Last night, Molly asked me this question: If you could be any author, who would it be?
Which is to say, Whose writing would I most like to emulate? But also, Who would I like to be?—which is a very different question. Feel free to leave a comment and answer it for yourself.
For my part, I’m reading The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard right now; it’s been on the nightstand for months. Last night, I read a passage in which a man on a boat surveys the post-Second World War ruins of Asia: There was a “narrow harbour,” for instance, and “small bleached mountains.” And then this:
“He was aware of some consequential element that he had not identified. And with indifference realised it was beauty.”
On the next page, Our Hero disapprovingly considers his living quarters: “There was a century here of obscure imperial dejection: a room of listless fevers. Of cafard, ennui, and other French diseases. The encrusted underside of glory.”
This is not bad writing exactly, just dated and pretentious in a way I have no desire to emulate. But being Shirley Hazzard—that would be all right, I suppose.
In the end, though, I would love to be Ciaran Carson. I would love to be a poet, a master of prose, a translator, a musician. I would love for my writing to successfully encompass as many genres, geographies, areas of knowledge and artistic endeavor as his does.
In Shamrock Tea, Carson writes of two children who, with the aid of the psychotropic concoction referred to in the title, are able to enter the 1434 Jan Van Eyck painting, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (pictured above). Later in the book, crazy Uncle Celestine opens a briefcase and removes from it a volume titled The Van Eycks.
This, then, is Chapter 18, “Milk.”
On the cover of the book was a reproduction of the painting Berenice and I had entered. I stared at it, fascinated.
Ah, the Arnolfini, said Celestine. Since the theory that the painting represents a marriage contract is open to reproach, let us not call it the Arnolfini Wedding, but the Arnolfini Double Portrait. A masterpiece of illusion, is it not? Look how van Eyck has rendered the main figures. Note the textures of the man’s dark crimson-purple velvet tabard, or heuque, trimmed with sable, over a satin damask doublet worked in arabesques and leaf shapes, grey on black, culminating in the cuffs of silver braid on a purple background, the right cuff tied with a silver-tipped scarlet lace. He wears purple hose and boots. Note the hat: the best hats in the world were made in Bruges.
As for the lady, she wears an elaborately folded, fluted white linen headdress, and fine gold chains around her neck; over an underdress of hyacinth blue damask, whose sleeves are gathered at the wrists into bands of gold and pink brain, an emerald green wool ermine-trimmed gown is gathered up and held across her rounded stomach, so that you might think her pregnant, but she is very definitely not, for van Eyck, in his Dresden triptych of 1437, depicts the virgin St Catherine in similar fashion.
Celestine rapidly flicked through The Van Eycks till he came to the relevant plate. There was no doubt about it. The two images were based on the same model, or they were identical twins; they maintained the same pose; and even their gowns, as they fell to the floor, adopted the same folds, in the work of Jan van Eyck, said Celestine, nothing is accidental. We must therefore assume that the history of Catherine of Alexandria was not far from the artist’s mind when he painted the Arnolfini Double Portrait.
I have a special devotion to St Catherine myself, admitted Celestine, for she is the patron saint of books. It is said that St Catherine, when pursuing her philosophical studies in the legendary Alexandrian library, was granted a vision of our Lady and the Holy Child, who directed her hand towards a holy book she would not otherwise have opened. By this means she was converted to Christianity, and became its most sophisticated advocate. When the Emperor Maxentius began his persecution, Catherine, still only eighteen years old, rebuked him in person for his tyranny.
Maxentius, failing to answer her arguments against his gods, summoned fifty philosophers to oppose her. After seven days’ debate, the philosophers confessed her logic to be irrefutable. They were therefore burned to death by the incensed emperor. Then, overwhelmed by her beauty, he offered her a consort’s crown, which she scornfully refused, for she belonged to no earthly king. He commanded her to be torn to bits on a spiked wheel; but this instrument, through angelic intervention, broke asunder, impaling many of the spectators. When she was finally beheaded, milk instead of blood flowed from her severed veins.
As depicted by van Eyck, Catherine holds a sword in one hand; the other grasps an open book, on which is placed a crown.
The Dresden triptych, said Celestine, was painted three years after the Arnolfini Double Portrait; yet when I regard Arnolfini’s lady with her hand in his, I cannot help but see the ghost of a sword, a book and a crown. I am confused by time. For time, as St Augustine puts it, is merely an extension: of what, he does not know, until he answers himself, an extension of the mind itself.
Also pretentious? Fine. Too digressive? For some, perhaps. But Carson’s writing—which owes much to Borges and Calvino and yes, even Van Eyck—is steeped in storytelling and rewards patience and an attention to connections. (In the work of Carson, nothing is accidental.) Also an attention to language. Notice how the emperor, in burning people at the stake, is “incensed,” a word derived from the same root as “incendiary.” Once a poet . . .
ADDITIONALLY: To see Van Eyck's St. Catherine, go here.