It’s no secret that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite writer. I own a copy of every one of his novels and an omnibus collection of his short stories. I even stole some quotes from Kurt for a best man speech. His stories speak to me in a way no other writer has managed. One of these stories is about an artist.
Bluebeard was one of Vonnegut’s last novels. It was published when Kurt was sixty-five and after a period of what some might call a decline after a string of his successes in the 1960s and 70s like Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.
Bluebeard stands out among his novels. It's not surreal, it doesn't have any sci-fi elements, and it's not particularly funny. But it is poignant and reflective in the way that only Vonnegut can achieve. This isn't a novel Vonnegut could have written at just any point in his career. It wouldn’t have been possible for him to write Bluebeard without first coming to national acclaim and notoriety with his previous books.
The book is an imaginary autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an abstract painter who rose to fame in the early half of the 20th century. Within the story he is a contemporary of other, real-life abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Rabo has a natural talent for drawing and painting, able to create photorealistic drawings as a child. His work is radical and often simple. For example, a solid field of green with a strip of colored tape. These abstract paintings draw Rabo a lot of criticism.
The story begins with Rabo in retirement. He's old and reclusive. His career has afforded him a beachfront home to live out his remaining years in relative solitude and out of public life. But that hasn’t stopped the public’s interest. Rabo has a locked barn on his property that no one has seen inside, feeding a rumor that a priceless collection of artwork is contained within. One day a woman who lives nearby shows up on Rabo’s beach and this is where the majority of the story will focus, though the timeline meanders as Rabo reveals his past to us in pieces.
Bluebeard at its core is all about artistic expression and legacy. Why would an artist who has spent years honing their craft and can reproduce life on a canvas focus on abstract patterns? What material things will we leave behind and how will we be remembered, particularly after all those that know us are gone?
A number of Rabo’s paintings that were hanging in museums were painted with a discontinued paint called Sateen Dura-Luxe. The paint eventually fell off the canvases, coming off in big shreds. This made Rabo’s prized work worthless and essentially “lost” within his own lifetime.
Vonnegut gets to live vicariously through Rabo, with Rabo’s paintings serving as a proxy for Vonnegut's own writing. Vonnegut’s stories were controversial and his work was not taken seriously by some critics because of the fantastical elements of many of his books. Even though all of his writing deals with heavy themes like war, religion, free-will, and morality. This is mirrored in Rabo, who can recreate human forms and landscapes in precise detail, but chooses not to in favor of his own abstract style.
Though Rabo is a melancholy character, the story itself is wholesome and changed the way I’ve thought about the permanence of what we create. Bluebeard is an under-rated novel that anyone with an interest in art would appreciate.