Sunday, August 30, 2009


Afterimage, a novel by Helen Humphreys.

This surprising book fell into my hands recently. I knew nothing of what to expect from it. At first I simply enjoyed the author's exquisite, economical phrasing, and the canonical setting: Annie Phelan, a poor young woman in service to Eldon and Isabelle Dashell at their Victorian country house around 1870.

But soon I found that this book is aimed at my heart. I'm touched and moved by the exploration of 19th century photography, of what it means to pose and photograph another person, and to be posed.

Later I'm with Eldon as he traces outlines of distant places through the maps and journals of explorers, yearning to suffer ice in his boots with lost Franklin.

Even the distance between Eldon and Isabelle touches me in its way. And always the language, the right words, spare and beautiful.

Some quotes ...


The light flooding through the glass roof softens the whole scene. Annie feels almost as if she could cup her hands around it and contain it safely there, the gentle push of heart against her fingers. Beat, it doesn't beat, it drops, falls to earth, slowly, like a word after it's been said.

Dearly beloved.

The afternoon light is beautiful now. It slants into the glasshouse, all current and moving lines. The air swims with light. That is half of the image, thinks Isabelle... Light. The rest is shape and shadow. Intent.

Isabelle takes Annie's arm. "Art is like a light," she says. She almost says like love. "Isn't it? Always burning with the same brightness, no matter how long we've been gone from the room."


To create a map of the world is to include everything known to human existence. ... It is to go through the evidence and make a case for the world appearing a particular way.

Distance. Position. How to find your way back when where you are depends on where everything else is. Here we are. Here is everything else. A compass of the human body -- head as North, feet South, right arm East, left arm West. North as up. The top of the page. Up more important than down. Look up. Stars, the dark night sky screening eternity.

This is where you are. This is what it looks like. Never mind that you don't have to recognize anything. Trust me.

It is a dangerous thing, making a map. If there is a pure curiosity, an authentic urge for discovery and knowledge, why is it that every map seems a precursor to some form of exploitation? Settlement or battle? When the cartographer stands on a high place and draws lines radiating out like spokes, like th erays of the sun, how can he not believe that here, where he stands, is the center of the world?
Eldon sits at the pivot point of an imaginary compass and wonders how straight it is in human beings, how direct, this line between discovery and conquest. The bearings of the compass. Th e compass of the heart.

The Future

"That is the difference between your world and mine," Annie says. "Yours can expand. Mine shrinks." ... What is there to look forward to? The future is more of the same. No the future is less and the same.

"But it's ending," Eldon says. "I fear it is all ending."
"What is?"
"Journeys. Maps. The getting there. Isabelle is right: The future is the photograph. And a photograph is always a destination, not concerned with getting there but being there." ... "A photograph," he says, "is always about arrival."

Eldon runs his fingers gently around the coastline of County Clare. How can a physical self be entrusted to the distant, shifting fathoms of the sky and to a time honed so fine that it cannot be sensed or felt? Perhaps knowing where you are is less a science than an act of faith.


All around Isabelle the garden opens its arms to the last traces of summer. I'm here! I'm here! Heat is a wish in the bones of all living things, a wish ached out through the skin. Isabelle stops walking. The flowers around her are open lenses, wide, wide open. It is the time of the year -- the moment even -- when the garden is most fully alive. It is the moment right next to the one where everything begins to die.

Isabelle stretches her arms out, reaching with her fingers up toward the sun. It is as if she is the darkened window of the negative, the one through which the sun must pour to make the shape of her, to let her live. (p.127)


It's funny, thinks Annie, watching Cook adjust her bonnet for the umpteenth time, but what we think makes us more who we are sometimes makes us less. (p.146)

[Isabelle] doesn't like it when Annie is annoyed with her. Can't she see that Isabelle needs to do these things to get the proper perspective to create? "Can't you just give yourself over to the work of art?" she says.

"I am the work of art," Says Annie. (p.216)

Here, in the studio, this place where they've been the most intimate, in front of the camera, Isabelle will let Annie be anyone escept herself. Annie has existed for Isabelle not as who she is but only as who Isabelle wanted her to be at a particular moment. ... Isabelle Dashell has looked hard at Annie Phelan and has never once seen her at all. (p.238)


Isabelle had felt only anxiety as she plunged the plate into the developing bath. At that moment the image was truly gone. She cannot make it stay. She has to let it go back into darkness, and then she has to believe it will return. It takes so much strength from her to believe this.

Now, in the glasshouse, it is here again, the image. Isabelle has pulled it back to her, from the mouth of darkness. It swims under the light, limpid, the dull color of blood seen through water. (p.128)

The line is full of photographs. ... Each photograph slightly lighter or darker than the one beside it. Every one the same and different. They stutter toward the blank eye of light. They stutter toward the closed fist of darkness. Each one is a word said a different way, the emphasis in a different place. (p.129)

It is the perfect photograph, and she has missed it.

This is what she has always feared. That she will not be able, no matter how she wills it or orchestrates it, to create an image as pure and true as this. That what she does is not really about life, about living. It is about holding on to something long after it has already left.

Life grief. Like hope.

Life is the unexpected generosity of a kiss.

It is the falling moment. Unrecorded.

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