfer legal ownership of her self-designed dream home, E.1027, to her lover, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici. Gray’s attention moves from nail to nail, and she dips her fingers in a bowl of olive oil on the table, before suddenly announcing her plan. By the time readers reach this pivotal moment in the novel, the author has done such a convincing job of putting fictional form on a real-life past, few will have difficulty believing this scene happened exactly as O’Reilly describes it.

It’s a neat trick and a difficult one, but O’Reilly pulls it off in The Interview, a persuasive version of the elusive Gray. This slim book owes its structure and much of its success to an excellent premise which is based on a real event: in 1972, a Sunday Times journalist went to interview the nonagenarian Irish designer in her Paris apartment, but his article was never published, and no notes exist. The Interview is a reimagining of what took place that day.

It opens in a chatty, almost breezy style, littered with unexpected colloquialisms. Gray’s maid is constantly tidying and moving things, and it “will be the death of her”. The journalist introduces himself as Bruce Chatwin, but does not mention his mission. What follows is a slightly clumsy piece of quick exposition: “The woman whose hand he holds is Eileen Gray. She is the Irish designer and architect whose work had taken the world by storm from before the First World War and right through the 1920s. Having been forgotten for decades, now, 50 years later, she is back in the international spotlight.”

Gray’s 1914 Destiny screen has just sold at auction for a remarkable price. The 94-year-old is refusing to talk to “reporters” but for some reason she does not remember who this man Chatwin is, or why he is there. Has the maid let him in by mistake? The journalist is faced with an ethical problem — does he declare his intentions and risk expulsion from the apartment? Or keep Gray talking, get the story he wants, and figure out how to use the material afterwards?

A moral dilemma is a good way to begin a work of biographical fiction since it echoes the ethical questions at the heart of such a project. Novels such as The Interview dance with issues of truth and legacy. Gray deliberately kept her private life private. Naturally O’Reilly, whose research is impeccable, knows this. Her version of Gray has a clear position on posterity: “Work is what keeps her alive and she is determined that it is by her projects and designs she will be remembered.” And yet, the purpose of O’Reilly’s story is to put flesh and feelings on the bones of what was left behind.

Eileen GrayBlind in one eye and with fading eyesight in the other, Gray is portrayed as bright but wary, a woman used to shaping her own immediate environment and who was essentially uninterested in the demands of the world beyond it. Chatwin trespassed on her personal domain. This apartment had been her Parisian home and workplace since 1907. Four years after this meeting, in 1976, she died in it. The timing of this book is exquisite, since its publication coincides with a resurgence of interest in Gray. In 2009, her dragons chair hit another auction record of €21.9m. Last year’s exhibition of her work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art attracted 80,000 visitors; more than 200,000 people saw it at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Mary McGuckian’s biopic The Price of Desire, starring Orla Brady as Gray, is due for release this year. The restored villa E.1027 will open in 2015.

 

The trick is to make it feel real, even though we all know it’s not

 

Patricia O’ReillyThis is O’Reilly’s second attempt at the subject. Ten years ago, she published a fictionalised biography of Gray entitled Time and Destiny, so she must be aware of the pitfalls that attend fact-led fic- A tion. Biographical novels involve a I sleight of hand, but those that suc- ceed carry the deceit so well it’s invisible. Dialogue is one of the biggest challenges, not least because we may think we know how the subject acted and sounded in private. In the absence of notes or recordings, the truth is anyone’s guess. O’Reilly stumbles rarely, and only near the beginning of this book. The narrative takes off in sections that shoot out on a tangent from the in-apartment conversation, often inside Gray’s head, beginning with the story of the Destiny screen. The reconstruction of her childhood in Brownswood, the family home near Enniscorthy, is evocative, though it occasionally veers towards melodrama. For example, on discovering that her father is not coming home again, the young Eileen straddles and stabs her doll with a pair of scissors, spewing its insides all over the bed. O’Reilly draws a persuasive portrait of Gray’s early days in Paris in the 1920s, from her remarkable financial freedom to her feelings about the burden of family expectations (her mother was Lady Gray) and her struggles with the social implications of lesbianism.

Reminiscing about her relationship with the singer and club owner Damia (played by Alanis Morissette in The Price of Desire), the designer reminds herself how glad she is to have destroyed all private letters and photographs. O’Reilly does a distinctly unprurient job of imagining those parts of Gray’s personal life about which we do not know. None of the disclosures about her love life, such as they are, are spoken out loud to Chatwin. This isn’t a kiss-and-tell.

The book is something of a dual portrait in which Chatwin’s own back story — his father the war captain; his ambitions as a writer; his brief career with Sotheby’s of London; and hints at his own sex life (married to a woman, but an active homosexual) — plays off against Gray’s personal memories.

So it is a fictionalisation of the real-life reporter too. O’Reilly describes him as “a collector of objects and an originator of atmospheric spaces”, whatever that means. He is 32 years old, curious, determined, and fascinated by Gray.

The author envisages the Chatwin-Gray encounter as a meeting of kindred spirits, occasionally stretching the parallels. “What they have in common is quite extraordinary: they are loners with eye problems, have needy relationships with their fathers, and have lived in similarly named houses — Brownswood and Brown’s Green Farm. He senses there is more.”

Bruce ChatwinChatwin’s strongest weapon is innate charm — a useful tool for a journalist chasing a guarded subject. His hope is that Gray will like him so much she will agree to the publication of his article after the fact, whatever happens. He comes clean relatively quickly. Gray’s response? “There will be no interview,” she says. Yet still she lets him stay.

The idea behind O’Reilly’s re-enactment is that, although Gray does not want to do an interview, the designer does want to talk about her life because she has never allowed herself to do so before. This unexpected situation allows her to treat their chat like a confessional or, as Gray puts it to herself, a Freudian talking cure.

The whole encounter takes just 90 minutes, into which O’Reilly fits an entire life story, refracted through key elements of another. The climax is the relationship between Gray and Badovici — portrayed as a grabber of money and glory— and the French architect Le Corbusier’s ultimate betrayal of the designer with regard to E.1027. In her absence, Badovici allowed Le Corbusier to paint murals on the interior walls of the beloved building. It’s a great tale and a well-documented piece of Gray’s history that brings her reminiscences to a dramatic finale.

In her 2003 essay on bio-fiction, the writer Susan Sontag describes Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia, about the 17th- century painter, as a “daring exploration of what it is to make up a story based on real people”. Daring is a good word, since it is a near-audacious undertaking. The trick is to make it feel real, even though we all know it is not. O’Reilly succeeds by tightening the focus to those 90 lost minutes in 1972, foregrounding her research and following her instincts.

The Interview by Patricia O’Reilly is published by New Island