Hundreds and Thousands by Emily Carr (thoughts)
I am not sure which book blogger recommend I look into Emily Carr’s journals (I suspect Melanie however WordPress searches don’t include comments so I can’t confirm), but I’m deeply indebted to them. I picked up Hundreds and Thousands almost at a whim, when I wanted a break from all of the serious analytical nonfiction I’d been reading, and I found myself almost instantly enchanted.
These journals cover Carr’s life from 1927 to 1941 (she’s a sporadic journal keeper, though, so they only amount to around three hundred pages total), when she was already middle aged and had been painting for years. The first one is about her visit to Toronto’s Group of Seven (famous male artist circle) whose praise of her work marks the turning point in her artistic career. From there, she writes about her daily life, her philosophical struggles (with God, with loneliness), and of course her art. But what I connected with is her writing style: at times cantankerous and moody, it’s usually filled with gentle humour (often directed at herself), a love for nature and pets (she calls her dogs griffons and also has a pet monkey named Woo and beloved rat named Susie who always ends up travelling with her since no one will agree to rat-sit), and a solitariness that made me she was a bit of a kindred spirit. Her imagery is marvelous, filled with unexpected metaphors and anthropomorphism that is precise and whimsical and powerful all at once. Here’s a taste:
The house begins to be a home. The unfamiliar places are beginning to fold the familiar objects into their keeping and to cosy them down. Objects that swore at each other when the movers heaved them into th enew rooms have subsided into corners and sit to lick their feet and wash their faces like cats accepting a new home. The garden is undeniably mine alread, with its neat fence and the griffon dogs. The great brooding maple is thinking of spring and with half-waked sitr is drawing the juice from my little patch of earth. The big fuschia and the young japonica, blushing with its first year’s blooming, are set orderly against the newly painted walls, with thongs of moose hide from the North softly retrainings their young branches. Spring won’t be long now. We two old winter birds will welcome her.
While I enjoyed a glimpse into her artistic processes (I was fortunate enough to see some of her work at Montreal’s Beaux-Arts), it was really the domestic details of her unconventional but homey life that made this such a treat. For instance, she acquires an old caravan, names it The Elephant, and proceeds to go camping in the woods each year with her dogs, rat, and monkey for company.
Her life certainly isn’t all rosy, though, and occasionally she’d write something that broke my heart:
I wonder will death be much lonelier than life. Life’s an awfully lonesome affair.
But overall, in the joys she found in simple things and in her determination to follow her life’s passion despite many obstacles, not to mention in her willingness to stick to her beliefs and values rather than societal norms, I found much to admire. I plan to get my own copy of Hundreds and Thousands so that I can pull it out and reread bits at leisure, as if I were calling up an old friend. In the meantime, I’m already eyeing Carr’s autobiography Growing Pains.