Midway through Percival Everett’s novel Telephone, Zach Wells, a paleontologist, arrives in Paris with his wife, Meg, a poet, and their daughter, Sarah, after Sarah has been diagnosed with Batten disease, a fatal neurological disorder. “Over time,” Zach tells us, “my daughter would suffer worsening seizures, her sight would finally fail altogether, her speech and motor skills would grow progressively worse and fade, and she would suffer mental impairment; she would become demented. I would lose her before she was gone.” Given the brutal prognosis, Sarah has not been told she’s ill. “I didn’t want to lie to my daughter,” Zach says, “but neither could I imagine telling her the truth.”
Zach is a devoted father. “My daughter,” he declares, “a little life in the scheme of the world, of time, the star, however, around which my planet orbited.” Twelve-year-old Sarah is a clever, chess-playing girl—“never unguarded in her play”—a high achiever who’s doted on by her parents and whose banter easily meets theirs. “Her gaze was bright, aureate, penetrating.” As they wander the galleries of medieval paintings at the Louvre, soon after they arrive in Paris, Sarah’s commentary is sharp, fresh, irreverent in the way of a bright tween, but Zach’s thoughts are elsewhere. “I was confronted with the truth of life’s ephemerality, the sad impermanence of everything.”
A 17th-century genre of Dutch still lifes, vanitas, focused on this sense of life’s ephemerality. Vanitas famously used quotidian objects as symbols; these were allegorical paintings intended to express transience, mortality, and the vanity of earthly pursuits. How can a painting make death real despite its artifice? The vanitas still lifes deployed flowers, fruit, candles, books—glass orbs and skulls, too, were favorites—as memento mori. In Telephone, the tension around Sarah’s illness finds traction in the interstices of family silence, her commentary on the pictures, and Zach’s contemplation of how little time she has left. Sarah takes pleasure in the paintings, but for Zach, they’re reminders of her life’s brevity. He catalogs the pictures they see at the Louvre, to which they return a second time, and “the most insignificant details become meaningful”; each painting, he understands, is “marking a place in her story.”
Lady with Pansies, c. 1475, anonymous artist. Ophelia would say some hundred years later, “Pansies are for thoughts.” Pensées. Pansies.
A young woman, of an age Sarah will never reach, is painted against a backdrop of pansies, symbols of thought and faithfulness, and the portrait speaks to a future without her. “When your child is dying,” Zach explains, “it is damn near impossible to think about anything else, to enter into distracted conversation, to enjoy a meal or a piece of music or a book.”
The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death, no date, Hans Baldung Grien. The skull bites the dress, a foot in a boot placed against a rock for leverage. Its bone lies separate, severed, isolated near the hooves.
Grien’s picture depicts mortality as inseparably linked to life in an image of a young woman escaping the jaws of death—literally—alongside familiar elements of Zach’s field study: the bones he excavates, a booted foot against a rock. Bones, he tells Sarah, would be “all that was left to tell our stories.”
The Head of John the Baptist, 1507, Andreas de Solario. Sarah loved the painting and I hated it. “The shaft of the platter looks so much like a skinny human neck,” she said. “Like he’s really not dead at all.”
Sarah doesn’t read the finality so much as Solario’s visual pun, yet for Zach, whose life has become a camaïeu—a monochrome—each painting is a vanitas tableau: “She did not know enough of what would happen to her to appreciate how fleeting these brief experiences were.”
The Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, c. 1455, Enguerrand Quarton. The ashen Mary watches and Mary Magdalene weeps, listens to the plucking of thorns from Jesus’s head by John. Sarah thought that John was removing his halo.
It’s right that Sarah misunderstands the scene here, to overlook the gray deadness of Christ’s body and the gruesome finality of removing those thorns. Because who can grasp death? The oblivion of it?
Telephone, a novel braided with subplots, tracks Zach’s disillusionment and alienation in the face of Sarah’s fleeting life—and in Paris, the paintings in the Louvre show what’s to come, but they’re an escape, too. As they leave the museum, Zach says to Sarah, “What if we simply walked and walked forever?” and she answers, “To the horizon” and then “That would be perfect.”•
Join us on May 18 at 5 p.m., when Everett will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Telephone. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.