The New York Times
Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essaysby Joan Acocella
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.
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The New York Times
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.
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Twenty-eight Artists and Two SaintsEssays
By Joan Acocella
PantheonCopyright © 2007 Joan Acocella
All right reserved.
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 justwritten 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."
Excerpted from Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella Copyright © 2007 by Joan Acocella. Excerpted by permission.
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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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