Research Notes · 08/16/2013

The Seeing Machine

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, John Olson writes about The Seeing Machine (Quale Press).


I hit a wall as soon as I began writing my novel about Cubist French painter Georges Braque. It wasn’t what I’d envisioned at all. What I had expected — counted on — was a rich body of correspondence: diaries, journals, memoirs, notes, anecdotes, manifestos and postcards between Braque and Picasso, intimate marginalia between lovers and friends, lush auroras of frenzied discussion. These were, after all, the two men who evolved not only a new art, a new mode of visual representation, but a new way of seeing, of being in the world. Relativity was in the air. Paris was vibrant with scientific and philosophic discovery. Henri Bergson had published Matter and Memory: Essay on the Relation of Body and Spirit in 1896 and in 1905 Albert Einstein had published his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in which he first discusses his Special Theory of Relativity. The Eiffel Tower was only seventeen years old. Poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars were celebrating the new technology in the accelerated, disjunctive lines of their poetry. I looked forward to amassing and organizing a plethora of information chronicled in diary and letter concerning the evolution of Cubism and creating a dramatic narrative arc of pioneering turbulence and artistic éclat.

But there was virtually nothing. Picasso, certainly: there were mountains of information concerning Picasso. He’d become a larger-than-life celebrity very early in his career, which extended until his death in 1973. Everyone knew Picasso. He was the Einstein of Art. But more than that: he was more like an early rock star, a figure of colorful agitation, intense, meteoric romances, a satyr, a bull of a man, such a legendary figure of love and art and passionate living that Paul McCartney was inspired to write a song based on Picasso’s last words, “drink to me.”

Braque was different, almost Picasso’s opposite. Very few people outside of France were familiar with his name or that he’d once worked so closely with Picasso that the two men would sometimes sign one another’s canvas without anyone knowing the difference. Braque was not a hermit, he was affable and he enjoyed life, but he was quiet, reclusive, private. He led a respectable life. He fought in World War I and remained faithful to Marcelle Lapre, his wife of fifty-one years. I became very excited and hopeful when I discovered that he’d published a journal, but the book consisted wholly of drawings and short, riddling, aphoristic sentences. Nothing personal, nothing intimate.

There was also a biography, Georges Braque: A Life, by Alex Danchev, but the book did not go deeply into the more intimate details of his life or reveal any notes or letters that provided important clues to his inner palette, the mind behind the paint, the geometries of his thought. It did provide me with a structure on which to build a narrative, the names of gallery owners and other figures that moved in and out of Braque’s life, but little else. There were, however, two details that stood out: Braque’s head wound in World War I, and his interest in cars. Could I develop a novel-length story out of that? I wasn’t sure. I would have to assume this man’s consciousness, gain entry through some back door of the imagination. Inhabit his skin. See the world through his eyes. Was that possible? Isn’t that what actors do? How did Robert Di Niro inhabit Jake La Motta? How did Leonardo DiCaprio inhabit Howard Hughes?

It was like trying to mount a wild horse. Every time I got close enough to get a saddle and a leg up on this beast, I’d get tossed into the dust. At one point I wrote to my publisher, Gian Lombardo, of Quale Press, about my discouragement and decision to back out. But Gian encouraged me to keep going. He found the project exciting.

Ok, then, I answered. I’ll keep going.

By coincidence, I’d just finished reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night with its extremely vivid and detailed account of engagement in the First World War. It caught my imagination, big time. Suddenly, I could see Braque in this war. It became distinct, lucid, dynamic. I began writing very rapidly: “He opened his eyes. It was night. But no. It wasn’t. It only seemed like night. The smoke was that thick. He pushed himself up the side of a trench, his brain like a grapefruit all juice and membrane, reality cracked and fissured.”

That was it, then, that was my entry point. I had a friend who was a writer and had served in Vietnam and suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I myself had had problems with depression and anxiety. I know how difficult life can be even when things are relatively peaceful. I know that dark feeling, the gaping abyss within that threatens to swallow us when we lose meaning in the world. Braque had to struggle to resume his career in art after the war. And his artwork changed. Trauma had occurred. Braque had demons to wrestle. There was more at stake than pursing a set of visual breakthroughs that had been partially eclipsed by the violence of war. It was left for me to imagine what that was, to explore that inner drama, and create a story out of it.

Braque’s art continued to evolve during his lifetime. He also endured the stark conditions of German occupation in Paris during World War II. This was not simply a matter of finding coal to warm one’s home and food to eat but maintain the sense of inner freedom in the midst of fascist oppression that is required for creativity. Our current situation in the U.S. after 9/11 has seen the erosion of our civil rights and the emergence of right wing ideology, and while it is a far stretch to compare contemporary life in the U.S. with the manifest evils of the Third Reich, there are some disturbing parallels. I write this at a time when Julian Assange remains trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Edward Snowden has been granted asylum in Russia, and Bradley Manning awaits sentencing for violating the 1917 Espionage Act and two counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a charge that could lead to 136 years in jail. Manning’s fate could have a devastatingly corrosive effect on the future of journalism and the safety of whistleblowers depending on how harshly the court treats his conviction.

There was one other important detail. One of Braque’s closest friends happens to be one of my favorite poets, Francis Ponge, a poet who took the singular route of focusing his language on objects and making playful analogies between phenomena in the external world and the processes of linguistic expression. There again I found a connecting bond, an illuminating key into the enigma that is Georges Braque. Simple objects: rocks, teaspoons, birds. Crucial traction: infinity, perception, words.


John Olson is the author of nine books of poetry and prose poetry: Larnyx Galaxy, Backscatter: New and Selected Work, The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat, Oxbow Kazoo, Free Stream Velocity, Echo Regime, Eggs & Mirrors, Logo Lagoon, and Swarm of Edges. He has held multiple jobs over the years, including 19 years with a mailing service, and is currently occupied as a free lance writer. Some of his articles and essays have appeared in The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly. Souls of Wind,The Nothing That Is and The Seeing Machine are his novels.