Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sixty-Nine Essays and Two Authors

By now it should be obvious that I am completely obsessed with The New Yorker. Earlier in the year I suffered a form of New Yorker-related madness, where I thought that if I could just read every article that has been published in the magazine, I would possess "all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." (Oh, to become a cyborg and download the complete New Yorker archives into my brain!) So I began buying and reading collections of essays by New Yorker writers. Yes, despite the fact that the infamous Half-Read Pile of back issues is building up on my bedroom floor... and despite knowing that, as a subscriber, I can access the complete archives of The New Yorker for free on my computer.

(All the same, even though I could have read these essays for free rather than paying $15 or so for a paperback, I do think that books are more convenient... and also, to plunge too deeply into the New Yorker Digital Archive is dangerous...)

Anyway, I started off by reading essay collections by two female writers currently on staff at the magazine: Cleopatra's Nose by Judith Thurman and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella. Thurman's favorite topics include fashion designers, femininity and power, and anything French. (She reminds me a lot of a French teacher I had in college, whose area of study involved "reclaiming" for serious inquiry topics that men have historically dismissed as too frivolous and girly.) Acocella, the New Yorker dance critic, writes about choreographers and dancers, but also about books and authors, many of them European. In the introduction to her book, she notes that the essays are tied together by the theme of how her favorite artists overcame challenges and managed to keep going.

The heart of Thurman's book are her essays on the great fashion designers of the 20th century--Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, etc. These make wonderful introductions to some very important figures; it is otherwise difficult to find good information on fashion history without shelling out $60 for some coffee-table book from Rizzoli. (Magazines like Vogue aren't educational because they assume that their readers all grew up in Park Avenue apartments and learned about fashion design from playing dress-up in Mommy's Chanel suits.) I returned to Thurman's Yves Saint Laurent essay after seeing the YSL exhibit at the De Young and her Chanel essay after seeing Coco Before Chanel. Not only does she recount each designer's history in the impeccably fact-checked New Yorker way, she also makes some interesting observations: for instance, that because Elsa Schiaparelli grew up an Italian aristocrat, she had the freedom to make kooky and surreal clothes, but because Coco Chanel grew up poor in the French provinces, she knew that her designs had to be impeccably tasteful.

Other good things in Thurman's book include the opening essay, a jaw-dropping profile of the artist Vanessa Beecroft; her essay on Leni Riefenstahl, which provides a fascinating new perspective on the issue of whether Riefenstahl can be considered a great filmmaker; and her reviews of the now-classic novels Possession and Beloved. Still, there is a good deal of filler in Thurman's book too, with several essays that are reviews of Fashion Week collections, which are of limited interest several years after the fact.

Acocella's book is more of a piece--it's not padded with short, ephemeral dance-review pieces the way that Thurman's is padded with fashion reviews. Her thoughtful essays on dancers and choreographers seem to cover most major 20th-century dance-world personalities except for Balanchine (though Balanchine gets touched on in several essays, such as the one about Suzanne Farrell). Acocella's account of Martha Graham's long career and the fight over the intellectual property rights to her dances is absolutely riveting. Just as I didn't know much about fashion history before reading Cleopatra's Nose, I didn't know much about dance history before reading Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and again appreciated the education. I also really enjoyed Acocella's essays on literature and authors; for example, her Dorothy Parker piece was one of the things that inspired me to pick up Parker's Complete Stories last month.

Sometimes The New Yorker gets accused of having a single "house style" for its authors, but Acocella's and Thurman's voices are different and distinctive. Thurman strikes me as more self-conscious than Acocella, more in love with hearing herself talk. Her style is dense and aphoristic; Acocella's is lucid and expository. Thurman has more individual sentences that you want to quote, but with Acocella you are more likely to remember the thrust of the argument.

I should also note that Acocella's book is more handsomely produced, with a black-and-white photo decorating every chapter and a thorough index in the back. Because Thurman's style is so dense with references to other artists, it is frustrating that her book lacks an index. (I even took a pen and annotated the table of contents so I'd remember what the subject of each essay was--and I hardly ever write in my books.)

So I guess that Acocella's book wins over Thurman, if you had to pick just one; but I have returned frequently to both of these essay collections since I read them circa last February/March, and know that I'll continue to do so in future. Both have introduced me to some wonderful artistic personalities and offered fresh insights on artists that I was already familiar with. I love these kinds of books! I love The New Yorker! Come on and fill up my brain!

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