Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays

Overview

Here is a dazzling collection from Joan Acocella, one of our most admired cultural critics: thirty-one essays that consider the life and work of some of the most influential artists of our time (and two saints: Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene). Acocella writes about Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and chemist, who wrote the classic memoir, Survival in Auschwitz; M.F.K. Fisher who, numb with grief over her husband’s suicide, dictated the witty and classic How to Cook a Wolf; and many other subjects, including ...

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Overview

Here is a dazzling collection from Joan Acocella, one of our most admired cultural critics: thirty-one essays that consider the life and work of some of the most influential artists of our time (and two saints: Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene). Acocella writes about Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and chemist, who wrote the classic memoir, Survival in Auschwitz; M.F.K. Fisher who, numb with grief over her husband’s suicide, dictated the witty and classic How to Cook a Wolf; and many other subjects, including Dorothy Parker, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Saul Bellow. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints is indispensable reading on the making of art—and the courage, perseverance, and, sometimes, dumb luck that it requires.

Finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[An] elegant collection. [Acocella’s] passionate and penetrating endorsements of other works make you want to discover their pleasures firsthand–the best service a critic can render.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Critic Acocella’s deep knowledge of and organic feel for dance infuses her fleet-footed and witty prose. Like a dancer, she makes her art look easy, which it certainly is not, and what poise and range she evinces. She has now collected 30 of her stellar artist profiles, electrifying portraits that seamlessly pair biography and criticism and draw authoritatively on psychology and history. How agile these firmly rooted yet whirling essays are, and how very enlightening.”
Booklist (starred review)

“So subtle, cogent, and pellucid are Joan Acocella's essays, so penetrating and direct, that each one is a revelation. And collected together they are testament to courage and persistence by a writer of tensile strength and sharp-eyed moral conviction. A pleasure from start to finish.”
–Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life

“Joan Acocella's essays are more than a window into the heart of modern Europe. They are urgent and fresh bulletins written with the exquisite brilliance of a pen that is at once profound, uncompromising, and inspired. Joan Acocella doesn't just know Europe; she sees through it. She knows its ins and outs, spells out its genius, and as always brings luminous insights into a continent that continues to beckon, to mystify, and to elude.”
–André Aciman

“A hefty collection of profiles and essays centered around the question of what allows genius to flower in the face of often gargantuan difficulties. The galvanizing force in an artist’s success is tenacity, concludes critic Acocella . . . specifically “the ability to survive disappointment.” These 31 pieces–most originally appearing in The New Yorker, others from the New York Review of Books–reveal the author to be terrifically attracted to the underdog. Acocella’s obsessively detailed essays on dancers and choreographers are the book’s most enthralling. The emphasis here is on iconic lives, and these beautifully researched pieces provide riveting insights into the nature of creativity. Tight, intriguing and astute: Acocella is a critic with staying power.”
Kirkus starred review

“Joan Acocella writes brilliantly about a lot of brilliant artistic creators and a couple of saints. She admires patience, tenacity, and courage. She appreciates candor, resilience, and imagination in the figures she so lovingly evokes, and these qualities also characterize her own work, which is not only lucid and insightful but also generous and even noble. She is one of our finest cultural critics.”
–Edward Hirsch

Kathryn Harrison
Like Sontag, like every great critic, Acocella is subjective, uncompromising. She has a distinct point of view, a refreshingly not-fashionable one — she salutes Sunday-school virtues! — and writes from her conviction that beneath its hectic, irresponsible, even intoxicated surface, art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline. Hers is a vision that allows art its mystery but not its pretensions, to which she is acutely sensitive. What better instincts could a critic have?
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Acocella is the New Yorker's dance critic, but dancers and choreographers comprise a minority of the artists featured in this elegant collection of writings mostly from the New Yorker.The dance pieces are literally the center of the book, sandwiched between Acocella's lucid assessments of writers (and one sculptor, Louise Bourgeois). She has a taste for early 20th-century European, often Jewish novelists who, she says, helped create the modern consciousness in literature: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Italo Svevo, among others. In featuring these long-forgotten writers, she fulfills what, in a fascinating profile of Susan Sontag, she calls "an essential function of criticism: that of introducing readers to... strange work, things they wouldn't ordinarily encounter." A particularly affecting look at Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1998 portrays a man long in search of an artistic home who had to find that home, finally, within himself. The essays that follow the dance pieces focus largely on American and British writers (Bellow, Philip Roth, Sybille Bedford). Acocella can flatten a book she dislikes with cool derision ("The less she knows, the more she tells us," Acocella says of Carol Shloss's biography of Lucia Joyce), but her passionate and penetrating endorsements of other works make you want to discover their pleasures firsthand—the best service a critic can render. (Feb. 6)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
New Yorker writer Acocella delivers portraits of a host of intriguing artists, from Vaslav Nijinsky and Marguerite Yourcenar to Susan Sontag and Primo Levi, plus Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A hefty collection of profiles and essays centered around the question of what allows genius to flower in the face of often gargantuan difficulties. The galvanizing force in an artist's success is tenacity, concludes critic Acocella (Mark Morris, 1993, etc.), specifically "the ability to survive disappointment." These 31 pieces-most originally appearing in the New Yorker, others from the New York Review of Books-reveal the author to be terrifically attracted to the underdog. She focuses her attention on under-appreciated women (dancer Lucia Joyce, Saint Mary Magdalene, author M.F.K. Fisher), Jews (Primo Levi, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig), misunderstood artists and misfits (Frank O'Hara, Joan of Arc). Often her subjects were gay or bisexual. Vaslav Nijinsky, whose recently unearthed diary Acocella edited, seesawed between men and women; he gave his last performance in 1917 at age 28 before descending into schizophrenia. Marguerite Yourcenar didn't write anything for a decade, living on an island in Maine with her devoted female lover, before finally producing Memoirs of Hadrian. Acocella's obsessively detailed essays on dancers and choreographers are the book's most enthralling. Among her subjects: Frederick Ashton, who molded Margot Fonteyn into his personal ballerina; Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, who forged the modernist New York City Ballet; Balanchine's muse Suzanne Farrell, who had to leave NYCB after she married someone else, but eventually found her way back; and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who survived his mother's suicide by tumbling headlong into dance at age 12. Two entertaining essays are more general. "Blocked" examines writer's block, and "The Neapolitan Finger" exploresthe Italians' gift for talking with their hands. But the emphasis here is on iconic lives, and these beautifully researched (if rather formulaically organized) pieces provide riveting insights into the nature of creativity. Tight, intriguing and astute: Acocella is a critic with staying power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307275769
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 1,390,887
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Acocella is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she covers dance and books. She has also written for The New York Review of Books and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of the critical biography Mark Morris; Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder; and Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. She edited the unexpurgated Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky and, with Lynn Garafola, André Levinson on Dance. Acocella was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

A Fire in the Brain

William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, "Oh, who is it you wish to see?"

When I think of what it means to be an artist's child, I remember that story. There are worse fates. But in the artist's household the shifts that the children must endure—they can't make noise (he's working), they can't leave on vacation (he hasn't finished the chapter)—are combined with a mystique that this is all for some exalted cause, which they must honor even though they are too young to understand it. Furthermore, if the artist is someone of Yeats's caliber, the children, as they develop, will measure themselves against him and come up short. In fact, many artists' children turn out just fine, and grow up to edit their parents' work and live off the royalties. But some do not—for example, James Joyce's two children. His son became an alcoholic; his daughter went mad. Carol Loeb Shloss, a Joyce scholar who teaches at Stanford, has just written a book about the latter: Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake.

Lucia grew up in a disorderly household. Joyce had turned his back on Ireland in 1904, when he was twenty-two. Convinced that he was a genius but that his countrymen would never recognize this, he persuaded Nora Barnacle, his wife-to-be, to sail with him to the Continent. They eventually landed in Trieste, and there, for the next decade or so, he worked as a language teacher and completed Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With the publication of Portrait, in 1916, he acquired rich patrons, but until then—that is, throughout his children's early years—the Joyces were very poor. Some days they went without dinner. Their first child, Giorgio, was born in 1905, a bonny, easy baby, and, furthermore, a boy. Nora adored him till the day she died. Two years after Giorgio came Lucia, a sickly, difficult child, and a girl, with strabismus. (That is, she was cross- eyed. Nora, too, had strabismus, but hers was far less noticeable.) Lucia's earliest memories of her mother were of scoldings. Joyce, on the other hand, loved Lucia, spoiled her, sang to her, but only when he had time. He worked all day and then, on many nights, he went out and got blind drunk. The family was evicted from apartment after apartment. By the age of seven, Lucia had lived at five different addresses. By thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. The First World War forced the Joyces to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. As a result, Lucia received a spotty education, during which she was repeatedly left back by reason of having to learn a new language.

Was she strange from childhood? With people who become mentally ill as adults, this question is always hard to answer, because most witnesses, knowing what happened later, read it back into the early years, and are sure that the signs were already there. Richard Ellmann, the author of the standard biography of Joyce, and Brenda Maddox, in her Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, both note that the young Lucia seemed to stare off into space, but the strabismus might account for this. It is also said that she was reticent socially. Although she was talkative at home—a "saucebox," her father called her—she apparently went through periods when she spoke to few people outside her family. But the language-switching could explain this. A friend of the family described her, in her twenties, as "illiterate in three languages." It was four, actually: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was her native tongue, the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after (because Joyce found it easier on the voice). It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived.

When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, antiballetic, "aesthetic" variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora's older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who occasionally performed, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt "it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about."

Finally, after seven years' training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn't catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her "a month's tears."

The loss of her dance career was not the only grief that Lucia suffered in her early twenties. The publication of Ulysses, in 1922, made Joyce a celebrity, and there were plenty of young artistic types in Paris who thought it would be nice to be attached to his family. When Giorgio was in his late teens, an American heiress, Helen Fleischman, laid claim to him; eventually he moved in with her. Lucia, who had been very close to Giorgio, felt abandoned. She was also scandalized. (Fleischman was eleven years older than Giorgio, and married.) Finally, she wondered what she was missing. She decided to find out, and in the space of about two years she was rejected by three men: her father's assistant, Samuel Beckett, who told her he wasn't interested in her in that way; her drawing teacher, Alexander Calder, who bedded her but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, who had an affair with her and then returned to his wife. Lucia became more experimental. She took to meeting a sailor at the Eiffel Tower. She announced that she was a lesbian. During these romantic travails, she became more distressed over her strabismus. She had the eye operated on, but it didn't change. Soon afterward, her pride received another blow: her parents told her that they were going to get married. (Giorgio's marriage to the newly divorced Fleischman had started them thinking about legality and inheritance.) This is how she discovered that they never had been married and that she was a bastard.

The following year, on Joyce's fiftieth birthday, Lucia picked up a chair and threw it at her mother, whereupon Giorgio took her to a medical clinic and checked her in. "He thereby changed her fate," Shloss writes. That is a strong judgment, but it is true in part, because the minute an emotionally disturbed person is placed in an institution the story enters a new phase, in which we see not just the original problem but its alterations under institutionalization: the effects of drugs, the humiliation of being locked up and supervised, the consequent change in the person's self-image and in other people's image of him or her. For the next three years, Lucia went back and forth between home and hospital. One night in 1933, she was at home when the news came that a United States District Court had declared Ulysses not obscene (which meant that it could be published in the States). The Joyces' phone rang and rang with congratulatory calls. Lucia cut the phone wires—"I'm the artist," she said—and when they were repaired she cut them again. As her behavior grew worse, her hospitalizations became longer. She went from French clinics to Swiss sanitariums. She was analyzed by Jung. (Briefly—she wanted no part of him.) One doctor said she was "hebephrenic," which at that time was a subtype of schizophrenia, describing patients who showed antic, "naughty" behavior. Another diagnostician said she was "not lunatic but markedly neurotic." A third thought the problem was "cyclothymia," akin to manic-depressive illness. At one point in 1935, when she seemed stabler, her parents let her go visit some cousins in Bray, a seaside town near Dublin. There she set a peat fire in the living room, and when her cousins' boyfriends came to call she tried to unbutton their trousers. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap, in a sort of suicidal game. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways, or worse. When she was found, she herself asked to be taken to a nursing home.

Soon afterward, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris. She was twenty-eight, and she never lived on the outside again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though now and then she would go into a tearing rage—breaking windows, attacking people—and she would be put in a straitjacket until she calmed down. This went on for forty-seven years, until her death, in 1982, at the age of seventy-five.

Carol Shloss believes that Lucia's case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father's sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing Finnegans Wake, and various people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very dependent—believed that the future of Western literature hung on his ability to finish this book. But he was not finishing it, because he was too busy worrying about Lucia. He was desperate to keep her at home. His friends—and also Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the primary target of her fury—insisted that she be institutionalized. The entourage finally prevailed, and Joyce completed Finnegans Wake. In Shloss's view, Lucia was the price paid for a book.

But, as Shloss tells it, the silencing of Lucia went further than that. Her story was erased. After Joyce's death, many of his friends and relatives, in order to cover over this sad (and reputation- beclouding) matter, destroyed Lucia's letters, together with Joyce's letters to and about her. Shloss says that Giorgio's son, Stephen Joyce, actually removed letters from a public collection in the National Library of Ireland. When Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora was in galleys, Maddox was required to delete her epilogue on Lucia in return for permission to quote various Joyce materials. Shloss doesn't waste any tears over Maddox, however. In her opinion, Maddox and Ellmann are among the sinners, because they assumed, and thereby persuaded the public, that Lucia was insane. (Whenever Shloss catches Ellmann or Maddox in what seems to her a factual error, she records it snappishly—a tone inadvisable for a writer who, forced to swot up three decades of dance history, made some errors herself.) But the biographers are a side issue. None of Lucia's letters survive as original documents. Nor is there any trace of her diaries or poems, or of a novel that she is said to have been writing. In other words, most of the primary sources for an account of Lucia Joyce's life are missing. "This is a story that was not supposed to be told," Shloss writes. Therefore she tells it with a vengeance.

Shloss says that Lucia was a pioneering artist: "Through her we watch the birth of modernism." She compares her to Prometheus, "privately engaged in stealing fire." She compares her to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Insofar as these statements have to do with Lucia's dance career, Shloss is as hard up for evidence as all other people writing about dance that predated the widespread use of film and video recording. What those writers do is quote reviewers and witnesses. But Lucia's stage career was very short; Shloss is able to document maybe ten or twenty professional performances, and Lucia's contributions to them were apparently not reviewed. Once, in 1929, when she competed in a dance contest in Paris, a critic singled her out as "subtle and barbaric." Apropos of that performance, Shloss also quotes the diary of Joyce's friend Stuart Gilbert: "Ballet yesterday; fils prodigue is a compromise between pas d'acier (steps of steel) and neo-Stravinsky." This would be an interesting compliment if the prodigal son in question were Lucia, but what Gilbert is clearly describing is George Balanchine's ballet Le Fils prodigue, which had its premiere in Paris, with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, three days before Lucia's dance contest.

Shloss's evaluation of Lucia as an artist is not limited to her dance career, however. Lucia, she argues, collaborated with Joyce on Finnegans Wake. One of Lucia's cousins, Bozena Berta Schaurek, visited the Joyces briefly in 1928, and in an interview fifty years later she recalled something from that visit: while Joyce worked, "Lucia danced silently in the background." Joyce prided himself on his ability to write under almost any conditions, so if his niece saw him, once or twice, working in the same room where Lucia was practicing, this would not be surprising. But in Shloss's mind Schaurek's report prompts a vision:

"There are two artists in this room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning. The two communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away.

The father notices the dance's autonomous eloquence. He understands the body to be the hieroglyphic of a mysterious writing, the dancer's steps to be an alphabet of the inexpressible. . . . The place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness. They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts but a language nevertheless, founded on the communicative body. In the room are flows, intensities."

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     xi
Introduction     xiii
A Fire in the Brain   Lucia Joyce     3
Blocked   Writer's Block     17
True Confessions   Italo Svevo     35
Quicksand   Stefan Zweig     51
The Frog and the Crocodile   Simone de Beauvoir     63
Becoming the Emperor   Marguerite Yourcenar     81
A Hard Case   Primo Levi     99
European Dreams   Joseph Roth     115
The Neapolitan Finger   Andrea de Jorio     133
The Saintly Sinner   Mary Magdalene     149
After the Ball Was Over   Vaslav Nijinsky     169
Heroes and Hero Worship   Lincoln Kirstein     193
"Sweet as a Fig"   Frederick Ashton     215
American Dancer   Jerome Robbins     229
Second Act   Suzanne Farrell     239
The Soloist   Mikhail Baryshnikov     265
The Flame   Martha Graham     291
Dancing and the Dark   Bob Fosse     319
The Bottom Line   Twyla Tharp     333
On theContrary   H. L. Mencken     347
After the Laughs   Dorothy Parker     357
Feasting on Life   M. F. K. Fisher     371
Finding Augie March   Saul Bellow     381
Piecework   Sybille Bedford     395
The Spider's Web   Louise Bourgeois     407
Assassination on a Small Scale   Penelope Fitzgerald     419
The Hunger Artist   Susan Sontag     437
Counterlives   Philip Roth     459
Perfectly Frank   Frank O'Hara     471
Devil's Work   Hilary Mantel     495
Burned Again   Joan of Arc     507
Acknowledgments     521
Textual Permissions     523
Index     525
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