The words of the artist still cast a spell

August 21, 1994|By Diane Scharper

This first novel by Michael Kernan consists of two intersecting stories. Each story concerns lusty young men with marvelous visual powers. One, Peter Van Overloop, is an aspiring artist. The other, Frans Hals (1580?-1666), is the master portrait painter of Haarlem.

One story is set in New York in the present. The other, a diary, is set in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The stories intersect as Peter translates the diaries into English in order to verify their authenticity.

Mr. Kernan, a resident of Baltimore and former reporter for the Washington Post, has an eye for telling detail and an astounding ability to use words that the artist of a painting might have used in describing his work. Because of this, the novel, at times, resembles an Imagist poem. This is especially true of the passages in which Hals talks about one of his paintings, several of which are reproduced in the book.

The reproductions, Peter's checking of dates, the language itself make the novel believable. Readers will feel as though they're reading biography. Mr. Kernan draws the audience into the novel, blurring the lines between story and history, casting the spell of art. The genius of "The Lost Diaries" is this spell. The spell depends mostly on Peter Van Overloop as the audience for the diaries. He is the filter through which readers see Hals' life.

Peter wants to believe that the diaries were written by Frans Hals, partly because Peter needs the money he would earn from translating. Peter has been hired on the condition that he stop translating as soon as he finds anything that suggests that the diaries are not authentic. Peter also wants to believe in the diaries because he has become attached to Frans Hals, whom he considers a kindred spirit.

Readers of Peter's story (which is also Hals' story) will identify with him. They will want to believe in the authenticity of the diaries. They will feel close to Hals. Like Peter, they will feel "a featherlight touch on the shoulder, the comradely touch of the long-dead author of these words."

That touch mainly comes from Hals' voice. Hals is so open, enchantingly honest -- one minute he is berating himself for falling in love with a young woman, the next minute he's falling in love with a tulip. "I do not seem to learn," he writes after losing all his money in a tulip investment. "I need a keeper. I cannot work in this misery."

Add to this the numerous parallels in these interlocking stories and you get a tremendous and satisfying sense of irony. Peter is an impoverished graduate student at Columbia University in New York. Hals, too, according to archives, is often in debt.

Each is at times homeless and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Each is impassioned and passionate. They are led by their emotions and have much trouble with women. Their women are creative, erratic and hot-blooded.

Hals works with light, brushing white strokes onto his portraits. Peter has been working on and off on a thesis about the placement of light in the art of another baroque Dutch painter, Pieter De Hooch.

Unable to prove anything in his thesis, Peter feels as though his career has stalled, a situation that Hals often experiences. Like Hals, Peter has much going for him. He is intelligent, talented and fluent in Dutch. He is a creative temperament in search of inspiration.

That inspiration comes from the diaries. What else could you expect from writing like this:

"That night we walked out to the bleaching fields. The stars came right down to the ground. I want to paint that. I want to put that down on canvas so people will always see it, so someone not born yet will see how it was in Haarlem on this night. . . . The way the blackness sucks you up into it. Captures you and draws you up away from your life on this earth and changes you in a few moments, so that you will have that lovely darkness in you forever."

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

Title: "The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals"

Author: Michael Kernan

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 316 pages, $23.95

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