A love affair took Benjamin Moser from New York to the Netherlands twenty years ago. He was twenty-six and an aspiring writer. Two well-received books followed: a biography of Clarice Lispector and Sontag: Her Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize. All the while he sought to understand the country he had made his home, which was inevitably remaking him, and he did so mostly by learning about Dutch Golden Age artists, whose paintings, gathered in the country’s many museums, had a powerful effect.
A museum, he writes, has an aura. It promises improvement, elevation. Walking through galleries of Dutch art was at once calming and exciting; it raised questions, stimulated curiosity, the quantity as well as quality of the art astonishing him. How did such a small country achieve so much? Having come from a very big country, Moser felt his foreignness; it was as if the world had been turned upside down and he was viewing things the wrong way up. He cites a scene in Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. A little globe is turned upside down and a man is shitting on it from an upstairs window. The scene is a reference to the Dutch expression ‘the upside-down world’. It is, says Moser, ‘a concise symbol for what happens when you become a foreigner. You stand on some other portion of the globe. What was up is suddenly down.’ Moser was ignorant when he arrived in the Netherlands. His recognition of his ignorance, and excitement at what he’s found out, along with the desire to know more, lends a particular aura to this book.
The Upside-Down World is structured as a sequence of linked essays, or ‘meetings’. There are eighteen chapters, each dedicated to a particular artist, beginning with Rembrandt and ending with Adriaen Coorte; all are men, except for Rachel Ruysch. Each chapter is richly illustrated. The writing is conversational yet erudite, threaded