Vermeer (Modern Library Nonfiction #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Bright Shining Lie.)

Johannes Vermeer was the Steph Curry of 17th century painters: a dazzling mack daddy who spent lengthy periods of his choppy forty-three year life layering lapis lazuli and ultramarine and madder lake onto some of the most beautiful paintings ever created in human history. To ask how he perfected the glowing pour of his domestic scenes through painstaking brush strokes is to court trouble. Did he do so through mirrors and lenses? Does the Hockney-Falco theory have any real bearing on appreciating his work? Vermeer famously left no record of how he achieved his elegant handwrought touch, which has left many to become obsessed with the question, even taking the trouble (as Tim Jennison, subject of the controversial Penn and Teller documentary, did) to learn Dutch, which is a maddening language by all reasonable standards.

The great mystery of how this genius mastered light purely by eye and through no apparent line work, all two centuries before the camera’s invention, has been taken up by such feverishly committed investigators as Philip Steadman, an architect who meticulously measured Vermeer’s interiors and constructed a one-sixth scale model of his room to uphold the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. For now, our attentions are with Lawrence Gowing, a self-taught art historian whose Vermeer obsession resulted in a highly useful and slyly passionate book, a short but smart volume bizarrely downplayed in The New York Times‘s Gowing obituary, but a title that the Modern Library judges were at least munificent enough to rank above the likes of Robert Caro eight years after Gowing kicked the proverbial bucket of paint.

Gowing frames Vermeer’s achievements by observing that this painter, unlike his 17th century Dutch peers Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen, eschewed line and overt modelling work. Vermeer’s purity as an artist emerged with his curious pursuit of diffuse light at all costs. He remained quite impartial about how light spilled into his scenes. As Gowing notes, even a detail such as The Lacemaker‘s cushion tassels (pictured left) “have an enticing and baffling bluntness of focus.” In an age when anyone can instantly snap a picture to memorialize how light drifts into a room, this revolutionary approach cannot be understated, especially because Vermeer was confident enough in his aesthetic to push against the mercantile herd even as he served as head of the Guild of Saint Luke. In the seventeenth century, painters wanted to be noticed. They were, after all, artists with constantly grumbling bellies. So they tended to emphasize particular objects, even if it meant exaggerating the look, in an attempt to stand out. They might approach a patron and say, “Ha ha! I am Hendrik Van de Berg, the greatest painter of Maastricht! I have fifty thousand followers on…well, just imagine a world, preposterous as this may sound, in which short text messages determine your stature among peers and, yup, that would be me! Art King of Maastricht! Anyway, that nifty apple in the far right corner may look a little unnatural, but, dude, I think we can both agree that it really pops! And it will look good in your study while your starving servant polishes your boots and dreams of something to eat! Oh, I know you can’t pay your servants and that you are, in fact, fond of flogging them. But I am an artist and surely you can pay me! I’ll even throw in a complimentary whipping if you buy my work! Think of it as a patron reward!” Vermeer, by contrast, willfully blurred the apple. Vermeer’s peers in his hometown of Delift understood what he was doing, but the cost of being an artist was, alas, premature death due to exasperated financial stress.

Gowing’s gushing critical distinctions are a welcome reminder that it’s sometimes more important to know why art stands out rather than how it is created. The “No haters” crowd, fed on the soothing alfalfa sprouts of director’s commentaries and lengthy pop culture oral histories, would rather view Vermeer as a magician or a technical wizard than an artist. If Vermeer did use a camera obscura, he was certainly not the only Dutch painter doing so at the time. Gowing emphasizes that Vermeer’s style went above and beyond merely accumulating details. What should concern us is why he was so committed to the optical. What counts is Vermeer’s commitment to the visual experience: commonplace scenes that are somehow both radiant and persuasive depictions of reality. Gowing helpfully points out that any Vermeer investigation of life was never direct. The paintings were often established at an oblique angle. He singles out Vermeer’s “inhuman fineness of temper,” a tranquility that is quite extraordinary given that Vermeer was working with ten kids running around and the financial turmoil he had to endure.

Gowing is also very good at only drawing upon Vermeer’s biography when it is pertinent. Vermeer’s detachment and his slow output certainly hinges upon disappointments and setbacks he contended with during the last years of his life. Still, one only needs to look at Vermeer’s paintings to feel their somewhat passive but stirring view of humanity. Gowing distinguishes Vermeer from other painters by observing that “with the passivity characteristic of his thought, he accepted this part of his nature as the basis of the expressive content of his style.” Somehow Vermeer could inject his view on humanity purely through style. And somehow in this stylistic transformation, what seems passive is actually carefully rendered depth. Despite confining his paintings to two rooms, Gowing finds enough common qualities within these limitations for us to get a sense of what Vermeer was up to:

In only three of the twenty-six interiors that we have is the space between painter and sitter at all uninterrupted. In five of the others passage is considerably encumbered, in eight more the heavy objects interposed amount to something like a barrier and in the remaining ten they are veritable fortifications. It is hard to think that this preference tells us nothing about the painter’s nature. In it the whole of his dilemma is conveyed.

The book’s second part is more akin to descriptive liner notes for a must have box set and doesn’t quite match the first part’s perspicacity. But Gowing does provide several useful antecedents (such as Jan Van Bronkhorst’s The Procuress) that allow us to track Vermeer’s development as an artist. Again, because Vermeer didn’t leave much behind on his life or methods, it has been left for us to speculate on how he cultivated his exquisite style. But Gowing is too sharp a critic to be seduced by gossip and thankfully confines his findings to other paintings, showing us several paths leading us to Utrecht Caravaggism and trompe l’oeil.

I must warn you, however, that Gowing’s Vermeer, despite its ostensibly breezy length, will likely have you losing many hours studying Vermeer. What Gowing could not have foreseen is that his ruminations would be even more vital in a climate where some otherwise smart people believe that an ire-inducing and ill-considered think piece cobbled together in an hour constitutes serious thought.

Next Up: George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England!

BEA 2013: All’s Fair? Book Reviews & The Missing Code of Ethics

I was fully prepared to ignore the National Book Critic Circle’s latest effort to organize a confab parroting prefab guidelines for how to review books, influence the few, and otherwise eat your own tail. But when I espied a Great Publishing Professional sitting on the floor in a secret access area that I am not at liberty to reveal, I abdicated my seat to this valiant soldier and proudly cried out to the Great Publishing Professional (and others), “You, sir, have decided my fate. I shall cover this panel so that you, good sir, have a physical seat to do your work!” It’s possible that I left the room with a spin on my heel, my arms gliding with the desire to hold an umbrella and leap into the air. But I must confess that the opportunity to ridicule that mendacious puffball Carlin Romano was also too ripe to decline.

But here’s the big surprise. While the panel got off to a lumbering start — ten minutes of introductions (Romano’s, of course, being the longest), reiteration of NBCC wonkery, business serving in lieu of sleeping pills — I was surprised by how smooth it ran. Indeed, it would have been drastically improved had Carlin Romano, a man so in love with himself that he seemed to think the panel was entirely about him, been rolled into the Hudson River, attempting to deliver his gant-inducing gasbag banter with his nose just above water. America the Philosophical indeed!

The panel sprang from the froth of an uncooked souffle concerning whether a universal code of reviewing ethics should be adopted to combat the “Wild West” feel of outlets that were online and offline, print and digital, short form or long form, missionary or doggy style, coffee or tea, and any other dichotomy that comes to mind when overthinking an insoluble problem in needlessly complicated terms. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan seemed to flail against this right out of the gate.

“Why would you want to read a review that was so flensed of bias that it was almost written by an automaton?” she said. She pointed out that the late, great critic John Leonard accompanied Toni Morrison to the Nobel Awards and that seeing how an interesting mind reacted to a book outweighed issues of partiality. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sign on to any kind of contract that required me to leave my biases at the door. My biases have made me worthwhile as a critic.”

After Carlin Romano rattled off points he had delivered in 2007 (and, as a source informed me, reportedly identical to a recent Romano appearance at a biographer’s conference and thus not particularly reportable here), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal stepped in to rescue the discussion from these unnecessary displays of narcissism. Citing Virginia Woolf’s reviews, Sehgal pointed to the idea of a critic creating a shared space for newer writers. Sehgal was not only the sharpest panelist, but she also valued criticism as a passionate place for expressive possibilities.

But The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein looked to criticism as a place for bright iconoclastic writing. He bemoaned “when a book review editor assigns a novel to a young novelist. I think that creates an impossible conflict of interest.” He stood against what he deemed “tepid, polite reviews.”

I am not entirely sure why agent Eric Simonoff was on the panel, but he did feel that readers of book reviews and blurbs were “pretty smart.” And he agreed with Stein that the “logrolling in our time” that has crept into a few recent publications needed to be avoided. Because this was precisely what a smart reader would detect. “When you feel the tepid poetry of someone who doesn’t want to give offense, you’re reading between the lines.”

Sehgal seemed surprised by much of this. She saw criticism as its own pleasure. “To miss the chance to write an interesting piece of writing for its own sake is what’s done.”

I have neglected to note the contributions of moderator Marcela Valdes, who I really wanted to hear more from. But she was obliged to read back recent responses from an NBCC survey on ethics. Two starkly different responses provided a conversational starting point. The first: “I think that even a very casual acquaintance can inspire undue generosity or vitriol.” The second: “I think the idea that there can be a permanent hermetic seal between author and reviewer is an ideal.” (To be clear, an impossible ideal.)

Addressing these points, Sehgal saw no problem with biases or connections, provided they were explicitly stated in the review.

Romano then raised his impatient finger, beckoning for attention like an impatient five-year-old talent show contestant who wanted to play his violin first.

“There’s one feeling I have after years of thinking,” said Romano. “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” He pointed to “the very short memoir about the Sri Lanka woman who lost her family.”

“Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave,” cried out the more informed majority in the audience.

“How do you review a book like that if it’s bad?” asked Romano, who clearly had not considered the plentiful finesse established by countless critics over the last few decades. But Romano wanted to matter. He had played his violin. Now he hoped to inveigle the crowd with a few bluntly thrown Molotovs. This was BEA! This was Romano’s Moment!

“Any biases can be overcome by ruthless honesty,” said Romano. “A best friend could write a devastating review of a friend and lose that friend.” Thus, in Romano’s view, objectivity was not possible.

This led Maureen Corrigan, bless her heart, to push back against this hogwash.

“You’re not reviewing the Holocaust,” replied Corrigan. “You’re not reviewing the tsunami. We’re reviewing the book.”

Romano, clearly not listening to Corrigan, then tried to pull himself out of the choppy waters he had created for himself by suggesting that a reviewer might write that the author of a tsunami memoir “should have gone under the waves also.” It was telling how swiftly such blunt asininity sprang from the Great Carlin’s lips.

Lorin Stein had more interesting things to say about being provocative: in large part because his finger appeared more firmly on the pulse of recent newspaper developments. He and Simonoff both noted how outlets had declined in recent years. But Stein saw an equivalency between a blurb and a tepid review. “There are bad books that need to be shut down and that seems to me a very important service to do,” said Stein.

But I think Seghal best comprehended why a review’s identity was so important. “There are some reviewers I read,” said Seghal, “because I want to know how your mind works. I want to be in a space with you.”

Valdes then asked the panelists if there were any hard and fast rules. “You really have to read the whole book,” said Romano. Stein disagreed with this, suggesting that better reviews might be honed if the reviewer wrote about why she didn’t read the whole book. He wanted to avoid writing performed by people who clearly weren’t critics. Seghal was committed to getting the facts right. Corrigan wanted a review to consider a book on its own terms.

“Actually,” added Stein, “a black author said to me, ‘Goddammit, you have to stop reviewing bald white guys. If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive away readers.'”

“In some ways,” said Corrigan, “writing the short review is writing poetry.”

With that sentiment in mind, here is a haiku devoted to Carlin Romano:

Vested man falling
Ground below, boiler plate, ouch
Can’t repeat the past

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.