“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 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, Pentimento
“Pentimento is Italian for ‘I couldn’t remember all that much, so I just made it all up!'” –Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman
I have been reading Pentimento again and it is more than good enough to make me get up out of bed and talk about Lillian here, so late into the American night.
I seem to remember that her other memoir An Unfinished Woman is the better volume, but it has been many years since I have read either and her stately rhythm made me feel sentimental for a time I’ve never had, but she describes.
Of course, there has been much talk that Lillian lied about most things, or at least made herself wiser and sadder than she was in the real moments of these stories. I think this probably true in its literal way, but you get the sense that this is what she wanted those things to be and if she’s lying they are only the lies of omission and of tone and this is how they should have been.
She gives herself a good part, however willful, and her love affair with Dash (and in truth, if she has borrowed, it is Dash’s strong quietness she has taken to this view of her life) is one that any of us, or perhaps only a few of us, would feel jealous of, for that, in her telling, was love. Not in its sentimental form, but just the opposite, in the true unspoken sentiment of people living, at times even difficultly, with a fierceness that they alone shared and recognized.
He, of course, is made the hero, by being a man who would have no time for such a thing, but she the heroine at last by way of her careful deprecation. I find them, if only fictional, not a perfect couple, but instead imperfect people who did the best they could with each other while often failing. And this is also love, for it is all the best of us can hope to do.