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Posts from the ‘Mark Haber’ Category

The Italics of Disdain

Can we talk about italics for a minute? In the last two books that I have written about here on Vertigo, both authors have used italics in what I think of as the italics of disdain. It’s a way of making clear to the reader that the speaker or narrator dislikes or wishes to distance himself or herself from the very set of words he or she is uttering.

In Mark Haber’s book Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, for example, a novel about two art historians, the Austrian-born Schmidt looks down his nose on his colleague simply for being American. The narrator tells us how Schmidt laid into him one day: “I couldn’t help myself being American, he hastened to add, I’d been stunted and impaired and because of this geographic shortcoming, I suffered a lack of nutrients readily found in the ancient soils of Europe, Austria especially, its soil as dark and rich and awash with history as one could ever dream of, the complete inverse of the anemic American soil on which I’d regrettably been raised, he’d said, a wasteland, he’d called it, a revolting abyss, he’d added.” Here, we not only have several instances where Schmidt cringes from the very words he is forced to tell his American colleague—detestable words like “wasteland” and “revolting abyss“—but we have an example of one italicized phrase—”ancient soils of Europe“—that serves as the exact opposite from the italics of disdain. These are the italics of triumph, the sound of slapping down the winning hand, of showing up the poor schlub who has forced you to say all these distasteful things.

Anyone who has read the novels of Thomas Bernhard will recognize even in this partial sentence that Haber is paying homage to the great Austrian writer in Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, not least through his similar use of italics, but also in the sentence construction of non-stop short clauses (and I’ve only quoted less than half of the original sentence) and the repeated insertion of variants of “he said,” to remind us that the narrator is telling us his own, possibly rephrased version of what Schmidt said to him.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory has an omniscient narrator, which is quite a bit different than having a known character as a narrator. Omniscient narrators are generally neutral, but Houellebecq’s narrator likes to use italics to point out whenever any of the book’s characters speak in clichés or use phrases that seem faddish. Here’s the narrator commenting on the main character Jed Martin, an artist: “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Characters are chastised on the page for uttering trite phrases such as “a genuine human drama” or a “stupefyingly strong desire” or for using tired business phrases like “core target.” Sometimes the narrator makes fun of his own choice of words when even he resorts to clichés, as he does here in writing about one aging couple: “You could say that they still had some beautiful years ahead of them.” Houellebecq seems to be in love with italics in The Map & the Territory, using them to emphasize words and phrases, to indicate foreign words, and sometimes simply to make a point.

Thomas Bernhard was a master of italics of all kinds. Beginning with his second novel, Gargoyles (1967), his narrators begin using italics with increasing frequency, at first just for emphasis or little cries of anguish over the annoyances of the world. But by mid-career, there seem to be moments in every novel when his narrators just drip with disdain for whomever they are talking about or to, as Bernhard targeted pretensions of every sort throughout Austrian society and government. In Woodcutters (1984), his satiric novel about a literary dinner party, the narrator makes fun of the pretensions of the hosts by referring to the event as an “artistic dinner” on innumerable occasions throughout the book (lest we forget!). And he skewers one of the hosts for the “vulgar and repellent” way in which she continually refers to someone as “altogether the most important actor and the greatest living actor, an assessment with which the narrator apparently disagrees” Later on, the narrator snidely notices that an actor at the dinner party pronounced the phrase “dream role” “as though it denoted some culinary delicacy.” When the dinner ends, the narrator flees towards his home, determined to begin writing the first sentences of what will become the tell-all novel that we have just finished, letting the italics of urgency pile on. “And as I went on running I thought: I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, nowat once, at once, before it’s too late.”

Bernhard’s narrators also loathe colloquialisms, even as they frequently resort to using them. On the opening page of The Loser, his novel about the pianist Glenn Gould, the narrator writes: “while now of course he didn’t kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.” Later on: “The Wertheimers have always lived, as the saying goes, in grand style.” Or: “the three of us were, as one can say, friends for life.” It’s a way for the narrator to simultaneously use a cliché and allow the italics to let the reader know that he’s holding his nose while he utters it. Toward the end of the book, the narrator (and Bernhard) vents his spleen toward both the Austrian people and its government: “They all wanted a socialist government, I said, but now they see that precisely this socialist government has squandered everything, I purposely pronounced the word squandered more clearly than all the others, I wasn’t even ashamed of having used it at all, I repeated the word squandered a few more times with regard to our bankrupt state and our socialist government. . . Never before in its history has our country sunk so low, I said. . .”

Thomas Bernhard. Gargoyles. NY: Knopf, 1970. Translated from the 1967 German original by Richard and Clara Winston.
Thomas Bernhard. The Loser. NY: Knopf, 1991. Translated from the 1983 German original by Jack Dawson. Thomas Bernhard. Woodcutters. NY: Knopf, 1987. Translated from the 1984 German original by David McLintock

“Art is our religion”: Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”

The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.

To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”

In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.

But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”

Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”

The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”

Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.

It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.