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June 21, 2013

Book Notes - Thomas Van Essen "The Center of the World"

The Center of the World

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Thomas Van Essen's The Center of the World is an ambitious and impressive debut novel that centers around a legendary lost painting of British master J.M.W. Turner.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art...Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Thomas Van Essen's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Center of the World:

I think of Leonard Cohen's three great albums I'm Your Man (1988), The Future (1992), and Ten New Songs (2001) as the cognitive and emotional background music, or maybe the running bass, for The Center of the World. Although there are no explicit references to his music in the novel, I sometimes thought of what I was doing as a long riff on Cohen-ism. Cohen's body of work is an extended meditation on desire, love, the creative process, and transcendence. I see my book as part of the same extended conversation. I could talk about every song on those three albums, but I'll focus on only two from each.

From I'm Your Man

"Tower of Song"

The Center of the World is a novel about art, specifically about an imaginary painting by J.M.W. Turner also called "The Center of the World." As in almost all works of art about art, there is an implicit dialogue between the work of art in the process of being created (in this case, the novel) and the work of art that the work is about. In my novel I set up Turner's painting as a work of art like no other, a work of art that transcends all other paintings ever made. In "The Tower of Song," Cohen engages in a wonderful conversation with Hank Williams:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?

Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

That's exactly how I felt during a lot of the writing: the work of art that I was talking about was "a hundred floors above me" and out of my reach. But Cohen's song is also about his relationship with all the other great artists who have come before. What is the point of writing songs, when Hank Williams has written songs that are so much better than the one you are trying to write? What is the point of writing novels when Charles Dickens and David Mitchell have done it so much better than I ever will?

But Cohen answers:

I was born like this, I had no choice

I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

There is a wonderful irony in the phrase "a golden voice." Cohen knows his singing voice is not a typical pop singer's voice, but it is golden, as all of his fans recognize. And he has no choice but to write and to sing, which is similar to the way I felt about my book: I had no choice but to write it.

"Ain't No Cure For Love"

This is one of the great songs about being helpless in the face of love, but for me, as I wrote, it became another song about my relationship with my work. My favorite character in my novel is Mrs. Spencer. She is the mistress of Turner's patron, and she becomes Turner's muse and the model for Helen of Troy in the painting "The Center of the World." I don't really know where she came from, but I fell in love with her as I was writing. Cohen writes:

I'm aching for you baby

I can't pretend I'm not
I need to see you naked

In your body and your thought

I've got you like a habit

And I'll never get enough

There ain't no cure,
There ain't no cure,
There ain't no cure for love

That's me again—trying to see and know this character in my book and recognizing that there was no cure for my compulsion. There is also the sense in Cohen's lyric that the other, "the beloved," is always not quite knowable, not quite "naked in your body and your thought." This is especially true if the beloved is a creation of the writer's mind. I made Mrs. Spencer up, but I still couldn't quite get to the bottom of her—that's how real she became for me.

From The Future


"Anthem" is one of Cohen's more abstract and philosophical songs, both a meditation on imperfection and a declaration of faith in the imperfect world. The chorus goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

In my novel Turner creates a "perfect offering" but the rest of us—the other characters in the novel, me the writer—have to recognize that perfection is out of our reach, yet there is something beautiful about that as well: it's how "the light gets in." Authors often complain about the cover designs that their publishers provide, but I really love the cover that Other Press came up with for The Center of the World. As a friend pointed out, it depicts the light getting in.

"Light As The Breeze"

This is another great Cohen song about male desire. At the end of the song Cohen sings:

So I knelt there at the delta,

at the alpha and the omega,

I knelt there like one who believes.

And the blessings come from heaven

and for something like a second

I'm cured and my heart
is at ease.

The delta that Cohen kneels at is the "delta of Venus" that Courbet depicts in his infamous painting, "The Origin of the World". In the painting of Helen of Troy that Turner creates in my novel, he covers some of the same conceptual ground that Courbet covers, but while Courbet deals with the subject in a realistic way, Turner deals with it in some way that is beyond my conception, but profoundly true nonetheless. Different people have, I am sure, different responses to the Courbet painting. Is it erotic? Is it shocking? Was it erotic when first created, but no longer so? Does it still have the capacity to shock? For me the Courbet isn't really erotic; it is wonderful as a formal object and as an art historical gesture, but it doesn't do what the painting in my novel does, and what, I suspect, Courbet was trying to do. The Turner painting in my novel succeeds in representing what Courbet could not represent: the "true truth" about desire. When I think about the Turner painting in the book I think about two vectors, one labeled "art" and one labeled "eroticism," merging someplace beyond anything we know in either category. That intersection, treated as a real possibility, is what the book is about.

From Ten New Songs

"Alexandra Leaving"

This is one of Cohen's greatest and most complicated songs, a profound and ambiguous meditation on love lost and love gained. The lyrics are based on C. P. Cavafy's extraordinary poem "The God Abandons Antony," which describes that moment when the pagan gods leave the great city of Alexandria. The poet speaks to Antony and admonishes him to deserve the gift he has had, the gift of living in a city as blessed as Alexandria has been. The poem opens at midnight just as the invisible procession of the gods is leaving:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear

an invisible procession going by

with exquisite music, voices,

don't mourn your luck that's failing now,

work gone wrong, your plans

all proving deceptive—don't mourn them uselessly.

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

In a brilliant act of appropriation, Cohen transforms the city of Alexandria into a woman, Alexandra:

As someone long prepared for this to happen,

Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.

Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honor of her evening,

And by the honor had your own restored –

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;

Alexandra leaving with her lord.

What Cohen does here is absolutely brilliant; by echoing Cavafy he suggests that the lover's departure is like the departure of the gods.

This song is for me linked to one of the central scenes in my novel. In this passage, Turner is sketching Charles Grant, one of the narrators, who is the model for Paris in the painting. As Grant stands naked before Turner, holding a pose, he looks through the studio's window toward the distant horizon. He tells us that he sees "a bright shadow on the physical world, and I knew in the depths of my heart that a goddess was making her appearance." As Grant seems to see the goddess, Turner experiences what he calls "the frenzy . . . [when] the work seems to make itself, as though I'm a mere medium for some other power." When the two men compare notes after the event, Turner says,

Funny about the gods. They're a damn hard business. They are long gone in this miserable nineteenth century of ours. The groves are empty and so forth. Still, I sometimes imagine I catch a glimpse of them. Or see what they might be if they existed, if you follow me. You can walk about the park all you like. See deer. Foxes. Flocks of fowl. Most wonderful song birds. Marvelous light. Color. Shades between shades never seen before. But no gods. They are gone. Decamped to who knows where. Railways and machines took their place. Who knows? But sometimes, when I look about me, I sense that they were here, that they have just departed. It is hard to explain. They leave behind a scent in the light. As though an attractive woman's been in the room. Only her scent remains. But in light. The residue of their glory in the world. An odd business.

Love, as Cohen suggests, and creativity, as Turner suggests in my novel, are as close as we can get to divinity in this miserable twenty-first century of ours.

You should read my novel to get a better idea of what I am talking about, but if you don't have time for that, listen to Cohen's song and read Cavafy's poem, which you can find on the Internet. Think about how the two works talk to each other. You'll be a better person for the experience(s).

"In My Secret Life"

This is a wonderful song about doubleness, about the difference between who we appear to be and who we are on the inside:

I smile when I'm angry.

I cheat and I lie.

I do what I have to do

To get by.

But I know what is wrong,

And I know what is right.

And I'd die for the truth

In My Secret Life.

I have a serious "day job," and although it does not require me to cheat and to lie, I am always aware that I do what I do "to get by" and that what I really want to be doing is writing. For the first eight years that I was working on The Center of the World no one, except for my wife, knew that I was writing. This song became very important to me.

Two things not Cohen, one serious, one not

I want to end with a piece of music and a musical reference that are not related to Leonard Cohen, but which were very important to me during the writing of my novel.

The first is the three Brahms sonatas for violin and piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78. I know this is usually not largehearted boy territory, but this is beautiful and very moving music. About half way through the second draft of my novel I got really sick. I was in the hospital and it seemed, for a day or so, that there was a decent chance I might die. I was in a lot of pain, and the only thing that helped at all was listening to Brahms in the Perlman and Ashkenazy recording of all three sonatas from 1983 on my iPod. During this time, and with the help of this music, I was overcome, almost to the point of tears, with a sense of how beautiful the world is. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude that emerged out of, and was inextricably a part of, a profound sense of suffering and mortality. This is an emotion that I had only seen described in Russian nineteenth-century novels, but it became very real for me. This experience and this feeling of the world's beauty changed my book and made it better in the following drafts.

And one last thing, so as to close on a lighter note and so you don't get the impression that I am just a terminally serious person and an all around gloomy Gus. This isn't about a song, but it is a musical reference that was important to me and should be important to every thinking person.

My novel is about a work of art like no other, a painting "greater" and more perfect than any other painting or any other work of art ever made. As such, it was impossible for me to describe the work exactly or even to imagine it myself. I can only describe the effect of this work on the characters in the novel by reference to certain details of the work, rather than the work in its totality. When I was thinking about what I was trying to do, I often thought of that great moment in This Is Spinal Tap where the character talks about the special amp that goes up to eleven.

The Turner painting in my book is one where he turns it up to eleven. In The Center of World, I try to dramatize what it would be like if there was a work of art in this world that succeeded in going up to eleven.

Thomas Van Essen and The Center of the World links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Other Press interview with the author
The Qwillery interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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