by Bruce Chatwin ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 1, 1988
Wispier than any of Chatwin's previous books (In Patagonia, The Songlines), this new ""novel"" attempts to twirl an anecdotal sliver of biographical journalism into a psycho-social meditation on art-collecting. . .with mildly intriguing, rather precious results. Chatwin, in 1967 Prague to research the subject of""compulsive"" collecting, eagerly goes to meet Kaspar Joachim Utz, owner of a spectacular hoarding of Meissen porcelain. Talking to the old collector, and to mutual acquaintances, Chatwin assembles the basic Utz bio: semi-aristocratic background (Czech-German-Jewish); a childhood porcelain obsession, which consoled him after his father's heroic death in WW I; an adulthood of asexual eccentricity, Nazi collaboration (saving Jewish friends by helping Goering's art-looting squad), and constant collecting. The postwar years, under Communist rule, are sketched in somewhat more detail: Utz vacationed annually in Vichy during the Fifties, yearning to defect, but was always pulled back to Prague--by homesickness, by his odd attachment to longtime housekeeper Marta. Also embedded in Chatwin's chats with Utz are digressions into related history: the Jewish legends of golem-making (like art-collecting, a ""sinful"" form of ""idolatry""); the 1710 invention of porcelain by an alchemist. And finally, after Utz's death in 1974, Chatwin returns to Prague, learns more about the collector's private life (his real relationship with Marta), and wonders what happened to that vast collection, now mysteriously vanished. (Smuggled abroad? Destroyed? ""Is there, alongside the tendency to worship images--which Baudelaire called 'my unique, my primitive passion'--a counter-tendency to smash them to bits?"") Chatwin pokes half-heartedly at some provocative notions here: the relationship between loving art and loving people; the role of an art-lover in a repressive state; collecting as psychopathology. But the themes are far less richly developed than were the ones in The Songlines or even The Viceroy of Ouidah. And Utz's skeletal life-story never takes on either the texture of full-blooded fiction or the resonant bounce of fable. Overall, then: a magazine-article masquerading as a novella, stylishly done up but awfully thin.
Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1988
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1988
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