Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: 'Solar' by Ian McEwan

By Christopher Taylor for The Guardian

Climate change is chiefly an engineering problem to Michael Beard, the central character in Ian McEwan's new novel. In a different sense, it is to McEwan too. A practised manipulator of his readers' expectations and responses, he has plainly thought hard about the difficulties of dealing in a work of fiction with something that comes trailing strong emotions and unhelpful narrative models.

In contrast to the politics of global warming, for example, the science can't easily be debated dramatically without giving undue weight to the denialist camp, which he's unwilling to do. On the other hand, apocalyptic urgency, which shadows so much of the rhetoric around the issue, is equally unattractive to McEwan, a long-term fan of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. Finally, and maybe most intractably, there's the problem of response-fatigue. Pressing invitations to think about global warming aren't thin on the ground. McEwan's solution is both elegant and surprising: instead of applying doom and gloom, he reaches for a lighter, more comic mode than usual.

Beard, a short, fat, philandering physicist, serves as the novel's scientifically informed focal consciousness and as a quasi-allegorical figure. In this, he resembles Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon at the heart of Saturday (2005). But here too comedy gets McEwan round a problem. The earlier novel's unironic stance towards its central figure, along with its vanilla-flavoured politics, grated badly on many readers, who saw it – whatever its technical merits – as a novel about a smug, rich man who's almost proud of his inability to decide if invading Iraq is a good idea. Beard shares Perowne's distaste for zeal: though never in doubt about the basic science of global warming, he begins the novel suspicious of the "Old Testament ring" to environmentalists' forewarnings. This time, however, it's made clear from the start that we won't be asked to admire this mildly preposterous character, a generator of ironies as much as an observer of them.

The first of the book's three sections begins in 2000. Beard is 53, his best days long behind him. A Nobel laureate for his early theoretical work ("the Beard-Einstein Conflation") on the photoelectric effect, he sits on committees, lends his name and prestige to institutional letterheads, and fills the role of "Chief" at a research centre outside Reading that has been set up to allow the Blair government to be seen as doing something to combat climate change. For Beard, this phenomenon is merely "one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action . . . But he himself had other things to think about." The most insistent of these things is his fifth wife Patrice's affair with the builder who did up their house in Belsize Park, an affair she's embarked on in a mood of buoyant vengefulness after coming across evidence of Beard's numerous infidelities.

In order to escape Patrice's icy good cheer, and the attentions of a young physicist at the centre, Tom Aldous, who keeps trying to interest him in artificial photosynthesis, Beard signs up for a trip to the Arctic. This entirely selfish decision is greeted as a great step forward by the centre's idealists and its time-serving co-boss. Beard heads north in the company of various arts-world luminaries. "Everyone but Beard was worried about global warming and was merry"; only the semi-sceptical physicist is appropriately sombre. There's an echo of Perowne's somewhat priggish disapproval of the anti-war protesters' levity in Saturday, but Beard's moroseness springs less from intellectual consistency than the fact that he has nearly frozen off his penis by emptying his bladder in subzero temperatures. This uncomfortable episode, and the journey it takes place on, is the first of McEwan's customary set-pieces in the book, and it's as though he's decided to give full rein to the comic overtones held back in 2007's On Chesil Beach.

Returning to London, Beard is quickly embroiled in more of McEwan's traditional tropes – a life-altering accident and a suspenseful sequence, again given a comic spin. Then a new section starts, set in 2005. Divorced and even fatter, Beard has reinvented himself as a clean-energy entrepreneur. He has, it turns out, been sacked from the centre after making some off-the-cuff remarks on the low numbers of women in high-level physics jobs. McEwan draws fruitfully on his own experiences with the press here and has some satiric fun at the expense of arts academics, though Beard's troubles, modelled on Larry Summers's at Harvard, aren't quite believable in an English setting. The physicist has also acquired a new girlfriend and an addiction to salt and vinegar crisps; weirdly, McEwan uses these last items to have him experience a well known anecdote – another set-piece – and then has an irritating know-all pop up to explain what a well known anecdote it is.

Beard's main business, however, is to lecture a group of institutional investors on alternative energy. The novel carefully undercuts both his virtue and his dignity: he spends his time at the podium trying not to vomit, having eaten a dodgy smoked salmon sandwich, and parts of his pitch are either plagiarised or hypocritical fabrications. All the same, his actual arguments are compelling, and it's hard not to root for him as, in the final section, he prepares to throw the switch on a prototype array of next-generation solar panels in New Mexico. It's now 2009, and Beard, fatter still and trying to ignore a worrying melanoma, has further romantic entanglements and professional complications on his plate. As various chickens from the first two sections start coming home to roost, still in comic mode, McEwan builds up considerable suspense about the fate of Beard's enterprise, a revolutionary technology that, you end up half-believing, might save the world.

In the course of his trip to the Arctic circle, Beard hears some unfamiliar guitar music, "reflective, with a touch of lightness and precision, like something of Mozart's". Solar seems to aim for something similar and, as you'd expect, precision isn't a problem in its brisk tour d'horizon of the ironies arising from climate change. McEwan swiftly persuades the reader that he can write authoritatively not only about science but the culture of scientific institutions, too. He also revels in clever, sometimes over-neat reversals. At one point, Beard's business partner starts to worry that the climate might not be changing after all. "It's a catastrophe," Beard assures him. "Relax!"

Lightness, however, comes less easily to McEwan, whose style depends on deliberateness and a certain ponderousness. The ominous lining up of causes and effects and the patient tweaking of narrative tension don't always mesh well with the aimed-for quickness and brio. Some of the humour is quite broad: there's a rather clunking motif concerning polar bears, and Beard gets involved with a stereotypical Southern waitress who's called, in the way of trailer-trash types, Darlene. He emerges as a figure of some comic dynamism, but the pages on his childhood and youth, though brilliantly done, articulate poorly with the knockabout parts of the plot. Once it became clear that the book's world is comic, I also found myself wondering if it wouldn't have benefited from being more loosely assembled, with shorter, discontinuous episodes and Beard functioning along the lines of Updike's Bech, Nabokov's Pnin or the consciousness in Calvino's Cosmicomics.

At the same time, the overarching plot pulls off a clinching novelistic coup, using comedy to sneak grimmer matters past the reader's defences. Beard's argument about the correct response to climate change, an argument that McEwan has also made, is that we have no choice but to hope that technological ingenuity, enlightened self-interest and the market's allocation of resources can get us off the hook; personal virtue counts for little. For a while it seems as though the slobbish, self-centred Beard might actually bring about such an outcome, and the reader starts to hope he'll manage it. But Beard – self-deluding, a serial breaker of resolutions, hopelessly addicted to overconsumption – also stands for humanity in general. When he gets his comeuppance, it's a powerful reminder that reality isn't a comic novel, and in its deepest implications, this book isn't one either.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Colm Tóibín's 'Brooklyn': Best of the Month at Amazon Review
Amazon Best of the Month: Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home. --Daphne Durham

From Publishers Weekly
Signature Reviewed by Maureen Howard: Colm Tóibín's engaging new novel, Brooklyn, will not bring to mind the fashionable borough of recent years nor Bed-Stuy beleaguered with the troubles of a Saturday night. Tóibín has revived the Brooklyn of an Irish-Catholic parish in the '50s, a setting appropriate to the narrow life of Eilis Lacey. Before Eilis ships out for a decent job in America, her village life is sketched in detail. The shops, pub, the hoity-toity and plainspoken people of Enniscorthy have such appeal on the page, it does seem a shame to leave. But how will we share the girl's longing for home, if home is not a gabby presence in her émigré tale? Tóibín's maneuvers draw us to the bright girl with a gift for numbers. With a keen eye, Eilis surveys her lonely, steady-on life: her job in the dry goods store, the rules and regulations of her rooming house—ladies only. The competitive hustle at the parish dances are so like the ones back home—it's something of a wonder I did not give up on the gentle tattle of her story, run a Netflix of the feline power struggle in Claire Booth Luce's The Women. Tóibín rescues his homesick shopgirl from narrow concerns, gives her a stop-by at Brooklyn College, a night course in commercial law. Her instructor is Joshua Rosenblum. Buying his book, the shopkeeper informs her, At least we did that, we got Rosenblum out. You mean in the war? His reply when she asks again: In the holocaust, in the churben. The scene is eerie, falsely naïve. We may accept what a village girl from Ireland, which remained neutral during the war, may not have known, but Tóibín's delivery of the racial and ethnic discoveries of a clueless young woman are disconcerting. Eilis wonders if she should write home about the Jews, the Poles, the Italians she encounters, but shouldn't the novelist in pursuing those postwar years in Brooklyn, in the Irish enclave of the generous Father Flood, take the mike? The Irish vets I knew when I came to New York in the early '50s had been to that war; at least two I raised a glass with at the White Horse were from Brooklyn. When the stage is set for the love story, slowly and carefully as befits his serious girl, Tóibín is splendidly in control of Eilis's and Tony's courtship. He's Italian, you see, of a poor, caring family. I wanted to cast Brooklyn, with Rosalind Russell perfect for Rose, the sporty elder sister left to her career in Ireland. Can we get Philip Seymour Hoffman into that cassock again? J. Carol Naish, he played homeboy Italian, not the mob. I give away nothing in telling that the possibility of Eilis reclaiming an authentic and spirited life in Ireland turns Brooklyn into a stirring and satisfying moral tale. Tóibín, author of The Master, a fine-tuned novel on the lonely last years of Henry James, revisits, diminuendo, the wrenching finale of The Portrait of a Lady. What the future holds for Eilis in America is nothing like Isabel Archer's return to the morally corrupt Osmond. The decent fellow awaits. Will she be doomed to a tract house of the soul on Long Island? I hear John McCormick take the high note—alone in the gloaming with the shadows of the past—as Tóibín's good girl contemplates the lost promise of Brooklyn.

Maureen Howard's The Rags of Time, the last season of her quartet of novels based on the four seasons, will be published by Viking in October.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chicago Tribune Review: 'Story Sisters' by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s ‘Story Sisters’ leaves us bewitched

To create her latest novel, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart), Alice Hoffman rose each day before dawn to write. “I wanted to get that dream quality,” she said in a recent phone interview. “To get at that kind of truth. To be free.”

It worked. “The Story Sisters,” the 18th novel by a writer whose books have included an Oprah Book Club selection (”Here on Earth”) and the 1995 novel that begat the 1998 movie of the same name, “Practical Magic,” starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, is, like its predecessors, an intoxicating blend of cloud-cavorting magic and down-to-earth reality.

“I still don’t really understand why and how it came to be. I wrote it as a fairy tale, and I think I just channeled it,” Hoffman said of “The Story Sisters.”

Hoffman is celebrated for her ability to conjure plausible alternative realities, to sprinkle her landscapes with witches and other mythical creatures, while keeping her stories closely tethered to familiar terrain. There’s a mysticism that swirls about her works but, like a late-morning fog, it eventually burns off to reveal a physical and emotional topography that most all of us can recognize. She writes about parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives; she writes about people living in big cities and small towns, beneath a moon that waxes and wanes — and watches.

The characters in “The Story Sisters” include a trio of siblings — Elv, Meg and Claire — who share an ethereal bond that is tested by all-too-real issues such as drug addiction, abusive relationships and serious illness. The novel is whimsical and heartbreaking.

And she created it on a succession of dreamy mornings, Hoffman recalled. “It’s such a good time to write fiction. But this novel really did affect me deeply. When I was writing parts of it, I was having nosebleeds. That had never happened to me before. It was so scary.

“I did an outline. Then I completely changed it. These characters surprised me. They started doing their own thing,” she added. “It’s about how kids can all grow up in the same household and turn out so incredibly different. It’s about how mothers and children can never know each other completely. You live parallel lives.”

Despite the grim fates that often befall her characters, Hoffman is an optimist, she said. “I see the world as hopeful. As a writer, I believe in redemption. And I believe we make narratives out of our lives in order to make sense of them.

“No matter what happens with the Internet, books are not going to die. Fiction is the truest thing we have.”

Copyright Tribune Corp. 2009, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

L.A. Times Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez

Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

The November visit of a great Johannes Vermeer painting to Pasadena's also-great Norton Simon Museum ranks as a major mini-event. Vermeer's confirmed output was just 36 paintings. With the ones closest to Los Angeles 3,000 miles away in museums in New York and Washington, D.C., local desire to see "A Lady Writing" (c. 1655), on loan from the National Gallery of Art, is surely stoked.

My advice: Get a copy of Jonathan Lopez's terrific new book, "The Man Who Made Vermeers," so you'll have the whole month of October to digest it. Not that you'll need that long to read it. The book is a modest volume -- just 246 pages of text, plus another 36 of often fascinating end notes -- but it's so jam-packed and nicely written that you'll burn right through it.

The yearning for Vermeer is, in fact, central to Lopez's story, which chronicles how Han van Meegeren was able to successfully produce numerous forgeries of works claimed to be by the painter from Delft. Look at some of those fakes today, and they seem so obviously wrong as to leave one puzzled as to how they could have been accepted by some of the 20th century's best museum curators, art dealers and private collectors. We must be way smarter than them.

Well, no. Lopez astutely points out: "[A] fake doesn't necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind. Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long-dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period." Lopez shows how Van Meegeren split that critical difference.

Since the "tastes and attitudes" of Van Meegeren's own period included the horrific rise of Nazism in Europe, Lopez's fresh interpretation of events is very provocative -- not to mention convincing. Two important things he brings to his four-year revisionist study: The writer is himself a painter, so he understands art materials in a hands-on way; and, he's fluent in Dutch, which made interviews and original document research possible.

I haven't read Edward Dolnick's book on the same subject, "The Forger's Spell," also recently published. But it's hard to imagine improving on Lopez's gem of a tale.

-- Christopher Knight The Los Angeles Times, copyright Tribune Corp. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

SF Chronicle Review: 'Catching Fire' by Tom Standage and 'An Edible History of Humanity' by Richard Wrangham

When Alan Davidson published "The Oxford Companion to Food" just a decade ago, he wrote, "Food history is not recognized as a discrete subject for academic work." Well, a decade is a long time in academia and even more so in book publishing, and the table is now groaning under the weight of books that endlessly slice and dice the historical and cultural significance of food and eating.

To stand out in this all-you-can-eat buffet, you need a new angle, maybe even a cheap gimmick. Four years ago, Tom Standage came up with one and wrote "A History of the World in 6 Glasses." Now in "An Edible History of Humanity" he's attempting something with much less of an angle, looking at history as "a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food." This sounds like a subject of infinite scope, though the book clocks in at about 250 pages.

In it Standage covers such topics as the history of the spice trade, the invention of agriculture, the connections between sugar and slavery, the role of food during war, famine in Ireland, in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. This is all fine as far as it goes, but mostly it doesn't go very far. Given the vastness of any one of these topics, Standage's attempts at compression and synthesis are always likely to seem superficial.

I found myself far more engaged by the parts than the whole. I was delighted to learn, for example, that the ancient Romans considered lions, leopards and Indian eunuchs to be "spices" and that carrots were white or purple until 16th century Dutch horticulturalists bred new species in honor of William of Orange. I was also amazed to discover there are 1,400 seed banks in the world. The biggest and best is Norwegian and located in the Arctic Circle; the most vulnerable is in a freezer in the corner of a wooden shack in Malawi. I'd have preferred more of this and rather less waffle as when Standage writes, "That food has been such an important ingredient in world affairs might seem strange, but it would be far more surprising if it had not."

Standage's book aspires to a lofty overview. In "Catching Fire" Richard Wrangham, an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard, is aiming for nothing less than a new theory of human evolution. His hypothesis is that while we ate raw food we were bound to remain primitive. It was only with cooking, made possible by the harnessing of fire, that we became recognizably human.

Wrangham begins by effectively proving that eating raw food is time-consuming, inefficient and not especially healthy. If this annoys members of the raw-food movement, he'd be delighted, I think. An adult chimpanzee, he tells us, spends six hours a day chewing food. This has very high "digestive costs," meaning that large amounts of energy are used up simply in digestion. By cooking food we've already completed the first stage of the digestive process. The calories in cooked food are therefore extracted more easily, saving time and energy. And what did our ancestors do with that surplus time and energy? According to Wrangham they used it to evolve big brains.

He also asserts that cooking transformed social behavior. Cooking demanded a level of organization and cooperation that basic hunting and gathering didn't. The sharing of meals also had a "civilizing" effect. Only the calmer, more amenable neighbors got invited to dinner.

However, the lone cook was vulnerable and needed a protector; a husband, in other words. "The rule that domestic cooking is women's work is astonishingly consistent," Wrangham writes, and is usually assigned a very low value. This leads him, unhappily, to conclude that "cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority." Evolution, it seems, is no respecter of liberal niceties. Wrangham is willing both to accept and regret this inconvenient possibility, which is all part of his book's appeal.

Wrangham has a curious mind, in all the best senses. His range of references includes James Boswell, Mrs. Beeton and Mick Jagger. He recounts stories of lost adventurers who survived in the most inhospitable places as long as they could cook their food, others who starved when there was food but no way of cooking it. He tells of the Bonerif tribe of Indonesia in which single women were free to have sex with any man they chose, but the moment they cooked for him they were considered to be married. This is colorful stuff, and Wrangham obviously has an eye on a general readership, but he never talks down, and he's a trustworthy guide through some daunting intellectual terrain.

I think we'll have to leave it to Wrangham's fellow evolutionary anthropologists to decide just how valid his theory is, but to an interested layman his conclusion that "we humans are the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame," is thoroughly plausible. As new angles go, it's pretty much unbeatable.

Geoff Nicholson, whose most recent book is "The Lost Art of Walking," is working on a book about the wilder shores of gastronomy, provisionally titled "Psycho-Gourmet."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Yorker Review: 'The House of Wittgenstein' by Alexander Waugh

A Nervous Splendor

The Wittgenstein family had a genius for misery.

by Anthony Gottlieb

The family of Karl Wittgenstein, who was one of Austria’s richest men when he died, in 1913, may deserve some gloomy sort of prize, the Palm of Atreus, perhaps. His youngest child, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, once asked a pupil if he had ever had any tragedies in his life. The pupil, evidently well trained, inquired what he meant by “tragedy.” “I mean suicides, madness, or quarrels,” replied Ludwig, three of whose four brothers committed suicide, two of them (Rudi and Hans) in their early twenties, and the third (Kurt) at the age of forty. Ludwig often thought of doing so, as did his surviving brother, Paul. A budding concert pianist when he lost his right arm to a Russian bullet, in 1914, Paul was imprisoned for a time in the infamous Siberian fortress where Dostoyevsky had set his novel “The House of the Dead.” Ludwig later claimed to have first entertained thoughts of suicide at around the age of ten, before any of his brothers had died. There were three sisters: Gretl, Helene, and Hermine. Hermine, the eldest child (she was born in 1874; Ludwig, the youngest, arrived fifteen years later), and the guardian of her father’s flame, never married. Helene was highly neurotic, and had a husband who suffered from dementia. Gretl was regarded as irritating by most people, including her unpleasant husband, who committed suicide, as did his father and one of his aunts. Bad temper and extreme nervous tension were endemic in the family. One day, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, “I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”

All of this was before the Nazis got to work. The Wittgenstein children were brought up as Christians, but they counted as full Jews under the Nuremberg racial laws because three of their grandparents had been born Jewish and did not convert to Christianity until they reached adulthood. (The fourth, their maternal grandmother, had no Jewish ancestry.) After Germany annexed Austria, in 1938, the family money bought the lives of the three sisters—Paul had escaped, and Ludwig was safe in England—but at the cost of estranging several of the surviving siblings from one another. A few days before the invasion of Poland, in 1939, Hitler found the time to issue an order granting half-breed status to the Wittgenstein children, on the pretext that their paternal grandfather had been the bastard son of a German prince. Nobody believed this tale, but the arrangement enabled the German Reichsbank to claim all the gold and much of the foreign currency and stocks held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust. The negotiations for this exchange seem to have involved a secret pact in which Gretl and Hermine sided with Nazi officials against Paul. After the war, Paul performed with his single hand at a concert in Vienna but did not visit Hermine, who was dying there; Ludwig and Paul had no contact after 1939; nor did Paul and Gretl. This was not a happy family.

Alexander Waugh, the author of “The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War” (Doubleday; $28.95), is no stranger to family sagas. He belongs to the fourth generation of an English literary dynasty that includes the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who was his grandfather; his previous book, “Fathers and Sons,” is a memoir of the Waughs. The publishers of “The House of Wittgenstein” compare the “novelistic richness” of its style to Thomas Mann’s first novel, “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family,” which was published in 1901. In fact, there are more than stylistic similarities between the Wittgensteins of Vienna and Mann’s invented north-German merchant dynasty. In Mann’s novel, the vitality and the solid businesslike virtues of the Buddenbrook family are sapped by introspection, homosexuality, loss of interest in commerce, overindulgence in art, and illness. If Karl Wittgenstein ever read it, he must have nodded in recognition. In a memoir that Hermine wrote in the nineteen-forties, she noted the “lack of vitality and will for life” that set her brothers apart from their father, and described his bitter disappointment that none of them wanted to continue his work in business. Like his wife and his children, Karl was highly musical, but he found his son Hans’s obsession with music to be morbid and strictly limited the amount of time the boy was allowed to play. Hans was a prodigy whose extraordinary musical perception became evident at the age of four; Gustav Mahler’s teacher, Julius Epstein, called him a genius. But Karl insisted that he follow a career in industry or finance. Rudi and Ludwig were homosexual, and Hans may have been, too.

There the parallels end. Thomas Mann traced the decline of the Buddenbrooks through four generations, but the Wittgensteins rose and fell within the span of two. Karl more or less built the family fortune himself. He was no stolid merchant but an audacious risk-taker, and something of a rebel in early life. At the age of seventeen, he absconded to New York, where he arrived in the spring of 1865 with a violin and no money. He worked as a waiter, then, among other things, he played in a minstrel band, a gig that came to an abrupt end when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theatre and musical performances were banned. Karl was too ashamed to write to his family or answer their letters. It was only when he got a steady job as a teacher at a college in upstate New York that he recovered enough pride to agree to return.

His father was a land agent and a trader, and at first Karl was put to work on one of his rented farms. Then he briefly enrolled in Vienna’s Technical University. After dropping out, he took a series of engineering jobs. Energy and intelligence got him into management, audacious deal-making took him higher, and some capital from his wife (he married in 1874) provided the first grains of powder for an explosive entrepreneurial rampage. Waugh says that Karl Wittgenstein was a chancer, whose enormous fortune owed as much to the favorable outcomes of his gambles as to his hard work and his skills. That is implausible; nobody has quite such a consistent run of good luck. Karl was adept at swinging the odds in his own favor, and he knew exactly which chances to take—in particular, he appreciated the significance of technology more keenly than his competitors did. Announcing his death, in 1913, The Economist wrote that “the Austrian iron and steel trade owes its rapid growth and development solely to him.”

Newspaper articles by Karl Wittgenstein show that he believed in unfettered capitalism (though not in free trade) and was opposed to any legislation aimed at protecting consumers from cartels or fraud. Such laws, in his opinion, would interfere with the crucial work of vigorous entrepreneurs, who would ultimately raise the standard of living for everybody. An early master of the leveraged buyout, he no doubt cut some corners while assembling his ingeniously integrated empire of mines, iron- and steelworks, and hardware factories. He certainly reaped the benefits of monopoly wherever he could find them. In February of 1900, The Economists Austria-Hungary correspondent reported from Vienna that Herr Wittgenstein would “soon have the power of fixing iron prices in Hungary also, as he fixes them in Austria.”

Karl was no philanthropist on the scale of his American friend Andrew Carnegie. He was more of a patron—one of the main supporters of the Secession, Vienna’s Art Nouveau movement led by Gustav Klimt (who painted a portrait of Gretl, which she did not like). But the family’s cultural life really centered on the grand Musiksaal on the first floor of their main house. Brahms was a family friend. He dedicated his violin concerto to Karl’s first cousin Joseph Joachim, whose famous quartet played in the Musiksaal several times each year. Richard Strauss came and performed duets with the young Paul. Schoenberg attended the soirées several times; Mahler, whose music Ludwig later dismissed as “worthless,” once attended but was not invited again after he left before the end of the evening’s entertainment.

Music was more than entertainment for the Wittgensteins, though, and more than art. For one thing, it became a store of value. Pages from the Wittgenstein collection of autographed musical manuscripts flutter through this wonderfully told story. Scores by Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, and Bruckner are stuffed in a potting shed by a quick-thinking servant while an art historian from the Gestapo rummages through Gretl’s house. A Bach cantata, two Mozart piano concertos, a Haydn symphony, and one of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are smuggled to Ludwig in Cambridge, where he places them in a bank safe-deposit box. Gretl’s younger son hides Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” Brahms’s “Handel Variations,” some Beethoven letters, Wagner’s sketches for “Die Walküre,” and more, under a pile of socks in his suitcase, and heads for the Vienna railway station. Music was also, Waugh writes, the only effective way in which the Wittgenstein children could communicate with their shy, nervous, and intensely musical mother. And music provided consolation and distraction from the tragedies of the family, about which they were mostly required to remain silent.

Sometime in 1901, Hans fled from his father and went to America, much as his own father had done thirty-six years earlier. In 1902, he disappeared, by most accounts, from a boat, which may have been in the Chesapeake Bay, perhaps on the Orinoco River in Venezuela, or in several other places. Wherever it was, no one doubted that he had committed suicide. Hans’s disappearance was a banned topic. Rudi was a twenty-two-year-old chemistry student in Berlin when he walked into a bar on a May evening in 1904, requested a sentimental song from the pianist, and then mixed potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and died in agony. The suicide note left for his parents said that he had been grieving over the death of a friend. A more likely explanation is that he thought he was identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality. After Rudi’s funeral, Karl forbade the family to mention him ever again. Waugh thinks that this enforced silence, which the dutiful Mrs.Wittgenstein supported, created a permanent rift between parents and children. The exact circumstances of Kurt’s suicide, which took place on the Italian front in 1918, are unknown. He was generally regarded as cheerful, but Hermine recorded that he seemed to carry “the germ of disgust for life within himself.”

Perhaps it was because Paul, after he lost his right arm, had the most tangible affliction in the family that he found the focus to remake himself. His determination to succeed on the concert stage was, in part, inspired by the example of Josef Labor, a blind organist and composer who was a favorite of the Wittgenstein family. Géza Zichy, a one-armed Hungarian count whose pianism had enthralled Liszt, was another encouraging model. Zichy wrote a self-help book for amputees, which explained, among other things, how to eat a crayfish and remove one’s underpants with only one arm. Paul worked furiously and ingeniously to develop techniques that would enable him to perform. The training began while he was still recovering from the amputation in a Russian prison hospital, tapping on a dummy keyboard that he had etched in charcoal on a crate. Later, on a real piano, he often practiced for up to seven hours at a sitting.

At the peak of his career, in the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties, Paul’s concerts drew wildly enthusiastic reviews from respected critics; the Grove Dictionary of Music describes Paul as having had “an amazing virtuosity which enabled him to overcome difficulties formidable even for a two-handed pianist.” During Ludwig’s lifetime, the pianist brother—his elder by just two years—was much the more famous of the two. It’s also true that Paul continued to perform after his abilities had declined, and his reputation declined accordingly. He made few recordings, and Waugh, who is also a composer and a music critic, remarks that most of them are bad.

His most lasting significance comes from having commissioned one-handed works from at least a dozen composers, including Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, and Maurice Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand remains widely performed. Strauss extracted a particularly large fee, and Britten, at least, affected to be in it just for the money. (“I have been commissioned by a man called Wittgenstein,” Britten wrote to his sister. “He pays gold so I’ll do it.”) Paul often insisted on changes to the music, especially when he thought that the orchestra had been overscored and would drown out his playing. (Britten groused, “The man really is an old sour puss.”) There was also a colorful dispute with Ravel, who complained for the rest of his life about his dealings with Paul. There was worse in store for poor Hindemith, who wrote his concerto in 1923: Paul couldn’t understand the composition, so he filed it away. It was discovered eight decades later, in a Pennsylvania farmhouse that had belonged to Paul’s widow, and given a belated world première by Leon Fleisher in Berlin in 2004. Paul couldn’t fathom Prokofiev’s concerto, either, and he shelved that, too. In 1950, Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the Second World War, asked for permission to perform some of these works, many of which had been written a quarter of a century earlier. Paul usually bought exclusive performing rights for his commissions, and he said no. A few years later, Rapp obtained a copy of Prokofiev’s concerto from his widow and went ahead, anyway, infuriating Paul.

It is hard to warm to Paul’s refusal to let anyone else perform pieces that he wouldn’t play himself. (He even felt betrayed by composers who wanted to rearrange his commissions to produce two-handed versions.) And, despite giving evidence of Paul’s kindness and generosity to friends, pupils, and old retainers, Waugh makes no effort to conceal his hero’s estrangement from the compromises that lubricate everyday life. Bertrand Russell once wrote of Ludwig that no one could be more “destitute of the false politeness that interferes with truth.” This was at a time when Russell was still enraptured by the young Ludwig. Russell later grew less indulgent toward his erstwhile pupil, but he had identified a family characteristic: when they believed that an important principle was at stake—which, for them, was often—the Wittgensteins were not inclined to be nice.

Most of Paul’s eccentricities were perhaps the normal ones for a loner who had been brought up amid vast wealth. He was a fiercely private man who liked to book entire railway carriages for himself, even when travelling with his family. His wife, Hilde, who was half blind and had been his pupil, bore him two children in Vienna before their marriage; the elder child had been conceived shortly after their first piano lesson, when Hilde was eighteen years old and Paul was forty-seven. Because Hilde was not Jewish, Paul was open to charges of “racial defilement,” and in 1938 he fled Austria. When his wife and children arrived in the United States, in 1941, he set them up in a house on Long Island, which he visited on weekends from his apartment on Riverside Drive. Arriving in New York without a valet, he soon ran into trouble. When his clothes were stolen from a hotel—he had left them outside his room, presuming that someone would wash them—he sat around in bedsheets until a candidate for the post of personal assistant came up with the suggestion that more clothes be bought from a shop. She was hired. Another anecdote has him sallying forth into the street wearing a hat that was still attached to its box.

In the Wittgenstein family, it was not the philosopher who was the unworldly one. Ever since childhood, the last-born Ludwig had had a passion and a facility for mechanical things. At the age of ten, he constructed a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire; while serving in the Austrian Army, he demonstrated a more dangerous practicality by improvising his own mortar in the field. After leaving school, Ludwig studied engineering in Berlin, specializing in hot-air balloons, and then moved to Manchester to work on aeronautical engines; in 1910, he patented an improvement in propeller technology. It was then that he heard of Bertrand Russell’s work on logic and decided to study with him in Cambridge.

Russell found him to be a tormented soul, unsure of his own abilities and unsure whether to be an engineer or a philosopher. Russell soon decided that Ludwig was the most perfect example of genius he had ever known, and persuaded him not to continue with engineering. “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother,” Russell told Hermine. But he feared that his new pupil was on the brink of suicide, as he explained in a letter to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline wrote back that hot chocolate would calm Ludwig’s nerves, and enclosed a packet of cocoa tablets for Russell to give him.

If they ever reached Ludwig they did not do the trick. He continued to work with a feverish intensity on the problems of logic that he was discussing with Russell and to agonize about his life. The way those two topics were entangled in Ludwig’s mind can be seen from his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” a gnomic masterpiece that he completed as a soldier in 1918. The “Tractatus” is a mixture of logical symbols and mystical remarks in which Ludwig attempted to delineate the limits of language. Certain things could be expressed in language, and these were best understood in terms of the logical techniques developed by Russell, he maintained. But others—and these were the most important things in life—could not be expressed in language at all. Hence the book’s famous closing line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The problems of philosophy could thus be dispatched by being divided into those that could be perspicuously rendered into Russellian logic, and thereby answered fairly easily, and those about which nothing could be said.

Frank Ramsey, one of Ludwig’s most brilliant friends, who had reviewed the “Tractatus” in Britain’s main philosophical journal as an undergraduate, quipped that “what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” Ramsey meant that Ludwig seemed to be cheating by trying to specify exactly what cannot be said. As it happens, Ludwig—who, unusually for a Wittgenstein, seems not to have mastered any musical instrument as a child—impressed his musical friends with displays of virtuoso whistling. Several Cambridge dons recalled hearing him whistle the solo part of an entire concerto while a pianist played the orchestral part. Whether or not Ramsey had this curious feat in mind, the Wittgensteins were certainly in the habit of using music to express what they couldn’t say in words.

After the “Tractatus,” having thus exhausted all philosophical problems, and been exhausted by them, Ludwig took a break. He worked as a schoolmaster for six years and then as an architect, designing and obsessively supervising the building of a house in Vienna for his sister Gretl. During the First World War, he had read Tolstoy’s “The Gospel in Brief” and other writings that extolled the wisdom of peasants. Resolving to lead a simple life, he gave his share of the family money to three of his siblings; since they were very rich already, he believed they could not be corrupted further by receiving his portion. Then, in 1927, his interest in philosophy was rekindled. This time, his view of language changed—the emphasis on Russellian logic was gone—but one key idea remained the same. Both his old and his new philosophy shared an inspiration that he had come across as a teen-ager in “The Principles of Mechanics,” by Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist. Hertz had suggested a novel way to deal with the puzzling concept of force in Newtonian physics: the best approach was not to try to define it but to restate Newton’s theory in a way that eliminates any reference to force. Once this was done, according to Hertz, “the question as to the nature of force will not have been answered; but our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions.”

Ludwig’s big idea was to apply this method to philosophical problems. In his “Tractatus,” he had tried to show that some philosophical questions were illegitimate because they tried to say the unsayable. The new approach was gentler and more therapeutic. By painstakingly examining how language works in everyday life, Ludwig now believed that one could be cured of the misconceptions that give rise to philosophical puzzles, and thus stop worrying about them. That is what he toiled on, mostly in Cambridge, until his death, in 1951.

Does this actually work? Curiously, it is hard to say, because Ludwig seldom dealt explicitly with classical philosophical problems. His writings hardly ever mention the great philosophers of days gone by, except in passing. So one has to work out for oneself what, if any, bearing his explorations of the workings of language have on the ideas of Plato, Descartes, or Kant. Ludwig intended his technique to be revolutionary: “Why should philosophy in the age of airplanes and automobiles be the same as in the age when people travelled by coach or on foot?” the former aeronautical engineer asked. It remains a point of contention whether he really found an honest way to dispose of philosophical questions or merely succeeded in changing the subject of conversation by the sheer force of his personality.

There’s a telling description of genius by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of romantic pessimism, whose work was well known to Ludwig, Paul, Gretl, and Hans: “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target, as far as which others cannot even see.” That seems to have been the Wittgenstein way: trying to hit targets that others could not see. But if ordinary mortals cannot spot the bull’s-eye, how do they know whether it has been hit? According to Schopenhauer, they just have to accept the evidence of genius on faith, which is what Ludwig’s admirers often did. When Ludwig attacked some of Russell’s ideas, Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “I couldn’t understand his objection—in fact he was very inarticulate—but I feel in my bones that he must be right.” Other philosophers who met Ludwig reported the same feeling.

It’s tempting to come away from the Wittgenstein saga with the thought that Karl, if only he had lived long enough, would have acknowledged the iron-willed independence of Paul and Ludwig as a reflection of his own, and given them his blessing. But that would probably be expecting too much of him. Tragic or not, no family has room for more than one Wittgenstein. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Yorker Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez and 'The Forger's Spell' by Edward Dolnick

Dutch Master

The art forger who became a national hero.

by Peter Schjeldahl

The case of Han van Meegeren, the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know), is a grand yarn of twisty deceit, involving prestigious dupes and scads of money, with a sensational trial at the finish. It even has a serious side. Van Meegeren, since his death, in 1947, has become a compulsive reference for philosophical discussions of fact and fraud in art—a subject bound to disquiet art lovers. (Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.) He became the most original of fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist’s conveniently spotty, little-documented opus. (Only thirty-five undisputed Vermeers exist today. As an added boon to forgers, a few aren’t very good.) Van Meegeren’s tour de force was a feat more of intellect than of skill. He knew whom he had to fool first: an eighty-three-year-old monster of vanity named Abraham Bredius, who had an earned, though moldering, track record as an authenticator of newfound Vermeers. In 1937, in the august British art-history journal The Burlington Magazine, Bredius declared “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first of van Meegeren’s late counterfeits, to be “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Other Dutch experts concurred, under pressure to keep a national treasure from being sold overseas. (The remarkably dreary canvas still hangs, presented now as a historical curio, at the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, which bought it in 1937.) It took van Meegeren himself to reveal the truth, in 1945, when not to do so might have put his neck in a hangman’s noose.

Two new books re-spin the van Meegeren saga, one breezily, with entertaining digressions on secondary figures and the arcana of forgery, and the other in profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing depth. “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper; $26.95), by the science journalist Edward Dolnick, aggrandizes the story’s abundant hooks, such as the happenstance that van Meegeren’s victims included the art maven Hermann Göring, who, in 1943, swapped a hundred and thirty-seven paintings from his largely ill-gotten collection for a van Meegeren Vermeer. “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt; $26), by the writer and artist Jonathan Lopez, brings hard light to van Meegeren’s machinations and (very bad) character. Lopez debunks the myths, savored by Dolnick, which cast the forger as a romantic avenger, and which sweeten the tale in other ways. It seems that Göring, while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, may not have learned that his cherished Vermeer was a phony, as nice as it is to think that he did. This small point is notable because, in time, the fact that van Meegeren had scammed Göring helped him not only to evade charges of collaboration but to become a folk hero. Lopez demonstrates how evidence of the painter’s coziness with the Occupation regime got buried by the single question of whether he had sold Göring a patrimonial cynosure (potentially a capital offense) or a worthless fake. Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister.

Van Meegeren was born in 1889, in the provincial city of Deventer, the third of five children in a middle-class Catholic family. In 1907, his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Vermeer’s city, Delft, to study architecture. The feckless lad preferred to paint and draw. In 1911, he got his girlfriend, a Protestant named Anna de Voogt, pregnant. They married and soon had a second child. He worked as an assistant drawing instructor (the only steady job he ever held) until 1917, when he moved his household to “the city of beautiful nonsense,” as a contemporaneous guidebook characterized The Hague—the home of the royal family and an illustrious strutting ground for the idle rich. There he launched himself as an artist. With “his small, birdlike frame constantly aflutter and his irreverent sense of humor,” in Lopez’s description, van Meegeren beguiled the town. (A photograph of him from 1918, in Lopez’s book, made me laugh out loud; he comes across as the archetypal simpering fop, fit to start a scene by P. G. Wodehouse.) Lopez—who, unlike Dolnick, speaks Dutch and is steeped in the history of the period—records that van Meegeren became the favorite artist of the Liberal State Party of the Netherlands, a fading force of the patrician élite. His work was sprightly, in a nostalgically conservative vein. His pretty, filmy drawing of a doe, identified as a pet of the young Princess Julianna, became a popular icon throughout the Netherlands. Reproductions testify that he had a subtle sense of color and a firm gift for telling portraiture. Come to think of it, what are artistic forgeries but portraits of imaginary art works?

Van Meegeren’s first legitimate exhibition in The Hague, in 1917, of work in several genres, reaped positive reviews. His second, five years later, of Christian religious paintings, sold well but repelled critics with its treacly piety—van Meegeren, it turned out, was a student of Scripture. (In the show, there was an early-warning “Supper at Emmaus”—representing Jesus, who has appeared as a stranger to his disciples after his death, being recognized at the moment when he breaks bread for them.) Informed opinion consigned van Meegeren to the always populous ranks of the formerly promising. He evoked the setback poignantly in his public confession, in 1945: “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.” That’s rubbish, if only because the “something” to which van Meegeren referred—his invention of a new Vermeer style—was just the latest chapter in a then still unknown, long-running criminal enterprise. Lopez affirms that van Meegeren was dirty before his artistic reputation collapsed. He speculates—reasonably, to my mind—that faking ruined the artist’s creativity. “Slowly but surely, the imitative logic of forgery condemned Van Meegeren to a state of arrested development,” Lopez writes. The state of being oneself dies when set aside.

Lopez dates van Meegeren’s initiation into The Hague’s underworld of art swindlers to 1920, at the latest. He was mentored by a dealer and painter, Theo van Wijngaarden, who had apprenticed in chicanery with a titan: Leo Nardus. Nardus stuck American millionaires with innumerable old copies, fresh fakes, and fanciful misattributions of famous artists until 1908, when a panel of invited experts, including Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convened at the home of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate P. A. B. Widener and concluded that his collection was worth about five per cent of what Nardus had charged him for it. (Found out but unexposed—to spare Widener and other duped moguls public embarrassment—Nardus was left free to indulge his passions for chess and swordsmanship; he won a bronze medal in fencing for the Dutch team at the 1912 Olympics.) The hardly less resourceful van Wijngaarden, on his own, perfected a paint medium, gelatin glue, to finesse a standard test for the age of oil paint: rubbing with alcohol, which dissolves oils that have had less than decades to dry. (The glue weathers alcohol but, as was later discovered—too late for a generation of marks—softens on contact with another chemical compound: water.) Van Wijngaarden maintained a network of well-placed accomplices, extending to London and Berlin, who could pilot fakes into the mainstream of respectable commerce. He lacked only top-drawer product. He himself painted well, but not well enough. He wanted an adept protégé, and he found him in van Meegeren, who was ready.

Soon after arriving in The Hague, van Meegeren had cast off Anna and the children and taken up with the raffish Johanna de Boer, the actress wife of a friend. She became his complaisant partner for life and, in 1928, his second wife, apparently indulgent of his extravagant and libertine ways, as well as his alcoholism, which became full-blown in the early nineteen-thirties. During the war, van Meegeren even maintained a separate house, in Amsterdam, for partying, where, it was reported, prostitutes were encouraged to grab jewels from an opened strongbox on their way out. Johanna is frustratingly shadowy in both books. What she knew of her husband’s crimes needn’t be plumbed. Starting in the nineteen-twenties, his spasmodic income, which added up to millions of pre-inflation dollars, would have spoken for itself. After 1932, the couple inhabited houses on the French Riviera, where van Meegeren could more easily evade questions about his mysterious wealth. But Johanna’s point of view would be fascinating grist—for a novel, if not enough is discoverable to flesh out a biography. The same can be said of several supporting players in the comedy. Dolnick gratifies a reader’s side-long interest with piquant accounts of, among others, the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant aesthete, living in splendor in Monaco, with an insatiable ache for prestige, and Joseph Piller, a young Jewish lieutenant and hero of the Dutch Resistance, who arrested van Meegeren—knocking at the door of the artist’s grand house on May 29, 1945—and then, in a fever of vicarious celebrity, became his champion, a seduction trenchantly conveyed by Lopez. (The “fat, swaggering” figure of the infinitely grotesque Göring, however, distractingly consumes far more pages in Dolnick’s narrative than his part warrants.)

Van Meegeren never admitted having produced any of the known gelatin-glue Vermeers, which included “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” but he almost certainly did paint them. Van Wijngaarden steered the pictures to the attention of a revered German connoisseur, Wilhelm von Bode, who was taken in by them—predictably, as they seem to have been created with him in mind. (“The Smiling Girl” echoed a detail of a Vermeer—“The Girl with a Glass of Wine”—that Bode had adored since his early youth.) The always sticky matter of provenance was glossed over with tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution—at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors throughout Europe—and amid expectations that lost works by Vermeer were bound to turn up, several having done so since his rediscovery by a French connoisseur in the eighteen-sixties. The two paintings were sold to the Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon by the magus of Old Master dealers, Joseph Duveen, and adorned the National Gallery in Washington, at one point nervously reassigned to a “Follower of Vermeer,” in the nineteen-seventies. “The Lacemaker,” especially, looks silly now, depicting a pert young woman who could be a sidekick of Louise Brooks. But superior forgeries typically secrete subliminally up-to-the-minute associations, which pass, at first blush, as signs of “timeless” genius. The art historian Max Friedländer, who said, “Forgeries must be served hot,” promulgated a forty-year rule—four decades or so being how long it takes for the modern nuances of a forgery to date themselves as clichés of the period in which they were painted. Duveen was misled, although he wasn’t by van Meegeren’s “Emmaus.” In 1937, he sent his right-hand man, Edward Fowles, to inspect the painting in Paris. Fowles cabled, “PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE.” (Duveen kept the verdict to himself; saving other dealers from disgrace didn’t figure in his business plan.) Both books vivify the wild-and-woolly milieu of Jazz Age dealing in old art. Barely professionalized, and with museum science still primitive, the trade relied on the often snap judgments of glorified amateurs, of whom even the loftiest (even Berenson) were goof-prone—Duveen had earlier spurned “Girl with the Red Hat,” the only true Vermeer to emerge in the twenties.

Dolnick is good on van Meegeren’s studio practice, which kept pace with scientific progress. Mediocre old paintings, from the prolific Dutch Golden Age, were cheaply available, as grounds to paint on; but the overnight creation of a convincingly antique paint surface was a challenge. Van Meegeren’s late fakes deploy Bakelite, which, as a liquid medium, hardens with heat and stands up to almost any solvent. He learned, with difficulty, to make an ancestor of modern plastics ape the fluency of oils. Many failed experiments led at length to a proper blend, with admixed floral oils, and the correct baking recipe. “Emmaus,” a big picture, would have been larger, but the old painting, on its original stretchers, that van Meegeren bought for the job wouldn’t fit in his makeshift oven. As a matter of course, he used only pigments that were available to Vermeer, and concocted effects of age: craquelure, wormholes, yellowed varnish, soilage, and, for good measure in “Emmaus,” a poorly repaired rip. He turned negligent in subsequent works. Göring’s canvas, “Christ and the Adulteress,” employs cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century innovation in paints, and it is carelessly drawn, with anatomical solecisms in the figures. But van Meegeren no longer had to evoke Vermeer. It was enough that the hand that painted the works plainly be the same that had painted “Emmaus.” In 1945, his captor, Joseph Piller, had him paint a valedictory Vermeer, putatively to settle doubts of his confession but really, Lopez establishes, as a publicity stunt. That showpiece, “Christ in the Temple,” strikes me, in reproduction, as by far the most fetching of the lot, garnished with a droll anachronism: Jesus holds forth over an opened Bible. Time-travelled to recent years, van Meegeren would have made an upstanding postmodernist.

In the nineteen-thirties, painting Vermeers became less of a problem for van Meegeren than legitimatizing them. Having drifted out of touch with complicit intermediaries, he came into his own as a con man, tricking innocents into bringing his goods to market. The patsy for “Emmaus” was a Liberal State Party parliamentarian, Gerard A. Boon, who had led the successful fight for woman suffrage in the Netherlands and was a fierce critic of Nazi Germany. Van Meegeren convinced this good man that the painting belonged to a Dutch family living in Italy, who, persecuted by the Fascist authorities, desperately needed funds for an escape to America. The rest was intricate but, once Bredius was on board, smoothly managed. Boon’s receptiveness to van Meegeren is a puzzle, given Lopez’s insistence that the artist was an arch ultra-rightist. But his case seems solid. For three years, starting in 1928, in The Hague, van Meegeren published a scurrilous magazine, De Kemphann (The Fighting Cock), in which, Lopez writes, he “denounced modern painting as ‘art-Bolshevism,’ described its proponents as a ‘slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,’ and invoked the image of ‘a Jew with a handcart’ as a symbol for the international art market.” He execrated van Gogh in particular. In 1945, while van Meegeren was imprisoned, an awkward item turned up in Hitler’s private library at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin: a deluxe volume of poems by a Dutch Nazi poet, illustrated by van Meegeren and inscribed, in German, “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren acknowledged the signature but theorized that a German officer must have penned the dedication, even though the handwriting was clearly the same. At his trial on an open-and-shut charge of forgery, all such matters were ignored. Urges to go easy on van Meegeren seem to have afflicted ordinarily sensible people—Dolnick among them, in much of his book—as if by hypnosis.

Lopez advances a sophisticated and troubling answer to the question that is most likely to baffle us: How could anyone, for an instant, have taken “Emmaus” to be a work by Vermeer? I remember being stupefied, many years ago, when, ignorant of van Meegeren, I came upon the painting in the Boijmans. It seemed not only unlike Vermeer but unlike anything this side of a thrift shop. I missed stylistic cues that both Lopez and Dolnick describe, mainly the borrowed composition of a 1606 “Emmaus” by Caravaggio. This planted secret thrilled scholars who had been debating possible Italian influences on Vermeer, one writer having gone so far as to wonder if a lost work might be found to prove the connection. Vermeer was known to have painted one Biblical scene—“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55)—why not another? He was, and still is, suspected of having been a closet Catholic, embracing a faith, his wife’s, that was banned in Delft. Both the character and the obscure provenance of “Emmaus” made sense if it had been created for one of Delft’s clandestine Catholic churches. But that does not explain the enthusiasm of credulous aesthetes for a dismal painting. Lopez deduces a blind spot in our art-historical knowledge and, indeed, in our larger comprehension of European culture between the World Wars. We may easily peg the party-girl mien in “The Lacemaker” and the longueur of another van Meegeren triumph, “The Girl with a Blue Hat,” bought by the major collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, which merits its sobriquet, “The Greta Garbo Vermeer.” But the period accent of “Emmaus” escapes us.

It’s Volksgeist, Lopez argues. “Folk spirit” has a long genealogy of relatively benign synonyms, such as “national character.” Hegel promoted it as a force in history. But the idea generated new, dark energies in the prewar period. Styles of heavily expressive, soulful celebrations of common people were prevalent in Germany. Unlike the better-known socialist realism, with its crisp paeans to the proletariat, Volkisch art cultivated painterly effects to stir both Christian and pagan mystical associations, favoring peasant scenes and such themes as familial devotion and earth-mother fecundity. Besides tapping that vogue, van Meegeren pandered to an eagerness, among rightist critics, to winkle out Germanic roots of classical Dutch art. He seems to have modelled the head of Christ, in his “Emmaus,” on a self-portrait by Dürer—a recondite proof of influence that he could count on experts to notice. Lopez argues that the determined suppression, after the war, of anything with a Nazi odor—and a chronic lack of appetite for the material ever since—leaves us blinking at hints of a style that was second nature in Europe seventy years ago. The contemporary resonance surely startled viewers at the time, but, rather than raise eyebrows, it enlarged the sense of Vermeer’s greatness. It seemed more than conceivable that a genius of his calibre could foreshadow future sensibilities as, say, Leonardo da Vinci is routinely credited with having done. Lopez’s exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry is hard to absorb, without nausea, in the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” is hard to watch. But an empathetic grasp of that time’s susceptibility to van Meegeren’s bait brings the climactic scene of his trial, in Amsterdam, in October, 1947, to life.

Apparently, by 1947, the Dutch were not only tired of the war but tired of being tired of it, too. After a paroxysm of angry revenge on collaborators, they craved a carnival. Van Meegeren became a giddy nation’s “Lord of Misrule,” Lopez writes. Brushed aside were treasonous commissions for the Occupation and dealings with the vilest of local quislings—mainly the art commissioner Ed Gerdes, a zealous anti-Semite—and with Alois Miedl, a Bavarian banker who became Göring’s man in the Dutch art world, energetically plundering Jewish collections. Van Meegeren’s humiliation of so many stuffed shirts, Nazi and otherwise, was too pricelessly funny to be marred by stale grudges. The trial took place in a courtroom hung with “Emmaus” and other van Meegeren hoaxes. Superfluously, the artist having confessed, technical experts presented charts, graphs, and slides of a new test that proved the works’ recent manufacture. Van Meegeren fulsomely congratulated the men on their ingenuity. The faking of Old Masters would henceforth be impossible, he said. Courtroom onlookers clapped and whistled. I imagine, extrapolating from Lopez, that their pleasure went beyond jolly Schadenfreude. Seeing the celebrated paintings exposed as fraudulent may have enabled a purge of formerly impressive symbols. The auratic Christ and the wonderstruck disciples turned farcical. The slim, silver-haired van Meegeren, dapper in a blue serge suit, seems to have read the mood (whatever it was) perfectly and to have milked it for advantage.

He had done the Vermeers only to prove himself, he testified, hewing to what Lopez calls “the master-forger-as-misunderstood-genius storyline,” which the prosecution failed to deflate. At one point, the judge hazarded a skeptical note: “You do admit, though, that you sold these pictures for very high prices?” Van Meegeren’s answer cracked up the room: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” He could get away with anything: “I didn’t do it for the money, which brought me nothing but trouble and unhappiness.” Just one witness, an art historian who had been active in the Resistance, hinted at shady aspects of van Meegeren’s wartime conduct. The artist countered with a mocking, nonsensical cross-examination, to the audience’s delight. The witness, Lopez writes, “smiled in a self-deprecating way and then wisely dropped the subject. Clearly, the day belonged to the master forger.” Cheering fans greeted van Meegeren when he emerged from the court. He was sentenced to a year in prison and forfeiture of his wealth (except for a sizable chunk that he had settled on Johanna by the legal stratagem of divorcing her). He died two months later, of heart failure—probably, Lopez reports, as a complication of syphilis. He was fifty-eight years old. Lopez, though intent on proving van Meegeren a skunk, can’t deny him a parting note of admiration: “To give him his due, he was indeed a truly brilliant fraud.”

Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.