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From the Author
In 1853, Leopold Blaschka, a young artist, jeweler and glassmaker from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) traveled to America for business and for the sake of his health; when his ship was becalmed in the Atlantic, he began, as artists will, to draw. "We are on a sailing ship in the Atlantic Ocean, immobilized because of the calm," Blaschka wrote. "It is a beautiful night in May. Hopefully we look over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror: In various places there emerges all around a flashlike bundle of light beams, like thousands of sparks, that form bundles of fire and bundles of other bright lighting spots, as if they are surrounded by mirrored stars."
What Blaschka was describing, in this letter translated from the German by scholar Henri Reiling of the University of Utrecht, were glowing jellyfish, emerging on the dark surface of the night sea.
This "indescribably beautiful scene," as Blaschka put it, was also, for him, the starting point, the cold spark of inspiration, for what would become a life's work. Carefully drawing the creatures that were gathered during that journey, Blaschka, on his return home, began to attempt to recreate what he had seen in glass.
The result, over the course of what would become many years work and a livelihood for himself and for his son, Rudolph, were hundreds of models of marine animals, eventually reproduced and sold to museums around the world. The Blaschkas modeled plants, too, and are perhaps most well-known today as the creators of the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers, held at Harvard University's Museum of Natural History, a popular exhibit that draws many thousands of visitors annually. Thus the Blaschka sea creatures continue to exert their fascination even today, despite the fact that science has moved on, with the means to observe, collect, preserve, and photograph specimens that the Blaschkas and their contemporaries could never have imagined. Still the Blaschkas' sea creations are held in museum collections around the world and are the subject of articles, books, blogs, poems, essays, photojournalism, and now even a film, "Fragile Legacy," by Cornell University scientists and researchers, that will seek to document how the Blaschka animals are faring in today's oceans -- a scientific "full circle" that Leopold Blaschka would certainly have appreciated.
What is it about these glass creatures that exerts such fascination? Their beauty, certainly—and the obsessive craftedness of their creation, so selfless that, in a sense, style is completely subsumed. In these works of art, these most made of man-made objects, the hand of the artist is everywhere, and nowhere. It is hard to believe that somebody could have fabricated these, so organic do they appear. More than one hundred years later, the Blaschkas sea creatures -- their squids and octopuses, their jellyfish and sea slugs and snails and anemones and starfish, still seem to pulse with life. And yet they are not alive. They are like snowflakes: glittering, gorgeous, more complicated than we can rightly comprehend. And as ephemeral.
It is such a changeless thing that we do not dare in its construction to make a mistake; it becomes eternal, Leopold Blaschka wrote of his work in glass.
Maybe this is what draws us back, again and again, to Leopold Blaschka's creatures: the haunting and crystallized effort to stop time, to capture what cannot be captured, to preserve that which is quickly passing, to hold on to what will very soon be gone.
This is the aspect of their work that fascinated and inspired me to write my novel, The Glass Ocean. Though based only loosely on the Blaschkas' lives, The Glass Ocean is very much inspired and informed by their beautiful, mysterious, and confounding body of work. In it, a glassmaker, Leo, attempts through his own, obsessive artistic project, to stop time—literally to stop heartbreak in its tracks, as his marriage dissolves around him. This takes place against the background of 19th century England, a time of social and scientific ferment and upheaval, a time when new technologies and discoveries were changing the nature of work, families, and religion. It was a time of excitement and exploration, but also of anxiety for societies, families, and individuals. Though my research for the novel was initially spurred by my fascination with the Blaschkas' glass creations, as I dug more deeply into the time period, I became equally fascinated by the sense of exploration and wonder, combined with so much change during this time, and I thought a great deal about how this might have affected people in their day-to-day lives—and couldn't help but see parallels to the last twenty years, with computers changing the way we all relate to and connect (or fail to connect) with each other. So that in the end The Glass Ocean is not only a novel about the sources of artistic inspiration, it is also a story about connection and disconnection, the loosening of ties within families and between individuals.
In the end though, of course every story is personal in some way, and for me, writing The Glass Ocean was a chance to indulge my own love of the sea and sea creatures. Growing up outside Boston in a family that made frequent visits to Cape Cod (my dad's family are old Cape Codders from way back), I hoped in this novel to capture, or recapture, at least a little of my own childhood wonder and love of the ocean—something I am reminded of, again and again, whenever I look at the Blashckas' mesmerizing glass creations.
Posted August 29, 2013
I really loved The Glass Ocean. I was drawn to it first by the musicality of the language, the play in her sentences and paragraphs. I also found that motifs and themes recurred in much the way that they do in a musical score.
When Thomas Pynchon praises Baker for sharing "the dangerous nocturnal fires attended to in their hearts," he puts his finger on the pulse of the book -- the dreamlike internal worlds of these characters in the face of an external reality of abandonment, disappointment and the greyness of day to day life.
The characters are obsessed with seeking what has been irrevocably lost, for making the inanimate come to life, for achieving the flawless surface, conjuring life through the making of art. The narrator's father, Leo, becomes transfixed by the idea of capturing in glass the most transitory sea creatures, and then entwines in them in minute form the initials of his ever-receding wife. He takes apart the mechanical toys given to his wife by his rival for her affections -- in order to put those mechanisms to use in a secret and magical glass work, through which he can perhaps suspend his love in a lifelike artifice. Art and life entwined, each a construction.
The novel as a literary form is also an artifice. And Baker, like her character, has taken apart its construct and then has put it back together in a new way. There's a lovely reference to Italo Calvino in the fourth chapter's title - acknowledging a literary tradition of making through artifice a way to look more deeply into the human soul. It really is, as John Banville says, "a work of art."