Can a fictionalized story add to our understanding of a famous person whose life is well documented? That is Emily Mitchell’s mission in The Last Summer of the World.
The novel centres on photographer Edward Steichen. At the beginning of the war, he and his family fled from their home in France for the safety of the US, leaving behind his paintings, photos and negatives. Now it is 1918 and he has returned to France as a reconnaissance photographer for the US army. In the interim, his marriage to Clara has fallen apart.
The main chapters follow a chronological path through the last months of the war, where “men are inexpensive and replaceable; machines are expensive and rare and must be protected. The escort isn’t for us. It’s for our cameras.” (p 183) These are interspersed with vignettes based on a Steichen photograph, real or imagined, shedding a light on past events in his personal and professional life. We meet friends in their circle: Auguste Rodin, Rose Beuret, Mildred Aldrich, Marion Beckett, Arthur Carles, Lathleen Bruce, Isadora Duncan, Alfred and Emmy Stieglitz and others.
Only after all this has been accomplished does Clara look up and meet her husband’s eyes. For a minute they try to read each other’s faces and find such an alloy of emotion that neither of them can say for certain what the other one is thinking or feeling. (p 246)
Mitchell deftly explores the nuances of an artistic mind through Steichen’s art and relationships … how he sees the world and how his focus can blind him to those closest to him. She takes poetic licence with the sequence of some events* and invents others, but no matter. This is fiction, not biography. All the better to illustrate broken connections.
He thinks he’s discovered a secret, which is this: most people follow the rules because they are afraid not to. All you have to do to successfully break them, then, is to act like you deserve to. (pp 61-62)
As Steichen’s genius is revealed, so are his weaknesses. His justifications, for his affairs and other behaviours, are reinforced by those around him. From his friend, Rodin:
The body … is not something to hide from, to hem in with rules and regulations. You have to listen to it, use the energy of its needs for your work. Yes? As an artist, your body is part of your work, not outside of it. (p 144)
On the other hand, Clara has chosen to pursue the role of helpmate instead of a musical career. But ultimately, Clara and Edward cannot fulfil everything for the other: “the other side of his vitality was a potential for neglect.” (p 323). They fail to communicate and are incapable of loving each other completely. Each is infuriating and sympathetic in turn.
We are left asking if they are of different species, unable to communicate, or too much alike to see what each other needs. It’s an illuminating portrait of a failed relationship.
*For example, Clara’s suit against Marion Beckett for alienation of affection was in 1919, and Steichen destroys his paintings in 1923. In the novel, both events are depicted as happening at the end of the war.