Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Last week, one of my classes went to the library to chose books to read for a project. We were presented with a baffling array of YA books, but I, being the YA disliker that I am, managed to convince the teacher to let me read The Goldfinch instead, a book I’d actually read a few years ago when it first came out. After all, the novel does deal with many of the themes present in those books: social class, loss, growing up. It begins with first-person narrator Theodore Decker at age 13, walking with his mother to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school. Ducking out of a thunderstorm into the shelter of an art museum, Theo’s mother, an art lover, takes him tscreen-shot-2017-02-23-at-7-27-59-amo see the works of the Dutch masters, among them The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654, the ‘missing link’ between Rembrandt and Vermeer). A terrorist bomb explodes in the museum, however, killing many including Theo’s mother. Theo survives and escapes, not only with his life but with the painting and with ring given to him as he comforts a dying old man (Welty). The ring takes Theo to an antiques shop where he meets Hobie, Welty’s business partner, who takes Theo under his wing.

The painting soon emerges as the force holding the center of the book (and Theo’s life) together, the still point of a world thrown into grief, chaos, absurdity, following Theo as he is first sent to live with a friend’s family, the upper-class Barbours, on Park Avenue, and then with his deadbeat dad and his dad’s girlfriend in Las Vegas. There, still traumatized by the explosion and his mother’s death, Theo makes friends with Russian expat Boris and in the absence of parental guidance, the two launch themselves into a spiral of drinking and drugs. Theo then goes back to New York, and the narrative skips ahead eight years, with Theo, now an antiques dealer with Hobie, embroiled in a tangle at which the painting is still the center – the intersection of old and new relationships, a criminal underworld, Amsterdam, the past weaving not-so-seamlessly into the present as our protagonist struggles to navigate himself.

The novel is often called “Dickensian” in a lot of reviews, and it’s easy to see why – Theo as the lost orphan, Boris as the Artful Dodger, the antiques store as the old curiosity shop, the old man with the cryptic message, etc, etc – but I find that what Tartt lacks in Dickens’ wit, she makes up for in her own powers of detail and ideas on art and life. Many, like James Wood of the New Yorker, have also criticized the novel as childish and cliché, but how boring would life be if everything was perfectly and 100% realistic?

The thing about a second reading is that it did allow me to see the validity of a lot of these criticisms, stuff I hadn’t picked up the first time because I was so absorbed in the story, and because at that point I was obsessed with The Secret History and quite frankly, would have loved anything Tartt touched. Although I think the amount of detail taught me a lot about a variety of topics, from antique to furniture restoration to New York and art (and drugs, maybe not so good) and helped absorb me into the novel, I felt that it could have done with a little more editing and excising of unnecessary information. I also found the pacing a bit strange – dragging on for about 500 pages in the middle and then suddenly speeding up in the last 100. There were a lot of loose ends, too, plot points that were dropped and then picked up much later, conflicts that were solved a little too neatly and quickly; the painting, for all its importance, went unmentioned for large chunks of pages.

However, for all its flaws, I loved its insights into art and beauty, how it deals with the idea of the way the past affects our present and the themes of fate and fortune, how Theo’s parents follow him like ghosts that thread through the narrative constantly, and Tartt’s descriptions of his grief. I also loved her descriptions of the desert and Theo’s rootless existence in Las Vegas, and I loved Boris as  a character – the sort of character that could exist only in fiction but not in a bad or underdeveloped way. I think the absurd is another theme I found threading through the book that Tartt deals with beautifully – i.e. what is the point of living, of “wad[ing]… right through the cesspool,” this “sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts,” why do we continue going on when something – a tragedy, a painting – alters the grain of life so much that we can no longer keep believing in the illusion that something better lies in “the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement,” the routine of daily life; how do we deal with that? – is it better to buy into the illusion (“ignorant bliss,” my philosophy teacher called it, the first stage of the existential journey) or to search for a more meaningful, deeper happiness?

These were questions that had been running through my mind recently before I picked up the book, and like Hobie says, a piece of art is meaningful to you not because of some grand, universal message it might carry but because it whispers to you as an individual, because of your own life experiences, because of how the work arrives in your life and appeals to something inexplicable in your soul. For all its flaws, I think Tartt’s novel, the first time I read it at the age of about 15, meant a lot to me – maybe didn’t touch me as much as The Secret History – but still, came at a time when I could relate a lot to Theo. For me personally, the last twenty or so pages of the novel affected me so much, both the first time I read it and now, that it sort of made up for all its shortcomings.

Anyway, I think if you’re willing to slog through about 800 pages for extended periods of time, you should definitely give The Goldfinch a try and see how you like it. If you’re also interested in art and the actual painting, I’d also recommend the Mauritshuis’s website for it, which has a lot of interesting background information about Dutch still life and Fabritius.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

A Family Vacation Takes a Decade: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

It is with these lines that Woolf captures the essence of this novel and drives at the heart of all the fragments of thought, emotion, images, experiences, and perceptions that make it up. To the Lighthouse tells the story of the Ramsay family and their guests during their stay at the Ramsay’s summer home on the Isle of Skye. Woolf herself envisioned the novel as “two blocks joined by a corridor.” The first block, “The Window,” begins with Mrs. Ramsay telling her son James that they will be able to go to the lighthouse the next day; however, James’ joy at this assurance is cut short by Mr. Ramsay, who tells him that the weather will not be clear enough for them to go. The other block, “The Lighthouse,” chronicles the day they finally make it to the lighthouse, about ten years after the first section. Connecting these blocks is the short but beautiful “Time Passes,” which describes the decade between the two days.

Within these periods of time, Woolf manages to capture the depth and breadth of human emotion with such a bright, vivid, beautiful intensity and ultimately in this quest for understanding human perception of experience also manages to expose the blinding truth of it, especially in quotes like the one above. Like the ebb and flow of the waves, the perspective shifts effortlessly from one character to another. Mrs. Ramsay is the maternal figure who seems to carry the spirit of the house with her and thus keeps everyone together by touching all of their lives, even with her absence in the last part of the novel. All of her children like her better than her husband. Where he is harsh and seen as imposing his “tyranny,” Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful and energetic; she comforts her children and offers them hope and reassurance, and it is fitting that when she dies, the house is in decaying disrepair, left abandoned and derelict. In contrast, Mr. Ramsay is too severe, too logical and insensitive to the feelings of others. Despite his looking for “the way of genius,” Mr. Ramsay is also insecure; he searches for sympathy and validation and “stretches his arms out in vain” after the loss of his wife, who had once offered all of this to him. However, Woolf also expresses the frustrations of the female characters that have to put away their ambitions in order to put a man’s needs in front of their own and how a man’s ego must take precedence over a woman’s creativity and autonomy. Lily Briscoe, staring at her blank canvas, finds herself repeating Charles Tansley’s words over and over in her head: “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” Similarly, Andrew Ramsay reflects on Minta Doyle, “…she had no control over her emotions… Women hadn’t,” and much later in the novel, Mr. Ramsay thinks, “…women are always like that; the vagueness of their minds is hopeless… It had been so with her – his wife.” However, when Lily thinks about Mrs. Ramsay while trying to paint, she realizes “[Mr. Ramsay]… never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died — and had left all this.” While Lily is unmarried, creative, and independent, and Mrs. Ramsay is motherly and feminine, both share a woman’s desire to live life on their own terms, instead of man’s.

With seemingly mundane, everyday activities, all of the characters experience great emotional intensity and sensitivity, showing that one doesn’t need to have grand experiences in order to reach grand truths about meaning and nature of life. Likewise, what one perceives about something in one moment may be completely different than another thought one has about the same thing under different circumstances, but it doesn’t mean that both can’t be equally true. For example, as the Ramsays sail to the lighthouse, Cam and James make a compact “to resist tyranny to the death,” to resist the imposing, domineering nature of their father. However, once Mr. Ramsay compliments James’ sailing, Cam knows “that this what James had been wanting… His father had praised him.” At the same time, Lily Briscoe, painting, thinks, “So much depends then… so much depends… on distance: whether people are near us or far from us.” Although people may seem cold, distant, and insensitive to feeling, everyone longs for some kind of connection, a deeper understanding from and with others, some basic empathy and feeling of attachment. Woolf shows us just how incredibly complex human relationships are: they are mercurial, changing like the sea, and even a slight variation in weather can have so much impact.

The lighthouse, then, serves as the final destination, and it is reached just as Lily adds the last, final line to complete her painting. Just as Lily has to confront the doubts manifested by a blank canvas and just as “the risk must be run; the mark made,” the waves must be crossed, the ups and downs of emotions and the complexity of day-to-day perception must be experienced, in order to reach the lighthouse, to reach that sense of “unity” and “intimacy, which is knowledge,” that ultimate truth of life, whatever it may be for each character.

Overall, though, I think the pleasure of reading this novel is not simply in its themes and truths but in just the simple and wonderful sensation of reading and taking in the beauty of the prose. The vibrant, radiant images all press together in an almost kaleidoscopic way, and there’s always a sense of time passing but staying connected to the present moment and the way that the present continuously shifts and evolves. Like the sea, the rhythm of Woolf’s writing is wonderful to get lost in, and there are so many infinities to explore and different aspects to learn from, transversing art and poetry to philosophy and history to time and death.

“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision.”