ChatGPT be damned, the novel remains the best app for communicating the wows and woes of human existence. Chatbots can’t learn the grammar of pleasure and suffering. They’ll never construct artful syntax. AI is too ordinary for that. AI’s objective is to become practical, commonplace. The best novels are perplexing, figurative, and useless. They are best written by antagonists and/or psychotics. I’m kind of kidding, but everyone loves those James Salter sentences, and he imagined them while scaling the Alps and flying jet fighters in Korea.
I’ve read hundreds of novels and written three. I’ve read even more biographies—the lives of artists and writers. Like art dealer Peter Daro in Salter’s Light Years, I’m addicted to reading them. Like novels, the best paintings are dripped, brushed, and scraped by psychos, eccentrics, and iconoclasts with unsalable talents and impractical spirits. Biographies explain the neural network coding of an artist’s life, the extraordinary circumstances and events that cultivate their brilliant hallucinations. Nedra, the co-protagonist of Light Years, sabotages a chic, town and country lifestyle for fear of being ordinary, preferring the fate of failed artist (actress) to that of good mother and wife. I can relate. I’ve done some self-sabotaging to become a decent novelist and very good surfer. I was also raised by two extra extraordinary characters, struggling artists without mediums.
I started writing my novel halfway through reading the Peter Robb biography M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. Caravaggio is nearly everyone’s favorite artist, but he’s the alpha of all enigmas. He left no letters or diaries for historians to dissect. We can only know his voice via court testimonies, short declarative sentences defending himself against charges of slander and assault. In college, I’d heard that Caravaggio maimed and murdered people. I’d heard that he’d escaped from prison. He sounded like my dad.
Over the years, I had read dozens of Caravaggio art books and the few biographies that existed. I’ve always felt tacky and shameful about my obsession with artist biographies. It started in college when I first read those Prufrock lines about women “coming and going through the room talking of Michelangelo.” Be fascinated by the work, not the artist. Caravaggio’s paintings tell us everything we should need to know about him, but as the son of wildly colorful Italian American parents, I was ethnically, and perhaps genetically, invested in the four-hundred-year-old gossip surrounding his sexuality and violence. Was the brawling and fornicating the progenitors or byproducts of his creative process? How did the bisexual street-fighting artist become the Galileo of human consciousness? In 1604, Caravaggio was more postmodern than any of today’s pop stars or artists. He makes David Bowie look like Bing Crosby. Caravaggio could also pummel your favorite UFC goon in the Octagon. None of the biographies that I’d read reinforced my self-serving perception of Caravaggio…until I read Robb’s M. In the book, Robb paints my kind of Italians, the working class ones I grew up with in Boston. He paints a Caravaggio resembling my father, a poet and union laborer who served time for attempted murder, who, like Caravaggio, had an affinity for beating up cops, and, like Caravaggio, pulled off a miraculous prison escape. Robb does justice to the brawn and filth of the proletariat Italians inhabiting Caravaggio’s paintings, who I recognize as my father’s Local 133 comrades. Robb also honors the gutter-mouthed eros of Caravaggio’s prostitutes. My mother, with her sultry, Franco-Sicilian looks and ghetto syntax, could have modeled for that Judith beheading Holofernes.
Other biographers have written Caravaggio’s sex and violence in the tone of an Irving Stone novel. But Caravaggio was no fucking Michelangelo. He is not someone to sentimentalize, romanticize, or commercially aestheticize. His genius and selfdom deserve more than that. Robb paid Caravaggio a noble rendering. I wouldn’t label his M a biography. It’s intertextual. It’s historical translation with art analysis and deductive narrating. It’s the kind of inventiveness that resurrecting Caravaggio requires. Some reviewers bashed Robb for being expertly novel. Writing for the Guardian, Stephen Moss scratches his head at the undeserving and butt-hurt criticism hurled at Robb for delivering his own brand of Caravaggio. While ultimately awarding the book a positive review, Moss quotes many of the M’s detractors, demonstrating how dangerous it is to write about everyone’s favorite artist.
The late grouch Brian Sewell smacked Robb with…“Manic and meandering, masquerading as a monument of scholarship, yet its illustrations paltry and poor, this useless prolix book deserves only to be pulped. Poor Caravaggio, victim yet again, this time of an unhinged bore.”
Sewell then delivered the backhanded compliment of…“Had it been less breathtakingly self-indulgent, this could have been a brilliant book.”
Moss quotes a few other illiterate takes of M in his review, but this one by Julian Bell in the Guardian is particularly backhanded…“M is a hopelessly uncool, vulgarian performance by most art-historical lights... But it’s a great read: it grabs, it kicks, it lives.”
I would like to hear Sewell’s definition of brilliant and Bell’s of cool. Lucky for them, they’re writing commercially, not academically; otherwise, they’d have to explain such generic terms before flinging them at a literary form above their heads.
Sewell and Moss are correct in calling Robb’s book self-indulgent and great. His self-indulgence is what makes the book so authentic and endearing. I love his stylized take on Caravaggio. It gave me the idea for my superego Caravaggio protagonist. Robb’s book allowed me to take Caravaggio out of the box and play with him, and by box I mean the uptight assholes of stuffy art critics like Sewell. Critics be damned, I wanted to inflict Caravaggio with some of my own idiosyncrasies. I wanted to genetically modify him with my own traits of anti-authoritarian anger and self-destruction. I wanted to surround Caravaggio with my own friends and family members, Italian Americans who love to eat, drink, laugh, screw, and occasionally punch-out some deserving loudmouth. Historically, the family quarrels and clashes were preceded and superseded by knee-slapping dark humor. Robb introduced me to the comedy in some of Caravaggio’s most homicidal images. For all the throat-slitting and decapitations (personally and artistically), Caravaggio had a wonderful sense of humor, reminding me once again of my favorite Italian Americans, but here I’m talking about the fictive ones from shows like The Sopranos and Scorsese films like Raging Bull. The Sopranos is one of the funniest dramas in television history (in my Gen X Italian American opinion). Some of its most comedic moments occur during sexual and/or violent scenes. For all its barbarity, Raging Bull has funnier De Niro moments than all three Meet the Fockers. And I’ll take Pesci’s Bronx witticisms in Raging Bull over the caricaturing in My Cousin Vinny.
Everyone has their own version of Caravaggio. And everyone is overly protective of it. We get super touchy when a writer presents a Caravaggio that doesn’t fit our narrative of him. Shortly after completing my first draft of the novel, I took part in a few agent-pitches at a popular writing conference. After reading my first chapter, two of the agents were extremely praiseful of what I had created, but a third was distraught, glowering at me as I approached the table to consult with her. Turned out that her father was an artist who loved Caravaggio. My novel didn’t honor the Caravaggio that her father preached. The agent was bent on letting me know this. I reminded her that I, Caravaggio was my fucking Caravaggio, and that I spent years researching early modern Italian cuisine, fashion, and architecture to authenticate my remake of everyone’s favorite artist. She hated me for even trying. I sincerely thanked her for the consultation. She tried for a professionally polite smile but it turned into a sneer.
Her displeasure felt like shit for a few days. I nullified the self-doubt by delving into a second draft of my Caravaggio, ordained by Robb’s re-titling of paintings from The Death of the Virgin to Mary Dead and The Martyrdom of St Matthew to Matthew Killed. Like Robb’s, I wanted to liken my Caravaggio to that of a Hollywood director. His religious paintings were the original blockbusters with literate and illiterate Romans lined around piazzas for a viewing of the Bible’s more cinematic moments.
When I was a 1990s undergrad, my two favorite Hollywood films were Richard Loncraine’s Richard III and Baz Lurhmann’s Rome + Juliet. Both films presented Gen X viewers with Elizabethan content with contemporary wardrobes and soundtracks. Loncraine renovated his Richard III into the 1930’s modernist aesthetics of fascism, replete with hairdos and mustaches of the period’s despots, not to mention vintage cars, biplanes, and DC-3 airliners. In lieu of swords, Loncraine armed the Houses of York and Lancaster with machine guns, waging their Battle of Bosworth not on horseback but in army jeeps and Soviet tanks.
Lurhmann refurbished his Shakespeare with a similar stylization of apparel and weaponry. Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, and the rest of the Verona Beach gang are depicted as pistol-wielding, club-raving Gen Xers dropping ecstasy. The Capulets and Montagues are modernized as warring mafia families with Paul Sorvino and Brian Denehy serving as patriarchs. This Shakespeare reboot is all about the aestheticizing of munitions: gold-plated pistols with Holy Mary grips, Glocks, .44 Magnums, Berettas, Walther Compact pistols, submachine guns, and double-barrel shotguns. The angsty romance and sexy violence are coolly choired by a soundtrack of Butthole Surfers, Everclear, and Radiohead. This was the kind of innovation that I wanted for my Caravaggio: a Velvet Underground album with big-haired, sexually fluid dudes dressed in frilly velvets, but instead of switchblades, they’re carving each other up with rapiers in an early modern Rome similar to the gritty streets of 1970s New York.
Robb doesn’t modify his Caravaggio to the extent of Lurhmann and Loncraine’s translation of Shakespeare. Critics would have been even more unnerved if he had. More so than fiction, the conventions of writing and selling biography are particularly crusty, enforced by the kind of editors and critics who have depreciated literature’s value in the attention economy. Novels are still the best app for expressing the wows and woes of a life, but upgrades must be made. Biographies such as Robb’s should be celebrated if we writers are to defeat the evil-natured chatbots. No one really knows anything about Caravaggio; therefore, he’s open game. I have not written an account of Caravaggio’s life and death. Instead, I tried writing something that AI never could. Something perplexing and psychotic. I wanted to examine my own neural network coding, the extraordinary circumstances that cultivated my wonderfully dysfunctional Italian American upbringing. I wanted to narrate a brilliant hallucination. Something salable enough to buy myself an excuse to write a Caravaggio prequel.