Tag Archives: artist’s life

Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy

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The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Time for a re-read of another wonderful W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence, published nearly 100 years ago in 1919. This novel is inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, but in this fictionalized account, the protagonist is British, a man called Charles Strickland. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the best of Henry James, for we have a narrator who isn’t exactly involved but is a peripheral canny observer to crucial events. We don’t ever find out a great deal about the life of our narrator as this is the story of Charles Strickland, and when the novel opens we know that Strickland is an artist of some renown. We also know that there is some controversy about Strickland’s life with the intriguing information that his son and biographer, the Rev. Robert Strickland has “an astonishing ability for explaining things away.”

the moon and sixpenceThe narrator goes back in time to his youth as an aspiring author in London, part of a circle of writers, and his introduction to Mrs. Strickland, one of a number of women who hosts luncheons for those in the literary world. The narrator rather likes Mrs. Strickland, a woman in her late 30s, as she’s kind and has a genuine “passion for reading.” Unlike many of these literary groupies, she has no ambitions of her own, and is apparently content to have these young authors in her home–as if their mere acquaintance makes her own life more interesting. Mr. Strickland is noticeably absent, but since he’s a broker on the stock exchange, and according to his wife, “a perfect philistine,” his absence seems both expected and no loss to the literary society that gathers at Mrs. Strickland’s table. But all hell breaks loose when rumours abound that Strickland, after 17 years of seemingly-happy married life, has deserted his wife and family and run off to Paris with a woman. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Strickland summons the narrator and begs him to go to Paris, track down her husband, and bring him back. The narrator somewhat reluctantly accepts…

Over the course of a number of years, the narrator runs into Strickland. One time is, of course, an intentional meeting with Strickland, in theory, being lectured about his ‘moral obligations.’ Strickland, however, is the most curious character. How can one appeal to morality and conscience when the person who’s receiving the lecture has simply opted out of the moral system he’s supposed to adhere to?

When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the upmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilized man.

No one, of course, forced Strickland to marry, have children or become a mediocre stock broker, but he seems, in his youth, to have made the decision, as most of us do, to go with the flow, and now, at forty, seeing the years ahead, he has taken drastic, one might say callous measures, to change his life. Strickland’s genuine lack of concern of the opinions of others “gave him a freedom which was an outrage.”

A second meeting with Strickland 5 years later would seem to reveal more information about his character, but instead a tragic chain of events involving Strickland only creates a chasm of questions and ambiguities. One thing is clear, however, if those involved or connected with Strickland expect him to abide by any traditional code of morality or behavior, they are going to be hurt. Strickland is a toxic and destructive man. He takes and uses and expects the same in return.

The narrator admits a deep curiosity about Strickland which has morphed into fascination with a character that cannot be dissected, understood, analyzed or neatly boxed:

It was tantalizing to get no more than hints into a character that interested me so much. It was like making one’s way through a mutilated manuscript.

Years later, the narrator’s fascination with Strickland leads him to Tahiti where the truth, if there is indeed a truth about Strickland, is revealed in his nebulous legacy.

Our narrator is almost, but not quite, a tabula rasa, and even though this is predominantly Strickland’s story, if we dig carefully enough, flashes of the narrator’s character appear. We see not just fascination with Strickland but also perhaps a deeply buried sympathy. At first the narrator admits to a “touch of envy” for the “pleasant family life” at the Stricklands, but after an evening with them, he admits that while he understands the “social value” of the family unit, he desires a “wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.” And then there are the narrator’s comments about the nature of women:

I did not then know the besetting sin of woman, the passion to discuss her private affairs with anyone who is willing to listen.

And:

It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest.

Strickland’s use of women is divided in two simple groups: sex and models, and if the two become one temporarily, well so much the better:

What poor minds women have got! Love. It’s always love. They think a man leaves them only because he wants others. Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I’ve done for a woman?

While the narrator is fascinated with Strickland simply as a previously-unknown character type, there also are strains of the doppelgänger in their relationship.

There is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilized world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

W. Somerset Maugham is a subtle writer, much under-read these days. When I reread these favourites, even though it seems as though I’ve returned to an old friend, there’s always something fresh to uncover. Certainly the test of an excellent novel is to return to it 2, 3, or 4 times and to find it new and intriguing each time.

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