“The abyss of San Sebastian” by Mark Haber: a link between art critics and enemies


A brief summary of Mark Haber’s “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” suggests a novel of unusual breadth, physically and thematically. Haber’s story, about two art critics obsessed with a Renaissance painting, touches on topics such as art, criticism, friendship, obsession, and death. While these thematic threads are deftly worked through in Haber’s second novel, describing them so simply fails to convey the dark, devilish humor that runs through the book.

Haber — director of operations at Brazos Bookstore — relishes opportunities to tip the holy cows. So, rather than a heavy door stopper of a novel on the themes set out above, his book is actually a slim volume, but not at all lightweight. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is a pandemic project created during a feverish three-month period. With relish, he skewers a fundamental claim found in criticism and academia while examining the fragility of the ways we connect to art.

“After reading Schmidt’s email, I knew I would have to fly to see Schmidt on his deathbed in Berlin.” Thus begins the story of two austere art critics whose obsession since their Oxford days has been a single painting titled “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” by Count Hugo Beckenbauer, a Dutch Renaissance painter, of whom little is known. things beyond three paintings that survived destruction by the artist before syphilis plunged him into the great abyss.

Beckenbauer and his painting are the work of Haber’s imagination. But its detractors feel so well understood that one could be excused for Googling “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” to glimpse a web that only exists in the book.

“I liked the idea of ​​writing about these two guys who are so deadly serious,” Haber says. “But the hope is that the reader can sit and think, ‘These guys are jerks.’

“I like to work that line between very tragic and very comical.”

Born in Washington, DC, Haber grew up in Florida before moving to Houston ten years ago. He published a collection of short stories in 2008, followed by his first novel, “Reinhardt’s Garden,” three years ago.

His new book is 71 chapters across 141 pages, giving it a nervous energy worthy of the maniacal obsession of its narrator and nemesis Schmidt. Their connection is based purely on an affinity for a single masterpiece, which proves to be a shaky foundation for the friendship. The narrator recounts how the two looked at the painting with their hands around their eyes so as not to see the other two paintings by Beckenbauer, which the two critics considered very inferior to “the abyss of San Sebastian”. Haber didn’t specifically envision their practice as an allegory for a sort of 21st-century tunnel vision formed by social media and selective discourse, but the book certainly berates those who are comfortable embracing the older view. closer to life, love, friendship or art.

Critics’ erudition produced books that, in turn, attracted a loyal following, with Schmidt’s followers even imitating his bushy mustache. If the story sounds sultry and noble, that’s definitely the point. Haber is concerned with issues of objectivity versus subjectivity, while also grappling with the veneer of human relationships, which often aren’t as deep as we think. It presents uncomfortable truths about art and life with a humorous tone that offsets the seriousness we attribute to them.

“What fascinates me, as someone who works in a bookstore, are questions of taste,” says Haber. “What is intellectual? What is that ? Who determines what’s great and what’s not? Does anyone have a greater interest because they have an Ivy League degree? Or because they have been studying something for years? The whole idea of ​​access control, who becomes the gatekeeper? Someone might pick up a book in the store, and I’ll think ‘Ugh.’ But if it makes someone happy, who am I to say there’s something wrong? And on the other hand, you can’t have a Big Mac and a slice of Kobe steak and say it’s the same thing. I was interested in those gray areas.

“I must add that I don’t have definitive answers.”

‘Abyss of Saint Sebastian’

By Marc Haber

coffee press

160 pages, $16.95

The first half of the book plays almost like a mystery, as our narrator presents the historical context of Beckenbauer’s hedonistic life and art and his descent into madness. The narrator also tells the story of his friendship with Schmidt. The rift between the two reviews is something of a thriller, unspecified for much of the book.

Schmidt – a misanthrope who shows Haber’s affinity for Austrian novelist and curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard – is the more severe of the two, believing that all art ceased to be worthy of attention after 1906.

“Schmidt is the more dictatorial of the two,” says Haber. “And his assertion that the art died in 1906 means he doesn’t need to have a conversation with anyone who is alive. He can control this conversation. Otherwise, he would be called.

Throughout the comedic interactions between the two men, Haber strings together little moments that seem rooted in a difficult interpersonal experience, with all the concessions that entails: I agreed because agreeing with Schmidt was easier than to disagree with Schmidt,” writes Haber.

“I liked the idea of ​​looking at this friendship and how it looks and doesn’t look like most friendships we have,” Haber said. “Sometimes they’re not as close or authentic as they could be.”

Yet the testy couple are tethered to adulthood by a single painting about a third-century saint whose own story is darkly comical through the right lens. San Sebastian’s first assassination attempt involved four arrows fired into his torso. He was groomed until he was bludgeoned to death.

Haber didn’t have a specific painting of Saint Sebastian in mind that his detractors would obsess over (“I was raised Jewish, culturally Jewish, but laid back”), but a few elements are repeatedly described in the book: the saint, a donkey and a city in flames. The painting proves fascinating to the narrator and Schmidt as university students indulging in a youthful obsession with the “glory” of a vaguely defined abyss.

The reality of the abyss, as presented in Haber’s novel, is a darker affair devoid of romance, allowing the author one last laugh at the expense of two men whose obsession limits their ability to experience so many life that unfolds beyond their cupped hands blocking all but what is directly in front of them.

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Twitter: @andrewdansby


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