Month: March 2010

Cubism & Its Wordy Equivalent: On Thomas Wolfe

Fruit Dish, Georges Braque, 1912

Thomas Wolfe. I knew his name enough to know that I needed to read something of his in my lifetime. Like many authors, we know their name more than any singular work they’ve produced. Look  Homeward, Angel. Ever  heard of it? I hadn’t either. It’s probably his most well-known work.  But since I’m on a short-story compendium kick, I picked up  The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe instead.

And I was blown away.

I can’t seem to hang on to Faulkner; he’s just, well, out there. And Melville’s abysmal abysses and personification lose me.

Thomas Wolfe has that comfortable language, that lilting dialogue that pulls you in, in accessible, personable, familiar prose words. But then he peppers things up, sharpens the dialogue, creates a parallel dialogue, uses big words. But those big words — “vituperative” for instance — somehow you know what they mean. Perhaps it’s the logical context? He cuts back and forth between continents; in one sentence you are in France, the next you are in Cincinnati. He is a master of inflection and voice. “I wondeh what t’ hell she’s doin’ all dis time! –Hey!” she cried harshly, and hammered on the door, “Who’s in dere?… Com on out, f’r Christ’s sake!… Yuh’re holdin’ up duh line!” But perhaps his most interesting practice is his unique ability to paint several different feelings of one character in response to one event or observation. It’s very multi-faceted: “I knew the passionate heart of the boy who from the darkness of his berth watched, with a wild exultancy of joy and hope and sorrow, the great stroke and fanlike sweep of the immense and imperturbable earth… I  had known as well all other joys and labors of the night.” (From “Death the Proud Brother”)

So what picture does Thomas Wolfe, the author, paint?

Perhaps a pieced together, patchwork quilt or a cut-glass collage. But he’s still something more, perhaps something more innovative, elite. Perhaps if we knew the cultural context in which he wrote — the day, the age — we could make a guess and be spot on. He wrote in the 20’s and 30’s. He was southern – from Asheville, North Carolina. He was said by Faulkner to be his generation’s best writer (Faulkner credited himself with being #2). He influenced Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth. And he was a master of autobiographical fiction.

Mix all of this up and you get (according to this critic, at least)… Cubism.

Why Cubism?

Cubism was a 20th century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized painting and sculpture and inspired movements in music and literature. In cubist works, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth.

Wolfe took an abstract, liberal view (viewpoint of interlopers to a bum’s death), tackled many viewpoints (from the farmer to the upper crust), and wrote with pieced-together, mad passion (“he spoke roughly, casually, but with a kind of brutal…”).

Wham, bam! Braque and Picasso flew into my head when my eyes hit the page.

The Fly In the Teacup: Sketching Virginia Woolf

I’ve learned to love collections of short stories. I used to balk at reading shorter pieces by famous authors, thinking that I was shortchanging myself by reading “The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia Woolf rather than everyone’s favorite “A Room of One’s Own” (just shoot me now; I still haven’t read it). But after having been jilted, inspired, struck to spooning chocolate brownie fudge icecream out of the carton without realizing what I was doing for fifteen minutes at a time as I just… wanted… to finish… this short… short… story…

I’ve had a reawakening.

I love the short story. The short, short story, to be exact.

Why? The way you can look at a writer’s writing under the microscope. The rich comparative analysis it offers. The tiny pieces that are there for you to sift through — to linger on some pieces, to move more quickly through others. To get a quick character sketch, decide you like the way she pours her tea with her hand hovering over the other’s cup so as not to splash the other’s napkin, or how you don’t like the way he called his wife “Lapinova” – a rabbit is, after all, a hare, for Pete’s sake.

What did The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf teach me about her writing? That to Ms. Woolf, the first line is essential.

“People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime.” (You can only imagine what comes next.)

“Since it had grown hot and crowded indoors, since there could be no danger on a night like this of damp… Mr. Bertram Pritchard led Mrs. Latham into the garden.” (Cha-ching! Makin’ the move.)

And what of Ms. Woolf’s use of color? She constantly uses color in description — everything seems to be red and blue, with touches of gold here and there — but it’s never tawny gold or fire engine red or cerelean blue. Just blue. Just red. Just purple. Yet you realize that the sky doesn’t really need to be robin’s egg blue, does it? No. Virginia, thanks for saving us the cliche. But then, she does use color in ways that make me scratch my head. “The lines deepened on his red and blue shaven cheeks…” What?

And her focus on the outdoors is immutable. The lake, the country, the linden tree. These vistas are larger than life. In her character development she pits lovers of country to city (they can never live side-by-side, of course). “The heath would so long outlast all people…” “He really did not like churches at all… [referring to Westminster Abbey, the monstrosity in downtown London].”

And more on her ability to focus. She’s a master at threading through a theme, an object to which we compare everything. She is a master of allusion. The fly in the teacup, for example, in The New Dress. How she keeps harping about that fly! The fly swimming in the milk. Can’t it get out? It’s just swimming and swimming round and round in there. She hates her dress: “I feel like some dowdy, decrepit, dingy old fly…” she says. “We are all like flies trying to crawl over the edge of a saucer…” she says. Or her use of the white thread in Happiness: “As Stuart Elton stooped and flicked off his trousers a w hite thread…” (that’s the first line!) and then “I went to Kew this afternoon… bending his knee again and flicking his knee, not that there was a white thread there…” What is the purpose of the white thread? Really.

And then men are like moons and women are like cherry trees.

And portraits. One story is a composite of her reflections on portraits, as if she is stiting in a gallery, taking in the paintings and making up stories about the people in this one or that one: “Monsieur and Madame Louvais stared at the mustard pot and the cruet; at the yellow crack on the marble-topped table.”

As Woolf progressed from her earlier stories to later ones, she further refined her use of the first line to set us up, to stage the entire climax of the story. She also more brilliantly cast and clarified her characters and took us deeper into the heads of them.

Brilliant, Virginia. There  is a master in the HOUSE!

The Best Books (according to women)

A very good friend of mine works for AOL, and when she asked me if I could contribute to an article titled “25 Books Women Love” I was so very excited! (Without further ado, here’s the article) Digging through some of the art-themed books that I’ve discussed on this blog, including the Matisse Stories (A.S. Byatt), Volcano Lover (Susan Sontag), How Proust Can Save Your Life (Alain de Botton), and the Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk), I couldn’t resist writing up a new one for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz). I just put this supremely hysterical Dominican family saga down a few days ago, and I’m still reeling from the travails of the incredible lead character that Diaz created in Oscar. The whole novel etched itself powerfully in my head. While the book doesn’t have an art or art history bent, per se, (except for the fact that it ‘etched’ itself in my head!) it is a great read.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” – by Junot Diaz

Remember the nerdy guy in your high school chemistry class? The sweet, but devastatingly overweight boy who stared at you from across the room? Made your arm hairs stand on edge? Oh, you could sense him pining away… Lucky you.

Well, meet Oscar. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar, front and center, is that guy. But because you are grown up now, and have shed your vain, over-sensitized teenager ways, you like Oscar, really like him. You root for him. You want him to get “the girl.” The beautiful one.

Oscar is Dominican — at least, his mami and grandparents were raised there — and so the lush backdrop of the Caribbean sweeps through the book as his family saga unravels as he travels (searching for love, of course) between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. But Diaz doesn’t paint the island all sexy and fabled. No. Oscar’s life journey is a rough, feisty ride, peppered with Diaz’s electrifying (and uproariously hilarious) language.

The Brief Life of Oscar Wao truly takes you back to those high school and college days, a time you wished you’d been nicer to boys, nicer to girls, nicer to yourself. But it leaves you somehow invigorated that you are who you are. Now.

So What Type of Artist Are You?

View of Julian Schnabel’s hot-pink high-rise at 360 W. 11th

I’m in the middle of Calvin Tomkins’ book “Lives of the Artists” (2008), which is a compilation of his short artist bios in the New Yorker. He profiles the top contemporary artists (well, according to his calculations): Hirst, Sherman, Schnabel, Serra, etc. What do they all have in common? They’ve all dabbled in many types of media. And in doing so, they’ve taken heat for it.

Schnabel started off as an artist, but has since worked in film — two of which have met great acclaim: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)” and “Before Night Falls” (2000). When someone recently asked him if he was switching to film-making, he responded, somewhat indignantly, “I’m a painter. I’m a painter. Does that answer your question?”

Cindy Sherman is another artist who has straddled the abyss of not knowing (or caring) what medium she “falls into.” More to the point, at the beginning, she was never really accepted as part of any community/medium. She takes photographs, but she is not considered a photographer — at least not in the vein of documentary or fine-art photography. But once others slapped a genre on her work — when her photographs were put up in Christie’s auctions in the “contemporary art” category (rather than photography) — they flew like hotcakes.

But this evolution is key. Artists styles are always morphing, changing, evolving, aggregating, spinning off into different directions, and this, I think, is what characterizes the best artists.

According To The National Gallery of Art…

Part of the Berlin Wall at DC's Newseum

Two weekends ago, we headed down to DC to visit family and celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday — a birthday, that was, of course, celebrated in the most magical way: a Tinkerbell Art party! After our group’s six kids (amongst a throng of 30!) tromped through the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art to attend the “Stories In Art” program, they descended on lunch in a Tinkerbell Fairyland (well, the NGA cafe). I’m not sure what aspect of the partaaaay the kids liked most:

  • Listening to “Matthew’s Dream” — the story of Matthew the mouse, who discovers that he can see the world through art, and decides that his life mission is to become an artist
  • Walking through the galleries with the docent to discuss the art on walls (“What title should we give this painting [by Pollock]?” asked the docent. “CRAZY!” squealed one daughter. “And what do these squiggly lines look like?” the docent asked. “WORMS!” yelled the other daughter)
  • Creating their own Pollock drip painting (that took 3 days to dry)
  • Or devouring the rich, dense, chocolate raspberry ganache cake with Tinkerbell on top?

I think the most powerful part of the weekend was visiting one particular gallery in the Newseum. The 911 exhibit was fascinating, as it included the remains of the radio tower that stood on the top of World Trade Center Tower 2 and fell in a heap of twisted metal that eventually found its way to the museum. But it was the exhibit on Communism and Journalism that really moved me. While you stared at pictures of people hiding in the hood of a car to cross from East to West Berlin — basically people doing incredible things to get to freedom — several chunks of the Berlin wall towered above and behind you. All graffitied.

Pretty intense. Tinkerbell should have worked some magic to make that wall come down long before it did.