Tuesday 28 May 2013

Soeur de l'artiste

This is the cover of the French edition of Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the artist, published by Arléa on 6 June. The painting, Jeune femme, is by Odilon Redon. (The blurb refers to ‘un onirisme puissant – et terriblement anglais!’)

The book is prefaced by a brief note: ‘I once found myself editing a film on which a little of Fanny Mendelssohn’s music was to be used. We asked the researcher to look out a portrait of her, and this was duly received from a commercial picture library. The caption on the back read: “Fanny Mendelssohn – sister of the composer”.’

A copy of that picture was pinned to a wall in Dai Vaughan’s flat. The music and the portrait resulted, eventually, in Sister of the artist: the brother-and-sister composers have become artists, but the manner in which their work is respectively encouraged and thwarted by the conventions of their time still holds. Layered with their story are fragments of folk tales – about language and music, about brothers and sisters, about the making of art. (As a film editor, Dai worked on Granada TV 1970s Disappearing World series, and his knowledge of anthropology – politics and literature too – was extensive; he didn’t usually have to send out a researcher, he did his own.)

The prose is immaculate. A film director on his editing of film, but he might as well have been talking about the writing: ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’ Dai understood that writing – anything worth doing, really – is both art and craft. It’s certainly not a career. That the writing was separate from the day-job allowed him to write only what he wanted to, needed to: novels (allow a generous definition), essays, poems, fragments. (His publishers include Seren, Rack Press, Quartet, Y Lolfa, University of California Press.)

Dai sent me the manuscript of Sister of the artist just before Christmas in 2011; I liked it, I went to meet him, I said let’s publish next autumn; he mentioned that he was ill, I understood that he had cancer, we published the book in February 2012. He died in June. I had become, to a measure I still can’t reckon, fond of him. No reviews and few readers, but among them a freelance agent who asked if she could try to interest French publishers in the book. Soeur de l’artiste will be published, by chance, exactly one year after the day on which Dai died.

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