Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to conspire in Russian

with 2 comments

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.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2012 at 10:40 am

2 Responses

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  1. What an intriguing start to a conspiracy novel!

    Eagle-Eyed Editor

    February 29, 2012 at 11:22 am

  2. Thanks! And then it gets really complicated…


    February 29, 2012 at 11:49 am

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