Winner of The Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction 2008
Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed author of The Epicure's Lament
, a novel of literary rivalry in which two competing biographers collide in their quest for the truth about a great artist.
Oscar Feldman, the "Great Man," was a New York city painter of the heroic generation of the forties and fifties. But instead of the abstract canvases of the Pollocks and Rothkos, he stubbornly hewed to painting one subject — the female nude. When he died in 2001, he left behind a wife, Abigail, an autistic son, and a sister, Maxine, herself a notable abstract painter — all duly noted in the New York Times obituary.
What no one knows is that Oscar Feldman led an entirely separate life in Brooklyn with his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their twin daughters. As the incorrigibly bohemian Teddy puts it, "He couldn't live without a woman around. It was like water to a plant for him." Now two rival biographers, book contracts in hand, are circling around Feldman's life story, and each of these three women — Abigail, Maxine, and Teddy — will have a chance to tell the truth as they experienced it.
The Great Man is a scintillating comedy of life among the avant-garde — of the untidy truths, needy egos, and jostlings for position behind the glossy facade of artistic greatness. Not a pretty picture — but a provocative and entertaining one that incarnates the take-no-prisoners satirical spirit of Dawn Powell and Mary McCarthy.
"Nimble, witty and discerning, Kate Christensen is single handedly reinvigorating the comedy of manners with her smart and disemboweling novels of misanthropes, cultural and aesthetic divides, private angst, social ambition and appetites run amok." Chicago Tribune
"Christensen's writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic about the niceties of social relations, contemporary American culture, and sexual politics." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Kate Christensen's brilliant, big-hearted skewering of greatness, of men, of the Manhattan art scene, of love, reminded me that books can be witty, and heartbreaking, and intelligent, and keep you up too late reading. How rare it is that a writer is talented enough to deliver such varied treasures in one novel, but Christensen manages it effortlessly." Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment
"The prose in this book is stunning; the characters fascinating, endearing, and utterly real. Kate Christensen is, quite simply, one of the finest artists writing today." Cathi Hanauer, author of Sweet Ruin and editor of The Bitch in the House
"These characters are wonderfully developed and break the stereotype of the aging female protagonist. Christensen . . . boldly has raised the bar." USA Today
Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.
As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to set the record straight, the open secret of his affair reaches a boiling point and a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light. From the acclaimed author of The Epicure's Lament, a scintillating novel of secrets, love, and legacy in the New York art world.
Christensen pens a scintillating comedy of life among the avant-garde — of the untidy truths, needy egos, and jostling for position behind the glossy facade of artistic greatness — in this PEN Faulkner Award-winning story of a New York City painter living in the heroic generation of the 1940s and 1950s.
About the Author
Kate Christensen is the author of the novels In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and The Epicure's Lament. Her essays and articles have appeared in various publications, including Salon, Mademoiselle, the Hartford Courant, Elle, and the bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
Reading Group Guide
“The Great Man
is as unexpectedly generous as it is entertaining. . . . Wise and expansive. . . . Christensen is a witty observer of the art universe.”
—The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Kate Christensen's The Great Man.
1. The novel opens with Oscar Feldman's obituary, which states that Oscar was survived by his sister and wife. The obituary mentions neither his mistress nor their daughters. How did this affect your reading of Chapter One, which is about Teddy St. Cloud? Did you find it confusing? Ironic? Did it take a while to figure out who she was? Why do you think the author chose to begin the book this way?
2. How does the fact that there are two biographers rather than just one add to or detract from the dramatic tension of the book? How would you characterize Henry's and Ralph's aims, feelings, and ideas about Oscar at the beginning of the book? How and why do these shift and change during the novel? What, if anything, does the book review at the end add to the story?
3. Maxine Feldman has some rather complex and very strong feelings about her brother. How would you characterize these feelings? What are some of the reasons behind them? Do you empathize with her?
4. Abigail Feldman tells Henry that she's surprised that she ended up married to a man who came and went, cloistered in an airless apartment taking care of an autistic son, with a black housekeeper for her best friend. What are some of the reasons you think she might have chosen this life instead of the life of an unmarried English lit professor she had always thought she wanted? Do you believe the life she ended up with was more or less happy or fulfilling for her than the one she didn't choose?
5. Do you think any of the women in the novel felt happy and fulfilled by their lives? Did any of them have as much control over their own actions and fates as Oscar had over his?
6. How does this quote from “The End of the Novel of Love,” by Vivian Gornick, relate to Oscar Feldman's women and biographers? “How many women and men have I, in my short, obscure lifetime, watched subjugate themselves to The Great Man, the one who seemed to embody art with a capital A or revolution with a capital R? Our numbers are legion. We ourselves were intelligent, educated, talented, none of us moral monsters, just ordinary people hungry to live life at a symbolic level. At the time, The Great Man seemed not only a good idea but a necessary one, irreplaceable and unforgettable.”
7. Did the revelation that Maxine painted “Helena” surprise you? Does knowing this necessarily change the way the painting is seen? Do you agree that it also changes the way “Mercy” is seen as well, as Ralph says? Why or why not?
8. Throughout the novel, Oscar is a kind of focal point that unites all the characters and provides the story with its drama and flow, even though he's dead. Did you find that Oscar came alive for you in everyone's various feelings about and memories of him, or did he remain somewhat incomplete and shadowy? How do you feel about Oscar-do you admire him? Disapprove of him? Wonder why all the women were so in love with him? Envy him?
9. “If you were a woman, you could never have everything,” Teddy thinks at the end of Chapter Two. “[My mother's] a control freak,” Ruby tells Ralph at the end of Chapter Three. How do you think Teddy's awareness that she couldn't have everything, coupled with her evident desire for control, affected her decision to be the mistress for many decades of a man who was married to someone else and faithful to no one?
10. The book ends at Maxine's retrospective—Maxine died famous, but with the bittersweet knowledge that her pride prevented her from finding lasting love with Jane; Teddy has fallen in love with Lewis, but their time together is limited; and Abigail and Lila have become friends, but neither of them ever found the fulfillment in work each had hoped for as a young woman. Meanwhile, Henry is having a passionate love affair with Ruby, which sickens him with dread about his marriage; Ralph is financially secure now because of his secret deal with Abigail, which is essentially to whitewash the truth about his former idol, Oscar. Each of them has in some way received what she or he wanted, but in a compromised way. Is this a sugary, happy ending, a realistically true-to-life one, or an ironic and complicated one?
In Conversation with
THE GREAT MAN
Please finish this statement: Behind every great man is a great…
ego. No one is great by luck or accident: artistic achievement is the result first and foremost of an overweening drive to create something out of nothing. I suspect that even the most reclusive poet (Dickinson, for example), visionary sculptor (Michelangelo) or selfless novelist (Eliot) has a gigantic ego, and furthermore, that you don’t have to scratch very hard to find it. Not every great man has a great woman behind him; only the lucky ones do.
Why two biographers?
I began two different versions of this novel, each with a different biographer, Ralph and Henry. Neither version went anywhere until I realized that the novel needed both of them, and then it took off. I liked the inherent dramatic tension in rival biographers, plotwise, and I also liked the way their duality develops and deepens and points to the initially fractured portrait of Oscar that I hope becomes increasingly coherent and clear as the book goes on — and then diverges again in the two biographies.
Why did Oscar only paint the female nude?
The female nude was the best means to the most important end for him, not necessarily an end in itself. Oscar was obsessed, monomaniacally, with women. He was more obsessed with women than he was with painting — painting was only the vehicle to capture and penetrate and experience women in a way sex couldn’t. He had literally no other subject — one of his many limitations.
What makes Oscar so compelling to the women in his life?
First of all, Oscar loved women. He loved them, appreciated them, made them feel seen, sexy, wanted, intelligent, needed. Also, he was demanding, but he wasn’t mercurial or unpredictable; he didn’t act out of character in heartbreaking ways, he gave exactly what he promised, and fulfilled everyone's expectations to the end. Teddy, Abigail, Maxine, and Lila are all capable of apprehending irony and contradictions. They’re complex people, in flux. Oscar was not: he was two–dimensional as a person, fixed, unchanging, certain of his opinions. I think that sort of fixed certainty can seem very sexy — also frustrating, also stifling — therefore each woman had a fractured, incomplete relationship with him. Each woman loved him in a different way: Abigail, in a nutshell, because he could do what she wanted to do and couldn’t, Teddy because he was in her thrall and she craved control and power, Lila because she was desperately hot for his confidence and way of looking at a woman, and Maxine because he was her little brother, in spite of everything. They all saw through him, all understood him. There is a pleasure in deeply getting someone. Women could feel very close to Oscar — he didn’t swerve, he never surprised anyone, he was totally trustworthy and appealing within the confines of his character. He was a “manly man” of the mid twentieth century — successful, unapologetic, owing no explanations to anyone.
Who has the better life: Teddy or Abigail?
Abigail wanted to be a college professor, but she wasn’t analytical enough. Instead, she lived a cloistered life, watching the world from her gilded cage, bound to her emotionally locked–in son in their airless apartment, reading novel after novel as her peripatetic husband came and went and lived off her money. But she had a lover, a passionate affair. She had a deep friendship with her housekeeper, Maribelle. She loved her son and was devoted to him. And she had the legitimacy of marriage; she was a wife, and didn’t regret marrying Oscar. She is perplexed by the way her life ended up, but not bitter; Abigail doesn’t have bitterness in her, but she’s defined by resignation and yearning. She feels claustrophobic, lonely and unfulfilled at the end of her life. Her new friendship with Lila (ironically, she and Teddy shared a husband, and now they’ll share a best friend) is more exciting to her than her new affair with Rex, just as she missed Maribelle much more than she missed Oscar when they both died in the same year.
Teddy was born rich, became poor, left Vassar, and became exactly what she was best suited to be: a mistress, bohemian, a single mother, self–supporting. She threw wild parties, drank, sustained a good sex life with Oscar, and raised two daughters the way she wanted to, on her own terms. But she is also, like Abigail, beset at the end of her life by resignation and yearning: yearning for Oscar, for new passion, resignation about her daughters’ aloofness from her, her own loneliness. “If you were a woman, you could never have everything,” she thinks at the end of Chapter Two.
Of the two, Teddy is outwardly more fulfilled, but neither woman wanted all of Oscar. They didn’t mind sharing him, really — sharing him gave each of them, mistress and wife, a tremendous amount of space and time within the confines of an intense relationship with a needy, demanding egomaniac. Neither of their lives seems entirely enviable to me, but of the two, I’d take Teddy’s any day.
This story reveals a number of “truths”how important is the truth?
The “truth” — about a life, an artistic oeuvre, a single work of art, a biographical stance, a relationship, a long–ago conversation or love affair — is mutable and slippery. It changes from day to day, from person to person. The answer depends on who’s asking the question as much as who’s answering it. Oscar is the unchanging (but absent) source of heat and light around whom everyone moves: women, biographers. The light he sheds illuminates things at varying angles, degree of shadow, intensity. His fixedness creates a kind of emotional uncertainty principle depending on anyone’s perspective and mood. There was only one Oscar, it turns out, the same Oscar for everyone, the way we all live under the same sun, but that light waxes and wanes and goes away at night.
Did you set out to write a sexy novel about women in their 70s?
I did! I set out to allow my characters, women in their 70s and 80s, a kind of frank sexuality I haven’t seen much in “older” women in literature. Teddy is English, given to innuendo and flirtatious ceremony more than blatant lust, but she says “fuck” and is excited by food and wine and the idea of sex, the language around sex — Abigail, the Conservative Jew, is somewhat repressed, but her three–year–long affair with Edward, Ethan’s poetry–reading, cognac–sipping young doctor, provided her with a lifetime’s worth of memories and erotic longing. She probably would have done well to fall in love with Maribelle, actually, but she was far too prim and proper to acknowledge any attraction she might have had for her housekeeper. Maxine, a nonreligious Jew and a frank lesbian, is lusty and bluntly so, unrepressed and straightforward. Unfortunately, she’s also got problems being close to people and expressing affection, so she’s had lots of sex in her life but failed to find lasting love. Lila, the New England minister’s daughter, had two husbands over many years and was faithful but wanted Oscar, then in the course of the novel, she falls into a torrid affair with a younger man she meets in the street. But instead of the joy Teddy feels when she and Lewis finally sleep together, Lila experiences the sense of diminishment some women feel, the loss of autonomy that can happen in a relationship with a man. For years, throughout her marriages, she was in love with Oscar, who wanted women to be themselves as fully as possible so he could appropriate them in paint — instead, she got underachieving “mediocre” men she had to push to succeed; her affair with Rex, even though it's sexually fulfilling, bores her. I hope all four of these women have understandable, contemporary attitudes toward and experiences with sex. I hope they’re all believably sexual and interesting because of it —
From the Hardcover edition.