The Beholder

Sunday, Sep. 01, 2002

Farber finds inspiration in the figurative
Nudes led to 'Beholder'
By Georgia Rowe


THE FEMALE FORM has been a source of inspiration for artists throughout
the centuries. Painters, sculptors, photographers and other visual artists
routinely employ figure models. But writers have rarely followed suit.

A few years back, author Thomas Farber decided to break the mold.

Wondering what effect working with models would have on his writing,
Farber, who teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley, placed an ad in a local paper. "Author seeks female figure models," it read. He received more than 100 responses and began hiring selected applicants to pose for him. His new novel, "The Beholder," is the result.

In a recent interview at the Berkeley cottage that is both his home and his
studio, Farber said he initially embarked on the project with the intent of
writing a nonfiction book. The author, who has published one previous novel,
four books of short stories and five nonfiction works, explained that "The
Beholder" is a far cry from the book he set out to write.

Love and art

"My books always come out of an obsession," says Farber. "This book began
when I realized I was obsessed with the female form, and I started studying
the great paintings and photographs of women.

"I was reading art history and feminist discourse about these works of art,
and I thought that I would write a nonfiction book, a sort of cultural
conversation about them. Instead, that material became the backdrop for this
book, in which one of the characters is an art historian and the other is a
writer, and their love story is played out across the issues of art and

In the beginning, working with nude models seemed a necessary part of his
research, even though Farber says he wasn't at all sure why.

"It was an interesting experience," he says. "The ad said 'no photographs'
-- since I wasn't planning to take any, I thought I'd clear that issue up
right away. When they called, I'd say 'I'm a writer, and this is what I'm
going to do.' I didn't have any standard -- I didn't say young, old. I took
the people who most wanted to do it, because I didn't really know what I was
looking for.

"I had my computer on, and they could sit in a comfortable chair. They could
read a book, talk or not talk. Many of them were art students, and they had
very strong ideas about what I was doing. Often they made suggestions. They
quickly established themselves. They were hardly subordinate to my
enterprise, and a lot of what I do in the novel comes from my experience
with them."

A push toward fiction

Eventually, it became clear that he was no longer writing nonfiction. "Each
of these individuals was so powerful, so present, that I realized I was
going to have to do justice to that," says Farber. "It wasn't going to be
some piece of art removed from me. I couldn't do that with 20 people.
Everything was pushing me towards fiction, towards one woman and one way to talk about this set of issues."

Like Farber himself, the central character in "The Beholder" is a
Berkeley-based writer obsessed with the female form. In the novel's first
pages, he embarks on an affair with a young married woman pursuing a degree in art history.

The nameless characters -- who simply call each other "Father" and
"Daughter" -- have an immediate attraction, connecting at first in a mutual
passion for art and literature. They soon become lovers, and in their quest
for intimacy, begin to explore forbidden territories. Photographing
themselves as individuals and during lovemaking, they become both the
actors, and the voyeurs, of their adulterous affair.

"I call it my sex and death book," says Farber. "To me, it's a book about
art. It's a book about love and sexual passion and loss. And maybe it's a
book about 'What can art preserve?'"

Emergence of passion

"This was the first time I had tried to write about the act of passion," the
author continues. "Why I hadn't done it sooner, I don't know. In my earlier
books, passion was always something that just happened or was going to
happen. But it was never an action on the page. Maybe a man would see the
curve of his wife's breast, and that would be as erotic a moment as I'd ever

"Suddenly it seemed to me that the act of passion was something I needed to
describe. But it also seemed that passion is always undercut by the threat
of loss."

Farber, who grew up in Boston, began his writing career in the '60s as a
contributor to the now-defunct San Francisco Express Times. His first story,
he recalls, was about a hippie wedding in Big Sur.

Out of that experience came his first book, "Tales for the Son of My Unborn
Child." Other works include a novel, "Curves of Pursuit," a collection of
short stories titled "A Lover's Question," and two nonfiction books about
the Pacific, "On Water" and "The Face of the Deep." A former commentator for
NPR's "All Things Considered," Farber is the recipient of numerous awards,
including Guggenheim, Fulbright and National Endowment for the Arts

'Framing a moment'

The author says his primary inspirations for "The Beholder" were Marguerite
Duras' "The Lover" and Colette's "Cheri" -- "both great pieces of writing,"
he says, "with something of the erotic in them." He says he's happy with the
new book, yet admits the writing of it was often difficult.

"The young woman in the novel quotes Leonardo da Vinci, saying it's hopeless
to try to say in words what a painter can do. It's not hopeless, but trying
to portray the erotic is no easy feat," he says. "The way I found to do it
was the Polaroids -- to keep framing a moment. They're looking at the
pictures, and we are looking at them looking at the pictures, which creates
several levels of remove from the erotic moment."

Farber says he's been getting positive feedback from readers, including
kudos from one of the models who posed for him -- "she loved the book," he
says -- but he allows that "The Beholder" might not be for everyone.

"You don't write a book like this without expecting strong responses," he
says. "The characters are involved in a passion that is getting them into
trouble, and there's an impulse on all of our parts to forget such actions
we may have done ourselves. I also think the erotic can make us
uncomfortable. We know it's part of life, but we also like it to be orderly.

"But I'm pleased with the book. I took on a difficult subject -- at least as
difficult as writing about the ocean -- and I gave it a try. I don't expect
everyone to like it. But I think I had access to a kind of power, and I
tried my best to live up to it. It was difficult, but I had a great time