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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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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 ‘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!

Matisse & A.S. Byatt: On Art In Literature

File:Matisse-Woman-with-a-Hat.jpg

Woman With a Hat, Henri Matisse (1905)
San Francisco Museum of Art

So many works of fiction either focus centrally on art (think A.S. Byatt’s “The Matisse Stories”) and others weave it into the plot in nuanced ways (Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover”). The Matisse Stories is a compilation of three stories, and in each a woman’s life is touched by the paintings of Henri Matisse. It’s been referred to as a “still life” of ordinary women: a teacher who must psycho-analyze her self-absorbed hairdresser while staring at a Matisse on the wall in his salon, a housekeeper with a passion for knitting (right under the nose of two arrogant artist employers), and a professor discussing his affair with an art student.

Byatt doesn’t overly describe the Matisse paintings that were the inspirations for these stories. In fact, she provides little description of them, which propels the reader to look up the works, to study them independently, wonder why she chose these particular paintings as the stories’ muses. And then, once the reader has done that, the story seems to go on and on and on, as the reader compares and contrasts the art to the plot points, the characters, the setting. It, therefore, makes these short stories seem like long, delicious novels.

The stories, at points, feel light and airy, and then deep and intricate. Characters evolve. Plots take a turn.

Grabbing snippets of Matisse’s “world views” here and there throughout the stories, you start to wonder about his character, how his ideas and views fit into all of this, how they inspired it. How, as an ordinary woman — like the women in these stories — would he influence my life? What about his infatuation with color? With his supposed repression of women? You ask him to pull up a chair and discuss.

We can only imagine.

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!

The Embedded Message in Architecture: Or, What Can Architecture Teach Us About Writing?

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On the group-hosted writing blog Murderati, Toni McGee Causey has written a MUST READ article “Positive and Negative Spaces” that absolutely knocked my socks off (and, judging by the comments at the end of the blog, much of the blogging world’s too). She refers to a book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  recommended by literary agent Janet Reid, and says that 

“the entire book… has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.” 

In her critique, Toni posits that we dwell in positive spaces (think about your house where you dwell and do all of your cooking, living, spend most of your time) and and move through negative spaces (a street intersection that facilitates the quick itinerant movement of people).

And from there, she rocks out the article, comparing and contrasting life in negative and positive space. And wow, it’s an incredibly interesting ride. Here’s one (ok, three) snippets that I’ll leave you with:

When I thought about [positive and negative space] in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.

Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.

I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.

Theory and Technique in the Arts and the Crossover to Writing

Degrees of Freedom book reading

Degrees of Freedom book reading

Last night I held a book reading of Degrees of Freedom at Visible Voice books in Tremont, Ohio. It was lots of fun, conversation ran the gamut (what’s the difference between creativity and craft? does one trump the other in terms of importance? how does applying  musical techniques to your writing improve it? can skills or techniques learned in different arts — music, performance art, architecture — transfer?)

Recently, on literary agent Rachel Gardner’s blog, Heather Goodman wrote an excellent post “Finding Your Voice” on how to utilize musical techniques to improve writing.

As a musician, understanding the idea of voice in writing came to me via music. Just as composers and performers have unique sounds, so do writers. Faulkner favored wordy sentences, intricate descriptions, and heady emotions while Hemingway preferred a stark style. You have a favorite author for a reason. The way she unfolds a story and character resonates with you. This goes beyond conquering the rules of the craft–using active verbs, avoiding words like just and immediately, and showing instead of telling. Voice is one of the hardest things to develop as a writer, but it’s also the most important aspect. It makes the story uniquely yours.

She also provides several techniques to strengthen her musical composition that she transferred to her writing.

1. Mimic other authors. In composition classes, we wrote Baroque counterpoint and fugue, Classical sonata forms, and Debussy-like floating chords. The intention wasn’t to be Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms but to play with different forms and styles in order to understand them. Then we gave them our own twist.

2. Write stream of consciousness. In one of my composition classes, I wrote what seemed to me too sentimental. But the instructor recognized something with its lyrical, idyllic, and playful qualities that reflected my style.

These techniques can, of course, be applied to performance art, visual arts, etc. AND they are fun!