A Writer and His Character Discover a Family’s Stolen Past

Mark Sarvas, author of the new novel ‘Memento Park,’ talks about the resentment and the relief in finding a lost legacy

Mark Sarvas’s new novel Memento Park is a moving and compulsively readable story about the journey of a piece of stolen art, and an account of one man coming to terms with a past he barely knows.

I tore through it, caught in its spell the entire time. I was particularly struck by how Sarvas managed to gracefully navigate a six-way intersection of the political, the personal, the historical, the contemporary, the inherited, and the improvised. We sat down together to talk about how history — both the personal and the global — has a way of reemerging in the present, perhaps despite our best efforts.

Antoine Wilson: Memento Park comes a decade after your debut novel Harry, Revised. Can you talk about the origins of this book, and what took you so long to follow up your first?

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Mark Sarvas: I’d been thinking about the subject in some form or another since the late 90s, since well before my first novel. I knew I wanted to write about looted art but I also knew I didn’t have the chops to pull it off as a first novel, so I stuck the idea in a drawer and wrote Harry, Revised.

I had greater ambitions for this novel, and I was also excavating some personal stuff that I wasn’t in a hurry to delve into. I wanted something deeper and (dare I say it) more lasting. For my first book, I was in a hurry, and I’d felt like I’d allowed “good enough” to be good enough. I was determined not to settle this time.

As for the actual writing time, a few things intervened, major life changes like the birth of my daughter, moving, collapsing marriages, and so on. From my start in January 2009 to the sale to FSG in May 2014 ate up six years. But as I always tell my students, each book takes as long as it needs.

AW: Memento Park is in first person, narrated by an American of Hungarian descent who shares your initials. Is it safe to say that this novel and its protagonist are close to you?

MS: That was super subtle, the initials thing, huh? The plot of Memento Park is wholly fictionalized; there’s no valuable art in my family, sadly. My stories tend to start out as “what if” questions: Here it was, “What if a guy became aware of a painting that might belong to his family, how would he be able to reach back into the past to prove it?”

The stuff that’s closer to home is around the relationship between my narrator Matt and his dad. I had a pretty complicated relationship with my dad, a tough, demanding immigrant of the old school. I think I felt in some ways a bit of a perpetual disappointment to him. He was remote and not particularly warm or easy to know, though I did love him (and fear him). So a lot of him went into Gabor’s characterization, and a lot of the anxieties and conflicts between Matt and his father are, shall we say, inspired by life. That said, I should add that Gabor still is a fiction, a heightened and more monstrous (for dramatic effect) version of my father. (My sister would insist I tell everyone that; and it’s largely true.)

Similarly, Matt isn’t me, though we share a good deal more than just initials. Early on, I made a big break between the two of us, and made Matt an actor. It’s a profession I couldn’t in a million years undertake, but I know actors, so I could write about the work knowledgeably. The moment I opened up this gulf, Matt stopped being “me” and became “him.”

AW: One of the fascinating things about Memento Park is how alienated Matt Santos is from his religious heritage, his family history, even his given name. An actor living in Los Angeles, he’s practically an exemplar of the American affinity for self-reinvention. The novel can be read as a study of his reluctant emergence from the daydream of an identity unfettered by the past. What motivated you to write about this journey?

MS: My parents are both survivors of the war in Europe, and in my 30s, I would badger my mother to tell me her stories. (My father wasn’t really the story-telling type, though he opened up a bit toward the end of his life.) She tried once or twice but couldn’t finish a sentence without crying. I even bought her a microcassette recorder, thought it might be easier if I wasn’t in the room. No dice. And so I think there was a little bit of frustration at a story closed off. I resist overly neat readings of any work of fiction (as, I know, do you), but I think a central idea that preoccupied me and is expressed throughout the novel is: What happens when the past is permanently out of reach? When you wait too long to ask important questions? As the last generation of Holocaust survivors begins to die, that felt more pressing than ever.

AW: It’s a fascinating take on the legacy of trauma, where the ordeal of the past shuts off not only painful stories but also interrupts intergenerational transmission of religion and culture.

MS: That seems a very common phenomenon, this generation of postwar Jewish immigrants who lived a secular, American life. (Yes, we had a Christmas tree!) The more I researched Memento Park, the more resentful I became about losing my Jewish heritage. I actually had to take a 12-week Introduction to Judaism course at the American Jewish University because I knew so little about being Jewish.

I think there was also a little bit of self-indictment, honestly, a reckoning with my own disengagement and lack of curiosity for so long. Ours was a secular house where certain things just weren’t talked about, but I’ve come to see I accepted that silence a little too easily. Maybe it was easier for me not to have to deal with my parents’ pain and loss. I don’t know.

You’re also very astute to pick up on the self-reinvention theme — I re-read The Great Gatsby every year, it’s my favorite for a reason. Memento Park surely casts at least a sidelong glance at the ways in which I’ve run from myself, a feeling that can be especially acute in Los Angeles. The choice of making Matt an actor, one who freely and easily assumes and discards personae, isn’t an accident.

AW: While reading Memento Park I found myself googling the artist Ervin Kálmán and his “Budapest Street Scene,” only to discover that you’d invented them. How did you go about creating the artist and his work? Did you go through many different ideas for paintings before settling on “Budapest Street Scene”?

MS: Ha! I never thought anyone might google him. I didn’t invent them so much as more or less steal them. He is modeled very closely on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (again with the initials), one of my favorite German expressionists, who painted an iconic series of Berlin Street Scenes. I thought at first of simply using the real art and artist but I didn’t want to be bound by his history, and I wanted the painter to be Hungarian. But Kálmán’s biography leans very heavily on Kirchner’s, including the fact of his suicide, and all of the paintings I attribute to my painter are Kirchner’s.

I’ve long wanted to write about art and painting, and it’s a real writerly challenge, isn’t it? Trying to bring a picture to life, to make people see what you’re seeing. Some of the most fun I had writing the novel (which wasn’t often much fun) was writing about the art.

AW: Writing novels isn’t very much fun, is it? And yet we persist. What is it that keeps you writing, or, at least, kept you going while writing Memento Park?

MS: I think, for me, there’s always a nugget at the center of each novel, a question, that draws me in and keeps me working. With Harry, Revised, the question was small and personal — what does it really mean for a person to change, and is change even possible? But for the long haul of Memento Park, it felt like I was dealing with something a little more important, a little deeper — what happens when the past is lost beyond our ability to retrieve it? And so, through those days when you wrestle with scenes that don’t add up, or characters who don’t come to life, you can always return to that animating question as a touchstone. I need those big, important questions to push me forward. To make me feel like this is something worth writing down, because it’s tackling something that matters.

AW: What was the greatest discovery you made in the process of writing the book?

MS: There were many discoveries, as befits a book that you spend seven years on. But the one I’ll share here is something I’ve told my students ever since. If your work doesn’t surprise you, it won’t surprise your readers. I’d always known that as an intellectual fact, but in Memento Park, a story twist (which neither of us shall reveal here) came to me when I was well into the writing and caught me totally off-guard. And it works the same way in the book, because it doesn’t feel like there’s a long, conscious set up, it just unfolds organically. And I felt the truth of that advice.

I also wrote without an outline, which I hadn’t done before. That unnerved me, but I trusted the world and the characters to show me the way, and although it took time, I believe it paid off.

AW: You mentioned Gatsby, but are there any other books or authors you return to again and again? Stories that are, as you wrote Memento to be, lasting?

MS: Sort of. There’s always so much to be read that I try very hard to keep moving forward, give new work its due. At the same time, some works just never quite exhaust their demand on your attention, and other works seem to magically unstick you when your writing gets mired in mush. My main influences these days are the two Johns, Berger and Banville. The first for his luminous humanity (his death last year was a deep blow), the latter for his unparalleled style.

There are other writers I love very much, who inspire me but who don’t necessarily influence my style, though I like to think they press on my thinking. Those include writers like Zadie Smith, W.G. Sebald, Marilynne Robinson, and J.M. Coetzee.

Sometimes, I will go back to a book to answer the question “How on earth did she/he pull that off?” A recent example was Max Porter’s brilliant and moving Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which breaks every single rule as it soars.

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