Category Archives: Books

JM SYNGE’S POWERFUL VISION OF IRELAND STILL PROVOKES AND INSPIRES ·

(Seán Hewitt’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/13; Illustration: JM Synge: For many years, his drama was too close to home.)

In the year of the dramatist’s 150th anniversary, his work continues to demonstrate the importance of wildness, resistance and imagination

The artist Jack B Yeats, a close friend and collaborator of JM Synge’s, wrote a letter to the dramatist in the wake of the riots that greeted the Abbey Theatre’s premiere of The Playboy of the Western World in late January 1907. He also drew a small cartoon.

In the first scene, a man, holding his hat behind him, his knees touched together in a posture of nervous modesty, leans against a window to talk with a young woman, a small bird perched on his arm. “Will it be mild as milk?” Yeats writes, “or will it be…”

In the second scene, a jeering audience with raised fists watch the man being tossed off a high cliff into the sea. The man is upside-down, mid-air, his hat flying off into a tall wave.

As his career had progressed among the fraught cultural conditions of the Irish Revival, Synge increasingly gravitated towards the second option. His literary output began with a bucolic Romanticism, taking a turn of experiments through Decadence and symbolism. But it was the pressures of a modernising Ireland that urged him into what the scholar Mary Burke has recently called a form of “modernist provocation”.

Synge moved to Germany as a young man, and then to Paris. The riots over the first performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), an avant-garde play considered to be an assault on the audience, would certainly have come to Synge’s attention. In fact, Jarry’s collapsing of the distinction between noble and ignoble, between “primitive” and civilised, finds a striking afterlife in Synge’s own riot-inducing masterpiece just over a decade later.

Synge’s fantasy, imagination and lyric flights of poetry were the tender side of his vision; but for every sweet word there was a sharp, brutal undercurrent, a violence and earthiness that all poetry, and all life, should be rooted in. This was at the heart of his work.

Whereas some writers and audiences wanted a “purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, spring-dayish, Cuchulanoid National Theatre”, what Synge valued most in the life of the peasantry was what he saw as their savage, ironic humour, their imaginative freedom, and their brutality. This, he saw, was their chief challenge to the homogenising tendencies of modernisation; their alterity was in their opposition to the values of the imperial project and also to the values of the middle classes, who were “an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty headed swine”. If he was to hold a mirror up to the nation, it would not be while the people were “going to Mass on a fine… Sunday morning”.

This year marks 150 years since Synge was born in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, into a wealthy Protestant family with long-held connections to the gentry and to the Church of Ireland. Members of the Plymouth Brethren, the Synge family were led by their mother, Kathleen.

Early on, Johnny (as he was known to his relatives) was uncomfortable with the practices of his Anglo-Irish family. In 1885 his brother Edward began evicting tenants in Cavan. Johnny, at the age of just 14, argued strongly with his mother about the rights of the tenants, until she asked him: “What would become of us if our tenants… stopped paying their rents?”

He did manage some small victories, among them was convincing his mother to change the family subscription from the Daily Express to the more liberal Irish Times, which she nevertheless considered “a rebel paper”.

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MARIA GUARNASCHELLI, INFLUENTIAL COOKBOOK EDITOR, DIES AT 79 ·

(Emily Langer’s article appeared in the Washington Post, 2/10; via Karen Schimmel;  PHOTO:  Maria Guarnaschelli, right, with her daughter, chef Alex Guarnaschelli, in New York in 2013. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Network Magazine.)

Maria Guarnaschelli, an indomitable cookbook editor who forged a new canon of kitchen classics and brought her exacting tastes — both literary and culinary — to undertakings including a massive update of the time-honored tome “Joy of Cooking,” died Feb. 6 in Manhasset, N.Y. She was 79.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Alex Guarnaschelli, a prominent New York chef and regular on Food Network programming. The cause was complications of heart disease, according to an announcement from the publishing house W.W. Norton, where Mrs. Guarnaschelli had been a vice president and senior editor for nearly two decades until her retirement in 2017. She had spent the earlier years of her career at Scribner and William Morrow.

Mrs. Guarnaschelli was widely recognized as one of the most influential forces in the world of cookbook publishing, cultivating writers whose cooking guides became mainstays of American kitchens. Her reputation grew along with their success.

“I’m a powerful woman,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “Even my husband has told me he’s a little afraid of me. I’m unconventional. I’m relentless. I’m passionate. When I believe in something, I’m like a … warrior. That’s frightening to people. Maybe in another century I would have been a witch and burned at the stake.”

She earned the devoted loyalty of many of her writers, who over the years included Jeff Smith of the “Frugal Gourmet” franchise; Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (1988) and other baking classics; Lynne Rossetto Kasper, former host of the popular public radio program “The Splendid Table”; Judy Rodgers, author of “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002); Molly Stevens, author of “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” (2004); and J. Kenji López-Alt, author of “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (2015).

“She didn’t just make beautiful cookbooks,” culinary expert Rick Rodgers said in an interview, reflecting on Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s career. “She made cookbooks that changed the way Americans cook.”

For Mrs. Guarnaschelli, her manuscripts were not the kitchen equivalent of coffee table books — things of beauty that telegraphed sophistication but rarely imparted it from their places of repose. Rather, cookbooks were essential tools to be written with professionalism and precision.

Working on “The Cake Bible,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli supported the author when she insisted that the book include weight as well as volume, affording more exact measurements of flour and sugar than the cups and tablespoons most commonly used in American kitchens.

“Who but Maria would have had the daring to publish a cookbook with charts and weights and put her heart and soul into the work,” Levy Beranbaum wrote in a tribute to Mrs. Guarnaschelli. They worked together on seven volumes, Levy Beranbaum said in an interview; ‘The Cake Bible” is today in its 56th printing.

In international cuisine, Mrs. Guarnaschelli was credited with elevating the sophistication of books available to American home chefs through her work with writers including Julie Sahni — author of “Classic Indian Cooking” (1980), which was Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s first cookbook — Rick Bayless, a doyen of Mexican cuisine; and Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer who specializes in Chinese cooking.

She allowed them “to use unusual and exotic ingredients with no apology,” Rodgers observed. “The reader had to come up to the level of the author. The author did not come down to the level of the home cook and make excuses like, ‘I know you’re not going to be able to find this chili . . .’ ”

Mrs. Guarnaschelli took on her most high-profile project in the early 1990s at Scribner, which by then was the publisher of “Joy of Cooking,” the gargantuan red-and-white volume that generations of women received when they married or otherwise left home. By the time Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s update of the book was published in 1997, the saga had become, in the description of the Los Angeles Times, “one of the biggest cookbook stories of the decade.”

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TOVE DITLEVSEN’S ART OF ESTRANGEMENT ·

(Hilton Als’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 2/8. PHOTO: Photograph from AKG / TT News Agency. )

The Danish memoirist built a literature of disaster, brick by brick.

Don’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement. Like a number of dispassionate, poetic modernists—the writers Jean Rhys and Octavia Butler, say, or the visual artists Alice Neel and Diane Arbus—Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence. Her world—the world she describes in “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency,” the three short books that make up the trilogy—was cash poor, emotionally mean, and misogynist. The sun must have shone sometimes in Denmark before and during the Second World War, but the atmosphere in “The Copenhagen Trilogy” is damp, dark, and flowerless. It’s not so surprising, then, that one of the first works Ditlevsen published, as a teen-ager, was a poem titled “To My Dead Child”:

I never heard your little voice.
Your pale lips never smiled at me.
And the kick of your tiny feet
Is something I will never see. . . .
See how I kiss your icy hand,
happy to be with you yet awhile,
silently I kiss you, weeping not,—
though the tears are burning in my throat.

In this attempt to imagine a mother’s repressed grief at the stillbirth of a child, Ditlevsen, who went on to publish more than twenty volumes of verse, fiction, children’s literature, and memoir, was beginning to explore the territory she masters in the trilogy’s terse, cinematic chapters: the drama and the particularity of disappointment.

You can’t be disappointed without first having hoped. As a little girl, Ditlevsen yearned for a complete union with her mother. “Childhood” (which was published in Danish in 1967 and is translated here by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the five-year-old Tove living with her parents, Alfrida and Ditlev, and her older brother, Edvin, in a small apartment in Vesterbro, the red-light district of Copenhagen. Times are hard. But they’ve always been hard. Tove’s parents met while both were employed at a bakery before the First World War. Ditlev, who was ten years Alfrida’s senior, had been sent to work as a shepherd when he was six. Social advancement was connected to economic advancement, and you couldn’t achieve either without an education. But higher education—or high school—was not an option if you were penniless, like Ditlev. A bookish socialist who wanted to be a writer—a dream that “never really left him,” according to his daughter—he was eventually hired as an apprentice reporter at a newspaper, but, “for unknown reasons,” he gave up the job. In any case, Ditlev’s love of words can’t compete with Alfrida’s constant arias of disillusionment. Alfrida is unhappy with the life she has made with her husband, but what can she do? She’s a woman. And poor. Her life is limited. Still, she makes an opera out of her dissatisfaction, and Tove is her rapt audience. Being an audience is one way to be loved. Being silent is another. Ditlevsen writes:

In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper. . . . Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, “Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.” Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. . . . [I]f I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me. Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us. And my heart could have still whispered “Mother” for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it. . . . Then something like love would have filled the whole world.

No mother is ordinary to her child. She is always as beautiful, confusing, and monumental as the world. It’s only when the child grows up that the parent becomes ordinary—which is to say, human. Part of the work of becoming an adult is figuring out how to reconcile your vision of your parents with who they actually are. Ditlevsen’s early obsession with writing may not have given her insight into that process, but she did learn how to use language to describe the rejecting force of Alfrida’s various gripes and dismissals. By the age of seven or so, Ditlevsen knew that writing was her vocation, and that, as such, it would separate her, “unwillingly, from those I should be closest to”; the gravitational pull of creativity would tear her away from her family, as it does to so many writers, even as she tore her family apart, the better to see it and tell its story.

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BOOK: TOM STOPPARD’S DOUBLE LIFE ·

GB. ENGLAND. Buckinghamshire. British playwright Tom STOPPARD. 1977.

(Gaby Wood’s article appeared in the March 2021 issue of  the Atlantic; via Pam Green.)

For Britain’s leading postwar playwright, virtuosity and uncertainty go hand in hand.

Tom Stoppard: A Life BY HERMIONE LEE KNOPF

Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.

This article was published online on February 7, 2021.

In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”

Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.

Stoppard is the alchemist who turned Shakespeare into Beckett; he has held audiences rapt at that feat for half a century, and riveted by the work that has followed. “What’s it about?” an audience member once asked him of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to which he allegedly replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.” Since that play premiered, in 1966, Stoppard’s linguistic hijinks and relish for experimenting have seemed too clever to some and thrillingly ambitious to others. The dichotomy was perhaps inevitable, given the scope of his intellectual appetite: He has fused philosophers with acrobats (Jumpers) and dissidents with footballers (Professional Foul), devised poetic plots from the laws of physics (Arcadia), and rewritten 19th- and 20th-century history until it was antic or aslant (Travesties, The Coast of Utopia). But his virtuosity has been more than gymnastics. The restless author of more than 20 plays for the stage, as many for radio and TV, and several Hollywood screenplays, he has spun more serious ideas into silly jokes than Charlie Chaplin and Richard Feynman combined. He has also said as much about literature and love as Ivan Turgenev.

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WHO WAS MIKE NICHOLS WHEN HE WASN’T PLAYING MIKE NICHOLS? ·

(Louis Menand’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 2/1; PHOTO: Nichols on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which swept the Academy Award nominations.Photograph by © Bob Willoughby / MPTV Images.)

An intuitive storyteller, the director perfected narratives—including his own.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in October, 1957. Apart from their manager, Jack Rollins, whom they’d met for the first time just a week or two before, no one in New York had ever heard of them.

Nichols and May had worked out their comedy act in Chicago, playing mostly hole-in-the-wall venues as members of a local theatre group called the Compass. They performed sketches—a man on the phone with his mother, a movie star getting interviewed, a man trying to pick up his secretary in a bar. They had a script, but left room for ad-libs, and they ended the show by asking the audience to suggest an opening line, a closing line, and a style (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Jack Kerouac), and then improvising a skit. They were an overnight hit. By the second week, they were upstaging Sahl, a man not renowned for the length of his fuse, and he began cancelling their set.

They moved uptown to a tonier joint, the Blue Angel, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where they did a midnight show. It quickly started selling out, and soon they were the talk of the town (night-life division). In those days, television variety shows scouted talent in supper clubs like the Blue Angel, and in December Nichols and May went on “The Steve Allen Show.” In January, they performed two sketches on an NBC special, where they were seen by tens of millions of viewers.

They were now nationally known and in demand. Rollins asked for big fees, and by the spring May had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and Nichols was living in a duplex on East Fifty-eighth Street and driving a Mercedes convertible. He was twenty-six. It was the first time that he had had any money. He found that he enjoyed the life style.

Nichols and May released an album, “Improvisations to Music,” in 1958. It made it onto the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1960, they took their act to Broadway, where “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” ran for three hundred and eleven performances. The album of the show went to No. 10 in the Billboard rankings and won a Grammy.

Some people who saw them perform—including the critic Edmund Wilson, who went to the Broadway show four times—thought that May was the star. May is a kind of comic genius. Her father, Jack Berlin, worked in the Yiddish theatre, and she had been appearing onstage since she was a child. She was fearless—also glamorous, sexy, and terrifying to men. (She and Nichols were not lovers.) There is a story that when they were performing in Chicago she would go onstage without underwear and flash the audience.

She married when she was sixteen, had a daughter (Jeannie Berlin, who became a movie actress), split from her husband, and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she hung out at the university, attending classes but never registering. That was where she met Nichols, a University of Chicago dropout who had found a home of sorts as an actor on the local drama scene.

Nichols was widely regarded as (his term) a prick. He was supercilious and had a quick tongue—“a scary person,” as one colleague put it. May was introduced to him by the Compass’s director, Paul Sills, as “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.” (The Compass became Second City, the legendary feeder troupe for “Saturday Night Live”; Sills was its original director.) They quickly recognized that they were soul mates. They were sophisticated, faster with a comeback than anyone they knew, and unencumbered by conventional, or even unconventional, pieties. They saw through everything and everybody, including themselves.

More to the point, as May put it, “we found each other hilarious.” Onstage, they were complementary. “He was always directing the scene while he was doing it,” one of the Compass players remembered. “Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.” Nichols did not disagree. “She was more interested in taking chances than in being a hit,” he said. “I was more interested in making the audience happy.”

What made the show so hot? Nichols and May were witty people, but they used standard comic setups (the quarrelsome couple, the all-thumbs first date), and they lampooned some pretty soft targets—the British movie “Brief Encounter,” for instance, which they set in a dentist’s office. (“There, I’ve said it. I do love you. Rinse out, please.”) Despite the reputation the act acquired, the dialogue was not remotely risqué. They were not in Lenny Bruce territory. They were barely in Mort Sahl territory.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARY GRANT ·

Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

View on Amazon

 

WB YEATS, THE SPANISH FLU AND AN EXPERIMENT IN QUARANTINE ·

(Joseph M. Hassett’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 11/20.)

The elixir of love is potent medicine for all locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred

WB Yeats’s December 14th, 1918 letter to New York lawyer John Quinn alludes to the dramatic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 on the Yeats family. He recounts that his wife George fainted upon receiving the telegraphed news that his father had been stricken with potentially fatal influenza and pneumonia. The poet’s initial impression that the fainting was caused by this news turned out to be wrong – in fact, George also had life-threatening flu and pneumonia.

The situation was especially dire because George was expecting their first child in February. The prospective parents were temporarily living in premises at 73 St Stephen’s Green that had been leased by Maud Gonne, the longtime elusive object of Yeats’s romantic pursuit and the subject of many of his poems.

The Yeatses had taken over Gonne’s lease for six months while she was imprisoned in England on suspicion of participating in a wartime conspiracy between Irish republicans and the Kaiser’s secret service. On November 24th, 1918, Gonne, who had been released on medical grounds, but barred from travelling to Ireland, suddenly appeared at the Yeatses’ door demanding entry. Given George’s condition, the potential for a police raid in search of Gonne, and the tight quarters occasioned by the presence of nurses attending George, Yeats refused entry to his erstwhile muse. A bitter quarrel ensued. Yeats eventually found new accommodationsdown the Green, his wife and father recovered, and Anne Butler Yeats was born on February 26th, 1919.

The month before Anne’s birth, her father was writing his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, which famously declares:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….

The first World War, the Russian revolution and incipient anarchy in Irish politics were part of the cauldron of disturbance out of which the poem emerged. Still, one wonders, following the lead of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in The Irish Times on May 25th, 2020, whether the turmoil visited on the Yeats family by the 1918 pandemic was part of the mix. The Second Coming vividly captures a sense of the world spinning out of control.

Lessons to be discerned from this traumatic experiment in living were not articulated until three years later when the sequelae of 1918 merged with similar turmoil, troubling Yeats while he was isolated in his Galway tower amid the violence and uncertainty of civil war. The poem that emerged this time was The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It describes the circumstances of its origin in terms that resonate with the fear and anxiety we suffer while locked in, physically and psychologically, by Covid-19:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty.

Yeats later explained that he responded to these pressures with “an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature”.

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LOST LETTERS REVEAL JM BARRIE AND ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON’S MUTUAL AFFECTION ·

(Donna Ferguson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/25; Photo: JM Barrie, who shared a deep friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images; via Pam Green.)

Newly unearthed correspondence shows deep respect between Peter Pan and Treasure Island authors, who never met

They are two of the greatest writers in history and they were also the greatest of friends. But they never met, and the importance and intensity of their relationship has never before been fully understood.

Now, the lost letters of JM Barrie to Robert Louis Stevenson – missing for over a century – have been found in a cardboard box in a library archive and will be published for the first time in a forthcoming book. The letters reveal how ardently the young Barrie both adored and admired Stevenson, who was an older and more established writer. A year into their friendship, which was initiated by Stevenson, Barrie wrote to him: “To be blunt I have discovered (have suspected it for some time) that I love you, and if you had been a woman…” He leaves the sentence unfinished.

He also imagines in the letters that he and Stevenson are related and were descended from the same Scottish family, a fantasy that allows him to open up to the older man about the intimacies of his family life and his close relationship with his mother.

Treasure Island had already been published when the two authors began corresponding in 1892; 12 years later, Barrie went on to write his own masterpiece, Peter Pan, about a dangerous amputated pirate, a young boy and a journey to a far-off fantasy island.

He repeatedly fantasises in his letters about meeting Stevenson, who had left their native Scotland in 1879 and was living in Samoa to improve his health. In one letter, Barrie even writes a funny, self-deprecating playlet – never seen before – in which he imagines himself visiting Stevenson’s 314-acre estate, and Stevenson “glumly” saying to his wife about Barrie: “Perhaps he will improve after he has rested a bit.”

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HOW I MET THE RECLUSIVE GEORGIA O’KEEFFE ·

(Roxana Robinson’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 10/1; Photograh: Georgia O’Keeffe lived in a small village in rural New Mexico and rarely gave interviews. Seclusion and withholding were part of her persona.Photograph by Allan Grant / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty.)

The story of two encounters—one in life, the other on the page.

I once met Georgia O’Keeffe. This was not easy to do, and I considered it an achievement.

It was in the early nineteen-seventies, when I was in my early twenties. I was working at Sotheby’s, in New York, in the American paintings department. One of the things I did there was catalogue the works that we sold. I held each picture in my hands, felt its shape and weight. I measured and described it, recording the medium, condition, signature. The date. The provenance and exhibition history. I came to know the works very well.

During this time I had begun to write about American art. I was particularly interested in the modernists, those early-twentieth-century artists who were part of the rising tide of abstraction. I wrote about different members of this group—Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove. I wanted to write about O’Keeffe, but this was difficult. She held the copyright to many of her paintings, so it was necessary to ask permission from her in order to reproduce them. This was one reason that relatively little scholarship had appeared on her: How could you write a book about art without using images? Another reason was the confusion that permeated critical response to her work until well into the sixties. All those flowers! Was she a great artist or a cheap sentimentalist? The work was so easy to like—could it be important? She was scorned by the guys, and, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar, it seemed risky to write about her.

Another reason for the paucity of writing about O’Keeffe was her own inaccessibility. She lived in a small village in rural New Mexico and rarely gave interviews. Seclusion and withholding were part of her persona. She was not interested in publicity, and it is said that she once refused a request for a one-person show at the Louvre. Here was a paradox: the work, so intimate and engaging, even accessible, and the artist, so remote and self-controlled, clothed in severe black and white. The mystery gave O’Keeffe a kind of charged glamour. A sighting was a significant event.

That season, Sotheby’s had received an O’Keeffe painting of Canadian barns. It had been done in the early nineteen-thirties: two dark gray buildings in a wintry landscape. I catalogued it, and asked Doris Bry—O’Keeffe’s private agent, who had once been the assistant to Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s former husband—for information on it. Later she called me.

“Mrs. Alger,” she said (for that was my name then), “this is Doris Bry.” Of course I knew who it was. She had a dry, gravelly voice, very distinctive, with a Waspy drawl. “I’m calling about the painting of Canadian barns.”

“Yes, Miss Bry.” I used my formal, fluty, professional tone. “How may I help you?”

“I’d like to have the painting brought over to my apartment.”

Doris Bry lived in an apartment in the Pulitzer mansion. This was a grand Beaux-Arts building, only a few blocks away from our offices on Madison Avenue. But it didn’t matter how close she was. “I’m so sorry, Miss Bry,” I said, “but our insurance policies don’t permit the works to leave the premises until they have legally changed hands. If you’d like to bring someone in to see the painting, I’ll be happy to have it brought out to the viewing room and put up on the easel. But I can’t allow the painting to leave our property.”

“Mrs. Alger,” Miss Bry said, “the artist is here. She would like to see the painting.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said, in my normal voice.

I called storage to have the painting brought out. I had it under my arm and was walking down the hall on my way to the front door when I ran into my boss.

“What are you carrying?” he asked.

“Canadian barns,” I said, putting a hand over the frame protectively.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “It can’t leave the premises.”

“The artist wants to see it,” I said.

My boss put out his hand. “I’ll take it.”

“I answered the phone,” I said. “I’m taking it.”

With the painting under my arm, I walked down Madison Avenue to the Pulitzer mansion. Doris Bry ushered me into her apartment. She was a tall, stately woman, rather ponderous. She had dark eyes, pale, lightless skin, and a mass of short gray curls. She brought me into the living room, where there were three other people—two lawyers in dark suits and an older woman. Bry introduced me.

“This is Mrs. Alger, from Sotheby’s.” The woman nodded pleasantly but said nothing. She was much smaller than I, which surprised me. She had a lined face, dark, hooded eyes, and long silvery hair coiled into a low bun. She wore a gray cotton housedress with a white collar and a narrow self-belt. On her feet, she wore flat black Chinese slippers, with straps across the insteps.

Everyone watched as I carried the painting across the room and set it on the easel. The small woman came with me, but Bry and the lawyers stood at the back of the room, talking. Georgia O’Keeffe and I stood in front of the painting. She looked quietly at the canvas, as though it were part of her, as if she were alone with it.

I stood silently beside her. But that wasn’t enough. When people meet someone famous, often they want to inflect themselves upon the moment, to impose their own identities upon that of the famous person. They say, “I grew up in your town,” or, “I have that same scarf,” or, “I met you once in a train station.” It’s a hopeless venture.

“I hope you like the frame,” I said. I had ordered it myself. It was a simple silver half clamshell, the kind that Arthur Dove had used. I knew O’Keeffe had liked Dove and had admired his work. I knew she’d like the frame. She’d be grateful. This was my moment.

She answered without turning. “I like them best without frames.”

I said nothing more. She stood looking at the painting, calm and utterly self-possessed. I think she was wearing a black sweater, a thin little cardigan, not buttoned up.

She’d have been in her early eighties then.

Nearly twenty years later, in the spring of 1986, I was living in northern Westchester County. We had moved there ten years earlier, my family and I. We were out in the country, in an old farmhouse with a big barn and some fields. Living with us were four or five horses, two or three dogs, and some large cats. My daughter was fourteen. I had left the art world.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER FOR AN AGE OF DIVISION ·

(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/14.  Photograph by Cole Barash for The New Yorker.) 

Ayad Akhtar’s autofictional novel cunningly entwines outrage and ambivalence.

The playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar has never been afraid of provoking audiences. His latest work explores the origins of Trump’s toxicity, the tensions of Muslim identity, and the splintering of a family and a country.

Ayear after Donald Trump assumed office, Ayad Akhtar was at the American Academy in Rome, contemplating populism, the degradation of democracy, and ruinous civil strife. He had been mulling over the idea of a play about the brothers Gracchus, plebeian politicians in the century before Caesar whose defiance of the senatorial élite and championship of the poor led to an unhappy end. Akhtar wasn’t alone in consulting Roman history to gain perspective on the present. From his window, he could look out at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, whose husband, Newt, was studying Augustus, rumor had it, for pointers on how to counsel a President who fancied himself an emperor.

Akhtar, who is forty-nine, is an obsessive autodidact, with a mind like a grappling hook for any subject that attracts his interest. There are many. As a kid growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs, he studied the Quran with a rigor that flummoxed his secular Pakistani parents. As a theatre major at Brown, he taught himself French, attaining enough fluency in a year to direct his own translations of Genet and Bernard-Marie Koltès. When he was in his twenties, working in New York as an assistant to the director Andre Gregory, he spent his free time analyzing the prosody of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” and poring over Freud, which led to a years-long study of Jung, then Lacan, then Winnicott. Although he lost his faith in his teens, religion of all kinds continues to fascinate him. “He’s the only American I know who has read Meister Eckhart,” the German writer Daniel Kehlmann, a good friend of Akhtar’s, told me, referring to the medieval Christian theologian and mystic.

Success arrived late, but Akhtar has made up for lost time. His first novel, “American Dervish,” about the coming of age of an innocent Pakistani-American boy, was published in January, 2012, when he was forty-one, the same month that his first play, “Disgraced,” about the unravelling of a jaded Pakistani-American lawyer, premièred, in Chicago. After a buzzy run at Lincoln Center, where tickets were scalped for fifteen hundred dollars apiece, “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, then moved to a sold-out run in London, and to the Lyceum Theatre, on Broadway.

In short order, Akhtar had three more plays première, including “The Invisible Hand,” a thriller about an American hostage in Pakistan who, to pay his ransom, teaches his fundamentalist captors how to manipulate financial markets, and “Junk,” another Broadway hit, which transformed the dry subject of high-yield bonds in the nineteen-eighties into unexpectedly riveting drama. “Ayad’s particular brilliance is that he makes systems kinetic,” Josh Stern, a producer who is working with Akhtar to develop a television show, told me. “He’s able to take this huge, complicated infrastructure and distill it down to visceral character drama in a way that is unique.” As arcane as his intellectual tastes can be, Akhtar is determined to appeal to a broad public. “Proust meets Jerry Springer” is how he described his work to me when I met him, earlier this summer.

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