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The Center of the World Paperback – June 4, 2013

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Q&A with Thomas Van Essen

Q. When did you first get the idea for The Center of the World?

A. It was during my first or second year of graduate school, a long time ago. I was taking a course in nineteenth-century nonfiction. I was sitting in the back of the room, on the left-hand side, when the professor, George Levine, told the famous story about Ruskin supposedly burning Turner’s erotic sketches. I didn’t know an awful lot about Turner at the time, but I knew I liked him and that he was a great painter. My first thought, I remember, was what a shame, but my second was, what if these sketches were a sign of something else? What if Ruskin burnt them not because they were merely erotic, but because they had some kind of power in them that was more than mere eroticism? What if they were the preliminary sketches for a work like no other? That notion, in various permutations, knocked around in the back of mind for around twenty-five years.

Q. So what made you finally explore that theme in a novel?

A. I have a very good “day job,” but one evening about ten years ago I had one of those “is this all there is?” moments. I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? I had stopped writing after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel, a pretty good genre novel, but I knew that I needed to go back to it.

So I decided I would just write the book I wanted to write; I wouldn’t worry about it being “publishable” or anything like that. I would just do what I needed to do, engage with the ideas I really cared about. I would go back to the idea that had been kicking around in my head and in my journals since graduate school.

I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write two hundred words a day, or a thousand words a week. Fifty thousand words a year and I’d have a novel in two years. Piece of cake. It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing.

Q. How would you describe the idea that is at the heart of The Center of the World?

A. In “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag says,“Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art . . . Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” What if the sketches that Ruskin destroyed were studies for a work of art that achieved that “transparence” that Sontag talks about more perfectly than any work of art ever has? That work would be uninterpretable, it would just be what it was. How would people respond to such a thing? How could such a thing have been created? These are the ideas that I am playing around with in the novel.

An “uninterpretable” work, a work that just is, would be something that, as an aesthetic object, is more perfect than anything yet created and more erotic, as an erotic object, than any thing that ever was before. When I think about the Turner painting in the book I think about two vectors, one labeled “art” and one labeled “eroticism” merging someplace beyond anything we know in either category. That intersection, treated as a real possibility, is what the book is about. How could such an impossible object be created in the past? What would it be like to be in the presence of such an object in the present? Those are the questions I am trying to deal with.

Q.That’s a very theoretical and pointy-headed description of what you are doing. The book actually doesn’t seem that theory-driven.

A.Thank you. That’s me, in part, looking back and trying to make sense of the book after the fact.

Q. Did you do a lot of research for this book?

A. Yes, but not a ton. In a joint interview E. L. Doctorow and Joe Papaleo (both of whom were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence) talk about how in fiction writing, too close an adherence to historical fact can be crippling. (Conversations With E. L. Doctorow, University Press of Mississippi, 1999) Everything that happens in the book is more or less plausible given the broad outlines of what we know about Turner’s career, but I didn’t let myself be limited by the facts. One of the great things about writing about Turner is that he was a very private person—we don’t really know an awful lot about the man beyond the paintings—so I felt like I had quite a few degrees of freedom there. I went to Petworth House a few times during the course of the writing—just wandering around like a tourist—and tried to imagine how this real place could be instrumental in the creation of the impossible object that is at the heart of my book. The descriptions of the rooms and the paintings at Petworth are pretty accurate. The National Trust guide to Petworth House was an import resource.

Q. The Turner painting at the center of your novel seems to be a sexually explicit representation of Helen of Troy. How did you get to that?

A. Well, I started with Turner’s erotic sketches and the notion that they were remnants, as it were, of a greater, but now lost, work. That work would have to have an erotic element to it, it would have to be a historical painting (this is Turner after all), and it would have to be about something really important. That got me to Helen pretty quickly. Early in the novel Turner is talking to his patron, Lord Egremont, about the difference between the ancients and the moderns, and who knew more about the truth. Turner says that “there is more truth between a woman’s legs than there ever was between Homer’s ears.” What he means here, I think, is that the “truth” is not so much an intellectual creation, but it is something that resides ultimately in the body and in human desire. When Turner, with Egremont’s encouragement, tries to represent that “truth” he is drawn to Helen, because Helen is the ultimate object of desire. She is, in some sense, the cause of everything: the Trojan War and epic poetry, art; the origin, from Turner’s perspective, of everything that matters.

Q. What would you like your readers to get out of The Center of the World?

A. Pleasure, of course. Turner was a Romantic and his paintings, while wonderful as formal objects, are also full of feeling. My book is not one of those cool postmodern affairs. It shares, in some small way, a Romantic (with a capital R) sensibility with Turner and other artists and poets of his time. I would like readers to leave with a feeling for what art and love can be and with some new ideas about how those two things might be related.

From Booklist

The main character in Van Essen’s ambitious debut novel is the lost titular painting by renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). The big theme is among the biggest: the power of art. The story is about Turner and his struggle to paint the picture in question, and its reception. It scandalizes some and otherwise changes the lives of others. It is either a masterpiece or erotic trash, sinful or uplifting. The novel moves among several points of view, alternating between the near-present and the mid-nineteenth century. We meet Turner himself; his patron, Lord Egremont, at his massive house, Petworth; and the putative Helen Elizabeth Spenser. An art critic, Charles Grant, tells of life at Petworth and the painting’s difficult birth. The contemporary story is told by art-dealer Henry Leiden of Princeton, New Jersey, whose drab suburban life is changed when he discovers the painting. His motives are decidedly mixed since he wants the painting for himself, and he provides this tale’s suspense. --Michael Autrey

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 375 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; 1st edition (June 4, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590515498
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590515495
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,601,532 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
'The Center of the World' is the story of a painting that doesn't exist - but by the time I turned the last page, I wished it did.

The painting in question bears the same title as the novel, and it is a work of both erotic power and remarkable beauty and detail. Thomas Van Essen leads us, deliberately and steadily, through the stories of the different people in different times who experience the painting. From its inspiration and creation by J.M.W. Turner at Lord Egremont's estate in the 19th century to its discovery hidden away in a humble barn in the 21st century, we see how it changes hands over the years, and how each person who sees it is changed in their turn.

Van Essen introduces us to Turner, a well-known figure in the art world, as a very flawed man - a drinker and a man not very skilled in the social graces, a painter more skilled at landscapes than portraits, but nevertheless a master of capturing light on canvas. In The Center of the World he creates his masterwork, a sensual, scandalous portrait of Helen of Troy awaiting her lover Paris, which only a few will ever see or even know of. Those who do experience it are always changed - from Lord Egremont, Turner's patron for a time, to Elizabeth, his inspiration and model for Helen, to Henry, who finds the painting while cleaning out a barn on his father's property, to the art dealer who has been looking for the painting for much of his life. There are others the painting touches along the way, and each has their story to tell.

The mastery in 'The Center of the World' lies in how these stories connect, and how Turner's masterwork is revealed to us slowly, steadily, instilled with a sense of wonder and mystery.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The relationship among art, eroticism, and ecstatic experience is the subject of Thomas Van Essen's well-crafted and compulsively readable first novel, which builds its tale of a lost portrait of Helen of Troy around real history. In the early nineteenth century, eccentric patron of the arts Lord Egremont hosts painter J. M. W. Turner, who is contemplating an ambitious new project; in the early twentieth century, a collector acquires an unknown Turner masterpiece and prepares a showplace for it at his new summer home; in the early twenty-first century, an ordinary family man rediscovers the painting, even as a powerful and amoral art dealer continues his own search for it. These three narratives intersect in alternating chapters, some written in the first person, some in the third, which serves to disguise the static quality of a novel that is, despite some intrigue in the present-day story, much more concerned with theme than with narrative momentum. Van Essen is a quietly graceful stylist, and particularly adept at mimicking Victorian prose, but his descriptions of the feelings evoked by Turner's masterwork aren't quite elaborate enough to capture the transcendence involved, lending the various scenes in which characters react to it a repetitive quality. Nonetheless, the thoughtfulness with which Van Essen writes about the importance of beauty and desire, without denying the ugly responses they can inspire, makes this a must-read novel for admirers of fiction concerned with the link between the ecstatic and the aesthetic.
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Format: Paperback
On its surface, Thomas Van Essen's debut novel is about a quest to find a missing (fictional) painting, said to be J. M. W. Turner's masterwork, "The Center of the World," an interpretation of the classical story of Helen of Troy. Everyone who has ever seen it has always been stunned by its power, and some viewers have come close to venerating it in a religious sense, spending hours staring into it and experiencing wave after wave of pleasure. Commissioned by George O'Brien Wyndham, the Earl of Egremont, during the time in which J. M. W. Turner was living at his estate, Petworth, the painting features two beautiful nudes - Mrs. Spencer, Lord Egremont's mistress, as the model for Helen, and a young guest as the model for Priam. Because of its subject and the powerful sexuality it exudes from within, the painting was never intended to be shown publicly, and it vanishes from view with the death of its patron.

The novel is more than a quest story, however. It is also a study of ecstasy, what creates it, and what enhances it, in art and literature (and indirectly, religion). The novel's numerous points of view, in time periods extending over more than one hundred fifty years, illustrate the history of this mythical painting from its creation to the present, convincing the reader that it is both real and as powerfully seductive as was Helen of Troy herself. In addition to the point of view and time frame of Lord Egremont and J. M. W. Turner, the author also includes numerous other points of view and time frames, including a contemporary man who loves vacationing at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks but who needs more money to maintain the small cottage he has inherited from his father. His neighbor, Mr.
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