For a couple of the coldest months each year, for more than 30 years, Ward Just and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, have escaped to Paris They need some city time and anyway, their beautiful West Tisbury home is not so well insulated. And Paris fires the imagination.
Even when Mr. Just is not about the actual business of writing fiction, he says, he has extra recourse to imagination in France. Never having learned much of the language, for example, he can’t eavesdrop in cafes, unless he imagines the dialogue. In one way or another France appears in a lot of his work.
But seldom in such solid form as in the new book, Rodin’s Debutante. The inspiration for the book exists in flawless white marble in Paris.
Let him explain.
“One of the places we go to, almost the moment we arrive there, is the Rodin Museum,” said Mr. Just in an interview at his home here on Tuesday.
“The Rodin Museum is so organized that his great big pieces, The Gates of Hell, The Burghers of Calais, Balzac are all outside. The smaller pieces are all inside. In one tiny room, there’s a sculpture, a bust of Mrs. Potter Palmer.
“Mrs. Potter Palmer I always thought of as the dowager duchess of Chicago. The piece was sculpted early in the last century — sometime around 1909, 1910, I think. And I return and return and return to look at this. I don’t know why, I’m just captivated by it somehow. She is . . . the kind of woman you would call handsome. Maybe she’s 60 years old when this bust is made.
“And one day looking at it, I had the idea: What if this woman were not 60 and a dowager, but 18 years old and lovely, and Rodin makes a really superlative bust of her?”
There was the starting point and the book title. And from there it was all imagination.
So in the book, the bust is duly taken back to Chicago, but its subject dies in the flu epidemic of 1919. The family is heartbroken and now does not know what to do with the statue.
“They are faced with this problem,” said Mr. Just. “They cannot bear to look at the bust of this girl. But they can’t put it in a closet, conceal it from public view. That seems harsh, almost obscene to them in some way.
“To sell it would be even more obscene. They don’t want to give it to the Art Institute [of Chicago], because every time they went they would have to look at it.
“Then this lawyer shows up one day with a proposition for them. He has a rich client who wants it and who will give a very substantial sum to the Art Institute of Chicago if they will give him the bust, and he promises it will never be put on display.”
In fact the bust does get displayed, in a way. It goes into the library of the “misbegotten” boys’ school the rich man sets up, out of spite for his wife as much as any higher motive. The tragic history of the artwork is unknown to the schoolboys — they think the subject was the rich founder’s dead wife — but it becomes a sort of marble muse for one of the students at the school, later a sculptor himself, Lee Goodell.
The novel traces the experiences of Lee, the son of a small-town Illinois judge, from his boyhood through to his young manhood and so it has been termed, on the book jacket and by others as a “coming-of-age” story. That’s a categorization Mr. Just accepts, but he calls it a “peculiar” story of that type.
For a start, he said, the lead character “doesn’t show up until page 60 or something,” and even then it is “a kind of a shadowy presence.
“It’s less about him than about the situations he encounters, the places he lives, the people he knows. It isn’t really about him,” said Mr. Just.
Indeed Lee is peripheral to the great drama of the book, a savage rape of a girl he knows a little. He learns about it through eavesdropping when the group of men who make decisions in their little town — “six of the eight men . . . who made New Jesper go” — gather at his house to discuss the crime.
It took no big stretch of Mr. Just’s imagination to envision that scene; that’s how it was when he was a young journalist in Waukegan, Ill. There was always an informal committee of town authorities — the police chief, the judge, the bank president, the newspaper publisher, the school principal, perhaps — who decided things.
“The personalities will change, but it’s an old-fashioned oligarchy. Or it was. I’m not sure if that’s true anymore. But that was the way it worked back then [when the book is set, in the middle of the 20th century].
“There are five or six people who decide the way things are going to go. Whether there’s going to be a sewer bond issue, whether they’re going to put another street light on Main street, whether they’re going to turn Main street into a mall.”
How they will deal with a shocking crime in their community.
“And that small cabal,” he said, “is central to the plot.”
For they decide to hush it up. Thus no one in town outside that group ever learns the exact, appalling details of the attack. Lee doesn’t. Nor does the reader. Nor does the victim.
“She has total amnesia,” said Mr. Just. “She doesn’t remember the assailant or the events, only the result. She doesn’t know the steps that lead up to this ruined body that she’s got.”
Of course the girl and Lee do eventually meet again, and talk about their respective scars and recollections, but we won’t go there and ruin things.
The point is, the history of the rape victim, like that of Rodin’s debutante, is lost — or more correctly, hidden. And, as much as one can say any novel is “about” anything, that is what this one is about.
“This book in many ways is about people who don’t really want to rattle the cage,” said Mr. Just. “They’re afraid that if it’s rattled too forcefully it will fly apart with disastrous consequences.”
The victim would like her attacker dead, but she’s not certain that knowledge of the crime itself would be helpful. Lee has some experience of vengeance, and he knows the same uncertainty.
“So in the end there is the question: Does fear of the known trump fear of the unknown?” said Mr. Just.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a recurring theme, but I’ve talked about it before in my books . . . the mystery of the enigma, something that will never be known,” he said.
In real life we live with this all the time.
“How often,” the author asked, “have you puzzled over this event or that event that happened in your life [and thought], how did this come to pass? You can speculate, but a revelation, in the sense of a biblical revelation, doesn’t happen most times.”
But in the imagined world of fiction, it is pointed out to him, things are often more neatly tied up. Look at almost any American movie, if not quite so many books.
“America is not easy with mystery,” said Mr. Just. “It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.
“It seems to me it’s almost a beginning of wisdom to understand that there are some things that will never be fully understood.”
Let people call Rodin’s Debutante a coming-of-age book if they will, but really it’s a mystery. Not in the classic sense of who did what to whom, and whether they will be brought to book, as it were. The mystery is how we cope with memory, or its lack, and whether acceptance is a viable alternative to understanding.
It’s a wonderful book.
Ward Just will discuss Rodin’s Debutante on Saturday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m. upstairs at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vineyard Haven.