Studying painting and drawing --- strictly as an amateur, I hasten to add --- has been a revelation to me...literally. It has caused me to see more and to use my eyes differently. Elizabeth Kostova’s THE SWAN THIEVES tunes into this visual enhancement with a story of two artists separated by more than a century, but linked in sensibility and tragedy. The most distinctive feature of the book is the author’s evocation of their finely honed perspective on everything from a well-loved face to an expanse of ocean or a garden in winter (one painter, for example, has learned to see that snow is never purely white and muses on how its colors shift with the changing light).
Kostova also mines the public’s continuing fascination with French Impressionism, that most surefire of art movements when it comes to a blockbuster show or museum merchandising (who among us has not indulged in --- or decried --- a Monet mug or Van Gogh address book?). Mixing actual artists and imaginary ones, she conjures the intimate world behind the radiant paintings.
The novel begins with what seems an entirely irrational act. A well-known figurative painter, Robert Oliver, attempts to slash an Impressionist canvas in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Enter psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, the ideal therapist for Oliver and the ideal narrator for us. As a doctor, he is trained to observe; as a serious amateur painter, he can understand better than most what drives the artist’s emotional life. There’s only one problem: his new patient refuses to talk. Given art supplies, Oliver does begin to draw and paint, but the pictures --- nearly always of the same beautiful, mysterious woman, in what looks to be 19th-century dress --- yield no immediate insights.
Oliver’s other activity is to read and reread a set of old letters in French. Marlow has the letters translated, and at that point THE SWAN THIEVES begins to alternate Oliver’s modern story with a correspondence from the 1870s between an artist named Beatrice de Clerval Vignot and her great-uncle by marriage, a much older man called Olivier Vignot (surely the similarity of names can be no accident), also a painter. Although Olivier has a more traditional aesthetic than his niece, a budding Impressionist, the two form a deep attachment based as much on their shared passion for art as on physical attraction.
Every love relationship in this book, in fact, is spurred on by and intermingled with a lust for painting. Marlow --- who is as determined a sleuth as he is a shrink --- tracks down Oliver’s former wife, Kate, and his ex-lover, Mary. Both clearly were seduced not just by the man himself but by his brushwork and creative passion. But neither Kate nor Mary bears any resemblance to the woman Oliver paints with such obsessive zeal, over and over. Who is she? What is their connection?
As Marlow looks for answers, chasing down clues as far as Paris and Acapulco, the links between past and present gradually emerge. Perhaps, especially toward the end, some of the plot ends are a bit too neatly tied up. But I liked Kostova’s leisurely pace (unafraid to digress, she spends more than 10 quietly stunning pages on a visit Marlow pays to his aging father) and lush, slang-free writing, which suit both her subject and her thoughtful characters.
Although Oliver and Marlow, locked in a silent battle of wills, are central to THE SWAN THIEVES, the women in the book are just as interesting and a lot angrier: “It’s a shame for a woman’s history to be all about men --- first boys, then other boys, then men, men, men,” says Mary. The saga of Beatrice (who resembles the French Impressionist Berthe Morisot, married with children, more than the transplanted American Mary Cassatt, who remained single) hints at the complicated choices female artists must make. Kate and Mary’s own painterly ambitions and independent sense of self become submerged in their love for the moody, charismatic Robert Oliver. When Kate’s children were toddlers, she says, “My life was mostly touch … I suppose [Robert’s] was color and line, so that we couldn’t see each other’s worlds very well….” Although I think that Kate and Mary are a bit too similar as characters, they are so strong, attractive and honest that the reader falls half in love with them (so does Marlow).
It is an ambitious task for a novelist to invent an artist. How, using words alone, can she create an imaginary body of work? Leaving aside the old-fashioned genre of artist-biography-as-fiction (LUST FOR LIFE; THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY), the best recent example I can think of is Siri Hustvedt’s sophisticated, cerebral WHAT I LOVED, set in the downtown New York art scene of the ’80s and ’90s. The descriptions of her artist protagonist’s installations have the ring of truth.
Kostova’s book is way more romanticized and conventional than Hustvedt’s --- more Musée d’Orsay than chic, experimental SoHo gallery. It is also entrancing, absorbing and thoroughly readable. When Marlow is leaving the National Gallery, he senses “that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum --- relief at being returned to the familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world’s lack of mystery.” Upon finishing THE SWAN THIEVES, I felt much the same way.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011
The Swan Thieves