There are conversations during which we would love to be a fly on the wall. We live in an age where privacy is an antiquated concept, reams of information is instantly available about almost everyone through a simple Google or Facebook search and a generation of people growing up are now more likely to instantaneously (and often unwisely) tweet their most personal thoughts rather than take them with them to the grave.
But as Patrick Kavanagh noted, ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.’ While attention-seekers try to fascinate us with myriad details about their lives, in reality we’re more likely to be fascinated by people and incidents that we will never know the truth about.
One of the most intriguing interviews ever occurred in 1972 between the reclusive and brilliant Irish designer Eileen Gray – by then a frail but still practising artist in her 93rd year – and the handsome 32-year-old Bruce Chatwin who was commissioned to write profile interviews for The Sunday Times. This pre-arranged interview took place in the Paris apartment where Gray had lived in relative obscurity for decades. But she had just been ‘rediscovered’ when her famous lacquer screen, known as Le Destin, made headlines after being sold for a record price. This was the same exquisitely created screen that – when sold in 1913 – catapulted the Enniscorthy woman to fame as one of the 20th century’s most innovative designers and architects.
The Subject: The Irish designe Eileen GrayEven in 1913 Gray had never courted fame. But in 1972 the unexpected public excitement about rediscovering her work was an unwelcome distraction from the quietude needed to maintain her daily working routine. She only reluctantly consented to interviews. Therefore it was a considerable scoop for the Sunday Times when Chatwin secured permission to conduct this interview. What was said between them that day had a major influence on Chatwin’s future. But what makes their interview doubly fascinating was that it evolved into such a personal conversation that we can only speculate on what they said to each other. Because, to the consternation of his editor, Chatwin declined to write up his notes about their conversation and refused to deliver a text for publication.
Only a tiny fragment from their conversation filtered past the vow of omertà that Chatwin took.
Both Gray and Chatwin were well travelled and individualistic artists and they discovered a shared desire to visit Patagonia. Gray told him that she was now too old to travel and so he should go to this remote region of South America on behalf of them both. Two years later Chatwin did exactly that, sending his newspaper a telegram of resignation when he finally reached there: ‘Have gone to Patagonia.’ In 1977 he transformed travel writing when his book, In Patagonia appeared. By then Eileen Gray was dead, but, as a memento of their conversation that he felt was too personal to write about, she left him in her will a gouache of Patagonia that had hung for decades in her workroom.
Gray’s reputation as a major figure in 20th-century art has grown since her death and Chatwin’s travel book remains a modern classic, but because this interview was never published the encounter has been largely forgotten. But now, in a brilliantly evocative novel, Patricia O’Reilly has attempted to recreate the circumstances of their conversation in a daring act of literary ventriloquism.
It is impossible to say how accurate O’Reilly is in her speculations about how these similar souls reacted to each other. What can be said is that O’Reilly has vividly conjured up their essence as well rounded and believable individuals.
‘This book doesn’t claim to reveal the full truth of what happened that afternoon but creates its own truth’
Her conjecture about how their encounter may have evolved is deeply convincing. In this novel, Gray’s short-term memory has grown so poor that she has no recollection of having agreed to be interviewed. But, like many old people, her long-term memory is perfect.
O’Reilly is deft at switching the narrative from describing the evolving friendship and growing trust between her two protagonists to evoking the memories that Chatwin’s questions unlock in Gray’s mind. Therefore we meet Gray as a determined young artist causing familial unease by turning her back on her social caste to devote herself to studying art; Gray the designer in Paris embarking on ambitious projects and lesbian love affairs; Gray the middle-aged woman conducting a heterosexual affair with the younger architect, Jean Badovici; Gray the perfectionist who never chased fame but found that it claimed her twice.
Interviewer: Bruce Chatwin, who met Eileen Gray in 1972Here, equally rounded, is the young Chatwin, conscious of his editor’s demands but also conscious of being in the company of a kindred soul. O’Reilly’s novel is about how our lives can be transformed by even the shortest encounter, when we meet someone who shows us our future path. This book doesn’t claim to tell the full truth about what occurred that afternoon, but it creates its own truth in bringing us into the minds of two exceptional individuals thrown together by circumstance and how each recognised in the other something of the journey that one of them had undertaken and something of the other person’s journey still to come.