A note to Fenton Johnson, author of At the Center of all Beauty, Solitude and the Creative Life
Fenton, you’ve set out to prove that being alone is different from loneliness. Essential, you say, to the creative life. You argue that artists must remove themselves from the noise and clutter of enforced sociability. In order to live in proximity to the source of their inspiration.
You speak of the “creative life” as something closer to communal service. A way of caring for the world that depends on the setting aside of self. You say a relationship to a partner or spouse can be a thing of beauty. But that you are more deeply touched by those who forge a relationship with the ‘all’.
Oh, Fenton Johnson, you white man of privilege. Your whole thesis is the opposite of the setting aside of self. No kids to support. No sink full of dishes or sheets turning grey on an unmade bed.
Chop wood, carry water, Fenton. Then talk to me of solitude and inspiration.
She was 84 when I met her. We had two years together, living in the same apartment. For every one of those days, she was furious at being old. As though life had betrayed her. Because, of every person on the planet, she was the one who would live forever, her beauty undimmed.
Opinionated, rancorous, and augmentative. So determined to shine in every room, it was exhausting. She wrote her first book at 80 and won a national prize. Her prose is warm and generous, sharp, funny and without sentiment. Nothing is rose-tinted. The women in her stories marry for every wrong reason except the right reason of survival. They have affairs; they drink too much; they smoke too much. The Nazis rape them. They escape from camps and across entire countries in the dead of night. One disappears to a derelict country house to have sex with the ghost of her long-dead husband. They grow old and lament their lost beauty.
As she was dying I made a sandwich. She opened her eyes, lifted her hand. “She eats while I am dying,” she said. And then she was gone. Irka. Wild woman, Holocaust survivor, sought-after fashion designer, wife, mother. And author. My mother-in-law. I wish her alive every day. Right here, right now.
I recently ran into an old lover on the street. Now so bald, so flabby, so rightwing. I recognised him by his gait. Back in the day, he had a huge penis and was into bondage with his wife but not with me. She kicked him out and had his baby grand piano dumped in the street. He moved it into my townhouse – without asking. I came home from work, with my three crabby, hungry kids to a fucking baby grand in my tiny living room. Even though I still quite liked penises back then, I called some friends and we moved it out into the street. Looking back, it was the last baby grand I had in my living room.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Sumner is an unapologetically terrible speller. She credits the invention of spellcheck to her success. She is happy to share her opinion on any subject, even if you haven’t asked for it.