Review: Tesla, A Portrait with Masks, by Vladimir Pištalo
Translated from the Serbian by Bogdan Rakič and John Jeffries
Graywolf, 2015. 452 pp. $15
How would you write a biographical novel about a Prometheus of electrical engineering who invented the alternating-current motor, the robot, and wireless radio, and was the first to liquefy nitrogen and discover the properties of X-rays? Why, with lyrical prose and mystical dreams derived from Serb folktales, Greek myth, and Freudian symbols, of course.
Sometimes I fly all the way to the stars, where it’s always morning and where people made of silver live. Sometimes I plunge through the blue void in between the lights of the universe or dive in the ocean depths among the glowing fish. In the middle of the night, I long to see the day, and I see it. . . . I’ve learned to cope with a wonder as vast as death.
That’s how Vladimir Pištalo has inhabited the mind of Nikola Tesla, the elusive, enigmatic genius who had the world at his feet, only to spurn it. Like its namesake, Tesla is magnificent–big, sprawling, leaping from moment to moment, tiresome at times, but brilliant, taken together. The novel consists of more than a hundred chapters, most shorter than four pages, an approach that would normally annoy me as melodramatic or superficial. But the framework allows Pištalo to isolate key moments over a long lifetime without straining to connect them; as the late Leonard Elmore once advised, he’s tried to leave out the boring parts.
Many chapters, especially later in the book, introduce the myriad well-known figures who cross Tesla’s path in the United States: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Mark Twain, John Jacob Astor, Sigmund Freud, and J. P. Morgan, among others. They’re all memorably portrayed, and many have pithy, revealing things to say. But of hundreds of acquaintances, Tesla had precious few friends, nor did he ever marry or have a sexual relationship. “Science is my fiancée,” he said.
Accordingly, the novelist’s burden (or the biographer’s, for that matter) is to show why Tesla let no one reach him. Pištalo focuses on the inventor’s elder brother, Dane, who died young but was their father’s favorite. Only Nikola’s near death from cholera persuades this implacable parent to allow his only surviving son to study science instead of becoming a priest like himself. But when the young man brings back stellar grades and commendations, the elder Tesla’s complete lack of interest prompts Nikola to leave school.
That aside, there are many whys that beg explanation, which is what makes the narrative so fascinating. To me, chief among them is Tesla’s refusal to accept offers of investment, which allows other inventors the breathing room to copy his ideas and get the credit, while his laboratory has to close for lack of funds. If you’re like me, you read this and want to reach into the pages and shout at him for his stubbornness and arrogance–but plenty of people are already doing that, to no effect. He’s had bad experiences with partnerships, but that’s not the real reason. Rather, “I can’t turn my mind into a commodity,” he says. He fears losing his right to let his mind roam anywhere he wants, for any purpose, on which depends his sense of self. As he tells a friend, “You know that creativity without play is either a fraud or a mistake.”
I agree wholeheartedly and wonder whether that remark could be the epitaph of our age. Learning is such a serious business nowadays. So I was heartened, on a recent trip to San Francisco, to visit the Exploratorium, a marvelous museum Tesla would have loved. It’s a huge space chock-full of machines on which you can demonstrate just about any principle of physics that doesn’t require a nuclear reactor. One exhibit showed a quote summing up the museum’s philosophy, which I paraphrase: The highest forms of learning inevitably involve some aspect of play.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.