Archive for February, 2011

Vallie Fletcher: “Snow in the City”

Saturday, February 12th, 2011


Today I was the winning bidder at auction for this painting:



I have an interest in American paintings depicting winter in the city. Budgetary limitations mean I keep my eye open for works by little known artists or by wholly unknown “Sunday” artists. An example of the latter is the painter James Jefferys, whom I profiled last year (see post, here). The fun of coming across these sparsely-documented painters is that it offers an opportunity to do a bit of detective work of one’s own.

This snow scene is a colorful oil on board, 16 by 12 inches, signed in the lower left. The artist, Vallie Fletcher (1874-1939), appears in American artists references and other sources. Those records indicate she was born in Beaumont, Texas. Her art studies took her to the Cooper Union in New York City and the Art Students League (she is mentioned in an 1899 catalog), although she returned west and was known as a “Texas artist.” Other than participating in regional competitions (for example, the 1927 Edgar B. Davis Wildflower Competition in San Antonio; she was not a winner), she did not leave much of a mark in the art world.

Regardless of of her lack of renown, I think she successfully achieves in this painting something direct and honest. The painting shares an approach to the urban landscape that was adopted by many of the best American painters of the 20th century.

My detective work started with a read of the scene depicted and the style of its execution. It looked to me to have been a spontaneous undertaking completed in a single afternoon. Some may object to using the term “en plein air” in this instance, since it seems Fletcher was comfortably positioned indoors, in a room on the second or third floor of the neighboring house, looking out through her window. Yet it’s possible the day grew warm enough for her to open the window, and, if so, describing it as an “open air” painting would not be incorrect.

Where was this painted?

The chief clue to the location is the gold-domed structure in the distance. It has the look of a state capitol building. Using Google Images I found these pictures of the capitol building in Denver, Colorado:




It is a match, I believe. Even within the limitations of her loose painterly style, Fletcher has accurately captured the pillars and banding of the two-tiered masonry wedding cake that supports the gilded dome and cupola.

When did Fletcher paint this view?

She died at the end of the 1930’s, but the Keystone Cops-looking vehicle parked on the street suggests to me the preceding decade. A notation (whether it is in the artist’s hand is unclear) appears on the reverse of the framed painting:



So, then, my working assumption is that Fletcher was in Denver and painted this view on April 25, 1928.

Is there anything to support this? Did it snow on that day, in that city? And if it did, was the storm sudden, surprising, and short-lived? Was it the kind of event that would keep the artist indoors? Was the cover of snow an evanescent subject she was eager to capture in paint?


Which is to say, Vallie Fletcher likely kept the window closed.


The circular porch, budding off the corner of the house, is a feature of many American Victorian-period homes of the late 1800’s.  See here and here.

“Open City” by Teju Cole

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011



There is no reason to believe Teju Cole intended his debut novel to present a challenge to reviewers, but that is what “Open City” does. The only way a critic can genuinely convey the force of this book — its full weight and effect — is to break a covenant with the potential reader by entering the forbidden territory of the spoiler, by revealing the specific shock that hits you like a block of concrete when you reach the novel’s final pages. No responsible critic will do that (nor will I).

Instead, you are apt to come across a positive reviewer of “Open City” saying the novel is, in some non-specific way, a “tour de force.” Another will cagily suggest something’s amiss by labeling the story’s narrator, Julius, a 32-year-old Nigerian-American who is completing a psychiatry fellowship in New York City, “an unreliable narrator.” I will put it this way: what this enormously talented writer has succeeded in doing is crafting a multi-layered reading experience that, at the book’s close, will redouble your receipt of its literary rewards. “Open City” is a novel you will be dying to talk about with other readers.

Since Cole is a newcomer, reviewers are falling over themselves trying to position him next to some veteran. Which writer will Cole remind the reader of? Candidates are piling up. One is Joseph O’Neill, who, like Cole, is a writer of mixed parentage, multicultural perspective, and author of a novel, “Netherland,” which, like “Open City,” explores themes of displacement and anxiety in post-9/11 New York City. Another is Zadie Smith, who, like Cole, unabashedly tackles matters of race, class, the immigrant experience, and suppressed history that must not remain hidden.

W.G. Sebald has been mentioned as well, presumably for his erudition and a shared style of writing that is slow and meditative, seemingly without much of a plot, and dependent on the cumulative accretion of observations. Cole, however, is not a formal innovator like Sebald, and the reader may be relieved to learn Cole is a conventional technician, using standard-length sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” also has been cited as a model. At first blush this makes some sense (Meursault and Julius, twin protagonists of anomie) but my view is if Cole is following Camus, a stronger influence is “The Fall,” with its restless, talkative confessor.

An author I’d place on the list of comparables is Elizabeth Hardwick. Cole shares Hardwick’s keen turn of mind, her love of music, and her unerring command of language. Cole today, as Hardwick two generations ago, understands the seductive attraction of the walkable streets of Manhattan. Their ears are tuned to the innumerable personal stories waiting to be heard. (Cole has said wanted “Open City” to show how New York City is “a space full of ghosts and unfinished psychological business.”) Finally, like Cole, Hardwick showed no fear in letting autobiography undergird her fiction, notably in “Sleepless Nights.”

And, to add one more plate to the table: I see resemblances to the methods of Roberto Bolano’s “By Night in Chile.” Although Bolano’s short novel uncovers different sins and belongs to an earlier time of stress in a foreign nation, it shares with “Open City” a narrator prone to non-stop outpouring of stories, of exquisitely observed morsels of experience. Both narrators, it could be said, are engaged in a sort of “talking cure,” on a path to revealed truth. In both novels readers may find the meandering style frustrating. A stream of consciousness leaves some cold. Yet in each story it all adds up, at last, to a devastating contemporary psychological portrait.

But enough. Let Teju Cole and “Open City” be what they want to be: each reader’s own discovery.



(1) A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

(2) Cole has created on Tumblr a page “for and about the the novel Open Cityhere. For readers of the book it is a worthwhile resource, it takes the place of informative footnotes that a book as dense with allusions as Open City cries out for. But at this point the Tumblr page is only a beginning toward a collection of helpful annotations (I hope Cole, or perhaps others, continue to add material).

(3) A short but revealing interview with Cole is found on the Goodreads site, here.

(4) Audio of a BBC interview of Cole is available here (scroll down the page to find the list of “Chapters” (Cole is interviewed in Chapter 3 which starts at 26:30). The author’s spoken eloquence matches his written eloquence:

“I have not written a book about 9/11. I have written a book about how New York has habitually been a place that very quickly tries to get past the past and move on into the future. And so for characters such as Julius who are highly sensitive to it, it becomes an extremely heavy space. It becomes a space that is full of ghosts and unfinished psychological business.”

“I just think the work of mourning is very important, and if you don’t mourn properly your progress afterwards is sort of artificial, because there are things you haven’t dealt with.”

“It’s about finding your part in the human chain. And saying you’re not the first and won’t be the last.”

(5) Let me mention a few things that bothered me about “Open City.” One is the episode in which Julius takes a four-week vacation to go to Brussels in search of his maternal grandmother (his “oma”), with who he has lost contact. Yet Julius makes no effort to locate her, but instead continues his wandering habits (apparently it never occurs to him to simply hire a local detective). Although it is his essential psychological state, Julius demontrates a woeful passivity that began to grate on me somewhat. He is little more than an “eye and ear,” buffeted by events and strangers’ importuning, emasculated, a milquetoast set upon by bullies and opportunists. There is a wonderful moment during the BBC interview (linked to in Note 4) at 37:45 to 38:30. A fellow interviewee on the program, the passionately engaged sociologist Amitai Etzioni, shows frustration when Cole calmly mentions the Native Americans who once flourished in NYC but now are gone. Etzioni confronts Cole: “You’re so neutral, you’re so cool.” Cole is gracious in response, conceding the point, and assuring Etzioni that when it comes to the depredations of the past, “Believe me, I can get very strident.” “Please do,” recommends Etzioni.

(6) I cannot help but like an author who chooses to be photographed, in the year 2011, in front of what has always been, for me, a comforting reminder of man’s durable commitment to preserving hard-earned knowledge. I’m speaking of something you can still come across in great old libraries: a massive, oak-drawered card-catalog.



UPDATE (05-12-2012): Just found a YouTube video of a recent interview with the author, here (video published May 8, 2012 by WNYC Radio).  Responding to a question on the influence his photography has on his writing, Cole’s answer segues smoothly into a statement of purpose:

“One very particular influence is that photography inspires me to play with points of view, with actual physicals points, vantage points — to imagine a scene from above or from below. And so Open City is full of bird flights, people in skyscrapers looking down, people in planes, subways, wells. Because when you move up or you move down you actually change what you’re seeing — to defamiliarize the everyday.

“In photography and in writing, I want to give people the same sort of feeling, which is that there is someone else out there who’s noticing the small things of life, the things that are viewed obliquely, the things that deserve our attention but often elude our attention.”

“The Last Brother” by Nathacha Appanah

Friday, February 4th, 2011



“The Last Brother” is a coming-of-age story, a survivor’s narrative, and a belated history lesson. A seemingly small-scaled tale told in 200 pages, it bursts open to reveal an emotional largeness that will earn the tears of many readers.

Set on the island of Mauritius in the years 1944-45, “The Last Brother” portrays harrowing events in the life of Raj, a nine-year-old middle son of an illiterate and impoverished Indian family. The book is narrated by the now elderly Raj, who, even sixty years later, is driven by an intense search for understanding. His central memory is of a childhood friendship, brief but golden, with an eight-year-old orphan named David, one of 1500 Jewish refugees interned at the island’s Beau-Bassin prison during War War II. The novel traces Raj’s path through loss, guilt, grief and pain, toward a final, remarkable forgiveness.

Nathacha Appanah’s prose is simple and clear. The translation from the French (by Geoffrey Strachan) is beautiful. I was mightily impressed with Appanah’s unflashy but sure command of story-telling. As the story unfolds she adopts a captivating pace and rhythm. The book never flags. Appanah has an intuitive sense of when the reader needs a respite from its dark material (deaths, squalor, cruel abuse from an alcoholic father). And so she pulls us away, from time to time, to land in the present day, where the ever-seeking Raj, by now a retired teacher, quietly reflects on the lessons of six decades ago.

If there are any critical disagreements over this book, one strand will be a debate over whether Appanah has achieved the right balance between the adult Raj’s reflective and retrospective presentation on the one hand, and the immediacy of the youthful Raj’s initial encounters with pain and loss, hope and love. I,for one, think the author has managed the integration masterfully.

Each reader will find treasures in “The Last Brother.” One element that charmed me was how the unshakable love of Raj’s mother is linked to her religious instincts, which are grounded in Hindu animism. The power and magic that suffuses the natural world is a recurring motif throughout the novel. It inspires Appanah to offer striking descriptions of the flora and fauna of Mauritius. This includes the appearance of an enchanted red parakeet, a significant symbol that, you may notice, has found its way onto the book’s cover illustration. As well, the author taps into Christian iconography, starting with the fated aura of the golden-haired David.

Raj is his mother’s son, and he too seeks patterns and purpose in an all too unforgiving world. It is to Appanah’s credit that she quietly convinces the reader that this nine-year-old boy has a view of the world — and most importantly of love and duty — that is worthy of our attention and understanding.

There are insights into the psychology of family relationships, and these also serve the purpose of furthering the thematic arc of the novel. In the first chapter, the 70-year-old Raj speculates why his grown son (a successful information technology entrepreneur) has become so attentive: “But for the past few years now he seems to have all the time in the world for me. It is because I am old, the only family he has left, and he is afraid.” Of course, this fear of being orphaned, of being left behind as loved ones disappear, was Raj’s own greatest fear. Yet the most hopeful element of the book relates not to a familial continuity, but to Raj’s breaking the curse of child abuse. The final chapters being us forward to observe the adult Raj, married with son, lifted up from primitivism, achieving a modern normalcy, as represented by a scene in which Raj takes his little boy to town to pick up a newspaper. I was almost struck dumb by the powerful relief this brings. I was also stuck by an even more up to date scene between Raj and his mother who’s happy ensconced in a fine retirement home by the sea, chatting away with her new friends (the shock is that the mother has her own intelligent voice, which has been suppressed in Raj’s recounting of his early years).

It occurs to me that “The Last Brother” would make a fine addition to a reading list for high school English classes. It is an eminently “teachable” novel. Consider, as a starting point, the numerous insights of Dalia Sofer, here.

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(A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here. An interview in which Appanah explains her attraction to the historical backdrop of the novel is available here.)

Silenus in Georgetown

Friday, February 4th, 2011



It is winter and cold and I am trying to remember summer through the aid of last year’s photographs, among which is this shot.

On fine summer days last year you could find this man sitting for hours on a sidewalk at the entrance to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. I do no know his story, only his commanding presence. His diagonal pose, his pendulous belly, and the cup he raises to receive gifts of sustenance, recall depictions of the mythological Silenus, companion and tutor to the wine god Dionysus.

Except that, unlike the drunken Silenus, the man above knows he is in command.