Speck’s Widow

Have been absorbed of late by Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, and am particularly mesmerized by the sly, observant genius of Speck’s Idea. These two paragraphs keep rolling around my head:

“Speck was expert on barges, bridges, cafes at twilight, nudes on striped counterpanes, the artist’s mantlepiece with mirror, the artist’s street, his staircase, his bed made and rumpled, his still life with half-peeled apple, his summer in Mexico, his wife reading a book, his girlfriend naked and dejected on a kitchen chair. He knew that the attraction of customer to picture was always accidental, like love; it was his business to make it overwhelming. Visitors came to the gallery looking for decoration and investment, left it believing Speck had put them on the road to a supreme event. But there was even more to Speck than this, and if he was respected for anything in the trade it was for his knack with artists’ widows. Most dealers hated them. They were considered vain, greedy, unrealistic, and tougher than bulldogs. The worst were those whose husbands had somehow managed the rough crossing to recognition only to become washed up at the wrong end of the beach. There the widow waited, guarding the wreckage. Speck’s skill in dealing with them came out of a certain sympathy. An artist’s widow was bound to be suspicious and adamant. She had survived the discomfort and confusion of her marriage; had lived through the artist’s drinking, his avarice, his affairs, his obsession with constipation, his feuds and quarrels, his cowardice with dealers, his hypocrisy with critics, his depressions (which always fell at the most joyous seasons, blighting Christmas and spring); and then–oh, justice!–she had outlasted him.

Transfiguration arrived rapidly. Resurrected for Speck’s approval was an ardent lover, a devoted husband who could not work unless his wife was around, preferably in the same room. If she had doubts about a painting, he at once scraped it down. Hers was the only opinion he had ever trusted. His last coherent words before dying had been praise for his wife’s autumnal beauty.”

Of the millions of thoughts this story has sparked—how it is of its time and yet not; the struggles of every artist friend with living, loving, care-taking, sharing, surviving, creating, posterity; how feminism may have made room for women at the table, but we still have our natures and men’s natures to contend with—for all of those considerations and more, two thoughts rise to the top:

First, how completely different, perhaps non-existent—in fact or fiction—this tale would be, were the genders reversed. And second, the miracle of the story hinges on an 11th hour reversal in which the widow is shown to be the master of the form. She is one of those women who thrives in the male system in which she operates, understanding exactly how to use the options allotted her to advantage, how to triumph with canny and manipulative underdoggery. The mirror the story reflects, to me, is how absolutely I am not that woman, not “the Muse”—dirty job that that is. And, how, possibly ironically, I owe the awareness that I had the option to be the artist rather than the muse, to a man, a sweetheart and colleague…just as I learned from many others what the price of musery would be. I suppose I owe them all a debt of gratitude.

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