Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jonathan Harr Writes With a Realist's Brush (By Bob Thompson, the Washington Post)

Note of the painting: The Taking of Christ, 1602, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi), Society of Jesus of Ireland, on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland inv. no. 14,072.

link to the caption

Note from the blog editor:
To take a step further, one painting mentioned in the article, “the taking of the Christ” by Caravaggio was worth to be brought here with the article. It is a spectacular painting. The photo of the painting is taken from the website of an exhibition from the National Gallery, Washington D.C. United States when the painting was on loan away from its regular display of Ireland during May 30 - July 18, 1999.

link to the exhibition archive for the exhibition

Note of the Caption: The author Jonathan Harr traveled to Ireland, England and Italy in his meticulous effort to re-create the search for Caravaggio's lost painting. (Photo Credit: By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post Photo)

link to the caption

A Painting's Story, Told Stroke by Stroke
- Jonathan Harr Writes With a Realist's Brush

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The National Gallery of Art doesn't own any paintings by the great baroque realist Caravaggio, but there's a slide of one of his religious dramas being projected on an East Building screen right now. A soldier in black looms menacingly out of the darkness, extending an arm to seize a downcast Jesus. A treacherous disciple pulls back from his infamous kiss. And look, in the back: There's a wide-eyed bystander with a lantern, said to be a self-portrait by the ragged, revolutionary Italian painter who brought "The Taking of Christ" to life in 1602.

Below and to the side, a lectern reading light lends a painterly glow to the face of today's speaker, nonfiction maestro Jonathan Harr. For just a moment, lecturer and subject appear to merge, and you imagine that Harr has come to physically inhabit the world of "The Lost Painting," his book on the disappearance and rediscovery of the treasure now on the screen.

This is an illusion, of course, but it's a suggestive one. A major theme of "The Lost Painting" is the longing of scholars to bridge the gap between present and past. It's a longing the 57-year-old Harr totally understands: After all, what wouldn't he give for an interview with Caravaggio, who died on the run in the summer of 1610?

"Thirty minutes with the man, just give me 30 minutes," he muses while being interviewed himself, the day before his National Gallery talk. He's full of questions for the quick-tempered brawler who was forced to flee Rome after he killed a man in a street fight: "Were you sleeping with Lena? Is that why you hit the notary, Mariano Pasqualone? Did you intend to kill Ranuccio Tomassoni, or were you just . . . ?"

You'd really need hours, of course. "But if you could have only 30 minutes, what an incredible gift that would be."

Fortunately for Harr, the main subject of his book is not the artist himself but a clutch of contemporary Caravaggio scholars -- in particular, a young Italian art historian named Francesca Cappelletti, whose crucial discovery in a musty archive helped establish that "The Taking of Christ" was the real thing.

Unfortunately he wasn't hanging with Cappelletti in 1989, when she made her discovery. He had to reconstruct the scene, along with almost everything else in "The Lost Painting."

This was a major change -- to put it mildly -- from the book for which he is best known.

"A Civil Action," published in 1995 after more than eight years of reporting and writing, turned the story of a complex, protracted environmental lawsuit into a mesmerizing page-turner. "Whether in truth or fiction, I have never read a more compelling chronicle of litigation," John Grisham wrote.

That book gained much of its power from Harr's up-close observation of the plaintiffs' lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who became its central figure. Harr got so far inside his story that when the charismatic, egomaniacal Schlichtmann went broke and started sleeping in his office, the writer bunked in the room next door. Who needs bridges to the past when your subject is a few yards away, pleading with a witness on the phone at 6 a.m. while you groggily take notes?

Harr was there in part because he was broke, too. When he'd negotiated an $80,000 advance for "A Civil Action," he'd been a modestly compensated magazine writer at the now-defunct New England Monthly. His editor, Daniel Okrent, tried to talk him out of the project.

"You'll find yourself scrounging for quarters hidden in car seats," Okrent warned him.

Some years later, Harr called Okrent from a rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike to confess that his old boss had been right. Even after scrounging the available car-seat quarters, he still lacked sufficient funds to pay the toll.

But Harr was right, too, Okrent says: The obsessive perfectionism with which he pursued his story produced "one of the great nonfiction books of our time." The hardback edition of "A Civil Action" didn't sell spectacularly, but the paperback did, and a $1.25 million movie deal allowed Harr to pay his debts, fix a leaky roof and prevent his chimney from falling in.

Before the book was published, however, Harr had no expectation it would make any money. Desperate for cash, he needed another project right away.

Which didn't stop him from being his obsessive, perfectionist self.

In 1993 his eye had been caught by a newspaper article about a long-lost Caravaggio that had turned up in a Jesuit residence in Ireland. In 1994 he embarked on a story about it for the New York Times Magazine. The Times sent him to Dublin, where "The Taking of Christ" had been identified by Sergio Benedetti, a restoration expert at Ireland's National Gallery.

After spending a couple of weeks in Ireland, he told the Times that he needed to go to London and talk to experts there. Fine. After he got back from England, he allowed as how he really should go to Italy and see Francesca Cappelletti, the graduate student who'd done so much to trace the painting before Benedetti stumbled across it.

Not fine.

"They said, 'Wait a minute, this is just a magazine story," Harr recalls with a laugh. He settled for transatlantic phone calls.

A few years later, while in Rome on a fellowship, he called Cappelletti to sound her out about a possible book. They ended up taking a more than seven-hour train ride together, to the town in southern Italy where she was teaching. Harr peppered her with questions -- eliciting, among other things, the story of her marriage and divorce. She wept. He tried to be sympathetic, but never stopped taking notes. By the end of the trip, he knew the book would work.

He'd have to learn Italian, of course: Cappelletti spoke English, but many others with whom he'd need to talk did not, and your true obsessive won't settle for translators. But his biggest difficulty would be reconstructing her search for the painting.

Unlike the trial in "A Civil Action," he hadn't been there .

Take, for example, the archival find made by Cappelletti and a colleague, Laura Testa, in a hill town called Recanati eight miles from the Adriatic coast. The two women had talked their way into a trove of family documents controlled by a dotty old aristocrat, Marchesa Annamaria Antici-Mattei, whose ancestors had been Caravaggio patrons. The Mattei archive was in the dank and dimly lit cellar of a decaying palazzo. Handling the family's leather-bound account books, Harr writes, Cappelletti "felt as if she were touching history."

But he couldn't touch it himself. By the time Testa drove him to Recanati, the Marchesa had died and the palazzo had been locked up. The best he could do was peer into the cellar, through the bars of the ground-level windows, trying to imagine the moment when Cappelletti and Testa discovered the first recorded mention of "The Taking of Christ."

"I wanted more and more and more," Harr says, recalling his frustration at having to rely on the women's memories. "Francesca and Laura go to Recanati in this rickety old car of Francesca's sister, and it's a six-hour drive -- what do they talk about? If I'd been there, in the back seat, I would have been scribbling away."

The more you listen, the more you can sense his longing to be in the past -- in order to re-create it perfectly.

"Jonathan is one of those writers who would report a story for the rest of his life if he could," says Harr's close friend Tracy Kidder. He's a perfectionist when it's time to write as well, says Robert Loomis, his editor at Random House: He'll work and rework the text, trying to ensure that the prose is evocative without being flashy and the pacing is just right.

Several sections in "The Lost Painting," for example, give the reader bits of Caravaggio's life story without unduly interrupting the contemporary narrative. When he ran out of time on the book, Harr says, he was working on another such flashback. He still worries that omitting it was a mistake.

Heaven knows he's not the first writer haunted by perfectionism -- but he's certainly got a bad case. Ask him where it comes from and he'll tell you he thinks it is "driven by fear: fear of being wrong, fear of looking foolish or dumb or inept."

You want to know more. Why did he become a writer in the first place? Where does the fear come from? You don't have much time left, so you ask the question this way: If you were writing a book on Jonathan Harr, what are the key points you would need to reconstruct?

Well . . .

There'd be the childhood that's not too interesting "and then: bang. Something happens at age 8." His mother ran off with her political science professor, "and basically I didn't see her for 15 years."

There'd be the fact that at age 12 he settled on his future career. Was it the complete "Sherlock Holmes" he'd devoured? The teacher he'd had -- her name was Betty Bowdoin -- "an absolutely wonderful woman who taught kids to write"?

She's dead now, so that bridge to the past is broken.

There'd be his hopping around the world with a Foreign Service father and, while in Washington, working as a congressional page. (Once, on a dare, he called the House into session 45 minutes early.) There'd be his dropping out of college and writing poetry and driving a cab and trying to write a novel and getting messed up with drugs and alcohol ("I was sinking fast"). There'd be his straightening out, thanks to the woman who would become his wife, and getting his first real writing job, with an alternative newspaper in New Haven.

We've only scratched the surface here, you think. Surely you'll need to debrief Harr's family and his friends in Northampton, Mass. Perhaps you should follow him back to Rome, where he's heading a couple of days after his National Gallery talk. Maybe you could track down Francesca Cappelletti and get her views . . .

But wait a minute. This is just a newspaper story! You've got hours, not years. You're not Jonathan Harr.

You have to let it go.

link to the original posting

link to Jonathan Harr's website at Random House Publishing

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