You won't know what hit you

Acocella spins her pieces out of the recognition that works of art flow out of real human lives.

joan acocella book 88 (photo credit: )
joan acocella book 88
(photo credit: )
Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays By Joan Acocella Pantheon 524 pages Joan Ross Acocella reviews books and covers the dance scene for The New Yorker where, over the past dozen years, all but three of the essays in this collection originally appeared. She is an engaging, indeed a profoundly engaged critic, thoughtful, knowledgeable and herself a stylish writer. The main thing, however, is that rather than disembodied "texts" or ahistorical "theory," she reports on books, authors and dancers whose lives and artistic objectives both intersect and matter immensely. While highly sensitive to the perils of both biographical and intentional fallacies, Acocella spins her gorgeous pieces out of the recognition that works of art flow, both directly and obliquely, out of real human lives and conscious aims. Most of her pieces, therefore, are ruminations on the nexus between art and life. True, we learn in passing who is promiscuous, who is bisexual and who is gay, but literary gossip is not her forte. The point is always to enhance understanding of the genesis or analysis of a story, poem or body of work. Acocella acolytes, in whose ranks I am newly enlisted, share her "old-fashioned" prejudices. Whom does she writes about? Among the writers, H. L. Mencken, Italo Svevo, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, our Roth and Bellow, all writers, by the way, about whom Acocella's friend Susan Sontag has written. In fact "The Hunger Artist," one the most memorable pieces in the collection, is about Sontag, whom Acocella obviously adored and whose appetite for experience never slackened. Of In America, Sontag's last novel, Acocella opines "...some people will say, as they said of The Volcano Lover, that Sontag is not really a novelist, that she is still an essayist. But what is wonderful about the book is exactly this counterpoint of novelist and essayist, of innocence and knowingness." Her conclusion conveys Sontag's omnivorous thirst for experience: "'Have you been to Japan? No? I've been there maybe twelve times. Fascinating place.' The eyes widen, the arms wave, and she tells me all about it." Written in 2000, her account is so buoyant and fresh that if comes as a shock to realize that, unmentioned in the text, Sontag died in 2004. Repeatedly Acocella cites artists and dancers who themselves confirm her running dialectic of life and art. Here's dancer Suzanne Farrell, in later years as a teacher: "Look, Christina, you can never have my story. You have to find your own story." Farrell, with Balanchine, Acocella comments, "made the ballet once out of their lives. Now Fagunes, with Farrell, had to make it again, out of her life." Of the dancers, she writes well about Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, so well, in fact, that even readers lacking special interest in dance will be captivated. Which two saints? In fascinating detail, Joan of Arc and, occasioned by The Da Vinci Code phenomenon and recent scholarly attention, Mary Magdalene. Of the latter Acocella challengingly concludes, "The young Bible scholars should have all our support, and we should agree with them that the energetic, far-seeing Magdalene of the Gnostic texts is good evidence that the Church should ordain women. But that is not the evidence of Magdalene's authority on matters of the soul. John's story is the evidence." Acocella is protective of the writers whose work she loves, ones who have not merely the brilliance - as she remarks, "many people are brilliant" - but the tenacity to again and again overcome enormous obstacles to translate brilliance into art. (Her prime exemplar is George Balanchine.) Once safely dead, they often fall victim to the predatory instincts of academics and biographers. Reviewing, for example a new life of Primo Levi, "the camps' noblest memoirist," Acocella deftly parries a biographer wedded to the theory that Levi's "depressive personality," issuing from his unresolved relationship with his mother, eventually led him to leap down a stairwell to his death. Here is her rejoinder: "During the early 1970s when... he is again supposed to have been despondent he produced with great ease the superb and funny Periodic Table... This is not to say that depressed artists can't produce happy work. But the record of cheerful activity in Levi's last decade - during which time he not only wrote seven books and translated four others - seems to call for some qualification... [Nevertheless,] the book is relentlessly teleological. It shoots like an arrow to Levi's suicide." Acocella's persuasive tilt on Levi's death springs not from sentimentality but rather from a finer sense of the man's personality: "It is hard to believe that the modest Levi - who, furthermore, as a chemist, knew how to kill himself discreetly - would have chosen such [theatrical] means [to kill himself]." This feels just. What has she to teach us about Philip Roth's The Plot Against America? Plenty. Springing from his "multivocality" and uncanny facility in couching fantasy in the garb of the mundane, she concludes that, emulating Kafka, Gogol and Swift, The Plot is less a recantation by Bad Boy Roth than a grotesque satire on America, i.e., contemporary America. Once again, this seems right on the money. Two of the very best entries are a mesmerizing review of a reprint of an 18th-century taxonomy of Neapolitan hand gestures and "Assassination on a Small Scale," a celebration of the career of novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, author of 12 stunning novels - the first of which appeared when she was 60! I cannot resist citing the concluding paragraph: "Terrifying in their meaning, these novels are still comedies, and that is the secret of their power. Reading them is like hearing someone play Mozart two rooms away: light, sweet - jolly, even - and utterly piercing. You don't know what hit you." As with the Magdalene, Joan's "story" is the evidence.