“Then came human beings. They wanted to cling but there was nothing to cling to.”

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As regular readers know, I recently moved from London to Sydney. Because of the move I had to give (almost) my entire book collection away. This heart-breaking necessity was partially offset by the fact that I do most of my reading on my Kindle now and partially by the small pile of books I did manage to bring with me – the ones I really couldn’t bear to part with. Among them is Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Just looking up from the sofa and seeing the cracked spine of the battered paperback up on the shelf takes me back to living in Brixton 20 years ago: being young, mixed up, open to everything; listening to Suede’s The Wild Ones over and over; trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. The book meant so much to me; it blew my mind and gave me so many ideas about ethics, morals, writing…life.

I mention all this because 20 years later, Donna Tartt’s third book, The Goldfinch, had a similar effect on me. As with The Secret History, it’s a thrilling, beautifully written and impossible to put down novel that’s packed with ideas that go right to the heart of what it means to be alive. I’ll begin with something the narrator’s art-obsessed mother says to him right at the start – words which then reverberate right down through the novel as it unfolds:

“People die, sure. But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”

These are in fact, the last words 13-year old Theo Decker’s mother says to him, shortly before she’s killed in an explosion which he survives. The Goldfinch was inspired by Tartt’s absolute horror at the destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001. “I was haunted and sickened by the destruction of something that had been at the heart of the world for centuries,” she’s said.

The other key inspiration for the novel was the poignant, visceral emotion Tartt felt the first time she stood in front of a tiny oil painting by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius, in Holland 20 years ago while she was in Europe on a promotional tour for The Secret History. The painting, often acknowledged as his masterpiece, is the exquisite image of a goldfinch (above), chained lightly by the ankle to its metal perch, affixed to a wall. In it, Fabritius uses a trompe-l’oeil effect: the idea is to make the bird seem alive. Once that illusion is dispelled, you can admire the textural skill with which he’s built it up. Fabritius was Rembrandt’s most promising student and a major influence on Vermeer. His use of brushwork, treatment of space and the way he plays with perspective were revolutionary but sadly, he died aged just 32 in 1654, the same year he painted The Goldfinch (the ‘1654’ written next to his name in the bottom right hand corner is poignant and spooky). The explosion of a gunpowder factory which killed him also destroyed hundreds of his paintings, tragically leaving only a handful extant.

The destruction of the Buddhas, the melancholy beauty of The Goldfinch and the sad calamity of Fabritius’s back story came together to inform the core idea at the heart of the novel: that art can provide some meagre but meaningful comfort, existential salve and redemptive power in the face of life’s bleak reality. Tartt quotes Nietzsche – “We have art in order not to die from the truth” – and this idea plays out in Theo’s great love for The Goldfinch. She also quotes Albert Camus at the start of the novel – “The absurd does not liberate, it binds” – but it was another Camus quote (from The Fall, that I used as the title of this blog) which came to my mind throughout the novel: we are all of us, on some level, scrabbling around in the metaphysical wilderness and art, like love, is one of the handful of elements of the human experience that can offer us some shred of meaning.

Theo’s relationship with the painting is complicated and multi-layered. It’s his mother’s favourite piece and the last thing they see together before the terrorist bomb rips through The Met and kills her. In the aftermath, urged on by a dying man with whom he shares a transcendent few moments, Theo takes it from the rubble and gets out. But while he’s irrevocably tied to the painting on an emotional level, he has a powerful aesthetic connection to it, too. At one point he says:

“If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see and think and feel, you don’t think, ‘Oh I love this painting because it’s universal’, ‘I love this painting because it speaks to mankind’. That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you. An individual heart shock. A really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.”

Later on, reflecting on The Goldfinch once again, Theo says: “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

In my studying of the painting – sadly only in online representations, my screensaver (!) and a print I bought, rather than the real thing (which is in The Mauritshuis in The Hague) – it seems to me that much of its power comes from its various ambiguous meanings. What was Fabritius trying to communicate with his picture of the trapped little bird? When I stare at its face, into its eyes, I feel an almost human sense of sadness and wonder if he was trying to get across some profound emotion inexpressible in words. It reminds me of the Edward Hopper comment – “Maybe I’m not human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” In The Goldfinch, the ankle chain – which you don’t see at first – is surely a comment on the strange nature of captivity.  In the novel, Theo asks:

“Because – what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity; thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

It’s a beautiful evocation of the poignant contradictions at the heart of the painting and at the core of the idea that underpins the book. The New York Times review nailed it with the line: “We often can’t see to what or whom others are held hostage, and we rarely know what will take us.” Theo, whose mordant wit and uncanny insight make him part Hamlet, part Holden Caulfield, is well aware of these existential conundrums. Looking back on the story in retrospect he says:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

That passage whacked me around the head so hard that I had to get off the bus one morning and sit quietly on a bench by the Quay for a while to properly take in its melancholy truth and beauty.  Then, in the extraordinary, unforgettable and deeply moving closing section, Theo minutely dissects the novel’s ideas and, in sublime, transcendent prose, sets out its central philosophical themes:

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

For Theo, who has gone through the grim tragedy of losing his parents and the heart-breaking psychic agony of deep but unrequited love, the beauty of The Goldfinch has given him meaning, context – connected him in some intangible and precarious but profound and precious way, to a larger sense of infinite beauty. Which chimes deeply with me because, as a reader, I feel as intensely about this novel as Theo does about the painting.

Sir John Hegarty famously said that great work is “80% idea and 80% execution.” He was obviously talking about advertising but The Goldfinch – both the painting and the novel – are glorious embodiments of that thought. As creative people we can look at them in wonder and admiration, taking joy and inspiration from the heights that creativity can scale. Both are works of timeless, astonishing brilliance, both extraordinary blends of imagination and craft. “You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life,” writes Theo. I’ll be thinking about (both versions of) The Goldfinch for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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