Cezanne Gets the Last Laugh
Very few works of fiction are convincing at depicting a painter. Usually things go wonky as soon as the fictional artist starts talks about painting. These guys read like they’ve never seen a real painting up close, much less done one. I get the impression that most writers, are incapable of understanding painters. Most famously, Emille Zola wrote a novel (“L’Oeuvre,”) based on his lifelong (up to that point) friend, Paul Cezanne. In the book, the Cezanne character devotes his life to painting, tragically never realizing his own lack of talent. In Zola’s defense, it could be argued that “L’Oeuvre” reflected Cezanne’s lack of success up to that point. But of course it also reflected the fact that Zola didn’t recognize that his (soon to be ex-)friend was a genius.
Off-hand, the only book I can think of where the painter seemed truly believable was The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey. As a young man, Carey had seriously studied art and intended a career as a painter, so perhaps that helped. But the madman/ genius/drunken bum that is Gulley Jimson (the book’s main character) is not the sort of artist that any art student would dream up. Regardless, It’s a wonderful creation. The Horse’s Mouth was once considered a small masterpiece and now (as far as I can tell) it’s virtually forgotten. I would certainly recommend it, along with Carey’s Second Trilogy, which is even more obscure. But, getting back to the matter at hand. My poor opinion of the way painters have fared in novels, made me a little apprehensive when I set out to write about Maria Maria, the young artist in my all-ages book, Peter Pigeon of Snug Harbor. Especially, since I had some avenues of description cut off that wouldn’t be suitable for young readers.
But I comforted myself with the fact that I never thought of myself as a writer (it was just something I stumbled into and made a living from through hack work). And sure enough, as soon as I started writing about Maria Maria, we felt like old friends. I don’t know if I defied the writer/painter hex, but I had a lot of fun writing about Maria Maria. And that’s unusual for me, writing’s usually a misery.
Gradually the strains of ambition, disappointment, and fear, drive Maria Maria to point of madness. (Even if kids were going to read the book, she’s still an artist.) But in the post below, Maria Maria is at her sunny, optimistic, (if already a bit nutty), best.
Excerpt From Chapter 8 “Maria Maria”
Now all the artists were moving in with their paints and canvases, sculptures and blowtorches, stuffed armadillos, phosphorescent snowshoes and all sorts of peculiar things. Peter hadn’t seen this much activity since the Snugs finished the Captain’s South Sea grog at his last party.
Hannah, the groundskeeper, was running all over the place trying to help the artists find their studios — which were to be set up in the rooms where the Snugs had lived.
Maria Maria charged over to Hannah and begged her for a different studio. “Please,” she said, “I can’t share a studio with Roger. He’s just too creepy to share a studio with!”
Hannah didn’t really think Roger was all that creepy. But she did remember that when she was Maria Maria’s age, certain guys really did seem pretty irritating. And she wanted everyone to be happy.
“Well,” said Hannah, “Everything is taken except for Captain Hardtack’s room. It’s much smaller than the others because, being a captain, he had it all to himself. Well, except for Peter. You would have to share it with Peter.”
“That’s all right,” Maria Maria said. “I don’t mind if he doesn’t. Can I talk to him?”
“Well, I guess you could talk to him. Captain Hardtack certainly did. He thought that Peter understood every word he was saying.”
“Why wouldn’t, Peter understand?” Maria Maria, asked. “Does Peter have a hearing problem? I know sign language, I’m sure he could understand me.”
“Peter’s a pigeon,” Hannah explained.
“Oh, wow, that is so cool!” said Maria Maria. “I would so love to talk to Peter and see if I could be his roommate.”
After being introduced to Peter, Maria Maria proceeded to tell him the story of her life. She felt he should have this type of information if they were going to be roommates. And anyway she enjoyed talking about herself. Maria Maria’s original name was Maria Colacco, but she thought that this name sounded very ordinary.
So just last year, on her 21st birthday, she changed her first name to Otto-Von-Bismarck. This made her parents very unhappy, because they thought Maria was a lovely name. Which, of course, it is. So to make them feel better, she changed her first name back to Maria. And to make herself feel better, she changed her last name to Maria. From that point on she was known as Maria Maria and everyone was very happy. Or at least, Maria Maria was very happy, and her parents figured they could live with it. Because once you’ve had a daughter named Otto-Von-Bismarck Colacco, Maria Maria sounds pretty good.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone was as understanding as her parents. In fact, no one at the Slurpee counter at the 7-11 where she worked could get her name right. But Maria Maria was convinced that before long, everyone on Staten island would know and understand the correct way to say her name — even the people at the Slurpee counter. That’s because Maria Maria planned to enter the annual art contest held by the Staten Island Advance and win the cash first prize. It was not only the money she was interested in, though. Maria Maria felt that the world was a pretty dreary place and it was her duty to brighten it up with her art.