“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent.  When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on the open sea.  That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented’, changed his mind.  Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”                                                                                                                                                        Lillian Hellman

From time to time, I have the thought of boxing up  some old books and dropping them off at the nearest charity centre.  That thought is never acted upon as I am, how shall I say, easily distracted.  There is no better way to distract oneself than to rediscover writing that resonated with you at another time in your life.

It was in one of those deliciously distracted moments the other day that I found an old favourite on the shelf.  Pentimento is a collection of short portrait pieces by Lillian Hellman.  The essay Julia was source material for the 1977 film in which Jane Fonda played Hellman. (As an aside, it featured Vanessa Redgrave and was also the first screen appearance of Meryl Streep). The story was a controversial one. There were questions about the identity of Julia. Did Hellman write about a friend of hers or fabricate the story on the basis of someone she had heard about?

Lillian Hellman was a playwright, screen and memoir writer.  Her writing revealed personal layers beneath the surface during times of great tension. For example, Scoundrel Time is an account of the McCarthy period and the price many paid for courage and truth.

Re-reading old favourites reminds me of what excited and changed me when I first read them. To paraphrase Hellman in the last piece of her foreword to Pentimento – the opportunity to read (and now write) about what was there for me once helps me clarify what is there for me now.

Photo: iStockphoto

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