When I Was a Work of Art

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a contemporary French writer, known as the author of a number of easy-to-read books, but, nevertheless, filled with deep philosophical meaning. One can even say that each of his works is a philosophical parable that raises at least one global problem of being: what is life, death, God and religion.

His novel “How I Was a Work of Art” was written in 2002 and is no exception.

In the story, a young man who decides whether to jump off a cliff to commit suicide meets a famous avant-garde artist, Zeus-Peter Lama, who literally saves him from death. He offers 24 hours of existence, which will turn the young man’s consciousness upside down and convince him that life is beautiful and that later he will not want to say goodbye to this life. The young man agrees to the proposal of the artist, who turned him into a living sculpture, a piece of art. At first, a young man rejoices in his reincarnation: he sees the admiration of the public and considers himself to be necessary to society. He enjoys his new name “Adam-bis” and the effect he has on people. After some time, he loses interest in this, accidentally meets with the girl Fiona and her father Carl Hannibal, who turn the young man’s worldview. He realizes that he has made a big mistake and decides to bring the past back, trying to correct what has been done. He is kidnapped, resold several times, in the end, he finds himself in a national gallery and belongs to the state. He continues to secretly meet with Fiona and once he finds out that she is pregnant. At that moment he decides that he cannot continue this way — he must gain freedom for the sake of his wife and for the sake of the unborn child. The trial begins, as a result of which Zeus-Peter Lama gives up his claims to his creation, and he finds freedom.

The first thing that catches your eye is the theme of art, the “true artist” and the selling artist. What is art? Is an artist’s commercial activity an art? And the desire to sell a picture for a higher cost? All these questions are raised in the work to the surface, and the author argues about them, putting the characters in different situations. In the end, an artist who works not for money, but for the sake of art as such, becomes known and recognized, while the artist, chasing fame and popularity with the press, disappears from view, and for critics it becomes unnecessary for anyone. This topic is acutely relevant in today’s time, when art is undergoing very strong changes, and art objects cost fabulous money. The author once again reminds us that the revaluation of objects of art and in general any objects does not lead to anything good except death. First of all, the artist’s personality is destroyed, and as a result, the art itself, which is not engaged in transformation, disfigurement, is destroyed.

Who is Zeus Peter Lama? It seems that this person is on the surface: selfish, narcissist, placing himself above others, not at all embarrassed by this; in his mind, the whole world lies in front of him, and so it must go on forever. We know nothing more about this artist except the fact that his eighth wife is frozen and is in her “dream” in the basement of this house, just because she wanted to preserve her beauty. All the previous seven wives of the artist died for one reason or another. Such discoveries are suggestive whether everything is alright with this Zeus-Peter Lama. Even his name tells us about his supernatural essence — he is not a man. Zeus and Jupiter are Gods of Thunderers, and the author often compares this character with them. But is he a positive hero? He could be compared with Faust by Goethe, who seduces people, captivates them with dark forces and begins to rule them.

Another nuance that can be noted is that, despite all the transformations that Zeus accomplished over the young man, Adam’s soul remains intact, his ability to think and his eyes remain intact. He is still the same young man as he was on a cliff. He does not change inside with a changed body. His eyes are a reflection of his soul and all these thoughts that he endures. It was these eyes that Fiona saw and realized that inside this monster there is a person who can still be saved.

Speaking many times “young man”, we do not turn to tautology. Everything is justified by the fact that the real name of the young man-statue is revealed only at the end of the novel, when he meets his parents in a new denunciation, he is called Tazio. Before that, we only knew his surname (Firelli), and that he is the younger brother of the famous twin models. Thus, we can conclude that this character should not be perceived by us as a person — from the very beginning he was a thing without a name, and when his name appears in the work, his human essence is revived with human fears with desires and vices.

When Adam-bis gets into the national gallery and becomes the property of the state, his body begins to abandon the manipulations the artist has done on him. His body literally unfolds, festers, breaks into small pieces. All this is due to the fact that Adam himself begins to understand: appearance is not important in order to become happy and find himself in this world.

The last two notes on the metamorphosis of Adam are reinforced by the sensation of temperature as the main character: before him, let’s say, “accepting oneself”, everything seemed cold to him, and with the advent of rejection of Zeus’s manipulations, heat and tremor appear.

To some extent, the antipode for Adam-Bis is the fate that befell his two twin brothers, whom he envied all his life. One of them is killed by a drug overdose right at one of the auctions where Adam was sold. Thanks to this, another two years of quiet life in the role of a model appear after the second brother, after which he will have to retire or just commit suicide. They did not have their families, and they stopped communicating with their parents. They had nothing left but beauty, faded with their youth.

Beauty and deformity is another line of questions and answers expressed in the novel. Each character has his own view on the definition of beauty and deformity and on their role in human life. Any statement on this topic can be safely entered into a notebook with quotes, since they will always be relevant.

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