Reading is something I used to do. That is, before life was recently upended in May and June. Five books a month is my usual standard, but I’ll be lucky if I finish one this month. No time to read because, um, this (see – I found a way to sneak in a puppy picture!)
But I think about reading. Too tired to actually open a book at the end of the day but in those last moments before sleep I half-dream about the unalloyed joy of books I’ve read, books I’m reading, books I will someday read. And the other night, my pre-sleep dream was of a quartet of paintings from books I’ve read. We all know that art imitates life, but sometimes art imitates art, too. Perhaps the best-known of these in recent memory is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, wherein a seventeenth-century painting by Dutch master Carel Fabritius plays the title role:
Tartt aptly quotes Nietzsche in her book – which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction – saying “We have art in order not to die from the truth”. Nietzsche probably had a more profound truth in mind than mine, which is scooping puppy surprises from the lawn all day and evading her little shark teeth, but I greatly appreciate his sentiments. And I would probably never have known the existence of Fabritius’ painting if not for Tartt’s book.
Another painting that escaped my notice until recently is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, featured prominently in Ohio by Stephen Markley. Markley, who reminds me of a Thomas Wolfe in desperate search of his Maxwell Perkins, has everything including the kitchen sink in his ambitious debut novel. I don’t know if I can recommend the book, but I appreciated learning about the painting, which features an alarmed “angel of history” stepping backwards from the present into the future. The painting is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusale
Perhaps my most cherished novel that features paintings is A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. In this masterpiece of fiction are two masterpieces of art. Early on in the book, the protagonist Alessandro travels to Germany just to visit Raphael’s Portrait of Bindo Altoviti before going off to fight in World War I (The painting is now held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Later he sneaks away from training in Mestre for a day in Venice, where he goes to the Gallerie dell’Accademia to view La Tempesta by fifteenth century Italian master Giorgione.
Helprin’s genius is such that these paintings enliven the book just as its human characters do. At one point Alessandro’s father, ill in the hospital, asks him:
“And how does God speak to you?”
“In the language of everything that is beautiful”, is Alessandro’s answer.
The fate of an entire family revolves around a painting – this time a fictional one – in British author Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers. I recently listened to this wonderfully human, gossipy guilty pleasure of a novel and loved every minute of it. The cover art associated with the book is an impressionistic painting called The Shell Collectors by an artist named Robert Williams, but I will always think of it as being the painting that was willed to protagonist Penelope Keeling by her father.
Art in literature is like a chocolate-covered cherry – two desserts in one bite. So very yummy! Revisiting these books has inspired me to stay awake just a bit longer tonight and read at least a few pages. There’s still one day left in the month to finish a book!