Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion: THE DEGAS MANUSCRIPT and BEAUTY AND TERROR by Brian A. Oard

My art historical mystery novel The Degas Manuscript and my book of art criticism Beauty and Terror: Essays on the Power of Painting are now both available as Kindle e-books at Readers interested in good writing about great art should check them out.

As a little tease, here's the prologue and the beginning of chapter one of The Degas Manuscript:

     They threw her body into the river at the Quai Saint Bernard. The black water swallowed her with barely a splash, and she spun toward its depths like a stick of driftwood, trailing a veil of bubbles downward into darkness. When buoyancy bounced her to the surface again, ten feet from the quai, the only sound was the crackle of carriage wheels on gravel as the men drove away.

She floated face-up, sightless eyes open to the sky. Tiny waves slapped her body as she drifted toward the bridges at the end of the Ile St. Louis. Her blonde hair fanned out on the water like the tentacles of an exotic sea creature, some squid or octopus caught in the nets off Tahiti and shipped to Paris for display in the markets at Les Halles. One fair tentacle reached out and entangled a floating cigar end, a brown stub that still bore the toothmarks of the solitary stroller who had absent-mindedly flicked it off the Pont D’Austerlitz half an hour earlier during his journey from somewhere to somewhere in the city at night.

The river branched into channels and the current quickened. She was drawn under the bridges, past the island of silent mansions and toward the Ile de la Cité, where the low walls of the Morgue stood sentinel before the soaring buttresses of Notre Dame. Pulled by contending currents, her body was tossed for a time against the embankment below the Morgue, her arm and forehead striking the cold stone again and again as if obstinately demanding entry. Ultimately, the swifter current prevailed and she floated spinning like a pinwheel along the southern edge of the Cité. She spun past Notre Dame, its towers rising into blackness; past the large barracks that faced the cathedral and seemed equally silent and uninhabited; under the Pont St. Michel, stamped with the wreathed N’s of the ruling Bonapartes; past the Palais de Justice, the Préfecture de Police and the blood-stained prison of the Conciergerie; under the Pont Neuf, where an empty bottle tossed from the bridge splashed and bobbed near her head; past Henri IV sitting obliviously astride his bronze horse, and into the wider, calmer waters at the end of the island.

For a long time, her body bounced against the sides of barges and bathing platforms moored along the quais. And then she floated onward, under the bare metal frame of the Pont des Arts and along the endless, gaslight-splashed walls of the Louvre. The shattered, shimmering reflection of the palace walls in the river bathed her in the sparkle of a thousand yellow diamonds.

The current drew her body down, pulled her into the darkness, into an alien world. But the flitting fish seemed accustomed to her species, not frightened as they darted above and below her body and passed through the flowing folds of her gown. She floated with the fish past a massive bridge pier that stood like a lone, ruined tower in a land of inky blackness. She was dragged down until her shoulder hit the bottom, stirring an invisible cloud of gravel and mud. She bounced upward, began to rise, but her motion was checked by a jagged pile of refuse, a mound of old wood and fragments of stone thrown off the bridge two years before when a wagon overturned during Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of the Louvre. Her arm caught on a board jutting out from the pile, and her body curled around this piece of wood, enclosing it in a lifeless embrace. Its sharp nails snagged her dress and held her motionless amidst the rushing water.

She hung suspended there for hours. The current eventually pulled her body horizontal and drew her arms out, but the dress remained caught on the nails. She seemed to ride the passing river as a falcon sails on waves of wind across the sky.

Slowly the river’s surface brightened into wavering day, and weak sunlight filtered down to find her lying there, unmoving in the ever-flowing water. The commotion of a passing boat pushed her body down and loosened the dress. But only when two paddlewheel steamboats splashed closely overhead, stirring the water to a froth, was she jarred completely free. She floated up to break the surface on a sunny Paris morning.

The current carried her past the Tuileries Palace and its adjoining garden, where top hatted promenaders trod on their shadows in the morning light. Near the Pont de la Concorde, she was caught in the wake of a boat ferrying tourists from the Louvre to the Universal Exposition. Her body was set spinning by its force, turning clockwise with arms and legs outspread. On the bridge, a well-dressed man leaned over the rail and rubbed a wind-blown cinder from his eye. The girl’s legs floated into the reflection of his top hat as if attempting to kick it off.

She drifted under the bridge and past the lush green trees of the Champs-Elysées. She proceeded slowly, rising and falling in the water. When she passed the garden of the Invalides and reached the Pont de l’Alma, she looked like a sleeper floating face-up on a watery bed, but a sleeper with eyes open and far past awakening. She would not be jarred into consciousness by the piercing screams of the Englishwoman who paused on her way to the Exposition, looked down into the smoky mirror of the Seine, and saw the eyes of a young girl staring back at her.

My Dear Manet,

Yes, I am telling this story to you, my dear fellow and sometime-friend. Now that you have been dead for three decades, my secrets should be safe with you. Listen closely. Did you enjoy that introductory lyrical effusion? I wrote it entirely for your benefit. You were always a great admirer of poetic morbidity, especially when it flowed from your friend Baudelaire. (I remember the day you took me to see Baudelaire in the nursing home; that sad afternoon will be part of this story.) But I can confess to you now that I never shared your poetic enthusiasms, and the process of writing those preceding three pages has caused my estimation of poets to sink even lower. It is easy, Edouard–too easy–to rhapsodize about the beautiful and the dead.

For mine is a story of beauty and death, of art and murder, and of you and me. It is the answer (long delayed; forgive me) to the question you asked outside the old Opera at the end of that summer masked ball back in 1867. Do you remember? Of course you don’t. Your memories are dust now, like the skull that contained them. You asked me who the killer was, and I lied to you. Now I have finally decided to tell you the truth, to answer your question honestly and in detail. My answer (and the reason I lied) can only be understood when the story has been told in its entirety, so I must write the whole thing, from the day I held her body in my arms to the day we both traveled out to Asnières and saw our futures floating in the river.

It’s a mystery story, then, like those of your beloved Edgar Poe. I still have the volume of Poe you gave me many years ago. It’s lying on my desk right now in the same condition as those unfortunate victims in the author’s ‘Rue Morgue’: spine broken, skin torn, insides spilling out. But I guess none of us is what we used to be. Berthe, Caillebotte, and even The Immortal Pissarro are all dead; Renoir is a cripple; Monet, your dark doppelganger, is almost as blind as I am; and as for Mary, the rich American–well, noon is like midnight for her, too. Why does age so often attack painters in the eyes? Are we all like Oedipus, cruelly punished for some unknown transgression? (You have made the Odyssean journey to the Underworld, Edouard, so answer me, answer me.) Simply to see these words as I write them, I’m forced to bend down until my eyes are almost resting on the surface of the paper (this hurts my back, but that’s another volume of stories), and if I could see well enough to catch my reflection in the studio mirror I would probably be mildly amused at the sad irony of the spectacle: the famous artist, the highly respected draftsman, rendered incapable of drawing anything, reduced to wasting good paper by covering it with words.

I try to resist the tar pit of self-pity, but sometimes it’s insufferably boring to be a blind and bitter old man. It’s a hellish kind of life when half the world hates you and the other half are damned fools.

To the story, then, the mystery. I’m sure you remember the day it begins, the day I visited your exhibition on the Place de l’Alma. It was the last week of May in 1867. Across the river from you on the Champ de Mars, Napoleon III’s Universal Exposition was drawing hordes (or should I say ‘herds’?) of tourists from around the world, but very few of those cattle wandered into your little building to see the show you mounted in protest when the officials refused to hang your paintings in the Exposition Palace. It was a pleasant, sunny day, but was it a Tuesday or Wednesday? Or Thursday? I can’t recall. I do know that before leaving my studio I would have paused to play Narcissus for a moment, checking my image in the mirror. What did I see? A young bourgeois in a black frock coat and top hat, a painter who dressed like the wealthy banker’s son he was. Yes, I’m beginning to see myself now. I was 33 that year and looked even younger, although in some undefinable way I already felt like an old man. Because my deep-set eyes gave me an expression people considered ‘melancholy’ and ‘Romantic,’ I was in the midst of a multi-year campaign to erase this Italian inheritance from my face. For fifteen or twenty minutes every morning I would stand before the mirror and direct at my reflection gazes that were ‘piercing,’ ‘ironic,’ even ‘furious,’ and which no soft-hearted soul would dare call ‘Romantic.’ My efforts were at best an incomplete success, and as I stood there that morning I surveyed through ‘sleepy’ eyes the fashionably loose cut of my coat, the immaculate white of my shirt collar, the carefully careless appearance of my cravat. I admired the way my face-framing fringe of black beard looked like a chin strap attached to my hat. And I was satisfied that the image in the mirror agreed substantially with the recent self-portrait hanging beside it on the wall....

To continue reading, purchase the Kindle e-book at Amazon.

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