Illustration by Pamela Jaeger

When, in a recent report on the decline of reading, the National Endowment for the Arts defined literature as “fiction, poetry, and drama,” it left no room for Lawrence Weschler, who may be the finest writer in the United States, despite having never worked in any of those forms. “Friends of mine sometimes ask me,” Weschler notes in his new book Vermeer in Bosnia, “why I don’t try my hand at writing a novel” — as if this is (or should be) the implicit goal of everyone who writes. For Weschler, though, it is nonfiction that offers the real challenge, the possibility of connection in a complex universe.

Vermeer in Bosnia is a collection of 22 pieces — essays and reportage, cultural and political commentary. It is a lush book, encompassing artists like David Hockney and Edward Kienholz, as well as the horrors of the Balkan genocide. What’s astonishing is the extent to which, for Weschler, such subjects engage each other, his ability to make the most disparate elements cohere. It’s an intention he makes explicit in the title essay, which blends an account of a Bosnian prison guard’s war-crimes trial with a consideration of the Vermeer collection in the Hague’s Mauritshuis museum. Vermeer may be known for the stillness of his paintings, but, Weschler suggests, there’s a world beneath their surfaces, a world not unlike our own. “[W]hen Vermeer was painting those images,” he writes, “which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation.” Art, then, is less a reflection of the world than a strategy for redemption, a way of, in difficult moments, “finding — and, yes, inventing — a zone filled with peace, a small room, an intimate vision . . . and then breathing it out.”

It makes sense that Weschler would put such emphasis on art; his first book was about Robert Irwin, who is the subject of a piece here. But art also underscores these essays much more subtly, suggesting a line of sight, a standing in the world. In the luminous “The Light of L.A.,” Weschler dissects “the late afternoon light of Los Angeles — golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds,” an image that becomes a memory, then yields to a nuanced exploration of science and emotion, the way the composition of the air itself gives the light its unique cast. “My Grandfather’s Last Tale,” meanwhile, interweaves the story of the author’s grandfather, the composer Ernst Toch, a German Jew who escaped the Nazis and settled in Santa Monica, with an account of Weschler’s efforts to get Toch’s final opera produced. This essay highlights the idea of art as reclamation; Toch was a distant grandfather, but in his role as musical executor, Weschler finds a passage inward, to his heart. At the same time, Toch’s experiences appear to have influenced his grandson’s interests, from the atrocities in Bosnia to the work of Art Spiegelman, whom Weschler profiles about his book-length Holocaust comic Maus.

This isn’t the first volume of Weschler’s shorter writings; yet more than its predecessors — Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills and Other True-Life Tales and A Wanderer in the Perfect City — it has a comprehensive aura, a certain gravitas. Partly, that’s because Weschler is not afraid to take on the big issues, whether political, aesthetic, or some combination of the two. But even more, it has to do with the collection’s integrated vision, the sense that everything fits. This is what literature does: offers up a coherent worldview, a perspective, a sense of mystery and manners. And in these essays, Weschler continues to push the boundaries, finding connections where we least expect them, and reporting back to us on a society that is at once profound and vicious, wondrous and frightful — in other words, nothing if not real.

Vermeer in Bosnia | By Lawrence Weschler | Pantheon | 416 pages | $25 hardcover

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