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The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

rollyson2002, October 1, 2012

Patricia Highsmith is best known for her "Ripliad" -- five novels featuring an engaging murderer, Tom Ripley. This criminally attractive man is the enemy of all things conventional, as was his creator.

Moments before her death, Highsmith urged a visiting friend to leave, repeating, "Don't stay, don't stay." Highsmith wanted nothing more than to die alone, according to her biographer, who concludes, "Everything human was alien to her."

Highsmith, a native Texan, was born restless, her mother said. The novelist kept moving to new venues all over Europe, acquiring and discarding female lovers and denouncing all of them. They were poor substitutes for the mother she loved and hated.

This mother fixation was just one of the Highsmith passions that provoke biographer Joan Schenkar to eschew a chronological narrative. Instead, the chapters in "The Talented Miss Highsmith" (St. Martin's Press, $35) are organized around Highsmith's obsessions.

The result of this unorthodox approach is an intricate, novel-like structure that suits Schenkar's own wit. Highsmith's mother, Mary, makes several entertaining entrances -- for example, arriving in London to see her daughter "with rather less warning than the Blitz."

"Miss Highsmith" is full of wonderfully realized scenes, like the opening chapter describing with mesmerizing, miraculous detail exactly how Highsmith composed her work. She gripped her "favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her roll-top desk -- her oddly jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated."

Highsmith's love life is described with loving specificity garnered from sources who do not wish to be identified by their real names.

"In the delicate balance of competing truths that biography is always on the verge of upsetting, both the living and dead deserve a little protection from each other," Schenkar writes.

This panoply of lovers is new material not to be found in other books, which also failed to unearth Highsmith's surprising seven-year career writing for comic books.

For those who want the straight dope, there is a substantial appendix titled "Just the Facts." But Schenkar is at pains to reiterate that Highsmith did not develop over time; indeed, the biographer notes that Highsmith "forged chronologies to give order to her life, altering the record of her life and the purport of her writing to do so."

You don't have to buy Schenkar's thesis. In "Beautiful Shadow," Andrew Wilson produced a rather good chronological biography of Highsmith.

Nevertheless, Schenkar's methods and deep research into Highsmith's deceptive practices have yielded one of the year's best literary lives, which is also a bracing rebuke to the usual way we read biography.
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The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

rollyson2002, October 1, 2012

Patricia Highsmith is best known for her "Ripliad" -- five novels featuring an engaging murderer, Tom Ripley. This criminally attractive man is the enemy of all things conventional, as was his creator.

Moments before her death, Highsmith urged a visiting friend to leave, repeating, "Don't stay, don't stay." Highsmith wanted nothing more than to die alone, according to her biographer, who concludes, "Everything human was alien to her."

Highsmith, a native Texan, was born restless, her mother said. The novelist kept moving to new venues all over Europe, acquiring and discarding female lovers and denouncing all of them. They were poor substitutes for the mother she loved and hated.

This mother fixation was just one of the Highsmith passions that provoke biographer Joan Schenkar to eschew a chronological narrative. Instead, the chapters in "The Talented Miss Highsmith" (St. Martin's Press, $35) are organized around Highsmith's obsessions.

The result of this unorthodox approach is an intricate, novel-like structure that suits Schenkar's own wit. Highsmith's mother, Mary, makes several entertaining entrances -- for example, arriving in London to see her daughter "with rather less warning than the Blitz."

"Miss Highsmith" is full of wonderfully realized scenes, like the opening chapter describing with mesmerizing, miraculous detail exactly how Highsmith composed her work. She gripped her "favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her roll-top desk -- her oddly jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated."

Highsmith's love life is described with loving specificity garnered from sources who do not wish to be identified by their real names.

"In the delicate balance of competing truths that biography is always on the verge of upsetting, both the living and dead deserve a little protection from each other," Schenkar writes.

This panoply of lovers is new material not to be found in other books, which also failed to unearth Highsmith's surprising seven-year career writing for comic books.

For those who want the straight dope, there is a substantial appendix titled "Just the Facts." But Schenkar is at pains to reiterate that Highsmith did not develop over time; indeed, the biographer notes that Highsmith "forged chronologies to give order to her life, altering the record of her life and the purport of her writing to do so."

You don't have to buy Schenkar's thesis. In "Beautiful Shadow," Andrew Wilson produced a rather good chronological biography of Highsmith.

Nevertheless, Schenkar's methods and deep research into Highsmith's deceptive practices have yielded one of the year's best literary lives, which is also a bracing rebuke to the usual way we read biography.
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Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand by Benita Eisler
Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand

rollyson2002, September 30, 2012

"Naked in the Marketplace" is Henry James's phrase for George Sand's parading of her affair with Alfred de Musset in her fiction. James, needless to say, preferred more discretion in his aesthetic. Sand shocked and titillated her contemporaries even more when she took up with Chopin, a liaison that lasted nearly nine years, during which the composer produced half his works of genius.

Sand's fiction is not much read today, although her letters are now complete in 26 volumes, and yet her life is better recorded than that of any other woman in French history.

So what does Benita Eisler have to add? Mainly a wry wit and a compact narrative ��" although I was a bit distracted by her penchant for the passive voice. Her book sometimes reads as if it has been translated from the French.

Certain feminists have given Sand a hard time because she was, in Ms. Eisler's terms, an "exceptionalist" ��" meaning, in Sand's view, it was all right for her to act the part of a man, wearing pants and loving whom she pleased. But women in general ought to stay at home, she thought, and not bother about the right to vote. Sand got a divorce from Casimir Dudevant in 1844 but was against it for other women.

But Sand was hardly alone in rejecting feminism as a movement. Like other exceptional women, she saw herself as sui generis, and "more intelligent, more honest, more self-respecting" than other women. Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft thought similarly, Ms. Eisler notes. "Only Sand's talent and success, trumped all the cards against her," she concludes. Why should Sand think that lesser, ordinary women could do the same?

So Sand's fiction, even though it was autobiographical, never included a woman as protean as herself. On the contrary, these women were, like her eponymous heroine, Lélia, frigid ��" not because of some psychological disorder but because a woman caught in a terrible marriage with an abusive man could not achieve orgasm. Patriarchal power relationships were such that a woman could not freely love, and without that kind of spontaneity in her life, she could not climax.

In an age when pregnancy was referred to by such euphemisms as "lying in," it is no wonder that Sand gave Henry James the vapors. The poor chap used to get enervated when Edith Wharton took him out for excursions in her driving machine. And Sand's contemporaries thought that she hastened Chopin's demise by her vampiric demands on his fragile libido.

Stuff and nonsense, of course. Sand nursed and mothered the invalid Chopin. He was grateful, although he never quite got over his conventional notion that she was a naughty woman.

Ms. Eisler's narrative proceeds so effortlessly that it was not until I had finished her book and began perusing her sparse notes that I began to feel a tad dissatisfied. Why did Sand write so much? Something like 90 novels (it is odd that different biographers come up with different counts), not to mention her memoirs, 20,000 letters, and copious journalism. Why did Sand write so rapidly? A typical day yielded 20 pages. And why didn't she revise?

Ms. Eisler explains that Sand always spent more than she earned, so she was always taking on more writing assignments. And she didn't revise because she didn't really think of herself as an artist ��" you know, like her friend Flaubert, who agonized over every word, not to mention that finicky perfectionist Chopin, taking the measure of every note.

Well, okay, but plenty of writers go into debt rather than chain themselves to their desks every night like Sand. And it is not only artists who feel the need to revise. And I was still left wondering why Sand always composed in a torrent.

I began to suspect that Ms. Eisler is one of those biographers who does not want her flow interrupted by inconvenient, disturbing questions. Yet some biographers earn their authority by asking the right questions, even when they cannot give definitive answers.

Now I have a confession to make: Many years ago I attended a brilliant talk about George Sand given by Elizabeth Harlan, then a member of a biography seminar at New York University. She published her "George Sand" in 2004 ��" a fact mentioned once in Ms. Eisler's note (the only one) to chapter 3: "We owe the reconstruction of Sand's discovery and subsequent suppression of evidence relating to her parentage to the archival labors of Elizabeth Harlan."

In other words, although Ms. Eisler does not exactly acknowledge it, much of chapter 3 owes its existence to Ms. Harlan's groundbreaking work. And this "reconstruction," by the way, is not only a matter of research, but rather, in Ms. Harlan's words, a product of the "tug of war between information and intuition."

Ms. Harlan had a hunch that Sand biographers had missed something: "What if, I came to wonder, an unverified but universally accepted assumption about George Sand's identity was placed in doubt?" In short, what if Sand's father was not the aristocrat Maurice Dupin but rather an unknown male who had coupled with Sand's mother Sophie during one of Maurice's absences?

There is no space here to recount how Ms. Harlan proved that Sand knew but covered up the fact that Maurice Dupin was not her biological father. But I second Ms. Eisler's belief that Ms. Harlan has proven her case.

And it matters, because the thrust of Sand's novels were about women who sought to legitimate themselves. At night, in a dreamlike reverie Sand would write these fables emanating from a deep inner hurt: Pages and pages would pour out, even though Sand often suffered pain in her writing arm and even experienced partial paralysis accompanied by periods of "near blindness," Ms. Harlan notes.

Composing at night, alone, gave Sand access to feelings that she could not recall the next day without rereading what she had just written. What was happening to Sand? In a footnote, Ms. Harlan quotes Helen Deutsch's essay on Sand: "There are mental disturbances in which the patient falls into so-called twilight states, in which he experiences things that are normally cordoned off from his conscious life."

Naked in the marketplace indeed! Fiction was not just thinly disguised autobiography for Sand. Fiction represented a kind of primal woman's story, an anchoring of the self in novels not governed by a Napoleonic code that gave women practically no rights.

Where to funnel all that energy ��" so much that no man could satisfy Sand for long ��" except in writing, in the font of her own creativity? In "A New History of French Literature" (1989) Naomi Schor suggests that in "Lélia" Sand demonstrated that the "war between the sexes is culturally constructed." Where to escape that construction ��" even as she wrote about it ��" other than in her own prose?

No wonder, as Ms. Schor argues, Sand rejected Balzac's realism in favor of her allegorical novels about the terrible choices women confronted.

The end of James's line about Sand and de Musset is that the lovers "perform for the benefit of society." So it seems in Ms. Eisler's account. But it does not in Ms. Harlan's, where Sand, it seems to me, comes into her own.
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Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill
Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins

rollyson2002, September 29, 2012

Can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to biography? If there is someone Amanda Vaill did not interview, if there is a document she overlooked, if there is an archive or other source of information she could not access, it is news to me. I have to second Terry Teachout's claim, "I can't imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written."

Of course there will be other books because, to quote Mr. Teachout again, "Jerome Robbins is the great subject of American theatrical biography." Others may demur, but certainly this magnificent choreographer (the term does not do justice to his many talents) is a great subject.

Even for those who have already read earlier biographies by Greg Lawrence and Deborah Jowitt, there are rewards, because Ms. Vaill has used Robbins's own articulate writings (many of them unpublished) to provide an intimate portrait that bridges the gap between autobiography and biography.

Every reviewer can only come to "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins" (Broadway, 675 pages, $40) with a partial knowledge of Robbins. I know him mainly from work on musicals like "On the Town," "West Side Story," and "Fiddler on the Roof." Others know Robbins for his ballets and his collaborations with great artists such as Leonard Bernstein. Still others (an angry cohort) can't get over Robbins's naming names at his House Un-American Activities Committee hearing.

Ms. Vaill slights none of these aspects of Robbins's career. If she is resolutely sympathetic toward Robbins, taking the edge off the caustic man who appears in other biographies, she not so much rebuts the work of others as simply presents what she obviously regards as a fuller portrait, a dramatic, incremental revelation of the kind we expect in novels of a high order.

I suppose a reader less than committed to the arts, less than attuned to the politics of the New York stage during much of the 20th century, could weary of the detail that informs Ms. Vaill's narrative. Jerome Robbins deserves a lyrical biography, the equivalent of a dance with the reader, and Ms. Vaill obliges. If a better biography is ever written about Robbins, it will have catapulted off Ms. Vaill's strong work.

But quite aside from the biographer's superb handling of Robbins's major achievements, the story of how he transformed himself from Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz to Jerome Robbins, how he negotiated his love life as a gay man who also loved women ��" and countless other aspects of his art and life ��" what entranced me was the discovery of how literate Robbins was. At a very early age he was reading Faulkner (always a good sign in my book) and the other greats. Robbins himself wrote very well and had an ear for music that often helped him to coalesce dance steps and movements into a form that resulted in extraordinary rapport with collaborators like Bernstein.

Lest you think Ms. Vaill knows everything, I hasten to add that she cannot say if the Bernstein/Robbins partnership ever segued into the sexual. A few murky references in Robbins's diaries suggest as much, but they are not definitive. And Ms. Vaill does not push the matter. It is a matter of tact ��" biographer's tact ��" not to go beyond the evidence, or beyond (in this case) how Robbins or Bernstein may ultimately have understood their relationship.

Beyond tact, there is Ms. Vaill's knack for finding the nub. Every biographer writing for a general audience has to supply a certain amount of background. How much, for example, should readers be told about the Group Theatre or the Actors Studio, which contributed significantly to Robbins's artistic development? Some readers, like me, already know quite a bit and will chafe at boilerplate. Here is how Ms. Vaill treats the work of Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis, two founders of the Actors Studio: "The cornerstones of Lewis and Kazan's teaching were Stanislavsky's twin principles of intention, or the importance of one's character's objective in a given scene, and work on oneself, or technique." This pithy statement neatly avoids the pitfalls of saying too much or too little. Believe me, there is a considerable margin of error. A less able biographer might introduce Actors Studio by referring to "the Method," or to the prickly personalities involved. But Ms. Vaill wants to show what Robbins got out of it. Even a reader well versed in the ins and outs of theatrical history will never bored by this fresh, concise explanation of a well-known institution.

Ms. Vaill's biography does not so much supplant previous efforts as provide a broader and deeper context that can be used to assess them. And I take her own acknowledgment of previous biographers at face value: She is indeed "indebted" to them. How else could she write with such precision, knowing where her score needs a soft pedal or crescendo?

There can be too much of a good thing in biography. Countless biographies have foundered on precisely the grounds Ms. Vaill stands on. Congested with too much detail, with too much good fortune in the way of access and archival sources, the biographer cannot resist parading how much she knows. Ms. Vaill, who once upon a time was a book editor and surely dealt with baggy monster biographies, knows what I mean all too well. But it is the rare biographer, let alone editor, who is capable of acting on her own acumen and producing such an exquisitely polished performance.
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A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard
A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings

rollyson2002, September 28, 2012

"George III: America's Last King" (Yale University Press, 448 pages, $35) adds much to our knowledge of the monarch and his reign. I was intrigued to learn about George's reading and how much writing he produced. He was an earnest, if not very subtle thinker. The word often applied to him is stolid. The biographer's research is impressive, but I'd recommend that you clear your calendar and wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones whilst (as the Brits say) you attempt to decipher Jeremy Black's prose.

There is a reason why some biographies are called "academic." In Chapter 19, "Reputation and Comparisons," Mr. Black states:

The British monarchy, or the image of the monarchy, was reconstructed during the later years of George's reign. The strong patriotism of the war with France, and the king's less conspicuous role in day-to-day politics, combined fruitfully to facilitate the celebration less of the reality and more of the symbol of monarchy. In this, the precondition of the creation of a popular monarchy was (ironically but significantly) the perceived decline in the crown's political authority in a partisan sense, at least its use thus in a clear and frequent fashion.

When I got as far as "in this," my eyes began to cross and the question of what to plant in my spring garden suddenly seemed of paramount concern.

Is there any excuse for such writing? Do monarchy wonks thrive on it? The first two sentences quoted above, with their needless repetitions and plethora of prepositions are illustrative of the ponderous locutions that thud throughout this biography. Translation: As soon as George III stopped meddling in everyday politics the monarchy as a symbolic institution began to thrive. By doing less, George actually enhanced the authority of the monarchy, even though it seemed to partisans that he had weakened it. What more needs saying? Did I miss something?

It is with considerable relief that I turned to Stella Tillyard's "A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings" (Random House, 384 pages, $26.95). The title may suggest that this book is historylite, but not a bit of it. In a delightful introduction, Ms. Tillyard describes how together with her assistant she conducted painstaking research in the Hanoverian archives, plowing through towering piles of metal boxes: "Across the faces of other researchers, as we passed, flitted expressions that mixed polite astonishment with just a hint of disdain."

In Hanover, the court kept records of everything: When George II had his son inoculated for smallpox in 1724, "His English doctor wrote a daily report on his condition, recording the prince's mood and temperature and the number of spots on his skin." I can imagine the comic figure Ms. Tillyard cut among her fellow researchers: Was she really going to sift through all this detritus, and to what end?

Already sympathetic to this scholar dredging through the past, I quickly grasped that a certain level of detail was essential to craft a narrative as compelling and colorful as that of a novel. But this is hardly all that Ms. Tillyard accomplishes. She is writing a group biography with George III at its center, and she shows that his overwhelming sense of responsibility for his siblings ��" most of whom had nothing much to do ��" is of a piece with his politics, in which the erring American colonists, for example, had to be brought into line in the same way a father disciplines his children or an older brother reads the riot act to the younguns.

George III took himself very seriously as the father of his nation, the one figure who could rise above factions and self-serving institutions to represent and guide his people. But as one court observer noted, it was all very well if George III was on the side of right, but what if he mistook wrong for right? To whom does one appeal a father's decisions? Curiously, George III (sometimes accused of being a closet Jacobite!) came near to believing he ruled by divine right.

By describing and assessing how the king dealt with his own family, Ms. Tillyard also makes her contribution to the genre of biography:

Biography tends to be a vertical genre, going from parents to children, explaining its subjects by virtue of their childhoods and their relationships with their mothers and fathers. It rarely dwells for very long on brothers and sisters and the importance they can have in one another's lives. Perhaps because I am from a large family myself, my work had tended to go the other way, to be horizontal, seeking in the tangled web of brotherly and sisterly relations other clues to what makes us who we are.

Has a biographer ever so elegantly conjoined in a compact paragraph the nature of biography, her research interests, and her own biography with the reader's interests?

George III had one sister, Caroline Mathilde, who married a mad Danish king and suffered the horrible consequences of an affair with a radical young court doctor. George III's brothers led scandalous, dissolute lives on the royal dole. And yet he refused to give up on this family, just as he would not relinquish his claim on the American colonies. To do so would strike at the heart of his paternal values.

George III's father, Prince Frederick, who died in his 30s (making his son George next in line to Frederick's father, George II), had suffered the neglect of both mother and father and thus decided that the future George III ("a serious boy," Ms. Tillyard calls him) would know what it meant to have a warm heart and would come to regard loving family relations as the basis for a ruler's values. Frederick, in fact, left specific instructions for his son, emphasizing: "Tis not out of vanity that I write this; it is out of love to You, and to the public. It is for your good, and for that of my family, and of the good people you are to govern, that I leave this to you."

To speak of love and family and the nation, combining in such a tender way the personal and the political, surely marks a new development in British history. The monarch as person and symbol fused. But at what cost to George III, Ms. Tillyard shows. The burden of representing and unifying the British world was too much for one man ��" any man ��" who could no more keep his empire together than he could make peace among his own family.
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