Another of the author’s pivots might predict whether you find his approach enchanting or somewhat dizzying: For about 60 pages near its middle, the book becomes a group literary biography, primarily of the novelist Thomas Mann and the poet Marianne Moore. We see Moore and her mother living together in Greenwich Village “like anchorites.” We are in Virginia for a series of three lectures on the sea given by Auden in 1949. This extended section is certainly connected to Dürer: Moore and Mann both referenced him in their own work; Auden considered him in the lectures. But it requires you to stretch along with Hoare.
One of his methods is to quickly hop across historical lily pads: In the span of three pages, the art historian Erwin Panofsky publishes his biography of Dürer in 1943; his son Wolfgang Panofsky is recruited to the Manhattan Project the same year; Wolfgang observes the Trinity test in New Mexico and mentions making sketches of the explosion; then we’re 500 years earlier, and Dürer is awaking from a dream “in which he saw great deluges fall from the sky.” The next morning, the artist wrote of the dream image: “It fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring.” He painted it, “as I had seen it”; not terribly dissimilar from a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Somehow, Hoare’s frequent cuts between the present, the recent(ish) past and more distant history end up feeling like no cuts at all; instead of whiplash or disorientation, what results is an almost calm feeling of all these times existing simultaneously, in the moment of reading.
If Hoare’s overall tone is self-serious, he allows glimpses of the ridiculousness that can come with fixation. Museum guards need to tell him to stand back from paintings lest he trip security alarms. He opts for a localized anesthetic during a surgery, and while the doctors are working he begins talking to them about … whales.
That surgery is part of the book’s final sections, which become more intimately memoiristic. The operation was undergone to correct Dupuytren’s contracture, a condition that causes fingers to curl in toward the palm. Hoare being Hoare, before he gets us to the operating room he spends a few pages sketching the life of the Parisian doctor whose name was given to the condition, and then mulling some historical representations of it.
Near the end, he writes movingly of his mother’s death and of Dürer’s final, honest self-portrait, when the artist was far beyond the intense, confident beauty of the earlier paintings.
This book requires patience, and a mild tolerance for passing clouds of pretension or obscurity; but these hazards are just residual effects from the forceful weather system that is Hoare’s imagination. He almost inevitably begins writing at one point about W.G. Sebald, a kindred spirit whom he came to know. Hoare’s recap of Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” is the summary of one digressive book nested inside another. Hoare says that book “pulls you in like the tide.” And if you just get in far enough, so does this one.