by Lisa Peet
ekphrasis (/’ek.fr ə-səs\): a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art; from the Greek ἔκφρασις (ekphrasis, “description”), from ekphrazein, to recount, describe; from ex– out + phrazein to point out, explain.
It’s no coincidence that ekphrasis shares its prefix with ecstasy. Originally used as a rhetorical device, ekphrasis—a technique for translating music, performance, or visual art into words—has traditionally gone beyond objective description, past art theory or criticism, to express an emotion or make some kind of subjective declaration. And often—because after all, this is art we’re talking about—that assertion is one of great joy. From Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” the best art about art is born out of passion for the original.
But what happens when the work in question is too wonderful for words? How might a writer go about describing the indescribable—a painting, for instance—so moving, so sexy, so game-changing as to defy the vocabulary of formal analysis?
Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps, instead of relying on the conventional tools of ekphrasis, such a work demands that the tale of its equally ecstatic creation be told instead. Thomas Van Essen’s The Center of the World is such a novel, and it may not surprise a receptive reader that it has a few things to say as well about beauty and decay, luck and the gods, class, mortality, and the power of art to transform lives.
The Center of the World is, simply, the story of a painting. But the eponymous painting, a full-figure portrait of Helen of Troy by the 19th-century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, turns out to be more than just oil on canvas. It is imbued, somehow, with Helen’s mystical beauty and erotic life force, and as the book moves between the story of its creation in the 1830s and its rediscovery in 2003, the reader is treated to tantalizing glimpses—but glimpses only—into how this came to be.
In fact, there is no work called “The Center of the World.” While Joseph Mallord William Turner occasionally painted figure studies, his reputation rested almost entirely on his stunning treatment of light in landscape. But in Van Essen’s fictional world, the painting’s existence is entirely believable.
We first meet Turner at Petworth, the majestic Sussex estate of the Third Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont is a salonnière and patron of the arts, holding court to a mix of gentry, commoners, and artists with his mistress, the lovely Mrs. Spencer. She and Charles Grant, a recent guest of Egremont’s, become good friends; theirs are the voices narrating the birth of “The Center of the World.” Eventually Turner asks each to model for him; she is to be his Helen, Grant her Paris. The result is a stunning, almost alchemically powerful work that enthralls, entices, and—in one way or another—enslaves everyone who views it.
The painting is no less potent a century and a half later, when Henry Leiden discovers it on his family’s upstate New York property, wrapped up and hidden behind a barn wall. Leiden is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management guy, long-married and vaguely sad about practically everything. Finding the painting changes all that in an instant—not only the thought of the fortune an original Turner might bring, but the sudden possibilities of a world where such beauty can exist. He has never seen anything like “The Center of the World”—nor, as it turns out, has the unscrupulous Manhattan art dealer Arthur Bryce, but he has been following its trail for a while. Bryce enlists his pretty young go-getter of an assistant, Gina, to help track it down, and it’s through Gina’s and Henry’s eyes that we watch the painting’s 21st-century trajectory.
A painting goes on a journey; a painting comes to town. The Center of the World is a great yarn and a bit of a thriller, but it’s also an arresting expression of the inexpressible. Part of that is literal, and obviously intentional. Although Van Essen describes its components—Helen, barely clothed, waiting for Paris, her jewels discarded on the floor, soldiers locked in battle on the field seen through her window—most of it is left to the reader to visualize. And though we know it strikes lust into the heart of every viewer, how that’s done is up to us to decide as well. Van Essen’s words do the same work as Turner’s brushstrokes: he implies, working around the actual image by describing, instead, the reactions it inspires. A young prostitute, hired off a London street by one of the painting’s owners in the 1930s, attests,
I had seen a lot of paintings, sir, and I had seen my share of French postcards that showed all sorts of things, but I never seen nothing like this. It made me feel all shimmery inside, like I was on fire, and it brought a smile to my face so I almost forgot who I was and why I was there.
Much as Turner used light and reflection to model a figure in space, Van Essen uses the passion of viewers for “The Center of the World” to stand in for the painting itself.
The act of creation is also a major touchstone. Turner is a wonderfully odd and prickly character, and Van Essen does a fine job of teasing out how a master painter might think about what he does:
“All of this. This wine. This meat. This house. This countryside. And all the shades of light that illuminate them. It is all a burden. A blessing, too, of course, because, you know, we wouldn’t have anything if it were not for everything. But for the artist, you see, all this is a burden, a weight. Sometimes I feel it on my shoulders, pressing me down. Or a curtain. Heavy rich stuff—some tapestry, you know. One can’t see truth through it. But I do what I can. Sometimes a speck of light peeps through.”
Light, as a subject, is fleeting. And, as every artist knows, so is beauty. Even as Van Essen is bewitching us with Turner’s magical painting, there is also a strong backbeat of memento mori running through the narrative. As Turner tells Grant,
“The passage of the past to the present, of youth to age, of the golden age to the dismal one, the rise of empires and their fall. Most fellows don’t think of it as they paint, but one must, since it takes so damn long to execute a painting and nothing is as it was when you started.”
Or, as a private investigator describes Henry Leiden’s house on the page just preceding, “There’s nothing here…. Just the same old same old. Middle age and all that shit. Some day it will bite you in the ass too. Just you wait.”
Both Grant and Mrs. Spencer find modeling for Turner deeply unpleasant, the artist’s intense objectification discomfiting to a former courtesan and a homosexual man. Both feel physical beauty to be a blessing and a curse, and their ambivalence draws them together. But that is no concern of Turner’s; he is interested only in what needs to be created in the moment. Even he can’t explain his sudden need to paint the figure, when it has not historically been his strong suit: “[I] had my doubts. Not my usual line, you know…. I thought perhaps I might be mad. See the thing for one thing when in fact it is another. Enthusiasm can lead one astray—it’s hard to trust it.” Not this time, however. He has the chance to make beauty last, and he will not be denied.
Thomas Van Essen, too, knows a few things about creativity’s insistence.
A self-described literary-magazine type in high school, Van Essen went on to Amherst, which proved to be a bit too much “like boarding school with beer.” He transferred to Sarah Lawrence, which was more to his taste; his girlfriend—now his wife—was there, and Grace Paley, Tom Lux, Clarence Major, and Jane Cooper were on the school’s stellar writing faculty. Van Essen studied with Joseph Papaleo and E.L. Doctorow, whose “Writing a Novel” class was a fine place for an aspiring young author. Students critiqued each other’s work in class, met with Doctorow individually whenever they completed 50 new pages, and got to hear him read pieces of his work in progress, Ragtime.
Van Essen went on to graduate school at Rutgers, where he studied English—mainly Victorian—literature, and wrote his dissertation on Wilkie Collins. (The Collins family makes a cameo appearance in The Center of the World.) But as his degree was moving along, so was the rest of life. He married after leaving Sarah Lawrence, and had two children by the time he completed his Ph.D. Teaching was enjoyable, but family life called for something a little steadier.
He ended up taking a job writing test questions for Princeton’s Educational Testing Service—first logical reasoning questions for the GRE and then analogies and reading comprehension questions for the SAT, where his close reading skills proved to be an asset. He was a good manager as well, and rose up steadily through the ranks.
Van Essen fully intended to keep writing. Just because his academic dreams hadn’t worked out, he thought, he could still write at home, at night, after the kids were in bed. And he did—after a few years he had what he felt was a good, “Paul Auster-ish” detective novel. He found an agent, and the book made some rounds, but ultimately she couldn’t place it. “After she started asking me to pay for photocopies,” he says, “I gave up,” and spent the next decade concentrating on his family and career.
Life was comfortable, and he was good at what he did. But in 2003 he turned 50, and one evening, out of the blue, that creative longing reared its head with a vengeance. As he told Other Press in a recent interview:
I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and I knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? Is this all there is? I had stopped writing after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel … but I knew that I needed to go back to it.
What he needed to do, Van Essen decided, was just write—not worry about publishing, or declare himself an artist or join a writers’ group, but just get the ideas on paper. He had an idea that had been in the back of his mind since graduate school, and he needed to follow it through:
I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write 200 words a day, or 1,000 words a week. 50,000 words a year and I’d have a novel in two years. Piece of cake. It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing.
That love, of course, is what it takes. Like Turner in his borrowed garret at Petworth, Van Essen worked in private—only his wife and a couple of close friends even knew he was writing—until his vision was ready.
We will never know what “The Center of the World” really looks like, or what its hold over its witnesses actually involves. But Turner is the first to admit he doesn’t know what Helen truly looked like. He asks Grant,
“But what about ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ and all that? She surely must have looked like something.”
“But that is Marlowe, not Homer. And Marlowe put it as a question. What Faustus saw before him was a boy actor smeared with paint and covered with horsehair. ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ I think not. Shakespeare came closer to the mark when he has Ulysses describe her as ‘a theme of honor and renown.’ He understood that she was not flesh so much as an idea.”
And so it serves the reader well to remember that “The Center of the World” is not so much pigment on canvas as an idea—about the impulse that drives people to make art, and the wish to apprehend time and beauty for a satisfying instance. That Turner was sure of what he was doing was his gift; that Van Essen allows his ekphrasis enough ambiguity for ecstasy is our good fortune.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.