February: is it me or does it seem to roll around once every 9 months these days. I’m just back from the Writers Unlimited festival in the Hague, where I was promoting the Dutch edition of my book. It looks very different from the US edition.
There was a wonderful photographer who took all these wonderful photographs that subsequently appeared on a bulletin board, so I took some photographs of the bulletin board. This one is my favorite because there’s just so much going on:
Pictured, from left to right, are Abdelkader Benali, Elif Batuman, Maaza Mengiste, and David Van Reybrouck, floating over a giant hamburger. We were discussing the internationalization of literature (in response to a super-smart lecture by Tim Parks).
I had been deposited at the theater directly from the Amsterdam airport, with only time to change my shoes. This was all a wonderful surprise since I had misread the schedule and somehow thought the discussion wasn’t until the following morning. But as you can see from the picture, I was playing it really cool.
I had been up really late the previous night talking soccer hooligans with my highly esteemed editor Leo, who, in parting, urged me to stop by the Mauritshuis in order to admire an enormous painting of an enormous bull, later established by cattle experts to be a composite of different parts of all the finest bulls in Holland. This same museum had been independently recommended by my favorite literary historian, so of course I rushed there on my free afternoon.
As you can see, Paulus Potter’s “Bull” (ca. 1647) is a very special work.
According to the audio guide, The Bull was at one point the most beloved painting in the whole collection, which already included Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring. I was interested to learn the main reason for the bull’s tremendous popularity: its size. It was enormous! Canvases that big were used for religious or mythological subjects – not for livestock!
In later years, cattle experts identified the bull as anatomically impossible: it has the dewlap and horns of a 2-year-old, the teeth of a 4-year-old, and the shoulders of an adult. That bull is the riddle of the sphinx! And in fact it seems to have played a somewhat enigmatic role in the short life of the painter:
Paulus Potter died at the age of 28 of ‘too much painting’, according to his family. Indeed, by the time he died he had built up an impressive oeuvre. He specialized in animal pieces, producing small, refined paintings of cows, sheep and other livestock. As a rule he worked in a small format, the most notable exception being his famous painting of The Bull.
There is much to contemplate in the story of Paulus Potter, who died of too much painting. Was it that enormous bull that did him in? What possessed him to make such an enormous painting? (Potter actually expanded the canvas midway, even though it was already really big.) Why is the central figure all those different ages at once? Should Potter’s Bull be considered to be, like Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring, a “tronie” – meaning that its composite or stylized features are intended to suggest, not a single individual, but rather a character, mood, or feeling (something maybe a tiny bit like a novelistic character)?
Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring is sometimes called the Dutch Mona Lisa, but to me there is more than one ageless masterpiece in the Mauritshuis worthy of this title.
Like many other things, the mystery of the huge semi-fictional bull brings me back to Tolstoy, whose own enormous and mysterious head is featured so prominently on the cover of De Bezetenen (“It’s a funny book,” I kept telling Dutch people). I am reminded of the critique by Tkachov about the overvaluation of livestock in Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s next novel, Tkachov suggested, should address Levin’s “agricultural love for his cow, Pava,” taking the form of “a series of peripeteia, both romantic and tragic, the sufferings of Kitty, the torments of Pava, the explanations of Levin to Pava…” I keep thinking about that book about Pava, which I now imagine being longer – much longer! – than War and Peace.