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.
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?