Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2012

How to conspire in Russian

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On May 3, 2006, an unknown man in a blue blazer entered the crowded salesroom at Sotheby’s, one of the two great auction houses in New York, where he was handed a paddle and given a seat toward the rear of the floor. He sat quietly for the first part of the sale, then bought a Monet and a Chagall for a combined price of $7.5 million. Finally, to the surprise of the crowd, he began to bid on the most anticipated lot of the evening, the Picasso masterpiece Dora Maar au Chat. Bidding was intense, with at least five buyers competing fiercely, but the man at the rear of the room was relentless, waving his paddle as if trying to swat a fly. In the end, he won the painting for $95 million, the second-highest price ever paid at the time for any work of art. As the crowd erupted in applause, the buyer was surrounded at once by a circle of Sotheby’s staff. No one knew who he was or who his employer might be, but observers reported one tantalizing detail: based on his accent, he seemed to be Russian.

After the sale, there was intense speculation about the buyer’s identity, which remained shrouded in rumor and mystery. The truth may be somewhat more prosaic—it’s now widely believed that the bidder, although obviously inexperienced, was an agent for the oligarch Boris Ivanishvili—but the image of the unknown Russian, which I first encountered in a pair of articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine, sparked my imagination. At the time, as I mentioned yesterday, I looking for a story around which to structure a novel about the New York art world, and I knew at once that this incident would make for a sensational opening scene—and a fictionalized version does, in fact, appear as the first chapter of The Icon Thief. (As I’ve since discovered, there are two kinds of scenes that are impossible to mess up, no matter how hard a writer tries: an auction, and a jury delivering its verdict.) What I didn’t realize at the time was that this single story would determine the course of my life for the next four years, and shape my writing career forever.

I saw right away that the Russia angle would provide me with a vast amount of material, which is what every story idea needs in order to survive. Russian money had been driving prices in the art market for years, with oligarchs converting oil and gas dollars into Impressionists and Old Masters, so it would have been hard for any art novel to avoid dealing with the subject. Yet there was another aspect to this angle that was even more promising. As I explored the story’s potential, it gradually occurred to me that the art world, with its opacity and impenetrability to outsiders, provided an ideal setting for the kind of dense, layered conspiracy novel that I’d loved ever since reading Foucault’s Pendulum, and which I’d always wanted to write. And the history of Russia lends itself naturally to conspiracies, from the Oprichniki of Ivan the Great to the plots of Bakunin, from the Czarist Okhrana to the contemporary entanglements of politicians, oligarchs, intelligence officers, and organized crime. The figure of the unknown Russian buyer, I saw, gave me the entry point I needed.

I also discovered that even the most elaborate fictional inventions pale in comparison to the reality of Russia itself. Despite my background—I’m Finnish and Estonian on my mother’s side—I’d never given a lot of thought to Russia before, but I quickly found myself fascinated by its peculiar geographical and historical position. Russia, as Alexander Blok wrote, is a sphinx, with its head in Europe and its body in Asia, and the tension between these two halves of the Russian experience, which go a long way toward explaining the recurring role of conspiracies in Russian history, struck me as hugely important, as well as resonant with my own life. As a result, I’ve found myself thinking nonstop about Russia for years, over the course of three novels, all because of a single news story that caught my eye. And I’m nowhere near the end of it. As one of my characters says in City of Exiles: “If all you want are questions, then Russia is the country of your dreams. You never get to the bottom of it, no matter how much you try.”

At last, I had my subject—but to write a conspiracy novel, you need a suitable set of conspirators. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how one particular secret society pressed itself on my attention.

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February 29, 2012 at 10:40 am

Quote of the Day

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It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment. When I have clarified and exhausted a subject, then I turn away from it, in order to go into darkness again.

Carl Friedrich Gauss

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February 29, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Love and money in the New York art world

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I’m not sure when I first realized that I wanted to write a novel about art, but living in New York certainly had something to do with it. I spent my first few years out of college at a financial firm in Times Square, working with investors and researching ideas for new investment funds. This particular company had its origins as a quant shop, breaking markets down to raw numbers and crafting computer models to take positions and manage risk—an approach that, needless to say, would be sorely tested a few years later. Around the same time, several art funds were announced with great fanfare, buoyed by rising prices and demand from wealthy investors who saw art as just another asset class. Most of these funds would be hit hard by the downturn, with one of the most prominent launches going down in flames. But at the time, I was fascinated by the question of what would happen if you applied quantitative investment techniques to valuing, say, a Rembrandt or Van Gogh. (For what it’s worth, I soon concluded that art investment would be a great basis for a novel, but not a viable business.)

I was also fascinated by the art world itself. Living in New York, you’re surrounded by contemporary art, and I spent a lot of my free time wandering through galleries and museums. (I became particularly intrigued by the figure of the gallerina, the sphinxlike female employee who occupies the front desk of most fashionable art galleries in Soho and Chelsea.) The art world, I began to realize, was nothing less than a point of collision between two very different kinds of people: those with the talent to make art, who are drawn to their work for anything but practical reasons, and those with the means to own it, who generally acquire their wealth in more pragmatic ways. Between the artists and collectors stands a third group, the art dealers and traders, who take their cues from both, and need to be especially smart, ambitious, and competitive. I’d already been intrigued by this dynamic at the company where I worked, which employed writers and artists—often in the mailroom—side by side with investment analysts. And it gradually occurred to me that there was a novel to be written about the tension between these two ways of seeing the world, which also seemed to dramatize some of the forces at play in my own life.

Of course, just because you have a general idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have a story yet. And I took a number of wrong turns before I figured out what my plot would be. Initially, I wanted to write a novel about an art critic, which I thought would fit nicely with my own background and interests as a writer. Along with my research on art investing, then, I read a lot of art history and criticism, and came up with a story about a critic who becomes obsessed with John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Madame X, and is drawn from there, inevitably, into a web of deception and intrigue. I spent a good six months on this project, repeatedly writing and revising the first fifty pages, before finally abandoning it as unworkable, leaving myself with a lot of raw material but nothing resembling a draft. Looking back, I don’t think that the story was a bad one: I simply lacked the necessary work habits—I didn’t know how to outline, for instance—as well as the time to devote to fiction. And it wasn’t until I finally quit my job that I really learned how to write a novel.

I didn’t return to my art world story right away. Instead, I spent two years writing a novel about India, which I still hope to publish one day, although it didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted. It was only then, as I began to look around for another project, that I remembered my earlier idea. I found that the Madame X plot no longer spoke to me, but the setting did: as I looked over my notes from several years before, I realized that the art world would provide the material for an infinite number of stories. All the themes I cared about as a writer were here: the tension between art and money, the limitations of the rational way of viewing the world, and above all, our need to find order and meaning where it may not exist. A work of art, after all, is only some paint on canvas: its value arises from the meaning that people attribute to it, turning it into an object with the potential to inspire love, hate, envy, and obsession.

I had my setting, but I still needed a story. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how the search for a story took me in directions I never could have expected, until I finally ended up, much to my surprise, in Russia.

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February 28, 2012 at 10:38 am

Quote of the Day

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February 28, 2012 at 7:50 am

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The book of lists, or the lists of one book

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As the early reviews for The Icon Thief start to trickle in, with just one week left until publication, I’ve taken a certain delight in seeing how reviewers tend to approach the book as a list of arcane topics, apparently thrown together at random. Publishers Weekly calls it a book about “the Rosicrucians, composer Erik Satie, the Black Dahlia murder, occultist Aleister Crowley, chess, the Soviet secret service, Lenin, and several obscure secret societies.” To the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, which has a positive review of the novel in its latest newsletter, it’s “a vast conspiracy that includes Rosicrucians, Lenin, ballerinas, and assorted secret societies.” Meanwhile, over on Goodreads, depending on which reviewer you believe, it’s either about “the Rosicrucian Order (Order of the Rose Cross), Ordo Templi Orientis, Cabaret Voltaire, Dadaism, and even the Society of Pataphysics,” or “Russians, Armenians, stolen art, murder, intrigue, and…Marcel Duchamp.”

So what should a reader conclude, aside from the fact that, to misquote Umberto Eco, the Rosicrucians have something to do with everything? In a way, this is exactly the response I was hoping to get when I wrote The Icon Thief, which I conceived as a kind of catalog of mysteries that could be sliced in any number of possible ways. In this, I was inspired by one of my own favorite novels, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which is equally prone to being discussed in terms of wild lists. A glance at the reviews in the tattered paperback copy I’ve owned since I was thirteen reveals no fewer than three separate lists of subjects, all them strikingly different: the Philadelphia Inquirer mentions “pagan rituals, World War II nostalgia, Brazilian macumba religion,” while Publishers Weekly goes with “the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons” and the Sunday Times rattles off “numerology, James Bond’s foes, and the construction of sewers.”

Of course, every conspiracy novel, from Gravity’s Rainbow to the Illuminatus trilogy, lends itself to obsessive list-making: one of the genre’s conventions is the paranoid accumulation of facts and stories until both reader and protagonist are overwhelmed by information. What fascinates me is how much freedom a reviewer has when picking which subjects to emphasize—how one critic can list Erik Satie, for instance, who is only mentioned twice in the entire book, next to the Rosicrucians, whose history occupies a good chunk of the novel’s four hundred pages. The process of selection says as much about the reader as it does about the story itself, and can result in an infinite number of different lists, as Borges notes in a somewhat different context. He cites Carlyle’s joke about a biography of Michelangelo that didn’t mention the works of Michelangelo, and then says:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Replace “life” with “story” and “biographies” with “reviews,” and you have a sense of what every author must experience when regarding the lists that readers extract from his work. A novel, in particular, contains so much information that it’s remarkable that its reviews can have anything in common at all, and it’s especially interesting when all the reviews of a big book tend to zero in on the same sentence, as recently happened with Edward St. Aubyn’s lines on irony. I’ve seen this process so often from a distance that I’m delighted to see it happen to my own novel—and I’m also tempted to make a few lists of my own. Over the next week, then, as we count down the days until the novel’s official release, I’m going to talk about a handful of narrative strands that I find personally important, and explain how they came about, with an eye to the process of trial and error that underlies the origins of any novel. Tomorrow, I’ll start with the apparently innocent question that changed my writing life forever: how do you value a masterpiece?

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February 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

Quote of the Day

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February 27, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Joseph W. Meeker on the comic hero

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Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for his ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of the tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible…Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm man’s capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair…Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

—Joseph W. Meeker, The Comedy of Survival

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February 26, 2012 at 9:50 am

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