Comments by Bob Corbett
Ben Duncan was born in 1936 England and at age 4 was sent off during the war to live with his grandmother in the countryside. It was there, at that young age that he discovered an enduring fact of his life – he had to surround himself with beauty. He wanted to create it, to have it around him. Even at that early age he discovered his love of art and began his life-long necessity of creating art.
As Ben developed his artistic abilities his uncle, also an artist, took him to Tuscany when Ben was 15. He had not fully developed his talent as an artist as a life-form until his mid-thirties when he purchased a rustic cottage, Tamarisk. It was in a remote area of Cornwall and he no plumbing, running water or electricity, but Ben made it beautiful, living there much of the rest of his life.
Ana Ingrham’s title is well-chosen. The theme of Ben’s need of beauty is central to his person. He loves beauty in the natural world, in his art work, in food and especially in the women who entered his life.
He does develop a special love for Elsa, herself a creator of beauty, but her medium is poetry. Ben and Elsa met at an artist colony in German – Worpswede, and fell in love. There is a curious sort of competition between them, at least in Ben’s eyes, in their seemingly non-comparable arts. However, Ben does want to be the superstar – not only in creating beauty, but to be seen as the beautiful by others. He may be said to desperately need such adulation and tends to lash out when it is not fully forthcoming.
Ben’s personality is not driven solely by beauty. There is a certain destructiveness in his treatment of his lovers, a sort of love / hate relationship, a seeming resentment of his desires and need of them.
Early in his relationship with Elsa there is one of the explosive moments:
That night as they stood on the landing kissing goodnight, he drew back from her and fixed a grim dark gaze on her. He was repulsed by her closeness, by the certainty of her love, her surrender... There was no suspense any more, no room for imagination. They were a pair like many others. Nothing extraordinary, nothing unique between them. Not any more.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered?
“You mustn’t love me. You must reject me,” he grumbled.
She was taken aback. He kept staring gloomily at her as if wanting her to understand the untold. Wanting her to understand what was going on inside him which he himself didn’t understand. But she did not understand. On the contrary, her expression turned sour and she turned her back and walked up the stairs. He felt let down by her. Her reaction was predictable and she was a woman like many others.
Such treatment would seem likely to send many women racing for cover and turning elsewhere for love and companionship, but not Elsa. She stays, despite on and off breaks in relationship. Eventually they even marry. Elsa is herself a quite strong person, often fighting for her dignity as Ben demeans her, especially in front of other women, yet she remains the central woman in his life.
“Elsa satisfied the need in him both for exaltation and for destruction.”
While the novel is in significant measure Ben’s tale, the theme of Ben and Elsa is definitely a very significant sub-theme and the role of art and the love of it in both their lives is an over-arching theme.
The novel ends during the period which led to the death of Ben’s father. He and Elsa had been estranged at that time and Ben had taken a lover. He was filled with pain at his father’s death and treated Elsa extremely badly in their meeting. Yet in a few days they are back together at his ancient Tamarisk retreat.
The novel began in beauty and harmony and ends that way, at least for the moment. However, author Ingham has let us know that the peace and beauty is not likely to be permanent.
This is the fifth work of Ana Ingham which I’ve read. This novel, her most recent, did bring me up short in harking back to two of the earlier works, but especially to LADDER IN THE MOON LIGHT.
First was the startling recognition of this story I was reading. In her 2008 novel (Ladder) we have much the same story and characters. Ben of “Moonlight” remains Ben in “Urgent Beauty.” Susan of “Ladder” is Elsa in “Beauty.”
In “Beauty” she is one of the two main characters, almost as central as Ben, and his wife. In “Ladder” she was his ex-wife and while an important character, Susan didn’t play as significant a role as in “Beauty.”
Next I made of couple of discoveries that left me a good deal befuddled. Both novels have a cover photo reproduction of a painting by Bryan Ingham. In an art book of one of Bryan Ingham’s exhibitions I noted that his years of life match those of Ben in the novel and that he was the husband of author Ana Ingham.
On the other hand, in BOTH novels on the inside front page we read: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I guess I have come to feel quite strongly that those two disclaimers are not quite accurate. It’s not that I think these two “novels” are “histories,” buy on the other hand I can no longer believe that these seeming similarities to real people are “purely coincidental.”
Does this seeming mix of fiction and reality really matter? Perhaps for many readers it would make no difference. For me it is a bit more complicated. When I read “Ladder” (a year or so ago), I had no idea at all of this fiction/reality connection. However, this close similarity of that novel to the history was something I fully realized by the first pages of “Beauty.”
I worked very hard at forcing myself to abstract from this fact and to read “the novel” as a novel. It was very hard for me and I’m not sure I was up to it. I have always believed in the necessity of myself as critic to be as fully unaware of non-novelistic relevant material as possible. I have commented on many novels of both Austrian Thomas Bernhard and Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. I have worked hard at trying to know nothing of their lives at all, believing that their literary works had to stand 100% on the FICTIONAL content of the novels themselves. It didn’t work fully by any means. I couldn’t help but learn that Thomas Bernhard did have a mental condition which was also had by the main character of each of his novels. And, while I had carefully kept myself almost totally in the dark about Saramago’s life, I did hear when he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Yet knowing that I still have 2 or 3 of his books to read, I don’t allow myself to read anything about his life or work, nor do I read other reviews of his work.
A neighbor of mine wrote a novel set in and allegedly “about our neighborhood.” I had never met this man or heard of him, though he lived only two blocks from where I live and both of us had lived in these houses for nearly 50 years! A number of years ago I read the novel and thought it was quite poorly written and said so in my review. A couple years ago we finally met and got to know each other. For a time he was quite angry with me because of my strongly negative review. I felt badly about it, but was able to say – “I’m sorry I was so blunt, but that’s how I see the novel.” Now we are friendly toward each other, but I do realize that had I KNOWN him then as I do now, I probably wouldn’t have written as honestly (or at least as harshly) about the book; perhaps not writing about it all. I just don’t know. However, I’m fairly sure my existing review would not have been published.
Thus I’m a bit befuddled as what to say about Ana Ingham’s novel Urgent Beauty. I happened to have liked it as a novel a great deal, but I so wish I hadn’t realized the biographical connection between the author and the two central characters, one of them who was herself!
On the other hand, I did like the novel and in this novel I even like the character of Ben, quite the contrary to the Ben of “Ladder.”
There are two contradictory or at least clashing personal characteristic in the two Bens. In both there is the part of Ben I liked – his sense of art and beauty and his creativity. In both novels Ben also often treats women very badly, and seemingly in order to save himself from any sense of his own inadequacies. However, in “Ladder” Ben is dying and under the great emotion stress that would obviously bring to any person. In “Beauty” he is mainly in his productive and successful years and his creation and reveling in beauty is more dominant. Thus I like him more in “Beauty” than in “Ladder.” Still I just can’t abide his demeaning of women whom he loves or at least loved.
In “Ladder,” perhaps because Ben is dying, author Ingham is able to make the mean side of his personality a bit more sad and embarrassing than disgusting, and thus her writing of it makes it somewhat easier for me to forgive.
In “Ladder” there was no female character as strong as Elsa is in “Beauty.” In “Beauty” she fights back. She rebels. At times she left. Alas, I was always frustrated with her when she came back for yet more of Ben’s abuse. Nonetheless, I like the two main characters more in “Beauty” than in “Ladder.” On the other hand there was much more sunshine and light in “Beauty” than in “Ladder.” I think Ana Ingham’s ability in “Ladder” to bring me, at least, from my position of judgmental uprightness to sympathetic tears, even for Ben was tied to the darkness and sadness of his situation. I tried to resist my sympathy for Ben in “Ladder,” but Ingham’s construction of the tale cut though my judgmental frustrations. However, in “Beauty” he is so successful, has so much privilege and such gifts that his treatment of women left me much less able to forgive and less able to feel much for him.
Thus “Beauty” did not have quite the same power to move me emotionally. On the other hand much of this novel is very appealing in the success story of this man who lives life as he wants it, and needs it, driven by his attractive sense of beauty.
“LADDER IN THE MOON LIGHT” like the moonlight in the title, seemed dark with powerful and successful pathos. URGENT BEAUTY, like the concept of beauty often strikes me, was lighter, cheerier, filled with joyful success and admirable radical individualism. The power of the “lighter” novel wasn’t as moving for me, but more joyful.
In either case I was aware I was in the hands of an author who could move me a great deal. Nonetheless, I do come away a bit confused about what it is in the art of her novels that is moving me, and what of it is in the history. I THINK it is mainly the art of her writing, but I guess I’ll never be fully sure.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com