FICTION: A provocative 19th-century painting is found in present-day New York.
In 1866, French artist Gustave Courbet painted “The Origin of the World,” a stark portrait focusing on a woman’s genitalia. As if aware of its own ability to shock, the painting spent most of its lifetime hidden; only in 1995 was it made available for public view at Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, where it continues to inspire artists and outrage would-be censors.
Thomas Van Essen’s entertaining debut novel, “The Center of the World,” isn’t about that particular painting. But from its similar title to its themes of secret lusts and provocative art, the book makes it easy to draw the connection. The painter in Van Essen’s case is British artist J.M.W. Turner, who in the early 1800s is living in the manor of a libertine British lord. Also visiting is Charles, a young art critic who is careful to suppress his homosexuality while admiring the lord’s free-spirited mistress and Turner’s blunt talk. A casual chat about ancient Greece leads to the utterance, spouted over brandy: “There is more truth between a woman’s legs than there ever was between Homer’s ears.”
Turner’s painting (and, to an extent, the novel) is designed to argue the point, an erotic rendering of Helen of Troy that’s unlike his famous widescreen seascapes. Van Essen shuttles across time, from the painting’s composition to its arrival in New York at the turn of the 20th century to its present-day rediscovery by Henry, a mild-mannered nonprofit functionary, while cleaning out his father’s home in the Adirondacks. Increasingly distant from his wife, he’s rewired by Turner’s work: His wife “no longer seemed adequate to the truths of the world as I had come to understand them.”
Some painting. Meanwhile, tipped to hints of the Turner’s existence, an art dealer has deployed a young female go-getter to investigate. What follows isn’t a “Possession”-like romance, but the novel does promote the romantic notion that great art transcends efforts to suppress it. Henry’s enthusiasm can feel forced — “I have seen why the blood flows in our veins and why we have children,” he awkwardly enthuses at one point.
Yet Van Essen’s description of the painting is tantalizingly vague. If a painting could truly send men over the moon, why not this one? If any painter could do it, why not Turner?
Much of the heft of “The Center of the World” stems from Van Essen’s efforts to give the novel historical gravitas, unveiling the private lives of British and American gentry alike. But the novel works best when it strips off the fustiness of the historical novel. In those moments, it cannily exposes how passion can both derail and inspire.