“To write about something is to kill it,” Virginia Woolf whispers to Elizabeth MacKinnon, the protagonist of Mark Blagrave’s new novel, Lay Figures. Woolf is not a character in the novel, but appears in a childhood memory belonging to Libby (as we learn to call her); indeed, Blagrave’s major achievement is to bring World War Two-era Saint John alive without relying on fictionalized historical persons. Rather, Blagrave deploys a dramatis personae of invented poets, painters, playwrights, and other artists, who are not boxed in by the putative constraints of biographical correspondence.
Libby is a poet and aspiring novelist, and she keeps Woolf’s comment between herself and us likely because she fears its devastating accuracy in light of her struggles to find a satisfying literary form to distill her experiences. There is no shortage of the latter, as upon moving to Saint John in Chapter Two (“Summer and Fall 1938”), Libby immediately finds herself part of an artistic coterie. Fights, affairs, suicide, and all manner of drama ensues. The major characters are artists, after all. Work is what happens between the gossip, grand pronouncements, and sex. Of the much-discussed dilemmas that circulate among these artists, the chief one seems to concern the question of artistic priorities amidst crisis: “‘In a place where people are out work, where some people—whole families—are hardly able to eat, do you ever wonder what’s the goddam good of poetry?’” This question is hurled at Libby by the troubled William, and is obviously quite apropos, given the capitalist crisis of economic depression that flickers into the narrative.
For a further dash of the real, Blagrave’s “Author’s Note” indulges us in naming names. William, around whom much of the plot swirls, is probably Miller Brittan. William’s rival, Frank—could he be Jack Humphrey? Libby’s poet-friend Bea must be Kay Smith. This interpretive parlour game of correspondence is exactly the wrong way to read the novel, as it downplays Blagrave’s talent for maintaining our curiosity about the ideas that perplex and inspire his characters. He never allows any one of them to come too fully into focus. They are imperfect, striving, and incomplete. The neat lines of allegory introduce many of the major players to us, via a secret mural depicting them that is discovered in William’s apartment in the opening chapter. As Libby later tells the painter Henry, though, “‘[William’s mural] doesn’t work as an allegory.’” Neither does Lay Figures, to its credit.
Libby’s controlling narrative point-of-view supplies what’s missing from William’s mural, namely the messiness of real life. She is in the action, but also at the edge of it, a little like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway. Unlike Carraway, Libby is a woman, which means we often feel keenly the weight of simultaneously making art and doing the invisible labour the women in the novel do by navigating, and frequently propping up, the fragile, domineering male artistic egos. Libby’s searching self-inventories occasionally pull us out of a given moment, but her painful self-awareness nevertheless endears her all the more to us.
Lay Figures contains many memorable vignettes that among other things illuminate the failed promise of genuine artistic internationalism. It captures how currents such as fauvism, agitprop, and automatic writing, as well as figures like Woolf and Diego Rivera, enliven the Saint John scene. Which is to say that Balgrave both summons and challenges the familiar anxiety shared by many Maritime artists, then as now—their sense that what’s happening happens elsewhere.