Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: More interested in being than becoming

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently.

The second novel by London-based author Chloe Aridjis, Asunder appears on its surface to be about quiet contemplation, and how far it is possible to abstract oneself from the dramas and traumas of social interaction. Claiming not to suffer from listlessness or boredom, protagonist Marie has sought out a job (but not a career) as a museum guard at the National Gallery, working there as "I have always been more interested in being than becoming", killing time by trying to guess how long remains before closing without looking at her watch, or ruminating upon the gradual process of paint cracking.

After nine uneventful years, Marie becomes restless. The sad, quiet death of a 68-year-old colleague, felled by a heart attack at work, jolts her into realising that life is slowly slipping away from her. Her friendship with poet Daniel, fired from the Gallery for noisily pacing around, encourages her to think about his unrequited loves and her own brief liaisons "that didn’t threaten the peace", but when he offers to take her to Paris, she struggles with the potential short-term change to her routine, deliberating for days before taking the trip which irrevocably alters her carefully contained world.

"Painters create order from disorder, but the moment that order has been created, the slow march towards disorder begins again", reflects Marie, and her greatest fear, it seems, is of encounters that will change her situation in any way. Like her, Daniel keeps people at a distance, writing to other poets across the world, preferring not to meet them as this always leads to the correspondence shrivelling; Marie wrote to a prisoner who later escaped from Belmarsh, the realisation that he had her address leading her to panic that he would enter her life in a ruinous fashion (as in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, about a Bethnal Green housewife whose life is torn apart by this very occurrence). This does not happen, and Marie wonders what became of her penfriend: finally, in Paris, she reaches the uncharacteristic yet inevitable point where she spontaneously breaks out of herself and struggles to connect with an inscrutable stranger.

At its core, Asunder is about time: how slowly it passes, the futility of trying to fight its effects, and generational changes in people and ideas. Besides her memories of vanished shops and her knowledge of different approaches to the restoration of art, Marie often thinks about the history of violence against the suffragettes, as well as her great-grandfather Ted, and the most significant moment of his life as a National Gallery guard, in 1914, when he slipped in trying to catch Mary Richardson, granting her vital seconds to slash Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in protest against Emmeline Pankhurst’s imprisonment. As a child, Marie heard this story countless times, aware that she was supposed to see Richardson as a criminal but sympathising with her cause, touchingly confessing that "I loved [Ted] just a tiny bit more for not reaching her in time".

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently. Aridjis is particularly strong on the nature of travel, in London and in general. Her prose is full of deft imagery – such as the way the women "comb the city from [their] hair" on changing into their Gallery uniform – and the moment where Marie becomes aware that she has become "captive to that irrational behaviour in foreign cities when you feel everyone is watching when in reality not a soul has noticed your existence" is especially touching.

The influence of nouveau roman authors such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, and British counterparts Ann Quin and Christine-Brooke-Rose can be felt in the rarefied focus on the narrator’s interior world, her corresponding observations of the mundane realities of so much human behaviour, and the way in which her narrative slowly builds towards a climax that changes her life without feeling life-changing. As a reminder that life will pass you by if you choose to experience it passively, however, Asunder is far more powerful than it immediately seems.

Protagonist Marie takes a job as a museum guard at the National Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle