For me, art and fiction have always been bound closely together. For a large part of my life I was an artist (in between writing stories, I still am) and the painter, Edvard Munch, has been with me from the start of things. He moved in shortly after my teenage obsession with fantasy illustration and record covers ended, and he’s been here ever since.
It was my interest in his work that led to my earliest explorations into ‘serious’ fiction. In his lifetime, he associated with and was influenced by, a number of writers, and sometime in my teenage years I began to get curious about the names that kept cropping up: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hamsun…
I remember the surprise on the face of the local librarian when I asked for a copy of Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’. She had to go into the basement of the library to find it. It was a book that hadn’t been checked out for many years before that (appropriately) rainy afternoon. After that, I would present lists of obscure books to the librarian on a semi-regular basis. So, I can blame Eddie for my early taste in dark, melodramatic prose.
He is, of course, best known for the overblown expressionism of ‘The Scream’, but he was a prolific painter whose best work is full of subtlety and poetry. He was the first artist to make himself (his own life and psyche) the subject of his work – all of his work – even the pictures that seem, on first impression, to be of landscapes or other people.
Given our long standing relationship, I might be asking myself why it has taken me twenty-five years to write about him, but the truth is that I was, am, nervous about portraying a real historical figure. Munch is a well-known and well-loved artist, and there are a number of excellent biographies about him as well as translations of his own journals. A lot of people know his work, some even know about his life, so there was always the risk that my version of his life would clash with the version in their minds. That said, fiction can make people ‘real’ in a way that a biography cannot; it is a great vehicle for exploring the question, ‘What makes people do what they do?’ The facts of a life are not what attracts us to a person, or repels us. The success, or failure, of a story depends on its emotional truth.
Emotional truth or not, there was no way that I could get away with ignoring the facts of Munch’s life. My past interest in his biographical details related only to his paintings and the information needed to understand them. The research for ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ took me to areas of his life I had never paid attention to; the minutiae of his life and, most importantly, his relationships with other people. I did a lot of research – I’m a bit of a history geek anyway and I enjoyed it – it’s like real work but with a lot more tea drinking and sitting around reading and looking at pictures. Actually, photographs were as important as written sources. It’s amazing how much information is in the background of a snapshot when you really look. The flotsam and jetsam of life tell you a lot about how somebody lives, where they lived, who the people around them were…
Discussing the problems of writing fiction based on historical figures Hilary Mantel wrote, ‘For a novelist, this absence of intimate material is both a problem and an opportunity…’, but Munch left a lot of very intimate material. He wrote extensively about his experiences and feelings in a series of journals, however, I soon discovered that many of his own descriptions of events in his life were written a long time after they occurred, and discrepancies between his accounts and those of others was not uncommon.
We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives – my own forays into autobiography barely survived the opening paragraphs before I was lying through my teeth – but reading Munch’s journals I couldn’t help feeling that they had been written to create an impression. He often wrote about himself in the third person, he was overly dramatic, he omitted unpleasant truths, and gave unbalanced accounts of arguments; exactly what I would have done. And to undermine his reliability a little more, he drank. A lot.
Munch famously said, ‘Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life’. This was certainly true and he was clearly deeply affected by the things that happened to him, and he took even trivial events very personally. His journals are melodramatic to say the least, but he was, I think, very conscious of his place in the history of art, and the need to create a myth around himself. He was well aware that after his death, scholars would study every word he had written. Myth making aside, he wanted to explain himself. Explain his work.
The parameters of the story were defined – it clearly had to fit with the known facts of Munch’s life, but I think the act of facing concrete detail forces me to up my game. I felt like I was not so much inventing a story as excavating one. To a certain degree, Eddie had set the tone for me too: he never played it for laughs.
As a writer, and as an artist, the single thing that interests me most is memory, and Munch more than any other artist I know had memory at the core of his work. I don’t know what came first: Was I fascinated by Munch’s work because of my interest in memory, or did I form an interest in memory because of my Munch obsession?
Memories are what make us who we are. They are the filter through which we see ourselves and the world, but memory is mutable. Each time we recall something, we do it as a function of the present. We recall the remembered events in the light of things that have happened since we stored them away. Context is everything with memories, and that makes them beautifully unreliable. For a story writer, this is a gift. When I’m writing, I try to reflect how memory works, allowing two ideas or moments in time to sit together even though in reality they may be separated by many years – a chain of association rather than a chronological record.
Reading biographies about Munch, I found my attention was drawn to certain events that seemed key to his emotional life; hubs around which other aspects of his life moved – that grew in importance as I mapped out the minutiae of his life. I had to consider why those events stood out and what they meant, like following trail of clues. It’s all about the relationship between the character’s past and present – memory and consequence. If I’m being honest, I can’t separate the events that were genuinely important to him from events that seemed important to me, but, I suppose, that’s the crucial difference between fiction and non-fiction when it comes to biographical writing.
The structure of ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ was, in part, suggested by Munch’s work. His sequence of paintings known as ‘The Frieze of Life’, depict a series of scenes, individual paintings, that each have meaning in themselves, but work together as a whole. I wanted to make a short story which in some way created the impression of a life. These vignettes, allowed me to show the distinctly separate eras, in what was a very long and full life, and build them into a larger whole just as he did in his ‘Frieze’.
There is a very moving series of self-portraits by Munch, painted in the years before his death. It includes a painting called ‘Night Wanderer’ which shows him as a frail old man wandering through his own house as though he is a stranger there, leaning forward to peer into ‘the camera’. In his later years he suffered from insomnia and often painted into the early hours, working in a studio that he deliberately kept filled with the paintings he had spent his life making. He refused to sell many of these works, choosing to make copies to satisfy clients. By then, he had outlived most of the subjects of his paintings and all but one of his close family. This is how I always picture Eddie; surrounded by memories that he had created as much recorded. Living with ghosts.
David Frankel. 2016
David Frankel’s ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ is the first story in Unthology 8, available from all good booksellers, WOrdery, Book Depository and for Kindle and iDevices.