Vanitasby Joseph Olshan
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The moment Sam Solomon casts his eyes on a stunning erotic drawing that hangs in the apartment of a dying art dealer, he finds himself caught in a tide of confusion and longing. Sam suspects that the drawing, called "Vanitas," has a dramatic story behind it, one that might answer questions that the art dealer has refused to address: the story of a once tragic love affair, the fate of the artist who created the drawing, and the events surrounding a falsely authenticated 19th-century French painting that nearly destroyed the art dealer's career. Joseph Olshan is the author of Nightswimmer, The Sound of Heaven, The Waterline, A Warmer Season, and Clara's Heart, which was made into a major film. He lives in New York and Vermont.
National Public Radio's All Things Considered
author of The House on Moon Lake
Joseph Olshan has always written powerful narratives of contemporary life, but he has greatly extended his range in Vanitas. His latest book is a skillful weave of unconventional relationships, which have become more and more common in our times but are only now beginning to be written about. And yet every single page of his new work evinces the concerns of love and beauty, of raising a family, of death, and even eternity. This is a daring novel of an entirely new order.
author of Slow Dancing and Safe Conduct
Vanitas is Olshan's most haunting, complex work to date.
Howard Frank Mosher
author of Stranger in the Kingdom and North Country: A Personal Journal
Joseph Olshan's Vanitas is a brilliant affirmation of the wonders and mysteries of love in the face of one of the most terrifying diseases in human history. Beautifully written, entirely honest, and unfailingly dramatic, Vanitas is the best novel to date by one of America's finest fiction writers.
- Simon & Schuster
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- 6.52(w) x 9.59(h) x 0.97(d)
Read an Excerpt
Thousands of miles behind him was the continent of America, and hours ahead lay the British Isles, somewhere in the vaporous dawn. Leaning his forehead against the airplane window, Sam Solomon told himself: I am forty, I am nowhere. So many lost opportunities, lost lovers, he thought as he looked down on the dark plain of the Atlantic, wondering what would happen if there weren't some major shift, some turnaround in his life.
Just then the plane lurched. Next to him a sleeping Indian woman jerked awake with a chorus of silver arm bangles. A drowsy flight attendant ambling down the aisle with an empty coffeepot dangling from her fingers stiffened where she stood, grabbing the back of the nearest seat. The aircraft almost seemed to rear up before it began plummeting.
It happened so quickly, the most anyone could do was gasp. Gravity was lost, and Sam was thrown up out of his seat, as far as the seat belt would allow him. The book he was reading levitated out of his hands, separating from its wrapper. A loose strand of pearls was floating in front of the Indian woman's stricken face. As the interminable plunge continued, he grew more and more convinced that he was going to die.
But then, miraculously, the plane leveled out, triggering a round of shrieking passengers as pocketbooks and paper cups and loose liquids rained. Gravity had returned, but for only an interval, only until the plane began another dive. This time the flight attendant standing in the aisle was reeled up to the ceiling and stayed there until the plane leveled out again, and she clumped down to the floor, screaming, quickly followed by her shoes. The journey had gone wild.
Finally, the British captain came on the public address system. "Please, ladies and gentlemen, try to remain calm. We are experiencing severe turbulence. Nothing is wrong with our aircraft." Explaining that the disturbances were being caused by a severe updraft from the Atlantic, he promised to find higher altitude.
As the plane began climbing through the clouds, Sam, only somewhat relieved by the pilot's reassurance, turned toward the window. There was a face outside its darkened screen. A face of liquid light, a face of incomparable beauty, vaguely recognizable at first, was staring back at him. Then he remembered. It was the man he used to call "the angel."
How vivid he was after so many years: the flaxen hair, and the pale, importunate eyes -- for so long Sam had hoped to encounter him again. Now, looking closer, he saw something deformed in the midst of the man's beauty and shut his eyes. But even from behind closed eyelids, Sam could perceive the shining image, one more lost opportunity in his life, and with that, he panicked.
Between one country and another, between day and night, perhaps even between life and death, why would the little-known face of a dead man come to him miles above the earth? The pilot came on again to say, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are expecting a smoother ride at this altitude," but Sam's heart continued to bang. Finally, he reminded himself there was a painting in the cargo hold, an artist to track down; this trip to England had to be completed. When he opened his eyes again, he was relieved to find the angel had fled, the face replaced by the first traces of the morning finally catching up to the plane.
From Heathrow, the empty train slowly filled up with dazed, early-morning commuters heading into central London; they seemed more docile and self- contained than their counterparts in New York City, their perfumes and colognes more citrus in fragrance. He rode directly to King's Cross, then hailed a cab to a terrace of late-eighteenth-century Georgian homes that were within walking distance of Highgate Cemetery. His arrival had been timed to coincide with Jessie's thirty-eighth birthday party, which was being held six weeks late due to the fact that when the actual date fell, she had been too busy working on an ad campaign.
Jessie Every's house was blooming with wisteria. Near her front gate was an enormous lavender bush, whose sprigs Sam always picked whenever he visited. He'd stow the cuttings in his coat pocket and forget about them until months later when he was back in Manhattan and suddenly his fingers would encounter foreign powdery matter in his jacket. He'd pull out tiny scented twigs. "Smell this," he'd say to anybody who might be with him. "This is authentic English lavender."
He climbed out of the cab, extricated his bags, staggered up the front stone stairs and glanced at his watch -- it was just after nine-thirty. He had to bang the door knocker for a few minutes before he heard any movements inside.
Jessie finally opened the door. Even swaddled in a faded paisley silk dressing gown, she seemed to have shed some weight since his last visit, and her broad, slightly freckled face looked almost gaunt. Her luxuriant auburn hair was piled into a soft swirl on top of her head, stray tendrils mobile. "Sam!" She gave him a great squeezing hug through which he could feel her bones. And when she held her face a few inches from his, he could see a puffiness around her eyes. "You're looking really well," she said. "But your hair is so short."
"You like it?"
"Yes, but no shorter, okay? It'll make you look too severe."
Jessie's manner of speaking was a hybrid of British and American expressions. Her accent sounded British to most Americans, whereas, to the British, she sounded like an American.
She tried to take one of his bags, but Sam gently prevented her. He brought them in himself and leaned them against the staircase. The house was steeped in an unnatural quiet. By now Jessie's five-year-old daughter should have been scampering up to greet him. "Where's Eva?" he asked.
Eva had gone to be with one of her friends for the day and evening. "She was very understanding when I told her about the party." Eva was quite used to her entertaining, Jessie explained. "She's so adaptable."
They heard somebody shuffling up the front steps and then a knock at the door. Sam thought it might be Rudy, Jessie's most recent boyfriend, but it was an Indian man with glossy hair, diffidently announcing the arrival of an order of wine. At the bottom of the steps was a hand truck piled up with ten cardboard cases. "Must be some shindig," Sam said. Then he and the man began to ferry the load of bottles up the stone steps into the house.
"Sixty people," Jessie admitted, standing to one side, hands on her hips. After directing the placement of the boxes, she paid the deliveryman and shut the front door behind him, looking relieved. "I've put on the tea," she told Sam as she led the way deeper into the house.
Sam followed her down the front hallway, past the sitting room that was painted a mossy green and where, in one corner, stood a battered-looking upright piano. There was a scent of spice in the air, perhaps from one of Jessie's stir-fried vegetable curries. How different this house was, thought Sam, how dusty and cozily threadbare, in contrast to the opulent apartment where he had been spending much of his time. Over the last few months, Sam had been helping a dying art dealer write his memoirs. A pile of morning mail was lying on one of the steps that led to the upstairs, to Jessie's bedroom. Wondering if she were alone, Sam managed to catch her eye before she turned down the flight of thinly carpeted stairs to the kitchen. He pointed his finger upward.
"Oh, yeah, he's here," she said. "When I came home last night, he was conked out on my doorstep. We had ended up at different parties. Because his wife decided at the last minute that she had to go with him."
Though Sam had twice been over to London during Jessie's affair with Rudy, this was the first time that Rudy was actually in Jessie's bed when he arrived.
"Doesn't he have to be at work?" Sam asked. Rudy was a British-educated Dutch citizen who worked as a roving correspondent for a major Dutch television station.
Jessie shrugged and said she had no idea.
"Well, what does his wife do, when he goes off like he does?" Apparently, Rudy's wife knew about and tolerated his affair with Jessie.
"If she allows him out overnight, it's her problem, don't you think? I could never put up with that kind of behavior myself."
Sam couldn't decide which was worse: being honest about sexual indiscretions, and carrying on openly, or lying to "protect" the spouse who was being betrayed.
He loved Jessie's kitchen, paved with terra-cotta tiles. Several hanging planters spilled translucent manes of spider ferns. At the far end was the glass lozenge of a back door that looked out on a deep, verdant garden, a long, beautifully cultivated strip of property that ended at an octagonal potting shed.
Their ritual, whenever Sam visited England during the warmer months, was to have tea in Jessie's garden. Tea in the garden had been the very first ceremony of Sam's affair with her. Perhaps the whole affair -- between a maverick young woman and a bisexual man -- was ceremonious. Ten years ago, when Sam was thirty, the ad agency that employed them both had sent him to its London office for six months, during which they began an unconventional relationship. However, Jessie severed that six months after Sam returned to America, claiming the distance between them was too great.
From the vantage point of where Sam now stood, he could spy the nineteenth-century teapot and the large, white embossed teacups resting on a wrought-iron table. They were larger than normal teacups, and something about their warm amplitude made them extremely comforting to hold. For a while he had tried to find replicas of them all over London, only to learn that they had been cast from a mold that had since become unavailable. The style was extinct.
So much of what Jessie owned was rare. The house had always struck Sam as one great comfort zone: wall-to-wall bookshelves, Victorian sofas covered with woolen blankets, African tribal masks, old tea tins that held polished stones. Because he himself had grown up among serviceable dinette sets and department store drapes, this place had understandably taken on mythological proportions, pointing out a new direction for his life.
"I'm just getting the biscuits." Jessie had crossed the kitchen and was reaching for a tin on a shelf crammed with home-decanted spices she'd collected from all over the Mediterranean. She carried a tray of tea, toast, jam, and almond cookies out into the garden, saying, "Oh, and thanks for bringing the beautiful weather once again."
Sam followed her. "Has it been otherwise?"
"Horrible. Horrible summer. Horrible like always. Just rain and more rain."
He heard her set down the tray with a bony clatter of crockery as he looked up at the presently blameless sky. "You'd never know it."
"You always say that, Sam! Every year you manage to miss the worst. The next time we're having a bad patch of weather I'm going to send you a plane ticket. By the way, how was the flight?"
The terrifying feeling of plummeting seized him once again. He described how the plane had hit an air pocket and plunged a great distance.
"For a few seconds everybody thought that was it."
"I've been feeling light-headed ever since." Sam heard the toilet flushing and looked at the upstairs windows. He hoped Rudy would remain upstairs but knew there was a slim chance of that.
Jessie reached out and touched Sam's arm. "Have lots of toast. You'll feel better....So now, you've come over to interview some people?"
"And it's for a book that you're...ghostwriting?"
"How does that affect your byline?"
He could tell her look was skeptical. Jessie had often expressed her pride in Sam's accomplishments as a failed poet. He'd shown her the start of his never-finished novel as well. She'd praised his creativity and wanted him to believe in it, too. Ghostwriting would seem too practical for Jessie.
"I'll be completely invisible."
She took a long draught of tea before saying, "And that's perfectly fine with you?"
Sam explained that it was all part of the job description.
Although Sam's employer/subject was quite famous in America, Jessie had never heard of him. "I don't know what's going on there anymore," she said wistfully.
"You should come over more often."
"The more I come over, the more I want to live there."
And yet Sam knew that despite a certain amount of lament, Jessie would spend the rest of her life in London. She'd paid a song for the house's ninety-nine-year lease; they both knew that she could never live in a major American city in such comfort for a price anywhere near as reasonable. Then he saw movement in the kitchen and knew Rudy was probably about to emerge into the garden. "Here he comes," Sam warned her.
Jessie pivoted around to bid good morning to her lover, her teacup held aloft in greeting. Quickly turning back, she said in a low voice, "Before he gets here, just tell me one thing. Is it still over between you and Matthew?"
A year before, when that relationship was first ending, he had retreated here, to this house of oversized teacups and voluminous bookshelves, losing himself in its comforts. Jessie was the person he turned to when he needed to tend his battle wounds.
"He was way too young for you, Sam," she said gently. "Everybody thought so."
"I don't give a shit what everybody thought -- or thinks," he said.
She flinched. "Now, don't get upset. You've just arrived."
"I'm not upset."
"Hello there, Sam," Rudy called from across the garden.
Sam waved and under his breath said to Jessie, "You know, I could say the same thing, about somebody being way too young for you." There was a five-year age difference between Jessie and Rudy.
"You could, darling, but, as you know, this is a whole different situation."
"Simply because he's already married."
Copyright © 1998 by Joseph Olshan
What People are saying about this
Joseph Olshan's Vanitas is a brilliant affirmation of the wonders and the mysteries of love in the face of one of the most terrifying diseases in human history. Beautifully written, entirely honest, and unfailingly dramatic, Vanitas is the best novel to date by one of America's finest fiction writers.
Vanitas is Olshan's most haunting, complex work to date.
Meet the Author
Joseph Olshan, the award-winning author of five previous novels, one of which, Clara's Heart, became a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. He has written nonfiction articles and essays for many publications, including the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times (London), and the Washington Post. He lives in Vermont and New York City.
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