To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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The Art Lover: A Novel (New Directions Classics) - Carole Maso This book is true. True to the fragmentation and ragged edges of life. True to all the ways that we open ourselves up to grief when we love another person. True to the ways that we can use art as a shield, a barrier to hold loss and pain at arm's length -- as well as to the ways that art can help us to truly acknowledge tears and heartache among laughter and joy, restoring life to its complex, multidimensional whole.

I know that this is a book I will revisit time and again, when I need to remind myself of the lessons Maso explores through words, images, memories, a collage of stories within stories, with her own story eventually breaking through. As she finds her voice, we find our voices with her.

Maso published The Art Lover in 1990, and it is set from Spring 1985-Spring 1986. Through Maso's novel, I travelled back in time to that period, as she reconstructs the quiet, the all too quiet agony of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. She juxtaposes the lonely deaths of young men on AIDS wings of NYC hospitals with the very public deaths of the Challenger astronauts. And rather than keeping death and loss at an abstract distance, within the pages of a newspaper or on a television screen, Maso constructs frames within frames to tell more personal tales of loss.

The primary narrator of The Art Lover is Caroline, a writer who published one successful novel, but who is struggling to write her second novel. Caroline is mourning the recent death of her much loved and very complex father, Max. Her reflections on her recent loss lead her to grapple with other profound sources of grief and loss in her life, both in the past and in the future.

One way in which Caroline deals with her grief is by exploring loss in her second novel, through the whirlwind of emotions that surround a man's decision to leave his wife and two daughters for another woman. Maso skillfully moves us back and forth, from Caroline's present, to her memories of the past, to fragments from chapters of her novel-in-progress. Interspersed among these passages are newspaper clippings, star charts suggesting a search for destiny, reproductions of artwork depicting scenes of death and redemption, dialogues in which Jesus voices doubt and fear, not to himself in Gethsemane but to characters in the novel. The juxtaposition of these fragments of words and images leads to a subtle, insightful, honest exploration of loss, uncertainty, fate, love, and memory in which art can serve as a means to make pain abstract and distant, or can lead to deeper understanding and, perhaps, transcendence.

This is a beautiful book if you have the time to sit with it, and read, and reflect, and go where Maso leads. And just as she finds her voice in a breathtakingly personal section late in the novel, so you may find the courage to face your own grief and pain, finding love amidst the tears.

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