Donna Tartt is one of these fascinating (and very fortunate) authors who can write a debut-novel bestseller then keep her readers waiting around ten years for the second and a further eleven for the third, this fascinating novel The Goldfinch. However, her talents were spotted early and her writing was encouraged. Her earlier novels and short stories have won her prizes and literary acclaim. This one is a long book and although I found her detailed, minute-by-minute, day-by-day narration of the central character, Theo Decker’s thoughts and feelings in dramatic and testing circumstances beautifully written and fascinating to read, I will admit to giving a silent cheer when Chapter 9 on page 443 began, “One afternoon eight years later …”
The hunt for the missing Velázquez begins … and ends! In between, however, several very exciting events overtake this particular Englishman, Anthony Whitelands, described in the blurb as a ‘gentleman, libertine, [and] art historian’. He sounds very much like my kind of fellow, don’t you think? Reviewers are allowed, on suitable occasions, to work in shameless plugs for their own work and so you may discount the next few words if you wish. Having written about an art historian of questionable morality and considerable ambition in my own novel Rembrandt Sings, I am always interested to read about the adventures of similar characters. Whitelands, the creation of Spanish writer Eduardo Mendoza, is called to Madrid in March 1936; that fraught and fractious period prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His ostensible mission is to evaluate paintings owned by a nobleman who, it might appear, wants to sell them and bank the proceeds abroad to provide for his family should they have to flee the coming crisis.
Of the several Wolfe books I’ve read, two in particular stand out. The Electric Kool Acid Test (1968) came as shock to the system, mine, and almost everyone else’s. The stylistic juxtaposition of stream of (chemically altered) consciousness and journalism was a mind-bending experience. (I admit too that, a few years later, I wasn’t altogether happy that my son found and read it.) Twenty years later, Wolfe gave us the Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) which came out just as capitalist greed was being pronounced good for us by our political rulers in the US and UK, and by our real masters and manipulators in the financial world. Bonfire may have taken its title from Savonarola and Florence 500 years earlier but the book reads as a contemporary roman à clef with its principal characters being a WASP, a Jew, a Brit and a Black. Wolfe originally wrote the book as a Charles Dickens style serial which helped to add chapter-by-chapter tension to the tale. Set in New York, its themes are race, class, politics and greed. An ear for demotic talk and an eye for how people walk, such as the ‘pimp roll’ that was fashionable among young black street-wise men, helps to imprint the story on our minds and give it much apparent verisimilitude. A further 25 years on and, like many from the America’s chilly North-East, the story moves south to Florida and is set in present-day Miami. Wolfe’s third remarkable book is Back to Blood. [London: Jonathan Cape, 2012]
This was a book which, curiously, I was very glad to read but gladder still to have read after I wrote my own novel Rembrandt Sings which is about art forgery and a few other things besides. If I had read the book first I would have been influenced by it, which is fine in a way, but the biggest tribute my own book has been paid is by one of the main characters in book ten who said my novel gave “a remarkable insight into the work of an art forger”. It seems I was getting it right as Provenance confirms.