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The Art of Character
An Aesthetic Education and Other Stories
By Catharine Savage Brosman
(Green Altar Books, 2019)
Catharine Savage Brosman is highly respected for her elegant poetry as well as for her scholarship in French literature and Louisiana literature. She is professor emerita of French at Tulane University, having held the Gore Chair in French at that institution. After such a career, she might well sit back, relax, and enjoy the views she describes so well, a good cocktail in hand. Instead, she publishes this, a collection of seventeen short stories, every one of which contains an epiphany of human truth. I have not read so fine a work of American fiction in decades. The characters and situations in this book will remain with me for the rest of my life.
There is a cast of characters who reappear in the stories, including the same narrator throughout, almost producing the effect of a novel—except for the fact that the stories are not organized chronologically in the life of the narrator. The result is a kaleidoscopic revelation of the narrator herself as a character. She is a painter and a professional art historian working as a curator at a fictional New Orleans art museum, frequently traveling to France and Austria for work and for pleasure. And then there is the American Southwest, a magical place to which she loves to withdraw for camping and hiking expeditions. The atmospheres of all these venues are conjured up with a combination of piercing insight, aesthetic sensibility of the highest order, and sheer sensual experience, all conveyed in prose that is revelatory in a nearly Proustian fashion. This is not merely a poet’s prose, although there are poetically charged passages; it is the fully developed artistic medium of a master of fiction.
In dealing with the art and museum worlds, Brosman presents a panoply of pretentious, even completely phony poseurs, at least one of whom is outright psychotic (in “A Little Nightcap,” a terrifying yet amusing story that is a unique variation on the mystery genre). Such persons are rife in these areas, especially at a time when there are no accepted standards for what is “beautiful” or “good,” and yet certain “postmodern theories”—usually just cited as “theory,” as if they were the only ones in existence—command lip service from young scholars hoping to gain tenure in academia or prestigious curatorial positions in the museums. Norma Wurmser, in “Virtual Art,” is a perfect portrait of the type who succeeds in such an atmosphere. Despite a lack of solid knowledge about artistic photography, she manages to worm herself into the directorship of the museum’s photography department and goes on to dominate her colleagues by organizing a conference on the bogus topic “Indo-European Technological Evidence on Women and Art.” The mere use of the word women ensures that even the suspicious director of the museum cannot say no.
Then there is the wonderful Julius Wallace in “The Thomas Grant,” clumsy, awkward, hyper-anxious (with a flying phobia, for example), yet a true scholar of Mesopotamian and other ancient art. His colleagues, seeing past the surface to the man’s underlying sincerity and admiring his undoubted scholarship, band together to help him obtain travel money in response to an invitation to pursue research in Europe. This character was painful for me, yet compelled a certain self-deprecatory enjoyment, because I am afraid I recognized certain of his characteristics in myself . . .
Another character whose portrait moves gently but rigorously inward, from surface to innermost soul, is that of Cyprien in “A Day with Cyprien.” The narrator meets with a French friend from thirty years ago, now a museum curator in Bordeaux, who comes up to Paris to see her. Together they visit a museum dedicated to the eighteenth century, displaying such painters as Hubert Robert and Francesco Guardi. But as the day unfolds, it is not memories or great art that galvanize Cyprien’s feelings and therefore the narrator’s enriched grasp of his nature, but a seemingly trivial incident, his loss of his glasses (one of several pairs he always carries with him). The day is transformed into a hunt for them through the labyrinthine Parisian Métro system, to no avail—until they appear, almost miraculously, perched on a car parked in the street. Cyprien must have dropped them, and some good Samaritan picked them up and placed them on the car. Cyprien’s relief is so great that his anxiety is transformed into a joy that even the ebullient capriccios of Guardi could not inspire in him.
And so Cyprien is “happy again,” liberated somehow to really enjoy the presence of his old friend. Have we not all been held captive by the demon anxiety over some trivial thing, which unawares had become a key symbol for us of our own being?
One way Brosman discloses her characters is through their clothing, as Gogol does in “The Overcoat.” But in the eponymous “An Aesthetic Education,” she tops the mark in her description of the “pink poodle lady.” This airhead appears at a bar frequented by the narrator and her friends in a dress of “Pepto-Bismol pink,” adorned with a huge poodle whose movements as she walks, sits, or stoops become indelible images of her surface character (apparently the only one she has). Eventually, to everyone’s amazement, she is hired and transformed by a gallery owner into an avant-garde artiste of impeccably awful taste. The development of this one is hilarious but returns joyfully to true beauty in the end as the narrator, back home, gratefully contemplates her own landscapes on the wall.
In the Southwestern stories, Brosman reaches the peak of her art. The three of these that moved me to the depths of my heart are “A Mirage on the Road,” “Petroglyphs,” and “Two Gray Hills.” The first gives us Carole Magnin, lone proprietress of a small guest ranch in the remote Colorado mountains. When the narrator comes upon her, she has hired a couple—a middle-aged man and a young woman—who have recently moved in and helped her enormously by renovating several of the aging, seedy cabins. Carole has invested her hopes for the future revival of this business in the help of the two. But she has misinterpreted them as people. They are wanderers, called by the road, and they abruptly desert her, although that is not how they see it. Carole is left with the realization that her hopes were a mere “mirage on the road,” and the evocation of her feeling is one of the finest things in this book.
At the end, Brosman does something that immediately brought me back to the classical Chinese poetry I study and translate, with a brilliant oblique closure, from the human heart off into nature: “I . . . looked past the trees, whose branches shook excitedly in the wind as if they were about to fly off. Beyond, rocky patches in the timber shone, brilliant, almost silvered, in the late morning sun.” In the eighth century, Chinese poet and painter Wang Wei (701–761), gives us this:
In Response to a Poem from Chamberlain Chang
In my late years, I’m only fond of peace;
The world’s affairs no longer touch my heart.
I look within: no further long-range plan,
I only know, return to the old woods.
Pine-breezes blow loose my waist-band;
The mountain moon shines as I play my lute.
You ask me, “What’s the secret of success and failure?”
—The fishermen’s songs sound far across the bay.
Chamberlain Chang in his original poem sent to the poet (now lost) must indeed have asked: How does one know whether one has succeeded or failed? Carole Magnin feels like a failure. Wang Wei has accepted the age-old Chinese option of purposeful withdrawal from the world of turmoil in quest of serenity. Yet when he directly addresses Chang’s question in the final couplet, he points us off to the bay, over which can be heard in the distance the singing of fishermen making their living at this humble trade. The question cannot be answered; meanwhile the world of nature and those who work within her continues, unaffected and beautiful.
“Petroglyphs” follows our narrator and an English couple who have lost their son to leukemia “in early adolescence” as they drive off the map in remote regions of the Four Corners. On the simplest level, the story is an exciting adventure, yet shot through with the poignancy of the couple’s terrible loss. It becomes unclear whether the three companions are lost, whether they will run out of gas. They eventually come upon a set of numinously radiant petroglyphs, perhaps a thousand years old. Hunters are shown, and a woman; between them is a child, a radiant sun above his head. Brought to tears, “Anne reached over and touched the stone just below the child’s figure, then put her fingers to her lips.” It is as if this ancient image of a child has blessed her and her husband, and somehow conveyed that their own beloved son has joined something beyond time and space.
The book ends with “Two Gray Hills.” Here, too, there is an element of mystery. The narrator and her English friends have driven to a campground near Chinle, a Navajo town in Arizona. They are approached there by an old Navajo man who tells them he had noticed their Louisiana license plate back at a gas station and had been able to trace their movements to the campground. But why in the world would he have done this? He explains that his daughter had left years ago for New Orleans. He has not heard from her since. (There may have been some sort of falling out between them.) Full of sincere emotion, he presents the narrator with a particularly valuable Navajo rug of the type known as Two Gray Hills. Learning that the daughter was a painter and potter, the narrator tells the father she may at least be able to make an effort to track her down, because she is herself an artist and museum curator. Upon returning to New Orleans, she succeeds in doing so and persuades the young woman to write to her father. At the narrator’s suggestion, she reconciles with her father and goes with her husband to visit him. They bring back to the narrator gifts from the Navajo father, and another Two Gray Hills rug of great value, which she hangs in her study next to the first. She loves “its stylized black shapes, suggesting the monumental basalt rock formations of the Four Corners, where I can imagine the crimson sun glowing at sunset, coloring the sky, like the thick blood of love.” The seemingly huge gaps between cosmopolitan New Orleans and the remote hills of the Arizona terrain, as well as between a seemingly constant past and an ever-changing present, have been transcended by a father’s love for his daughter, of which a Two Gray Hills rug is the perfect icon. Art becomes a bridge to the transcendent.
Jonathan Chaves is professor of Chinese at The George Washington University in Washington D.C.
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