Envision the Novel Like a Museum

Ranz tries to appeal to the guard’s practical side: “The painting’s worth a lot of money, Mateu. It’s worth millions.” But Mateu, as the corner of the frame turns black, responds: “That just makes matters worse … Bloody hell, to top it all, the great fat cow is worth millions.” But when Mateu sees that Ranz has a fire extinguisher, he snaps back to his role as institutional representative: “Don’t you know,” Mateu says, “you’re not allowed to take them off the wall?”      

The way Ranz ultimately saves the painting is by threatening to destroy it himself:

“You know, you’re quite right, Mateu, you’re absolutely right. But don’t burn it because then you might set fire to the other paintings. Let me deal with it. I’ll throw this fire extinguisher at it, it weighs a ton.”

“Look here,” Mateu responds, “what do you think you’re doing? You’ll damage the painting.” When Ranz lifts the fire extinguisher threateningly in the air, Mateau flicks off the lighter and assumes a fighting position, ready to defend the Rembrandt by any means necessary: “Now you hold still,” he warns the would-be vandal Ranz, “And don’t make me do anything I might regret.”

I like to think of Mateu as suffering from a condition I’ve just made up called “Museum Guard Syndrome”—a pathological expression of a conflict inherent in the job. On the one hand the painting is an object of immense financial value that has to be protected; on the other hand it is a masterpiece capable of evoking emotions that overwhelm any economy. Mateu’s Jekyll and Hyde split—his quickness to defend as property what he’s been moved to destroy as art—is the extreme expression of the tension between time and timelessness, price and pricelessness, institutional management and the unmanageable sublime. Mateu is Janus-faced: looking away from the wall, keeping watch on museum goers during business hours, on the look out for would-be vandals, a good guard until the end; but he has also stared too long at the painting, has been swept up in its impossible duration, incapable of waiting any longer for the servant to face him. He’s been driven to the vandalism it’s his charge to guard against.

I love this passage because it helps me think of the novel as a space—not unlike the museum itself—wherein encounters with other artworks can take place, and where the contradictions involved in how we think and feel about art (and the society that claims or disclaims it) can be dramatized. The way a character interacts with an artwork can enrich our sense of both that character (who is, after all, an artwork) and the artwork (which is, after all, a character). Of course, Mateu can’t know this: He has no idea that, even if he burns the Rembrandt, the page on which he’s painted won’t catch fire. In both of my own novels, art objects and art institutions are crucial sites of reflection for the protagonists: places where their personal obsessions crystallize or dissolve, and places where their intimate preoccupations link-up with larger cultural questions—questions about the entanglement of beauty and price, authenticity and affectation.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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