Side A: The Warehouse Fire
I read in the newspaper about the warehouse fire, that countless works of art had gone up in smoke. The tragedy was heartless, the art irreplaceable, the event a black spot on the national psyche. People can be replaced one way or another but art cannot, I remember someone once saying. I wondered why so many masterpieces were all kept in the same place. History’s lessons almost always go unheeded – ancient or recent. Obviously the fires of Alexandria meant nothing to these curators and hoarders. Surely that would have been an anecdote, the sum of all human thought burning in the sand, a test case for the dangers of accumulating priceless artefacts into one flammable container. I drank my morning coffee and that was how I thought – it is the errors that repeat themselves, hardly ever the glories. Sarah, my ex-wife, called to tell me that almost all of the originals of Arturo Pansattio’s oeuvre were in that warehouse, and that the ring-binder of negatives she knew I kept in the bottom drawer of my desk could well be the only collection extant. Those small black, specked tiles of acetate; artefacts now. She told me because she could not keep information to herself, she was excitable, had an irritable outreach facility; but also she told me because she wanted to know if I had them insured. She had never trusted me with money. They are all insured, I lied, put down the phone and travelled up the bare creaking staircases to the loft, my office. I wanted to check they were safe, even though I knew them to be so. I opened the file, took out a random tile, turned it in my fingers, it was smooth like a beetle, cold. Captured moments, of course; but from him something more: from him creation as well as trapping in amber. Pansattio long gone, his subjects, mostly, long gone; but here were his photographs – in their infant form – struggling to breathe in the wake of fire.
I made more coffee, I called my agent – he was just about to call me with offers of interviews about the cultural effects of the fire; why is this fire a catastrophe? Why is the death of art felt so hard? Who was Pansattio? Why should we mourn his work? The usual questions.
I had known Pansattio – Satti, as he was known to his friends – and had been commissioned by his daughter to write his biography when he died in nineteen eighty-two. It was my breakthrough book. I owe my career to the kind, chain-smoking, fatherly, cautious, anchoritic, Italian genius. Many did. I had been asked because I had known him in life – he had taken my portrait for the dust jacket of my first book back when I was a novelist. Our friendship was unlikely – and I was closer to him than he was to me – and spread thin over two and half decades. The negatives in the ring-binder had been a gift; I had written a foreword for the programme for his retrospective exhibition in New York in ‘seventy-eight. I kept them in the drawer as a memorial-of-sorts. Others had given greater memorials, but his photographs surpassed headstones, eulogies, plaques and documentaries.
Of course, Satti was the real deal. If the twentieth century had created a solid generation, hermetic in an age of pre-death, it seemed, pre-AIDS, pre-cancer, pre-tragedy, where gods walked among us, then it was Satti who had etched many of their images onto our collective minds-eye. Writers, philosophers, beauties, curiosities, maniacs, lovers, the movers and shakers, the presidents, the revolutionaries, the sowers of seeds, the gluttons, the geniuses, the dream-weavers, the heroes and villains, the vain the venal and the venial. He hated that I suggested he had made each of his subjects’ characters in the play of the greatest century. He hated that I might have been on to something. He would lean back in his chair, draw deeply on his quellazaire and push his tinted spectacles up the bridge of his nose to hide the narrowing of his eyes. Satti, you see, was a believer in people, and although many of his portraits were of people who would forever be remembered as symbols rather than people, he was dedicated to dissuading myth out of the lens, out of the eye. What he could not do was stop his own myth. And it came back to the pictures.
I was young when we met – my publisher had organised a headshot session for the jacket of my first novel – nineteen sixty – and Satti was the snapper brought in. He had made his name this way and kept his hand in despite being famous himself for his shots of stage stars, foreign dignitaries – his portrait of the visiting General Franco Denegri almost started a civil war in the “Black General’s” homeland. His “hack” work taking headshots for publishing houses gave him his break. His photograph of the famously reclusive Charlotte Latimer in ‘forty-six – one of his first in England – has since become the defining image of the writer. The morose, languorous glare of the woman who was to throw herself under a train just weeks after the photograph was taken not only seemed to speak of her particular kind of genius, but invested itself in the industrious myth that bolstered the earnings of her estate ever since. And there it was on my desk – un-grown, re-shrunk – one of the small black tiles.
The gift had always seemed generous to me, but it was not unusual for the softly-spoken Italian to stretch the terms of an otherwise cool friendship on a whim. He was a quiet fanatic, a prodding presence. I looked over the ring-binder, turned the plates as if it was a rediscovered relic. These swift snaps, energetic, intense, essential.
I knew somewhere I had an old carousel projector. In a box in the garage, or under the stairs, or in one of the spare rooms, the usual places for such things. Such boxes had doubled during my divorce. Sarah had always been the unpacker-of-things in the union and so it took me most of the morning to find the projector. I set it up on my desk, unhooked the map of the world from the white wall opposite, and pointed the humming beam to the makeshift screen.
Side B: The King of Men
Before I could settle the doorbell rang. It was Sarah. She swept past me into the house, her red coat and pink cheeks quite brash in the clean dullness of the hallway. Had I checked the negatives, she said, had I actually held them in my hand. I did not tell her that I was midway through arranging them into some kind of order on my desk up in the loft. But I did not want her going up there either. I had checked them, I told her. Why would you do that unless there was cause for concern, she said. It was she who had given me cause, I said. She was an expert at bending circumstance to fit her world. I tried to usher her into the kitchen but she would not leave the foot of the stairs. You should alert someone to their existence, she said. I hadn’t really thought about it, I said. You have a duty, she said. She seemed stern, but she had always been forceful. They are not yours to hide, she said. They belong to the world, she said. She had taken a similar line when we were married and I was trying to talk myself into turning down the offer to write Pansattio’s biography. It was she who convinced me to do it. I’m sure I’ll call Pansattio’s daughter, I said; but I have a busy few days. I’ll get around to it. And I asked her to leave. Sarah held me steady with her green eyes. She had tried to be stern through our divorce, bull-headed, tried to force me to take her back with sheer stubbornness. But she had slept with her personal trainer – a twenty-something French philosophy student named Bruno. The betrayal hurt. But we are not young and I may have forgiven her. But I had spent my life trying to write, striving for that pure sentence; and she stabbed me with a cliché. Her style was unforgivable.
So what of the claim that I had a duty to give up my treasure? Circumstances were different now, of course. I had often wondered about the gift. There was no danger of these photographs being forgotten. There were prints of them in stationery shops, reproductions of them in every biography of every subject he had sit for him. His images were part of the language of the century. I was not depriving the world of anything by keeping these small black tiles.
I looked over them spread across my desk. Sarah no longer had a say in my actions. And what would Pansattio’s daughter have to say to my news? She had married a Count and lived high in the Pyrenees; falconry and salmon fishing were her interests now. And she was old herself. Her father had defined our years, and we were nearly over. If anybody had held yesterday aloft it had been him; these negatives on my desk did not make that any more or less pertinent.
It was early afternoon. I pulled the curtains closed, opened a bottle of wine, lined up a clean ashtray with a fresh packet of cigarettes and a fully-fuelled lighter, and randomly picked a negative from the mix on my desk. My gift from the man. As I carefully began to fill the carousel with the tiles I thought of the last time I saw him. He had been visiting London and he called me for lunch. We drank martinis and he ate oysters. He looked drawn, his eyes always darkened by the tint of his glasses, his hair was thinning, his voice was thinning. One of the first portraits I took, he said, was of a fascist. I came to this country during the war to escape them. I was offered money to take a photograph of a minor military man in Salo. Make me look like a king of men the fascist said. And now? Now I have Queens coming to me wanting to look like they are one of the people.
Satti sighed. If I have had a talent, he said, it has been that I was born in the most significant era of humankind, and I was able to convince the world to rely on my images for understanding it. And then he laughed a heavy creased laugh.
You do yourself a disservice by casting yourself as a conman, I said.
He said nothing, just sipped his drink and lit a cigarette.
I pressed the switch on the carousel and its brittle Perspex gears slapped into place, and the light hit the wall, and a face appeared in a flash.