Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Rembrandt’s Eyes

“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…

One page at a time

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If there were world enough, and time, I’d read all the books that I buy, but as we’ve already demonstrated, that isn’t going to happen. At this point in my life, when I’ve been accumulating books for years, whenever I hesitate over buying another one, it isn’t so much about the money—although it sometimes is—as it is about time and space. I seem condemned, or blessed, to spend my life with overflowing bookshelves and books on the floor, and I’m fine with that (although my wife seems less than thrilled by the prospect). That said, when I decide not to buy a book these days, I’m often thinking about the cubic inches it will occupy, not its effect on my wallet. And same is true, even more so, of time. As has been pointed out more than once, if you’re thirty years old and can get through, say, two books a week, that’s just five thousand books until you die, not nearly enough time for everything worth reading. So whenever I’m weighing a new purchase, part of me has to ask of the book in my hand: “Are you one of the five thousand?”

Yet that’s manifestly unfair to most books, which aren’t necessarily meant to be read from cover to cover, but to be owned, consulted, browsed through, and contemplated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has spoken approvingly of Umberto Eco’s idea of the anti-library, which states that unread books are far more valuable than the ones you’ve read—in which case my own library is priceless. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there,” Taleb writes, in his slightly smug style. And I agree. But the real problem isn’t reading the books: it’s about knowing, in general, what I’m missing. With the books I tend to buy, which are old, miscellaneous, and rarely searchable online, it isn’t enough just to glance at the back cover, or even the index. A quick look won’t tell you what you’ll find in, say, The Road to Xanadu or The White Goddess or any of the other great lucky bags of literature, in which a random page might contain a fact that can change a life. So what do you do?

If you’re me, you engage in a slightly more leisurely version of what Calvin does here: you sit down and flip through the entire book, not really reading, but at least physically looking at every page. I’m far from joking. This is browsing taken to its most literal, left-brained extreme, but it works so well that I try to do it with every book I buy these days, often at night, when my wife and I are reading together on the living room sofa. To take examples from the books I bought this month: it was while going page by page through Notes on a Cowardly Lion, slowing down to read the sections on Bert Lahr’s performances in The Wizard of Oz and Waiting for Godot—which deserve blog posts of their own—that I discovered the wonderful passage on the vaudevillian Billy K. Wells that appeared here on Sunday. And while doing the same for The Ants, I learned about the curious phenomenon of the ant mill, which I promptly appropriated for use in a section of my current novel.

And sometimes you’ll find something even more significant. If there’s any book that was made for a good left-brained browse, it’s Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, a big, glossy, gorgeous volume, too large to really read comfortably, dense with images and text, that I picked up for a song at last year’s Newberry Library Book Fair. While browsing through it page by page, alighting on a sentence here and there, I found Schama’s memorable account of the bizarre incident when, on June 15, 1985, a man attacked Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, throwing sulfuric acid at the painting and slashing it with a knife. I made a note of it and moved on. Even at the time, though, I sensed it would be useful, and in the end, a highly modified version of this incident ended up serving as the prologue of The Scythian. If it weren’t for that random discovery, the prologue—and the whole novel—would have been utterly different. It was serendipity, yes, but approached in the nerdiest, most methodical way imaginable. Which basically is what my life is all about.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

Dispatches from the Newberry Library

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One of the nice things about being an adult is the fact that you occasionally get to indulge in a few of your childhood pleasures, except with more resources and money. A nerdy case in point: when I was growing up, one of the highlights of my year was the annual book sale at the Alameda County Library. For ten dollars, you could fill a paper grocery bag full of battered library discards, and although not many of those books have stayed with me over the years—the only exception being Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, otherwise out of print, which remains one of my favorite and formative writing guides—I still get irrationally excited by the words “library book sale.”

Which brings me to Chicago’s Newberry Library Book Fair, which is the ultimate realization of my childhood fantasies of what a library book sale should be. With room after room of books piled high on tables, crammed, often to the point of immobility, with buyers and browsers, the Newberry’s annual sale is a book lover’s paradise. Walking around the fair yesterday, having abruptly ditched all other obligations when my wife informed me that it was starting at noon, I was forcibly reminded of one of the central facts of my life: aside from my wife and maybe a few family and friends, I love books more than almost anything else in the world.

And this was the best kind of book fair, filled equally with titles I’d been trying to find for a long time and plenty of happy accidents. The former category included a first edition copy of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which I picked up for all of eight dollars (by far the most expensive single book I got that day); Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality; Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at The Movies; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (for three dollars, much less than the anniversary edition I had been planning to buy in the bargain section at Borders); and all four volumes, dating from 1891, of Bourrienne’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. These books alone would make for a pretty decent liberal education.

There were also plenty of nice surprises. Because we’re moving soon, and will have to physically haul all these books away in about six weeks, I managed to restrict myself to a handful of paperbacks. But some of these were a lot of fun, too: The Making of Star Trek, published in 1968, with its detailed account of the original show’s origins; Irving Wallace’s The Plot,  allowing me to wallow in my previously disclosed love of trashy ’70s fiction; a vintage paperback of Catch-22, which was already next on my reading list; and the excellent anthology The Practical Cogitator, famous in its time, unknown by me, but which already looks to inform this blog tremendously (starting with today’s quote). All in all, it was the best library book sale ever—at least until Sunday, when everything goes on half price. You’ll know where to find me.

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