A painter who owes his small success to a man he despises, discovers that his passivity has cost him the love that might have set him free. A writer of modest talents encounters the old love who once betrayed him; now she repels him, yet the unfinished novel she leaves in his hands may surpass anything he could ever produce himself. An American poet in Rome finds herself forced to choose between her lover and a world so alien it takes her voice away. A print maker, who has reached a certain age, enters so deeply into the magical world of her imagination that she can never find her way back. In captivating, luminous prose, Martin explores the trials and rewards of human relationships and creative endeavor with all the ease and insight of a writer at the top of her form.
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His Blue PeriodFor anyone who has met Meyer Anspach since his success, his occasional lyrical outbursts on the subject of his blue period may be merely tedious, but for those of us who actually remember the ceaseless whine of paranoia that constituted his utterances at that time, Anspach's rhapsodies on the character-building properties of poverty are infuriating. Most of what he says about those days is sheer fabrication, but two things are true: he was poor--we all were--and he was painting all the time. He never mentions, perhaps he doesn't know, a detail I find most salient, which is that his painting actually was better then than it is now. Like so many famous artists, these days Anspach does an excellent imitation of Anspach. He's in control, nothing slips by him, he has spent the last twenty years attending to Anspach's painting, and he has no desire ever to attend to anything else. But when he was young, when he was with Maria, no one, including Anspach, had any idea what an Anspach was. He was brash, intense, never satisfied, feeling his way into a wilderness. He had no character to speak of, or rather he had already the character he has now, which is entirely self-absorbed and egotistical. He cared for no one, certainly not for Maria, though he liked to proclaim that he could not live without her, that she was his inspiration, his muse, that she was absolutely essential to his life as an artist. Pursuing every other woman who caught his attention was also essential, and making no effort to conceal those often sleazy and heartless affairs was, well, part of his character. If struggle, poverty, and rejection actually did build character, Maria should have been an Everest in the mountain range of character, unassailable, white-peaked, towering above us in the unbreathably thin air. But of course she wasn't. She was devoted to Anspach and so she never stopped weeping. She wept for years. Often she appeared at the door of my studio tucking her sodden handkerchief into her skirt pocket, smoothing back the thick, damp strands of her remarkable black hair, a carrot clutched in her small, white fist. I knew she was there even if I had my back to her because the rabbits came clattering out from wherever they were sleeping and made a dash for the door. Then I would turn and see her kneeling on the floor with the two rabbits pressing against her, patting her skirt with their delicate paws and lifting their soft, twitching muzzles to her hands to encourage her tender caresses, which they appeared to enjoy as much as the carrot they knew was coming their way. My rabbits were wild about Maria. Later, when we sat at the old metal table drinking coffee, the rabbits curled up at her feet, and later still, when she got up to make her way back to Anspach, they followed her to the door and I had to herd them back into the studio after she was gone. I was in love with Maria and we all knew it. Anspach treated it as a joke, he was that sure of himself. There could be no serious rival to a genius such as his, and no woman in her right mind would choose warmth, companionship, affection, and support over service at the high altar of Anspach. Maria tried not to encourage me, but she was so beaten down, so starved for a kind word, that occasionally she couldn't resist a few moments of rest. On weekends we worked together at a popular restaurant on Spring Street, so we rode the train together, over and back. Sometimes, coming home just before dawn on the D train, when the cars came out of the black tunnel and climbed slowly up into the pale blush of morning light over the East River, Maria went so far as to lean her weary head against my arm. I didn't have the heart, or was it the courage, ever to say the words that rattled in my brain, repeated over and over in time to the metallic clanking of the wheels, "Leave him, come to me." Maria, I judged, perhaps wrongly, didn't need her life complicated by another artist who couldn't make a living. I had the restaurant job, which paid almost nothing, though the tips were good, and one day a week I built stretchers for an art supply house near the Bowery, where I was paid in canvas and paint. That was it. But I lived so frugally I was able to pay the rent and keep myself and the rabbits in vegetables, which was what we ate. Maria had another job, two nights a week at a Greek restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. Because she worked at night she usually slept late; so did Anspach. When they got up, she cooked him a big meal, did the shopping, housekeeping, bill paying, enthused over his latest production, and listened to his latest tirade about the art establishment. In the afternoon Anspach went out for an espresso, followed by a trip downtown to various galleries where he berated the owners, if he could get near them, or the hired help if he couldn't. Anspach said painting was his vocation, this carping at the galleries was his business, and he was probably right. In my romantic view of myself as an artist, contact with the commercial world was humiliating and demeaning; I couldn't bear to do it in the flesh. I contented myself with sending out pages of slides every few months, then, when they came back, adding a few new ones, switching them around, and sending them out again. On those afternoons when Anspach was advancing his career, Maria came to visit me. We drank coffee, talked, smoked cigarettes. Sometimes I took out a pad and did quick sketches of her, drowsy over her cigarette, the rabbits dozing at her feet. I listened to her soft voice, looked into her dark eyes, and tried to hold up my end of the conversation without betraying the sore and aching state of my heart. We were both readers, though where Maria found time to read I don't know. We talked about books. We liked cheerful, optimistic authors, Kafka, Celine, Beckett. Maria introduced me to their lighthearted predecessors, Hardy and Gissing. Her favorite novel was Jude the Obscure. She had come to the city when she was seventeen with the idea that she would become a dancer. She spent six years burying this dream beneath a mountain of rejection, though she did once get as close as the classrooms of the ABT. At last she concluded that it was not her will or even her ability that held her back, it was her body. She wasn't tall enough and her breasts were too large. She had begun to accept this as the simple fact it was when she met Anspach and dancing became not her ambition but her refuge. She continued to attend classes a few times a week. The scratchy recordings of Chopin, the polished wooden floors, the heft of the barre, the sharp jabs and rebukes of the martinet teachers, the cunning little wooden blocks that disfigured her toes, the smooth, tight skin of the leotard, the strains, pains, the sweat, all of it was restorative to Maria; it was the reliable world of routine, secure and predictable, as different from the never-ending uproar of life with Anspach as a warm bath is from a plunge into an ice storm at sea. Anspach had special names for everyone, always designed to be mildly insulting. He called Maria Mah-ree, or Miss Poppincockulos, a perversion of her real surname, which was Greek. Fidel, the owner of a gallery Anspach browbeat into showing his paintings, was Fido. Paul, an abstract painter who counted himself among Anspach's associates, was Pile. My name is John, but Anspach always called me Jack; he still does. He says it with a sharp punch to it, as if it is part of a formula, like "Watch out, Jack" or "You won't get Jack if you keep that up." Even my rabbits were not rabbits to Anspach but "Jack's-bun-buns," pronounced as one word with the stress on the last syllable. If he returned from the city before Maria got home, he came straight to my studio and launched into a long, snide monologue, oily with sexual insinuation, on the subject of how hard it was to be a poor artist who couldn't keep his woman at home because whenever he went out to attend to his business she was sure to sneak away to visit Jack's-bun-buns, and he didn't know what was so appealing about those bun-buns, but his Miss Poppincockulos just couldn't seem to get enough of them. That was the way Anspach talked. Maria didn't try to defend herself and I was no help. I generally offered Anspach a beer, which he never refused, and tried to change the subject to the only one I knew he couldn't resist, the state of his career. Then he sat down at the table and indulged himself in a flood of vitriol against whatever galleries he'd been in that day. His most frequent complaint was that they were all looking for pictures to hang "over the couch," in the awful living rooms of "Long Island Jane and Joe," or "Fire Island Joe and Joey." He pronounced Joey "jo-ee." Sometimes if he suspected I had another beer in the refrigerator, Anspach would ask to see what I was painting. Then and only then, as we stood looking at my most recent canvas, did he have anything to say worth hearing. I don't know what he really thought of me as a painter, but given his inflated opinion of his own worth, any interest he showed in someone else was an astonishing compliment. I know he thought I was facile, but that was because he was himself a very poor draftsman, he still is, and I draw with ease. Anspach's gift was his sense of color, which, even then, was astounding. It was what ultimately made him famous: then Anspach's passion for color was all that made him bearable. It was the reason I forgave him for being Anspach. His blue period started in the upper-right-hand corner of a painting titled Napalm, which featured images from the Vietnam War. A deep purple silhouette of the famous photograph of a young girl fleeing her burning village was repeated around the edges like a frame. The center was a blush of scarlet, gold, and black, like the inside of a poppy. In the upper corner was a mini-landscape, marsh grass, strange, exotic trees, a few birds in flight against an eerie, unearthly sky. The sky was not really blue but a rich blue-green with coppery undertones, a Renaissance color, like the sky in a painting by Bellini. "How did you get this?" I asked, pointing at the shimmery patch of sky. "Glazes," he said. "It took a while, but I can do it again." He gazed at the color with his upper teeth pressed into his lower lip, a speculative, anxious expression in his open, innocent eyes. Anspach fell in love with a color the way most men fall in love with a beautiful, mysterious, fascinating, unattainable woman. He gave himself over to his passion without self-pity, without vanity or envy, without hope really. It wasn't the cold spirit of rage and competitiveness which he showed for everything and everyone else in his world. It was unselfish admiration, a helpless opening of the heart. This blue-green patch, which he'd labored over patiently and lovingly, was in the background now, like a lovely, shy young woman just entering a crowded ballroom by a side door, but she had captured Anspach's imagination and it would not be long before he demanded that all the energy in the scene revolve around her and her alone. In the weeks that followed, as that blue moved to the foreground of Anspach's pictures, it sometimes seemed to me that it was draining the life out of Maria, as if it was actually the color of her blood and Anspach had found some way to drain it directly from her veins onto his canvas. One summer evening, after Anspach had drunk all my beers and Maria declared herself too tired and hot to cook, we treated ourselves to dinner at the Italian restaurant underneath my loft. There we ran into Paul Remy and a shy, nearsighted sculptor named Mike Brock, whom Anspach immediately christened Mac. Jack-and-Mac became the all-purpose name for Mike and myself, which Anspach used for the rest of the evening whenever he addressed one of us. After the meal Anspach invited us all to his loft to drink cheap wine and have a look at his latest work. It was Maria's night off; I could see that she was tired, but she encouraged us to come. She had, she explained, a fresh baklava from the restaurant which we should finish up as it wouldn't keep. So up we all went, grateful to pass an evening at no expense, and I, at least, was curious to see what Anspach was up to. The loft had once been a bank building. Anspach and Maria had the whole second floor, which was wide open from front to back with long double-sashed windows at either end. The kitchen was minimal, a small refrigerator, a two-burner stove, an old, stained sink that looked as though it should be attached to a washing machine, and a low counter with a few stools gathered around it. Their bedroom was a mattress half-hidden by some curtains Maria had sewn together from the inevitable Indian bedspreads of that period. The bathroom was in pieces, three closets along one wall. One contained a sink and mirror, one only a toilet, and the third opened directly into a cheap shower unit, the kind with the flimsy plastic door and painted enamel interior, such as one sees in summer camps for children. In the center of the big room was a battered brick-red couch, three lawn chairs, and two tables made of old crates. Anspach's big easel and paint cart were in the front of the long room facing the street windows. The best thing about the place was the line of ceiling fans down the middle, left over from the bank incarnation. It was hellish outside that night, and we all sighed with relief at how much cooler the loft was than the claustrophobic, tomato-laced atmosphere of the restaurant. Maria put on a record, Brazilian music, I think, which made the seediness of the place seem less threatening, more exotic, and she poured out tumblers of wine for us all. The paintings Anspach showed us fascinated me. He was quoting bits from other painters, whom he referred to as "the Massas," but the color combinations were unexpected and everywhere there was a marvelous balance of refined technique and sheer serendipity.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Valerie Martin’s seductive new collection, The Unfinished Novel. Its six stories, the tone of which ranges from the sardonically funny to the melancholy and tender, are about artists–successful and struggling, inspired and blocked, desired and detested–and the obsessions that drive them. That those obsessions aren’t always exalted only means that Martin understands what artists–and human beings–are like.
1. “His Blue Period”
• Anspach is ruthlessly unsentimental about his career, about the business of art, and, most crushingly, about his mistress Maria. Does he ever feel genuine passion for anything? How does his attitude contrast with John’s? What might Martin be implying about the relationship between feeling and artistry, and between artistry and success?
• What keeps John from expressing his love for Maria? Is Anspach right when he implies that he bears some responsibility for her suicide? How much are we supposed to believe John’s claims about his feelings and motives, and what subtle means does the author use to undermine them?
• At the end of the story John’s wife, having told him that Maria was in love with him, exasperatedly asks, “How could you not have known that?” [p. 27]. To what extent is this a story about not knowing, and how does the theme of not knowing–of willed ignorance–occur elsewhere in it?
2. “The Bower”
• Early on we learn that Carter Sorensen is an actor of genius. What does this genius consist of, and what is its effect on Sandra? On other characters? What is the relationship between the young man’s preternatural talent and his otherwise rather bland personality?
• After Carter starts seeing a young freshman, Sandra thinks, “He would be successful. . . . He had already shown a survivor’s instinct by choosing only totally inappropriate women who could easily be left behind” [p. 51]. Does this turn out to be true? Are we meant to believe that Carter’s behavior is calculated–that he acts offstage as well as on? Or does Carter’s kind of acting have nothing to do with dissembling?
• Carter’s career comes to a premature end because of a bizarre accident that takes the life of his future sister-in-law. Is this accident foreshadowed earlier in the story? Think in particular of the way Sandra cuts her leg before she and her student become lovers, and of the remark of the onlooker who sees his effect on the actress playing Gertrude: “He’s killing her” [p. 31]. What is the significance of the fact that Carter and Sandra meet during a production of Hamlet? What is the nature of the part she envisions waiting for him [p. 62]?
• Why is the narrator drawn to Philip, and how does this attraction fit into her general expectations of life? Is she deluded about what Philip is really like, or does she already sense his desperation and impending failure? What about failure might be attractive to her?
• “You should never fake it,” Philip cautions the narrator. “If you can’t be authentic doing whatever you’re doing, you should do something else” [p. 76]. How do we reconcile this with the fact that Philip is making his (indifferent) living painting portraits of Beethoven, whose face he likes because “It’s easy to draw” [p. 75]? How do we reconcile this with the fact that he’s still infatuated with Ingrid, an unabashedly commercial painter? Why does Martin, or her narrator, describe Ingrid in such precise detail while leaving Philip a visual blank?
4. “The Unfinished Novel”
• Maxwell makes a great deal of how ugly Rita has become since he last saw her. What is the effect of this? Are his descriptions marked by pity, or by gloating? Are we meant to see Rita’s physical decay as a corollary to her moral ruin? How might this story be different if she were still beautiful?
• In their college writing workshop, Rita once justified Maxwell’s shallow portrayals of women on grounds that “It mirrors forth the myopia of the narrator” [p. 101]. How does this observation resonate through the story? In what ways is Maxwell himself a myopic narrator? Which of his statements and observations may be untrustworthy?
• Rita tries to enlist Maxwell in a deal involving some ostensibly priceless Zuni pottery, which she claims has been entrusted to her by the tribe. Does Maxwell believe her? Ought the reader? In what ways is the pottery like Rita’s legendary manuscript?
• How do you feel about what Maxwell ultimately does with Rita’s novel? Regardless of any obligation he might have to carry out her last wishes, is he betraying a writer’s responsibility to his art? Do you think the author believes that such a responsibility exists?
5. “The Open Door”
• Discuss the significance of Edith’s exchange with an Italian reader concerning the English word choke, meaning the matted, inedible part of an artichoke. Edith’s translator has misrendered the word as cuore, or “heart,” and Edith, clarifying, cites the English homonym “choke,” meaning to strangle. In what ways do both the heart and strangulation–not to mention a tough, indigestible residue–figure in this story?
• Although Edith is the more successful partner, Isabel has the advantages of youth and sexual attractiveness. Which of them has the greater power in their relationship, and how does their balance of power shift during the course of the story? Are you left feeling that they will stay together? Is Edith dismissing Isabel’s proposition that they stay in Italy because she knows she could never function there, or does she do so simply out of fear, especially the fear that she would now be dependent on her lover?
6. “The Change”
• Are Gina’s symptoms–“sleep disturbances, hot flashes, irritability, weight gain, loss of libido” [p. 187]–simply those of menopause, as Evan thinks, or is she undergoing a deeper transformation? What other misperceptions may he have about her? Evan’s chief unhappiness seems to be that his wife has become strange to him, but doesn’t this mirror the estrangement and defamiliarization wrought by the work of art–for example, the vertigo he feels upon viewing her latest print?
• How literally are we meant to take the story’s ending? How is it foreshadowed? Judging from Evan’s feelings, do you feel that Gina will come back or that her transformation is now complete? Is Evan too limited–as an artist, as a human being–to bring her back or follow her?
7. For discussion of THE UNFINISHED NOVEL
• Many of these stories concern relationships between uninhibited, sexually rapacious geniuses (Anspach in “His Blue Period,” Carter in “The Bower,” Rita in the title story) and their more scrupulous (or repressed) friends, lovers, or rivals, who also happen to be less gifted. Does Martin always equate genius with ruthlessness and predation? Is the subliminal message of these stories that nice artists finish last? Why do you think the author always portrays these brilliant bastards at secondhand, through the eyes of a fascinated or repelled observer?
• In her acclaimed previous novel, Property, Martin asks the reader to identify with Manon, a character who “behaves as though she has no heart at all” [Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2003]. While none of the characters in The Unfinished Novel is quite heartless, some of them are severely flawed. How does the author manage to keep the reader engaged? Does she herself appear to judge her characters, and if so, for what failings?
• Many of these stories feature an iconic animal–for example, John’s rabbits or Maxwell’s beloved cat, Joey. What role do these animals play? Does their appearance signal that Martin is not entirely a realistic writer? Might these stories be described as fables?
• Can The Unfinished Novel be read as a primer on artistic creation? On the basis of these stories, what generalizations can we make about where art comes from, what it requires from its makers, or what makes it good or bad?