I am pleased if a novel provides me with insight into one type of person. I am thrilled that When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth by Fernanda Eberstadt took me deeply into the heads of three people: Alfred, the man who married so much money he never learned what he might have made of himself; Dolly, the heiress who loved the art milieu more than she cared about art; and Isaac, the brilliant artist whose personality and creations forced their compromises to the breaking point.
The book introduces us to a wide cast of realistically drawn characters who interact in a believable and compelling manner while moving in moneyed and stylish circles open to very few. Woven through the plot and evocation of place is intelligent writing about how art looks to its creators and appreciators. I had always thought of art in verbal terms, but Ms. Eberstadt uses words to evoke the visual and emotional experience of creating a painting or sculpture. It is like nothing else I have read and gave me a whole new appreciation for the visual mediums, yet another new world for me.
This novel, though it can be read on its own, continues the story of an extraordinarily talented and tormented young man, begun in Isaac and His Devils (out-of-print but sometimes available here).
by Fernanda Eberstadt
p. 120 Isaac, beaming out at his audience, wasn’t in the least bit nervous. On the contrary, the hushed and expectant silence and the bright footlights of the gym, whose radiance made him feel like a chicken in an incubator, the sea of bobbing faces spread out beneath him acted as a warming stimulant, encouraging him to sound forth, knowing that he had enthralling and immensely important things to impart and that no one might interrupt him until he was done. It was only a question of holding back a minute, catching the natural rhythm, like a little girl about to plunge into a game of skip rope.
Thus it had been ever since he first rose to his feet before a crowded hall: a preliminary rush of blood to the head that made his stout legs tremble, his ears roar with his heart’s terrified pounding, and then, miraculously as soon as he gained the pulpit, a commanding clarity–yes, this is what he had been put on earth to do, to rock on his heels and wave his arms and hold forth before hundreds, pitching his voice like a choirboy aiming at the limestone vault. And as soon as he was done, he wished he could do it all over again.
p. 122 Isaac, bouncing up and down on his seat, chanted to himself fervently the words from the Biographia Literaria he had pounded into his mind: “They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition,” yes, that was it, “who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel,” Isaac belted out, quite loud now; “that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them!” How he had labored and struggled with the hope, the determination, that he who had left so much room for his wings and antennae would yet burst forth into horned flower, into flight, that this groaning straining potential might become actual. But how mammoth the wings that could bear his grievous clownish weight!
p. 157 It was inattention she couldn’t abide (though she was no lover either of outright stupidity), and when Isaac had asked why, she’d explained that inattention, like cowardice, seemed to her a kind of primer-coat vice without which the more colorful vices would not stick.
See also, [Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pp 82 & 256]
by Fernanda Eberstadt