Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Arkady arrived at the museum at ten…”

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"Arkady arrived at the museum at ten..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the prologue.

A few years ago, at my beloved Newberry Library Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Because I got it on the last day, in which all prices are cut by half, I ended up buying it for only four dollars. I’d wanted to check it out ever since it was first published, and it’s typical of a lot of the books I buy these days—a big, beautiful tome that I might never read from cover to cover, but which makes me happy whenever I see it on the shelf. I’m conscious of the fact that this strays a bit from my own conception of a working library: like Umberto Eco, I may not have read all the books I own, but I’d like to think that each one is there for a reason. A single idea, a moment of clarity, even a loving hour’s browse is enough to justify a purchase. At some point shortly thereafter, then, I sat down with Rembrandt’s Eyes and simply turned the pages, trying to get a bird’s eye view of what it had to offer. About about halfway through, I stumbled across a story that caught my attention at once: Schama’s detailed account of the bizarre act of vandalism in which a young Lithuanian knifed and threw acid at Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage. I made a note of it. And it eventually formed the basis for the prologue to Eternal Empire.

It’s one of my favorite memories from writing any of my novels, because it represents a rare successful example of what writers are supposed to be doing all the time. In theory, we’re always on the lookout for material, and when we notice an interesting anecdote or instance of human behavior, it really ought to go right in the notebook. Practically speaking, of course, we’re more likely to forget it. If I happened to cling to this particular idea, it’s because I was primed for it: at the time, I was still working on City of Exiles, and the prospect of a third novel in the series was actively on my mind. So I actually wrote it down, as a good writer should, telling myself that it would make for a nice, arresting opening. At first, I didn’t know how it would tie in with the larger story I was slowly beginning to glimpse, but I arrived fairly quickly at one possible solution—that the destruction of a painting could serve as an attempt to convey a message, via press coverage of the incident, that a desperate intelligence operative couldn’t communicate in any other way. (If this sounds a little familiar, it may be because it isn’t far off from the premise of Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and I acknowledge the influence in the epigraph.)

"But that all lay in the future..."

Once I had the episode’s narrative role in mind, what remained was largely a matter of filling in the blanks, both mechanically and on a more intuitive level. I decided early on that I wanted to set the scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, since it was a museum I could plausibly visit for research purposes, although by then I’d already moved to Chicago. (As it happened, I didn’t have the chance to do any work on location until after the prologue had already been written. Luckily, the Met is a museum I know well—I went there once a week for years—and there were plenty of online resources available, including the museum’s own virtual tour. In the end, my trip there only filled out a few minor details, although not until I’d been yelled at by a guard for surreptitiously videotaping the security line.) I also searched the museum’s collections for a potential painting to ruin, and I seem to have rapidly zeroed in on one promising candidate: Eugène Delaroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians. At the time, the novel I was writing was actually called The Scythian, a title I still regret losing, and it didn’t take a genius to see that the closer I could tie this painting into the story’s existing themes, the better.

This still left the small matter of what message the painting’s destruction was supposed to send. Fortunately, the fates conspired in my favor, as they often do in such situations. Ovid Among the Scythians depicts the exiled poet at the port of Tomis, now known as Constanta in Romania, a city on the edge of the Black Sea. I’d already decided—for reasons that I hope to explain in later post—that one of the novel’s subplots would follow a journey by megayacht across the Black Sea to the Russian resort town of Sochi. Constanta was a logical disembarkation point for such a voyage, and it seemed easy enough to connect the message sent by Arkady, my unfortunate spy, to that particular plot point. Later, I realized that opening the novel with an instance of art vandalism also provided a convenient way of reintroducing the character of Maddy Blume, who commits a similar act at the end of The Icon Thief. (There’s another nod to Maddy in a painting that Arkady pauses to examine in the same gallery, Delacroix’s Abduction of Rebecca, which foreshadows what happens to her at the end of Part I.) The result, I think, is still pretty neat, and it stands a nice instance of how unlikely components can be assembled, by looking both forwards and backwards, into a story that seems to have been conceived as a whole. It doesn’t always happen that way, but here, it works nicely. Or it’s better, at least, than what happens to poor Arkady…

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