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Permanent Violet
Ronald Frame
Edinburgh: Polygon / Edinburgh University Press, 2002.
£8.99, 210 pages, ISBN 0-7486-6321-5.

Mireille Quivy
Université de Rouen

“Ask anyone in Cassis and they will tell you. The artist’s widow, the piano teacher, the écossaise.”(1) The voice behind the words, trying “to suggest, to evoke, to paint impressions with sound” (21), telling the compelling story of Eilidh and Colin Brogan, “half-Scots and half-French”, “a voice [...] wanting to make itself heard”, at last. (27)

Colin Brogan is dead. He “entered the kingdom of past things” (206) where “the visible merely masks the invisible” (131) when he finally reached the point at which “differences and distinctions are ironed out” (135), penetrating the sacred vaults and caves beneath the sea’s mirror. Eilidh has been asked to tell the story of her now famous husband, to account for the circumstances in which his paintings were born, to trace the genesis of his artistic creation. What she finds herself writing is in fact her own biography, putting together the threads of a fragmented existence, revisiting her husband’s paintings for traces of her successive selves, until she discovers that what he actually did was progressively paint her out of them. And she leads the reader on from picture to picture, vanishing from strokes and hues, first a character, then a presence, last mere cheating light. From subject to object to nothingness, she gains being as she disappears from the scene, retreating into the landscape, merging with the surrounding elements and colours, as she once did with water, the element of her indetermination. A crossbreed of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In water I occupy again my three dimensions. I move free and unencumbered, with nothing to hold me. I am. I’m not anyone in particular, only a register of sensations. I don’t have to prove or disprove anything. From second to second I change: I change shape, temperature, colour. I AM AMorphus. (112)

She suddenly realizes that in painting her Colin managed to make her “interrupt light like a prism” and that “he practise[d] his skills in depicting light by using [her] naked body as a neutral conduit.” (137)

She is the vehicle in the pictorial metaphorisation of inaccessible light, that light each on his own had fled Scotland to find out, for “there must be something in the sombre Scottish stone, in the overcast weather, in the consciousness of living on the damp outer ring of the continent. It all enters into the soul, and darkens it, compresses it. The short summer gone, or in the long anticipation of it, you’re left aching for the sun, for some little light in all the greyness.”(53) Eilidh thus writes the story of “the alternative person” she could have been, “the negation of whatever [she] was expected to be”(54), surrounded by mirrors that reflect the social self at the surface of the world and hide that inner being whose truth art alone can help her discover.

Page after page she builds up an identity as the narrator of a voyage into herself, meandering along the deep valleys and vertiginous gorges of her early years, remembering, collecting, organising, eventually finding meaning. In the picture gallery of the past, she unveils and analyses unfinished tableaux that speak of treason, deception and treachery. An impossible model, she escapes reproduction: she never belongs; she lives in the margin, suspended in the space between events, permanently on the edge of individualisation. She lives life by proxy, duplicating duplicity, fleeing to find her self all the more secluded.

Her schizophrenic writing feeds on opposites, points and counterpoints, halving the ten chapters composing the story into two mirroring blocks of identities, the Scottish “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, forever lost, vs. the “Missing Person” yet to be found. The light and fluidity Colin spent his life trying to paint are also the object of Eilidh’s aesthetic quest “beneath the clever surface of the music, into the driving currents [...] And, by way of a submerged cathedral, to the island of happiness itself.” (24)

Eilidh: a name, a frame, a shame, permanently violated by an insatiate desire for a right to be herself and no amalgam of her sisters, for individuation and yet, for recognition. Walking the tight rope of impossible heredity, Eilidh is a funambulist of loss, in search of emotional balance, of physical fulfilment, pregnant with unredeemable emptiness.

In Permanent Violet, Ronald Frame gives a voice to the unspeakable, he moulds matter into shape and sculpts the ineffable thus ultimately bringing to the surface the unconquerable quality and spirit of the unsaid. In describing the peregrinations of two artists towards the ultimate creation, he manages to unite the aesthetics of the literary, the artistic and the musical. The wanderings of the painter and the musician lead them downwards, from Scotland, the land of tradition and of the first revelations, the home of personal epiphanies, down to the Riviera and its intricate deep purple coastal shores. Like one of Graham Swift’s characters, Colin Brogan is gradually “learning to swim” and to disentangle himself from the tentacles of contingency reality constantly throws at him. His paintings acquire that translucent character that reaches beyond the surface of things, catching the light and playing with it until it becomes movement, character, feeling, relating more and more intensely to it until it finally compels all other relationships to retreat in the caves of accepted ignorance and indifference.

The search for personal expression travels from metaphor to symbol: from the waters of Black Pool to the watercolours the brush spreads on canvas, then to the ultimate permanent violet of the artist’s final vision, elements merge, opposites find resolution, surface meets depth, body reaches soul. Meanwhile, Scotland is the permanent colour that sheds light and hue onto new experiments in artistic creation. It is and remains. It exists in the mind, a frame, a background, a mode of apprehension of the exterior world, a well of inspiration solidified into castles, structures, statues, stains, streets, shores and signs.

Against the steadfast wall of Scottish mores, there break the waves of Colin’s uncertainties, of Eilidh’s erratic tidal desires, encounters, and secret sins, the spume of her mother’s betrayal, riding the surf of untold stories; against the reassuring fortress of Scotland, the brittle mirrors of furnished rooms, the shattered reflections of past selves, the improbable outlines of characters craving more flesh and existence across the waters or in afternoon hotel rooms. However the past is no key to the present in the timelessness of the artist’s world. The past is engraved and entombed in each and everyone, as is the lover’s blood in the stones paving Scotland’s memory. If the present is delivered in snapshots, moments are framed like paintings, timeless, colourful, confusing the senses’ synesthetic sensations into rainbow descriptions whose final conjunction aims at discovering essence, via a permanent analysis and questioning of its apparent spectrum.

In Permanent Violet, Frame has gone his own way, just like Colin and Eilidh. The technique is that of the impressionist painter, giving us in one stroke the closer touch and the farther perspective that help the mind organise the representation. But it is also that of the hyperrealist, describing scenes in short, abrupt, concise sentences that leave little place for hypotactic expression.

Permanent Violet
can finally be read as a homage to the kaleidoscope of Scottish painting, and more specifically perhaps to the works of the Colourists, reflecting their spirit and their indomitable quest for a new expression, reviving the poetic vistas opened up by their search for the unknown colour, their paradigmatic attempts at discovering what words can’t convey, what matter can’t represent.

Beyond, ever more so.


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