Mark Haber’s novel Saint Sebastian’s Abyss is a delightful and dizzying excursion into the relationship between art and criticism, and all the ways that we often deceive ourselves about the things and people we love. Concise and deftly rendered, it moves forward like a rocket—or more accurately, like the transatlantic flight his unnamed American narrator takes to visit his friend and nemesis Schmidt in Berlin. Beginning in graduate school, the two men, both art critics, have been obsessed by a painting, a small and dark work titled (yes) Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. It is giving nothing away for me to tell you that, in each of their lives, the painting has become a kind of mirror, reflecting their ideas and their assertions back upon themselves.
Haber is the author of a collection of stories, Deathbed Conversions, as well as a previous novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, which was longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. He is also the operations manager at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, where he lives. He and I discussed his work via email. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Like Reinhardt’s Garden and your short story “Tegucigalpa,” Saint Sebastian’s Abyss is a meditation on influence.
The influence in Saint Sebastian’s Abyss is twofold: there’s the influence of other writers on me (Thomas Bernhard, Donald Antrim, Lars Iyer, Vila-Matas), and there’s the influence of art—in this case, a Renaissance painting—on the characters in the book. I love the idea that art can change us, and I wanted to explore the effects of a single painting over two lives. The way my imagination works, however, is to invite absurdity and exaggeration. So you have two scholars, intellectuals, who are also numbskulls, oblivious and myopic and incredibly selfish. The painting that influenced them as students ends up destroying their lives. As much as I celebrate influence in real life, it tends to hurt the characters in my stories! But yes, works of art, music, literature play a large role in my work.
Reinhardt’s Garden has been compared to the work of César Aira. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss recalls Bernhard.
Nothing is created in a vacuum. That being said, you want to bring your voice and view of the world to what you’re doing. Tiny novels like Aira’s and dark, misanthropic monologues à la Bernhard are inside my books, and I would never want to deny that, but my books differ. They often have lots of action and hijinks. Bernhard’s really don’t, it’s all internal. And Aira is stranger and more elusive than me. You never quite know what you’re getting when you open a book of his, yet I adore him for creating a world in 90 pages, and it never feels brief. It feels expansive. So having these writers (and others) influence my books is something I celebrate.
Both novels are steeped in melancholy—tragedy, even. At the same time, your work is funny, ironic, not least when it comes to despair.
Story isn’t as important to me as voice. I want the voice to be the story. I love dense, cerebral voices that carry the reader away, that feel incantatory. I see this with Fernanda Mdelchor’s novels and Jon Fosse’s, where voice is the driving force. Tone can carry so much: a narrator’s foibles, their history, the way they see others, the lies they tell themselves. The humor and irony in my stories, although intentional, is organic; it’s the way my mind naturally wanders, often to the furthest extreme. With this book, for example, I thought of the painting, and the next logical thing for me was: but of course it will ruin their lives! It didn’t happen exactly like that, but that’s how my brain is wired.
I think humor and despair are neighbors. Humor comes from universal tragedy. The fact that we all die, for example. So this is something you can poke fun at because it’s unavoidable, we share that knowledge, even if it’s often in the back of our minds. To balance this with everyday obsessions and phobias and the tribulations of being alive—ego, art, literature—is appealing to me.
Saint Sebastian’s Abyss revolves around a single painting, one of three surviving works by a lost painter. The image appears to be apocalyptic, but we never know for sure since we are relying on a narrator who may be unreliable.
Part of this is my way of using a weakness as a strength. Avoiding descriptions of the work (except in the briefest ways) allows me to circumvent something I don’t excel at: portraying art. This also works, I think, because I want to leave it to the reader’s imagination. I wanted to describe concrete images, like the apostles and the cliff face, but to leave enough for the reader to create the painting for themselves. I also didn’t want to avoid contradictions. Both the narrator and Schmidt see the painting differently, and perhaps even challenge each other.
The narrator and Schmidt share an obsession with the painting while seeking to claim it as their own. And yet, in the endless volumes each writes about it, they keep getting further from the work.
I heard Paul Auster in conversation once, and he said writing was a bit like acting. I tend to agree. Once you’ve created the characters, their voices guide you, tell you what they’d do or say. These two share an obsession with the painting but approach it in different ways. Once I sorted out how they spoke and felt, the novel unfolded. I was interested in friendship, how most are lopsided; there’s always one who gives more and one who takes more. The narrator is trying to impress Schmidt, and Schmidt feels he has the upper hand because he’s European and so, by default, superior. It’s funny: I end up creating these old-fashioned European xenophobes in my novels because I find them ridiculous. Nationalism is ridiculous, the notion that one country is better than another. Even when the narrator has his own success, he ultimately fails to impress the one person to whom he wants to prove himself.
Schmidt asserts that the critic is the true artist and that the critic’s interpretation is the place where art lives. This is a dangerous question for me, as a critic, to ask, but is this a critique of criticism?
It’s certainly a satire of criticism, but it comes from a place of tenderness. I enjoy criticism, especially criticism that makes the reader/viewer see or notice things they hadn’t before, which can bring about a new appreciation. I wanted to satirize a sort of cold-blooded, analytical approach to art. I envision a scene where a critic is asking a painter: The purple in your work? What does it symbolize? And the artist replies: I don’t know. I just like the color. So I was attempting to poke fun at people who study something and look for symbolism when perhaps there’s nothing there or, conversely, the artist can’t say what’s there because it lives in a realm that eschews words and analysis.
I’m curious about the process of creating the painting. How did you conjure it? This is not the first time you’ve written about an imagined work.
I don’t have a background in visual art, but my wife has her undergrad and graduate degrees from the Savannah College of Art and Design, so I borrowed her old textbooks. One thing I realized is how gorgeous the writing is in a lot of art criticism and art history. Beautiful, poetic writing that’s bursting with information. The painting sort of grew as the book progressed, but I only imagined it in my head. I really wanted it to live on this precipice of concrete details and something nebulous. And I invited contradiction because a viewer’s attitude to a painting can vary. I wanted the work to be both clear and mysterious.
You’re inventing an artist also: Count Hugo Beckenbauer. As with Schmidt and the narrator, the effect is satirical, but we can’t help feeling for the humanity of all three.
I care about these characters, even with their flaws. The narrator and Schmidt are highly intelligent but stunted. Additionally, they feel competitive and threatened by others. By the end of the book, the narrator is extremely lonely yet can’t imagine being around other people. Count Hugo Beckenbauer began as the trope of the “eccentric artist,” but as the book progressed, he grew to be a victim of a mental disorder that couldn’t be diagnosed at the time. I wanted him to be like the painting: simultaneously clear and vague. Are the visions he suffers inspiration or disease?
And yet, there’s also an inference, in the way the novel ends, that art can get used up or corrupted—not the work itself, perhaps, but its necessity.
I don’t know if I have an answer, but I think there is this notion at the end of the book that the painting has let the narrator down. That perhaps he’s exhausted the work. Part of it is the idea that the meaning of art can change as a person changes. You love something, but sometimes the more you examine it, the more elusive it becomes.•