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JOANNA CIECHANOWSKA




Vodka and Versailles
2016.10.11 / Joanna Ciechanowska
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‘Na zdrowie! To Yannick.’ Raya swings the glass and I do too, only to realize that what she ordered was two large neat vodkas. Raya is Yannick Hill’s grandmother and travelled specially from her painter’s studio in Exeter to be at the launch of her grandson’s book Versailles in National Gallery in London

Arriving at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square for the official launch of Yannick Hill’s debut novel Versailles, I walk into a room full of the young and trendy and momentarily feel a bit lonely, until I see my old friend, a painter, Raya Herzig. A small figure in a wheelchair, a pair of giant, pink spectacles on her face, she is waving to me, and taking my hand as she orders something from a waiter in a whisper. He arrives a few moments later, handing us two, large glasses of what I assumed was water. ‘Na zdrowie, to Yannick!’ Raya swings the glass and I do too, only to realise that what she had ordered was two large, neat vodkas.

Raya is Yannick Hill’s grandmother and travelled specially from her studio in Exeter to be at the launch of his book Versailles in London.

I read the first extracts from the book more than a year ago and was instantly captivated by the opening lines: ‘Somewhere in America, at the limits of a silver city, a giant monitor lizard is making his way through Versailles, a one-hundred-room mansion set back from the ocean (…). Most of the people living in the residence do not know the monitor exists.’

I pick up the printed book and look at the opening page, with its two simple words – To Milena. I ask the author, who is the book dedicated to and why? ‘Milena is my mother, Raya’s only daughter. She died not so long ago of lung cancer. I wrote Versailles in the months immediately following her death, in a flash of hyper-productivity and inspiration. So while the novel isn’t about Milena, I dedicate it to her. I felt it was important to call her by her name because she was more than my mother, she was an extraordinary woman with her own life and loves and secrets.’

Versailles implies a very different setting from what the one we learn about in the very first pages of the book: ‘How did you decide on the title Versailles? – I ask Yannick. ‘There’s something about the word itself that I love: it’s seamless somehow. Expansive. Glittering. Wide-angle. Like an ocean meeting an impossibly blue sky. The novel is about many things but one of them is greed. A social media mogul’s greed for data: information about us, what makes us tick, and of course his family, who never leave his sight. There’s a luxuriance to the book, not just because the primary characters are America’s richest family, but in terms of the writing style. It’s profuse, full of detail, colour and specificity, and the word Versailles of course conjures up this idea of luxury, of the palace in France… My grandmother has always had great titles for her paintings. A title is important. I always start with one in fact. It’s like a totem, a cornerstone, or a shrine’.

‘And how long did it take you to write this novel’? – I try to find out as much as possible about the creative process. ‘Like I said, I wrote it very quickly – about three months for the first draft – in this period right after my mother died. Grief can do remarkable things. It made me very productive and clear-minded. I wrote the novel in a kind of hypnotic dream-state.’

Yannick Hill is a graduate of the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, an acclaimed course first launched by Malcolm Bradbury in the 70’s. Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro were former pupils and the course still steadily turns out successful writers. A fine pedigree for a writing career and now, the first novel in print. I can’t help comparing the two; Yannick’s novel and Raya’s paintings, or rather, the circumstances in which both careers were born.

Raya Herzig, born in Kartuzy, North Poland, was a child survivor of the Holocaust. She endured five years in German concentration camps, after which, out of her whole family, only she and her sister survived. After the war she lived in Sweden, Italy and Switzerland. She revisited Poland for the first time in 1969, going to the places she grew up in and had not seen since the war. And that’s when she began to paint.

She says: ‘Art in itself is an expression of hope, the
ultimate opposite to the deadly silence of despair. I see Art as a specific way of life, with its very own language. This language develops throughout an artist’s life. It is personal, but still takes influences from all sides, as does any language that isn’t formal, stale or dead.’

A successful career soon followed and Raya exhibited widely in many countries. Since 1990 she has lived in Exeter, Devon and that’s where she still paints. Her latest solo exhibition was at The Muse Gallery, in London in 2015. It was called Dreamology. Raya said in her statement about the exhibition: ‘Dreams are an important source of my painting; not in the sense that I try to copy dreams onto canvas, like for like, but rather that my paintings draw from the same source, making use of logic and the language typical of dreams. Hence the title of my show, Dreamology. ‘The visible world bears little inspiration for me. Most of my pictures are images of the kind that appear when the eyes are closed. Not being subject to any -ism, each painting represents a world in itself. Putting the paintings into the categories of academic art history doesn’t help. Indeed, it even could obscure what’s there. That’s why it’s so satisfactory to bring children into exhibitions; they will talk about what they see, not what they know. And anyway, paintings are mirrors, they show the one who is looking at them.’

Raya Herzig is one of those rare examples of untrained, self-taught talent, with a natural ability for composition, colour and evocative imagery entirely her own. Versailles also has a certain dream-like quality for me. What we know suddenly, seamlessly, expands into unreality. And one can see that in Raya’s paintings, as she admits herself. Perhaps different reasons inspire the two, but I can’t help searching for a ‘collective memory’. A jigsaw puzzle that suddenly finds its place. Am I reading too much into it? – I ask Yannick.

‘What I learned from my grandmother is the belief: that being an artist is a legitimate pursuit, and that the marks we make – in her case on canvas and in mine the printed page – might eventually signify something beyond what was intended. With me that means I write a novel and only know what it is when I have finished, it takes on a life of its own. For her this means, ‘dirtying the canvas’ as she calls it, putting brush to the blank surface and seeing what emerges. So we both dream, in the sense that we make things up from nothing, but I don’t think either of us are interested in depicting dream-worlds.
Rather, we depict alternative realities.’

Death. Grief. Despair. Some have more of it than what is humanly possible to bear and crumble, falling like trees after a storm. Some wander the world, restless, never safe again, because it doesn’t matter anymore where the road ends, as long as one can travel through life as it goes on and see the light as in a photograph. And so a painting starts it’s own dream and a book starts it’s own life as a writer lets out a giant lizard to make it’s own way into the world. Defiant. Invincible. And sometimes, in a giant pair of pink glasses.

Versailles – a totem, a cornerstone, or a shrine? Read it, experience different worlds, think alternative thoughts, consider a parallel reality.

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