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Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster

Keeping the World Away (2006)

by Margaret Forster

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I rate this book highly, mostly because the "keeping the world away" theme resonates with me. Of course, I am somewhat misanthropic.
It's really a series a short stories tied loosely together by a painting. In each of the stories the main person is, to varying degrees, distant from the world. As usual, Margaret Forster's characters are true to life and give us useful and realistic insights about the way the world works. ( )
  oldblack | Feb 9, 2009 |
This is a book about a painting by Gwen John, of a corner of her attic room - a small table, wicker chair, and the light from the window. There is a small reproduction of the picture on the back of the book - which you will probably look at many times as you read. The book follows the picture through the lives of a number of women who own it - all of whom see the picture as full of passion and emotion, despite its simplicity (although they see different emotions at different times). The women, too, are misunderstood by those around them, who often fail to appreciate the depths of passion that their unexceptional exteriors cover.

I found this book quite hard going. I did not find any of the stories especially engaging, and I was frustrated by the fact that everything seems to be explicitly spelt out. It's a great idea for a story, and to me it was crying out for an Elizabeth Bowen-style narrative where the emotions beneath the surface need to be mined by the reader, with hints and allusions there to work from. But instead, it's all given to you - and there wasn't enough interest or variation in the stories for me to make it worth while. ( )
  wandering_star | Aug 31, 2008 |
I expect a book by Margaret Forster to be good and this one is no exception. It is essentially the story of a painting, a variant of Gwen John’s “The Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris“, as over the years it passes from one woman to another. I knew very little about Gwen John before I read Keeping the World Away and now I want to know more. (Fortunately there is a list of books about her in the back of the book.)

The title of the book comes from a quotation from Gwen John’s Papers in the National Library of Wales:

“Rules to Keep the World away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); Do not look at people (ditto); Have as little intercourse with people as possible; When you come into contact with people, talk as little as possible … ” 3 March 1912

It seems from this novel that Gwen John was completely infatuated and in thrall to the artist Rodin. She became his lover and tried to please him by being tranquil and calm and striving for harmony in her life. Inwardly, however she “felt volcanic, as though burning lava filled her and would explode with the force of what was beneath it, her overwhelming passion for him.”

Her room was the image of how Rodin wished her to be and she painted a sunlit corner of it where it was “all peace and calm and serenity” in contrast to Gwen herself who “radiated energy”. She rearranged the room and painted several versions; with the window open, with an open book on the table, with flowers on the table, with and without the parasol.
I wished that the whole book had been about Gwen John. However, it’s about the painting and how its successive owners acquire it and what it means to each of them. It gets lost, is stolen, turns up on a market stall, is bought, given away and fought over. As each new owner is introduced there are links between them, but each time the painting passed to a new person I wanted to know more about each of them.

The painting is seen as expressing a yearning for something unobtainable, having an air of mystery, conveying a sense of waiting, of longing, of anticipation of someone’s arrival, painful, soothing or uplifting, empty, and symbolic of an independent, simple life free of entanglements. It becomes part of the lives of its owners. The novel starts with Gillian, the school girl reflecting that art speaks for itself, regardless of the artist’s intention. “She was convinced that art should be looked at in a pure way, uninfluenced by any knowledge of the artist or the circumstances in which it had been painted.” It ends with Gillian, the aspiring artist, reflecting on the nature of art and the purpose of this painting - “Had that not been its purpose? To keep the world away, for a few precious moments, at least every time it was looked at?”

I can’t quite agree with Gillian. I can see that seeing a painting in isolation from the artist can be a pure experience, but I’m always filled with curiosity both about artists and authors - who they were, when they lived, what was going on in the world they lived in and how it affected their work. However, I also think that a painting is like a book in that they can both be interpreted in many ways regardless of the artist’s or author’s intentions.

This is a remarkable book, which I’m sure I shall read again and again.

see here ( )
  BooksPlease | May 28, 2008 |
Follows a small painting by a female student of Rodin through the lives of several generations of women who come into possession of it in various ways, and its effect on them. A good book for 'keeping the world away', and the painting is on the cover so you have a visual to relate to during the telling. Well, I need a visual as I am was completely stupid about art. I actually learned a couple of things. I found Forster's writing to be absorbing but very relaxing. Highly recommended. ( )
  posthumose | Dec 8, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099496860, Paperback)

A classic Margaret Forster novel with the same satisfying appeal as her bestselling Diary of an Ordinary Woman — the story of an actual early 20th century painting and its fictional adventures through the century and of the women whose lives it touches.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:36 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Following the fictional adventures of an early 20th century painting, this novel also looks at the women whose lives it touches, and what it means to be a woman and an artist.

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