Writing Between Collapse and Renewal: Christine Lai’s “Landscapes”

“To exist between collapse and renewal is to live with an awareness that destruction has always been with us.”

At Mornington Hall—a once-opulent, now-ruined estate in the English countryside—Penelope, the protagonist of Christine Lai’s exquisite debut novel, Landscapes, keeps a diary. We aren’t told what year it is, but readers of Rachel Carson will recognize the future she prophesied in Silent Spring: a world without birdsong, at an environmental point of no return. “A nature diary composed over the last decade,” writes Penelope, “would read like a catalogue of losses.” Amid decay, Penelope and her partner, Aidan, Mornington’s owner, perform daily repairs on the house, but “disintegration outpaces us.” In seven months, Mornington will be demolished. Before that, Julian, Aidan’s brother—with whom Penelope suffered a violent relationship 22 years earlier—will return to see the house he once owned. Meanwhile, Penelope’s task, the work of her life, she writes, is to finish cataloguing the estate’s archive before the wrecking crew arrives.

Her diaries are dotted with descriptions of what Penelope calls “evocative” objects from Mornington’s archive: photographs, books, picture postcards, and items like cameras, stereoscopes, and Claude glass, which emphasize, Lai has said in an interview, the centrality of looking in Landscapes. What the objects evoke is not stated, but as Penelope writes their descriptions, she keeps slipping back to the past, increasingly haunted by memories of Julian as his visit to Mornington looms. Since the day he attacked her in his London apartment, Penelope has transformed Mornington Hall—where she first met Julian on a fellowship that brought her to the estate—into a place she can cautiously call home. With Aidan, she has made a shelter from the outside world. But thoughts of Julian cut her off from the present; a flood of memories threatens to consume her. “Perhaps what I need to do is to sink to the very bottom, to get to that day,” Penelope writes. “But how does one get to that place and return, without being destroyed?”

Lai has said the spark for Landscapes was an image of a woman in a ruined house, ruminating on art and archives. What emerges is a triptych, a hybrid text in which essays on art history and criticism are interwoven with Penelope’s diary entries and sections of third-person narration that follow Julian’s return trip to Mornington. The title is an homage to the works of John Berger, whose collection of writings on art is also called Landscapes, a sign that her novel aspires to be less a story than, like Berger’s book, an experiment in ekphrasis—a literary work that describes visual works of art. By writing a book about viewing art that foregrounds the wounds of the viewer, Lai invites us to wonder, as she did, how someone who has been the target of an assault might encounter certain paintings in the Western tradition. Take Titian’s painting of Tarquin’s violence against Lucretia, Penelope writes. Do you see a smile on Lucretia’s face or a tear glistening on her cheek? In René Magritte’s 1934 surrealist painting Le Viol, a female face has been transformed into a body. Robbed of her identity, she is unable to speak, but as she turns toward the viewer, “we, in turn, must decide,” writes Penelope, “whether to stare back or look away in disgust.”

There are at least two authorial Penelopes in the book: the one who writes about art in the immediate aftermath of her assault and the one who writes in her diary twenty-two years later. We hear about a third Penelope—the one who wrote freely in the first flush of love for Julian—but we never see that writing, as Landscapes is concerned with not returning to a state of innocence but writing in the face of all Penelope has lost. After Julian’s attack, she wonders if she will ever be able to read a book or study a painting in the same way again. But her rage gives Penelope’s essays a piercing clarity. She moves from meditations on depictions of violence against women in classical Western artworks—Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women, Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia—to feminist responses to the tradition, such as Louise Bourgeois’s Passage Dangereux, Kara Walker’s Gone, and Doris Salcedo’s Tabula Rasa. And Penelope’s diaries are threaded with references and allusions to Kafka’s diaries, as well as the other writers who shape Lai’s prose. Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is reflected in Landscapes’ fragmented form; Berger’s analysis in Ways of Seeing informs Penelope’s meditations on art as property; and the emotional core of Landscapes is indebted to W. G. Sebald’s prose, such as his novel The Rings of Saturn, whose narrator sees traces of destruction everywhere.

With these artists and writers animating her pen, Penelope realizes the only way back to the real people in her present life is to reckon with Julian’s ghost. “I can imagine Aidan’s voice telling me that I should write,” says Penelope, “that writing is the only way by which I can hope to grapple with everything that has been festering within me, barring me from the present.” Like her namesake at the loom in Homer’s poem, Penelope has been the one who waits, but in her notebook, she puts an end to waiting, creating a new experience of time. She writes about Bourgeois, for whom art is a way of “nullifying the past, of moving the self beyond pain,” and “writing, too,” says Penelope, “is an exorcism. The past is negated through the act of transcribing words on the page, and the self re-emerges, alive in the here and now.” But when she sits down to write, Penelope comes up against a resistance to doing so: “The physical difficulty of writing and the inner need for it.” In January she resolves to describe what happened, but she doesn’t until February 15. The resulting entry is the longest in the book. Finishing it momentarily stills Penelope. “Another image, another event, might bring back the flood of memories,” she writes. “I cannot deny the possibility of that flood. But if that were to happen, I will return to the notebook and write my way out again.”

To exist between collapse and renewal, in other words, is to live with an awareness that destruction has always been with us; the choice, Lai suggests, is not between beauty and rot but whether to see their proximity to each other.

The salvation of writing, in other words, remains a difficult grace, and Lai has said in interviews that Penelope’s struggle with writing is her own. It was also Sebald’s. Early in Landscapes, Penelope stands in front of Turner’s A View on the Seine, trying and failing to write a description of the painting. “Whatever I wrote,” Penelope writes in a diary entry, “however satisfactory it might have seemed at first, when I read over the words with greater attention, the inelegancies and inconsistencies would jump out like blemishes, forcing me to throw it all out and begin again, only to be confronted with yet another row of banal words. Everything I wrote was subsequently unraveled. The painting called into question not only my ability to convey meaning, but the entire work of writing itself.” A passage from Sebald’s The Emigrants is similar: “Often I could not get on [writing] for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unraveled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralyzing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.” I suspect this difficulty is another reason Lai chose to name her protagonist Penelope: weavers—like writers, said Sebald—are ever pursued by the fear of having gotten hold of the wrong thread.

Between this fear and the “finished” work is a generative restlessness that produces one sentence after another, however inadequate they might be to their subject, each created by the hope that she might accomplish what she has set out to do. Sebald’s narrators hope to rescue what was lost, and for Penelope, writing is an attempt to restore herself to the present, which is to say, to other people. In Landscapes, each character (including Penelope) relates to the world by trying to possess it. And how could it be otherwise, shaped as they are by an estate that celebrates and valorizes the glories of private property? But art provides an alternative—not possession but exchange, a conversation, a giving and receiving of life. Penelope faces most of her past, for instance, while she sits for Celia, a traveler at Mornington who asks to paint her portrait. After several sittings, Celia gives the painting to Penelope. The portrait will change with you, Celia tells Penelope, in an ever-unfolding conversation between the viewer and the subject of a piece. Here, too, Lai echoes Sebald, whose narrator finds consolation in the company of fellow travelers.

Unlike Sebald, however, whose meditations on ruined landscapes were largely practices in mourning, Lai is more interested in reparation, in thinking beyond disaster. While working on the novel, Lai said in an interview, she was drawn to works of art and literary texts that make life-giving use of the destruction wrought by death-dealing forces: “the act of lingering in ruins becomes a way of working through personal and collective crisis.” She was moved by Jenny Erpenbeck’s account, in Not a Novel, of playing in the ruins of East Berlin as a child. “The dismantling then allows a place to become something new,” Lai writes. “Perhaps there is hope in that.” Lai threads this hope through Penelope’s writing. Like Aidan, who builds new shelters with old scraps of Mornington, Penelope in her diary builds a bridge to the present with the metaphoric scraps of her past. She prefers to write atop a three-story pavilion that has been blocked off from the rest of the house. The ceiling has collapsed, creating a hole through which vines grow, puddles form, and dead leaves cover the floor. But when the sun shines directly over the house, a column of light comes through “that wound in the ceiling,” in which Penelope sets up her desk. In a sunlit wound at a house slated for demolition, she writes between destruction and repair.

The motif of betweenness is announced from the very beginning of Landscapes, with Turner’s return to the Ehrenbreitstein fortress near the German town of Koblenz, where “his gaze continued to be held by the ruins of the half-demolished structure, poised on the threshold between collapse and renewal.” Immersed in the works of Turner throughout, Landscapes likens one character (Julian) to Turner’s shadows, another (Aidan) to his light, and Penelope to a place between light and dark, appearing and disappearing—which, in Landscapes, is the place where writing happens. To exist between collapse and renewal, in other words, is to live with an awareness that destruction has always been with us; the choice, Lai has suggested, is not between beauty and rot but whether to see their proximity to each other. There is some hope in this way of seeing. The closer Penelope looks at disaster, the more she sees acts of reparation, resilience in the face of loss.

These subversive, creative acts are everywhere in Landscapes. In Penelope’s last essay, she describes Doris Salcedo’s Tabula Rasa (2018), which shows shattered tables pieced back together as metaphors for those who have suffered violence, a work that grew out of Salcedo’s interviews with victims. Throughout her diary entries, Penelope quilts and converses with a traveler, Miranda, who teaches her how to piece together something new with old scraps. And in Penelope’s February 15 entry, where she describes leaving Julian’s apartment, she wanders London, feeling the need to stay in motion, until she stumbles into three people in a makeshift shelter, “their heads bent together in conversation,” sitting by a flame. They are like the “luminous core at the center of the darkness” in Turner’s A View of the Seine, as Penelope describes the painting in her diary. Outside the shelter, the seas keep rising, and loss is commonplace; inside, there are three people talking, warmed by fire and words. icon

This article was commissioned by Tara K. Menon and Jesse McCarthy.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Quillebeuf, Mouth of the Seine (1833).