To Alexandra on her birthday.
Readers of these pages are well-acquainted with what makes true art live and breathe: a clear and precise vision coupled with unshakable principles. Few will ever contest that art, regardless of the medium, can survive bereft of vision, even though many current entries in modern museums have the arrogance to think that any form of expression is worth preserving as artistic (I once met an impressionable young woman who admitted that after traveling through Italy for three months and visiting the finest European museums, her favorite painter was still some splattering American mediocrity). Of course, these modern museums cater to trends and box office receipts and have long since understood that the vast majority of us do not want to be intimidated by art. The vast majority of us would like to waltz into any museum of the world and be able to grasp on some lazy Sunday afternoon with a vapid guide and a bunch of other clueless tourists the essence of all that we see – as if the nuances of the years of work of past masters can be gleaned by the hasty and uninitiated. True art takes as much preparation on the part of the observer as on the part of the artist himself, a topic broached elegantly in this story.
Apart from a few wispy servants, our characters are five: a Colonel decorated for his forays in Afghanistan; his talented and somewhat cavalier son Frank; an art restorer by the name of McGore and his much younger wife Maureen; and Simpson, Frank's college roommate and complete opposite. The site of their gathering is the Colonel's estate, which reeks of the liquor and stale glory that supposedly dignify old soldiers. With minimal effort and secret smiles, Frank and Maureen demolish the Colonel and Simpson at lawn tennis (McGore does not or cannot participate), leading the Colonel down his habitual slope of gruff looks, overformality, and, of course, omnipresent booze. The occasion for the McGores' visit is ostensibly for Mr. McGore, a cheerless old dog "who considered life's Creator only a second-rate imitator of the masters whom he had been studying for forty years," to work on La Veneziana, which is described thus:
The painting was very fine indeed. Luciani had portrayed the Venetian beauty in half-profile, standing against a warm, black background. Rose-tinted cloth revealed her prominent, dark-hued neck, with extraordinarily tender folds beneath the ear, and the gray lynx fur with which her cherry-red mantlet was trimmed was slipping off her left shoulder. With the elongated fingers of her right hand spread in pairs, she seemed to have been on the point of adjusting the falling fur but to have frozen motionless, her hazel, uniformly dark eyes gazing fixedly, languidly from the canvas. Her left hand, with white ripples of cambric encircling the wrist, was holding a basket of yellow fruit; the narrow crown of her headdress glowed atop her dark-chestnut hair. On the left the black was interrupted by a large, right-angled opening straight into the twilight air and the bluish-green chasm of the cloudy evening.
A more mature Nabokov would alter our expectations in a superior story, also about forgers and easels, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say that the picture turns out to resemble wholly and strikingly a certain Maureen McGore, a fact noticed by the love-struck Simpson and the very indifferent Mr. McGore. And so, after batting around a few impassioned ideas that could easily have been expanded into a novel (the story itself is Nabokov's longest), our eyes fall to Simpson, who is very much in love with Maureen but can do very little about his shy unattractiveness and her magnificence.
There are other details that often seem to dovetail in fiction. Frank happens to be a stellar athlete, inattentive student, and, sub rosa, an artist. But how this odd fact is introduced (Frank early on states, quite sarcastically to his father, that "paintings perturb me") seems a bit arbitrary:
[There were] occasional rumors that Frank was good at drawing but showed his drawings to no one. He never spoke about art, was ever ready to sing and swig and carouse, yet suddenly a strange gloom would come over him and he would not leave his room or let anyone in, and only his roommate, lowly Simpson, would see what he was up to. What Frank created during these two or three days of ill-humored isolation he either hid or destroyed, and then, as if having paid an agonizing tribute to his vice, he would again become his merry, uncomplicated self.
It should be said that this set of characteristics is accurate: it describes, more or less, the poet who is embattled by societal circumstances and the plain nonsense of being a "public intellectual" (a ridiculous title and usually self-imposed). In fact, true artists will often find the subject of art, which so carelessly devolves into oneupmanship, tedious and unbecoming of real interaction because most people – including numerous artists – cannot converse casually with the precision that such matters deserve. And what do they deserve? Perhaps more than McGore, a Philistine of occasional wit and endless platitudes, can offer. Perhaps McGore, who speaks at length about people entering pictures as a rebuttal to Simpson's silly Gothic notion of portraits' coming to life, is not the type of person to pay any heed to true beauty, even beauty in his immediate vicinity. That would explain, of course, a few things; yet the motivation behind the McGores' marriage is never fleshed out, apart from the hint of financial stability. But Venetians have always had far too much art and culture to let money hold them back.