“A lush book. . . . Astonishing. . . . Weschler may be the finest writer in the United States.” –LA WeeklyA San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News Best Book of the YearA Bloomsbury Review Editors’ Favorite“There’s no writer alive with more raw and contagious enthusiasm for the world. . . . Ravishing and utterly life-emboldening.” –Dave Eggers“Miraculous. . . . Excellentric. . . . Electrically precise. . . . Endlessly nuanced. . . . Layered. Mischievous. Faceted. Fun. . . . Weschler inspires envy.” –The New York Observer“Startling. . . . Promiscuously eclectic. . . . Weschler is an impossibly wide-ranging writer [and] a master of the journalistic profile.” –Chicago Tribune“Lambent. . . . Vivid. . . . Filigreed and moving. . . . A gorgeous collection.” –San Francisco Chronicle“Lively and provocative. . . . Wonderfully illuminating. . . . A surprising smorgasbord of delights. . . . [Weschler is] an erudite, enthusiastic observer of life.” –Los Angeles Times“Absorbing. . . . Weschler . . . has an unbeatable eye–and heart and writerly panache–for human oddity and invention.” –Entertainment Weekly“Luminous. . . . Exquisite. . . . Weschler is a master of the short form. . . . [He] pokes around in odd corners but always finds great stories of human experience. . . . [He] finds the ‘edge’ and freezes it for us in finely-sharpened prose.” –The Oregonian“Weschler is a national treasure . . . that rare cultural commentator whose keenly off-center perspectives and interests bring new meaning to the idea of ‘the pleasure of the text.’ ” –The Bloomsbury Review“Like a postmodern Scheherazade . . . Weschler spins yarns about everything under the sun. . . . [He has] a keen eye for connecting the dots we mere mortals can’t, or won’t, see . . . and writes generous prose that allows the reader to share in the author’s serendipitous discoveries.” –Austin Chronicle“Weschler is a writer one wants to reads irrespective of what he is writing about. His marvelous essays are models of clarity of thought and subtlety of feeling–and vice-versa. Vermeer in Bosnia is nothing less than a sustained advertisement for the life of the mind.” –Geoff Dyer, author of Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It“A goldmine of excellent writing.” –Santa Cruz Sentinel“Brilliant. . . . Engrossing. . . . Compelling. . . . The essays . . . display a tremendous breadth and depth. . . . By simply connecting the dots, he creates a picture that others might not see. . . . Few readers can remain indifferent to Weschler’s work.” –St. Petersburg Times“The Urban piece alone, was, for me, worth the price of admission.” –David Byrne“Graceful and illuminating.” –The Globe and Mail (Toronto)“A writer of wide-ranging passions from the quirky to the crucial. . . . Weschler [is] a literary renaissance and reconnaissance man keen on collecting and connecting, effectively reconciling and interrelating apparent disparities and disjunctions.” –San Diego Union Tribune“From his sad sanity on Yugoslavia’s aftermath, to the most endearing argument for L.A. since the Beach Boys, Weschler gets around–though the holy-moly roadside attraction here is the author’s landmark brain.” –Sarah Vowell, author of Take the Cannoli“Inspiring. . . . With his densely textured consciousness, coupled with a curiosity that can only be called protean, [Weschler] may be the most civilized staff writer The New Yorker ever lost. . . . Most consistently winning of all is that echt capacity of the literate soul: the ability to juggle incongruities without twitching.” –The New York Observer“Rich. . . . Enchanting. . . . A smart melding of thought and feeling. . . . Weschler shows great mind-eye coordination. He sees and he thinks, and what he thinks is revelatory.” –Detroit Free Press “Off-the-charts, happy/sad feeling, dark in the winter brilliant in the springtime crazy book! Big Polish ears and shaky furniture, are you joy today? Suntory time.” –Mark Salzman, author of Lying Awake“Weschler [is] one of the best writers in the country. . . . To me [he] is like Ray Charles; he puts his own soulful stamp on anything that beckons him, and something moves me in almost everything he does. . . . What sets Weschler apart is the utterly fresh and unexpected connections he makes as he digs ever deeper into a subject.” –Pamela Feinsilber, San Francisco Magazine
I first heard about Lawrence Weschler’s book Vermeer in Bosnia from an NPR interview with the author quite a few years back, in 2004 probably, when the book first came out. There was something about the interview that got me interested, although now it’s been too long for me to say exactly what, and that feeling got reinforced by a couple key mentions on blogs, including Richard’s (I’m pretty sure).
Anyway, it was high time for me to read the book, and I’m glad I did. Weschler is a smart and sensitive writer. The book covers a number of different subjects — its sections are called “A Balkan Triptych,” “Three Polish Survivor Stories,” “Grandfathers and Daughters,” “Three L.A. Pieces,” “Three Portraits of Artists,” and “A Final Vermeer Convergence” — but no matter the subject the essays have a similar seriousness combined with a lightness of touch that make them both thought-provoking and pleasurable to read.
Some of my favorite essays in the collection are about art; as I read I couldn’t help but think that what I really want is to take an art appreciation class from Weschler, or to have him take me on a long, leisurely tour of an art museum. He is an excellent interpreter and also an appreciator, someone who can generate enthusiasm about his subject while also looking at it analytically. I adored his essay on David Hockney’s photocollages, which made me think about photography in ways I hadn’t before and made me want to read more on the subject, even though I’ve never had a particular interest in photography before in my life. (I do, though, have a book by Geoff Dyer on the subject, The Ongoing Moment, which I bought because I love Geoff Dyer, not because I love photography. The lesson for me is that it’s the author not the subject that matters.) In each essay from the “Three Portraits of Artists” section, he describes time he spent with the artist as well as discussing the art itself, so you get a sense of the person who created the work.
But the best essays are in the “Balkan Triptych” section where Weschler looks at connections between art and war. He spent time in The Hague covering the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal, where onlookers and participants spent days listening to particularly nasty stories of atrocities committed by war criminals. He asks one of the jurists how he handles listening at great length to such horrible stories, and the jurist answers by saying that he goes as often he can to see paintings by Vermeer in the Mauritshuits museum. While contemplating what it is that draws this man to Vermeer, Weschler realizes that the Holland Vermeer painted was remarkably like the Bosnia of today:
For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty …
He realizes that behind the peacefulness of the paintings lies horrible violence, and, in fact, that Vermeer was, in a way, opening up the very possibility of peace in the midst of turbulent times:
I began to realize that, in fact, the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what those paintings are all about … It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace.
The people Vermeer so carefully and realistically captured in his paintings come to stand for the idea that individual beings matter and have value. Art can, in a quiet but powerful way, offer hope in the face of cruelty and senseless violence.
There are two other essays in this section, each one similarly thoughtful and intriguing. Weschler’s writing is something to savor, and I hope I get the chance to read more of it.