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Enigmatic Mackintosh: Fact meets fiction in Esther Freud's Mr Mac and Me

This luminous novel breathes new life into Mackintosh, both as an architect and as a man

You might question whether Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s brooding, insular character was a dramatic enough choice of subject for Esther Freud’s eighth novel. But silence commonly shapes Freud’s work, and in Mr Mac and Me the award-winning novelist deviates little from her house style of quiet intensity, revealing both writer and architect at their finest.

The year is 1914, eve of the Great War, and Mackintosh (or ‘Mac’) and wife Margaret, an artist, are lodging in the Suffolk village of Walberswick due to his ill health and lack of architectural commissions. In the tense atmosphere of soldiers tramping through, en route to Belgium, Mackintosh’s awkward, limping presence causes consternation and even suspicion. Spanning a year, and leading up to Mackintosh’s eventual arrest by the local constabulary for spying for the enemy, the novel is told through the eyes of a solitary boy, Thomas Maggs, who describes Mackintosh as having a ‘stern, pale face and eyes as black as bark’.

In Freud’s rhythmical sentences high artistry is clear, with ‘rabbits smoothing away like ripples’, light that is ‘lemony and sour’ and paints ‘so dense and clean they seem to burst out of the box’. But the real success of the book is Freud’s credible meshing of fact and fiction. With Thomas as narrative device, the internal, fictive story of the book is linked to the known story of the architect. Biographies of Mackintosh describe how old men in Walberswick remembered the Scotsman walking in the dark, looking like Sherlock Holmes in a black tweed cape and deerstalker. One boy, very possibly the basis for Freud’s character of Thomas, thought he was a detective and followed him to the beach − a moment that is caught in the novel, concluding with Mac offering Thomas his binoculars to view the purple rock cress clinging to the slope.

Mackintosh and Margaret act as mentors, bestowing gifts of paint and paper so that Thomas may paint his beloved boats. Finding a heart-shaped pebble, the boy is reminded of a pamphlet of Mac’s Art Nouveau designs, with ‘hearts carved into a bookcase, and a cluster of them floating high up in the panel of a bedroom door’. When he and Mackintosh paint together, there is a ‘thick, warm silence’.

By shining her literary light on a year many books on the architect fail to mention altogether, Freud also challenges the long-held myth that Mackintosh was merely whiling away time. During the period he produced over 40 beautiful, botanically correct drawings for a book to be published in Germany by architect Hermann Muthesius − a project inevitably halted by war. Critic Robert Macleod notes, ‘In fact, the more one examines the total body of work that Mackintosh produced, the more one is driven to the inescapable conclusion that all of the work, be it fabrics for a particular space, chairs for a particular individual, paintings, or major buildings, received the same scrutiny because they were intrinsically equally important.’ And as Margaret reminds her husband in the novel, ‘Nature is there in everything you’ve done.’

The relationship between Mackintosh and Margaret is lovingly described (Freud is married to actor David Morrissey, so understands the interplay between a creative married couple). Intercepting letters from Mackintosh meant for Margaret while in London, Thomas reads, ‘There are only two things that are important to me. You first, and then my work.’ Later Mackintosh confides, ‘The truth about Margaret Macdonald … is that she has genius. Where I have only talent.’ Perhaps tellingly the novel concludes with a now 95-year-old Thomas viewing recreations of Margaret’s panels The Life of the Rose at House for an Art Lover, one of Mackintosh’s unrealised projects that was posthumously built in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in 1996.

Freud’s canny knack for collecting details − a balanced, languid mix of poetry and history − drives the book. Would Mackintosh have appreciated her novel? Aptly, imagination was the skill he prized most highly. In his 1902 paper ‘Seemliness’, he wrote: ‘The power which the artist possesses of representing objects to himself explains the hallucinating character of his work − the poetry which pervades them − and their tendency towards symbolism − but the creative imagination is far more important. The artist cannot attain to mastery in his art unless he is endowed in the highest degree with the faculty of invention.’

That the recent Glasgow art school tragedy occurred as Mr Mac and Me went to press is a freakish coincidence lending the book poignant appeal. In Freud’s luminous novel, she’s achieved a work breathing new life into Mackintosh as an architect and a man, perhaps just when it’s most needed.

Mr Mac and Me

Author: Esther Freud

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Price: £16.99

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