On the Page: Bernard Berenson and J.J. Abrams

CohenBernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Rachel Cohen

(Yale University Press, 344 pp., $18.98)

“I wanted to become a work of art myself,” the art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) wrote late in life. Over his 94 years, he fashioned himself into the foremost scholar of Italian Renaissance painting, perhaps the most envied and reviled art scholar of the 20th century. His meteoric rise began with his family’s move from a village in what is now Lithuania to Boston. Harvard followed. Isabella Stewart Gardner supported his studies in Europe, where he honed his eye and acquired art for her.

American collectors were developing a lust for the Old Masters just as B.B., as everyone called him, was coming into his own. The globetrotting dealer Joseph Duveen, the Larry Gagosian of his day, came calling, hiring him to hunt and attribute paintings. Their finds fill our museums. B.B. earned a fortune ($44 million in today’s dollars), a life in a book-filled Florentine villa and the love of numerous women (B.B.’s Orchestra, his lover and librarian termed them).

Did the contract with Duveen corrupt his scholarly judgment, as some have argued? It looks improper by today’s standards, but Ms. Cohen argues—rightly, I think—that it’s impossible to judge, and there’s evidence he rebuffed entreaties to upgrade attributions. Berenson, though, felt he lost his innocence in the market, writing, “The spiritual loss was great and in consequence I have never regarded myself as other than a failure.” —Andrew Russeth

S_slipcase imageS.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

(Mulholland Books, 472 pp., $35)

For those among you who wished that House of Leaves had been more obtuse, welcome to the world of S. Written by Doug Dorst and produced, as it were, by J.J. Abrams—a man who has never met a plotline he couldn’t convolute—S. manages to be both frustratingly dense and distractingly frothy at the same time. Quite a feat, and you’ll soon realize where all that “production value” comes from: Using secondary sources like scrawled margin notes, found letters and cipher keys, S. tells the story of two students, Jen and Eric, who begin to unravel the mystery of made-up author V.M. Straka through one of his translated novels, Ship of Theseus, the form that S. (the story, novel, etc.) originally appears to take.

There is no way to describe S. without getting into the maddening details that Messrs. Abrams and Dorst have added: From the oblique references in viral videos that appeared on YouTube early last month to the weird “old book smell” that has been perfumed in the S./Ship of Theseus’s hardcover edition in order to add a musty authenticity to its pages, the novel’s hyper textual shticky-ness begs readers to pay more attention to its flare than its substance. Perhaps this is because its producer realized early on that S. had no substance to speak of. —Drew Grant