Michael Kernan, “The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals”

Whenever I feel compelled to scare myself about the state of the publishing industry, this is the book I think about. I first read it when it came out, in the early 1990s, and loved it. But nobody I know has ever heard of it, and when I got a hankering to read it again, I had to buy a dinged-up copy from an Amazon affiliate. The good news is that St. Martin’s actually published a paperback edition. The bad news is that if a novel this absorbing and entertaining can’t find its audience, the system is seriously broken.

This time around, I was a little bit more critical. The narrative toggles (a word I don’t believe we used in 1994) back and forth between a contemporary art history graduate student and his translation of the supposed Frans Hals diaries. The contemporary frame is pretty silly, though vividly written.  But the “Hals” stuff just bursts off the page, crackling with life. It was smart of Kernan to frame this as a translation in modern vernacular, which seems appropriate for the character of Hals, an informal guy without much patience for stuffiness. And it just sings — paint and weather and food and characters, families and tragedy, plague, sex, business… There’s a wonderful skating-on-the-canals section. An account of Hals painting, at the age of 82, his famous “Almshouse Regents.”  (I give St. Martin’s credit for including 4 pp. of color plates.) The last part of the “diaries” are a poignant account of old age, with a rueful, generous attitude.

Hals portrait

Hals portrait

Here’s a tiny snippet from earlier on, when Hals’s assistant Judy has painted a fur hat draped over a bottle as an exercise: “It was brilliant. She had brought the spiky fur to life, catching its shiny vitality. The way it poked up thinly at the top where the bottle’s mouth pushed it and the individual hairs jutted separately. The way it bunched together in a fold at the bottom…. It is a little miracle. It leaps out and cries at one and all, ‘Here I am! I am a fur hat! I am all the fur hats in the world!'”

Can’t you just see it?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to Michael Kernan, “The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals”

  1. ilene says:

    I, too, read this book when it first arrived. I’ve re-read it two or three times. This evening when I spotted it on the bookshelf it piqued my curiosity about the author. A Google search led me to your site. Funny comment about no one you know having read it. Me too. Then I spotted Donna Tartt’s name on your site’s same page. I love both her books, but similarly no one in my book club has ever heard of her. Currently reading aloud “A Tale of Two Cities,” with my boyfriend. If only Geraldine Brooks or Jhumpa Lahiri would publish a new book …

  2. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Ilene, I am so glad you posted! I have SUCH a soft spot for this book. I haven’t read the second Donna Tartt — did you like it?
    One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read Jhumpa Lahiri: you can see I’m woefully Eurocentric. I adore the idea of reading Dickens aloud. Are you doing voices?

  3. Pingback: More on Frans Hals « Book Group of One

  4. linda collison says:

    I’m late to this conversation, coming upon it when I googled Michael Kernan to see what else he has written. I’m reading The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals now, and am very absorbed and delighted. So glad to have discovered it, and glad to have discovered this blog, being one who appreciates Patrick O’Brian and many of the other authors discussed. An author myself, I feel publishing has fallen into the dark ages. Glad to have found this discussion and blog.

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