Summer novels need to do two things: divert you from holiday hitches (stolen passports, family fights) and remind you of the pleasure of reading fiction (usurped by meetings and deadlines). Stories steeped in the art world are the perfect traveling companions: they’re full of coveted things, coded language and baroque manners. Here are four books to ease the wait for your flight’s (un)expected time of departure.
The Impression of an Artist
This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest pranks in art history: novelist William Boyd’s invention of Nat Tate, an American Abstract Expressionist purported to have destroyed most of his works before throwing himself off the Staten Island ferry in 1960.
Boyd’s monograph about the painter, Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960, was launched at a grand party at Jeff Koons’ studio on April Fool’s Day 1998. David Bowie and Gore Vidal were in on the joke. Other guests—who were not—reminisced about Nat’s talent. Some claimed to have met him.
Often forgotten in the tale of Tate is what a slick sleight-of-hand the monograph is. A whistle-stop biography—art school on Cape Cod, pal of Braque, lover of Peggy Guggenheim—is propped up with found photographs supposedly featuring various players in the tragic trajectory of the artist. Further proof comes with illustrations of Tate’s work (drawn and painted by Boyd).
Using the form of the artist monograph for fictional ends is a clever conceit. And by putting himself into the narrative—being surprised by a Tate drawing on a visit to a New York gallery—Boyd asks the reader to trust a writer celebrated for his fiction. Bizarrely, it’s a strategy that works. Even if Tate hadn’t existed, one is left feeling as if he had.
*Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 is published by Bloomsbury
The Art of Déjà Vu
Prolific novelist Antoine Laurain’s first novella, The Portrait, is perfect for a Parisian sojourn. In the back galleries of the Drouot auction house, antique hunter Pierre-François Chaumont gets a shock as he rummages through the forgotten lots. “Sixty centimetres by forty. An eighteenth-century pastel in its original frame, of a man wearing a powdered wig and blue coat,” Chaumont observes. “Transfixed, I could not tear my eyes away from it: the face was my own.”
The find triggers an obsession in Chaumont, making him pay well over estimate for the work. It also tries the patience of his wife, Charlotte, who can’t see the similarity between her husband and his pastel doppelgänger.
Chaumont’s collecting bug—his passions include snuffboxes, paperweights and button-hooks—has long been a marital bone of contention. “My predecessors, Gulbenkian, Sacha Guitry and even Serge Gainsbourg, had whole houses devoted to their innumerable collections,” Chaumont notes. “But I, at my lowly level, made do with a ‘study’.”
As Chaumont researches the canvas, he uncovers a personal as well as artistic provenance. The story also unpicks the peculiar psychology of collectors, how passing interest morphs into something else. “It’s a collection when you have two and are looking for a third,” Chaumont writes in his diary.
*The Portrait is published by Gallic Books
Gin, Guns and Goyas
From the believable to the barmy. In the early 1970s, London picture dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli turned his hand to writing, creating a memorably debonair art world rogue in the process. Charlie Mortdecai is not your typical expert in Old Masters: he carries a riverboat revolver, wears blue smoking jackets and has a butler who is quick with his fists. “I like art and money and dirty jokes and drink,” Charlie remarks. “I am very successful.”
Don’t Point That Thing at Me (1972), the first of four Mortdecai mysteries (the final one was published after Bonfiglioli’s death in 1985), finds Charlie in possession of a stolen Goya, which draws an assortment of thugs to his plush penthouse. Unflappable, he deals with attempted murder and corrupt cops with sardonic humor and a diet of martinis and oysters.
The Goya intrigue takes Charlie from London’s Mayfair—buzzing with barflies and burglars—to a villain’s lair in the deserts of New Mexico. On route, Charlie rhapsodises about the legs of American girls and the Genoese works of Van Dyck and endures stalkers in Buicks as well as unsavoury motel sheets.
Bonfiglioli is funny, tart and wholly inappropriate (a Rolls–Royce revs up “like a well-goosed widow”). The author insisted his books were not autobiographical. They were, he claimed, “about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer”.
*Don’t Point That Thing at Me is published by Penguin
In Thomas Bourke’s debut, The Consolation of Maps, a naïve Japanese antiquarian attempts to navigate the rough landscape of human emotions. After being talent-spotted by a client, Kenji swaps the cherry blossom of Tokyo for the cypress trees of Virginia when he takes a job with the enigmatic map dealer Theodora Appel. At Rare View, Appel’s classic revival mansion, Kenji delights in a trove of cartographic gems.
Kenji has a youthful, and puritanical, love of how maps trace history, both false and fake. He finds both at Rare View: but for all the delicate charts and giant globes on display he senses there is something hidden, something unspoken.
While Kenji sees their stock as symbols of progress, Appel takes a more commercial tack. “We’re art dealers,” she tells him. “We’re in competition with auctioneers, stockbrokers, yacht salesmen.” Kenji’s measured observations highlight the difference between the blunt nature of the New York trade and the gentle waltz of doing business Tokyo–style.
Bourke captures the topographical magic created by ground eggshell in Renaissance ink and woodcuts on mulberry paper. The story of mapmaking is one infused with the “reckoning of Phoenician sailors, the guarded secrets of court astronomers and the manoeuvring of admirals and generals”. And such plotting continues.
*The Consolation of Maps is published by Riverrun