Saturday, April 17, 2010

Writers on the wall

A local outlet of one of the major chain bookshops displays in its café two murals of great writers at a café of their own, coffee being almost as serious a pursuit as Literature.

Alone among the depicted authors, John Steinbeck shows something approaching a healthy complexion. He also smiles knowingly and raises an eyebrow at William Faulkner, who gazes out over the spectators' heads, as remote as Jesus in Piero della Francesca's Resurrection.

At the next table, I.B. Singer smiles and Pablo Neruda rubs his chin (his own, not Singer's) and daydreams with a vague, insinuating grin. And that's it for anything like gaiety or amusement. The rest of the gang is pasty-faced, green and sullen. That may be fine for Henry James, but James Joyce? Dorothy Parker? Oscar Wilde, for the love of God?

Why is this? Great writers create worlds, and since when does the world not include laughter, fun, and skin that looks as if blood has recently circulated beneath it? Why did Barnes & Noble choose to depict the authors as such a solemn, worried lot, like Thomas Hart Benton (top) or George Tooker (left)?

In post-literate America, writing, at least of the Serious Literary variety, apparently retains a vestigial aura of solemnity and awe even as the folks in the real café below the mural read the New Yorker, Symptoms and Remedies and Obsessive Compulsive Order for Dummies, not a novel in sight.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Maybe it's just the way painters see writers. And perhaps the reverse is true as well. Although I don't know this story first hand, a friend who has just been visiting Nice and made the trek to the Cezanne museum there tells me that Zola used his friend Cezanne as the model for a story about a painter who committed suicide in front of his canvas. Their friendship apparently foundered after that. No big surprise there, I think.

v word: squidges

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe it's my bit of art history that suggests the patron, in this case the bookstore, played some role in the choice of style and subject. These murals may reflect the way the bookstore or its parent corporation see writers as much as they reflect how painters see them.

I have heard that Zola/Cezanne story. Zola wrote quite movingly of the nobility of character of Cezanne or a Cezanne-like character. They knew one another early, and their relations may have broken off before Cezanne became the supremely great painter that he did (I'm no big fan of his earliest painting.)

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

"Post-literate America"? Really? Even if the majority of people aren't all that fussed about books or don't read at all, hasn't it always been thus? Everywhere?

Cheers, Dec

April 17, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

post-literate America

Peter, if you're interested, I can get you a good deal on 'The end is nigh' signs.

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, if you're interested, I can get you a good deal on 'The end is nigh' signs.

Would anyone read them?

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, perhaps my usual sunny optimism about American culture was tempered by my recently having watched a talk show. Granted it was a talk show on which Stuart Neville appeared, but a preening, attention-calling, doggedly non-serious, follow-the-script-to-a-T American talk show nonetheless.

You may be right, though I can't speak to the situation outside America. One always hears that reading meant much in this or that society. Most recently. I've reading Nicolas Bouvier's The Way of the World, which notes, among other things, the vital interest of Persians in poetry and other literature. Of course, he wrote the book in the 1950s.

Post-literate? The 19th- and 20th-century world of the cafe depicted in the murals is certainly more literate than that of the 21st-century one in the real cafe below.

April 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Love Zola. Read some of his books years ago. And he wrote the phenomenal article that helped to free Dreyfus, as well as campaigned for his release.

Wonderful movie about him, "The Life of Emile Zola." See it if you haven't. A classic.

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, Zola might be on the wall, too.

I think the Zola-Cezanne story involved the young Cezanne defending the young Zola against bullies. And I know of "The Life of Emil Zola." I think that it may have won an Academy Award and that the award may have been for Paul Muni, who often played figured from history.

Nope, it won for best picture, though Muni was nominated for best actor.

April 17, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I started Germinal at some point awhile back, and though I got sidetracked from it for some reason, I thought the beginning was excellent. The translation must have been very good, because some moments of the story still remain very vivid.

April 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I, on the other hand, have never read him, I'm embarrassed to admit. To me, he's just a great personality and a noble personage.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Here's a translation of Zola's letter to the President of the Republic, entitled "J'accuse." It was published on the front page of a major Parisian daily paper in 1898. This prompted Dreyfus's retrial, subsequent exoneration and reinstatement in the French Army. It took eight more years, though.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had never read that famous piece.

April 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Perhaps the detail from painter George Tooker’s “Subway,” 1950, is just a souvenir the bookstore picked up at the 2009 Tooker retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Are there recognizable authors in that painting? I thought it was just a visualization of the claustrophobic, uneasy subterranean world of the subway.)

I’ve read Zola’s “Nana” (1880) and “Au Bonheur des Dames” (1883). The latter is an early examination of consumerism and its corrosive effects on individuals (particularly personal relationships between the sexes) and society. Au Bonheur des Dames is modeled on the revolutionary Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché.

Abel Gance made a film about “l'affaire Dreyfus” – 1919’s “J’accuse!” It is fairly readily available and is screened periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

And speaking of Zola and authors and painters painting authors… Édouard Manet painted a very fine Portrait of Émile Zola (1868); now in the Musée d'Orsay.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I checked out that J'Accuse manifesto, and find myself wishing that there were any longer a place where someone with Zola's stature could make that kind of impact.

I do at least plan to read more Zola.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, the Tooker painting is not a souvenir from that exhibition, and I fear my post may have been confusing. I have no idea whether the Tooker painting or the Hart Benton are meant to depict recognizable individuals. Their mood, and not their subjects, connects them to the bookstore murals.

The Zola painting has some gorgeous, rich black in it. Manet did well with that color.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm afraid that the closest we have to Zola are Bono and "We Are the World."

April 19, 2010  

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