On Literature

You never know who you’ll meet in a gallery…

This morning I downloaded all of my weekly podcasts for this week, and in the afternoon, while in the jacuzzi at the gym (which provides the perfect environment for a soak, a sweat, and a listen-to of all of my ~30 minute New Yorker Fiction podcasts) I heard something that so strikingly paralleled my novella, Degrees of Freedom, I couldn’t help but crank up the iPod. Chang-Rae Lee (author of “Daisy”) read Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or, in English, “Art and Terror” and discussed it with The New Yorkers fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. (Right-click here to download).

Theme, theme, theme. This is what Degrees of Freedom and “Baader-Meinhof” have in common. They both chronicle the chance meeting of a man and a woman in an art gallery; the woman sitting there staring at an art piece; the man sauntering in; both of them wondering about the other; both sizing up the other; both challenging each other to assess the paintings, and life, and everything else, even death…

But the relationships turn quite different corners.

How they vary is what really fascinated me. First, in DeLillo’s piece, the characters are staring at pieces of photography illustrating the terrors of the Holocaust and the rope burns and anguished faces of death, while in Degrees of Freedom, Pietri and Marguerite stare at the Spanish masters. Beautiful works. Works in Mannerism. Works where the artists mask every blemish. Works where creamy, buttery skin is sacrosanct. Where the subjects you’d swear have had Botox. Jewels drip. Puppies sit on laps.

The two works are also written from different points of view. Degrees of Freedom is written from the perspective of Pietri, a Maltese professor who is visiting his daughter in Seville, Spain, who meets Marguerite, a former art professor who is partially blind.  And in Delillo’s work, the two aimless protagonists have neither a job nor, it seems, much of a direction in life.

While I kept my characters largely within the art museum, in discussions that alternated between children and the merits of a Seville orange versus a Maltese fig, Delillo takes his characters out of the museum. But they take the photography with them, it seems, as they are forever changed by these horrific pieces. They seem less secure, less bounded by their relationship. In fact, once they leave the museum, their hours-old relationship falls apart. Undoubtedly, the photography in the museum changed Delillo’s characters,  shook them into walking zombies as they left the museum, rendered them unaccountable for their actions, unsure, not tethered to anything other than shock at how vile humanity can be. Pietri and Marguerite took the paintings to heart too, but they used the Spanish painters — Zurbaran, Murillo — as a connection, as a charged force that brought them together. Their relationship proved to be boundless.

You never know who you will meet in an art gallery. Regardless, it could be a while ride.

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The Artists that Influenced Hemingway

The Bullfighter, Juan Gris, 1913

What do artists Joan Miro, Goya, Juan Gris, and Cezanne have in common with the writer, Ernest Hemingway? A lot. A lot.

The Met says this:

[Hemingway] remarked in one interview that he learned as much from painters about how to write as from writers. Painters and their works were integral to Hemingway’s learning to see, to hear, and to feel or not feel. They were part of the writer’s renowned ability to present an image hard, clear, and concentrated, using the language of ordinary speech without vague generalities, as true as a painter’s color.

In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, even the editors bridged art and literature: they chose Winslow Homer ‘s  “Canoe in Rapids” painting for the front cover. It was wisely chosen because Hemingway was a big fan of Homer’s. Hemingway also visited museums quite frequently, including the Louvre, the Prado, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He wrote essays about art as well, and in many of his works he refers to paintings by Cezanne, Goya, Homer, Bruegel, and others. He owned a Joan Miro that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and he wrote an article for Cahiers d’Art about his purchase of the painting and the impact of Miró’s composition on him. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon was inspired by The Bullfighter, a painting they bought from their friend Juan Gris (and shown above).

Again from the Met:

In his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), he gives excruciating accounts of the devastation suffered on both sides during the Spanish Civil War, with many of his passages reading very much like the images depicted by Goya in his series of etchings (32.62.17) entitled The Disasters of War (1810–23). In other works, Hemingway comments on Cézanne’s style and way of interpreting the world around him.

It’s easy to see how the subject matter, style, and execution of these master painters played out in Hemingway’s works.

It’s widely believed that he influenced English-language writing more than anyone else, with his spare, tightly written prose and tendency toward understatement.  He was so acutely aware that people have assymetric dialogue. He was infatuated with “place” — his works spanned continents, from Italy, to Spain, to Cuba, to Idaho. He wrote about war, death, bullfighting; life-threatening situations. He focused his microscope on how people deal with those situations. 

He used a photographic “snapshot” style to create a collage of images. Short sentences build one on another; events build to create a sense of the whole. Multiple strands exist in one story; an “embedded text” bridges to a different angle. He also used other cinematic techniques of “cutting” quickly from one scene to the next; or of “splicing” a scene into another. Intentional omissions allow the reader to fill the gap, as though responding to instructions from the author, and create three-dimensional prose. [Wikipedia]

How much that description of his works makes me envision a painting. Perhaps one by Miro or Cezanne!

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.

The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!

At the Intersection of a Museum and a Book: Orhan Pamuk

One of my favorite authors, Orhan Pamuk, has a new book hot off the presses The Museum of  Innocence. To complement the book, he is opening a museum. I’m not positive, but this seems the first time such a thing has been done. Here’s a description from the UK’s Guardian:

 The Museum of Innocence… contains a locator map for his museum, and a free entrance ticket. The actual museum, in an Ottoman-style house along a stretch of antique shops in hilly Cukurcuma, will hold Istanbul ephemera that Pamuk gathered for inspiration while writing his Proustian … epic of lost love. … He told me his “museum of the everyday”, which holds everything from ferry tickets and women’s hair clips to a quince grinder, would have a display for each of the novel’s 83 chapters.’

Pamuk describes the relationship of the museum and novel: “The museum is not an illustration of the novel and the novel is not an explanation of the museum. They are two representations of one single story perhaps.”

Pamuk’s other literary ventures have been laced with art, including My Name Is Red, which details the murder of a miniaturist painter in the Ottoman Empire. And I thought his breathtaking descriptions of Istanbul in his memoir Istanbul (which details his life growing up in the Turkish city) were poetic and extremely visual, like landscapes launching off of the pages into your lap. Also, according to the New York Review of Books, “As a young man, his great hope was to become a painter, and he started, he notes wryly, by producing imitations of Monet and Sisley and Pissarro…” It seems Pamuk turned from copying the masters to absorbing himself in the awe of everyday people and life and painted a verbal canvas.

I’m thinking Turkey might be the country we indulge ourselves in next summer, and if so, this is one museum I’m not going to miss!