This is a novel, centered around the 75-day performance piece titled The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, with fictional protagonists and others drawn to and affected by that extraordinary exhibition.
At the fictional and emotional center of the story here is Arky Levin, whose wife Lydia has a stroke and decides to recover from it, or not, in a nursing home in East Hampton rather than burden him with her care. Arky is a composer and pianist, whose career has had highs and lows and may be petering out; Lydia is an even more accomplished architect. They’ve just sold their walkup in Manhattan and bought their dream home—a New York apartment overlooking Washington Square—and Lydia has arranged the move down to the last labeled box and a squadron of movers. When she’s stricken at the airport on returning from work on a distant project, Arky is left to babysit the move-in.
The central conflict in their story is whether Arky is a schmuck for going along with Lydia’s expressed desire that he stay away from the nursing home and attend to his own work. Readers struggle with this question, just as Arky and his adult daughter do. He thinks this an unfair request, but he succumbs to it because Lydia is a formidable being . . . and, probably, because he has work to do on a project that could reinvigorate his career, and a life to live though he likes it a whole lot less than before Lydia’s stroke. We get a lot more about how all this feels to Arky than to Lydia, because Lydia is essentially incapacitated. Whatever messages they send to each other are carried by their adult daughter, who urges her father to overrule her mother’s wishes and get as involved at the nursing home as she is.
An almost-equally central storyline in the novel is the exhibition going on at the Modern. In a several-story atrium, Abramović sits in one of two facing straight-chairs for hours on end. She doesn’t get up to pee, she doesn’t look away, she just stares into the eyes of members of the public who line up in the wee hours of every morning to get a good seat, either in the chair facing Abramović—where it is first-come-first-serve-and-stay-as-long-as-you-don’t-look-away—or in the spectator seats surrounding all this in the atrium. Arky goes nearly every day to watch, befriending others who are doing the same, some of whom have sat and maybe will again, some of whom—like Arky—think they will at some point but aren’t quite sure.
The most interesting part of the story of the exhibition, for me, was learning about Abramović’s performance art and career. We’re given all this backstory because in a floor above the sitting exhibition is a retrospective of Abramović’s career doing crazy things, like walking from one end of the Great Wall of China toward the center, where she will meet her long-time partner and paramour before they separate for good. Or an exhibition where the two of them stood naked facing each other in a doorway, and attending the exhibition entailed passing through the door; it’s recreated upstairs with others performing. Arky, and the many people he meets and befriends, have all gone upstairs sooner or later and been educated about performance art and Abramović’s oeuvre. It’s an amazing thing, this performance art. Reading these passages reminded me of the research I’ve done into Abstract Expressionism (for Strays and another novel in the works) into Abstract Expressionism. Talk about “abstract”—nothing could be more abstract than Abramović’s brand of performance art. “What does it mean?” has no more purchase in a conversation about The Artist is Present than it had at a Rothko exhibition on 57th Street in the Forties.
An equally compelling aspect of the novel is its depiction of what goes on inside the head of a composer and pianist. Arky loves his work, is born to it you might say, and the passages where we’re brought inside his head—as the music moves through his whole being—are wonderfully rendered.
I will say that New York itself seemed underdone a bit, at least to me. We do get a feel for the lovely apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. But there’s so much more to New York than that park, the sidewalk outside MoMA and its central space in which The Artist is Present was staged.
What can I say here (without spoilers) about the ending to the Levins’ story?
Well, that it makes no sense at all . . . and all the sense in the world. No fairy tale ending, this. A sober, clear-eyed manifesto is more like it. Bravo.
(Note: A 2012 documentary about The Artist is Present is widely available on cable television.)
Colm Tóibín is one of a handful of contemporary writers whose new novels I begin waiting for as soon as I’ve finished their last. This has been true since I first encountered The Master, in the spring of 2005,on a table out front of a bookstore in Dublin off St. Stephen’s Green. I was intrigued by the writing as I paged through, but I’d never been a fan of Henry James (the central figure in The Master). So I wandered inside, and looked through the fiction section but found nothing. So I hailed one of the booksellers passing by. “I can’t find the books by this writer anywhere.”
The man looked at what I had in hand, said, “Well, he’s an Irish writer,” and bid me to follow him. We crossed into another area entirely, a much larger space, with a long wall of books crowned by grand letters: THE IRISH WRITERS.
There I found Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing. It began:
“Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.”
In alternating chapters, The Heather Blazing tells the story of the aging Judge Redmond, who lives with his wife, Carmel, in Dublin and returns each summer to his family home in the south by the sea; and of young Eamon Redmond the motherless child, who grew up there in Enniscorthy with his father and uncle, who were both Fianna Fáiland deeply involved in the struggles. When his father, a schoolteacher, has a stroke, young Eamon is taken by his uncle to live with some even-more-distant cousins in an even-more-rural setting; it’s a very long time before they are reunited, and his father struggles to speak and teach with his enduring handicap. In the midst of all this, a wonderful and convincing tale of reaching puberty, and struggling with the faith of an altar boy. And another, later, of meeting Carmel at a campaign rally in which young Eamon has been asked to give a speech.
Years later, Eamon and Carmel have two children, a daughter who goes ahead with having a baby rather than an illegal abortion knowing the father won’t return; and a son who seems to struggle under the weight of his father’s stature. Carmel minds the baby, Eamon builds a career in law that puts him on the bench, and in the office looking down on the Liffey.
The parallels between Tóibín’s novels, especially the early ones, are striking: Families marked by love and loss, absent parents, children bearing the weight of it all and growing into adults marked by it. The Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as were two of his later novels, The Masterin 2004 and Brooklynin 2009.
It would be some time before I read The Master, though I now regard it as perhaps Tóibín’s greatest work. I look forward to reviewing it in a future post.
So I ask, how did you find one of your favorite authors? I found Kevin Barry, subject of my recent post on Night Boat to Tangier, by way of a short story published in The New Yorkerin 2010 called “Fjord of Killary”. I first read Richard Ford after hearing him speak at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference in 2002. Why not click on “Comments”, call yourself whatever you like (within reason), and let us know one or more of your favorite writers and how you found them.
Finally,click on the link below to see Colm Toibin and Richard Ford reading from their then-recent books a few years ago at Columbia University, where both taught at the time.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .