My interview with Austin novelist Dominic Smith, whose latest is “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” is scheduled to run Sunday, but as usual, I had to leave out parts of the interview to keep the story to a manageable length.
So I’m including some of that here. It has to do with literary inferiority complexes, and whether Smith’s native Australia is similar to Texas in that respect.
Smith says that for most of the 20th century, Australia indeed had an inferiority complex, but that things changed in 1973, with Australia’s Patrick White won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“That gave a new generation of Australian writers the confidence that they could write Australian stories and have them be taken seriously as literature,” Smith says.
Still, he says, Australia went through what’s called the “tall poppy syndrome — that if someone shoots up and become great in one thing, there’s a historical impulse to cut them down. The idea is basically that Australia has a history of cutting down their tall poppies, and a lot of them.”
He adds: “There were a lot of writers and painters who left Australia and went to Europe or America to get known. I think that’s really changed, though. Despite cuts in recent years, there’s been a massive investment in the last 30 years in Australian arts, with quite an amount of funding for literature and art. I don’t know about Texas historically, but I think it’s true — that there’s a desire to prove one’s worth as an artist outside the confines of what is perceived as provincialism.”
And while Texas has no Nobel Prize winners in literature, Smith quickly points to the Texas tales of Cormac McCarthy and others, saying that he thinks regional Texas literature can also be universal.
“It’s interesting that with both Australia and Texas, there are these enduring stereotypes,” he says. “Both places are urban, but people culturally cling to the cowboy or the West Texas ranch or the Australian Outback. Most Australians have never been to the Outback.”
Smith’s new novel focuses on a female painter during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, then switches to 1950s New York, where a lawyer named Marty de Groot has a painting of hers in his apartment on the Upper East Side. At the same time, a young art history student decides to forge that painting, only to be haunted by her youthful indiscretion when she finds out that her forgery is on its way to a museum in Australia where she works in 2000.
The painting at the center of the book is titled “At the Edge of a Wood.” It shows a young girl overlooking a scene of skaters on the frozen river below.
Smith says that the idea for the painting was inspired by the Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp. “He painted all those winter scenes where you see skaters out, a whole village. Avercamp was a generation before Judith Leyster (another inspiration for the novel), and he painted these winter scenes in the early 1600s. He lived in this very remote place, and he was deaf and also mute, and his winter scenes are to me spectacular because what they show is a cross section of society. … A peasant taking a leak, then you have this aristocratic-looking couple being pulled on an ice sled. At the very end (of the novel), the self-portrait of Sara de Vos is somewhat based on Judith Leyster’s self-portrait. It was probably her masterwork that she submitted to get into the Guild. She has the incredibly vital and alive expression, and she’s turned to the viewer and her lips are slightly parted as if she might speak to you. And I just love that painting. It was a nod to her as well.”
If you want to see the Leyster painting and learn more about Smith’s research for the novel, go here and read what Smith wrote recently for the Paris Review. And if you want to meet Smith in person, he’s appearing at the Blanton Museum of Art at 6:30 p.m. on April 21. For details on that event, go here.