Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I ♥ Art

By Quim Monz
Translated by Mary Ann Newman
141 Pages
Open Letter Press
June 8, 2010

Humbert cannot fathom how some critics can demand - in the name of some sacrosant consistency - that he amputate part of his imagination. Even if he worked constantly, without a moment's interruption for years and years, he would not have enough time to work on all the things building in his head, because each idea is a magician's hat from which new ideas pop up in the form of magicians' hats from which new ideas pop up. . . (He adds the bit about hats to the list.) What about the idea he had been toying with for days now? Making movies. Not video, no: conventional cinema. He has so many stories to tell. . .

After going missing last Friday and remaining unfound all weekend and assumed to have been left at work, Quim Monzó's Gasoline was finally located Monday morning in the back seat of my car. How it came to be there is a mystery. I am the only one who uses that car and no one has sat back there in weeks. I put all my stuff on the front seat. But anyway, I found it, finished it, and now I am reviewing it.

Quim Monzó was born in Barcelona in 1952 and is one of the most prominent contemporary Catalan writers, having won numerous prestigious awards both at home and abroad. In the 1970s he worked as an international reporter for the Barcelona paper Tele/eXprés and since then has become known for the irony and pop cultural awareness exhibited in his novels and short stories. Monzó is also a translator whose work includes Capote, Salinger, and Hemingway.

Gasoline, first published in 1983, is about art, artists, and the New York art scene. Heribert Juliá was a breakout sensation only months ago. With a second major show looming, he suddenly finds himself unable to paint and feeling increasingly apathetic and aimless in his daily life. He spends his time roaming Manhattan, indulging in meaningless affairs, and drinking. The haze of alcohol and lethargy, unfortunately, has obscured the ominous signs behind his wife's own infidelity. Her paramour is none other than Humbert Herrera, a buzzworthy upstart who can't stop creating and has a grand vision of uniting all art movements of the past several decades in a grand exhibit that will mark the end stage of everything twentieth century art has been striving towards. As Heribert decreases, Humbert increases, until he has literally supplanted his predecessor and stolen his career, his wife, and his creativity.

I can see what Monzó was trying to do: both Humbert and Heribert, though they occupy two opposing extremes, are men consumed by their art. One, because it has left him; the other, because it overwhelms him. They are surrounded by a world of galleries, cocktail parties, and restaurants that, despite its pretensions to some greater cultural legitimacy, closely mirrors the mainstream obsession with trends, fashion, and celebrity. Monzó sets these two creative individuals within this milieu and explores how its dual populism-elitism informs their perceptions of themselves and their art. Heribert, in particular, despite his critical acclaim, seems unable to develop an original idea. His glorious vision is basically a slapdash hodgepodge of every self-consciously avant-garde innovation that came before him. It would seem, then, that art is two-faced and intent on devouring itself.

Interesting idea, but I think I'm missing something. It was kind of like Andrei Moscovit's The Judgment Day Archives, which I read a couple months ago. It purported to be a roundabout, over-the-top satire but ended up falling flat. I get the same impression here with Gasoline. I mean, I'm just left going, huh? What was the point of all that? Um, this guy wanders around and then this other guy goes all manic and on and on about all the stuff he wants to paint/draw/photograph/photocopy/film/write about, and . . . ?

Gasoline has apparently been well-received but I'm not getting it. There are a couple of moments of hilarity but the story ultimately did nothing for me. Sorry, folks. Maybe this book should've stayed missing for awhile longer? <ouch>

And why is it called Gasoline?

Review Copy


JoAnn said...

You find the most interesting books! Where do you get your recommendations? Glad this one turned up so you could finish, even though it left you with the "huh?" response.

Richard said...

I read at least three short Quim Monzó pieces for a Catalan class, E.L. Fay, so it's nice to see you writing about him here even if you weren't blown away. I'll probably be posting something about Carme Riera, another Catalan writer I really like, sometime this year, but I keep putting it off for some reason. Laziness being the most probable reason, ha! Have a good one.

Emily said...

I think after I finish Hopscotch (which I'm reading right now) I'll be done with the disaffected-artist-behaves-self-destructively genre for QUITE some time, so I'm just as glad not to have another one to add to my pile. I relate - it's so anticlimactic when a supposed satire falls flat.

E. L. Fay said...

JoAnn: My focus is international literature and I get a lot of my recommendations from other blogs (particularly Richard's - see below), as well as the sites I have listed under International Literature in my sidebar. This book was an ARC from Open Letter Press, where I did an internship in college.

Richard: I'd love to hear about another Catalan writer. I did a review awhile back of Merce Rodoreda's Death in Spring awhile back (another ARC from Open Letter Press). My reaction was more positive but still very so-so.

Emily: You're right! It really is a whole genre isn't it? When thinking of Gasoline and The Judgment Day Archives, I find myself comparing them to Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a really great work of satire that got it right. I think that's what both Monzó and Moscovit were getting at but neither quite succeeded.

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