Rachel Pastan | Riverhead Books | 2014 | 15 minutes (3,709 words)
“Sometimes a book that is wonderful and well-told and riveting is overlooked. I believe this is the case with Rachel Pastan’s Alena. This novel, about the art world and its ghosts, came out quietly to great reviews last year, was called “a brilliant takedown of the self-serious art world” by Alex Kuczynski in the Times Book Review, and was published in paperback earlier this year. Inspired by the ghost-filled mega-bestseller of its day, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s ode tells the story of a young art curator who takes a position at a small Cape Cod art museum that is left mysteriously vacant by her predecessor, a woman named Alena who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Pastan trades the aristocracy of manor house for the aristocracy of the art world, but keeps all the hauntednesss one expects to find oozing from a haunted house’s drafts and flues. In this chapter, we meet our narrator, as she works to make art her life, and we see a glimpse of the fraught future she has in store.”
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For a long time when I was growing up, I thought I could do anything I wanted. I was a bright child, good at school, and my parents—well-meaning people, a farmer and a former schoolteacher—encouraged me in the belief that if I only set my mind to a goal, I could achieve it. Passion and hard work were the stars I was taught to steer by. When, in college, I announced my intention to study art history, they just nodded. My father, who had done some watercolor painting when he was young, was pleased that I was interested in art. My family assumed I would marry and be supported by my husband, so it didn’t matter how much money I would make. What mattered was that I find something I loved and, of course, the right man. In this way my happiness would be assured.
Certainly I loved art history. It amazed me that sitting in a darkened room looking at slides of Madonnas and Venuses and bowls of oranges counted as work. I loved the colors, and the way forms floated in perfect balance in the picture plane. I loved the way you could trace the evolution of perspective, how it was perfected in southern Europe over centuries, and then stretched and tested and discarded over more centuries until it became a quaint anachronism, like a whalebone corset or a doublet and hose. There was no law against a man wearing hose, but you didn’t catch anyone doing it. And although I was taught they didn’t matter, I loved the stories of the artists: Michelangelo on his back under the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gauguin running away to his island and dying of syphilis in self-imposed exile. Their passion sparked my passion, their imagination my imagination, their labor my labor. Because it wasn’t all dreaming away in dim lecture halls, of course. I spent most of my time at my small Midwestern college in the library, and when after four years I emerged, blinking, into the light, I had a magna cum laude degree and a place in a Ph.D. program at NYU. In my whole life, I’d never been to a city larger than Milwaukee.
I decided to head out to New York early, in the middle of June. I had waitressed every summer since I was sixteen and figured I wouldn’t have much trouble finding a job. A girl I knew from college, a year ahead of me, was living in Hell’s Kitchen and needed a roommate. All the pieces were falling into place as though the hand of destiny were arranging them. So on a cool June day I boarded a Greyhound bus with one suitcase and a shoulder bag and three hundred dollars in twenties in a zipped pouch around my neck. Twenty-four hours later I emerged blinking once again, only this time it was into the noisy spectacle of Manhattan. How bright and alive the city looked! It was as though my whole life up until then had been one long half-dream in which thoughtful but disembodied voices had drifted through the dimness as colored images flashed by in slow succession. In that classroom—my early life—all was order, reason, gentle instruction. Even the crazed visions and terrible poverty and cultural rejection of the artists I’d studied had been tempered and mediated by time into something acceptable, digestible, dignified.
New York City was none of those things. I arrived on the first day of summer, the city in the middle of a heat wave. Sweat soaked my cotton blouse and hand-knit cardigan as I dragged my suitcase up Eighth Avenue amid the blare of cars and the rush of trains under the pavement and the jostling impatience of the crowds surging up and down the sidewalks. I passed half-naked teenaged girls with caramel skin chewing gum and laughing, wrinkled Chinese women pushing metal carts, blind men with canes, black policemen in uniforms as stiff as armor, and muscled men in skimpy nylon shorts crooning to small dogs on leashes. The air smelled of urine and of burning. A fizzing started up inside me like bubbles rising in a beer bottle when you prise off the cap. It wasn’t fear. Or rather, it wasn’t only fear. It was amazed delight, excitement, glee, and a thrilled, horrified prickling as though my skin were being scoured off, leaving me raw and new. The world was so much bigger and stranger than I had suspected! It made me feel that I could be bigger and stranger too.
That summer I worked at a coffee shop on Sixty-third Street, breakfast and lunch, wearing a white apron stitched with someone else’s name. I took orders and poured coffee and carried trays of eggs and meatball heroes. I got bawled out by the manager and hit on by the sleazy line cook. But I didn’t care. At three o’clock the apron came off and I slid away into the streets.
Art was everywhere in that blazing, blaring city. On Fifth Avenue, venerable institutions stood shoulder to shoulder, each one overflowing with beauty and strangeness from every era and culture and corner of the globe, each one a gigantic mouth swallowing entire afternoons. Again and again in those tall chambers I encountered paintings I had learned about in school—paintings about which I had written papers and exams. Each one was a surprise, a shock, full of unsuspected depth and the vibrating brashness of life, so that it was as if I’d never seen it before at all.
More extraordinary still were the encounters with the kinds of things I hadn’t learned about in school, which included pretty much all art made after 1965. Some of these were paintings— vibrant and violent scribbles on gray canvases, tightly controlled boxes of color, shimmering grids, people with strange faces picnicking on beaches, photographs of lawn mowers and of tables heaped with sand—while others were three-dimensional boxes, leaning boards of colored fiberglass, neon phrases, webbed tangles of melting resin, stones hung on strings. And that was just at the museums! Galleries abounded uptown and down, common as pizza parlors. Each one had its own gravity, bright things glittering inside like fishing lures, so abundant Manhattan couldn’t contain them all and they spilled out raggedly into Brooklyn and Queens. One broiling Saturday, I took the 7 train to Long Island City, where Alanna Heiss had famously transformed an old public school building into an expansive aviary of new art: rubber flowers blooming out of chaotic canvases, videos of bodies moving like shadows against white walls, typed pages of partly redacted text surrounded with pictures like contemporary illuminated manuscripts, rough sculptures of road barriers and traffic signs, orchestrated oratorios of light. I attended late-night dance performances at the Kitchen, where women in red blazed and flickered, never moving their feet, and poetry readings where words, bypassing sense, sang to me in pure sound. If what I’d seen in Elvers Hall had awakened me, these new visions took that awakened self and shook it up, seduced it, scared it, made it laugh out loud. This art unzipped me and turned me inside out. Like a snake, I shed the old rag that had been my skin.
September rolled around, but I never registered for classes. My roommate moved out but I stayed in the apartment, got another roommate. She had just moved to New York from Boston to get a master’s in curatorial studies.
“Curatorial studies—what’s that?”
Sadie was tall, her long blond hair very dark at the roots, a small tattoo of a sunburst on her ankle. “As in curating,” she said. “The people who organize shows?”
Of course I knew what a curator was. It just hadn’t occurred to me that you could go to school to become one, like becoming a doctor or an accountant. And, in fact, the idea of such a degree was fairly new. In the past, curators usually had degrees in art history but chose museum work instead of the academy. Many still do. It’s possible that I might have become a curator eventually even if I hadn’t met Sadie. But she certainly sped it all up for me. Six months later, I entered her program. Two years after that, I got my master’s. I had hoped to stay in New York, but all of us from the program applied for the same few jobs. I didn’t get one of the desirable positions in town, but I was offered a curatorial assistantship at a decent museum in the Midwest. It was a start.
My job, at what I will call the Midwestern Museum of Art, was in the contemporary department. It was not a department to which the museum gave much priority. There was a curator, a woman named Louise Haynes, who was occasionally permitted to organize an exhibition, and even less occasionally to acquire art for the permanent collection. There was a wing in the museum called the Haynes Wing, which presumably had something to do with her presence, though no one ever quite said so. I was never sure why she was given a curatorial assistant, since there wasn’t much work to do. Maybe it was just that she had made a fuss and they were hoping to quiet her down. She had a loud, strident voice and a louder braying laugh and a very un-Midwestern habit of putting her hand on your arm or shoulder when speaking, holding you in place. She wasn’t old, maybe fifty, but she had the look of someone held together by cosmetics and control-top panty hose, like a blowsy flower collared in a narrow vase. Not having much work to do, she spent prodigious amounts of time on the telephone doing what she called “cultivation,” meaning that she spoke to wealthy art collectors who might lend to a show if a show ever materialized, or who might possibly leave their collections to the museum. “Rich people are so fragile,” Louise liked to say. “They need constant attention or they wither up and die.” I guess she felt that part of her job was to keep them unwithered. I could never work out how much money she had herself—a fair amount certainly, but maybe not as much as the prospects she cultivated? Certainly she was comfortable in their world. I got the feeling she didn’t have to work. I suppose you could say that it was admirable she chose to. Or at least that it was interesting.
In a way, my job was to give her the attention she craved—to keep her from withering.
Louise had a wide and shifting circle of acquaintances who were more or less in the art world. Rich women, staff from the municipal and science museums, couples who ran fancy art galleries featuring oil paintings of the blue Mississippi. She chattered away with these people daily, gossiping and making lunch dates. I did a little filing, had slides copied, or went over to the library to xerox articles about artists she thought we might show. Every so often she drove to Chicago for a few days to look at art, and occasionally she flew out to New York. But the highlight of Louise’s life was the Venice Biennale, to which the museum did not send her but which they encouraged her to attend—on her own dime—no doubt in part because it was restful having her away from the office. I started working at the museum in October, and the following spring Louise announced that she had a treat for me. She invited me into her crepuscular office, thickly hung with framed exhibition posters from her shows, and pinned-up invitations to openings, and dusty shawls, and a special rack where she kept several pairs of expensive shoes, and she announced that she was taking me with her to the Biennale.
“You’ve been to Venice? No? To Italy? Heavens, and you an art history major! What a crime—never to have seen the Giottos.”
I felt such contradictory feelings—the thrill of the idea of Venice (Italy, travel, glamour, the Biennale) and the sting of her false sympathy that was really scorn. Dismay at all the time I would be forced to spend with Louise, dread of the obligation I would be put under, shame that I didn’t have anything decent to wear. But mostly the thrill. I was twenty-five years old and I had never been on an airplane! I would have to get a passport. I would step into a gondola in the golden light and watch the fabled façades drift by. I would dazzle my eyes with the riches of St. Mark’s and stroll down narrow byways overhung with flowers where a handsome Italian with a cigarette would follow me with his smoldering eyes.
And so I found myself, in the last week of June, in a small room adjoining Louise’s large one in the Hotel da Silva in Venice—crowded, hot, smelly, bedazzling Venice, city of water and glass. We spent the first days of that trip in a whirlwind of parties and pavilions. Never having been to Venice—never having been anywhere—I would have liked to spend a day in St. Mark’s Basilica, to visit the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. But of course, we were here to see the Biennale, which, along with the other exhibitions, programs, and special events that spring up in its shade every odd-numbered year, spreads its tentacles out from the Giardini and holds the city tight in the grip of glitter and celebrity.
Nothing could have prepared me for the way all of Venice was possessed by the passion for art, for the new, for the most outrageous. I had seen a lot of strange, disturbing art in New York, of course, but in Venice the work seemed bigger and stranger: giant insectlike forms hulking in marble rooms, heavy canvases thickly smeared with what looked like bloody footprints, video projections showing images of glaciers cut with bodies crowded into hovels, crystalline constructions shattering the dazzling light, monoliths made of counterfeit money, collages of naked superheroes tumbling through space. There was no quiet art in sight—no understated painting, no delicate sculpture of spun thread, no place the eye could find rest. Or maybe it was partly the crowds, the echoing cries as people greeted one another, the constant jockeying and air kissing and insincere murmuring and sizing up.
Louise knew everybody, though the compliment wasn’t always returned. It wouldn’t be fair to say she didn’t look at the art at all, but it seemed to me she looked at it only in order to have something to say about it later. I half expected her to ask me to make the rounds of the pavilions and then type up a report to save her the effort. That would have been preferable, actually, to what she did want, which was for me to stick by her side every moment as a kind of lady-in-waiting. “This is my assistant,” she’d say. “It’s her first Biennale. Her first time in Italy, actually, if you can believe that! I’ve half a mind to send her off to Florence this very minute!”
But she never did send me. Instead, I stood in her shadow and took in what I could: names, faces, titles, styles. We went to parties with fantastic chandeliers like glowing palaces and marble buffets offering pale goblets of champagne like women’s breasts and great piles of Russian caviar shining like black pearls. We spent considerably more time at parties than looking at art.
Sometimes Louise would send me off to get her another glass—not in my job description, but I was happy to go. Away from her sharp eye and her possessive talons for a few minutes, I could gawk more freely at the golden gowns with emerald ruffles that made their wearers look like great lizards, and the tiny black dresses that made their wearers look like lingerie models, and the shoes that seemed designed more for trussing pigeons or scooping eggs from their poaching baths than for moving from place to place. But if I lingered too long, I might pay when I returned, especially if the wealthy collector or museum director to whom she had attempted to attach herself like a barnacle had managed to escape.
“Lose your way?”
“There was a line.”
“Having brought you all this distance, I don’t think it’s too much to ask you not to disappear for half an hour at a time.”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t half an hour.”
“It’s a great opportunity I’m giving you, after all.”
“It is. I’m very grateful.”
“No, no, no—a great opportunity! Do you understand?” Glaring, she took the glass and sipped, her purplish lipstick staining the rim. “I would have thought a girl like you, from your background, would be thrilled to be here. Absolutely thrilled!”
It was hard to keep repeating the same assurances of gratitude. Sometimes it was better, with Louise, to change the subject. “Who’s that? The one by the pillar with the enormous—”
“Don’t point.” (I wasn’t pointing.) “Surely even you know who that is!”
I shook my head. “Please tell me.”
“Heiress to the largest railroad company in Europe. Gigantic collector! She had a long affair with the director of the Guggenheim Foundation; now they can’t be invited to the same parties. And the woman in the cape, that’s Gisella Bonaventuri. Oh! And that’s Bernard Augustin, the one who— You must have heard that story?”
“He started that museum on Cape Cod, that one where the curator disappeared. The Nauquasset Contemporary Museum.
Very small, a sort of vanity museum, like the Vista in Taos, or the Brant. He funds it with his own money and shows what he wants. People come from Boston, from New York. From the Hamptons and Provincetown in the summer. It was all due to her, of course—Alena. She had the eye.”
“And she disappeared?”
“She was supposed to meet him right here, at the Biennale, two years ago. But she never showed up. It turned out she’d never even gotten on the plane!”
“What happened to her?”
“Nobody knows for sure. There was a tremendous search, but it turned up nothing. The presumption was that she died. She liked to swim at night, apparently. Alone. And they have terrible currents out there. The body never washed up, so nothing could ever be proved, but what else could have happened? A tragic accident!”
I couldn’t help staring at Bernard Augustin, tall in his winking tuxedo, his grizzled hair razored close to his head, dark smudges, glowing faintly green like the inside of mussel shells, under his eyes. He was listening politely to a younger man with a surfer’s flop of blond hair who had a hand on his arm, but at the same time I had a sense of him standing apart, as though he were alone in that crowded, noisy hall with its Carrara marble floors and dazzling chandeliers, their pendants shattering the light. “Maybe she committed suicide,” I said dreamily. It seemed a more interesting and tragic scenario, swimming out with no intention of ever coming back, like the woman in The Awakening or James Mason at the end of A Star Is Born.
“What a horrible idea! There was no suggestion of that. After all, she had everything to live for.” Louise goggled in Bernard’s direction. “Poor man, doesn’t he have a tragic look? They were very close. Friends since childhood, he and Alena. Of course, it was a bigger shock to him than to anyone. They say he’s never gotten over it. Perhaps I’ll just go say hello.” She handed me her empty glass. “You stay right here—I don’t want you disappearing again.” And off she went, cutting her way through the crowd like a boat through water in her cherry-red suit that, despite having been designed by Chanel, somehow managed on her to look Midwestern. Without waiting for the blond man to finish speaking, she claimed Bernard Augustin’s attention with a hand on his other arm. I could hear her voice, as loud as a tornado siren, as she said, “Bernard? Bernard Augustin—is it you! We met at the Lowensteins’, but you won’t remember. Louise Haynes, from the Midwestern Museum of Art. We had a long chat about Donald Judd and Smithson, and why so many artists are drawn to desert landscapes. I remember you compared the desert to the sea!”
The blond man had vanished. Bernard Augustin turned toward Louise, over whom he towered, his head bent and his brow furrowed as though he were genuinely trying to remember. “Was it Manhattan, or up in Maine . . . ?”
“Manhattan! Such a lovely home. And, of course, the collection! Yet it doesn’t feel artificial, does it, the way she’s arranged it? You always feel you’re in a home, not a gallery.”
“And that magnificent Twombly in the dining room—not everyone would have the strength of character to eat in the presence of that! But Elaine always had nerves of steel.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know them well. You obviously—”
“No, not well,” Louise interrupted. “I wouldn’t say that.” And on she chattered, like a squirrel on a fencepost, occasionally throwing back her head to release that braying donkey’s laugh. Despite my direct orders, I moved farther into the crowd for a respite from the sound of her voice. I felt ashamed on behalf of my native soil that Louise was its representative here in Venice. I had fled the infinity of cornfields and the tyranny of five-o’clock dinners as soon as I could, but there was a part of me that still loved the Midwest. The smell of thawing earth in spring, and the vastness of the sky at noon, and the faint Norwegian lilt caught in people’s voices as though their Viking-blooded ancestors still ghosted inside them, playing the filaments of their vocal cords like harps.
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From Alena by Rachel Pastan, published on January 23, 2014 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Rachel Pastan.