Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dora Maar au Chat

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen…”

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(Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 1. You can read the first few chapters of the novel here.)

As I’ve said before, there are two scenes that are impossible for a writer to screw up, no matter how hard he tries: a jury delivering its verdict, and an auction. In the former case, no matter how tedious a legal thriller has been up to that point, when the judge takes the note from the foreman and tells the defendant to rise, there’s always a little frisson of suspense, even though we’ve seen the same scene a million times before. Similarly, auctions are structured as miniature contests of will, which, even without any context, are totally clear at once. In both cases, unlike most scenes in fiction, in which the author needs to work hard to define the stakes, we’re handed all the components for suspense right off the shelf. (This is another reason why even bad sports movies tend to suck us in when the big game comes down to that final pitch.) You can’t go back to this well too often, but it’s nice when you can. Which is one reason I’m glad that I was able to put a big auction scene right at the start of The Icon Thief.

Looking back, I can also see that an auction scene serves another useful purpose in the first chapter of a novel, which is that it immediately gets you inside the protagonist’s head. The main character of The Icon Thief, Maddy Blume, is by far the most complex figure I’ve ever had to create: she’s clever, ambitious, and insecure, capable of making incredibly smart choices on a tactical level but very poor choices when it comes to her own life, prone to jealousy and vanity, ready to use other people when necessary, but also vulnerable to being used herself. There are a lot of layers here, and there’s no way to get them across in one scene. Fortunately, that isn’t necessary. As I’ve noted in my discussion of the opening scene of The Godfather, characters become real, not through pages of introspection, but through scenes in which the reader can follow them from one clear objective to another. And an auction provides the clearest objective imaginable. Once you’ve sweated with Maddy through that opening scene at Sotheby’s, I’d like to think that you’re at least mildly interested in what she does next, even as her many complexities and contradictions gradually begin to reveal themselves.

The resulting chapter was a real pleasure to write. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this scene is based on a true incident, in which an unknown bidder paid a record price for Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat at Sotheby’s in 2006. To research it, I went to auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York and took detailed notes on auction procedure, behavior, and atmosphere. I learned about such salesroom arcana as the lighthouse bid, in which a bidder holds his paddle in the air and keeps it there, indicating that he’s willing to buy the item at any price. As always, there was a lot of stuff that I cut for the sake of time. In particular, the original draft included at least a page of material leading up to the main event, the auction of Study for Étant Donnés, that I excised to cut to the chase. And the result is, I think, a really good chapter, perhaps the best in the entire novel. If nothing else, it’s one of the few scenes I can look at now without seeing a lot of things I wish I could change, and it’s the section I always read at author events, like the one I’m scheduled to do in California next week. And I feel especially lucky that it’s the first official chapter in the entire book.

As always, there are a lot of small touches and inside jokes that are probably of interest only to me. Study for Étant Donnés is the fiftieth lot of the evening—which means, of course, that it comes right after the crying of lot forty-nine. The names of the two phone clerks, Vicky and Julian, are nods to my favorite movie, which will be referenced repeatedly in the novel to come. And the most significant moment in the scene didn’t come until late in the process. Quite simply, I didn’t know how to end it, and even as I was preparing to go out to publishers, the ending of this chapter was very weak. It wasn’t until I went back and reread the chapter, using the principle of the standing set, that I realized that the answer was right in front of me. Earlier in the chapter, Maddy looks up at the skybox above the salesroom floor and notices that someone is there, although she can’t see who. When I wrote it, this was just a throwaway detail—designed, perhaps, just to show off my own location research. Much later, however, I began to wonder if I did, in fact, know who was watching from that skybox. And when I look back at the chapter now, it seems like he was there the entire time, unknown to me, waiting for the right moment.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2012 at 10:46 am

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.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2012 at 10:40 am

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