CS Richardson weaves art history with memory in the Giller Prize-finalist novel All the Colour in the World
CS Richardson discusses the healing power of art and literature on The Next Chapter
For the protagonist of CS Richardson's latest novel, the trajectory of his life is marked by vibrant colours. As reflected in the author's own artistic career, All the Colour in the World expands on the impact of art on a young man through an experimental book about memory and tragedy.
CS Richardson is a Toronto-based writer and award-winning book designer. His previous novels include The End of the Alphabet which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and The Emperor of Paris which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012.
All the Colour in the World is a story of a young boy named Henry who discovers a passion for art which carries him through the many misadventures of his life in the 20th century. From his first set of colouring pencils he is gifted at his grandmother's place to the worlds of academia, war and sweeping romance, Henry's art stays alongside his enduring story.
Richardson stopped by The Next Chapter to talk about all things art and narrative with Ryan B. Patrick.
All the Colour in the World is a non-traditional novel of sorts. The narrative feels like a sketchbook. There's short chapters, nonfiction, digressions about art and philosophy and they're all kind of weaved into the fictional narrative. What was the model or inspiration for the book?
Oh boy, any number of things. I'm a big fan of doing things a slightly different way, telling a story a slightly different way. One of my earliest inspirations is a book I read almost 30 years ago now. Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, in which he tells a fictional story through various chapters. And one of those chapters is an entirely nonfiction story about the Raft of the Medusa painting by Géricault. So that was a very early influence and what I was trying to do with All the Colour in the World was basically bring nonfiction to the fore as opposed to it being a backdrop.
I wanted to use nonfiction and in particular, art and notions of philosophy and colour theory which would inform my protagonist's life.
This book is about Henry who was born in 1916 Toronto. He's a child born in tragic circumstances and his life revolves around a deep loss. What's his support system at that time?
Oh, his grandmother! Not to give anything away, but he suffers the loss of his parents very early on and in quick succession and he is taken under his grandmother's wing, he and his baby sister. And she is an integral part of his growing up until he becomes an adult, even to the point after he's an adult.
Henry's grandmother gives him his first box of coloured pencils and he commits these colours to memory. Cadmium yellow, deep scarlet red — his passion for art and colour starts from there. What is colour to Henry?
Colour brings it all to life! He's a boy of overactive imagination to begin with and back in the day they had these things called Boys World Annuals or Chums Annuals which were basically a collection of adventure stories for primarily boys, everything from Ivanhoe to Knights of the Round Table, all those kinds of things, and they were illustrated in black and white. So Henry begins tracing those illustrations in black and white and then Gran gives him the coloured pencils and suddenly what was just black, white and flat on the page comes to life for Henry and it really just emboldens him even more.
Suddenly what was just black, white and flat on the page comes to life for Henry and it really just emboldens him even more.- CS Richardson
Henry tries his hand at being an artist but his own art is deemed pedestrian, so he finds his way into academia as an art historian. It's arguably a kind of, "Those who can't do, teach" scenario. How does colour shape his memory?
It shapes it, I think, much like how my response to colour is shaped. It isn't an overt thing but through the course of the novel he is in certain instances or something happens to him which sparks a memory of a colour or of a time when he was seeing a colour. One of the passages in the book is about a first date with a young love [where] they go to see the The Wizard of Oz in the movie theatre and there's the point in The Wizard of Oz where it switches from black and white to colour and his date literally knocks her popcorn flying because she's so stunned by it all.
He remembers that, the sense of the technicolor and the ruby slippers.
How does tragedy colour his world?
Henry's story is full of tragedy and stuff like that but I'll be shameless to admit that tragedy is what drives a lot of stories. You want to compel a reader to keep going? Throw a little tragedy, throw a little war, throw a little death in the family kind of stuff. That tends to inform the story and drive it along a lot more.
If you read Henry's story to some people it's just nonstop tragedy. But, I don't want to give anything away, it doesn't always end badly.
For this book, there's a quote from Yann Martel's quote where in the beginning of the book it says, "Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine". What has art meant for your life?
Pretty much all of the above. I've always been interested in art, ever since high school days, even before that. It's always informed my life, it's what gets me up in the morning and it's what I enjoy the most. I could spend all day in an art gallery. So I don't know what it is, I think some people have music or some people have literature or some people have whatever. For me, it's art.
Thinking about Henry's journey, What do you want people to take away from it?
That art is a lot more powerful than you think it is and that it can be a vaccine. It can soothe the troubled soul. It can get you through bad times, it can get you through great times — it's a memory palace. It's all of those things. I mean for me, art enhances my life and I think art certainly enhances Henry's life, even through the worst of times.
Art is a lot more powerful than you think it is and that it can be a vaccine. It can soothe the troubled soul.- CS Richardson
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.