Trains of Thought
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XIX. 09/06-01/07/17; uncanny valley

Asked by the FT’s “Small Talk” whether he keeps a diary, David Vann responded:

Never. I hate diaries and journaling and scrapbooking and all the fake writing in the world, including holiday cards and letter-writing. I wish it would all just die. I can’t even believe there are creative writing classes that focus on journaling, and I hate that I have to read “process” essays from my students. “Who cares?” is the only thing I can think when I read any of it.

In her third Reith lecture Hilary Mantel tells the story of Stanislawa Przybyszewska who was obsessed by the French Revolution. She wrote about it day and night, neglected to care for her self and died as a martyr to her project.

Susan Sontag said: ‘Somewhere along the line one has to choose between the Life and the Project.’ Stasia chose the Project. It killed her. Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre. You don’t want to work like that, be like that. You hope your art will save you, not destroy you. But it’s a sad fact that bad art and good art feel remarkably the same, while they’re in process. As you work, you have to exercise self-scrutiny and fine discrimination, but in the end, the verdict is out of your hands.

“Who cares?” Stasia cared, but no-one else did. She was obsessed but stuck. Her ideas were incommunicable in the form she gave them.

She lost the distance that enabled her to judge her work, and she didn’t have that pragmatic streak that says that compromise is not always dishonor. Detail matters. But there are other things that matter more: pace, grip, shape. An unperformable play or a half-finished novel is no use except as a stepping stone to a genuine communication. But: if you pinpoint any moment in an artist’s career, you will see the unfinished. Who is ready for completion? Who is ready for death? It takes us all by surprise – the pen poised, the potential unrealized, explanations wanting, an evaporation of effort into white space. With each line, each sentence, you succeed and fail, succeed and fail. And perhaps as a subject the Revolution sets us up for frustration – it eludes our analysis, simply because it isn’t over yet.

Someone asked the forger Beltracchi: “if you see an expert looking at one of your Campendonk forgeries in a catalogue and his reaction is: ‘this is a particularly fine example,’ what do you think?”

“I’d say he’s right,” replies Beltracchi.

Beltracchi doesn’t just copy a painting, he puts himself in the artist’s place, into the artist’s body of work.

… you have to lend your body to other people who happen to be dead. It doesn’t mean that you have to describe them to the reader in minute detail, but you have to be conscious of what kind of energy they embody. And therefore, you have to put yourself at their disposal for the time that you’re writing about them. I moved swiftly from one body to another.

He began his career touching up second-hand art bought at flea-markets. Adding ice-skaters to a winter scene made an anonymous Dutch landscape painting a bit more valuable, perhaps DM 500  instead of 50.

But there is an upper bound to how much a touched-up painting can be worth. Why not paint the whole thing then?

He buys paintings at a flea market. The back of the canvas is important. It may bear the stamp of a dealer from a time and place of interest: a time and place that coincides with a gap in art history. The stamp backs a story that you can make up about a painting that was passed around and ended up in your possession. He scratches the painting off the surface and then he forms the forgery around the ghost of the worthless original subject.

A forgery may be more authentic than an original. The interpreter has the advantage of being able to look back with an intelligence of the present.

Historical fiction reforges the past like a new painting inserted into a gap of art history. The process is the same. The difference between Beltracchi and Mantel is that Beltracchi sold his work as real history. And so he went to prison as a fraudster.

…. some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue, a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts – which may or may not agree with each other – and actively requesting a subjective interpretation. You are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, ‘Take this document, object, person – tell me what it means. ’ To the novelist he says, ‘Now tell me what else it means.’


1 Comment

  1. Do you share David Vann’s opinion?

    This was very interesting – what does it mean that Susan Sontag died of Robespierre?


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