The protagonist of my current novel project, Consequence, nicknames a certain saboteur "Chagall," under circumstances I hope you'll be interested to read about when the book is published. The painter from whom the name is borrowed is a longtime favorite of mine, and I've spent quite a bit of time staring at a digital reproduction of his dreamlike 1913 canvas, Paris par la fenêtre, on the website of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the painting has been in residence since Solomon Guggenheim donated it to the museum as part of the institution's initial collection. I have a crude, greyscale print of the digital reproduction taped to a bookshelf near my writing desk at home.
Until a recent edit, the protagonist of my novel had a confused dream in Chapter 4 that only made sense when he realized it was a conflation of the worrisome partnership he is beginning to form with the aforesaid saboteur and the painting Paris par la fenêtre, a work of art he has known since his childhood.
Last week I took the subway up to the Guggenheim on the last day of a show featuring the work of Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. It was a fine foray into abstract painting, and a nice warmup for the many museums I planned to see during my visit to New York (last week I blogged about the following afternoon's visit to MOMA).
After taking in Kandinsky and Malevich, I turned the corner and ran smack into it: Paris par la fenêtre, live and in color.
I spent a long time staring at the painting. Then I walked away for a bit. Then I walked back and stared for a while longer. I hadn't seen the painting live for a good 25 years, and -- honestly? -- I don't remember that mid-80s visit to the Guggenheim very well at all.
The upside-down train beyond the window really got me. It stands out so much more prominently on the painted canvas than in its digital reproductions, or even in the reproductions I've seen printed in art books. The relevance to my fictional saboteur of the juxtaposition of an overturned train and the Eiffel Tower fairly jumped off the wall: an icon of nineteenth century modernity set against an upended engine of nineteenth century industry. The alluring detail in the flowers painted on the back of a chair were also a see-it-live experience; and the vividness of the Janus-faced figure in the corner of the painting (there are several dual or uncertain identities in Consequence), of the Victorian couple floating head-to-head in the air (or are they floating down the Seine?), of the cityscape spreading out from the iconic tower ... it all had my head reeling, neurons firing hard and fast with connections to the manuscript I've been laboring over for years.
The experience has left me eager to rewrite Paris par la fenêtre back into my novel. It won't be hard: I know right where to recover a view of the painting in Chapter 9, and how to punch up its occurrence in the Epilogue.
My eagerness to fold this painting back into my fiction leads me to think about the relationship between a novelist's wellsprings of creative energy and the experiences of those who read the product of that energy. It's not that Marc Chagall's painting was the inspiration for Consequence, or that it has been the sole or even brightest-burning totem of the story as it has taken shape. But it has been a part of a family of cultural work that forms the soil in which my manuscript is growing: literature, art, music, political thought, philosophy, theology ... the stuff that happens when you turn off the TV and stop shopping.
I edited my protagonist's dream out of Chapter 4 not because it wasn't important, but because its inclusion interrupted the flow of the narrative in which it was situated (thanks are due to members of my writing group who insisted I see and correct this problem). It was possible to edit out the dream because, while it may have added a layer of psychological depth to the protagonist's state of mind as the novel's action unfolds, it wasn't key to a reader's experience or understanding of either plot or character. I can, and I believe I will, slip Paris par la fenêtre back into the manuscript as a grace note, as a piece in one of the many puzzles in Consequence, without interrupting the principal narrative's flow.
And so Chagall's painting will occur in my novel as one of those "easter eggs" that have been hidden in artistic work for about as long as there have been artists, details that pass unnoticed by all but close and attentive readers or viewers, that create resonance on a level that, for most, remains unconscious.
I'm sure that some -- but not all -- viewers of Paris par la fenêtre notice and consider the overturned train juxtaposed with La Tour Eiffel reaching for the sky.
I wonder how many readers of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer see implication of a sacramental act in the novel's final paragraphs, as Binx Bolling speaks with his future-wife in her 1951 Plymouth: She has started plucking at her thumb in earnest, tearing away little shreds of flesh. I take her hand and kiss the blood.
How many readers of Joyce's Ulysses consider, in the piss Stephen Daedelus takes at the end of the novel's first chapter -- In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising flowing [...] It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling -- an oblique reference to the power of the Celtic goddes Maeve, whose urination dug three great channels "each big enough to take a household" as Thomas Kinsella's rendering of The Táin has it?
I can't imagine how to count the number of readers of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings who fell deeply in love with Middle Earth with little or no formal understanding of or interest in the invented languages that, for the author, lay at the heart of the enterprise: "The invention of languages," Tolkein wrote, "is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."
To get caught up in the exquisite tension at the end of 1977's Star Wars IV one need not be conscious of the implication of an erect male organ in the form of an X-Wing Fighter, or the egg implicit in the shape of the Empire's "Death Star," or the sexual subtext of 19 year old Luke Skywalker straining to release his proton torpedoes into the impossibly difficult-to-hit exhaust port of the "Death Star" -- and the fabulously orgasmic fireball when he does hit his mark.
Resonance, allusion, symbolism, and subtly included elements of an artist's inspiration -- they work whether or not a reader or viewer is conscious of them.