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.
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)
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February 11, 2008
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