Sometimes a creative idea can arrive by pure chance. David Park had one of these lucky moments during the last days of his teaching career at Down High School in Downpatrick five years ago. It all started with William Blake.
The English poet, painter, and printmaker — whom Park had previously read, but had no expertise on — became a reading requirement for the class he was teaching. So the then full-time English teacher, and part-time writer, began reading Peter Ackroyd’s 1995 biography of the great Romantic visionary.
Contained within that book was the story of a young Catherine Boucher, signing her name with an X to formalise her marriage to William Blake, in St Mary’s Church, in South London in May 1782.
“I started thinking about what it must have been like to be married to a man whose head was more often in paradise than it was in the tangible, physical world,” Park explains, from his home in County Down.
“I suspect that Catherine must have felt separated from William because of the intellectual and imaginary world that he lived in.
“We don’t know that much about her life, but that was good from my point of view because it let me construct an inner life when I was writing the book. We know that Catherine was a great help to William physically, and emotionally she was part of the creative process.
“Even when William was working, he was always happiest when she was sitting by him. And on his deathbed he said to her: ‘I will draw you just as you are, because you have forever been an angel to me.’ That is a wonderful demonstration of love, I think.”
Park began writing a story with no end in sight. His main focus was to try and capture the thoughts of Catherine Blake in a steady rhythm. He eventually got to 75 pages, bringing the narrative as far as he could. But then he had another idea: what if he could weave together the stories of three women into a single book? What he eventually produced was The Poets’ Wives. The book begins with the story of Catherine Blake; then the reader is transported to Stalinist Russia in the 1930s, where the story is narrated by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of the dissident poet, Osip Mandelstam, who died on the way to a Siberian Gulag, for speaking out against an oppressive communist regime; and in the last story, we meet Lydia, the wife of Don, a fictional Irish poet who has just died from a heart attack aged sixty-seven. While the three stories are linked thematically, they are not connected in any other way. The book is therefore like three short novellas, rather than one complete novel.
“I thought this novel was an opportunity to give these women a primacy, to bring them back into the spotlight. And to think about what their lives were like, and then create their inner lives. Really this story is about the primacy of women.”
While this is the ninth book Park has published, it’s the first time he has ever written historical fiction. For the second part of his book, which tells the story of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Park says he faced a dilemma.
“I found Mandelstam’s memoir Hope Against Hope truly inspirational. But the book was so powerful that there were moments where I really stayed close to her account. I felt my novel had to be very close to what actually happened. This is the first time I have mixed reality with imagination as a writer. It’s quite difficult to know how to create that boundary.
“I kept asking myself when I was writing the story: what it must have felt like for Nadezhda after Osip had died? To be a woman on her own and to feel the whole repressive weight of that totalitarian regime bearing down on her? “ The women in the first two stories of Park’s book display an unconditional love that knows no boundaries. They share an absolute belief in their husband’s artistic talent. They feel that this gift their husbands’ possess for arranging words with such tenderness and truth, should be supported at all costs. In the final story, however, Park creates a contrast to this idea.
Lydia, who is getting ready to scatter the ashes of her dead husband in a small seaside town in Northern Ireland, recognises that despite his great artistic achievements, Don’s inability to acknowledge the love of his family, when he was alive, amounts to a great contradiction in comparison to the art he has created. The narrator describes this in one very eloquent passage: “So she tried to tell herself it wasn’t about the love he felt for someone else, that it wasn’t about the love he didn’t feel for her — it was about the words, only about the words, and these had an existence and a need to exist that journeyed beyond whatever now kindled her spirit into anger.”
Park explains why he decided to illustrate this hypocrisy, which often arises with those who have a creative spirit, but who cannot see outside their own ego.
“Artists, like every human being, are flawed. They have their failures, their ugliness, and all of those things that make us human. In the final story, Lydia is bitter because the art her husband has created has the capacity for delicacy, gentleness and beauty. But the man she lived with had lost that in her eyes. So there is a kind of bitter irony that she cannot cope with.”
With the publication of his last novel The Light of Amsterdam, Park made a leap from full-time teacher to full-time writer, finally, after a lifetime of doing both. He admits that more time doesn’t necessarily equate to becoming a better novelist.
But it does mean having the comfort of being able to research for your work. And writing The Poets’ Wives, he admits, has opened up his eyes to a world of possibilities, outside of the constraints of geography and politics.
After his 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner, Park felt he had said everything he could on Northern Ireland.
“I always knew as a writer I let myself be bound by my physical and political geography for too long,” he admits. “And I wanted to cast that off and live in my own imagination. I didn’t want to be bound by where I was born any longer. I just wanted to move on.”
“Making this decision has been a real freedom for me. I now want each book I write to be more adventurous, experimental, and to have a full range of the imagination. I no longer feel that I have a straight jacket on me with a Northern Ireland context all of the time.”
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