Zangwill’s The Master on Art

A passage about art and artists from the preface to Israel Zangwill’s Künstlerroman The Master.

The front cover of Hennepin County Library's first edition copy of Zangwill's The Master
The front cover of Hennepin County Library’s first edition copy of Zangwill’s The Master

Published in 1895, Israel Zangwill’s The Master is a Künstlerroman about a teenage boy in Nova Scotia who overcomes a difficult childhood and extreme poverty to become a great painter. The Master also features illustrations by George Wylie Hutchinson, a frequent Zangwill collaborator whose life story informed the writing of the novel.

I haven’t gotten that far into it yet so I don’t know if it’s any good (it was a bestseller when it first came out). But what I do know is that this passage from the proem (preface) is an overwrought but fabulous and cutting meditation on art and artists that ends with an image that is SF&F adjacent and thus worth noting here:

“And amid these homely emotions of yeomen, amid the crude pieties or impieties of homespun souls, amid this sane hearty intercourse with realities or this torpor of sluggish spirits, was born ever and anon a gleam of fantasy, of imagination: bizarre, transfiguring, touching things with the glamour of dream. Blind instincts—blinder still in their loneliness—yearned towards light; beautiful emotions stirred in dumb souls, emotions that mayhap turned to morbid passion in the silence and solitude of the woods, where character may grow crabbed and gnarled, as well as sound and straight. For whereas to most of these human creatures, begirt by the glory of sea and forest, the miracles of sunrise and sunset were only the familiar indications of a celestial timepiece, and the starry heaven was but a leaky ceiling in their earthly habitation, there was here and there an eye keen to note the play of light and shade and color, the glint of wave and the sparkle of hoar-frost and the spume of tossing seas; the gracious fairness of cloud and bird and blossom, the magic of sunlit sails in the offing, the witchery of white winters, and all the changing wonder of the woods; a soul with scanty self-consciousness at best, yet haply absorbing Nature, to give it back one day as Art.

“Ah, but to see the world with other eyes than one’s fellows, yet express the vision of one’s race, its subconscious sense of beauty, is not all a covetable dower.

“The islands of Acadia are riddled with pits, where men have burrowed for Captain Kidd’s Treasure and found nothing but holes. The deeper they delved the deeper holes they found. Whoso with blood and tears would dig Art out of his soul may lavish his golden prime in pursuit of emptiness, or, striking treasure, find only fairy gold, so that when his eye is purged of the spell of morning, he sees his hand is full of withered leaves.” (3-4)

Reading for Writers: The Tigress of Forli

WHM talks about what he learned from reading Elizabeth Lev’s biography of Caterina Sforza The Tigress of Forli.

the cover of The Tigress of Forli While reading Elizabeth Lev’s biography of Caterina Sforza The Tigress of Forli, I realized that I was just as interested in the quieter aspects of Sforza’s life as the big dramatic events and aspects of her personality that she is (in)famous for. As a result, I suddenly felt like both female and male characters in many fantasy novels were one-dimensional in comparison. Clearly, a biography does things that a novel can’t — it’s a more comprehensive narrative that doesn’t require a tight plot. And yet, Lev does provide some fascinating through lines.

The key narrative of Caterina Sforza’s life was her struggle to keep possession of lands in Romagna (that came to her via marriage to her first husband Girolam Riario and after his death, to her son) when the Pope, the large neighboring Italian city states, and the lesser nobility of Romagna all wanted pieces (or all) of the Riario domain. The stories about this are fascinating. The Caterina Sforza wikipedia page does a decent job of covering the basics. Sforza’s wit and guile and bravery (and, yes, beauty) are legendary. Just one example: after the death of Pope Sixtus, as Rome fell into chaos, a pregnant Caterina left her ransacked residence to occupy the Castel Sant’Angelo on behalf of her husband with the hopes of influencing the conclave that would select the next pope. But politics wasn’t her only obsession. She was an avid hunter and knew how to fight with a sword. She was a religious women, who later in life would spend periods of time in a convent. She was also keenly interested in growing herbs and making medicinal preparations with them as well as combining them with other substances to create cosmetics. And, of course, art (including interior decoration) and reading and correspondence via letter were all things she regularly engaged in.

In fiction, characters are often one or two things. And oftentimes the second thing is not all that unique or interesting. Caterina Sforza was a politician, hunter, rider, herbalist, alchemist, mother, wife, widow, lover, correspondent, interior decorator, fashion plate, warrior, religious zealot and philanthropist. She was hated by many, admired by many and loved by a few. There are obviously differences between real lives lived and fictional characters on the page, but after reading about Caterina Sforza, your standard fantasy character, especially your standard female character in epic fantasy, seems slight in comparison. The solution isn’t to write a Caterina Sforza (although I’m sure that’s already been done), but rather to think about the characters we write as more than just plot functions or character types.

Lev’s book isn’t perfect, although I can’t judge as a biography because it’s a period of history that I am not well-acquainted with. For all I know, it may be a little too on the side of the subject, but Caterina Riario Sforza deserves the sympathetic treatment, especially considering her accomplishments and how she was depicted by some of her contemporaries (particularly Machiavelli) and those who followed their lead. Even so, there were moments where you felt Lev stretching to get inside Sforza’s head or to include a piece of research. And even though it’s a popular history, it also would have been nice to have more of Sforza’s actual words (from letters) included in the text. We get very little of that. And yet what we do get is more than enough for me to declare The Tigress of Forli as essential reading for writers.

When I knew Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation had hooked me

I was, of course, inclined to like Annihilation before I even cracked the cover because I have enjoyed VanderMeer’s previous work immensely. And the opening line is excellent as is the entire beginning of the novel so really I was already on board. But when I hit the paragraph on the top of page 6 (which is four pages of text into the novel), I knew that this was exactly my kind of book (and was quite confident that it would continue to be so [which it was]):

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)

Recommended Reading for Writers: Tastes of Paradise

WHM discusses the central thesis of Tastes of Paradies: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants and why it could be useful to fiction writers, especially those who create secondary, future or alternative worlds for their stories.

Tastes-Paradise-SchivelbuschWriters often plumb nonfiction books for rich details, interesting characters, startling events, cool names, and more. The lifted details are often tranmuted or transposed, especially by genre fiction authors.

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch is somewhat useful as a work to sift for details, but I grant it the status of recommended reading because of the usefulness of its core thesis for writers, especially creators of secondary, future or alternative worlds.

As Schivelbusch writes in the preface:

 Their [that is stimulants] historical function was this ‘performance-in-the-process-of-enjoyment’ which at first sounds like a paradox. The effects they produce on the human organism were the final consummation by chemical means, one might say, of a course that had been well charted before in spiritual, cultural, and political ways. The morning cup of coffee and the Saturday-night tipple tie the individual into his society more effectively because they give him pleasure. (xiv)

To put it more simply: stimulants (and he includes spices like pepper and cinnamon in this category) aren’t consumed and valued solely for their stimulating effect. Rather, which stimulants are consumed, and how and where and by whom they are consumed are affected by (and also influence) socio-cultural and political and economic factors.

As with any social history, especially one as accessible and short (226 pages) as this one, I wonder if Schivelbusch is overreaching in some cases, but the beauty for us writers is that that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we think about what sorts of stimulants might be available in the world of our story and how they weave into the social/cultural/economic fabric of that world.

For example, Schivelbusch ties the rise in coffee in the seventeenth century to Prostentatism and the emergence of capitalism and the middle class. Wine and ale had kept humanity in a stupor, it was thought, whereas coffee invigorates the mind and body and leads to industry — it promotes rationalism. But it wasn’t just the substance itself: coffehouses, where coffee was drunk, were the incubators of journalism, literature (especially the precursors to the novel), insurance underwriting, stock brokerage and other capitalistic activities.

He writes:

 With coffee, the principle of rationality entered human physiology, transforming it to conform with its own requirements. The result was a body which functioned in accord with the need demands — a rationalistic, middle-class, forward-looking body. (39)

The effect of stimulants wasn’t just on the social level, though. One of the more startling sections of the book, one that I had been vaguely aware of but never seen so starkly laid out, is when he shows how the British were using plantations in India to grow and refine opium which they then forced (that’s a word overstates things somewhat but not much) on the Chinese in exchange for Chinese-grown tea, which the Empire then consumed in vast quantities.

Schivelbusch also tracks how various substances changes in meaning and consumption over time — the chapter on how tobacco moved from snuff to pipesmoking and cigars to cigarettes is particularly interesting. He also makes an attempt at prediction for own own time (he’s big on the meaning of water [especially mineral water]).

Stimulants and intoxicants, especially the kind that are consumed socially, are often used in science fiction and fantasy to add meaning and color. Reading Tastes of Paradise helped me understand how writers can deepen their deployment.