Interviews

Midcentury Expressionist Drama, Novelized

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New York’s Greenwich Village (photo by Aurelien Guichard/Flickr)

PARIS — I recently met in my studio the writer Jake Lamar, a New York ex-pat living in Paris, and spoke to him about his new novel, Postérité (The original English title is “Posthumous”), that will be published today in French by Rivages. The novel is about an art historian named Toby White and his efforts to write the story of the turbulent life and work of the fictional female Dutch Abstract Expressionist painter Femke Versloot. Versloot’s life and art echoes, at times, that of Willem de Kooning’s, but she comes well after him from Rotterdam to Greenwich Village at the height of the Abstract Expressionist revolution of the 1950s. The reader follows the ebbs and flows of her art career as it passes into 21st century Northern California during the tense days after the September 11 attacks.

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9782743628840Joseph Nechvatal: Jake, since 1991, you have published six notable books in the United States, a memoir and five novels. Recently I saw in Paris a reading of Brothers in Exile, your play about the complex relationship between the African American writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes in Paris in the 1950s. Five of your books have been translated into French.

All of this work has been concerned, in one way or another, with issues of race, specifically blackness. But with “Postérité” you have radically switched genre away from obvious African American concerns, writing about the art career of a white elderly woman painter. Why did you choose to do so?

Jake Lamar: My first four books — the memoir “Bourgeois Blues” and the novels “The Last Integrationist,” “Close to the Bone” and “If Six Were Nine” — all explored racial questions in the USA. When, in my fifth and sixth books — “Rendezvous Eighteenth” and “Ghosts of Saint-Michel” — I changed the setting to Paris, my cast of characters became very international. And while my play “Brothers in Exile” focuses on three black authors, the rest of the cast is white. So when I started working on “Postérité” I didn’t see it as a big leap to write a book in which all the important characters, but one, are white.

That said, because the novel is not a thriller, is not set in Paris and does not deal with racial questions, it represents a new departure for me.

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James Baldwin (photo by Allan Warren/Wikimedia)

JN: And how has the publishing industry reacted to your choice?

JL: As an author, I’ve had very different experiences in the American and the French publishing industries. My French house, Rivages, is extremely loyal to its authors. My French editor, François Guérif, knew that Postérité would be very different from my other books. But he loved the manuscript and jumped at the chance to publish it.

I still have not found an American publisher for this book. My other books have been published by imprints of Simon and Schuster, Random House and St. Martin’s Press. But this one has proven to be a hard sell. Maybe it’s because of my modest sales record. Maybe it’s because Americans don’t embrace books about artists. Or maybe it’s because the state of the publishing industry in the USA is, as one of my colleagues put it: “apocalyptic.”

JN: I thought that Postérité is a very well written, snappy, and entertaining work of fiction, and I know that it will be a very interesting book for the art world to read when it is published in English. Your descriptions of the art world are extremely well rendered, both the downtown Greenwich Village art scene (replete with boozing and brawling) and the more demure university art department surroundings. But besides the art world perspective, the book for me had one key distinction. It is remarkably post-racial in affect. I mean that as a high compliment. This seems to me to be a significant achievement for an artist today. I wonder if you agree?

JL: I would say the book is more non-racial than post-racial. Interestingly, both Richard Wright and James Baldwin wrote novels with white protagonists back in the 1950s. I’m not all that up-to-date with literary trends in America, but I couldn’t help but notice that a great many white authors are writing about — or writing from the point of view of — black characters. They are widely applauded for this. I’m not sure if there are a lot of black authors writing from white characters’ perspectives these days. If they are, they might be having the same trouble getting their work published that I’ve had with Posthumous.

Of course, no publisher has come out and said, “Who does this black guy think he is, writing about Abstract Expressionism?” At least, no one has written that in an email.

Anyway, I’m very happy that you found my depiction of the art world plausible. I employed the novelist’s usual tools to conjure up a world: personal experience, research, and pure imagination.

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Washington Square Park, circa 1960 (photo by Winston Vargas/Flickr)

JN: I was astonished and delighted that you inserted a real-world overlooked female painter, Janet Sobel, into the art historical narrative that you weave around Femke Versloot and her key encounter with Jackson Pollock. You draw parallels between this almost unknown Ukrainian-American woman artist, who some consider to have been the originator of drip painting, and Femke Versloot, an artist who doesn’t feel that her paintings have been given the recognition they deserved when compared to her colleagues Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner. Not to mention Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Pollock … There is a key moment in the book when Versloot knocks out Pollock in the Cedar Tavern!

How did you discover Sobel? I only discovered her through your book!

JL: I discovered Janet Sobel in much the same way that my art historian character Toby White discovers her. I was at MoMA, researching this novel, when I spotted a painting, titled Milky Way, that I took to be a Pollock that I’d never seen before. I was totally stunned to see the name Janet Sobel beside the painting and even more taken aback by the date on the painting: 1945, two years before Pollock’s drip epiphany.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to learn more about Janet Sobel. But I was thrilled to find a real-life painter who was overlooked in much the same way as my fictional artist Femke Versloot.

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Janet Sobel, “Heavenly Sympathy” (c. 1947) (photo by Jim Gourley/Flickr)

JN: I thought it was particularly clever of you to title your chapters the same way that Femke Versloot titles her paintings (or visa versa) – that is by month and year. Yet the narrative of the book is non-linear, with unexpected and revealing flashbacks. Did abstract painting, with its non-narrative qualities, invade your thought process when writing this book? Or to put it another way, what is your relationship with painting here?

JL: You know, nearly all my books fall into this looping time structure. It’s just one of my quirks as a storyteller. Believe it or not, it took me quite a while to realize that my month and year chapter headings had a correspondence with the titles of Femke’s paintings.

JN: Also what intrigued me Jake, were your descriptions of Versloot’s paintings. Your accounts are never altogether obscure, nor altogether clear, yet they conveyed to me an intimate body-centric abstraction associated with private chaotic violence. So even though her titles are cold serial date descriptions, the actual paintings, as you hint at them, seem to suggest an insertion into abstraction of a personal symbolic underground.

As we learned to disassociate metaphor from painting with Abstract Expressionism, you, through Versloot, are putting it back in. Yes?

JL: With every novel, a writer takes on certain challenges. With this book, I very consciously wanted to take on the challenge of describing paintings the reader would never see. Our culture is so dominated by the visual, I wanted to plunge deeply into the unique rapport that exists between a writer and a reader. The writer describes, the reader imagines. It’s always a kind of collaboration. But this was particularly challenging since I was describing works that don’t actually exist!

I, for one, never disassociate metaphor from painting. I’m always looking for metaphors. But maybe that’s because I’m a writer.

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Willem de Kooning, “Untitled” (1948–49) (photo by Martin Beek/Flickr)

JN: I recall you described one painting as seething, a word that tripped off a whole bunch of suggestions in my mind — from oceans, people, pageants – to cauldrons, chasms and madhouses — but never letting me settle on a precise image. But I can’t but help dwell on the lack of tenderness in how she expresses herself with paint. It struck me that perhaps you were calling on the reader’s visual instincts in interpreting her art as a key to the meaning of her life as connected to her experiences of World War II?

JL: Excellent point, Joseph. I don’t want to go too far into interpreting my own book so I’ll just give you a one word answer here: Yes!

JN: It seemed to me that in Postérité the very real violence of war and an aesthetic of antagonism that verges on representational tragedy, harmonizes with intimate human body fluids that I associate with an inner landscape. Is that why another female artist character associated her paintings with a feminist source?

JL: Actually, it’s a fictional art historian named Zsofia Szüts who claims that Femke’s work is inherently feminist because it “represents” women’s intimate knowledge of the body and bodily trauma. Yet another female art historian in the book, Sally Kim, believes that the violence in the paintings reflects the war. Since Femke herself refuses to explain, I leave it to the reader to make his or her own judgments.

Postérité is out today from Éditions Payot & Rivages. 

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