Nicholas Nicholson - Object of Desire
Author Interview

1. You have become an acknowledged expert on Russian art, and Fabergé in particular.What attracted you to art, and to the world of art trade and preservation? It appears to be an interest you have had from an early age.

I grew up in New York City, and am lucky to have a family that considers art important. Like Sasha, I was taken to museums and galleries and treated very much as an adult by my parents, who explained pieces to me and encouraged me to express my opinions about what we were seeing. I think my early exposure to art, and my familiarity with the collections at the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Collection, and the Forbes Galleries, laid the groundwork for my professional career in art.

I became interested in Russian history and culture when I first read Tolstoy. During my senior year of high school, I went on a student trip to the Soviet Union, and that visit to Leningrad and Moscow really changed my life. I went on to major in art history and Russian studies in college.

2. What gave you the impulse to translate this passion and expertise into literary expression?

At first, I wanted to write a silly tell-all about the auction business. But as I wrote I realized that I cared too much about the objects and the people I had worked with to make fun of them. What was wonderful about Christies was that I was able to work with some of the greatest experts in fine and decorative art, and to meet many important collectors and scholars.

I also made a number of friends in the Russian émigré community and was privileged to hear their family stories. The combination of these experiences turned into Object of Virtue.

3. Reading Object of Virtue is a truly sensuous experience. You take the reader inside the splendor of Fabergé and the material culture of Imperial Russia. The ability to see that culture, and convey it to a reading audience that is perhaps unfamiliar, is impressive. Can you comment on this?

I dealt with Russian objects and art on a daily basis for nearly ten years, and so it was very easy for me to describe the sensations of living with these things as a part of your everyday life. I also know many people who have intimate knowledge of Imperial Russia either because they have closely studied the period or because they or their parents had been there. I have read so many firsthand accounts of that time that I could imagine events in the past as if I had lived them. I am fortunate to have friends who are scholars of this period and were able to provide me with details I never could have known: that the car the Empress used in Saint Petersburg in 1913 was dark red, for example, or that the winter uniform of her chauffeur was cashmere.

4. Sasha comes from a family with tremendous wealth and social position, which he in no way eschews, and yet he lives a much simpler life than his parents, and he works. That may strike some readers as contradictory. Why did you choose to position Sasha in this way?

The children of the very rich whom I have known seem to live in one of two ways. Some acknowledge that their money is an advantage and they try to live a normal and productive life that includes working at something they enjoy. Others do nothing with their advantages, and coast along without direction. Sasha is very much the former. Also, I must note that Sasha's life is not so simple: the apartment he owns on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is certainly over half a million dollars, he can fly to Russia at the drop of a hat, and he stays in some of the world's most expensive hotels without thinking about it. In comparison to his parents he appears frugal, but it takes a great deal of money to live as simply as Sasha does.

5. Is Sasha a character who is familiar to you? Have you encountered peers like him in your travels through the world of Russian art trade? What part of you might be Sasha?

I know a lot of people who are like Sasha, and I like to think that there is quite a bit of him in me. Sasha admires and upholds tradition without being constricted by it, he is a loyal member of his family and a devoted friend to others, he is a consummate professional in his field, and he has great manners without being pretentious. I know many people of Russian descent like him, but I also know many Americans who share those qualities as well.

6. The characters in Object of Virtue face enormous moral dilemmas as they grapple with the sale of Snegurochka. What is the position you are most sympathetic to - Sasha's? His father's? Marina's?

I hope it is clear that I most admire Sasha's position. He believes that the figurine is, at best, a work of art he is vaguely sorry not to own, but to which he acknowledges he is not entitled. He understands that the object was created for his family at considerable cost to pre-revolutionary Russian society. Sasha's goal is always to preserve what was good about Russian culture (art, language, history, religion) while not perpetuating what was not (social and economic injustice, anti-Semitism, censorship, oppression), and his moral dilemma over the figurine's ownership is guided by those goals.

Sasha's father's reaction is interesting. He has always longed to have the same strong bond with Sasha as his late wife, and he sees the recovery of the figurine as a chance to do that. I think that Cyril's misguided attempt is, in the end, quite touching. He wants to impress and please both his father and his son, while honoring the memory of his late wife. In the end, by trusting Sasha and respecting his abilities, he does all of those things without the figurine.

I do, however, have pity for Marina and understand her dilemma: Marina is unable to distinguish between her own value and the value of the objects, which used to belong to her family and relatives. She feels a sense of entitlement to what was lost without a sense of obligation to the culture that produced them. You can see this in her callous comments to the curators struggling to preserve her family's furniture. Marina sees in a very dramatic way the effects of the old order, and the horrors of the Soviet system, when she finally understands what happened to the people who were left behind. This causes her to reevaluate her position and her opinion. I like to think that a little understanding and remorse are behind her sale of the brooch.

7. Sasha's family, in the end, reconciles its terrible conflict over the sale of Snegurochka. That conflict, ultimately, is a projection of the difficult emotional and social negotiations of Russia's émigrés, exiles, and other citizens living between an evolving Russia and the West. Do you intend for this resolution to speak, in some way, to the larger social project of the Russian-American community?

My experiences in the U.S. and in Russia that I drew upon to write this book are my own, and I never intended them to be either a lesson in history or a comment on the Russian-American community and how they should or should not react to their history.

It has been my privilege to know many different sorts of Russians: Russian Jews who left in the nineteenth century and have built new families, lives, and identities here in America; Russian noble émigrés who now live outside Russia but return regularly out of a sense of duty to restore its monuments and help its poor; recent Russian immigrants who have come here for a better chance for their children and are proud to be Russians; and finally, people who left Russia hoping never to see it again. I also know Russians who get up every day in Moscow and Petersburg, watching carefully to see what happens as their young government makes its way in a complicated world.

My book was never meant to be anything more than a fictional entertainment, but the people who inspired it and the situations in it are very real and very important to me. If readers come away from Object of Virtue with even a fraction of the respect and esteem in which I hold the Russian community, I will be very happy.

 
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