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“We are speaking for our lives”: Carole Maso’s The Art Lover

In the first two brief chapters of Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover (North Point Press, 1990), we watch a happy family of four—Alison, Candace, and their parents—at play on a beach on a lake in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. These two chapters actually represent the novel that Caroline, the narrator of The Art Lover, is in the midst of writing at the moment when her father dies and she must leave her residence at the Cummington Art Colony and return to New York City to attend to his estate. Her father, Max, was an art historian and professor and is one of several art lovers in Maso’s novel. When she first returns to his apartment and walks among his large library, his paintings, his papers, and even the women’s shoes left in his closet, remnants of his many lovers, she begins to talk to him, which she will do at length throughout the novel. After the very early death of Caroline’s mother, whom Max adored, Max became a distant father, chasing women in a futile effort to find a woman who could equal her. Caroline tells Max (and us) what she has been doing recently. She went to film school for awhile. “I wanted to make documentaries. I wanted to gather evidence. I wanted to record the truth.” But in the end she came back to writing. “I missed language. I missed words.”

I am a big fan of The Art Lover because it is many novels in one. It is a great New York City novel. It’s a novel about art. It’s a novel about the AIDS crisis. It’s a novel filled with photographs, reproductions of artworks, and other kinds of imagery. And it’s a novel about writing a novel. The first time I wrote about The Art Lover in 2016, I was reading a later edition that used Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, ca. 1666-68 on the cover. While two Vermeer paintings are reproduced in The Art Lover (not, however, The Art of Painting), it’s much more appropriate that the true first edition (shown above) reproduces a detail from Giotto’s Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere), ca. 1304-06, one of the series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Excerpts from this painting are reproduced four times in Maso’s novel, and the subject of this painting and the Arena Chapel play key roles in the book. In addition to the obvious allusion of not touching anyone in the early days of AIDS for fear of catching the AIDS “plague,” “noli me tangere,” which is generally translated from the Latin as “touch me not,” also seems to refer to Caroline’s attempt to get some distance from her feelings so that she can better understand the complicated relationship she had with her father when he was alive. And it also refers to her need to write.

I am going to write now. It is a way of telling the truth. Or nearing the truth.
The absolute truth? The literal truth?
Well, yes. Well, no. But something of the whole. Something of what it means to be alive.
I think of the family of father and mother, of two daughters, Candace and Alison, just a word picture for now.
Writing too can keep the world at a distance. One uses “one” instead of “I.”

Giotto. Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere). From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06

In the novel that Caroline is writing, the older daughter, Alison, visits the Arena Chapel and appears to have a conversation with Jesus, who comments on his mother Mary as she is depicted in the fresco of the Nativity scene.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” he asks, gazing off.
“Why is she so sad?”
“I will die in an oven in Auschwitz. I will be humiliated and killed in Soweto. I will suffer with a young woman who swallows pill after pill, seeing no way out.”
What are you talking about?” Alison thinks.
“I will die a horrendous death over and over and over again from a plague in the late twentieth century.”

Giotto. Nativity. From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06.

The central plot point of the novel that Caroline is writing comes when the father walks out on his family to live with a much younger woman with whom he has become besotted, much to the disgust and anger of his two daughters. Caroline seems to be taking out her somewhat buried feelings about her own father in the attitudes that she gives Candace and Alison to their errant father. She can’t seem to be angry with him when she talks to his absence in his old apartment. Instead, she speaks to him through her novel-in-progress.

The Art Lover is a blend of memories, conversations with the dead, reactions to real events (e.g., the AIDS crisis and the space shuttle Challenger disaster), and Caroline’s novel-within-the-novel. But Caroline’s ability to hold everything together comes to a head about halfway through the novel, when her close friend, the artist Steven, checks himself into St. Vincent’s hospital. He has AIDS. Steven is a stand-in for Carole Maso’s real friend, the artist Gary Falk, and it is is Falk’s art which is reproduced in the book as Steven’s (a nice extension on my previous three posts about artists invented by writers). Steven’s illness further fragments Caroline’s narrative and causes past and present to elide and the dead to come alive. (It is no surprise that Caroline’s previous novel was titled Delirium.) Jesus has conversations with Candace and Alison. Caroline has a conversation with her dead father that lasts more than ten pages. Carole Maso even drops all pretense of writing a novel several times and writes directly about her relationship with Gary Falk. Maso’s novel ought to be going into free fall by now, but instead it only seems to get richer.

Gary Falk, untitled, n.d.

As Caroline/Carole goes through hell with the increasing illness of Steven/Gary, she can’t help but think of how happy the two friends were growing up and of her recent ecstatic love affair with a married man at the Cummington Art Colony. “Was it our mistake,” Carole asks Gary, “that we loved everything so much?

This is book number 8 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.
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