Marie B: A Biographical Novel
Tom Hubbard’s first novel Marie B. is a meditation on art, life, death and the intersection of all three. It tells the true story of Mariya Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva, although truth as an objective reality becomes an unstable artefact in this moving work of fiction. By Shane Creevy.
Bashkirtseva was a painter and women’s activist who died tragically of tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty six. Born in 1858 she devoted her short life to art, working 10 hours a day in her final 6 years. George Bernard Shaw wrote of her: “Let anyone who thinks that this is no evidence of control just try it for six months."
The novel opens on a pleasure-steamer. Marie is a like a giddy child, continuously excited by the possibilities of the world around her. And yet, this geographical location opens an important thematic point – the question of Marie’s nationality. As she writes in her ‘journal’, “Marie B. is an enigma to herself”. At sea between the backward Russia of her father and brother and the sophisticated urban concerns of her mother in Paris, Marie’s nationality is far from rigid. As she leaves Russia she thinks, “Here I was born: my soul belongs elsewhere”. The fluidity of identity, the performance we all take part in, is one of the concerns of the book. (Marie even mocks Hubbard when she thinks of a fictional man, a writer who would write the story of her life and who would be transfixed by her self-portrait in a hundred years: “poor fellow!”)
She is determined to become an artist of any kind: a writer, scholar, singer, or perhaps a sculptor or painter. She is “A woman forming through her words; A painter learning how to see”. She attends art classes, realises she has natural talent and gradually develops her skills until the great Jules Bastien-Lepage becomes an encouraging supporter. They strike up a friendship, perhaps based on their mutual compatibility: both are slowly dying and no one else around them understands what they are going through.
Hubbard plays with history and the process of story-telling and myth-making. Indeed, Marie’s published diary was tampered with by her own mother, who wished to portray her as a non-rebellious Lady. We can never be entirely sure if the journal articles in Marie B. are factual, replicated, or simply imagined. (After speaking with the author I find out that many sections of the journal are taken directly from Marie’s original journal.) The line between truth and reality, fact and fiction, history and story is blurred. And so the narrative structure within the novel is never rigid but shared by third person narration, first person narration (Marie’s journal), hallucinations, speeches, chapters of dialogue, even memos and poems. This polyvocality stretches beyond verisimilitude when many of the French, Ukrainian and Russian characters speak in a Scottish dialect!
Time is another key theme. Time, for Marie, is never enough. “When there are no other obstacles, time is terrible, draining, crushing, when it ought to be motivating and energising”. These are the crushing words of the dying. Marie’s life was cut tragically short. Who knows what may have been had she lived longer. Hubbard playfully posits the possibility of Marie’s influence on surrealism with the penultimate scene set in Buttes-Chaumont Park, later a favourite haunt of the surrealists. Indeed, one may see the encroaching influence of this movement in her ‘Self-Portrait’ exhibited on the cover of Marie B. – a deeply moving and reflective work. A short novel for a short life. A tale of sadness, but also a reminder of the possibilities within this world around us. As Marie writes, “we want more life”.
Tom Hubbard was the first librarian for the Scottish Poetry Library (which marks its 25th anniversary this year) and has also worked on the Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation. His foremost literary activity has been poetry, though he has taught literature throughout Europe for a quarter of a century. Marie B., his first novel, is available through www.midoil.co.uk
Published by Ravenscraig Press
ISBN 978 0 9556559 1 3
Hardback 99 pages