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Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays…
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Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays

by Joan Acocella

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Acocella profiles authors, dancers, choreographers and 2 saints. She gratifyingly chooses subjects other than ubiquitous dead white males (though there are plenty of those) and includes contemporary authors such as Hilary Mantel, Susan Sontag and Penelope Fitzgerald. Her style is very smooth and readable and she includes enough background so that I was never lost. I was familiar with many of the authors profiled but Acocella provides detailed summaries of works that she analyzes. I suppose if someone has read a weighty biography or in depth literary analysis of the works, the material will be redundant but I thought she did a very fine job in capturing the essentials in a short space. The initial POV provides a center to build around so each essay is not just a recapitulation of events in one person’s life. For example, she focuses on the idea of guilt-induced love in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity then gives enough background information and period details to note what is new about the story and how it relates to the Zweig’s life and historical events. Most of the essays are focused on the artist's struggle and effort in writing/creating. A number of the people profiled took extended breaks in their work or, if they were women, started their artistic career late and had conflicted relationships with the men in their lives.

Acocella has a way of making you immediately interested in the story. For example, the essay on Primo Levi opens with a description of how everyone wanted Primo Levi to appear, consult, approve of their project after his publication of books that established him as a saintly Holocaust survivor, followed by Acocella’s notation that he often disappointed people. There are a number of great first lines – for the history of Joan of Arc in popular culture – “Joan of Arc movies, understandably, have always been low on sex, but in the newest entry, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, by Luc Besson, the French action-movie director, that omission is redressed” or the profile of Hilary Mantel – “When the English novelist Hilary Mantel was seven years old, she saw the Devil standing in the weeds beyond her back fence.” There’s a good dose of humor as well. I had some quibbles with some of her POVs (especially in the modern dance essays though I think this might just be because I’m not too familiar with modern dance) and in many of the pieces on ballet dancers or choreographers, Balanchine would just pop up and take over, but overall I really enjoyed this book. I was familiar with most of the authors, but after reading this I was inspired to read some of their books sooner rather than later. Highly recommended. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Mar 8, 2012 |
To be honest, it was a little over my head. ( )
1 vote picardyrose | Jun 1, 2008 |
From the flaps of the book: Acocella is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she covers dance and books. She is one of our most admired cultural critics, a marvelous, canny writer. …thirty-one essays on some of the most influential artists of our times—writers, dancers, choreographers, sculptors, and two saints.

From the chapter Quicksand on the author Stefan Zweig who wrote the novel Beware of Pity:

In an epigraph to the book, Zweig writes that there are two kinds of pity:
One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness…; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.

Joan Acocella writes that “Zweig gives us a piercing analysis of the motives underlying pity…
He enjoys the courtesies paid to him for his emotional services…
Nor is it lost on him that his own sense of strength is magnified by Edith’s weakness and by his growing power over the family…
Beyond the matter of power, however, he finds that the emotion of pity is a pleasure just in itself. It exalts him, takes him to a new place. Now he is a moral being, a soul.”

In the novel Beware of Pity, Hofmiller is the husband who has married Edith who is crippled. Joan Acocella writes, “Zweig’s stories are in some measure case histories, textbook portraits of neurosis, Hofmiller’s indecision and Edith’s guilt-wielding being prime examples. To my mind, however, Edith’s character—her unlovability, even as she needs and demands to be loved—is a wonderfully bold stroke, opening up whole caverns of psychological meaning. The world’s wounded ‘desire with a more passionate, far more dangerous avidity than the happy,’ Hofmiller says. ‘They love with a fanatical, a baleful, a black love.’” ( )
  lgaikwad | Jun 27, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375424164, Hardcover)

From one of our most admired cultural critics (“A marvelous, canny writer”––Terry Castle, London Review of Books), thirty-one essays on some of the most influential artists of our time––writers, dancers, choreographers, sculptors––and two saints of all time, Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene. Among the people discussed: Italo Svevo, Stefan Zweig, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Joseph Roth, Vaslav Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, and Philip Roth.

What unites the book is Acocella’s interest in the making of art and in the courage, perseverance, and, sometimes, dumb luck that it requires.

Here is Acocella on Primo Levi, a chemist who, after the Nazis failed to kill him, wrote Survival in Auschwitz, the noblest of the camp memoirs, and followed it with twelve more books . . . Hilary Mantel, the aspiring young lawyer stuck on a couch with a chronic and debilitating illness, who asked herself, “What can one do on a couch?” (well, one could write) and went on to become one of England’s premier novelists . . . M. F. K. Fisher, who, numb with grief over her husband’s suicide, dictated to her sister the witty and classic How to Cook a Wolf . . . Marguerite Yourcenar, the victim of a ten-year writer’s block, who found in an old trunk a draft of a forgotten novel and finished the book: Memoirs of Hadrian . . . George Balanchine, who, after losing his family at age nine, survived the Russian Revolution, escaped from the Soviet Union at twenty, was for five years house choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, came to the United States with the promise that he could set up a ballet company, and had to wait another fifteen years before being able to establish his extraordinary New York City Ballet . . . And Acocella on Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc reminds us that saints in the service of their visions–like artists in the creation of their art–draw power from the very blows of fortune that might be expected to defeat them.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Thirty-one essays on sime of the most influential artists of our time and two saints of all time-- Lucia Joyce, writer's block, Italo Svevo, Stefan Zweig, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Joseph Roth, Andrea de Jorio, Mary Magdalene, Vaslav Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Twyla Tharp, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, M. F. K. Fisher, Saul Bellow, Sybille Bedford, Louise Bourgeois, Penelope Fitzgerald, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Frank O'Hara, Hilary Mantel, Joan of Arc.… (more)

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