Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philippe Duboy

“Karvonen headed for the platform…”

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"Karvonen headed for the platform..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

These days, we think of an “airport novel” as a thick little paperback sold at Hudson News, designed to give travelers in business class a few hours of diversion, a category in which my own books have occasionally been classified. In the past, though, it meant exactly what it said: a novel in which much of the action took place in airports. They emerged in the Mad Men era, when air travel was accessible for the first time to large swaths of the population, and even if you couldn’t afford a ticket on Pan Am, you could buy a book in which the glamour of modern transportation was evident on every page. If I were doing academic research on what it was like to travel in the sixties and seventies, I’d turn first to the likes of Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum, and it’s still true of thrillers today. Suspense novels engage in such loving descriptions of the railway terminals, airline lounges, and private planes that the characters use to get from one point to another that they double as a stealth advertisement for stylish travel. Hence the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet with its dual Pratt & Whitney engines that pops up randomly in The Da Vinci Code, or the line in Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane thought was the most boring sentence imaginable: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”

Why do thrillers love this sort of thing? In part, it’s just a particular example of the suspense novel’s usual fascination with hardware, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is both designed to appeal to readers who like a side of facts with their violence and to enhance the verisimilitude of an otherwise implausible story. But there’s also something especially attractive about transportation itself. Thrillers, especially those that center on the chase, are often about moving a character from point A to point B—ideally with his adversaries in hot pursuit—and the means by which he gets to his destination inevitably takes up a large part of the narrative. Here, as in so much else, the template was set by Frederick Forsyth in The Day of the Jackal, in which the antihero of the title spends much of his time ingeniously circumventing various forms of transit security. In thrillers, as I’ve said elsewhere, movement across geography often stands as a surrogate or metaphor for narrative motion, and the protagonist’s progress in physical space mirrors the act of turning the pages. Such stories are a sequence of arrivals and departures, and it’s no accident that so many of them, including The Icon Thief, began with a key character arriving at passport control.

"His passport had not been scanned..."

When I was in London doing research for City of Exiles, I bought a ticket to Brussels, boarded the train, spent maybe three hours in Belgium, then came back in time to spend the night at my hotel room near King’s Cross. I wasn’t even particularly interested per se in Brussels: once I arrived, I spent a rainy afternoon doing little more than wandering around until it was time to head back again, although I did make a pilgrimage to the Royal Museums to see The Death of Marat, which had played an important role in the epilogue of the previous novel. What I really cared about was the terminal and the train itself. I knew that much of Part II would consist of Karvonen’s journey to Helsinki, and while I wasn’t able to take the entire trip myself, I wanted to at least be able to describe its beginning and end. Before leaving for London, I had mapped out his itinerary as best I could, using travel guides and online railway schedules, and I knew more or less where he’d be and when, although I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen there. That was one of the peculiar things about this trip: it took place before I’d even outlined most of the novel, so I had to single out specific locations, neighborhoods, and landmarks in hopes that I’d find a place for them later.

The total cost of the trip was about three hundred dollars, all for the sake of a page or two of detail, which counts as one of my priciest expenses per word of material. (Still, the champion here is probably what I dropped on Philippe Duboy’s ridiculous book Lequeu, which I bought for $125 in hopes of finding a few tidbits that I could use in The Icon Thief, only to end up not using a word of it.) But it was money well spent. My discoveries included such minutiae as the look of the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras, the security and immigration procedures, and the seating arrangements on the train itself. Some of this was important to the plot—I wanted to see how hard it would be for Karvonen to get certain items past security, and whether or not his passport would be scanned on his departure—but for the most part, it served as a kind of background murmur of authenticity against which more interesting events would take place. None of this should be visible to the reader, but its absence would be noticed, at least subconsciously. If nothing else, it seemed necessary that I see it for myself, if only so I could forget about it when the time came to write the scene. In the overall scheme of the story, the train itself is much less important than where Karvonen is going. But it’s good that we travel with him at least part of the way…

Me and Marcel Duchamp

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Marcel Duchamp is the most influential artist of the twentieth century. It says so right on the cover of my book. And it’s true. More than any other modern figure, Duchamp—notably with his famous Fountain, which was recently named the century’s single most important work of art—forever shaped our understanding of what it means to be an artist, in which selection, process, and theory are just as important as the final result. (If nothing else, if you’ve ever wandered into a museum or gallery and wondered what the hell was going on there, that’s almost certainly due to Duchamp’s legacy, with its ongoing influence on all conceptual art.) Yet aside from Nude Descending a Staircase and a few other iconic pieces, Duchamp has never penetrated the popular consciousness to the extent of a Picasso or a Warhol, and even among those who care deeply about such things, many details of his work and his fascinating life remain essentially unknown.

Up until a few years ago, this was true of me as well. I’d like to say that my decision to write a novel about Duchamp was the result of a carefully considered intellectual process, but in fact, it was pure serendipity. While doing research on art history at the Brooklyn Public Library, I stumbled across the wonderful book Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, who explores the issue of why we’re collectively drawn to interpret and tell stories about pictorial works of art. In passing, Elkins mentions the strange theory of art critic Philippe Duboy, who postulates that Duchamp, while working as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, quietly erased and modified drawings by the artist Jean-Jacques Lequeu, as part of an obscure vendetta against the architect Le Corbusier. If this “theory” doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry: I ended up buying a copy of Duboy’s incredibly expensive book on the subject, only to find that I couldn’t make head or tail of it either. (For one thing, it gets its libraries mixed up: Duchamp actually worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, so he couldn’t have made the changes that the author implies.)

Yet I’d been bitten by the Duchamp bug. And I quickly discovered that the hard part wasn’t constructing a conspiracy novel around Duchamp, but deciding which conspiracy to use. Even if you think, as I do, that Duboy’s book is a waste of time, and a model of how not to construct a conspiracy theory, you’re still left with an embarrassment of riches. You have Rhonda Roland Shearer’s controversial contention, for instance, that many of Duchamp’s readymades were actually carefully constructed by the artist, who built them in secret and passed them off as found objects for reasons that remain unclear. You’ve got the frequent attempts to link Duchamp’s work to alchemy, the cabala, and, yes, Rosicrucianism. You have the allegation, made in at least two books, that Duchamp knew the identity of the Black Dahlia murderer, a particularly juicy story that plays an important role in The Icon Thief. And then there’s the question of what Duchamp was really doing in New York City during the First World War…but for that, you’ll need to read my novel.

It’s easy to see why conspiracy theorists love Duchamp: his work is simultaneously designed to elicit and frustrate obsessive interpretation. Yet the endless attempts to pin him down as an alchemist, a secret revolutionary, or even a Rosicrucian have little to do with the man himself. Duchamp, more than any of his contemporaries, was the ultimate skeptic and outsider, unwilling to be confined to any one artistic school, even as he influenced them profoundly from the margins. For most of his life, he lived as simply as possible, with close to a complete indifference to money, in order to devote himself more fully to his work. He was, uniquely, a movement of one. And even as I toyed with his legacy in The Icon Thief, I found myself seduced by his example. He was brilliant, uncompromising, and impossible to classify. And although my book regards him from many different angles, often all at the same time, I hope my readers remember him, above all else, as a model of what the artistic life can be.

At the center of the book lies Duchamp’s final masterpiece, which he worked on in secret for twenty years, claiming all the while to be retired. On Monday, I’ll finally consider the enigma at the heart of The Icon Thief: the installation, revealed only after Duchamp’s death, that Jasper Johns has called “the strangest work of art in any museum.”

Literary obsolescence and the Codex Ipadianus

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Today’s AV Club Q&A centers on a subject lovingly calculated to bring up all kinds of nostalgic nerdery: the works of art that we still keep in obsolete formats, whether cassette tapes, reel to reels, Nintendo cartridges, or any other medium consigned to history’s dustbin. Looking at the responses is enough to make me wistful for all the media I’ve lost: the mix tapes, the VHS copies of X-Files episodes (especially the beloved “Jose Chung/Pusher” combo), the Twin Peaks finale taped off its original airing, and, more than anything else, my own adolescent novels and short stories, which were saved on 5 1/4″ floppy discs and now lost forever. Everyone of a certain age, I imagine, has a similar list, which is something that the next generation will probably never understand, once all physical media have become obsolete by definition.

Of course, there’s one form of obsolete media I haven’t mentioned yet, and all of our houses are full of them: books. And my own shelves look particularly obsolete. Probably half of the books I own were picked up at secondhand bookstores, with their inimitable smell of must and mildew, and I can’t look at them now without smiling at so many old friends: The Road to Xanadu, The Campaigns of Napoleon, an incomplete set of The Story of Civilization (missing only Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation, neither of which I feel especially inclined to track down), The Next Whole Earth Catalog, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, Philippe Duboy’s Lequeu, bound copies of the Skeptical Inquirer, Patridge’s Slang (stuffed with clippings and a red carrying cord by its previous, unknown owner), and, of course, the Codex Seraphinianus.

These days, it’s especially bittersweet to regard these shelves, because I’ve just done something that would have seemed unthinkable even a few months ago: I’ve given in and ordered an iPad. (It won’t arrive for another three weeks, but Apple, rather cruelly, cheerfully informs me that the cover has already shipped.) I’m planning to use it mostly for web browsing, but there’s no avoiding the fact that by purchasing it, I’ve essentially bought an e-book reader as well. And while I don’t expect to cut down on my bookstore visits anytime soon, on the occasions when I do buy a new book, it seems likely that I’ll be going the digital route. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and, as my wife will tell you, our shelves at home are already overstuffed. It makes sense—but it also makes me sad. Because I love physical books more than almost anything else in the world, and I feel as if I’m betraying them a little.

That said, there’s one place where the iPad is going to be invaluable, which is for reading books that are out of print and not in my local library, but available for free on Google eBooks. And the list is longer than you might think—in fact, it’s close to infinite. Just looking over the digitized books I’ve found recently, I see the works of George Saintsbury, random volumes of James Frazer’s original Golden Bough, Eckermann’s complete Conversations with Goethe, and such oddball classics as Frédéric Masson’s Napoleon at Home. Thanks to Google, a world of treasures in the public domain has been placed at my disposal, limited only by my ingenuity and desire to explore, and I’m excited about diving into it with my Codex Ipadianus as a guide. (Also: Angry Birds.)

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