Lion and Leopard by Nathaniel Popkin

LionLeopardIt may very well be that Nathaniel Popkin’s novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press, 345 pages) requires more than one reading in order fully to appreciate its argument. Certainly the discerning reader should have no trouble recognizing the quality of its painterly effects that so thoroughly complement the subject matter of this passionate work. Whoever seeks out literary writing for its own sake will not be disappointed. Nathaniel Popkin is a writer’s writer and possesses the prized capacity to render the essentially poetic not only in accessible but also in original phrases and images:

“Thin clouds, pink on the underside, blue-grey on top and black on the edges, stretched above the yellow fields on either side of the road.” (p.33)

“… cattle the color of boiled sugar.” (p.70)

“… the white hot flesh of the inside of an orange peel.” (p.103)

“Trees were black silhouetted against the sky, rose-stained by the vanishing sun.” (p.188)

To evoke the poetry of the everyday world is the most efficient and compelling means the writer has to restore the distant past. Not merely to record but to breathe life into vanished times it is necessary to present a world that reflects the sensibilities of the times. Somehow these sensibilities inform that world and are certainly our sole access to it. To do them justice the language must needs be transcendent in the same manner that life transcends death, the present transcends the past.

Rather than adopt the omniscient author’s point of view, as of one looking through a microscope, Popkin chooses the much more reliable perspectives of his individual characters to give integrity and variety to his scenes of early nineteenth century America. It is a methodology that allows him to bring all of his compositional talents to bear. One character says of another on first meeting:

“Krimmel’s face was thick and heavy, as if swollen, and his hair, which carried the light like clear maple resin, drifted down to rounded shoulders.” (p.13)

By this means we are introduced to the one who sees his role as an artist to be transformative and revolutionary. Krimmel, the European immigrant, aims to counter what he terms the “literal art, transcription and pedantry” that has taken hold of the country’s nascent cultural identity. “There is no wonder,” he says of its essentially conservative sanctification of the past and faithful rendering of surface:

“You can’t paint a man by magnifying every detail.” (p.88)

According to his listeners, as he spoke, “His eyes faded in the brightening sun. When we turned to bid him goodbye, they seemed almost white.” He would appear to have both an artist’s inward vision for the possibilities of his craft while overwhelmed by all that he saw and that demanded to be made known.

Krimmel has come from Vienna; taught by a group of artists, the fittingly named ‘Nazarenes’, he brings their gospel with him:

“Don’t speak to your subject, let it speak to you … A picture … isn’t a treatise … it seduces.”

“…let the landscape [first] seduce you.”

“…a successful picture leads the viewer into the scene, rather than bringing the scene to the viewer — or even telling him what it’s about.” (p.16)

“…making a picture starts with the eyes and not with the pencil.” (p.126)

The purpose of art is not to expose “some ugly truth” or, by the same token it might be argued, some beautiful truth but, rather, to reveal “possibility” and “the unknown” — qualities most appropriate for a young country, including Europe with its recent upheavals, in the throes of establishing its identity while ridding itself of the obfuscating claims and impositions of history’s entrenchments.

As one considers the mission he has undertaken — “To change the direction of art in America” or, in other words, “To give it new breath” — one can sympathize with its grandiosity when viewed from Tolstoy’s perspective that historical change is the product of innumerable individuals who choose for their own purposes to engage in altering the world. Where the Russian writer was using as his example those who enlisted in Napoleon’s armies and thereby made history, the cultural historian will appraise America’s contributions to the arts from the perspective of the countless artists, writers, and composers who took upon themselves to produce idiosyncratic work, spontaneous in nature and yet with a deep attunement to equally exploring sensibilities. It would not be too generous to maintain that each one of these original artists, rather than being tempted to commemorate the passing scene and its deeds, saw the work as an ongoing revelation:

“If a picture captures what is latent in a scene, it can grow in the imagination of the viewer. If a picture shows only an object as it is without even hinting at all that might be, it is dead in the imagination.” (p.130)

… whereas the establishment artist who cannot help but perform as a mouthpiece for the powers that be “paints to make us better citizens” (p.139). Intended to reflect the significance of the fledgling nation’s deeds, his work,

“…made portraits of the heroes across the political spectrum — from Tom Paine to Gouverneur Morris — and put them in a gallery as the American Pantheon … This is the original imprint of art in America: as commodity and as institution, like the treasury, in service of the nation.” (p.138)

To increase the “moral imperative” of the art work, such an artist toys with devices that will magnify detail in a manner precursive of future photographic realism. He considers making his figures life-size for purposes of greater authority. The striving is ever toward a humanly minted apotheosis:

“Religion, not as theology, but as the visceral reality, must … be reflected in art.” (p.150)

Yet, as the black prostitute whom Popkin ironically enlists to remove the sanctimonious mask says:

“So many of them become shameful and angry when I show them the path to God.” (p.158)

Art as an instrument of inquiry and revelation must propound a countering vision to the religiosity of America’s warring interests:

“Our souls are in the bosom of a real god, one who doesn’t spend half his time inventing suffering and the other half weeping for it.” (p.225)

“If we don’t destroy the brutality within us it will destroy us, the dream of America dissolved in the bare anger of becoming America.” (p.253)

It is not only by means of the aforementioned human frailties that Popkin reveals his subversive sympathies. He casts a similarly grounded eye upon the inevitable transactions that come into play in the course of any artist’s engagement with the world:

“I went into the greenhouse. It is winter and yet the pea vines are insistent. In my hand was a short roll of twine in case any of the spindles needed tying to the trellis. For a moment I was arrested by the beauty of the flowers, glistening white in the early sun, a touch of purple, a heat about them that can only be compared to that otherworldly sensation produced during fornication …” (p.295)

Popkin ends with a culminating painterly flourish and a deeply narrative irony that inverts the biblical unfolding of revelation. Where the Christ figure advanced the spiritual values of the Old Testament Jehovah, here, instead,

“… with the sun setting, like a sheepherder the son drove the father up the path to [the] … mill. The pink that seeped across the sky darkened the lines of the clouds so that it appeared a giant semi-translucent wing of a dragonfly, with its intricate map of veins, was covering the world.” (p.341, italics mine)

Potential readers are urged to avail themselves of Lion and Leopard and draw, from its full breadth, their own exegesis of this exquisitely rendered passage.

Paul Xylinides, author of  The Wild Horses of Hiroshima, 2014


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