ANGELES — In author Mark Sarvas’ Santa Monica
apartment, beside a wall of meticulously organized
books, hangs a print of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s German
Expressionist painting "Berlin Street Scene,"
which served as the inspiration for the fictional work
of art at the heart of his second novel, "Memento
story of a second-generation Hungarian American’s
attempt to reclaim that valuable painting, which may
have been looted from his father’s family in Budapest
during the Second World War, "Memento Park,"
says Sarvas, has been a long time coming.
the mid-’90s, when he began publishing short fiction,
his bio read, "Mark is working on his first
novel," he confessed over glasses of sparkling
water. The book’s subject matter? "Looted Nazi
was a moment where I saw pretty clearly that I wanted to
do more with the book than I felt able to," said
Sarvas. "So I thought, I’m going to put this in a
drawer and not write it as my first book, because I’m
not ready." Instead he debuted with "Harry,
Revised," which he called his "training
Park,’ " he said, "feels like the book I was
waiting to write." A dense, layered novel — part
history, part mystery — it reckons with heritage,
faith, fatherhood and the complications of confronting
conversation, Sarvas listens with a controlled, coiled
energy that springs alive when he’s ready to speak or
leap up to refill a glass. That quick twitch earned him
fans — and foes — as the voice behind early literary
blog the Elegant Variation; in a 2008 interview, The
Times’ Scott Timberg described him as "acid
fingered," noting a simmering feud with fellow
author Steve Almond, which Sarvas says has long been
laid to rest.
fingered, bad boy blogger," Sarvas shouldered his
share of nicknames — and was happy to play the part.
"People used to love getting the controversial
quote out of me," he said, a little wistfully.
"It’s not that I’m being coy — I don’t feel
that scathing toward people anymore."
experience of writing a first novel, in which "he
came to realize firsthand how much a person pours into
that," softened Sarvas’ tongue. Furthermore, he
became a father, and between raising a child and
teaching creative writing at UCLA Extension, he’s
moved away from criticism to mentorship. "Those
things, they mellow you out a little. In private, with
friends, over bourbons, I’ll still say stuff that’ll
make your hair stand on end," but those barbs
remain behind closed doors, in part because the literary
world already feels saturated with them. "In this
hateful cacophony of Twitter, I don’t think it adds
Park" is written by a matured Sarvas, if not a
chastened one; it’s a personal book (Sarvas is the
child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants and his
protagonist, Matt Santos, winkingly shares his initials)
that paints Gabor Santos, the character based on his
father, unflinchingly. Sarvas waited to write the novel
for that reason, too.
I knew that my father wouldn’t be alive to see the
finished book was the only time that I had the courage
to sit down and start writing it," he said.
Simultaneously, "I had this awareness of losing
access to a part of his past and to the story of who he
was; because we didn’t get along terribly well, we
weren’t super close, we didn’t have those kinds of
tension between examining his relationship with his
father at the very moment that relationship began to
slip irrevocably away became a central theme in the
novel. "What happens when the past is gone forever?
When you’ve waited too long to ask those questions,
how do you move forward?"
way, Sarvas discovered, is research. In the novel,
Santos examines his lack of faith; to write about
Judaism with authority, Sarvas took an 18-week
introduction to Judaism course at the American Jewish
University primarily aimed at prospective converts.
"I was the only Jew in this class, and they’re
all kinda looking at me like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re
already in, why are you here?’ But I knew next to
nothing," he said.
also traveled to Budapest, where he visited family, the
house where his father was raised and the open-air
museum strewn with Soviet-era statues from which the
book borrows its title.
walk around these fallen warriors and it’s weirdly
moving and there’s something sort of beautiful about
it in spite of all the repression and the horrors that
we know it represented," he said. The trip was an
effort to reconstruct the past, but it confirmed his
sense that, in some ways, the past is disconcertingly
present. "These things that feel like they were
vestiges of another era are alive and well and very much
with us," said Sarvas.
"Memento Park," the quest to reclaim a stolen
painting is fraught with the weight of family secrets
and history. It’s a story of restitution that begs the
question: Is storytelling a kind of restitution in and
all that’s left is the story," said Sarvas.
"I found myself thinking, maybe this character,
Gabor Santos, was my father’s last gift to me."
In turn, Sarvas gives it to us — and to his family.
"My daughter never knew my father," he said,
"but she’ll know him through this book."