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Powell's Q&A

Ross King

Describe your latest project.
My new book, The Judgment of Paris, tells the story of how and why Impressionism started in Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. I cover the art, politics, and wars in the eleven years between the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. The book is a group portrait in a way, with Monet, Cézanne and Renoir in the frame. But most of all it's the story of two drastically different painters, Édouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. They were opposites in virtually every way imaginable. They were known, in fact, as "the two poles of art." Meissonier was the world's most famous and most popular painter, garlanded with critical laurels and showered in huge sums of money. Manet, on the other hand, was a critical laughingstock who couldn't even give his paintings away. Their reputations have since reversed, but I try to take the reader back to a period when Manet's paintings -- especially works like Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia -- could scandalize and electrify a nation that was as obsessed with painters and painting as we are today with sports figures and other celebrities.

If you could choose any story to live in, what story would that be?
I would have loved to attend one of Jay Gatsby's parties, but my first choice would probably be a detective novel like Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios. I lead a sedate and unadventurous life, so being plunged into Ambler's world of spies and criminals in 1930s Europe would probably be quite good for me.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
For the past twenty years I've held a torch for Madame de Vionnet, from Henry James's The Ambassadors. She's worldly-wise, beautiful, and has a bit of a past. She also has an apartment in a swanky part of Paris and likes to go boating on the Seine. What more could a man ask for?

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good place to start.
I've been recommending John Banville to people for years, but now that he's won the Man Booker Prize he needs no help from me at all. These days my favorite recommendation is the late Malcolm Bradbury. Few authors have managed to sustain such a high standard of writing over so long a period of time. He's a great satirist, extremely funny but also wise and generous. I'd recommend beginning at the beginning, with Eating People Is Wrong, which seems as fresh and lively today as when it was published in the late 1950s.

What is your favorite literary first line?
The opening of "Death and the Compass," a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, is pretty hard to top:

"Of the many problems which exercised the reckless discernment of Lönnrot, none was so strange — so rigorously strange, shall we say — as the periodic series of bloody events which culminated at the villa of Triste-le-Roy, amid the ceaseless aroma of the eucalypti."
How could anyone not keep reading?

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I read Michael Frayn's Headlong after several years of insistence from a friend who finally got fed up at my procrastination and went out and bought a copy for me. I then enjoyed it so much I literally read it in one sitting. I was only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
I read from front to back, like a book. Any other way is cheating.

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
I'm a Cancerian, but I wish I'd been born a few days later; that way I'd be a brash and self-confident Leo. Still, maybe the introspection and angst of a Cancerian makes for a better writer? spacer

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