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Boston Globe Book Review: Authorized Biography of Gabriel García Márquez

June 24, 2009

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: A Life
By Gerald Martin
Knopf, 648 pp., illustrated, $37.50

The official story
AN AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF THE LATIN LAUREATE, HANDLED RESPONSIBLY AND WELL, IF A BIT TIMIDLY

By Ilan Stavans for THE BOSTON GLOBE
June 7, 2009
Official biographies have a merit: They provide the reader with an insider’s look. But they are also handicapped by the proximity to, and the psychic control exerted by, their subject. That subject is often like a puppeteer, calling the shots from behind the curtain. Even when the biographee doesn’t have a right of rejection, what gets said in an official biography can’t always be fully trusted.

For a handcuffed guy, Gerald Martin is quite good at maneuvering like a detective in search of a clue. “Gabriel García Márquez: A Life” is an admirable example of the can’t-be-with-you-can’t-be-without-you paradigm: It doesn’t fall flat under the sign of the “authorized” seal, although it lacks the epic sweep that a chronicle about the 1982 Nobel Prize winner and author of the magisterial “One Hundred Years of Solitude” would require. Martin is a perfectionist, but he’s too careful not to offend.

I italicized the word epic because García Márquez, or Gabo, as he is known among friends, might well be said to be the grand master of the modern epic genre. As leader of the literary movement called El Boom, he helped to reinvent Latin America as a continent in Europe and the United States after it had been viewed for centuries as a mere playing field for “travesuras,” a foreigner’s prank.

In his fiction he stresses the universal by calling attention to the local. For example, the mythical Macondo, modeled after his childhood town Aracataca, is narrated with obvious biblical strokes: a theater where human folly and the excesses of nature are dissected. Not that Martin, an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is unable to understand García Márquez’s genius. He knows him quite well, perhaps even too well. After 15 years of research, he fills in the blanks with acumen. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m mentioned in Martin’s biography, and, engaged as I’ve been in writing about García Márquez’s output, he and I have been in touch, on and off, through the years.)

Granted this isn’t the first biography of García Márquez. Dasso Saldívar, also a Colombian, produced a voluminous one in 1997. More than 25 years before him, Mario Vargas Llosa, once Gabo’s close friend and now a nemesis, published a half-biography, half-critical analysis titled “Historia de un Suicidio,” or ‘History of a Suicide,” as his doctoral dissertation. In this bunch, Martin’s shows its British manufacturing seal: The volume is not only methodical but punctilious. García Márquez, we are told, did not manipulate information, and neither did he make interviewees available, nor censor detractors. Aside from sitting for approximately a month for one-on-one conversations, he “tolerated” Martin’s following his path like a shadow.

Still, his tentacles are palpable. As in the case of Saldívar’s, Martin’s early chapters about the family genealogy are laborious. By the writer’s own account, his first decade, until he left Aracataca, was his most decisive. He was surrounded by multiple aunts and hypnotized by his grandmother’s excessive stories. Those seminal experiences are at the core of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” as are his early readings and his understanding of the economics that the United Fruit Co. practiced in the region.

The biography picks up speed as García Márquez becomes a university student and a journalist. While the shaping of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” gets a fair amount of space, given the legends that surround it the delivery feels disappointing. Other novels get some attention but, as should be the case, never at the same level. The exception is “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a smaller masterpiece that rotates around the story of his parents’ courtship. In someone else’s canon, this book would be the highlight, but in his it stands as a minor piece compared to the Buendía saga.

There are no big revelations in Martin’s book, a fact for which he ought to be commended. A lot has been written about every aspect of García Márquez’s odyssey. To distinguish himself from other chroniclers, Martin could have allowed his project to be driven by sensationalism. But he is far too intelligent and too good a reader of world literature to do that.

The section that arguably will attract more controversy is about García Márquez’s friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Havana regime. Martin neither celebrates nor condones the relationship. But he fails to examine its implications, in part because he doesn’t want to infuriate his subject but also because we’re too close to it. History has yet to offer its final judgment on them – “to absolve them,” as Fidel would say.

While the absolution is prepared, to me the portion that is truly ready for full-fledged analysis is García Márquez’s journey in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” It is a sublimely imperfect novel, one carrying within itself the DNA of Hispanic civilization. Everything in García Márquez’s career up to 1967, when the novel was published in Buenos Aires, gets mentioned in it, including himself, his wife Mercedes, his two children, and the group of mamadores de gallo, the indefatigable young tricksters who congregated in Barranquilla around the figure of a Catalan bookseller called Ramón Vinyes.

My impression is that this summa literaria is, in and of itself, the best biography we’ll get of its author: an encrypted epic tale replete with secrets that only a Rasputin-like “sabedor,” a know-it-all reader, would be able to sort out.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His next book, the first of a two-volume set called “Gabriel García Márquez” (Palgrave), covering the years 1927 to 1970, will be out in January.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company

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New Yorker Review: ‘The Man Who Made Vermeers’ by Jonathan Lopez and ‘The Forger’s Spell’ by Edward Dolnick

June 24, 2009

Dutch Master

THE ART FORGER WHO BECAME A NATIONAL HERO.

by Peter Schjeldahl

The case of Han van Meegeren, the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know), is a grand yarn of twisty deceit, involving prestigious dupes and scads of money, with a sensational trial at the finish. It even has a serious side. Van Meegeren, since his death, in 1947, has become a compulsive reference for philosophical discussions of fact and fraud in art—a subject bound to disquiet art lovers. (Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.) He became the most original of fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist’s conveniently spotty, little-documented opus. (Only thirty-five undisputed Vermeers exist today. As an added boon to forgers, a few aren’t very good.) Van Meegeren’s tour de force was a feat more of intellect than of skill. He knew whom he had to fool first: an eighty-three-year-old monster of vanity named Abraham Bredius, who had an earned, though moldering, track record as an authenticator of newfound Vermeers. In 1937, in the august British art-history journal The Burlington Magazine, Bredius declared “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first of van Meegeren’s late counterfeits, to be “themasterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Other Dutch experts concurred, under pressure to keep a national treasure from being sold overseas. (The remarkably dreary canvas still hangs, presented now as a historical curio, at the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, which bought it in 1937.) It took van Meegeren himself to reveal the truth, in 1945, when not to do so might have put his neck in a hangman’s noose.

Two new books re-spin the van Meegeren saga, one breezily, with entertaining digressions on secondary figures and the arcana of forgery, and the other in profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing depth. “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper; $26.95), by the science journalist Edward Dolnick, aggrandizes the story’s abundant hooks, such as the happenstance that van Meegeren’s victims included the art maven Hermann Göring, who, in 1943, swapped a hundred and thirty-seven paintings from his largely ill-gotten collection for a van Meegeren Vermeer. “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt; $26), by the writer and artist Jonathan Lopez, brings hard light to van Meegeren’s machinations and (very bad) character. Lopez debunks the myths, savored by Dolnick, which cast the forger as a romantic avenger, and which sweeten the tale in other ways. It seems that Göring, while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, may not have learned that his cherished Vermeer was a phony, as nice as it is to think that he did. This small point is notable because, in time, the fact that van Meegeren had scammed Göring helped him not only to evade charges of collaboration but to become a folk hero. Lopez demonstrates how evidence of the painter’s coziness with the Occupation regime got buried by the single question of whether he had sold Göring a patrimonial cynosure (potentially a capital offense) or a worthless fake. Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister.

Van Meegeren was born in 1889, in the provincial city of Deventer, the third of five children in a middle-class Catholic family. In 1907, his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Vermeer’s city, Delft, to study architecture. The feckless lad preferred to paint and draw. In 1911, he got his girlfriend, a Protestant named Anna de Voogt, pregnant. They married and soon had a second child. He worked as an assistant drawing instructor (the only steady job he ever held) until 1917, when he moved his household to “the city of beautiful nonsense,” as a contemporaneous guidebook characterized The Hague—the home of the royal family and an illustrious strutting ground for the idle rich. There he launched himself as an artist. With “his small, birdlike frame constantly aflutter and his irreverent sense of humor,” in Lopez’s description, van Meegeren beguiled the town. (A photograph of him from 1918, in Lopez’s book, made me laugh out loud; he comes across as the archetypal simpering fop, fit to start a scene by P. G. Wodehouse.) Lopez—who, unlike Dolnick, speaks Dutch and is steeped in the history of the period—records that van Meegeren became the favorite artist of the Liberal State Party of the Netherlands, a fading force of the patrician élite. His work was sprightly, in a nostalgically conservative vein. His pretty, filmy drawing of a doe, identified as a pet of the young Princess Julianna, became a popular icon throughout the Netherlands. Reproductions testify that he had a subtle sense of color and a firm gift for telling portraiture. Come to think of it, what are artistic forgeries but portraits of imaginary art works?

Van Meegeren’s first legitimate exhibition in The Hague, in 1917, of work in several genres, reaped positive reviews. His second, five years later, of Christian religious paintings, sold well but repelled critics with its treacly piety—van Meegeren, it turned out, was a student of Scripture. (In the show, there was an early-warning “Supper at Emmaus”—representing Jesus, who has appeared as a stranger to his disciples after his death, being recognized at the moment when he breaks bread for them.) Informed opinion consigned van Meegeren to the always populous ranks of the formerly promising. He evoked the setback poignantly in his public confession, in 1945: “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.” That’s rubbish, if only because the “something” to which van Meegeren referred—his invention of a new Vermeer style—was just the latest chapter in a then still unknown, long-running criminal enterprise. Lopez affirms that van Meegeren was dirty before his artistic reputation collapsed. He speculates—reasonably, to my mind—that faking ruined the artist’s creativity. “Slowly but surely, the imitative logic of forgery condemned Van Meegeren to a state of arrested development,” Lopez writes. The state of being oneself dies when set aside.

Lopez dates van Meegeren’s initiation into The Hague’s underworld of art swindlers to 1920, at the latest. He was mentored by a dealer and painter, Theo van Wijngaarden, who had apprenticed in chicanery with a titan: Leo Nardus. Nardus stuck American millionaires with innumerable old copies, fresh fakes, and fanciful misattributions of famous artists until 1908, when a panel of invited experts, including Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convened at the home of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate P. A. B. Widener and concluded that his collection was worth about five per cent of what Nardus had charged him for it. (Found out but unexposed—to spare Widener and other duped moguls public embarrassment—Nardus was left free to indulge his passions for chess and swordsmanship; he won a bronze medal in fencing for the Dutch team at the 1912 Olympics.) The hardly less resourceful van Wijngaarden, on his own, perfected a paint medium, gelatin glue, to finesse a standard test for the age of oil paint: rubbing with alcohol, which dissolves oils that have had less than decades to dry. (The glue weathers alcohol but, as was later discovered—too late for a generation of marks—softens on contact with another chemical compound: water.) Van Wijngaarden maintained a network of well-placed accomplices, extending to London and Berlin, who could pilot fakes into the mainstream of respectable commerce. He lacked only top-drawer product. He himself painted well, but not well enough. He wanted an adept protégé, and he found him in van Meegeren, who was ready.

Soon after arriving in The Hague, van Meegeren had cast off Anna and the children and taken up with the raffish Johanna de Boer, the actress wife of a friend. She became his complaisant partner for life and, in 1928, his second wife, apparently indulgent of his extravagant and libertine ways, as well as his alcoholism, which became full-blown in the early nineteen-thirties. During the war, van Meegeren even maintained a separate house, in Amsterdam, for partying, where, it was reported, prostitutes were encouraged to grab jewels from an opened strongbox on their way out. Johanna is frustratingly shadowy in both books. What she knew of her husband’s crimes needn’t be plumbed. Starting in the nineteen-twenties, his spasmodic income, which added up to millions of pre-inflation dollars, would have spoken for itself. After 1932, the couple inhabited houses on the French Riviera, where van Meegeren could more easily evade questions about his mysterious wealth. But Johanna’s point of view would be fascinating grist—for a novel, if not enough is discoverable to flesh out a biography. The same can be said of several supporting players in the comedy. Dolnick gratifies a reader’s side-long interest with piquant accounts of, among others, the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant aesthete, living in splendor in Monaco, with an insatiable ache for prestige, and Joseph Piller, a young Jewish lieutenant and hero of the Dutch Resistance, who arrested van Meegeren—knocking at the door of the artist’s grand house on May 29, 1945—and then, in a fever of vicarious celebrity, became his champion, a seduction trenchantly conveyed by Lopez. (The “fat, swaggering” figure of the infinitely grotesque Göring, however, distractingly consumes far more pages in Dolnick’s narrative than his part warrants.)

Van Meegeren never admitted having produced any of the known gelatin-glue Vermeers, which included “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” but he almost certainly did paint them. Van Wijngaarden steered the pictures to the attention of a revered German connoisseur, Wilhelm von Bode, who was taken in by them—predictably, as they seem to have been created with him in mind. (“The Smiling Girl” echoed a detail of a Vermeer—“The Girl with a Glass of Wine”—that Bode had adored since his early youth.) The always sticky matter of provenance was glossed over with tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution—at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors throughout Europe—and amid expectations that lost works by Vermeer were bound to turn up, several having done so since his rediscovery by a French connoisseur in the eighteen-sixties. The two paintings were sold to the Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon by the magus of Old Master dealers, Joseph Duveen, and adorned the National Gallery in Washington, at one point nervously reassigned to a “Follower of Vermeer,” in the nineteen-seventies. “The Lacemaker,” especially, looks silly now, depicting a pert young woman who could be a sidekick of Louise Brooks. But superior forgeries typically secrete subliminally up-to-the-minute associations, which pass, at first blush, as signs of “timeless” genius. The art historian Max Friedländer, who said, “Forgeries must be served hot,” promulgated a forty-year rule—four decades or so being how long it takes for the modern nuances of a forgery to date themselves as clichés of the period in which they were painted. Duveen was misled, although he wasn’t by van Meegeren’s “Emmaus.” In 1937, he sent his right-hand man, Edward Fowles, to inspect the painting in Paris. Fowles cabled, “PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE.” (Duveen kept the verdict to himself; saving other dealers from disgrace didn’t figure in his business plan.) Both books vivify the wild-and-woolly milieu of Jazz Age dealing in old art. Barely professionalized, and with museum science still primitive, the trade relied on the often snap judgments of glorified amateurs, of whom even the loftiest (even Berenson) were goof-prone—Duveen had earlier spurned “Girl with the Red Hat,” the only true Vermeer to emerge in the twenties.

Dolnick is good on van Meegeren’s studio practice, which kept pace with scientific progress. Mediocre old paintings, from the prolific Dutch Golden Age, were cheaply available, as grounds to paint on; but the overnight creation of a convincingly antique paint surface was a challenge. Van Meegeren’s late fakes deploy Bakelite, which, as a liquid medium, hardens with heat and stands up to almost any solvent. He learned, with difficulty, to make an ancestor of modern plastics ape the fluency of oils. Many failed experiments led at length to a proper blend, with admixed floral oils, and the correct baking recipe. “Emmaus,” a big picture, would have been larger, but the old painting, on its original stretchers, that van Meegeren bought for the job wouldn’t fit in his makeshift oven. As a matter of course, he used only pigments that were available to Vermeer, and concocted effects of age: craquelure, wormholes, yellowed varnish, soilage, and, for good measure in “Emmaus,” a poorly repaired rip. He turned negligent in subsequent works. Göring’s canvas, “Christ and the Adulteress,” employs cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century innovation in paints, and it is carelessly drawn, with anatomical solecisms in the figures. But van Meegeren no longer had to evoke Vermeer. It was enough that the hand that painted the works plainly be the same that had painted “Emmaus.” In 1945, his captor, Joseph Piller, had him paint a valedictory Vermeer, putatively to settle doubts of his confession but really, Lopez establishes, as a publicity stunt. That showpiece, “Christ in the Temple,” strikes me, in reproduction, as by far the most fetching of the lot, garnished with a droll anachronism: Jesus holds forth over an opened Bible. Time-travelled to recent years, van Meegeren would have made an upstanding postmodernist.

In the nineteen-thirties, painting Vermeers became less of a problem for van Meegeren than legitimatizing them. Having drifted out of touch with complicit intermediaries, he came into his own as a con man, tricking innocents into bringing his goods to market. The patsy for “Emmaus” was a Liberal State Party parliamentarian, Gerard A. Boon, who had led the successful fight for woman suffrage in the Netherlands and was a fierce critic of Nazi Germany. Van Meegeren convinced this good man that the painting belonged to a Dutch family living in Italy, who, persecuted by the Fascist authorities, desperately needed funds for an escape to America. The rest was intricate but, once Bredius was on board, smoothly managed. Boon’s receptiveness to van Meegeren is a puzzle, given Lopez’s insistence that the artist was an arch ultra-rightist. But his case seems solid. For three years, starting in 1928, in The Hague, van Meegeren published a scurrilous magazine, De Kemphann (The Fighting Cock), in which, Lopez writes, he “denounced modern painting as ‘art-Bolshevism,’ described its proponents as a ‘slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,’ and invoked the image of ‘a Jew with a handcart’ as a symbol for the international art market.” He execrated van Gogh in particular. In 1945, while van Meegeren was imprisoned, an awkward item turned up in Hitler’s private library at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin: a deluxe volume of poems by a Dutch Nazi poet, illustrated by van Meegeren and inscribed, in German, “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren acknowledged the signature but theorized that a German officer must have penned the dedication, even though the handwriting was clearly the same. At his trial on an open-and-shut charge of forgery, all such matters were ignored. Urges to go easy on van Meegeren seem to have afflicted ordinarily sensible people—Dolnick among them, in much of his book—as if by hypnosis.

Lopez advances a sophisticated and troubling answer to the question that is most likely to baffle us: How could anyone, for an instant, have taken “Emmaus” to be a work by Vermeer? I remember being stupefied, many years ago, when, ignorant of van Meegeren, I came upon the painting in the Boijmans. It seemed not only unlike Vermeer but unlike anything this side of a thrift shop. I missed stylistic cues that both Lopez and Dolnick describe, mainly the borrowed composition of a 1606 “Emmaus” by Caravaggio. This planted secret thrilled scholars who had been debating possible Italian influences on Vermeer, one writer having gone so far as to wonder if a lost work might be found to prove the connection. Vermeer was known to have painted one Biblical scene—“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55)—why not another? He was, and still is, suspected of having been a closet Catholic, embracing a faith, his wife’s, that was banned in Delft. Both the character and the obscure provenance of “Emmaus” made sense if it had been created for one of Delft’s clandestine Catholic churches. But that does not explain the enthusiasm of credulous aesthetes for a dismal painting. Lopez deduces a blind spot in our art-historical knowledge and, indeed, in our larger comprehension of European culture between the World Wars. We may easily peg the party-girl mien in “The Lacemaker” and the longueur of another van Meegeren triumph, “The Girl with a Blue Hat,” bought by the major collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, which merits its sobriquet, “The Greta Garbo Vermeer.” But the period accent of “Emmaus” escapes us.

It’s Volksgeist, Lopez argues. “Folk spirit” has a long genealogy of relatively benign synonyms, such as “national character.” Hegel promoted it as a force in history. But the idea generated new, dark energies in the prewar period. Styles of heavily expressive, soulful celebrations of common people were prevalent in Germany. Unlike the better-known socialist realism, with its crisp paeans to the proletariat, Volkisch art cultivated painterly effects to stir both Christian and pagan mystical associations, favoring peasant scenes and such themes as familial devotion and earth-mother fecundity. Besides tapping that vogue, van Meegeren pandered to an eagerness, among rightist critics, to winkle out Germanic roots of classical Dutch art. He seems to have modelled the head of Christ, in his “Emmaus,” on a self-portrait by Dürer—a recondite proof of influence that he could count on experts to notice. Lopez argues that the determined suppression, after the war, of anything with a Nazi odor—and a chronic lack of appetite for the material ever since—leaves us blinking at hints of a style that was second nature in Europe seventy years ago. The contemporary resonance surely startled viewers at the time, but, rather than raise eyebrows, it enlarged the sense of Vermeer’s greatness. It seemed more than conceivable that a genius of his calibre could foreshadow future sensibilities as, say, Leonardo da Vinci is routinely credited with having done. Lopez’s exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry is hard to absorb, without nausea, in the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” is hard to watch. But an empathetic grasp of that time’s susceptibility to van Meegeren’s bait brings the climactic scene of his trial, in Amsterdam, in October, 1947, to life.

Apparently, by 1947, the Dutch were not only tired of the war but tired of being tired of it, too. After a paroxysm of angry revenge on collaborators, they craved a carnival. Van Meegeren became a giddy nation’s “Lord of Misrule,” Lopez writes. Brushed aside were treasonous commissions for the Occupation and dealings with the vilest of local quislings—mainly the art commissioner Ed Gerdes, a zealous anti-Semite—and with Alois Miedl, a Bavarian banker who became Göring’s man in the Dutch art world, energetically plundering Jewish collections. Van Meegeren’s humiliation of so many stuffed shirts, Nazi and otherwise, was too pricelessly funny to be marred by stale grudges. The trial took place in a courtroom hung with “Emmaus” and other van Meegeren hoaxes. Superfluously, the artist having confessed, technical experts presented charts, graphs, and slides of a new test that proved the works’ recent manufacture. Van Meegeren fulsomely congratulated the men on their ingenuity. The faking of Old Masters would henceforth be impossible, he said. Courtroom onlookers clapped and whistled. I imagine, extrapolating from Lopez, that their pleasure went beyond jolly Schadenfreude. Seeing the celebrated paintings exposed as fraudulent may have enabled a purge of formerly impressive symbols. The auratic Christ and the wonderstruck disciples turned farcical. The slim, silver-haired van Meegeren, dapper in a blue serge suit, seems to have read the mood (whatever it was) perfectly and to have milked it for advantage.

He had done the Vermeers only to prove himself, he testified, hewing to what Lopez calls “the master-forger-as-misunderstood-genius storyline,” which the prosecution failed to deflate. At one point, the judge hazarded a skeptical note: “You do admit, though, that you sold these pictures for very high prices?” Van Meegeren’s answer cracked up the room: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” He could get away with anything: “I didn’t do it for the money, which brought me nothing but trouble and unhappiness.” Just one witness, an art historian who had been active in the Resistance, hinted at shady aspects of van Meegeren’s wartime conduct. The artist countered with a mocking, nonsensical cross-examination, to the audience’s delight. The witness, Lopez writes, “smiled in a self-deprecating way and then wisely dropped the subject. Clearly, the day belonged to the master forger.” Cheering fans greeted van Meegeren when he emerged from the court. He was sentenced to a year in prison and forfeiture of his wealth (except for a sizable chunk that he had settled on Johanna by the legal stratagem of divorcing her). He died two months later, of heart failure—probably, Lopez reports, as a complication of syphilis. He was fifty-eight years old. Lopez, though intent on proving van Meegeren a skunk, can’t deny him a parting note of admiration: “To give him his due, he was indeed a truly brilliant fraud.”

Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.

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Amazon Best of the Month: ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

June 22, 2009

Spotlight Title: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic withLet the Great World Spin, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity. It’s August of 1974, a summer “hot and serious and full of death and betrayal,” and Watergate and the Vietnam War make the world feel precarious. A stunned hush pauses the cacophonous universe of New York City as a man on a cable walks (repeatedly) between World Trade Center towers. This extraordinary, real-life feat by French funambulist Philippe Petit becomes the touchstone for stories that briefly submerge you in ten varied and intense lives–a street priest, heroin-addicted hookers, mothers mourning sons lost in war, a Park Avenue judge, a young artist. All their lives are ordinary and unforgettable, overlapping at the edges, occasionally converging. And when they coalesce in the final pages, the moment hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later. You might find yourself paused, considering the universe of lives one city contains in any slice of time, each of us our singular world, sometimes passing close enough to touch or collide, to make a new generation or kill it, sending out ripples, leaving residue, an imprint, marking each other, our city, the very air–compassionately or callously, unable to see all the damage we do or heal, and most of us stumbling, just trying not to trip, or step in something awful.

But then someone does something extraordinary, like dancing on a cable strung 110 stories in the air, or imagining a magnificent novel that lifts us up for a sky-scraping, dizzy glimpse of something greater: the sordid grandeur of this whirling world, “bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants.”Mari Malcolm

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Review: ‘Madness on the Couch’ by Edward Dolnick

June 17, 2009

Amazon.com Review
You have to wonder if there’s anyone left out there who dares call themselves a Freudian. Little is being written in defense of Freud and his legacy while the critiques, ever more confident and ever more damning, continue to fall from the presses like heavy Vienna snow. Madness on the Couch is one of the best.

Dolnick begins with a useful retread of the case against Freud himself, but his main argument is against a cherished principle of the master’s followers. Freud always stuck to the idea that he was treating the psychological problems of the sane, but in the 1950s and 1960s, a much more grandiose idea emerged in psychiatric circles, the notion that “the talking cure” could sponge away madness itself.

One of the problems with this ambitious proposal was its vagueness. “Madness” could mean anything, including such different conditions as schizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As Dolnick shows, analysts of various kinds had just two things in common: a systematic inability to do any good for patients with any of these conditions and a vast blindness, if not outright dishonesty, about that failure.

Like other critics of Freud’s legacy, Dolnick is convinced that Freud-inspired analysis is guilty of doing its patients, and their families, great harm–by “explaining,” for example, autism in terms of parental neglect. The section in Madness on the Couch on autism is especially good, concluding its discussion of all the things autism isn’t (pace the wild and largely evidence-free surmises of therapists) with a balanced discussion of just how big a puzzle it still is.

Dolnick sometimes has an irritatingly sarcastic and melodramatic tone; a shame–the material he has assembled speaks strongly for itself. –Richard Farr

From Publishers Weekly
Extensively researched but depressingly mean-spirited, journalist Dolnick‘s debut chronicles the American midcentury’s full-out embrace of psychoanalysis and willingness to apply it with impunity. Theorists such as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, R.D. Laing and Bruno Bettelheim broadened Freudian theory to treat not only anxiety and neurosis, Dolnick explains, but also more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As Dolnick shows, these neo-Freudians quickly came to dominate the psychiatric industry. They shared with ur-Freudianism an emphasis on talk therapy for even the most disturbed patients and, most damningly in Dolnick’s eyes, a vision of the home as nest of pathology; it was in this era that the term “refrigerator mother” was coined to designate the mother of a schizophrenic. Today, these theories have receded into the background of psychiatry because of their apparent clinical inefficacy and the emergence of powerful (but hardly problem-free) drug therapies. In an ill-focused j’accuse, Dolnick, a contributing editor of Health magazine, charges the neo-Freudians with sloppy science, moral laxness and intellectual infirmity. Above all, he faults them for “hubris,” because they failed to conduct double-blind experiments in testing theories (although in the epilogue he admits that such trials were not even invented until 1948, nor widely in use until long after). He also pins the blame for an entire generation’s demonization of domestic life squarely on the shoulders of this small band of therapists. In sentence after sentence brimming with accusatory hauteur, Dolnick shifts his moral critique from anecdote to anecdote, now sympathizing with the patients, whose symptoms he details with distasteful breathiness, now with the hard-working but sadly befuddled psychoanalysts in the trenches, and now with the unfairly blamed parents. While this book can be seen as yet another case of hindsight Freud bashing, it lacks the intellectual subtlety that would make it a genuine contribution to such historical revisionism.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Review: ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

June 12, 2009

Amazon.com Review
Book Description
From master storyteller Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind, comes The Angel’s Game–a dazzling new page-turner about the perilous nature of obsession, in literature and in love.

“The whole of Barcelona stretched out at my feet and I wanted to believe that, when I opened those windows, its streets would whisper stories to me, secrets I could capture on paper and narrate to whomever cared to listen…”

In an abandoned mansion at the heart of Barcelona, a young man, David Martín, makes his living by writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym. The survivor of a troubled childhood, he has taken refuge in the world of books and spends his nights spinning baroque tales about the city’s underworld. But perhaps his dark imaginings are not as strange as they seem, for in a locked room deep within the house lie photographs and letters hinting at the mysterious death of the previous owner.

Like a slow poison, the history of the place seeps into his bones as he struggles with an impossible love. Close to despair, David receives a letter from a reclusive French editor, Andreas Corelli, who makes him the offer of a lifetime. He is to write a book unlike anything that has ever existed–a book with the power to change hearts and minds. In return, he will receive a fortune, and perhaps more. But as David begins the work, he realizes that there is a connection between his haunting book and the shadows that surround his home.

Once again, Zafón takes us into a dark, gothic universe first seen in The Shadow of the Wind and creates a breathtaking adventure of intrigue, romance, and tragedy. Through a dizzingly constructed labyrinth of secrets, the magic of books, passion, and friendship blend into a masterful story.

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Review: ‘Dune Road’ by Jane Green

June 10, 2009

A sparkling new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Beach House

Jane Green’s last novel, The Beach House, was an instant New York Times bestseller and captured her largest audience yet. From the sunny green lawns of Connecticut to the cafés of London to the sandy beaches of Nantucket, Green draws from her own life to craft each delicious story and the resulting tales resonate with women everywhere.

Dune Road is another fun and fearless adventure that will take Green’s many fans from laughter to tears and back again. The novel is set in the beach community of a tony Connecticut town. Our heroine is a single mom who works for a famous—and famously reclusive—novelist. When she stumbles on a secret that the great man has kept hidden for years, she knows that there are plenty of women in town who would love to get their hands on it—including some who fancy the writer for themselves. Dune Road is the story of life in an exclusive beach town after the tourists have left for the summer and the eccentric (and moneyed) community sticks around. Dune Road will surely be the book to pack in beach bags next summer.

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Review: ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson

June 9, 2009

Amazon.com Review
Amazon Best of the Month, September 2008: Once you start The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there’s no turning back. This debut thriller–the first in a trilogy from the late Stieg Larsson–is a serious page-turner rivaling the best of Charlie Huston and Michael Connelly. Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch–and there’s always a catch–is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo. —Dave Callanan

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Cases rarely come much colder than the decades-old disappearance of teen heiress Harriet Vanger from her family’s remote island retreat north of Stockholm, nor do fiction debuts hotter than this European bestseller by muckraking Swedish journalist Larsson. At once a strikingly original thriller and a vivisection of Sweden’s dirty not-so-little secrets (as suggested by its original title, Men Who Hate Women), this first of a trilogy introduces a provocatively odd couple: disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, freshly sentenced to jail for libeling a shady businessman, and the multipierced and tattooed Lisbeth Salander, a feral but vulnerable superhacker. Hired by octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger, who wants to find out what happened to his beloved great-niece before he dies, the duo gradually uncover a festering morass of familial corruption—at the same time, Larsson skillfully bares some of the similar horrors that have left Salander such a marked woman. Larsson died in 2004, shortly after handing in the manuscripts for what will be his legacy. 100,000 first printing. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.