Tom Wolfe -Back to Blood,2012


Tom Wolfe – Back to Blood, 20

Chapter 10: The Super Bowl of the Art World.

It was December, which in Miami Beach had only the most boring meteorological significance. Imagine a picture book with the same photograph on every page . . . every page . . . high noon beneath a flawless, cloudless bright blue sky . . . on every page . . . a tropical gun that turns those rare old birds, pedestrians, into stumpy, abstract black shadows on the sidewalk . . . on every page . . . unending views of the Atlantic Ocean, unending meaning that every couple of blocks, if you squint at a certain angle between the gleaming pinkish butter-colored condominium towers that wall off the shining sea from clueless gawkers who come to Miami Beach thinking they can just drive down to the shore and see the beaches and the indolent recliner & umbrella people and the lapping waves and the ocean sparkling and glistening and stretching out to the horizon in a perfect 180-degree arc . . . if you squint just right, every couple of blocks you can get a skinny, thin-as-a-ballpoint-refill, vertical glimpse of the ocean—blip—and it’s gone . . . on every page . . . glimpse—blip—and it’s gone . . . on every page . . . on every page…

However, at high noon, or 11:45 a.m., to be exact, on this particular December day, Magdalena and Norman were indoors . . . in the distinguished, if itching-scratching, company of Maurice Fleischmann, along with Marilynn Carr, his “A.A.,” as he called her… short for art adviser. In fact, he had begun using that as her nickname . . . “Hey, A.A., come take a look at this” . . . or whatever. With dignity, insofar as that was possible, the four of them sought to keep their place in a line, more or less, less a line, in fact, and more like a scrimmage at an Iranian airline counter. Two hundred or so restless souls, most of them middle-aged men, eleven of whom had been pointed out to Magdalena as billionaires—billionaires—twelve, if you counted Maurice himself, were squirming like maggots over the prospect of what lay on the other side of an inch—thick glass wall just inside a small portal, Entrance D of the Miami Convention Center. The convention center took up an entire city block on Miami. Beach. An ordinary person could walk past Entrance D every day for years and never be conscious of its existence. That was the whole point. Ordinary people didn’t know and musn’t know that billionaires and countless nine—digit millionaires were in there squirming like maggots . . . fifteen minutes before Miami Art Basel’s moment of money and male combat. They all had an urge.

The maggots! . . . Once, when she was six or seven, Magdalena had come upon a little dead dog, a mutt, on a sidewalk in Hialeah. A regular hive of bugs was burrowing into a big gash in the dog’s haunch—only these weren’t exactly bugs. They looked more like worms, short, soft, deathly pale worms; and they were not in anything so orderly as a hive. They were a wriggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots rooting over and under one another in a heedless, literally headless, frenzy to get at the dead meat. She learned later that they were decephalized larvae. They had no heads. The frenzy was all they had. They didn’t have five senses, they had one, the urge, and the urge was all they felt. They were utterly blind.

Just take a look at them! . . . the billionaires! They look like shoppers mobbed outside Macy’s at midnight for the 40-percent-off After Christmas Sale. No, they don’t look that good. They look older and grubbier and more washed out…the whole bunch are americanos, after all. They’re wearing prewashed baggy-in-the-seat jeans, too-big T-shirts, too-big polo shirts hanging out at the bottom to make room for their bellies, too-tight khakis, ug-lee rumpled woolen ankle—high socks of rubber- mat black, paint—job green, and slop—mop maroon . . . and sneakers. Magdalena had never seen this many old men—practically all were middle-aged or older—wearing sneakers. Just look—there and there and over there—not just sneakers but real basketball shoes. And for what? They probably think all these teen togs make them look younger. Are they kidding? They just make their slumping backs and sloping shoulders and fat-sloppy bellies . . . and scoliotic spines and slanted—forward necks and low-slung jowls and stringy wattles . . . more obvious.

To tell the truth, Magdalena didn’t particularly care about all that. She thought it was funny. Mainly, she was envious of A.A. This americana was pretty and young and, it almost went without saying, blond. Her clothes were sophisticated yet very simple . . . and very sexy. . . a perfectly plain, sensible, businesslike sleeveless black dress . . . but short . . . ended a foot above her knees and showed plenty of her fine fair thighs . . . made it seem like you were looking at all of her line fair body. Oh, Magdalena didn’t doubt for a second that she was sexier than this girl, had better breasts, better lips, better hair . . . long, full, lustrous dark hair as opposed to this americana’s sexless blond bob, copied from that English girl—what was her name?—Posh Spice . . . She just wished she had worn a minidress, too, to show off her bare legs. . . as opposed to these slim white pants that mainly showed off the deep cleft of her perfect little butt. But this “A.A.” girl had something else, too. She was in the know. Advising rich people, like Fleischmann, about what very expensive art to buy was her business, and she knew all about this “fair.” If somebody called it “Miami Art Basel,” thinking that was the full name, she would inform him in some mostly polite way that it was of officially Art Basel Miami Beach . . . and that those in the know didn’t call it “Miami Art Basel” for short. No, they called it “Miami Basel.” She could fire off sixty in the know cracks a minute.

At this very moment, A.A. was saying, “So I ask her‚ I’îI ask her what she’s interested in, and she says to me, “I’m looking for something cutting-edge . . . like a Cy Twombly. “I’m thinking, ‘A Cy Twombly?’ Cy Twombly was cutting-edge in the nineteen fifties! He died a couple of years ago, I think it was, and most of his contemporaries are gone or on the way. You’e not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying. You may be great. You may be iconic, the way Cy Twombly is, but you’re not cutting-edge.”

She didn’t address any of this to Magdalena. She never looked at her. Why waste attention, much less words, on some little nobody who probably didn’t know anything anyway? The worst part of it was that she was right. Magdalena had never heard of Cy Twombly. She didn’t know what cutting-edge meant, either, although she could sort of guess from the way A.A. used it. And what did iconic mean? She hadn’t the faintest idea. She bet Norman didn’t know, either, didn’t understand the first thing Miss All-Business sexy A.A. had just said, but Norman created the sort of presence that made people think he knew everything about anything anybody had to say.

Iconic was a word that was beginning to pop up all around them, now that there were just minutes to go before the magic hour, noon. The maggots were rooting amongst one another more anxiously.

Somewhere very nearby, a man with a high voice was saying, “Okay, maybe it isn’t iconic Giacometti, but it’s great Giacometti all the same, but no-o-o-o—” Magdalena recognized that voice. A hedge fund billionaire from Greenwich?—Stamford?— someplace in Connecticut, anyway. She remembered him from the Besjet party two nights ago.

And some woman was saying, “Koons’d die at auction right now!”

“—Hirst, if you ask me. He’s high as a dead fish after fifteen minutes in the sun.”

“—what you just said? Prince is the one who’s tanked.”

“—the fish that’s up there at Stevie’s, rotting its forty-million-dollar guts out?”

“—iconic, my ass.”

“—svear, ‘de skilt’ vas vot she said!” (“—swear, deskilled’ was what she said.”) Magdalena knew that voice very well, from last night at the dinner party Michael du Glasse and his wile, Caroline Peyton-Soames, gave at Casa Tua. She even remembered his name, Heinrich von Hasse. He had made billions manufacturing . . . something about industrial robots? . . . was that what they said? Whatever else he did, he had spent so many millions buying art at Art Basel in Switzerland six months ago, people were talking about him at practically every party she and Norman and Maurice had been to.

“—about to see it! A measles outbreak, baby!”

“—and no time to kick the tires!”

“See it—like it—buy it! That’s all you—”

“Art Basel in Basel?” That was A.A. piping up again. “Have you ever been to Basel? The only place worse is Helsinki. There’s no place to eat! The food is not anywhere near as good as the food here. The fish tastes like it arrived in the backseat of a Honda, and the price—”

“—keep his hands off my adviser, for Christsake.”

“—think you’ve got a fifteen-minute reserve, but five minutes later—”

“—the price is twice what it is here. And Basel’s so~called historic hotels? I’ll tell you what’s historic-—the basins in the bathrooms! Aaaagh! They’re that old kind. You know what I mean? You could have somebody scrub them day and night for a week, and they’d still look gray like somebody’s old bedridden grandmother with bad breath. No shelf space and these old gray metal cups screwed into the wall they expect you to put your toothbrush in? You just—”

“—I’m what?”

“—what I said. You’re rude. Gimme your mother’s phone number! I’m gonna tell her on you!”

“Whattaya gonna do—get Putin to slip an isotope into my cappuccino?”

As covertly as possible, Fleischmann lowered his hand to the crotch of his pants and tried to scratch the itch of his herpes pustules. He could never do it covertly enough to fool Magdalena, however. Every two minutes at least, Fleischmann shot one of his sixty-three-year-old looks at her . . . pregnant with meaning . . . and lust. Norman’s diagnosis was that they were one and the same. The meaning was … lust. The very sight of a gorgeous girl like her was live pornography for a porn addict like Fleischmann . . . better than a strip club. Gross as they might be, Magdalena loved those looks. Those pregnant lustful looks she commanded from every sort of man—she loved it, loved it, loved it. First they looked at her face—Norman said her knowing lips insinuated ecstasy, even when she didn’t have the faintest smile. Then they looked at her breasts—her somehow perfect breasts. She was aware of it all the time! Then she would see them searching her crotch. . . expecting to find what, in God’s name?

All the old men in this wriggling infestation of maggots . . . if she cared to walk up and down and cock her hips before them . . . their riches . . . they’d melt! They dreamed of depositing them into . . . her.

It was as if one of those storybook fairies children love so much had waved her wand over Miami . . . and—Wanderflash!—turned it into Miami Basel . . . The spell lasted no more than one week, one magical week every December…when the Miami Basel “art fair” went up in the Miami Convention Center . . . and swells from all over the United States, England, Europe, Japan, even Malaysia, even China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, even South Africa, todo el mundo, came down from the sky in swarms of private planes . . . to buy expensive contemporary art . . . or to see the swells buying it . . . to immerse themselves in their mental atmosphere of art and money . . . to breathe the same air they did . . . in short, to be where things are happening . . . until the fairy waived her wand again a week later and—Wanderflash!—they disappeared . . . the art from all over the world, the private planes from all over the world, the swell people who had descended from the sky from all over the world, and—poof!—every trace of sophistication and worldliness was gone.

At this very moment, however, all these creatures remained under the fairy’s spell.

Miami Basel wouldn’t open to the public until the day after tomorrow . . . but to those in the know, those on the inside, Miami Basel had already been a riot of cocktail receptions, dinner parties, after-parties, covert cocaine huddles, inflamed catting around for going-on three days. Almost anywhere they were likely to enjoy a nice little status boost from the presence of celebrities—movie, music, TV, fashion, even sports celebrities—who knew nothing about art and didn’t have time to care. All they wanted was to be . . . where things were happening. For them and for the insiders, Miami Basel would be over the moment the first foot of the first clueless member of the general public touched the premises.

Magdalena would have remained clueless herself without Maurice Fleischmann. She had never even heard of Miami Basel until Maurice invited her, along with Norman, to the fair . . . at Norman’s prodding. Socializing with a patient was very much frowned upon in psychiatric practice. The psychiatrist’s effectiveness depended in no small part upon his assuming a godly stance far above the patient’s place in the world, no matter what it might be. The patient must be dependent upon his paid god, not the other way around. But Norman had Maurice mesmerized. He thought his “recovery” from his “disease” depended entirely upon Norman, in spite of the fact—or maybe because of the fact—that Norman kept telling him that he was not suffering from a disease but a weakness. For his part, Maurice felt rather special taking Norman around, because Norman was on television a lot and was seen by so many people in Miami as a celebrity. Nobody would suspect that Fleischmann was Norman’s patient. They were two well-known men who traveled in the same circles, at the same altitude. What could be remarkable about that?

Every day Fleischmann and his driver, a little Ecuadorian named Felipe, had picked up Norman and Magdalena from the Lincoln Suites, after Norman’s last appointment, in a big black Escalade SUV with dark-tinted windows. The first stop, the first day, was the insiders’ opening event—a cocktail party known as Toffs at Twilight. A man named Roy Duroy staged that party every year at the hotel he owned, The Random, on Collins Avenue, not all that far south of the Lincoln Suites. The Random was a typical hotel of the much-touted South Beach Retro boom. A clever developer like Duroy would buy a small, crabbed hotel, eighty years old or more usually, give it a lick of paint and some in-room computer outlets, change the name from the Lido or the Surfside to something hip and Hip like The Random, and pronounce it an Art Deco architectural gem. Now you had a small, crabbed gem. The rear of the property was its saving grace. It Ooverlooked an inlet from the ocean. Duroy had put a lot of big umbrellas with magenta, white, and apple-green stripes out there. Very colorful, these umbrellas, and Toffs at Twilight was going strong when Maurice, Norman, and Magdalen arrived. A hundred, two hundred Miami Basel insiders were crammed around tables under the umbrellas, drinking, or milling about between the umbrellas, drinking. Everybody was drinking and kicking up a “noisy surf of big talk and haw haw haw haw haws! and scream scream scream screams!

What bowled Magdalena over was the stir Maurice’s very presence created. Roy Duroy himself immediately rushed up and gave him a big bear hug. His flattery fluttered down on Maurice like rose petals. A big real estate developer named Burt Thornton—even Magdalena had seen him on TV and in the newspapers—rushed over and all but licked Maurice’s alligator-hide moccasins. So many people came rushing over to Maurice, he stood there for an hour without moving six inches from where he first came upon the colorful umbrella-scape. Magdalena had always known that Maurice was a billionaire who had “influence.” Nevertheless, what she had never been able to get out of her mind was Norman’s photograph of Maurice’s crotch rotting with herpes pustules. But now, at Toffs at Twilight, she was looking at a Maurice el Grande.

Meantime, Norman was sulking a bit. Nobody had recognized him so far. He had even given up his laughterrrahHAHockhock hock strategy for attracting attention. He groused to Magdalena that all Roy Duroy wanted was Maurice’s backing for some out-to-lunch dream of turning The Random into a chain operation, and Burt Thornton just wanted Maurice to intervene to keep North Tryon Street Global from foreclosing on him for an enormous loan for a development that hadn’t panned out.

The three of them got back into the big black Escalade and headed off to the High Hotel, also in South Beach, where Besjet, which leased private planes to corporations and the mighty rich, was having a cocktail reception . . . even louder this time, the roaring surf. . .the big talk, the haw haw haw haws! the shriek shriek shriek shrieks! … Magdalena was stunned. Across the room she spotted two movie stars, Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade. No question about it! Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade!—in the flesh! ::::::Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade . . . and me . . . we’re guests at the same cocktail party.:::::: . . . But not even stars like them could have commanded more attention than Besjet gave Maurice. The president of Besjet rushed over to him, flashing every tooth he could squeeze into his grin. When they shook hands, the president clasped his left hand over their mingled fingers, as if sealing a vow. Five times he must have told Maurice that tomorrow the 170th Besjet flight heading specifically. to Miami Basel would be landing. He no doubt knew Maurice had his own plane. He just wanted him to have the word, because in Miami, among all the nobs who could afford private flights, Maurice’s seemed to be the word. Norman was growing positively glum. They went from the Besjet party to a swell, expensive restaurant called Casa Tua for a big dinner given by Status, the new magazine that had become very hot by ranking people in every area of life you could imagine.

No step over a threshold and through a door had ever given Magdalena such a status boost before…and no sooner did she step into the dining room, amid a hundred or more people, than she spotted the celebrated faces of Tara Heccuba Barker! . . . Luna Thermal! . . . Rad Packman! . . . She couldn’t get over it. She was breathing the same air they were! But the Status people couldn’t have made a bigger to-do over any of them than they did over Maurice. In his remarks, the editor in chief of Status mentioned Maurice twice . . .

Finally, after dinner, Norman got a break. A big moonfaced woman recognized him and brought over a couple of others, and soon Norman was the star of a big conversation cluster eager to hear the eminent Dr. Lewis go on about pornnnahhHAHAHock hock hock addiction. In no time eight or nine people were gathered around him.

Magdalena, standing next to Maurice, found herself engulfed, by default, in a conversation cluster consisting of Maurice and three of his courtiers, all middle-aged men. The only one Magdalena recognized was Burt Thornton, who popped up on TV a lot . . . some real estate fiasco . . . or something like that . . . The other two were Somebody Herman and Somebody Kershner. Maurice was holding forth on the pitfalls of “pyramided mortgage payments,” which she gathered was Mr. Thornton’s problem. She had never felt more out of place. She would have been afraid to utter a peep, even if she had known what on earth they were talking about. But she was even more afraid of leaving this cluster and trying her luck in a room full of old people now on their feet and getting ready to depart for one what’s happening après-party party or another. A group of them stopped when they reached the Maurice Fleischmann cluster, and some man stepped up—”Maurice!”—and embraced him in the manly version of women’s air kisses among social equals. They separated, and ::::::Dios mio! I’ve never seen such a gorgeous man in my life!:::::: Maurice began some rapid introductions. “Sergei, this is Burt Thornton . . . Burt, this is Sergei Korolyov.”

“Ees my pleasure, Mr. Zornton.”

Oh, it’s my honor!” said Burt Thornton.

Sergei Korolyov’s European accent—was it Russian?—only made him more gorgeous to Magdalena. He looked young, at least for this crowd—midthirties? He was as tall as a girl could ever hope for, and built. Men didn’t come any handsomer, either. A square jaw, amazing blue eyes—and his hair was a thick light brown with some blond streaks, combed back in long waves. It was romantic. And so charming, the way he smiled and the tone of his voice as he greeted “Mr. Zornton” and made those three words, “Ees my pleasure,” sound as if he actually meant it. Just before Maurice introduced him to Mr. Herman ::::::he glanced at me—and it didn’t just happen, either!:::::: Just as he was introduced to Mr. Kershner ::::::he did it again! Now I know he means it!::::::

Maurice must have noticed it, too, because he said, “Oh, and Sergei, this is Magdalena Otero.” The gorgeous man turned to Magdalena. He smiled the same politely charming smile. He reached out as if to shake hands—and bowed and lifted her hand and air-kissed the back of it and said, “Miss Otero.” But when he stood up, he had added a slight insinuation to the smile, and he poured his eyes into hers for far too long—then left with his party. ::::::;¡Dios mio, mio, mio!::::::

Magdalena whispered to Maurice, “Who is that?”

Maurice chuckled. “Someone who’d like to make friends with you, I gather.” Then he filled her in.

Norman was happy, too. Now at last they realized who he was. What a lift! Such a lift that Norman was ready to roll to an after-party given by something called the Museum of the Instant, in the Design District, where a performance artist named Heidi Schlossel would be performing a piece of art called De-fucked. Everybody at the Status dinner was talking about it. Magdalena had never heard of the Museum of the Instant, the Design District, performance art, or performance artists, let alone one named Heidi Schlossel. Norman was only marginally better informed; he had heard of the Design District, although he didn’t know where it was. Maurice, now a certified big shot at Miami Basel, was dying to go.

Magdalena took Norman aside. “This performance art thing—it’s called De-fucked. We don’t know what it is. Do you eally want to risk taking”—she pointed behind her toward Maurice—”to something like that?”

“It’s a museum,” said Norman. “How bad could it be?‚”

Back into the Escalade . . . and off to the Design District, which seemed to be in an area of abandoned warehouses and small factories. The Instant Museum was a mess . . . and too small for all the Miami Basel insiders who flocked there . . . The only halfway-decent-sized gallery in the place had hundreds of worn-out black tires piled up against one wall. A jacklegged, unpainted wooden stanchion bore a sign:


Collection of the Instant Museum

A recorded rhythm track boomed out over a speaker system, BOOMchilla BOOMchilla BOOMchilla BOOMchilla . . . From behind a mound of filthy black tires steps a tall figure in black. She has chalky white skin . . . and long black hair that comes cascading down upon the puffed and pleated shoulders of the academic robe she has on, the kind you graduate in. But this one is voluminous. It sweeps down to the floor. She isn’t smiling.

She stands there motionless, without a peep, for about thirty seconds. Presumably, this is Heidi Schlossel.

She brings her hands to her neck and undoes some sort of clasp. The robe falls from her shoulders suddenly, completely, clump. It must have weighed a ton.

Now she stood stark naked in front of a big puddle of heavy black cloth…rigid, erect. Her face was a blank…She looked like one of the undead in a horror movie . . . without a stitch on.

Magdalena whispered to Norman, “Let’s leave—now!” She nodded toward Maurice. Norman just shook his head . . . No.

The stark naked woman appeared to be fifteen years too old and fifteen pounds too heavy to play this role, whatever it was. She began speaking in the dead voice of the undead. “Men have fucked me . . . they have fucked me, fucked me, fucked me over, overfucked me—” . . . on and on with this I Was a Fucking Zombie poem—until all at once she inserted a thumb and two fingers into her vagina and pulled out a length of sausage and came alive, as it were, and cried out, “De-fucked!—and out came another sausage linked to the first—”De-fucked!”—and another and another—”De-fucked!” and “De-fucked!” and “De-fucked!” and “De-fucked!” Magdalena couldn’t believe how many link sausages the woman had managed to stuff inside her vaginal cavity!

Maurice had his hand clasped over his crotch. But instead of stroking it with his hand, he was rocking his body back and forth beneath his hand . . . so as not to be detected.

Magdalena nudged Norman and whispered on the loud side, “Maurice!” Norman ignored her. His eyes were fixed on Ms. Schlossel. So this time Magdalena didn’t bother hiding it behind a whisper. “Norman! Look at Maurice!”

“Norman glowered at her . . . but did look at Maurice. He just stared at first . . . calculating . . . calculating . . . then he let out a deep, self-denying sigh and put his arm around Maurice’s shoulders . . . tenderly . . . and leaned close to him and said . . . in a voice you would use on a child . . . “We have to go now, Maurice.”

Like an obedient child who knows he has disappointed his parents, Maurice let himself be led out of the Museum of the Instant.

Maurice was silent . . . and penitent . . . but Norman acted cross. He kept shaking his head from side to side, without looking at either one of them.

“What’s wrong, Norman?” said Magdalena.

“There’s supposed to be a great after-party at some gallery near here, the Linger, in Wynwood, wherever that is.” He kept shaking his head. “But I guess that’s out.”

Later on, Magdalena asked around and was told that the Linger, a large gallery, wanted to show its “private collection” of photorealistic pornographic paintings, whatever photorealistic meant, and sculptures of homosexual orgies.

Why was there so much pornography in this so-called cutting-edge art? Magdalena wondered. For what earthly reason? How in God’s name did they justify it? . . . And just who was more upset about not being able to see it all, the patient . . . or the doctor?

But by last night it was as if nothing had happened. Here were the three of them, Maurice, Norman, and herself, plunging into another round of parties and receptions before dinner … and dinner was really something last night. Michael du Glasse and his wife, Caroline Peyton-Soames, were the hosts. Michael du Glasse and Caroline Peyton-Soames! . . . the most glamorous couple in Hollywood, if you asked Magdalena . . . a dinner for a hundred people at the Ritz-Carlton . . . and Magdalena Otero, lately of Hialeah, was their guest . . . and for one sublime and unforgettable moment she had touched their right hands with hers.

In five minutes, presumably, a pair of doors in the glass wall would open, and these old men, these old maggots, would have first crack at the treasures that lay on the other side . . . Miami Basel! . . . For two hours these maggots, and these alone, would have the exclusive run of the whole place . . . whatever in the name of God “the whole place” was . . .

“—fuck off? You fuck off, you fat—”

“AhhggghHAHAHHHHock hock hock hockdjou see that big ox trying to slip between those two people? Got stuck between themmmmaaagghHAHHHHock hock hock hock! Couldn’t get his belly throughahhHock hock hock!

Maurice Fleischmann looked at Norman blankly. Then he looked around among his fellow squirming maggots to figure out what had made Norman eruptttock hock hock like that. He couldn’t. He was nonplussed. But Magdalena now understood. Norman cackled when he felt insecure, especially in the presence of people who made him feel defensive or inferior—Fleischmann, for one. It was a way of taking over from them in conversation. Anybody, even a real swell like Fleischmann, had to have a heart of stone not to manufacture a smile and a few chuckles and play along with a bighearted guy who’s being swept away, convulsed, in paralyzed by laughter over . . . God knows what. Why even bother with Fleischmann’s conversation—when he already controlled Fleischmann’s poor porn-mad mind? Why?—it all dawned on Magdalena. It was very important to Norman to keep his boat at a place like the Fisher Island Marina—but he didn’t own any property there. Maurice Fleischmann made it happen. Or Norman’s presence amidst the most important VIPs of all the VIPs of Miami Basel, the richest of the rich, the likeliest of the likely big spenders, the deepest of the plungers—all of them slithering over and underneath one another to get first crack at the wonders of ninety thousand square feet of art for sale. What was Norman doing here? Maurice Fleischmann made it happen.

Some sort of dustup at the very head of the line . . . the big ox yakking away, angrily, by the looks of him . . . a stack of tires—of fat—forming on the back of his neck every time his chin bobs up. ::::::Look at what he’s wearing! .. . an ordinary white T-shirt, the kind that’s meant to be underwear. Just look at him! . . .it’s stretched over his swollen belly. . . making him look like one of those big plastic gym balls . . . it’s hanging outside his jeans, a really gross pair of Big Boy BodiBilt jeans.::::::

Magdalena tapped Norman on the arm. “Norman—”

“Yeah, that’s him,” said Norman. “But wait a minute . . . This guy is too muuuuchHahhhHAHAHAHock hock hock!

By the time he got to his cackle, Magdalena couldn’t help but notice, he was no longer aiming his little performance in her direction, but Fleischman’s.

“A second ago the guy was trying to crash the line four or five places from the front . . . and nowwwahHHHHock hock hock he is the front!” . . .

Fleischmann looks put out. He doesn‚’t even feign a smile over Norman’s cackle. He’s worried. He sidles over and takes a look.

“Hey, A.A.,” says Fleischmann, “come over here. Isn’t that Flebetnikov?”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “the very one.” Fleischmann leaned close to A.A. and lowered his voice: “That bloated bastard. He knows I’m interested in the Doggses—and look at him. He’s literally shoved people aside with his big sumo gut, and now he’s right up against the door.”

A.A. lowered her voice: “And therefore he’s going after the Doggses himself? Don’t you think—”

“He’s got billions of dollars, and he’s a Putin thug, and “Therefore, I’m gonna grab anything you want, just to show you you don’t have a chance against me.

“Who is he?” said Norman.

Fleischmann clearly resented Norman’s interrupting a confidential conversation. “Perhaps you’ve heard of Russian oligarchs.” Then he turned back to A.A. and was saying, “Now, the only thing—”

It was the “perhaps” that got Norman. Was Fleischmann by any chance adopting the patient peevish tone one uses with dim-wits? Norman wasn’t going to put up with that for a moment.

“Heard of them?” he said. “Try heard from them ahaaalahhHAHAHAHock hock hock! Three different psychiatrists have brought me in as consultant with these characters. Have I heard of themmmeeaaahHAAAHock hock hock!

Magdalena knew that was a lie.

“Well, I seriously doubt you ever consulted for one that obnoxious,” Fleischmann said curtly, probably wondering how he had lost control of the conversation.

Without another word, Fleischmann walked away from Norman, over to a wall of the entryway, and took a cell phone out of an inside pocket of his jacket. He looked back to make sure that nobody could overhear him. He spoke to somebody for four or five minutes. When he returned to the group, he was in a better mood.

“Who’d you call, Maurice?” said Magdalena.

Fleischmann gave her a coy boy’s flirtatious smile. “Wouldn’t you like to know!”

At that moment the entire mob of maggots grew quiet. From out of nowhere a woman had appeared on the other side of the glass wall, a blond, bony, gristly americana trying to look young in a pair of Art World Black Stovepipe pants and an Art World Black T-shirt with a deep V-neck. Thank God a Miami Basel STAFF ID was hanging from her neck. Mercifully, it covered part of the sternum bonescape where her cleavage was supposed to be. She unlocked the glass doors, put on a brittle smile, and gestured down the hall. The maggots remained silent, eerily so, as they began the big push through the doorway.

Flebetnikov popped through like an immense cork. He lost his footing for a moment in the hallway beyond and had to do a little hop to regain his balance. His great T-shirt-swathed belly pitched and yawed. He led the pack . . . with both elbows jutting out, as if to make sure no one passed him. Magdalena noticed for the first time that he was wearing what looked like basketball shoes. She looked down at Fleischmann’s feet. He had on sneakers, too! . . . tan sneakers practically the same color as his poplin pants . . . not so obtrusive as the Russian’s, but sneakers nonetheless . . . On! Into the Art World! Faster!

Now all four of them, Magdalena, Fleischmann, Norman, and A.A., squeezed through the door. The gristly woman in Art Black had wisely stepped back, out of the way of the pumped-up old men. It wasn’t a stampede exactly . . . not some utter loss of control such as pushing…but Magdalena could feel the pressure . . . One man was so close behind her, she could hear him breathing stertorously near her ear. She was being swept along in a tide of old bones dying to get in there, whatever there was.

A little hallway opened up into the main exhibition hall. The place must have been the size of a city block all by itself . . . the ceiling was—what?—three stories high?—four stories?—all in darkness. The lights were below, like the lights of a city—the lights of incredibly long rows, streets, avenues, of booths—of galleries from all over Europe and Asia as well as the United States . . . must be hundreds of them! Art for sale! A gigantic bazaar . . . just lying there, spread out before these, the most important maggots . . . All theirs! . . . See it! Like it! Buy it!

The clump of frenzied old men began to break apart . . . they began to regain their voices, but all were drowned out by a bellowing voice just inside the entrance.

“Gedouda my vay, imbecile! I cromble you and your biece a baper!”

It was Flebetnikov, trying to maneuver his big belly past a security guard who stood between him and all the irresistible treasures beyond . . . The guard was in a dark blue-gray uniform with all sorts of cop-look-alike insignia on it, including a shiny badge. Magdalena knew the type at a glance . . . Not just any security guard, but a classic Florida redneck . . . thick buzz cut of reddish-blond hair . . . meaty, fleshy . . . huge forearms stuck out of his short-sleeved shirt like a pair of hams . . . In one hand he held an official-looking document up before Flebetnikov’s face.

Flebetnikov swatted it aside and stuck his face directly into the redneck’s and roared in his deepest voice, spraying spittle, “Now you gon’ ged ouda my vay! You onderstond?” With that, he placed the heel of his hand against the redneck’s chest, as if to say, “—and I mean it! You either get out of my way or I’ll throw you out of my way!”

Big mistake. Faster than Magdalena would have thought he could move, the redneck bent the arm of the hand that touched him into some sort of hold that locked Flebetnikov up, his voice, his body, his soul. Not a peep out of him. He seemed to know instinctively that here was a good old country boy who would happily beat a fat Russian senseless and feed him to the hogs.

Magdalena turned toward Fleischmann and Norman—but they were no longer beside her. They were three or four feet ahead. Fleischmann nudged Norman in the ribs with his elbow, and they looked at each other and grinned. A.A. was ahead of them, walking at a terrific pace, heading presumably toward the Jeb Doggses to nail down the advantage, now that the security guard had terrified Flebetnikov and stopped him in his tracks.

Maggots were rooting and slithering all over the place with their advisers, scurrying toward the booths of their dreams. Over there!—a shoving match! . . . Looked like the two hedge fund managers— from someplace in Connecticut?—Fleischmann had pointed out . . . Even farther ahead of Magdalena now a HahaHHHHock hock hock hock cackle, and Norman’s looking back at the two chubby little pugilists . . . but not Fleischmann. He and his A.A., Miss Carr, are all business, about to head into a booth. A big, hearty maggot—Magdalena remembered him from the line—comes up from the side, smiles, and says, “How’s it going, Marilynn?” A.A. looks at him for a split second with a wary look that asks not who but what is this . . . creature? . . . attacking, assaulting her attention at a crucial moment like this? She ignores him.

Norman follows them into the booth and stands beside them . . . them, and a tall man with gray hair, although he doesn’t look all that old, and eerie pale-gray eyes like the slanted eyes of a husky or whatever those dogs that pull sleds through the snow up near the Arctic Circle are called.

A.A. says, “You must know Harry Goshen, don’t you, Maurice?”

“No, I’m afraid not,” says Fleischmann. He turns to the man with the eerie eyes and gives him a chilly little smile, and they shake hands.

So pale, those eyes . . . they look ghostly and sinister . . . He wore a pale-gray suit, too, and a light-blue tie . . . the only man in a coat and tie Magdalena had seen all day . . . black shoes so highly polished, the crease between the toes and the arch of the foot shimmered. He had to be the owner of the gallery . . . or a salesman at the very least . . . Rich collectors, she had just seen, dressed in rags and sneakers.

Fleischmann and A.A. and Arctic-eyed Harry Goshen stood before a row of stout maple boxes, each three or so inches high and anywhere from nine to twenty-four inches long, unpainted, unstained, but lacquered with so many coats of clear lacquer, they screamed at you. This man Harry Goshen opened the lid of a big one . . . completely lined, lid and all, with chocolate-colored suede . . . and lifted out a big, round slab of transparent frosted glass, maybe two inches thick . . . you could tell by the strain on Harry Goshen’s hands and arms and posture, the damned thing was heavy. He turned it at about a forty-five-degree angle . . . the translucent glass flooded with light and there, somehow carved deep into the glass . . . exquisitely carved, in the smoothest detail—

“Sort of, you know, Art Deco,” A.A. said to Fleischmann.

—in bas-relief, a young woman with long curving locks—

A.A. was holding up some photograph. “Pretty much like him, don’t you think?”

—and a young man with short curving locks . . . were fucking . . . and you could “see everything” as the saying goes, and “everything” was flooded with translucent light.

Norman was so excited, a foolish grin spread over his face, and he leaned way over to get the closest possible look at “everything.” Fleischmann looked totally baffled. He kept switching his eyes from the pornographic carving to A.A.’s face and back to the glass and once more to A.A.’s face . . . What am I supposed to think, A.A.?

Pale-gray-eyed Goshen takes a round slab from another lacquered box . . . turns it until . . . there! . . . it becomes a man and woman . . . fornicating in a different way . . . another slab . . . anally . . . another . . . three figures, two women and one man, fornicating in an anatomically improbable combination . . . another . . . two women and two men . . . fornicating . . . fingers, tongues, mouths, whole forearms, disappearing into filthy places . . . Fleischmann now frantically looking from the light-flooded glass to Marilynn Carr . . . back and forth . . . Time is of the essence . . . others will be here any moment . . . Flebetnikov, to be specific . . . Magdalena moves closer . . . Fleischmann looks at his A.A. . . . pleading . . . She turns her head ever so slightly, meaning no . . . Magdalena can hear her saying . . . in the lowest of voices, “Not iconic Doggs” . . . Another. . . fornicating . . . Fleischmann looking frantically at Marilynn Carr. Without a word she nods her head up and down ever so slowly . . . meaning yes! . . . Fleischmann immediately turns to the ghostly husky, who says in a ghostly low voice, “Three.” Fleischmann turns to Marilynn Carr, looks at her desperately . . . She nods her head up and down slowly again . . . Desperately Fleischmann turns to the ghostly Goshen and mutters from deep in his throat, “Yes” . . . and Goshen pastes a red dot on the lacquered box containing the slab . . . Now looking back and forth so rapidly . . . whispering, giving signals desperately . . . Goshen says, “Two and a half.” Fleischmann, hoarsely, “Yes” . . . another red dot on another lacquered box . . . Barely forty-five seconds have elapsed.

A bellow! A roar! Here he comes. Flebetnikov’s T-shirt-upholstered hulk must have gotten loose. He’s heading this way. He’s furious; he’s roaring in Russian, for somebody’s benefit . . . then roars in English, “Anodder hole in his nose he vants, dad son ma bitch!” . . . Goshen acts as if he doesn’t hear it or just doesn’t care . . . No raging Russian is going to interrupt this streak! Flebetnikov growls and roars and vows to put yet anodder hole in the son ma bitch’s nose. He’s coming closer. Fleischmann seems calmer, but he still accelerates his mission . . . another red dot (“three and a half”) . . . another red dot (“one”) . . . red dots red dots red dots (“two,” “four” for the orgy scene, dear God! . . . then “nine one seven”–) . . . all these red dots. ::::::That must be what they mean when they talk about the “measles.”::::::

If those numbers meant what Magdalena was beginning to believe they meant, Fleischmann had just spent 17 million dollars, or $17 million minus $83,000, assuming 917 meant $917,000, in less than fifteen minutes. And if Marilynn Carr, with her fair white thighs and English bob, got 10 percent from the seller, the ghostly husky, and 10 percent from the buyer, Fleischmann, she had just made $3,400,000 for herself, assuming Norman had explained the commissions accurately.

Flebetnikov’s Russian roar was drawing closer and closer.

A.A. said to Fleischmann, “Why don’t we get out of here? I know Flebetnikov. He’s not a rational person.”

For the first time since this whole thing began, Fleischmann smiled. “And miss all the fun?”

Fleischmann insisted on waiting for Flebetnikov. He stood right outside the entrance to the booth. A.A. looked very nervous. Fleischmann was suddenly the picture of happiness.

Flebetnikov arrived, roaring in Russian. A tall, dark, anxious-looking man was by his side.

“That’s Lushnikin,” A.A. whispered to Fleischmann. “He’s the art adviser for most of the oligarchs.”

Flebetnikov was growling like a bear. He roared at Lushnikin in Russian . . . something ending with “Goshen.” For the first time he noticed Fleischmann. He appeared startled; also wary. Perhaps guilty?

“Comrade Flebetnikov!” boomed Fleischmann. “You interested in Doggs?” With his thumb he indicated the booth behind him. “I was, too. But all the good stuff is already gone. At Miami Basel you got to be fast. See it, like it, buy it.”

From Flebetnikov’s expression you couldn’t tell whether he detected the sarcasm or not. He blinked. He looked bewildered. Without another word he turned and entered the booth, yelling, “Lushnikin! Lushnikin!”

Fleischmann departed, chuckling to himself, no doubt envisioning the red-dot desolation and defeat awaiting the Comrade inside the booth. Norman was practically on Maurice’s heels, Norman and AA. Norman had a hazy smile on his face, an interior smile so to speak. He was thinking of himself transformed into a rich man by just being there when it all happened, if Magdalena knew anything about it. He didn’t even look to see where she was, he was so deep into his imaginary world. He had walked thirty or forty feet down the row before her existence occurred to him. He didn’t want to get separated from his glorious friends, but he hesitated long enough to swivel his head this way and that. When he spotted her, he beckoned her with a big sweeping motion of his arm . . . without waiting for her, however. He wheeled about on one heel and continued in Fleischmann’s glorious wake.

Not knowing what else to do, Magdalena began walking after him. On either side, within the booths near the entrance . . . red dots. It was astonishing. So many pieces had been sold so fast . . . Red dots, red dots, red dots . . . “The measles outbreak” . . . but of course—that was what they had been talking about! All the red dots . . . 17 million dollars’ worth in Fleischmann’s case. Who knew how many more millions all those other red dots represented?! Then it began to make her sick. Think of how shallow and wantonly wasteful these people were! These americanos! Think of Fleischmann spending almost 17 million dollars on seven obscene pieces of glass . . . $17 million in thirteen or fourteen minutes, for fear a fat Russian might lay hands on this idiotic stuff first . . . all for show! . . . a 17-million-dollar personal exhibition . . . Norman didn’t see that . . . He was absorbed by it. A little Cuban girl named Magdalena no longer existed, did she. Norman had put her out of his mind. Her resentment rose up like flames. Arson it became. She took grim satisfaction in feeding the fire. That bastard. ::::::Norman, you’re a disgusting suck-up to money. No display of money strikes you as trashy, does it. Insulted me! Why should I put up with him any longer?::::::

lnvoluntarily, unbidden, four things popped into the Wernicke’s area of her brain: her BMW . . . registered in the name of Dr. Norman Lewis, since he, in strict point of fact, owned it; her pay . . . which she received in the form of a check signed by Dr. Norman N. Lewis; her apartment—her home, as she now thought of it—property of Dr. Norman Lewis; the extra money she needed in a clutch to keep up the payments on her student loan . . . providentially provided by Dr. Norman N. Lewis . . . The rebel streak in her was fading fast.

She shucked off her pride and trooped on toward the VIP lounge. A row of four-foot-high modular partitions had been assembled to compel all who would breathe the same air as very important people to pass through an opening at one end manned by a security guard. Another big redneck. Suppose he wouldn’t let her in? He was like a caricature of the breed. What if he gave her a hard time?

The man took a cursory glance at the laminated VIP ID around her neck and waved her in. This one had Couldn’t Care Less written all over him.

The only symbol of one’s exalted status in the FIZ (Fuggerzberuf Industriellbank of Zurich) VIP room was the mere fact that one had been allowed in at all. Otherwise, the place was nothing but a sea of what is known in commercial real estate as “Contract

furniture,” simple modern chairs and small tables made of as much plastic as possible. The very important people therein could sit down, take a load off, go get a drink, and tell war stories of the Miami Basel battles for hot items, which is to say, exchange very important gossip.

Way out in the sea, Magdalena sat at a table with Fleischmann, A.A., and Norman, whom she was now pointedly ignoring. She figured she owed herself at least that much self-respect. Madame Carr was suddenly the life of the party. Magdalena wondered if Norman or even Fleischmann had any idea, out of 3.4 million possible answers why. At the moment, she was answering a question from Norman . . . Norman, who had once told Magdalena, “Be careful asking questions. Asking questions is the surest way of revealing your ignorance.” Be that as it may, Norman had asked a question, and Marilynn Carr was saying, “How did Doggs learn how to work in glass? He doesn’t work in glass or anything else. Don’t you know about No Hands art and De-skilled art?”

“Oh, I guess I’ve heard about it—but no, not really,” Norman said lamely, or lamely for Norman.

A.A. said, “No cutting-edge artist touches materials anymore, or instruments.”

“What do you mean, instruments, A.A.?” said Fleischmann.

“Oh, you know,” she said, “paintbrushes, clay, shaping knives, chisels . . . all that’s from the Manual Age. Remember painting? That seems so 1950s now. Remember Schnabel and Fischl and Salle and all that bunch? They all seem so 1950s now, even though their fifteen minutes came in the 1970s. The new artists, like Doggs, look at all those people like they’re from another century, which they were, when you get right down to it. They were still using their hands to do little visual tricks on canvas that were either pretty and pleasant and pleased people or ugly and baffling and ‘challenged’ people. Challenged . . . Ohmygod—” She broke into a smile and shook her head, as if to say, “Can you believe the way it used to be?!”

“Then how does Doggs do it?” said Fleischmann. “I guess never really asked.”

“lt’s actually fascinating,” said A.A. “He got hold of, Doggs did, this call girl, Daphne Deauville, the one who cost the governor of New Jersey his job? —and on the strength of that she gets a job as a columnist for the New York City Light? I couldn’t believe it! So anyway, Doggs gets a photographer to take some pictures of him . . . well, fucking her brains out”—lately it had become daringly chic for women to use fucking in conversation—”and doing this and that . . . and sent the photographs off to Dalique, and Dalique got their elves to reproduce the photographs in three dimensions in Dalique glass, but Doggs never touched the pieces—never. He had no hand at all in making them. And if he touched the photographs, it was just to put them in an envelope and FedEx them to Dalique, although I’m sure he has an assistant to do things like that. No Hands—that’s an important concept now. It’s not some artist using his so-called skills to deceive people. It’s not a sleight of hand. It’s no hands at all. That makes it conceptual, of course. That way he turns what a manual artist would use to create . . . an effect . . . into something that compels you to think about it in a deeper way. It’s almost as if he has invented a fourth dimension. And there you’ve got the very best, the most contemporary work of the whole rising generation. Most of Doggs’s work in this show is iconic. Everyone who sees one of yours, Maurice, will say, ‘My God! That’s Doggs at the outset of his classic period,’ because I’m convinced that’s what his work is. It’s cutting-edge, and at the same time it’s classic. That kind of work isn’t available every day! Believe me! . . . Maurice . . . you have . . . really . . . scored this time.”

Really scored . . . Fleischmann looked very pleased, but his smile was the baffled smile of someone who can’t explain his own good fortune. Obviously he hadn’t understood a word of A.A.’s explanation. That made Magdalena feel better, because she hadn’t understood a word of it, either.

Tom Wolfe – Back to Blood, 2012. Chapter 10: The Super Bowl of the Art World. 

Back to Blood is a fly on the art-wall, satirical exposé of the vanity and vulgarity of the world of contemporary art – the creation and display of depraved art and artists, of corrupt extravagance and extreme wealth. Set in the superficial glamour of Miami, Sergei Korolyov, a newly-emerged Russian oligarch donates $70 million in Russian modernist paintings to a new art museum. The observation of the Emperor’s New Clothes and the world of art – faux, artificial and imitative – is central to the novel, and Chapter 20 ‘The Superbowl of the Art World’ is devoted to the social status of celebrity infested ‘Art Basel Miami Beach’ and the partitions of artist, dealer, gallery, art advisers wearing ‘Art Black’, maggots (collectors) and the crucial A-list ID card that allows entry to the FIZ (Fuggerzberuf Industriellbank of Zurich) VIP room. The entreé to the art fair – the ‘off-site’ ‘Instant Museum’, features a clichéd, naked performance by German artist Heidi Schlossel, entitled ‘De-fucked’. The portrayal of the buyers’ art-lust at ‘Art Basel Miami Beach’ is a sharp observation of primal urges, raw greed, physical aggression, and the mantra of materialism – See it! Like it! Buy it! – described in the style of a Hollywood epic battle-scene. The focal attraction is the work by Jeb Doggs – glass objects depicting pornographic sexual acts made by Dalique (sic) which are bought for $17million in under 15 minutes.

George Orwell – Burmese Days, 1934


Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’ — these, needless to say, included her husband — and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.


The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap, beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs Lackersteen was left with an income of £150 a year, which was to die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen’s management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to dedicate herself wholly to Art.

Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth’s life in Paris had not been quite like that.

Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She was so foolish with money that her income would not come near covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat.


It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of ‘beastliness’ which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist. But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother’s studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at either. At irregular intervals she went to a ‘school’ where she produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil, Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never made till afternoon, and everywhere — in every possible place where they could be stepped on or knocked over — tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door she would burst out:

Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how can you? Look at the state of this room! It is so terrible to live like this!’

The room, dearest? What’s the matter? Is it untidy?’

Untidy! Mother, need you leave that plate of porridge in the middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!’

The rapt, other-worldly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.

None of my friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we artists. You don’t understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in our painting. You haven’t the artistic temperament, you see, dear.’

I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can’t bear to think of you living like this. What have you done with the scrubbing-brush?’

The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere. Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it’ll be all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.’

Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of sketching paper with a Conté crayon while Elizabeth worked.

How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply everything. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.

Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother’s friends were women of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest, Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de l’Elysée and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatler, the Graphic, the Sporting and Dramatic.

Ah, what joys were pictured there! ‘Hounds meeting on the lawn of Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.’ ‘The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian, Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft’s this summer.’ ‘Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain “Tuppy” Benacre.’

Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever getting back to the decent world again?

It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect — ‘braininess’ was her word for it — tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people — people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes — were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow ideas — Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.

When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying that a letter would follow.

George Orwell, 1903-1950. Burmese Days, 1934, Chapter 7

Published by Harper & Brothers, USA, 1934; Victor Gollanz, GB, 1935

image 1: Georges Bouche, 1874-1941. Nature morte aux oranges, 46 x 55 cm

image 2: Louis Thevenet, 1874-1930. Nature morte, 1914. Oil on canvas, 38,5 x 46 cm

George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, describes the lives of the colonial civil servants and officials of the British Empire, based on Orwell’s observations while working in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. Elizabeth Lackersteen epitomises the idle and under-educated ex-pat, with assumptions of superiority in her status due to her class and race, who yearns for the superficialities of English country life and sporting pastimes. A short episode in the novel describes the otiose life of Mrs Lackersteen, her mother and the indolent milieu of the cultivated bohemian artist. Elizabeth despises the dirt and poverty of the artistic dabblers and dilettantes, and it is her mother’s fate to die as a result of food poisoning associated with her socially corrupt lifestyle. The text suggests a beatific vision of Paris in the 1930s, conjured up by John Flory, an English civil servant in Burma: I’ve never even seen it. But, good Lord, how I’ve imagined it! Paris — it’s all a kind of jumble of pictures in my mind; cafes and boulevards and artists’ studios and Villon and Baudelaire and Maupassant all mixed up together. You don’t know how the names of those European towns sound to us, out here. And did you really live in Paris? Sitting in cafes with foreign art students, drinking white wine and talking about Marcel Proust?’ Burmese Days, Chapter 6.