The Interview by Patricia O’Reilly, New Island, 2014.
There is a scene, towards the end of Patricia O’Reilly’s clever book, in which the Irish designer Eileen Gray manicures her nails as she makes the final, terrible decision to transfer legal ownership of her self-designed dream home E.1027 to her lover, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, upon completion. Gray brings her attention from nail to nail and dips her fingers in a bowl of olive oil on the table before suddenly announcing her plan. By the time readers reach this pivotal moment, the author has done such a convincing job of putting fictional form on a real life past, few will have difficulty believing that this scene, if it took place at all, happened exactly as O’Reilly describes it.
It’s a neat trick and a difficult one but O’Reilly pulls it off, capturing in The Interview one persuasive version of the elusive Gray. Her slim book owes its structure and much of its success to its excellent premise, based on a real-life event: in 1972, a Sunday Times journalist came to interview the nonagenarian designer in her Paris apartment, but the piece was never published and no notes exist. The Interview is a re-imagining of what took place that day.
It opens in a chatty, almost breezy style, littered with unexpected colloquialisms (Gray’s maid’s constant tidying and moving things “will be the death of her”). The journalist introduces himself as Bruce Chatwin, but does not mention his mission. What follows is a slightly clumsy piece of quick exposition: “The woman whose hand he holds is Eileen Gray. She is the Irish designer and architect whose work had taken the world by storm from before the First World War and right through the 1920s. Having been forgotten for decades, now, fifty years later, she is back in the international spotlight.”
Gray’s 1914 Destiny Screen has just sold at auction for a remarkable price. The 94-year-old is refusing to talk to “reporters” but for some reason she does not remember who this man Chatwin is or why he is there. Has the maid let him in by mistake? The journalist is faced with an ethical problem – does he declare his intentions and risk expulsion from the apartment? Or keep Gray talking, get the story he wants and figure out how to use the material afterwards?
A moral dilemma is a good opener for a work of biographical fiction. It echoes the ethical questions at the heart of such a project. Novels like this dance with issues of truth and legacy. Gray deliberately kept her private life private. O’Reilly, whose research is impeccable, knows this of course. Her version of Gray has a clear position on posterity: “Work is what keeps her alive and she is determined that it is by her projects and designs she will be remembered.” And yet, the purpose of O’Reilly’s story is to put flesh and feelings on the bones of what was left behind.
Blind in one eye and with fading eyesight in the other, Gray is portrayed as bright but wary, a woman used to shaping her own immediate environment and essentially uninterested in the demands of the world beyond it. Chatwin has trespassed on her personal domain. This apartment has been her Parisian home and workplace since 1907. In 1976, four years after this meeting, she will die in it.
The timing of this book is impeccable. Its publication coincides with the most recent resurgence of interest in Gray. In 2009, her Dragon Chair hit another auction record of €21.9m. Last year’s exhibition of her work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art attracted 80,000 visitors; more than 200,000 people saw it at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Director Mary McGuckian’s biopic The Price of Desire (starring Orla Brady as Gray) is due for release this year and the restored villa E.1027 will open in 2015.
This is O’Reilly’s second go at the subject. Ten years ago, she published a fictionalised biography of Gray called Time and Destiny, so she’s is no stranger to the pitfalls of fact-led fiction. Biographical novels involve a sleight of hand, but those that succeed carry the deceit so well it’s invisible. Dialogue is one of the biggest challenges, not least because anyone with a prior knowledge of the subject has their own idea of how they might have acted and sounded in private. In the absence of notes or recordings the truth is anyone’s guess. O’Reilly stumbles rarely and only near the start of this book.
The narrative takes off in sections that shoot out on a tangent from the in-apartment conversation, often inside Gray’s head, beginning with the story of the Destiny Screen. The reconstruction of her childhood in Brownswood, the family home near Enniscorthy, is evocative, if occasional veering towards melodrama: in one scene, on discovering that her father is not coming home again, the young Eileen straddles and stabs her doll with a scissors, spewing its insides all over the bed. O’Reilly draws a persuasive portrait of Gray’s early days in Paris in the 1920s, from her remarkable financial freedom to her feelings about the burden of family expectations (her mother was Lady Gray) and her struggles with the social implications of her lesbianism.
Reminiscing about her relationship with the singer and club owner Damina (played by Alanis Morissette in The Price of Desire), the designer reminds herself how glad she is to have already destroyed all private letters and photographs. O’Reilly does a distinctly un-prurient job of imagining those parts of Gray’s personal life about which no one has ever revealed the truth in any detail. None of the disclosures about her love-life, such as they are, are spoken out loud to Chatwin. This isn’t a kiss and tell.
The book is something of a dual portrait in which Chatwin’s own back story – his father the war captain, his ambitions as a writer, his brief, early career with Sothebys of London and hints at his own sex life (he was married to a woman, but an active homosexual) – play off against Gray’s personal memories. It is a fictionalisation of the real life reporter too. O’Reilly describes him as “a collector of objects and an originator of atmospheric spaces”, whatever that means. He is 32-years old, curious, determined and fascinated by Gray.
The author envisages the encounter as a meeting of kindred spirits, occasionally stretching the parallels: “What they have in common is quite extraordinary: they are loners with eye problems, have needy relationships with their fathers and have lived in similarly named houses – Brownswood and Brown’s Green Farm. He senses there is more.”
Chatwin’s strongest weapon is his innate charm, a handy tool for a journalist chasing a guarded subject. His hope is that Gray will like him so much she will agree to the printing of the article after the fact, whatever happens. He comes clean relatively soon. Gray’s response? “There will be no interview,” she says. But still, she lets him stay.
The idea behind O’Reilly’s re-enactment is that although Gray does not want to do an interview, she does want to talk about her life because she has never allowed herself to do so before. This unexpected situation allows her to treat their chat like a confessional or, as Gray puts it to herself, a Freudian talking cure.
The whole encounter takes just an hour and a half, into which O’Reilly fits an entire life story, refracted through key elements of another. It reaches its climax with the relationship between Gray and Badovici – portrayed as a money and a glory grabber – and the French architect Le Corbusier’s ultimate betrayal of the designer with regard to E1027. In her absence, Badovici allows (or invites) him to paint murals on the interior walls of her beloved building. It’s a great tale and a well-documented piece of Gray’s history that brings her reminiscences to a dramatic finale.
In her 2003 essay on bio-fiction, the writer Susan Sontag describes Anna Banti’s novel Artemesia, about the seventeenth century painter, as a “daring exploration of what it is to make up a story based on real people”. Daring is a good word; it is a near audacious undertaking. The trick is to make it feel real, even though we all know it is not. O’Reilly succeeds by tightening the focus to those ninety lost minutes in 1972, foregrounding her research and following her instincts.