Swarthmore novelist channels 'Rebecca' in tale of art, love

Rachel Pastan, Swarthmore novelist.
Rachel Pastan, Swarthmore novelist. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 23, 2014

By the time she was 6, Swarthmore novelist Rachel Pastan knew she would become a writer. Her decision wasn't the result of a blinding artistic epiphany: Nothing seemed more natural for Pastan, who grew up watching her mother, acclaimed Maryland poet Linda Pastan, sit for hours every day at her IBM Selectric.

For Rachel, her future simply was a matter of entering "the family business."

And so she did. Pastan, 48, recently wrapped up a book tour for her third novel, Alena, a story about the art world told through a unique, clever reworking of Daphne du Maurier's famous Gothic romance Rebecca.

The writing life came easily for the young Pastan. She was a 19-year-old Harvard undergrad when she published her first short story in the eminent literary journal the Georgia Review. "I even got an agent through that story," she said recently over lunch in University City. It also earned her a place at the University of Iowa's elite Writers' Workshop.

Then came the rejections.

She plugged away for 13 years, producing three novels and a short-story collection. It was all for naught. It seemed no one wanted to publish her books. She had more luck with her fourth novel, This Side of Married, which came out in 2004 to positive reviews. A second novel, Lady of the Snakes, came out in 2009.

Pastan, who teaches writing at Bennington College for part of the year, lives near the Swarthmore College campus, where her husband, David Cohen, teaches astronomy. Married for 21 years, they have two teenage daughters.

In the five years since her last novel, she has pursued her passion for the visual arts, becoming editor at large at the Institute of Contemporary Art on the Penn campus.

Fascinated for years by the art world and relationships among artists, gallery owners, critics, and groupies, Pastan conceived of Alena as a "love letter to contemporary art." She was inspired to mold the story after Rebecca by a personal incident from years ago, when she tried her hand at a 9-to-5 job.

"It was the first time in my life I had a job in an office, Pastan said. "And there were so many things I didn't know how to do. I couldn't use the copying machine, I couldn't format things [on the computer]. And people kept talking about the person who used to do the job before me and saying, 'Oh, you know, that person used to do it this way.' I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is just like Rebecca. Just like it, but in the workplace.' "

She hadn't read du Maurier's novel in decades and had never seen the famous Alfred Hitchcock adaptation, but it was part of her psyche.

"It's one of those stories which I think gets into your head," she said, "and stands there and resonates."

Narrated by its anonymous heroine, Alena is about a young would-be art museum curator who lands her dream job after meeting the renowned art connoisseur and collector Bernard Augustin at the Venice Biennale. Mysterious, brooding, and gay, Bernard sweeps our heroine off her feet not with romance, but with his passion for art. And he takes her, Maxim de Winter-style, back to the shrine to contemporary art he has built at Cape Cod, the Nauquasset museum, or the Nauk, as it's called.

Pastan's ingenuity is evident in her treatment of the Nauk. A modernist building made of glass and steel, it's the antithesis to Manderley (Maxim de Winter's estate in Rebecca) and its dark, dank corridors, great chimneys, and secret passages. While the exterior is transparent, clean, and efficient, however, the Nauk is as dark and twisted as du Maurier's Gothic mansion.

The museum and all who work there are haunted by the ghost of its previous curator, Alena, who drowned two years earlier in mysterious circumstances. A dark-haired Russian beauty, Alena had for years been Bernard's best friend and sometime lover, the only woman who had interested him sexually.

The story's creep factor is enhanced by another character, the museum's black-clad manager, Agnes, a punk-goth version of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers. She's devoted to Alena, hostile to her replacement.

While Rebecca is about sexual passion and the feelings of loss and obsession it engenders, Alena explores artistic passion, which can be as all-consuming, said Pastan.

"The main character," she said, "has an experience of . . . something profound in her body when she is looking at art that she thinks is great."

The aesthetic experience, Pastan said, is not unlike erotic love: "I think there is erotic tension there between her and [Bernard] . . . built around the art. They forge a deep bond by sharing their experience of it."

"The heart of the novel is an exploration of the boundaries of art," she said, "of what art is; of where art ends and life begins. It's also about the question of how one can live an artistic life, of how to make a life in art."


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

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