I just finished quite an interesting book — a memoir, of sorts, a meditation. I always wonder when I read these things, “How is the author going to make sense of all this and wrap it up?” I’m as curious as to how it will end as if it were an Agatha Christie. Actually more so. In Agatha’s hands I’m just an idiot, reading along happily through every murder and baffling clue. But with books of memoir I’m a bit of a writerly voyeur. It’s not the end of their story I want, it’s how they are going to end their story.
So in Michael White’s Travels in Vermeer we encounter the author freshly raw from divorce and falling hard for one of Vermeer’s young women. He pursues all of Vermeer’s women around the world, visiting each of his few paintings. (It was interesting for me to read this so soon after I read The Goldfinch, another painting-obsessed story.) With poet’s skill, he describes each of the paintings, his word-brush full of the paint of his own response. Sometimes he goes on a bit too long, and I long for the glimpses we get of his real life, his love life — the tragic first marriage, the failed second, the Match.com floundering.
Suddenly, however, the love affair is over. His obsession with the painted ladies seems to end as suddenly as it had begun. He is heading back to his life. I had to go back and reread the end to see what he did. I admire him for drawing no grand conclusion nor making a grand statement. Instead he finds himself, somehow, in the eyes of the last two Vermeers he sees. Something about the space created by the women seeming to see him and yet, of course, not, allowed him to feel free of grief and frenzied obsession.
He writes of the elegant A Lady Standing at a Virginal, “Her beauty is in…that certainty, that loving acceptance. She sees he best in me. She’s what I need, if not always what I want.” (Which makes me roll my eyes just a little bit.) And of the seductive A Lady Sitting: “She’s what I want and can’t shake off….” He says, “The problem is that the object of love isn’t really the issue. What’s missing is a verb not a noun.” About the paintings and what they meant to him in this period, he says, “The painting stares at us, more powerfully charged the longer we meet its gaze. But the meaning, of course, is inside us; part of the painting’s power is its effortless access….The painting meets us…where we are most aware and most ourselves, certain of nothing except that everything is changed.” It was subtly done, the ending. Maybe a bit too subtle. But interesting nevertheless. How do you conclude a portion of life? Sometimes you shrug and move on.