Modris Eksteins has won the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. The book paints a portrait of Germany through the world wars (and beyond), using culture as a lens. Vincent van Gogh serves as the thread: his life, his work and, in particular, the sensational trial, years after the Dutch painter’s death, of an art dealer accused of offering van Gogh forgeries for sale. Otto Wacker, dancer-turned-art dealer, personifies the crisis of truth and authenticity in the modern era.
“I … regard this book Solar Dance as a kind of footnote, as a modest 300-page footnote,” Eksteins, professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto, said before being awarded the $40,000 prize in Vancouver.
Eksteins called the book a footnote to his own work as a historian, to that period of history and to van Gogh’s life. “What a miserable failure the man was in his own century, absolutely miserable,” he said. “The man couldn’t even sell his own art … and yet in the subsequent century after his death in 1990, [van Gogh’s painting] Portrait of Dr. Gachet sells for $82.5-million at Sotheby’s in New York, a record at auction for any painting up to that time and certainly for the 20th century.”
The jury cited Solar Dance, which was also short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, as “a fascinating work of cultural history, and a provocative analysis of the roots of the modern era as it developed in the social and political turmoil of the early 20th century. … Solar Dance is as rich in imaginative speculation as it is in its wealth of detail. It will provoke deep thinking about the nature of genius, about authenticity in life and art, and about the contradictions of our age.”
Added University of British Columbia English professor and biographer Ira Nadel, in introducing Eksteins: “It’s about Vincent van Gogh, but it’s really about genius, it’s about forgery, it’s about the question of truthfulness and authenticity.”
Eksteins, 69, was born in Riga, Latvia, and immigrated to Canada as a child.
A European historian with a special interest in the relationship between war and culture in the 20th century, he has also written such prizing-winning books as 1989’s acclaimed Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, which won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize and the Trillium Book Award, and Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century, which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Award in 1999. Both were named Best Books of the Year by The Globe and Mail.
The other short-listed books for this year’s B.C. National Award, selected from a field of 143 nominations, included: Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s memoir A Season in Hell: My 130 Days In the Sahara With Al Qaeda; B.C. poet George Bowering’s memoir Pinboy; and Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood, which won the Weston Prize. Each short-listed author received $2,500.
The award, now in its ninth year, is open to all Canadian writers. It is presented by the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, established by the province in 2003. The jury was made up of long-time Globe and Mail books editor Martin Levin, former Vancouver Public Library city librarian Paul Whitney and publishing veteran Jan Whitford.