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Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

“Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments.”

Alphonse Daudet’s Artists’ Wives easily makes my best-of-year list. This themed collection of short stories argues “again and again that artists cannot be happily married.” The idea exists (is it broadly accepted?) that Art is a jealous mistress, and Daudet shows this argument to be true, repeatedly, through his stories. Yet it’s not as simple as that: Daudet creates 12 stories, 12 situations if you will, which argue his point from various, cleverly devised angles. The book begins with a prologue in which “two friends–a poet and a painter” spend an evening together. After dinner, the poet, who is single, declares that he envies his married friend, and so a dialogue begins with the painter stating categorically that artists “ought never to marry.”

Here’s the breakdown of the stories:

Madame Heurtebise

The Credo of Love

The Transteverina

A Couple of Singers

A Misunderstanding

Assault with Violence

Bohemia at Home

Fragment of a Woman’s letter found in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs

A Great Man’s Widow

The Deceiver

The Comtesse Irma

The Confidences of an Academic Coat

Daudet doesn’t just create an artist (who by the way can be a poet, a writer, a singer, a sculptor, a painter) who neglects his wife and dallies with his latest muse; no, Daudet is too ingenious for that. He creates 12 different scenarios of domestic hell all built around the complexities and complications of placing an ‘artist’ in the relationship.

Artists wives

Madame Heurtesbise would be arguably the one of the most predictable scenarios were it not for the sting in the story’s tale. Madame Heurtebise is seen as an unpleasant, pretentious woman:

having a certain love for glitter and tinsel, no doubt caught at her father’s shop window, making her take her pleasure in many-coloured satin bows, sashes and buckles; and her hair glossy with cosmetic, stiffly arranged over the small obstinate, narrow forehead, where the total absence of wrinkles told less of youth than of complete lack of thought.

This story, of a writer who marries an unimaginative woman, reminds me of the misery of married life found in George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

The Credo of Love, one of my favourites due to its dark humour, is the story of a woman who dreamed of being “the wife of a poet,” but instead she is married off to a wealthy, older man whose one “passion” is gardening.

She remained like this for a long time, closed in by the four walls of the conjugal garden, innocent as clematis, full however of wild aspirations toward other gardens, less staid, less humdrum, where the rose trees would fling out their branches untrained, and the wild growth of weed and briar be taller than the trees, and blossom with unknown and fantastic flowers, luxuriantly coloured by a warmer sun.

Bored, she turns once more to poetry, and then “at the terrible age of thirty, which seems to be the decisive critical moment for woman’s virtue” she meets “the irresistible Amaury,”

a drawing-room poet, one of those fanatics in dress coat and grey kid gloves, who between ten o’clock and midnight go and recite to the world their ecstasies of love, their raptures, their despair, leaning mournfully against the mantelpiece, in the blaze of lights, while seated around him, women, in full evening dress, listen entranced behind their fans.

Amaury  is “a desperate man such as women love, hopeless of life but irreproachably dressed, a lyric enthusiast, chilled and disheartened, in whom the madness of inspiration can be divined only in the loose and neglected tie of his cravat.”

A Couple of Singers is the story of two opera singers, one male, one female, who fall in love, inevitably, after singing love arias on stage to each other night after night. You’d think this match should work, after all, both husband and wife have the same career, but Daudet explores what happens when one partner in the marriage becomes more popular than the other.

A Misunderstanding is a he said/she said comparison (literally side by side pages) of a bickering couple.

Assault with Violence is a rather funny short story in epistolary form with lawyers writing back and forth and Nina, a woman who married a writer, sending letters about the situation to her aunt “an old maid.” Oh the horrors of married life to a “Bohemian.

A Great Man’s Widow, another favorite, concerns a woman who marries a musician who after 15 years of miserable married life, has the grace to die.

On the high road to fame, over which he had so triumphantly and hurriedly traveled, like those who are to die young, she sat behind him, humble and timidly, in a corner in the chariot, ever fearful of collisions.

But with the death of her husband, the widow finds that she has a newly gained stature: she is now the widow of a Great Man, and she capitalizes on this situation, becomes insufferable, marries a younger less well know musician and incorporates him into the cult-like worship of the dead man.

The Deceiver has a mystery at its dark heart, and The Comtesse Irma, sticks with me still–the saddest story in the collection.

I am impressed by Daudet’s agile mind and the subtle nuances of the stories. In the exploration of human nature, these stories are reminiscent of Balzac. The introduction from Olivier Bernier goes into Daudet’s life along with a description of how he stood as an artist during his lifetime.

Translated by Laura Ensor

 

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The Italian Teacher: Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a story of suppressed identity, reinvention, wasted talent, and a cynical look at the Art world told through the prism of a father-son relationship. While children of famous/wealthy parents may find doors opening that would be closed to the plebs, being the offspring of someone ‘great’ also brings its burden. It’s a curse to be the plain daughter of a beautiful actress, for example, and in Rachman’s book, it’s a  burden to be the son of the great American painter, Bear Bavinsky.

When the novel opens in 1955, middle-aged Bear is living with Natalie, a young artist whose medium is pottery. Together they have a 5 year-old child, Pinch (Charles) and are currently living in quasi-exile in Italy while Bear’s last family (wife and children) remain in America. Natalie and Bear’s story is a familiar one: awestruck young artist meets icon and sparks fly. But the relationship is harmful for Natalie and her work; there’s one incredibly painful scene when Natalie tries to work and the incredibly manipulative Bear is ‘struck’ by the urge to draw.  Bear is so intensely selfish, there’s room only for his ego, his needs, his demands. In another scene, they attend an art evening, and Natalie finds herself insulted and literally edged out by Bavinsky fans. Bear has a way of seeming to promote someone while he actually belittles them:

Bear reaches through the crowd, dragging Natalie to his side. “My miraculous wife, a serious talent in her own right,” he says. “Tell them, sweetheart.”

A mass of eyeballs turns to her.

“Now listen here, Bear,” someone interrupts. “You’ve simply got to tell us how…”

Nobody came to meet an unknown lady potter. They’re here for Bear Bavinsky, creator of expressionistic masterworks, wild colors crashing across each composition, a bare throat filling the huge canvas, or a roll of tummy fat, or a pricked shoulder. His detail portraits are too intimate–uncomfortably penetrating despite never once including a subject’s face. 

The novel follows the trajectory of Pinch’s life through childhood, youth, middle age and beyond. Pinch continually struggles to attain his father’s approval, subconsciously copying his mannerisms, and even his pipe smoking. As a husband and father, Bear always loses interest quickly, continually moving onto to fresh relationships. And as Bear burns through wife after wife, continually fathering children,  we see as the novel continues, Pinch’s struggles with his apparent lack-of-talent as an artist, loneliness, intimacy, sexuality, academia, etc.

Pinch makes a few significant relationships in his life, but they are all marred, in some way of another, by Pinch’s proximity to Bear. Bear’s reputation combined with his larger-than-life personality overshadow everything. At one point, teenaged Pinch, who’s been encouraged to paint by his mother, attends an art show in a rare moment with his father. Bavinsky spends the entire evening introducing his son as  “artist of tomorrow,” and yet ultimately ensures that his son will never paint again. Pinch, constantly seeking approval, moves from painting to a career in academia where, again, his whole focus is pleasing his father through a sad ambition to gain academic prestige and write the definitive Bear Bavinsky biography. While Pinch’s mother, back in London, is loving and supportive, she sinks into madness, and Pinch finds himself avoiding her, and there’s the nagging feeling that Natalie, who was discarded by Bear, has no value, and that Bear’s judgement is mirrored in her son.

The Italian Teacher is overwhelmingly sad. I rooted for Pinch to jettison his quasi-relationship with his monstrous father, strike out, change his name and have a life of his own without the legacy of his father lurking in the background. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not Pinch triumphed in the end. Looking at some reviews, I see the complaint that Pinch is a sad, frustrating example of a wasted life. It’s true that I struggle with character passivity, so there were many times I wanted to knock some sense into Pinch. Ultimately, the book, for this reader, is a poignant cautionary tale about a man who spends a lifetime trying to please a father whose opinion is worth exactly nothing.

This is primarily Pinch’s story, but it’s also a rather ugly look at the Art world, and just what constitutes “great work.” Artists/writers/creators are often given free passes when it comes to their personal relationships. There’s always that argument that Art is a jealous mistress and any great creator cannot juggle a single-minded devotion to work along with the demands of a family. And while this may be true, nonetheless, Artist as Complete Shit when it comes to personal relationships is impossible to excuse.

Rachman’s book has the power to induce the reader to examine familial bonds in light of the fictional Bear-Pinch father-son fiasco. What constitutes a father-son relationshipHow much damage should anyone sustain before severing a close family relationship? At what point do we give up trying?

Review copy

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