The Goldfinch is one of those books where you feel older at the end. You are wiser, but there’s a price. Your hair’s gone gray and your voice is husky and feeble. You smoke now. Maybe you’ve quit smoking. And you remember that all those years ago, back in 2013 or something, Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Long, long time ago.
Donna Tartt gives ten-year gaps between novels a good name. Her latest book is so immense (close to 800 pages) and monumental (Nietzsche’s immortal ‘We have art in order not to die from the truth’ line almost doesn’t sound excessive) that you’d have to wonder if The Goldfinch is not, in fact, one of those.
Great American novels. Because it has everything to be one.
Interestingly, it is almost old-fashioned. Despite iPhones and numerous indie culture references. Despite the fact that we have a Bildungsroman that has angles ranging from romantic to detective to gangster (the latter is especially evident in the Amsterdam section of the novel that made me think of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges). But you finish a chapter and the next one follows the story ever so faithfully. Character descriptions are so complete (though my favourite one is just a brief line of pure poetry: ‘He was a planet without an atmosphere’). And watch Tartt give you that ancient but highly effective drama at the end of some of these encounters. This could be the last time I saw him. I knew I would never see her again. It's 19th century at best, and yet it works so beautifully.
Classic, simple narrative. Reading Tartt’s prose is like falling in life with the English language again and again. It’s rich, it’s precise, it’s very lush. Her dialogues are living things. And even when she is being pretentious, it never comes off that way. She is sharp and to the point. ‘Beauty’, she writes in a long but fascinating philosophical passage towards the end of the book, ‘has to be wedded to something meaningful’. Donna Tartt stays true to her word.
Theodore Decker is a New York boy who visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to look at one of her favourite paintings (“The Goldfinch” by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius). There is a huge explosion and the boy somehow retrieves the picture out of the ashes and the dead bodies. Theo’s mother dies, and he is almost like a modern-day Oliver Twist. His enthralling adventure starts. He gets to know his runaway father. He falls in love, tragically and eternally. He meets his best friend, an exciting Ukrainian boy named Boris (yet again I tip my hat to Donna Tartt: most of the Russian language bits are very credible). Completely by chance, he encounters a mentor, a father figure. The generous and naïve Hobie is a charming Dickensian character, and it’s great to see how different worlds collapse into each other at various points of the novel. It’s that kind of book: by the end of it, you feel that everything has happened. And all the way through, Theo has kept the picture. Faithfully, frightened of being found out, only occasionally unwrapping the heavy package to peek at what Boris so wittily described as his dear friend’s ‘zolotaya ptitsa’ (literally: golden bird).
Indeed, it’s like Donna Tartt set out to write the impossible. The ultimate novel about art. I would not say that it is (how can you?), but it is one hell of an artistic statement. It is an art statement. She tries to see that pattern (‘maybe I see a pattern because it’s there?’), something that would go from William Blake and to Lady Gaga. She got as close as you can, without burning yourself or compromising the fact that you’re but an artist. She even named her book The Goldfinch. How humble is that. How bold.
And it is not just that you’ve grown older. You are at the point of no return, you are basically dead already. ‘Life is catastrophe’, with art as its sole saving grace. “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1654. ‘I was different’, says Theo when he looks at the picture years later, ‘but it wasn’t’.