LIVES OF THE ARTISTS by Robert Clark
publishing six books, I find I’ve written the ones that felt as though they
had to be written: Those stories that I was driven to write for my own
purposes, the bildungsromans--be they fiction, nonfiction, or
memoir--whereby I would explicate the text of my own life and discover the
ground of my labors as a person as much as a writer.
I could have made other, perhaps smarter choices. For example, in the
summers of 1987 and 88 I went house-hunting in Tuscany with a San Francisco
friend named Frances Mayes. She bought a house in Cortona, Italy, and wrote
a book about it. I went home and wrote books about St. Paul, Minnesota. But
that was my inner imperative: those books chose me, insisted on being
written. After they were done, I realized I got to choose. It sounds like
perfect freedom, doesn’t it? Write whatever you want. It’s a little like,
“What would you do if you had a million dollars, if you could do whatever
you wanted? If you felt you had a talent, a muse, to fulfill? While you’re
young?”. Not that that applied to me personally. I knew people at home in
Seattle to whom it did, some of them scarcely thirty-five years old. But you
have to write what you know; or, in my case, at least what you wish you
knew. It struck me I could, say, write a novel about, well, writing a novel;
or rather a novel that explores the value of writing novels at all. Or maybe
about how total freedom, artistic or otherwise, is problematic.
Yet that did not seem very exciting. Meanwhile, I kept traveling to Italy. I
had been writing a book about my ancestors, several of whom were arty New
England Transcendentalists who had been expatriates in Florence and Rome 150
ago; who had known Henry James there; who, in two cases, could claim with
some authority to have been the model for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a
Lady. I didn’t find much evidence of them there: Those arty expatriates
didn’t really penetrate into Italy itself or mix with Italians. I did go and
see Frances Mayes. She was exactly the same, only much happier and much
richer. She fed me perfect olives from the grove on her property. I could
have killed her.
So nothing very tangible came of that or subsequent trips to Italy. I did
briefly wonder what it would be like to set a Henry James novel in
contemporary expatriate Italy, in one of those hothouse Florentine villas
with chiaroscuro light. People it with wealthy neuroto-/eroticized
Americans—hip, creative types--and let them macerate together. But it was a
conceit, a concept, scarcely a story. But I kept returning. Really, when I
went to Italy it was always with the intention to garner inspiration, to
write something wise but pithy under the shade of a pergola. In fact, that
became my entire purpose in going, or so I told myself when I tallied the
deductions for my tax return. Of course I scarcely wrote a word in Italy.
That’s not to say Italy didn’t inspire or influence me. I ate and drank and
looked at art. I studied the language. I became a Catholic. I bought shoes.
But no credible ideas for fiction presented themselves. I threw myself into
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life during the time he was writing Tender is the
Night. It begins with him leaving St. Paul (by way of Paris and the Riviera)
for Rome. While in Rome, Fitzgerald went on a magnificent bender that
culminated in his being arrested and beaten up by the carabinieri and that
incident provided him with the original material for the novel.
Maybe I simply lacked that level of commitment to my art, but I wasn’t going
to let Italy inspire me that much. And events at home seemed more
compelling. Shortly after the millennium, some of those Microsoft retirees
began doing a little belt tightening; a year later, some were selling their
homes (or at least the ones they’d bought in Paris or Toddy); and as I
write, not a few of them are looking for, of all things, a job. A good
friend suggested I write about these people. I didn’t have any other ideas,
but I said, no, that doesn’t interest me. I can write about anything I want,
I explained, and at a minimum I want to write about art, about having an
artistic vocation and the burdens it imposes when you have total freedom. I
don’t want to write about a technological/business culture to whom art means
nothing. I almost said, How dare you? But this is a really good friend. Suit
yourself, she said.
Well, I had the last laugh. Not long after that the notion struck me, more
or less ex nihilo, for a novel, which I described in a précis as follows:
It’s the present day, or not quite, in Seattle. A married couple, liberal-
and fine-arts majors who after graduation took jobs in the software industry
“to get by”, find themselves by way of stock options rich enough to give up
working in their late-thirties. They decide to pursue the artistic vocations
they always believed they possessed but had postponed and, attracted by
another commonplace of their zeitgeist, to move to Tuscany, to Florence, to
do it. Once settled there in a small villa, they are joined by a recently
laid-off friend from Seattle who, among his feckless aspirations, believes
he might want to become his generation’s Walter Benjamin. Together they meet
and are befriended (though this is not perhaps the best word) by a rather
famous elderly American expatriate who has known (and often bedded) many of
the heroes of mid-Twentieth-century modernism.
This scenario perhaps suggests a comedy of manners in which expatriates
abroad get their comeuppance or a send-up of the overseas-remodel memoir.
But for my purpose, I’ve decided to give the characters enough genuine
artistic ability and seriousness of intent to address the following: Given
the freedom and the means to create whatever you want, what would you create
and what might it amount to? Does art and the artist serve a different
purpose, or any purpose at all, today than in the Renaissance, the
Nineteenth century, or the Modern period? And if the past is truly past--if
our condition has been entirely altered from that of our forebears--how does
the art of the past influence or perhaps even entrap us? Is art still
potent, perhaps even dangerous?
Lives of the Artists embodies among other things its characters’
preoccupation with voice, irony, and authenticity even as it explores--if
not, needless to say, answers--these questions. I also hope readers will
find it seriously comic, even if all will not exactly end well. Call it a
tragedy of manners.
About the author
Robert Clark’s most recent novel, Love Among the Ruins, received
excellent reviews and is under option for film development. He is also
the author of Mr. White’s Confessions, a winner of the Edgar Award for
Best Novel and the PNBA Award, and In the Deep Midwinter, his first,
also highly acclaimed, novel. In addition to writing extensively on
travel, food and wine, Clark is the author of River of the West and My
Grandfather’s House, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for
biography. Clark, presently a Guggenheim fellow, teaches fiction and
non-fiction writing at universities, conferences and workshops. He lives
in Seattle with his wife and children.
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