In La Folie Baudelaire, Roberto Calasso’s magisterial book on Baudelaire and his circle, the most compelling essay shines a spotlight on Medieval War Scene, a mysterious early painting by Edgar Degas that is notable for the meaninglessness of its violence. That this violence is directed towards several women in unexplained states of undress is even more chilling:
The air is frozen, motionless. No one will witness this; no one will ask why. What is being experienced here is a new way of killing for which a certain calm is necessary. The victims form a group but not yet a mass--and they can make no appeal for help, in the silence of the countryside. An image that is like a new kind of subject for meditation. We do not know if the horsemen are soldiers, criminals or executioners.
In this violence, Calasso argues, is a premonition of modernity. The ordinary guys on horseback foreshadow the bureaucrats who will one day sign the paperwork for the battle of the Somme, or perhaps the camps at Dachau.
Of auxiliary interest to Calasso is the categorization of the painting, which in the French salon system was a critical identifying feature of any artistic endeavor. Medieval War Scene was, by all accounts, accepted as a painting in the time-honored “historical” tradition. Presumably, at some point in medieval history, there must have been violence against women by men on horseback; the actual historicity of the specific events, however, appears to be unknown. What do you call a painting that refers back to historical events that have no articulated place in history? It belongs to the realm of historical fiction: a type of exercise where plausible events of varying degrees of historical legitimacy are described in the style of a fictional narrative, often without the baggage of fact.
In The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron, the richly researched novel by Laura Marello, a cast of household names inhabits a hotel--among them Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, and Eduard Steichen. The main plot centers around Rodin’s mistress, the sculptor Camille Claudel, who bears the brunt of both bohemian and petit-bourgeois social codes as she fights for artistic recognition and personal freedom. The book, consonant with Wikipedia, suggests that certain members of Claudel’s family had it in for her; eventually she is permanently incarcerated in a French asylum. Framing this sorry tale is the central conceit that Steichen is collecting letters and narratives from his old friends to form a book, perhaps this very book, which would place The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron squarely in the species of “false document.” Henri Rousseau speaks of Rodin’s passionate childhood and rocky path towards artistic fulfilment; Steichen provides a laundry list of turn-of-the-century artistic projects involving Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Picasso; Nijinsky contributes several pages of “Spiritual Exercises.” Claudel provides her letters to Rodin, the last of which begins on this note: “I am going to die now. I will not be joining you in hell, because, as you know, my sins of hubris, martyrdom, bitterness, exaggeration, and the excessive way I cherished my own victimization, hurt no one but myself.”
Like Medieval War Scene, The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron pushes the boundaries of a genre. Whereas Medieval War Scene seems to have no specific basis in fact, The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron has little basis in fiction. With the possible exception of Claudel’s twin sons by Rodin, whose existence and survival are somewhat speculative, there appear to be no significant fictional characters. A typical page is jam-packed with black-letter historical events, well-known names that have survived the test of decades, and very little else:
The Friends of the Louvre Society gave a tour of the Hôtel Biron today. It regularly gives tours of historic buildings and, since the state is considering restoring it, we were on the society’s list. We were notified in advance of the tour, so we were all able to be on our best behavior (e.g. Cocteau wasn’t in the midst of throwing a wild party; Rodin refrained from drawing women in erotic poses; Rilke kept his windows shut and did not recite yesterday’s work to the garden at the top of his voice; Matisse managed to keep his pupils from imitating his style when copying the plaster model; and Miss Claudel was nowhere to be found).
Ordinarily, a work of faithful historical fiction focuses on the desiderata of every day--the unobservable space of solitude and interiority in which people take out the garbage, look out the window, and reflect on matters that have little immediate cultural significance, such as a sex act or a piece of furniture. Examples of conventional historical fiction about artists or scholars would include, for example, Arrogance by Joanna Scott (Egon Schiele) or The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy (Ludwig Wittgenstein). In other words, historical fiction generally focuses on what cannot be said in normal intellectual or creative discourse. Yet, in an unusual departure from the genre, The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron does none of these things. There is no omniscient narrator purporting to know everything that Erik Satie was thinking as he sat at the doctor’s office, no fly on the wall peering at Steichen on his toilet. Instead, The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron fictionalizes the self-representations--the official masks and personas--that well-known public figures, in an imperceptibly different alternate universe, might have presented to the outside world.
Due to the novel’s smoothness of execution, this mechanism is more disconcerting than it initially seems. For instance, Ms. Marello’s work institutes a complex double-voicing whereby the fictional Picasso writes statements about art that the actual Picasso, as reimagined by Marello, perhaps might have wished that someone would think that he had written, even though it appears that he never literally wrote them:
Matisse said his feelings and his way of expressing them were inextricable. Matisse left the Fauve tribe to paint other pictures. He found a balance between what he felt and how he painted. He made colors move, condensed meaning, followed the desire of the line.
What red-blooded artist writes to usurp the historians and critics in this manner? Clearly, an artist who believes himself, at the time of writing, already to have ascended to the immortal realm of big-H History--in other words, the same person who later declares:
Rousseau wanted to paint poorly but couldn’t. He painted well in spite of himself. People call this Primitivism. [paragraph break] Kandinsky says Rousseau’s reality is greater than ours. Rousseau showed in the Salon des Indépendants from 1886 to 1910.
On one level, Ms. Marello’s work is an act of subversion that contextualizes the voices of well-known male artists within the story of a lesser-known (and equally talented) woman. More intriguingly, it is a documentation of the devastating and tyrannical control that life apparently exercises over art. How does a story break free from the facts? One strategy is simply to make some things up. Eduard Steichen did not actually compile a series of narratives by Rousseau, Rodin, Claudel, Nijinski and Satie into a book. It is conjecture that Claudel had twins or, if so, that they grew up knowing that she was their mother. But Claudel hints, in the closing pages, that there is another strategy. “I have finally succeeded in erasing myself,” she declares, “I have tried to grow smaller and smaller in this ludicrous world of the asylum, so that one day I might cease to exist, and at that moment I would finally have some peace.” Years of harsh discipline in the asylum have given her, at least this victory: “No one looks at me, speaks to me, or even utters my name. I have become invisible.”
The erasure is not only a metaphor for a feminist tragedy, which of course Claudel’s story is. It is implicitly a symbol of the erasure of the self that occurs as a corollary to the making of all great art. It isn’t particularly that Picasso or Rodin don’t care about the course of their lives, or that Nijinsky considers himself insignificant. It is that, in the end, the distressing, salacious details--the hectic exhibitions and petty rivalries--are simply noise. Art absents itself from such endeavors, just as Camille Claudel furiously absents herself from the coterie of successful men who formed the foundations of modern painting.
In its strongest and most compelling episode, The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron closes with its final offering: not the torment of Claudel or the flamboyant one-liners of Picasso, but an invocation to the reader under the guise of meditation. “Remind yourself of what you want and desire,” Nijinsky repeatedly exhorts us, “Review your life. Recall to mind each person you have loved, looking upon them year by year, period by period….In each instance, imagine the beloved.” Surely, such a resort to interiority must be viewed, more than anything, as a sort of retreat. Ms. Marello’s perceptive and richly textured work, with its subtle horrors and disappointments, explains why such a retreat is necessary.