A few years ago, Chicago poet and flâneuse Kathleen Rooney discovered, alongside her colleague Eric Plattner, a lost manuscript written by the Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte. After publishing it for the first time in René Magritte: Selected Writings, Rooney continued thinking about the artist’s life, particularly his wife Georgette and their series of Pomeranians, all named Loulou.
That’s why Rooney’s latest project, The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte, is a hybrid work of flash fiction told from their perspectives. Each brief chapter draws inspiration from one of René Magritte’s paintings, resulting in a fascinating fictional companion to his body of work. I spoke with Kathleen Rooney via email about the Magrittes, hybrid fiction, and surrealism.
How did you first encounter Rene Magritte and what led you to study him so closely?
Magritte, to me, is kind of a writer’s painter, and by that I mean that his work concerns itself with wit and language, as well as the way the human mind structures and communicates thoughts and meanings through words. The mysterious pleasure of his work derives in large part from how figurative it is, how representational, and how the images suggest wild and engaging narratives without being reducible to a single story.
As a kid growing up in the Western suburbs, I was especially drawn to his work at the Art Institute whenever we’d take class field trips there. His painting The Banquet—with the fiery sunset behind the green trees and the sun that is somehow positioned in front of them—really mixed up my mind, as did On the Threshold of Liberty. Even as far back as when I was ten years old, I felt fascinated by how he titled his works; so many other artists’ paintings were called “Untitled” or something extremely boring, and as an aspiring writer myself, I admired the way he put his titles in poetic harmony with his images.
Flash forward a couple decades to 2014 when the Art Institute had The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 show, and I was smitten all over again seeing so much of Magritte’s work in the same place and admiring how beautifully written the wall texts were. Turns out, the wall texts excerpted a lot of Magritte’s own writing, but none of it had yet been released in English in book form. So my good friend and DePaul colleague Eric Plattner and I set out to track down, edit, and publish Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, which came out in the UK and the US from Alma Books and University of Minnesota Press respectively in 2016. In the course of doing that project, I learned a lot more about Magritte, including that he and his wife Georgette always had Pomeranian dogs—always with at least one called Loulou—over the course of their four-plus decades of marriage, which led, in turn, to my writing The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte.
We often see Magritte labeled a surrealist, but at the time, he felt “excommunicated” from that group of Parisians, correct? Does it matter how we classify his art?
In the late 1920s, Magritte had a falling out with Paris surrealist André Breton (who seems like perhaps not the easiest person in the world to get along with), and he and Georgette moved back to Belgium where they would spend the rest of their lives. They both seemed to prefer the company of the artists and writers there including the poets Louis Scutenaire and Camille Goemans.
And while the surrealist aspects of his work are unmistakable, Magritte himself resisted labels, believing that they imposed too easy a reading upon whatever they were supposed to classify. In a 1958 interview with Georges d’Amphoux, he explained this aversion by saying, “I don’t want what I paint to be called anything. I hope that the critic or historian will elucidate, by the written word, the unforeseen possibilities that my pictures call forth.”
For this book, why did you write from the perspective of Georgette and Loulou(s) instead of Rene himself?
I wanted to see what might be discoverable in Magritte’s images if I looked at them from neither the artist’s perspective, nor the museum-goer’s, but rather from the perspectives of the two beings who were closest to him during the course of his life.
How and why did the book take its current form? Not quite a novel, not quite a short story collection, not quite prose poetry? What attracts you to these hybrid forms?
Because each chapter/story is ekphrastic—which is to say each one corresponds to an individual painting—it made sense to me that each smallish prose block be almost as self-contained as a painting itself. I think of it as a novel, but also as a gallery, sort of—like the reader is paging through a verbal museum of Magritte’s life and work. You can appreciate each discrete square on its own, but you get more out of it if you look at them all together and in succession.
Do you have a favorite Magritte painting?
The Menaced Assassin from 1927 has always been a favorite of mine for how it’s sort of “about” a murder mystery, but also about so much more, more than could ever be grasped in one viewing. I also admire how its tone ranges from slapstick comedy to deadly seriousness. I always wonder what song is playing on the photograph the killer has stopped to listen to. His self-portrait, Clairvoyance, is a favorite, too: he’s painted himself painting a bird, but the model from which he is painting is an egg!
Where can Chicagoans go to see and learn more about Magritte?
The Art Institute! You can learn a lot about Magritte there, but also about the broader context of the years and movements in which he was working, and the artists he influenced and was influenced by.
The Listening Room
By Kathleen Rooney
Published Spring 2018
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.