Turning the Lens Inward

Meet Rena Greenblatt, the photojournalist at the center of Nancy Huston’s new novel, who carries on a steady, self-flagellating internal monologue, as she travels through Italy.

Infrared by Nancy Huston. Grove Press / Black Cat, 272 pages, $14 ‏(paperback‏)

Early in “Infrared,” Nancy Huston’s stirring and eloquent 11th novel, photojournalist Rena Greenblatt chides herself for criticizing her stepmother’s ignorance of Florentine history on their family vacation through Tuscany: “Who are you to cast stones − you who trot the globe hiding behind your Canon, guzzling down information at random, belonging neither here, there, nor anywhere, and whose motto could be the ‘Just looking’ muttered by people out of pocket in fancy boutiques the world over?” This self-flagellating internal monologue encapsulates the central dilemma of the novel: How can we withstand the pain, or beauty, of the present moment without escaping into private reverie?

The novel presents the Greenblatt family vacation as a case in point. Forty-five-year-old Rena has obligingly risked a week’s unpaid leave from a Parisian newsmagazine to travel with her stepmother, Ingrid, and her father, Simon, who are visiting Italy from Montreal on the occasion of Simon’s 70th birthday.

The camera that dangles constantly from Rena’s neck functions as an escape valve from the excruciating tedium of this tense journey through art and ruins. As the novel unfolds, we catch wind of lingering resentment and childhood upset: regarding Rena’s mother, whose ambitious legal career once distanced her from the family; regarding the temper Simon used to unleash upon Rena’s brother, who would turn, frighteningly, on Rena; regarding Rena’s sexual trials and adventures. For a novel whose travel-guide structure increasingly functions more as a map of the protagonist’s psyche than of the Tuscan landscape she is traversing ‏(the nearly seven-dozen section headings include “Miserabili” and “Grande problema”‏), the predominately subtle nature of its psychological insight is all the more impressive.
Huston brings us close enough to Rena to share in her frustration, and yet deftly allows us to see around her enough to empathize with her stepmother when she finally lashes out, demanding to know “why it’s unthinkable for you to take an interest in pretty things? Why, to your mind, pretty can only mean insipid and despicable?”

We, too, are exasperated with Rena when Ingrid exclaims: “You haven’t even been taking pictures of our holiday! It’s not worth your while, is it?” And though we see that Ingrid exaggerates − for Rena has been photographing ancient archways and the shifting patterns of sunlight on stone − the gist of her criticism stands. And we are as annoyed as Ingrid by the inadequacy of Rena’s apology, even while understanding the source of her reticence.

For while Rena hides her vulnerability from her family, she reveals it to us. The day after Ingrid’s outburst, Rena sits in a kitschy restaurant bathroom berating herself for being “always convinced the important stuff is happening elsewhere.” She asks of that particular “poor, banal moment of [her] life − will no one ever sing your praises?” and proceeds to photograph a “ridiculous” miniature stuffed kitten as if to prove to herself that she, too, can appreciate prosaic pleasures. Rena’s appeal lies largely in this loquacious, insightful self-awareness, and her perennial humor. Together, they turn a wearying family vacation riddled with flashbacks to childhood sexual abuse and fringed by phone calls to and from Rena’s French-Algerian lover Aziz, about the mounting riots in Paris’ immigrant quarters, into a surprisingly enjoyable read.

‘Sack of Florence’

Driven by her pursuit of beauty and her fear of the ordinary, Rena is of a kind with many of Huston’s most engaging protagonists. She is highly sexual and disarmingly clever. Her puns are delightful testament to the linguistic prowess of this author, who translates her own works from French ‏(“The sack of Florence” is the wry term Rena uses, in her head, to describe her stepmother’s account of losing her bag‏), and her ruminations on femininity, sexual desire and motherhood feel refreshingly original. In the middle of a banal telephone call with her teenage son, Rena muses about how “incredible it is ...to have this sort of laconic exchange − ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Good’ − with a person who once lived inside you and whose development you supervised for twenty years, a person you taught to speak, to whom you read a thousand bedtime stories, for whom you cooked countless meals ... incredible to end up exchanging platitudes with your own children.”

Whether sketching a dancer who leaves her family in their New England college town to pursue her career overseas, as in “Slow Emergencies" (2000), or a scholar who uproots her family from New York to Haifa to delve into her own history and academic research, as in her 2006 “Fault Lines,” Huston has a keen sense of the balancing act demanded by parenthood. Rena struggles to negotiate a path between her familial obligations and her intellectual and sexual selves. Sneaking away to try to reach Aziz and, more often, fantasizing about him while taking in art at the Uffizi or navigating switchbacks on a Tuscan road, Rena’s digressions from her slow-moving family are well-timed, and provide the reader too with much-needed relief.

Rena is not the only member of her family who slips out of the present moment and into memories and abstractions: Ingrid talks constantly of World War II ‏(“I was born in ruins!” she is fond of telling people‏); Simon absorbs himself with maps of Tuscany and, in his younger years, was consumed with neurological research and forays into mind alteration with LSD. All the while, Rena engages in lengthy departures into memories of sexual relationships and encounters that are alternately scintillating and disturbing, and which comprise much of the novel’s vivid backstory. In allowing her readers the same escape from the Greenblatt family vacation as she allows her protagonist, Huston highlights the necessity of distance and escape in the interpretive process. Without Rena’s backstory, readers would have surely had little sympathy for her apparent callousness, and had Rena refrained from exploring her traumas and trials in her own mind, she may not have ultimately managed to transcend their reach as rewardingly as she finally does.

Our intimacy with Rena is enhanced by the use of Subra, Rena’s imaginary alter ego and “soul sister.” Named for the American writer and photographer Diane Arbus ‏(“Subra” is “Arbus” spelled backward‏), whose famously haunting portraits of social outsiders opened up a young Rena to the art of photography, Subra is both a psychological crutch and a narrative device. “Tell me,” Subra breathes when Rena’s mind begins to wander down any number of reminiscences, and Rena gladly complies, nudging the third-person narrator aside and recounting experiences both erotic and traumatic in her robust first-person voice. As the story unfolds, the slightly cloying narrative convenience of Subra ‏gives way to a more sophisticated device. It is Subra who chidingly points out Rena’s lies and self-delusions to her, and it is through the occasional revolts of this superego that we understand some of Rena’s stories as elements of an elaborate infrastructure of self-defense.

One of the most far-reaching, yet insufficiently resolved, of these delusions surrounds Rena’s relationship with Aziz. Though we learn relatively early that Aziz is in fact more a lover than the husband Rena has led her family to believe, the relationship seems not just passionate, but loving, and stable. In flashback we see Aziz calming her nerves about the trip with her family, and he refreshingly breaks through to the present action via his, and their joint employer’s, phone calls urging Rena to come back to Paris to cover the riots. Some of the novel’s most provocative ruminations around religious identity and belief take place during these conversations, such as one that evokes the problem of transmitting agnosticism − that is, the dilemma of the secular Jew: “On the subject of God, Aziz simply refuses to believe I don’t believe in him, though I’ve explained countless times that in my father’s brain there was a place for God but it was empty, whereas in my own brain the place doesn’t exist so neither does the emptiness.”

Along with phone calls and recalled scenic snippets, this conversation creates the impression of a relationship that is deeply engaged and committed, which makes its ultimate dissolution less upsetting than difficult to fathom. While on the one hand I marvel at the construction of a narrator so thoroughly unreliable as to mask the fault lines in their relationship, I can’t shake the sense that the Parisian subplot − the riots and the personal and professional pressure they engender − cannot hold the weight it’s been assigned. Did Rena really choose a partner too selfish to see the necessity of her family vacation and allow her the time away? Similarly, would the magazine editor who so undervalued her really demand that she return to Paris immediately, despite knowing that her family trip was so critical that it merited risking her employment? Both plot twists feel like a last-ditch − and utterly unnecessary − effort to raise the stakes of the novel.

Similarly unwieldy is the recurring narrative attention to the unique characteristics of infrared photography, Rena’s favored method. With its unique sensitivity to light beyond the visible spectrum, infrared film “captures not visible light but heat.” And since “what you photograph is not what you see,” the resulting image − like that of trauma on the psyche, the reader seems meant to surmise − is often difficult to predict in advance. Rena muses to Subra: “Infrared reveals what I cherish more than anything else, what I’ve always longed for, what I lacked most as a child − warmth.”

Rena later takes pains to inform us that infrared “is not, as many people think, a gimmick,” but its overemphasis here − specifically, the process’s too-close mirroring of Rena’s psychological predilections and coping mechanisms − borders dangerously on just that. Some of these ruminations hit a delicate note too hard, and the heavy touches stand out in a novel whose insights generally arise organically, without needing to be spelled out. But when the commentary is dialed back and the Greenblatt family has room to spiral toward and away from each other, Huston provides a moving rumination that is as much about art and intellectuality as it is about one family, and one woman, struggling not to fall apart.

Ilana Sichel is a writer, editor and translator based in New York.