Envision the Novel Like a Museum

Using the guard-turned-vandal in The Heart So White as his guide, author Ben Lerner writes books in which characters interact with art, and occasionally try to set it on fire.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The title of Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, refers to the time at which lightning strikes a famous Robert Zemeckis clock tower, hurling Marty McFly back to 1985. But it’s also a reference to The Clock, a massive film montage by Christian Marclay that synchronizes 24 hours worth of timepiece-related film clips (including footage from Back to the Future) into a daylong whole. The novel’s title signals the deeply allusive nature of Lerner’s book—the way it’s a work, like The Clock, made from other works.

In his essay for this series, Lerner coins the term “Museum Guard Syndrome” to describe his own attitude towards intertextuality: He sees the novel as a space to display artistic influences—as well as arrange, repurpose, and even vandalize the art of other masters. More broadly, the piece provides a justification for an essential obsession of Lerner’s fiction: to dramatize, through narrative, the experience of encountering art itself.

10:04’s unnamed narrator is a hyper-intellectual Brooklynite, a rising literary star who hopes to earn six figures on his next advance. As he struggles with the idea of donating sperm to a best friend, he discovers he has a congenital heart defect linked to Marfan’s Syndrome. But to describe the plot of a Lerner novel is besides the point. 10:04 is a layered exploration of the forces that, like the DeLorean Time Machine, have the power to remake reality as we know it: storms that knock out city grids, secrets from the past that alter the present, technology that disrupts our sense of time and place. And literature, of course—how it begins as words we hold, and ends up holding us within it.

Lerner’s first novel was Leaving the Atocha Station. He is also author of three collections of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw (a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry), and Mean Free Path. Other writings have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Harper’s—where he published an essay about artwork as a form of vandalism. He lives in Brooklyn.

Ben Lerner: Museum guards have, on more than one occasion, turned out to be vandals. A night guard at the Louvre scratched X-shapes into nine paintings with his keys in 1962; more recently, in 2008, a guard in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh slashed a piece from Vija Celmin’s Night Sky series with a key. ("I didn't like the painting," the guard told police. “I’m sorry”; "He's not someone who has anything against the art world," his lawyer would explain).

The museum guard who, using an instrument of institutional access, attacks the art he is supposed to protect can serve as a symbol for the contradictory nature of his position. He stands before works that are supposed to be capable of overwhelming viewers while making sure they don’t get too overwhelmed. He is there to ensure our experience of the infinite is finite, that our encounter with the sublime is carefully delimited. The guard tells us not to get too close to the painting Barnett Newman instructed us to approach. And he tells us what time it is and where the bathrooms are. He embodies a contradiction between mundane security and the spirit, financial value and the supposedly transcendent value of the aesthetic.

This contradiction accounts for the enduring power of a scene in Javier Marias’s brilliant novel, The Heart So White, in which an old guard at the Prado named Mateu is moved to violence by Rembrandt's Artemisia, a canvas Mateu has often guarded in his 25 years of service. The protagonist’s father, Ranz, who also works at the Prado, comes upon Mateu while touring the museum afterhours:

“What are you doing, Mateu?” my father said to him calmly. “Are you trying to get a better look at the painting?” … “No,” he replied in a neutral, dispassionate tone, “I’m thinking of burning it.”

Mateu holds a lighter to the bottom of the painting; it begins to scorch the frame. Ranz removes an extinguisher from the wall and hides it behind his back, trying to divert Mateu through talk from destroying the Prado’s one verified Rembrant:

But Mateu, do you really dislike it that much?”

“I’m fed up with that fat woman,” replied Mateu …“I don’t like that fat woman with the pearls,” he insisted … “The little servant girl holding out the goblet to her looks prettier, but you can’t see her face properly.”

What drives Mateu crazy—setting aside his rage against fatness—is the eternal immobility of the image, that he’ll never see the girl’s expression properly: “That’s the worst thing … that it’s fixed like that for ever and now we’ll never know what happened next … there’s no way of seeing the girl’s face.” His madness is the issue of his spending so much time with timeless art—25 years of workdays guarding a painting whose subject never unfolds. He ages in his uniform beside an eternalized moment. Perhaps his sympathy with the servant who can never change positions is more than just the desire to see a pretty face; it’s a form of identification: They are both condemned to serve Artemisia forever. Regardless, his compulsion to destroy the Rembrandt is testament to the master’s ability to capture the tension of an instant in paint.

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.