As occasions for everything from assignations to arson, authors have long been fascinated by fine art. From Joyce to Geoff Dyer, novelist Ian MacKenzie takes a close look at the best examples
“Cathedralic depths” … the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Ian MacKenzie is a former high school teacher who writes fiction and criticism. He lives in Brooklyn His debut novel, City of Strangers, follows the story of a fractured New York family, and is published in paperback this month.
“As a writer who can’t help but lodge works of art in his fiction, I have always been drawn to art museums as a kind of secret writer’s retreat, starting with the Museum of Fine Arts, in my native Boston. I’m not alone. Art holds an enduring attraction for writers and instances of cross-pollination between the visual arts and fiction are countless. Here are 10 of the most memorable.”
1. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
The first half of this hypermodern diptych finds a journalist named Jeff Atman in Venice for the 2003 Biennale, where he encounters all of the excess, silliness, depravity, and, finally, hollowness of the contemporary art world’s foremost spectacle. Most of the art is, as Jeff puts it, “a waste of one’s eyes”. But the novel has a fizzy exuberance that lifts it above the shallowness of its setting. One of its loveliest moments comes near the start, when Jeff slips into the Accademia to have a look at an old favorite: Giorgione’s The Tempest. Briefly, it holds him there, before he must descend into the froth of the Biennale (a tempest of a different sort), and in that moment he’s washed in a rapt stillness, expressed in the painting itself, that could almost be called a state of grace.
2. Museums and Women by John Updike (from The Early Stories: 1953-1975)
If any writer of fiction knew his way around art, it was Updike; he was a religious museumgoer, and in this odd and lovely story he condensed that relationship to its pith. The narrator, William Young, locates a deep connection between his passion for museums and his passion for women: the condition begins with his mother and extends across every subsequent romantic preoccupation. Dozens of pieces are framed in characteristically rich prose, but Updike saved his most evocative, spot-on description for the Guggenheim itself: “It was shaped like a truncated top and its floor was a continuous spiral around an overweening core of empty vertical space … The floor width was limited by a rather slender and low concrete guard wall that more invited than discouraged a plunge into the cathedralic depths below.”
3. The Enigma of Arrival by VS Naipaul
Naipaul’s complexly autobiographical novel borrows its title from a work by Giorgio de Chirico. That painting provides the inspiration for a not-quite novel-within-the-novel – one the nameless first-person narrator dwells on but never writes – about a visitor who arrives at an ancient port city and begins a journey of self-discovery that moves toward an unforeseen ending. The same is basically true of Naipaul’s own biography, and of the path taken by the not-quite Naipaul in this extraordinary piece of literature. The book’s controlled prose is as cool, liquid, and bewitching as the painting from which it takes its name.
4. Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom
Nooteboom sends two quite different protagonists to Australia and into the peculiar grip of Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project, an event which existed in the limbo between theatre and performance art, and which transformed each of its viewer-participants into a sort of birdwatcher, albeit one in pursuit of a rare species of avian: angels. Actors really did don wings and conceal themselves throughout Perth in 2000, and in the novel, Eric Zontag, a literary critic, succumbs to and then crashes through the artwork’s spell when he touches, speaks to, and later goes drinking with one of the angels. Nooteboom dramatises the power of art to strip its audience of everyday preoccupations and replace them with an exuberant disorientation, and in the process he offers a decent epigraph for any work of art: “There is a moment when something that appears to be quite ordinary suddenly becomes mysterious”.
5. A Heart So White by Javier Marías
Guards watch silently over us as we glide reverently through a museum’s hushed chambers. But after we exit the room, the guard has to stay – and stay, and stay. In Marías’s fraught, extraordinary novel, one such guard snaps and attempts to set fire to Rembrandt’s Artemisa, which hangs in the Prado, with a pocket lighter. He is sick of “the fat woman”, and believes that the young girl attending to her is prettier; but her back is turned, and she will never reveal her face, no matter how long he stares. Watching the artwork becomes a kind of water torture. Marías keeps the scene’s comic temperature at a low boil, attending to the guard’s complaint with utter seriousness, and the reader comes away impressed by the ability of one painting to nudge a man toward madness.
6. Rome, Naples and Florence by Stendhal
A bit of a cheat, since Stendhal’s record of his Italian travels isn’t fiction – but it’s too good to pass up. According to his version of events, Stendhal, after paying a lengthy visit to Giotto’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Santa Croce Chapel, in Florence, left and straight away felt dizziness, heart palpitations, and faintness. He had to sit down. His condition – literally being knocked off your feet by a work of art – is now eponymous: the Stendhal syndrome. (A seldom-used alternative designation is arguably the more fun: hyperkulturemia.) But Julian Barnes, in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, suggests that the whole episode might qualify as fiction, after all: he could find no record of the fainting in Stendhal’s own diary from the trip.
7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
“You say that art must not excite desire”, says Lynch, a school friend of Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus. He’s incredulous of the claim, and confesses that he wrote his “name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles” at the National Museum. Stephen points out that Lynch’s is not a “normal nature”, but surely Lynch has a point: erotic art isn’t meant to be anodyne; the male artist knows what he’s up to when he paints or sculpts a naked woman. (Joyce later had Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses, contemplate the existence or nonexistence of anuses in the female statuary at the National Museum.)
8. See the Other Side by Tatyana Tolstaya (from White Walls)
Death often suffuses one’s thoughts in the presence of art: often the art itself deals with death; most museum art is by the dead. In Tolstaya’s story, a meditation on the destructive advance of time, the narrator recalls her late father as she visits Ravenna, “the small Italian city where Dante is buried”. Ravenna’s mosaics are among the world’s great artistic heritages, and Tolstaya conjures an accurate, vivid, and unsentimental description of the city. In mosaic-encrusted churches tourists put lira in a box, switching on a few lamps that bathe the artwork in “fresh white light” – as if, with a few coins, we can replace any unwanted darkness with the warmth of illumination.
9. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
The use of art as a tool of seduction is a commonplace: who hasn’t imagined striking up a conversation with the beautiful stranger at the other end of the gallery? James gives the fantasy a brutal twist. When Lord Mark, pursuing Milly, tells her that she reminds him of the woman in a Bronzino portrait – probably inspired by a real Bronzino piece, a portrait from 1540, hanging now at the Uffizi – tears gather in her eyes; she is terminally ill, and she cannot see the resemblance. “It was probably as good a moment as she should ever have with him,” she decides. Milly’s tears are complicated: she reminds herself that the woman in the portrait “was dead, dead, dead”.
10. The Use of Reason by Colm Tóibín (from Mothers and Sons)
Another Rembrandt in peril. Tóibín’s protagonist, a calm and calculating thief of high-end goods, strays out of his depth when he purloins some works of art, including a Portrait of an Old Woman by the Dutch master. He is fluent in the handling of jewels or money, but fumbles a plan to fence the paintings to some enigmatic Dutch customers, and finds himself weighted down with a priceless but unsalable item. The brilliance of the story lies in the reader’s agony as he tracks the fate of the painting, which nears an unimaginable point of no return. In the finale, Tóibín makes us shake at the dark future that awaits an irreplaceable artwork, and in the process forces us to consider what we value, and why.