“And the winner is …”: a few thoughts on this year’s “A Company of Authors”


mediciThere really wasn’t a winner … or rather, there were only winners. The annual “A Company of Authors,” which we previewed here, is like the Dodo’s Caucus Race: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Alright, alright … there are no prizes, either, but everybody really does win.

That said, John L’Heureux‘s presentation of his latest, The Medici Boy, was clearly one of the highpoints of an afternoon that was full of them (some said it was the best “Company of Authors” year evah). So much so that I began taking notes against my better instincts – my home is cluttered with wads of papers filled with unused notes, whatever will I do with them? L’Heureux said that we know little about the origins of Donatello‘s bronze David, unlike most of his works that we can pin to an approximate date and a commission. Not so with this mysterious work, which L’Heureux called “a revelation.”

I was the last moderator on the final panel of the long afternoon. Hence, by the time I staggered out into the Stanford Humanities Center lobby where the Stanford Bookstore was selling copies of the featured books, much buying and selling had already taken place. However, one book had vanished entirely. You guessed it. L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy was suddenly a Stanford best-seller. No surprise, perhaps. The Washington Post said of the book and its author: “His luminous prose, swift narrative, love of art history and cool eye for human weakness make this one a pleasure to read.”

Although I had arrived too late to purchase a copy, there had been a small bonus book added to each purchase, and one or two left over. So in the spirit of the Caucus Race (“all shall have prizes”), I got a free copy of Dikran Karaguezian‘s Conversations with John L’Heureux, published by Stanford’s CSLI Publications in 2010 – and with an excellent introduction by Tobias Wolff, too. Here’s what L’Heureux said about The Medici Boy five years ago:

lheureux“Way back in 1999 on my first trip to Florence I had the good fortune to visit the Accademia and the Bargello on the same day, which meant I got to see Michelangelo‘s David in the morning and Donatello’s David in the afternoon. They provided me with a good close-up contrast. I was astonished at the Michelangelo – it’s vast and overwhelming – and I was embarrassed by the Donatello. I didn’t know where to look. The statue is so unashamedly naked. And erotic, with an eroticism that is quite calculated, I think. It asks to be looked at. It asks to be touched. I knew absolutely nothing about Donatello at that time, but one look at the David convinced me that Donatello knew exactly what he was doing and went ahead and did it anyway. …

“I concluded first that there’s a story here. That whoever modeled for this David meant more to Donatello personally than the models for Saint George or Saint Louis. Donatello gives the statue an audacity, a sexual defiance, that I’m sure he captured from the model. It’s not superimposed. It’s there in the boy posing for him. And their relationship, I concluded, was by its nature designed to break his heart. …

Q: It sounds as if you must have done a lot of research for this book.

“Actually research for this thing is an endless process. I never really intended to write the book even though I began keeping notes for it as early as 1999. I thought of it as a project for my old age, something I could keep noodling away at right up to the moment of my death … or my being sent doddering and drooling to Casa Sayanara … and when people would ask, ‘Are you working on a new book?’ I would reply, ‘Oh yes, a long term project on Donatello.’ And then I’d leave a pile of notes and nothing more at my death, but I’d have been able to kid myself that I was still at work.

miloszTruth be told, I have the same misgivings, that at my death my survivors will find only piles and piles of confused and disorganized papers and notes. So I was relieved that the bookstore also carried a few books by some of the panel moderators at “A Company of Authors” – and Humble Moi was among them. So at least one series of efforts will not be entirely lost to time. The featured book was one of my earlier efforts, Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations. While I can’t say that the small stack of my book flew off the shelves, the pile was slightly shorter when I left, which was gratifying.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the question of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false have not been discovered through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.”



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