What I’m Reading: Artist and Writer Marion Coutts

It’s a little startling to realize that The Iceberg was Marion Coutts’s first book. She’d already built a years-long reputation as a visual artist prior to taking it on. A look at her work makes it apparent why. It’s precise and allusive, as distinct as a firm voice speaking above the din and saying just what must be said, without over-explaining. This is an intelligent artist who assumes a knowing audience. The results are a pleasure to behold, they’re meditative without being too detached. Not surprisingly, she often hits these same marks in her writing.   

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Marion Coutts, Twenty Six Things, 2008, Super 16 film still

But Coutts’s first book wasn’t, say, an insider’s memoir of the art world or a thinly fictionalized account of those circles. Instead, she took a life-altering event, her husband Tom Lubbock’s brain tumor diagnosis, and wrote through the experience in meticulous, forthright detail. The Iceberg and Lubbock’s own account of events, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, make a remarkable pair, a testament to their deeply shared experience, not merely through Lubbock’s illness but over the course of their relationship and marriage. Fittingly, Prophet, a piece Coutts finished in 2001, serves as the cover image for Lubbock’s book.

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Marion Coutts, Prophet, 2001

“In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” Indeed, Lubbock was an artist in his own right and art critic for the Independent. They can’t have always arrived at the exact same conclusions about what they’d seen, but what a touchstone to lose, a second set of eyes so discerning, and so close as to probably feel like an extension of the self. I didn’t ask her what the answer to that question is now, in part because she’s no doubt still resolving it for herself at times. What she has done, however, is continue writing – “I am working on new writing. I have quite a lot of words though I don’t know what they pertain to and look forward to clarification, from where I know not,” she tells me, and preparing an exhibition of her work, her first since 2008. It’s composed of installation, photographs and drawings. Look for it at Tintype in London, early March 2017.

The questions I did ask Marion Coutts? What she’s reading and why she’s reading it. And though she claims she doesn’t actually read much, if this list is any indication, she has well-defined tastes but stays open to the serendipity of being  unexpectedly handed a great book:

I did my first ever writing residency this summer at Cove Park in Scotland. Two weeks around solstice. I highly recommend the experience. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the book I read on my first day there and I read it in one sitting – another first. I would never have time to do that at home. It left me very energized. I thought it a brilliant, unusual work and why it is feels so unusual is interesting as it speaks to and about happiness, family and the many inventive ways that belonging can manifest and these are all things that humans have a ravenous interest in. The Argonauts also brings up all sorts of ethical questions around writing about those near you – which I have done – nearness and its opposite being one of the motors of The Iceberg. And because I am very curious about form – I haven’t yet found my way to future content – I am looking to ways that writers – and artists – choose to structure the things in their head. I loved the tempo and sound of The Argonauts, the individual paragraphs, big and small, making the running, the way the parts connect to the whole and what is the whole allowed to be anyway? Interleaving and splicing, the book compresses, digresses, expands and explodes yet holds the reader very, very close all the while.

I am a visual artist. I have written one book which must serve for the time being as my single model so I feel the lack of habits as a writer. This may be a problem or may not be, but I’d quite like to acquire some habits because they can sometimes get you started. (I know they can do the opposite thing also.) Instead of books I want to read there is a whole stack of shows I want to see at the moment. James Ensor at The Royal Academy, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s at The Photographers Gallery, Rauschenberg at Tate. Unlike books, exhibitions come to the end of their run and then you’ve missed them. This happens all too often. What it means to write visually is something that occupies me.

I don’t actually read very much. And the books I read come to me by diverse routes. Through a friend, I was introduced to Sven Lindqvist’s Desert Divers. I found him a terrific voice and guide. (The book is translated by Joan Tate.) He talks about the European explorers and romantic visionaries who projected themselves onto the Sahara and wrote it up for folk back home. Lindqvist went there too, and wrote what he found in bare prose: dreams, dust and the deep residual violence of the colonial project.

Through another friend, I read Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding which describes a weekend in the life of a girl on the cusp of change. I wish I had come across it long ago. It is a book a younger me would have loved. And recently I read Tolstoy’s Happy Ever After which compresses a life into eighty-four pages. In his story of Masha and her marriage, he gets into a teenage girl’s head and is also outside it, looking from afar as she ages, like through a lens. Terrifyingly elegant. And elegantly terrifying.

After The Iceberg came out, publishers started sending me books on dying and grieving. I had one more come through my door this week. I was surprised at first but it seemed to go with the territory. I have to say I don’t read them. I did make an exception for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers which wasn’t posted through my door, I bought it in a shop – again slightly unusual for me. It is very compact. Porter thinks around loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and a volatile fiction called Crow, who inserts himself into the aftermath like an unwanted houseguest. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great.

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Boy Looks at Rock on Top of Another Rock (2016) digital print on Canson

And a big find of the last months, apart from The Argonauts, is the poet Denise Riley’s Say Something Back which uses words to say difficult and surprising things in a way that I can’t get enough of.

Marion Coutts

Impact has fused us, made us mutual: On The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

The fortunate among us are friends with at least one couple who are wonderful to talk with individually and even better as a pair. Those of us more fortunate still are part of such a couple. All indications suggest Tom Lubbock and Marion Coutts were in the more fortunate camp.

Lubbock was the art critic for the UK Independent for thirteen years. After his death, his fond and admiring cohort at the Independent noted that he was, “admired by his peers and his subjects for his vast knowledge and unaffected insight into artists from Francis Bacon to Pieter Bruegel.” Coutts is first and foremost an artist. When Lubbock was diagnosed with a rare type brain tumor in 2008, they had been married seven years and were parents to a young son. Lubbock set out to record the course of his illness in a journal that was published in 2014 as Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.

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Lubbock’s journal is spare and knotty, all digressions, worries and questing for certainty. He tracks his condition physically and, more compelling, mentally. Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg,  is a perfect companion piece. She’s a maximalist by comparison, exploring the particulars of each event, the facets of her reaction to it and where it may lead in the future.

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On the occasion of Lubbock’s initial diagnosis, Coutts writes, “Impact has fused us, made us mutual.” In many respects, she is the ideal partner in this mutual arrangement, despite the recriminations she levels at herself in weak moments. Lubbock turned fifty the year of his diagnosis. The writer Roger Grenier observes that whatever our pursuits, “Death and frivolity condemn us to never finish.” The great Stoic Seneca also notes and disdains the frivolity Grenier mentions, but ultimately he’s convinced we’re each given given sufficient, perhaps even ample time to accomplish what we need to in life. A man of fifty, his wife and small child might understandably chafe at Seneca’s certainty when informed of his impending death. Neither Lubbock nor Coutts seem to dwell on the injustice of his losing out on a third of the average life span, though. They make serious preparations, and Coutts, feeling overwhelmed initially, writes, “I have many friends skilled in sympathy. Strategy is what I need.”

But first, there are idyllic days – unexpected, rude health for Tom,  afternoons out and trips abroad for the three of them. These are all part of a welcome reprieve. In time, though, his speech and language memory inevitably slip. As his struggles with vocabulary and speech intensify, Coutts writes, “He is estranged from himself,” and later, “What else is there apart from language? Let me list: touch, the great inter-cosmos of the eyes, running and jumping, sex, cooking, friendship, eating. There must be other things but I have come to a stop. It’s a short list. We will devise another language, and in it we will talk.” They try, if not to create a language apart, at least to manipulate the language he has remaining, to make it serve their needs. This proves challenging and often futile as well. “In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” This seems all the more distressing, given their shared love of art and engagement with it professionally, the central place it’s held in their life together.

The Iceberg is no cliffhanger. Coutts knows husband’s fate is proscribed. Despite encouraging test results and stretches of normalcy, she never forgets this fact. None of that’s to say the book lacks moments of drama or intense emotion. There’s the shock of the diagnosis, which is sudden and severe. Tom’s unreliable language control and sense of place make for tense moments when he’s out alone. She sends him out with an address card in his wallet and “a note saying he is having a focal fit the finder of him might helpfully contact me.” On a notable occasion, when he’s late arriving home, it turns out, “He doesn’t think of any of this and doesn’t use the card.” They fight in strained moments, and the inclusion of those scenes is a bit of candor the reader by then realizes is characteristic of Coutts, who never spares herself in apportioning blame. And the most crushing moment comes near the end, when she overhears Tom repeating her name to himself as if trying to memorize it, at a time when he’s permanently lost much of his vocabulary and facility with language.

“Tom never cared much about travel,” Coutts writes, but by the time he passes away, it’s hard to refuse the metaphor of traveling on at life’s end. The poet Gordon Osing, confronting age and the aftermath of throat cancer, writes,

How will it be, at the last moment?

It will smell of sunlight and other codes in the air

Arriving in somebody else’s land.

Whether that or some other fate awaited Lubbock, The Iceberg is a loving coda.

Sharing loss is a complicated matter, even among family members or dear friends. Somehow Marion Coutts shares her loss with the world at large in The Iceberg. I don’t know her personally, didn’t know Tom Lubbock, but the sense of loss feels shared in some small way. She takes us to the graveside service, where there are sombre, homely rites and a sense of her husband’s lasting presence in the lives of she and her child in the years to come. “And so are the living comforted,” Coutts concludes, but there are other sources of comfort, too. Surely for those among us dealing with loss, her book is destined to be one of them.

  • John McIntyre