Photograph of Edmond (left) and Jules (right) de Goncourt by Félix Nadar
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

The Black Vase

My brother Daniel has given me three gifts in the last two decades. I don’t mean to say he was stingy; I haven’t given him any at all. We don’t exchange gifts. We live too far away to visit for holidays and birthdays are remembered in other ways.

Instead of gifts, we write letters, long feverish letters, sometimes two in a day, though not every day, at times not even once in a month, and sometimes for much longer than that. And suddenly, like species of insects that reproduce in years spaced in intervals of primes and then in enormous number, we write and write and write.

One of Daniel’s three gifts was a vase he had made.  Or what looked to me like a vase. It was a hollow black cylinder the height of my forearm, from which irregular thin polygons of ceramic jutted out like flaps of hardened flesh. In contrast to the dull, matt finish of the vase itself, these appendages were glazed in chthonic hues of ores and roots and humors, each piece in its own color: strips of cerulean, a wing of oxblood, a single rhomboid of cadmium yellow. A slit had been made into the surface to open a long thin void that extended down to about a fist’s distance from the base.

Theatrical, imposing, and impractical, it was an anti-vase.

I was moved by my brother’s gift. He never showed his work to me, much less given me something he had created. Living so far from New York, I rarely had the chance to visit him and when I did, he didn’t want to talk about his work.

I tripped over my words in rushing to thank him. It was remarkable. Extraordinary. Wonderful. I was overwhelmed, I said. He must have sensed my awkwardness as I groped to acknowledge the gift without using the one word that would have been the easiest to say if it had been the most ordinary of presents: beautiful.

Because I didn’t think of it as beautiful. I wasn’t sure if that was even something you said about this kind of art. I don’t know what frightened me more—appearing insincere or looking stupid in Daniel’s eyes.

But though honored by his present, I felt as if I’d received a book of difficult but important poetry in a language I knew only half well. I couldn’t quite get it.

I also couldn’t entirely escape the feeling that Daniel was teasing me in some small way. I was half convinced he already thought I was boring and pretentious and a snob—in his defense I probably was at the time—and his gift was a way of calling me on my conventionality. He was daring me to exhibit his piece in my tidy house of hardwood floors and Breuer chairs and a sink that never held dirty dishes overnight.

I didn’t blame him. I was fiercely proud of him and always defended him, so naturally I thought he had a right to judge me. (You don’t grow up with a mother who’s angry a lot of the time without thinking that you have, in part, provoked it.)

In retrospect I know Daniel wasn’t judging me. But I was a harsh critic of myself then, and found in my brother the perfect person on whom to project this criticism. Perfect because I loved and admired him so much.

He was the uncompromising rebel who pushed at boundaries and broke rules. I told myself that’s what gifted young rebels are supposed to be, angry and arrogant. I remember walking with him in New York, how he carried himself erect with his gaze fixed at a point slightly above the horizon and with a look that slid back and forth between a scowl and dull indifference. He lived in a rough part of Brooklyn and had told me that his mien was a mask of self-defense, a precautionary measure for the streets he lived in. “I feel safer if they think I’m a crazy fuck who would bite their nose off or something.”

Daniel had brought the vase with him from Venice, where he was living and working at the time. It was his first visit now that Matthew and I were together, and like a boy tugging at his father’s arm to show him the fort he’s built at the shore’s edge, I was eager to show my brother the life I had made with Matthew and my second homeland.

The three of us went to Sifnos, a small island in the Western Cyclades renowned less for its beaches than for its centuries-old villages of whitewashed houses which lay strewn across its hilly uplands like pearls spilled from an undone necklace. Most would call it beautiful.

Daniel didn’t say much about his impressions of the island, but he was wonderful company and more relaxed than I had ever seen him before. Goofy, even. I have a picture of him in a village square with his mouth around our beagle’s front paw in a re-enactment of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”, part of an impromptu show he put on with the “grossest scenes in the history of art”. 

He didn’t say if he liked the island but he told me he liked Matthew and the person I was with him. That should have been more important than his liking the island, I suppose, but for some reason it wasn’t.

“Why should it matter to you if I find it beautiful?” he said. “You didn’t make it.” And then he added: “Always be a little skeptical of people who judge anything too quickly.”

For a few weeks after Daniel left, I kept the vase on the dining room table. To his credit, Matthew was accommodating and didn’t say a word, though I think more because he was waiting half-amused to see how I would deal with it.  Eventually I put Daniel’s gift in a gap of space on the bookshelf where Matthew and I kept the weighty foot-high exhibition catalogs we bought on our trips abroad. It didn’t call so much attention to itself there.

I tried to like it. I tried to think of it as the work of sculpture it probably was. At times I saw it as a piece that questioned the love of decoration and show, at times a memento mori, a reminder that a vase, in the end, is but a receptacle of death.

But it didn’t work. I kept seeing a vase that couldn’t hold water.

It stood there on the shelf like a figurine of some Fluxus god of disruption and practical jokes, scolding me for my mediocrity. Daniel was the artist that I wanted to be but didn’t trust myself to become. Instead of writing my own words, I settled for editing or translating the words of what others wrote, or teaching these words to others.

It wasn’t the worst of decisions. I am a decent editor and a translator, though I work too slowly for either to be a sole source of income. The writer in me sneaks into both trades. I rewrite more than I should when editing, and I am an unfaithful translator when faced with a clumsily written original. But these moments of infiltration were not the same as my brother’s work. I was a dilettante, the vase told me.

As disturbing the piece was, I couldn’t banish it from the house. The vase was his avatar. It reminded me of him as much as it reminded me of the distance that separated us. It was all I had of him, apart from a few pictures I’d taken of him on the island. One sits in a frame at the far end of the same shelf on which the vase stands. He’s in profile, his face awash in the milky light of late morning and graced by a smile as radiant as the folds of an angel’s robe. He is impossibly beautiful.

Years later, I still don’t know what Daniel intended his gift to be. One can never be certain about an artist’s intentions (though it is not wrong to wonder what they were). I am certain now that the vase wasn’t meant to test or tease me. I think he wanted me to have something that he had created, and this was the piece he was proudest of. Odd really, why it was once easier for me to believe I was more worthy of being taught a lesson than of his love.

His gift no longer makes me feel unworthy. I have even come to think of it as beautiful. With its window of space excised into the walls of a hollow cylinder, the vase is an intriguing play of voids that confounds presence and absence, much in the way that it reminds me of Daniel and not-Daniel at the same time.

The vase will hold no flowers. Daniel and I will spend no summer evenings talking late into the night after the others have gone to bed. But art is not utility, nor love proximity.


The image for the post is a photograph of Jules (1830-1870) and Edmond (1822–96) de Goncourt. The two brothers have a special place in the history of literary and art criticism, not only because of their work and the Prix Goncourt, which was their legacy to talented young writers to come, but also in light of their unusual literary partnership. The brothers first rose to fame with the publication of a series of essays they had written together on 18th century art, which the younger brother Jules illustrated. They wrote six novels, again together, now largely forgotten, and a much more widely read (and no doubt more fully enjoyed) journal of Parisian society, in which they chronicled the city’s literary and artistic life. It is in this very long Journal that the brothers write:  “There have been many definitions of beauty in art. What is it? Beauty is what untrained eyes consider abominable.” (translation by Robert Baldic).

The two brothers were bachelors—Jules straight and Edmond gay—and spent every day of their adult lives together, until syphilis claimed the life of Jules in 1870 at the age of 40. The two are buried in the same grave in Montmartre. A selection of entries from the brothers’ Journal, edited and translated by Robert Baldick, was reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2006. See Geoff Dyer’s review in the Guardian  and Adam Kirsch’s intriguing piece “Masters of Indiscretion”, in the New York Sun.



5 responses to ‘The Black Vase

  1. Once again a wonderful, ‘lit’ piece of writing. Thank you. I didn’t know of the de Goncourt brothers but will try and visit their grave next time I am there. I would like to hear more about that angry mother at some point…


    • Thank you! I’d like to visit their grave, too. I’m fascinated by their immense devotion to each other. It’s (maybe not so) odd that you should ask about the mother. She has made a brief appearance in a story about a mother who couldn’t cook and another in a post in which she almost nixes my plans to drive from NY to Boston with my best friend from school. But not much else, which is something I should probably investigate. Thanks again. S./


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