Books In Conversation
Mark Haber with Andrew Ervin
Saint Sebastian's Abyss
(Coffee House Press, 2022)
The questions of what constitutes art and who gets to decide have gnawed at me for years, since I first read Dave Hickey’s magnificent Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty. In fact, I worry that every book I’ve published so far has been another attempt to reconcile my own place amid what he calls the therapeutic institution. Mark Haber’s second novel, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, addresses these same concerns in ways I wish I had thought to do myself. It poses huge questions that tax the heart as much as the brain. Ostensibly about the long and soon-to-end relationship between two art-critic frenemies and admirers of a fictional Dutch Renaissance painting, Haber’s slim volume quietly contemplates a possible distinction of art and not-art, as well as the nature of authority and of elitism. Taut as a drum, it also calls to mind the early novellas of Roberto Bolaño and reads, at times, like an outtake from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. (Track down a copy of “In Dreams I Kiss Your Hand, Madam” and you’ll see what I mean.) Haber, also the author of the story collection Deathbed Conversions and the PEN/Hemingway-nominated novel Reinhardt’s Garden, was kind enough to answer a few questions via email in February. He lives in Texas, where he’s a bookseller and operations manager at Brazos Books.
Andrew Ervin (Rail): My first job out of college was at a Borders in the Philly suburbs, where I was in charge of the remainder tables. Talk about an education for a would-be novelist. It was a hugely valuable experience, and I made lifelong friends there. What are the ways, large and small, in which being a bookseller has informed your fiction?
Mark Haber: I had no intention of becoming a bookseller, but after waiting tables for years (and finally finishing school) I got into education and was deeply unhappy and, fortunately, things just sort of fell into place. As a bookseller, you’re exposed to so many books, so many genres, and you begin to understand, among other things, the physical object of the book, a sort of aesthetic education. It might be anything from the size (from miniscule novellas by an independent press all the way to a large tomb by Amor Towles) to the design, so it’s an education in what speaks to you as well as what doesn’t. It’s both of these things, because knowing what doesn’t move you is as important as what does.
One aspect is the knowledge of and attention to publishers. I’d had a collection of short stories published about five years before I became a bookseller, and I was already paying attention to publishers. In fact, the cover of my story collection is a rip-off of an old New Directions book! I’m an extreme example, of course. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was seventeen, but working in a bookstore you see the decisions publishers are making in the sorts of books and writers they publish: design, style, voice and so on. If you find a publisher you love, it’s like finding a friend, you’ll often read anything published by them, sight unseen.
Another benefit, perhaps the most important, is the sheer serendipity of the bookshelves. Walking the floor you come upon little surprises, little miracles, no different from browsing at any good bookstore. I love the idea that your favorite book could just be sitting there waiting to be discovered. And that’s the way I found so many great books: Magda Szabó’s The Door was discovered by randomly picking it off of the shelf on a quiet Sunday. Being surrounded by books, you can’t help but be influenced.
Lastly, the conversations you end up having with your colleagues and customers. I became close friends with a couple from Mexico who’ve lived in Houston for decades, voracious readers with great taste, and they introduced me to Guadalupe Nettel when she was first published in English as well as Agota Kristof and Lucia Berlin. If you’re curious and receptive, working in a bookstore is a complete education.
Rail: Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on why this fictional painting by one Hugo Beckenbauer makes such a perfect locus for the questions you’re raising, but it does. There’s a section in your novel that reads: “Schmidt and I were often asked why. Why Saint Sebastian’s Abyss? Our bodies of work—the speeches, the books, the book-length essays—speak for themselves, we’d answer. But who can deny the fusion of high and low?” I’ll ask you the same thing. How did you concoct this particular work of art as your subject?
Haber: I love contrast in fiction, the highbrow and the lowbrow, high culture and pop culture. It’s something I always attribute to Saul Bellow who, I think, was a master of this. It’s similar to mixing long, serpentine sentences with short punchy ones, that contrast that keeps the writing interesting. Also, we probably don’t like to think about it, but Virginia Woolf and Caravaggio and Clarice Lispector had to deal with stupid everyday things like the rest of us: bills, heartburn, traffic. Their work lifts them above the fray of the common, but in their everyday lives they stubbed their toes and argued with the grocer about politics or sports. If you ever feel daunted, just tell yourself, Joseph Conrad had hemorrhoids or Hannah Arendt was a messy eater. It keeps things in perspective.
Anyway, for the painting, what could be more serious and historical and highbrow than the Bible, God, and questions of the end of the world? I wanted a painting that spoke to the time, the Renaissance, but was also strange and somewhat modern and experimental. Hugo Beckenbauer is obviously a troubled, eccentric man, and I wanted this to come across in the painting. So there’s this constant pull between somber, Biblical themes and these modern characters referencing Armageddon or Rays of Angelic Light as if it’s this very common everyday issue or theme and, well, it’s not. People, in general, don’t talk about this stuff. My main protagonists are living in the modern world, but like to believe things were better or more sophisticated in the world this painting was created in.
I also wanted certain details in the painting: apostles, a nest of snakes, a cliff, and a holy city, (which is or isn’t Jerusalem). These tiny details helped me to describe the work using words like: shadow, light, foreground, but also harkens back to a different time when this is what fascinated painters.
Lastly, I didn’t think about it too much. I see a lot of this now, in hindsight, because I’m very intuitive and don’t really plan things out when I’m writing. Looking back, it was the contrast of the highly sublime and religious contrasted with a pair of modern, highly intelligent imbeciles.
Rail: One line I keep going back to is, “In our minds, it was hardly possible to contemplate any subject but the apocalypse.” Did you conceive of this novel during the COVID-19 pandemic? Does our reliance on literature—and on art in general—change in the face of such devastation?
Haber: I wrote this book very quickly, over 3-4 months. It came in a rush and I just sort of focused in my free time to write it. It was after Reinhardt’s Garden was accepted, but before it was published. It was before the pandemic, in mid-2019. This is a terrific question, though, because it speaks to history and memory, as well as a sort of general anxiety that I think most of us are feeling. I recently read an article about the flu pandemic of 1918; a year or so after the flu had sort of run its course, people decided to just return to normal, even though tons of people were still dying every day. That’s a reminder that human nature really hasn’t changed, the world hasn’t changed that much, as has our need to rely on art.
For me personally, literature makes the world more bearable and less uncertain. It may be a reliance, as you say, but I often think it’s a healthy reliance. Having literature, music and art to escape is a solace for so many people. It shouldn’t be at the expense of your community or the people around you, of course. But looking inwards is important. Sometimes I think my best conversations are the ones I have with myself. And that’s not a criticism of anyone! But having a rich interior life, an inner dialogue, is hugely important and when writing a book, you’re having this conversation with yourself every day, or each time you sit down. It’s maddening and thrilling and an avenue into knowing parts of yourself.
Going back to that sort of general anxiety; I think we’re so plugged into one another, and we’ve been witness to so many major calamities in our lifetimes, not to mention the near-constant environmental threats, that in March 2020, when everything began shutting down there was, at least for me, a sense of déjà vu, as if we’d seen this somewhere before. Maybe in a Radiohead song or an episode of The Walking Dead, only this time it was really happening.
That general sense of anxiety, of realizing our infrastructure is deeply vulnerable and the things we counted on for so long we really can’t, I think art can speak to this. It can’t solve it, but it’s deeply necessary, and I’d hate to think of it only as an escape, but also a way to cope and understand what’s happening. It may not have the answer, but it certainly asks the questions.
So our reliance on art certainly changed amid the pandemic, often in great ways. Thousands of people reading and discussing War and Peace, for example. Literature will always be tested, but it reacts with the times, and often we won’t realize it for a generation or two.
Did I answer your question?
Rail: Yes, as much as a question like that can be answered. So what was the most challenging part of writing this particular novel? What was the most enjoyable?
Haber: Writing knowingly and confidently about art, especially a single piece of fictional art. Besides a survey course in college, I had no formal training in art or art history. My wife received her undergraduate and graduate degrees at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) so I borrowed a lot of her old textbooks, and it was a joy to find terms and certain schools that I could play around with, stick here and see if it works, place there and see if it feels right, almost like collage using art terms. This was also where I discovered Wassily Kandinsky (who has one of the two epigraphs):
“Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dram, and the gulf of darkness reality.”
What is often the most challenging can also be the most fun. This is why fiction is the greatest thing in the world; there are simply no rules. In fact, rules are meant to be broken, and you learn as you go, or at least I did, which rules you should follow, in essence, which rules help the book and which rules, if followed, hurt the book. Does the description of the painting contradict itself? Do my characters contradict themselves? Yes. But people contradict themselves all the time. I tried to create two protagonists who knew a lot (especially formal education) but knew nothing at all, especially about the people around them or the people and ideas they disagreed with. They both share an almost prideful obliviousness to the world.
Another amazing aspect of fiction is the old adage that a writer tells stories to reach the truth. With Saint Sebastian’s Abyss I’m trying to say some enduring truths about ego, belief, friendship, and the weight of knowledge. Does knowing things improve life? Is it worth loving something at the expense of everything else? By telling stories, you approach these ideas and the reader can take them or leave them, but hopefully they’ve read a good story, a bit strange and eccentric, and with a love of language.
To truly answer your question, though, the most challenging aspect by far was time: lack of it, finding it. It’s always been time. You hear this constantly from other writers, finding the time to devote yourself to what can be a terribly difficult act, something requiring sustained periods of concentration and solitude. If you don’t have a fellowship somewhere, or you’re not independently wealthy, you have to navigate ways of finding time while working and, depending on the job, it’s simply very hard. But when I’m able to sit down, a cup of coffee in front of me, I feel I’m exactly where I should be. And most of it is an absolute joy. Yes, there’s some light suffering, but mostly, to quote John Steinbeck, it’s “the indescribable joy of creation.”
Rail: Perfect. Finally, let’s say you end up in a strange city and visit an indie bookshop you’ve never been to—only to find that they’ve added Saint Sebastian’s Abyss to the Staff Picks shelf. What are some other books, new and backlist titles, you’d hope to see alongside it and that might be in conversation with your novel?
Haber: The Longcut by Emily Hall is an incredible debut coming from Dalkey Archive. An artist walks the streets of her city, on her way to an appointment at an art gallery. Questions of art and legitimacy, of what is art and, more importantly, what is my own art? Will I recognize it when I see it? It’s endlessly digressive, has great dexterity and momentum, and tackles the issues of being an artist amid late capitalism. It’s also very funny.
Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters is an obvious reference: two men, old friends, in a museum for a condensed period of time. If I remember, the novel takes place over the course of a single afternoon. Bernhard deals so well with unhealthy obsessions and misanthropic humor; the weight of intellectualism and the “unjust, encroaching outside world that never understands.” He’s one of those influences that’s obvious, but also one I try to shake. There’s been a huge amount of Bernhard acolytes recently, many of them really good, but I never want to be derivative. I have a playfulness and more outward action in my writing, whereas Bernhard is very insular, very interior. Anyway, Bernhard is a ghost floating in and out of my writing, and I love him as much as I try to escape him.
Nathalie Léger’s The White Dress is the last book in a loose trilogy about different artists, and it’s simply gorgeous. I don’t think anyone would read Saint Sebastian’s Abyss and read Léger’s work and see any obvious similarities. But she’s one of these writers I aspire to write like. I never will, because you learn you’re always the writer you are. That’s a simple fact. However, aspiring to write like the writers you admire is really helpful, it stretches you. And this book is written in short snippets that each pack an enormous punch; little paragraphs that are incredibly poetic and powerful. I feel most at home writing dense, unbroken text like Reinhardt’s Garden; it’s very freeing for me, but I wanted to write a book consisting of small chapters, each one carrying a lot of information that moves the novel along.
Lars Iyer’s Spurious (another trilogy). Two numbskull intellectuals, a Laurel and Hardy, a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. A story as old as time. Observing two best friends, who may or may not be competitive, having adventures. Iyer was also influenced by Bernhard. His books are whip smart, hysterical, and deal with the idea of knowledge: how do all the things you know and love and are passionate about help enrich your life and/or fellow man? (Hint: they don’t) Spurious also takes place in England (where my two protagonists went to school).
Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers. I love Donald Antrim, all of his books. This one has a special place in my heart though. I love novels that create their own logic, that exist in a world that we recognize but play by their own invented rules. In the first page of this book you are told one hundred brothers get together on the same night every year to have dinner, and immediately you must suspend your disbelief: how can there be a hundred brothers? Wouldn’t many of them already be dead? Their poor mother! Hilarity ensues, and along with this hilarity come meditations on masculinity, sibling relations (obviously) and a lot more. Plus, the writing is fantastic.
Asunder by Chloe Aridjis is a marvelous novel, thoughtful and quietly devastating. The protagonist is a guard at the National Gallery in London. It has a wonderful dialogue with art, painting in particular. It deals with the power of art as well as art’s fragility. These tiny paintings in museums which touch the souls of thousands of visitors a year, and are susceptible to dust and light and time, like the rest of us. It’s a wonderfully quiet book and an exquisite example of writing about art in fiction.