Art in Books: I Know What I Like

Artists do what they do because they're compelled. It's therapy that makes the patient feel much worse before it makes them feel better. --André Alexis, Days by Moonlight (Coach House Books)

This isn't just about books where art is in the foreground; it's also about books where art is in the midground or the background.


Sometimes art in books is a subtle thread in the weave, as in Days by Moonlight. The botanist narrator, whose drawings of plants real and fantastic complement the novel's text, accompanies a professor on his strange, beautiful, dark and often wondrous Canadian road trip to unravel the story of a mysterious poet.


Julie Orringer's The Flight Portfolio (Knopf), a fictionalized account of Varian Fry's monumental efforts to smuggle some of Europe's endangered artists, writers and intellectuals out of Vichy France, is compelling right from the start, when Fry visits Marc Chagall's house to plead with the reluctant artist to escape. "An artist must bear witness, Monsieur Fry," Chagall argues. "He cannot turn away, even if he wants to."

Art is absolutely central to some of the other books I've been reading, like the reissue of Francoise Gilot's intimate and acute memoir Life with Picasso (NYRB Classics).


In Mathias Énard's brilliant novel Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandell (New Directions), Michelangelo is invited by the Sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn ("Michelangelo is not an engineer. He is a sculptor. They sent for him so that a form could be born from matter, be drawn, be revealed.").


Perhaps no book I've read recently displays the intricate weave of art and life quite like Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Catapult). "It reminded me that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you. And that the tiniest thing can make a difference," Gainza writes. I like that. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

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