The Beholder


Wed, Aug. 28, 2002

A writer discovers a muse in female form
By Nora Villagrán

The writer in Thomas Farber's novel, "The Beholder,'' seeks his muse in the
curves and hollows of the nude female form.

The protagonist -- known simply as "the writer'' -- poses the question:

"Why should only visual artists get to study the female form? . . . I felt
I'd never looked carefully enough at women. Too much pursuit, need. What
had I failed to see?''

He finds his muse, not among the naked models posing as he writes, but in
the heart of the woman who, initially, only lets down her hair.

"Utterly undoing him,'' Farber writes, "she begins to unpin her long brown
hair. Bathes him in a downpour. Of abundance, appetite.''

In this passionate feast -- illuminated by Farber's love of language as
beauty, erotica and fun -- the writer and his lover share a fascination for
words, lovemaking and intimate Polaroid snapshots.

"The god of passion has come to town. Passion is going to have its say,''
says Farber, 58, about his tale of two lovers that begins with "Once upon a
time . . .''

On Thursday, Farber, who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley,
will give a book reading in San Francisco. He will give another reading in
Berkeley next Wednesday.

"In this radiant novel, Thomas Farber creates a new lattice of desire,''
says Steve Erickson, author of "The Sea Came In at Midnight.'' "Haunting
the spaces in between is a woman with the face of a dream, the voice of a

A Fulbright scholar, Farber is a three-time winner of the National Endowment
for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim fellow, who's written numerous
books of fiction and creative non-fiction.

He's also an avid surfer. "Surfing is putting yourself in the arms of the
ocean,'' says Farber, who calls writing ``a physical endeavor. Writing a
novel is marathon writing.''

Born in Boston, he grew up in a "book-obsessed home.'' His mother was the
poet and children's book author Norma Farber, who died in 1984.

"Books were the language of my home,'' he says. "You had to read to keep
up. It was a very rich environment. Language was a form of play.''

Language is a form of play in his novel, as well. The lovers use words as
foreplay: "It's the word `engorge' that stirs me,'' she replies. "Me, too,
dear one. I'm even stirred by the verb `stir.' "

"The way they talk to each other excites them,'' says Farber. "They're
high on their common language; they savor language as a beautiful

The lovers are also excited by their photo-taking.

"The click of the Polaroid runs through the novel -- it's about holding on
to the moment,'' says Farber, who first conceived of the book as a
non-fiction project.

"In preparation, I had models come to the house, much like my character,
and I tried to `paint' them in words. I was longing for a 21st-century muse.
Someone articulate with insight and great passion.''

Farber creates his muse in the fictional flesh of the writer's lover, a
married woman.

The novel is an ode to writing: "Writers are the canary in the mine shaft.
. . . Writing is in part an argument with the world.''

It's also a psychological exploration of self and how the things and people
we love become an extension of ourselves.

When his lover asks the writer how his book is, he answers: "I'm fine,
thank you.''

Farber says, "They become each other's muse. He tells her she's the woman
he would be if he were a woman. It's a deep kinship.''

The story, he says, is "also about death, loss and the threat of loss.''

She does, after all, have to choose between her lover and her husband --
both of whom she loves.

"Ah, adultery,'' Farber says. "The book doesn't recommend adultery. But
people are often faced with hard emotional choices in their encounters with
fidelity. These are the perils of being human. We try to make our best

And what about his own love life?

"Right now, I live alone,'' he says. "Like my character, I've had some
long and rich relationships. I've been well-cared for in my life.

"It was being cared for that allowed me to be a risk-taker and look into
the dark side of love's moon.''

The novel's epilogue is a short, sweet paragraph floating like a lifeboat in
the middle of a white paper ocean:

"Dear one: here we are. Book you said you wanted. Book we've become.''