In Brad Leithauser’s sprawling new novel, The Art Student’s War, Bianca Paradiso is enamored with light and color, as well as the vividly colored people that inhabit Henry Ford’s Detroit. Beautiful and sensitive, she is surrounded, and often beset, by family members, friends, and lovers. Bianca spends much of the novel struggling to interpret the impact of wooings and denunciations, deaths and births. Leithauser’s elegant prose traces her gradual transformation from a hungry and searching art student to a mature and discerning wife and mother.
When Part One of the novel, “The War Comes Home,” begins, Detroit’s auto factories are functioning as full-tilt armories. The Second World War is everywhere in Detroit—everywhere, perhaps, but the Institute Midwest, where Bianca is learning to paint. Early in her first year, she meets Ronny Olsson, the dashing son of a Detroit drug-store mogul. Opulently clad in a camel-hair jacket and “tawny suede hat,” Ronny offers impolite and insightful commentary on Bianca’s painting of an onion.
The two begin dating, and Ronny demonstrates an emotional and physical magnetism that is almost overpowering; Bianca is nearly undone by their first kiss:
The stroke of his tongue against her tongue threw a big voluptuous splash of color against the dark of her mind: an orange-gold glow that broke like a wave, tingling like one of those fireworks that die with such high reluctance against the sky’s velvet black … in the deepest Lascaux-cavern walls of the mind a whole pack of beast-shapes went loping over the rolling hills … if he’d not continued holding her fevered body firmly in his hands, Bianca could hardly have remained upright.
This is one of the few moments in which the baroque balance of Leithauser’s prose tips, perhaps intentionally, towards the rococo. Ronny’s power lies in his aesthetic eroticism—a desperate yearning for, and belief in, pure and unadulterated beauty. He seems to inhabit a higher plane, and Bianca, a mere mortal, is left breathless.
But then the war intrudes in an interesting way. During their courtship, Bianca volunteers at a local hospital, sketching portraits of young wounded soldiers to boost their morale. She gains a new and visceral awareness of the war, and the acquaintance of Henry Vanden Akker, an earnest and intelligent young soldier who speaks in torrents about Kierkegaard, death, and God. Henry’s experiences fighting in the jungle have granted him access to sublime, bloody truths that Bianca strains to imagine. Compared with Henry, everyone, including Ronny, seems frivolous and distracted. Bianca and Henry embark on a brief, intense love affair.
When events conspire to end Henry and Bianca’s fiery relationship, Ronny’s mother, with whom Bianca has remained friendly, tells her that “for very pretty girls, their one true love’s always a lost one.” Mrs. Olsson’s point is central to the story; we can’t help but desire, she explains, perfect and complete love, but since no such thing exists, we convince ourselves that if we only had a different lover, or a better situation, we would finally be happy. Very pretty girls (like Bianca and Mrs. Olsson) can get the captain of the football team—the ideal man—so they pine for the one that got away, whatever it is that they can’t have.
Shortly after this encounter, the novel, just past its halfway point, takes a dramatic turn. Bianca is stricken with influenza. In Part Two, “Off in the Islands,” which is all of eleven pages, Bianca is submerged in a feverish haze and provides a surreal platform for Leithauser’s most unrestrained philosophizing.
When the central narrative resumes in Part Three, “All the Lost Houses,” several years have passed, and Bianca is celebrating seven years of marriage with Grant, her handsome, devoted, utterly mundane husband. The two have twin boys and another child on the way. On a nostalgic trip to an art museum, Ronny tells Bianca, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the phrase ‘secular painting’ is self-contradictory. Painting’s a holy business, Bianca, or it’s nothing.” Bianca’s reply is uncharacteristically firm and suggests her growing engagement with the life around her: “But that isn’t so, Ronny… . To look at an onion, and see only an onion, and go ahead and paint an onion, no angels hovering in the background, no anything in the background, only the layers on layers of onion—that’s a noble undertaking.”
Part of Bianca will always remain with Ronny, but she is finally able to embrace the “graced clemency” of ordinary familial life, without pining for the thrills of her romantic, idealistic youth. She has discovered she cannot live on Ronny’s Olympian heights, or in Henry’s dark-green jungle, but she can live in the gritty, dynamic Detroit that she shares with her husband, children, family, and friends. In this, she has escaped the trap of the “very pretty girl,” fortified by the knowledge that no ideal life will ever satisfy all of her deepest longings. Like Yeats’s wisdom in old age, Bianca withers into the truth. Life would be impoverished without the transcendental yearnings represented by Ronny Olsson and Henry Vanden Akker, but it is a rare and welcome thing for an artist of Leithauser’s talents to compose a paean to the subtle sweetness of plain, old, everyday onions.
Ian Marcus Corbin is a Ph
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