Tag Archives: muse

Review: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

Standard

When the renowned painter Robert Oliver attempts a brutal attack on a painting in a gallery, he is institutionalized under the care of the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, where he retreats into a sullen and complete silence. Marlowe, who in his fifties lives a reasonably contented life with little upheaval, finds himself inexplicably drawn to his patient’s case. The mystery of Robert Oliver’s outburst, as well as his charisma and extraordinary expertise, have an unusual effect on Marlowe. To his own surprise, he begins to take an unprecedented, even unprofessional, interest in the case.

All Marlowe knows about why Oliver brandished a knife at a painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda’s rape by a swan is that it has something to do with the enigmatic woman who fills sketch after sketch and canvas after canvas of Oliver’s work at the institution, as well as something to do with the antique bundle of French letters he keeps re-reading. The more Marlowe observes Oliver, the more he too becomes entranced with this otherworldly muse.

Thus begins a pursuit of an answer to the mystery that deepens into a pursuit of the truth itself and the setting aright of historic injustice. From the Washington gallery where it all began, Marlowe’s research takes him first to other American cities, then as far as France and Mexico. In order to unravel the secret of Oliver’s muse, he relies on what the artist’s other women – his ex-wife Kate and recent lover Mary – can tell him. The quest becomes the central force of Marlowe’s life.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a novel about this obsession, and others. It is also a novel about possession – the ways in which inspiration and desperation can make us act beyond our wills and radically alter the trajectories not just of our lives, but of history itself. And although it lacks a sense of urgency or tight plotting, and too often gives in to small failings like over-description and meaningless detours, in the yearning of its characters, a clear sense of their passions is evoked. And this is ordinary yearning – only Oliver, whose genius sets him apart anyway, suffers from longing that is anything other than human, daily, and universal. The power of art transforms even the most commonplace of lives.

While it does suffer from some flaws in execution, and could have been more powerful in the hands of a more creative writer, The Swan Thieves is certainly recommended as a light yet absorbing read. At nearly 600 pages it provides several days’ worth of entertainment for the reader who enjoys a mellow mix that’s neither too literary nor too lowbrow. Although written in an unremarkable pedestrian style, and ultimately far too predictable to really qualify as a mystery, there is something both engrossing and satisfying about this book. It is as though the inscrutable Robert Oliver and his muse exert their spell over the reader as much as they do over Marlowe; we cannot help but be rapt.

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

Standard

When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.