Author Uses Fiction as Map to Truth
Novelist Esther Freud comes to terms with her family legacy as daughter of famed artist Lucian, great-granddaughter of Sigmund
When she was 16, Esther Freud decided to shed her insecurities -- and her clothes -- and enter her father's studio. Standing before him, naked, she felt proud for the first time, like she finally belonged in the family.
"I wanted to see how he worked," she says of posing for Lucian Freud, widely regarded as Britain's greatest living artist, whose etchings of nudes and portraits are on exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.
Genius, after all, was a family birthright -- Esther's grandfather was the noted architect Ernst Freud and her great-grandfather was Sigmund Freud. Of course, that family genius was also, for a sensitive teenager who barely knew her father, a burden. How could she possibly live up to expectations?
The best way to find out how she answered that question isn't by checking out the Portland Art Museum -- though the melancholic portrait of Esther there is striking -- but a bookstore. Through five autobiographical novels, Freud, 41, has puzzled through her life and her family's unique history. In her 1992 debut, "Hideous Kinky" (made into a sweet-natured movie starring Kate Winslet), she retraced her vagabond childhood. With "Peerless Flats," which prompted literary quarterly Granta to name her one of the "Best of Young British Novelists," she chronicled her teenage years as an aspiring actress in London.
In her latest, "The Sea House," family ghosts get their due. The novel, arriving in paperback in March, was inspired in part by letters her grandfather, Ernst, wrote to his wife.
"I find out what's important to me by writing," Freud says, on the phone from London. "There have certainly been recurring themes in my books about making an identity for oneself, and obviously of learning how to untangle yourself from your parents and your past."
The search for home also looms large in Freud's work. Her peripatetic childhood was unstable and sometimes treacherous as her bohemian single mom, Bernardine Coverley, searched for the meaning of it all by hopscotching around the world, her two preteen daughters in tow. The constant moving around led Freud to daydream about finding the "perfect place for us. I didn't necessarily want to find it, I just liked the idea that we might find it as we moved around."
Freud zeroes in on her desire to find that perfect place in "The Sea House," which interweaves the story of Lily, a young graduate student who escapes her mulish boyfriend by heading to the English town of Steerborough, with a parallel narrative about a group of German Jewish emigres who summered in the town 50 years before.
At the center of the novel, remarkably, are Freud's mesmerizing, almost obsessive descriptions of the places that make up Steerborough. Yet her prose is spare and relaxed. She never tries too hard.
That, some might say, could be what separates her from her older sister, iconic London fashion designer Bella Freud, who's partial to sweaters that sport cryptic messages like "Godard is Dog."
Great-granddad Sigmund may have popularized the idea of sibling rivalry, but for Esther and Bella it wasn't much of a contest. Growing up, Esther was in awe of Bella, who she believed was more beautiful, more adventurous, more everything than her. Of course Lucian painted Bella frequently (neither daughter found it the least bit odd to pose in the altogether for their father). Whatever Bella tried seemed to come easily to her, including making a splash immediately upon entering the fashion world.
Esther, meanwhile, spent a decade as a struggling actress, "waiting for my agent to ring me up." Her greatest acting coup was a small role in a 1985 episode of the cult British sci-fi series "Dr. Who," where she "got the giggles so badly I was asked to stay behind after rehearsal."
Her father's request that she sit for him could have been another blow to her fragile psyche. Lucian Freud's subjects are never glamorous. They typically lead small lives, weighted down by small failures, with the hunched shoulders, rolling fat and pained sleep of the terminally overlooked. Esther knew that sucking in her stomach would do little good against her father's all-seeing eye.
"I remember the first painting that he did, when I was 16, which was a nude," she says. "I was very surprised then because I had an idea of myself, and it wasn't reflected in that picture at all. The painting was a big, strong woman, and I felt like I was a sort of sveltelike, wan, romantic figure. But now I really see, and it's wonderful, that that's what he saw, and that's probably much more what I was like."
Esther sat for her father numerous times during her 20s, and it slowly helped give her the confidence to ditch acting for her true passion, writing. "After doing that, I didn't want to waste time on someone else's story anymore," she says.
A big, strong woman, after all, should tell her own story.
- By Douglas Perry, published in The Oregonian, 2004
Above image: Detail of Esther, 82-83, oil on canvas, by Lucian Freud.