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The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1987 : BIOGRAPHY PRIZE

On Nov. 6, The Times will award its annual Book Prizes in five categories--biography, history, fiction, poetry and current interest--along with the Robert Kirsch Award for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West. This week we publish excerpts from the books nominated in biography. “MATISSE:

The Man and His Art, 1869-1918"

By Jack Flam (Cornell University Press) This chronological overview of Matisse’s oeuvre corrects the critical misperception of the artist as merely a colorful decorator and argues persuasively for his placement in the highest rank of 20th-Century painters.

If it seems somewhat unusual to consider Matisse as a paradigm of modernism, the reason is largely a curious tendency on the part of biographers and critics to stress his conservatism and his remoteness from the social issues of his time. The image of Matisse that has come down to us is of an artist whose work is charming and colorful but not at all profound--as calm and soothing and mindless as a good armchair. The personality behind this work is supposedly equally bland--the affable old man propped up in bed, drawing, with a cat curled up in his lap. Reading through most of what has been written about Matisse, one gets the impression that he was born a kindly old man.

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Yet if one goes beyond the cliches and looks carefully at Matisse’s work, one gets a totally different impression. Matisse’s works reflect not only one of the great visual intelligences of all time but also an extraordinary rigor and tension. It is hard to see in them the calm optimism he is noted for. We clearly sense the distress of the chronic insomniac for whom painting was a desperate enterprise, a matter of all or nothing at all, and who at times could not bear to hang his own pictures on the wall because they reminded him of the states of overexcitement in which they were done.

One source of the erroneous image of Matisse has been the constant comparisons with Picasso . . . . The North and South poles, the philosopher and the aesthete, the man who faced up to the major spiritual conflicts of his time and the man who worked around them. The contrast is apparently too neat and convenient to pass up, and once subscribed to, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of the distortions it contains.

“HEMINGWAY”

by Kenneth S. Lynn (Simon & Schuster) A major re-evaluation of the author’s life and work.

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In a letter to Scott Fitzgerald in 1934, in which he appeared to be counseling a troubled friend but was actually talking of himself as well, Hemingway wrote, “We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it--don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” Hemingway’s hurt began in childhood and expanded until his death like ripples from a hand trailed in a sylvan lake. Uncertain to the point of fear about himself, he was compelled to write stories in which he endeavored to cope with the disorder of his inner world by creating fictional equivalents for it. Perhaps to an extent greater than any of his contemporaries save Thomas Wolfe, he habitually re-created his life through his art, not in unrestrained confessional floods, as Wolfe did, but in the unique stylistic shorthand of his own invention and in the guarded manner of one who, in spite of limited self-understanding, sought to explore, to express and to find some measure of resolution of agonizing personal conflicts. As he himself said, he wanted to make people feel more than they understood--and yet he also knew that the day would come when his cunningly wrought fiction would be read quite differently than it had been in his lifetime. “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes,” he informed the Swedish Academy in 1954 after learning that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, “and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.”

“ENIGMA:

The Life of Knut Hamsun”

by Robert Ferguson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian novelist and journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for the brilliant novel “Hunger,” but his literary merit and influence have been obscured by his reputation as a Nazi sympathizer who sent his Nobel Prize medal as a gift to Goebbels.

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Two psychiatrists . . . examined Hamsun after the war at the request of the Norwegian government and found him to be suffering from “permanently impaired mental faculties.” An acceptance of these findings removes the moral problem posed by reading and being moved by the works of an admirer of Fascism who found in Hitler a brave and stirring figure. This was the solution that the critic and musicologist Hans Keller, for example, adopted in order to preserve his love for Hamsun and his belief in his genius. In a newspaper review of “The Wanderer” in the TLS in 1975 he confessed that Hamsun’s Nazism “worried me greatly, until the other week a colleague of mine, the head of music of Norwegian Radio, told me that nobody outside Norway knew quite how senile Hamsun had become. After he had visited Nazi Germany, he was asked in a radio interview whether he had met Hitler: ‘You know, I met so many people, I can’t really remember.’ ” A week or two later the translator of “The Wanderer,” Oliver Stallybrass, wrote a letter to the TLS explaining that the reply was in fact a prime example of Hamsun’s sly and diffident humor, an explanation that drew a further letter from Keller in which he stated with some bewilderment that it seemed to him “inappropriate” that a Nazi would joke about meeting Hitler. A personality that was capable of this clearly baffled Keller. The unfortunate fact is that Hamsun was demonstrably not senile during the period in question, and indeed did not become so until the last few weeks before his death in 1952.

In fact, Hamsun’s Fascism was a genuinely held political conviction, and although his personality is ultimately simply too complicated to fit comfortably within the description, it responded enthusiastically to a very great deal of what Fascism had to offer in the 1930s. In 1953 Thomas Mann went so far as to claim that Hamsun’s Nazism “could surprise none who recalled his ridicule of Victor Hugo and Gladstone. But what in 1895 was an interesting point of view aesthetically speaking, a literary paradox, becomes a very political position in 1933 and casts a dark and unhappy shadow over Hamsun’s reputation as poet and writer.”

“BEARING THE CROSS:

Martin Luther King Jr.

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and the Southern Christian

Leadership Conference”

by David J. Garrow (William Morrow & Co.) This biography chronicles the great civil rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s and traces King’s evolution from local pastor to his emergence as one of America’s greatest leaders.

In private, King was preoccupied with the rapidly accelerating pace of black activism. “The Negro is shedding himself of his fear,” he had said some weeks earlier, “and my real worry is how we will keep this fearlessness from rising to violent proportions.” King realized that he was “running into more and more bitterness because things haven’t moved fast enough. . . . The Negro in the South can now be nonviolent as a stratagem, but he can’t include loving the white man. . . . Nonviolence has become a military tactical approach.” King had come to appreciate that it was the coercive direct action of Birmingham, and not persuasive moral appeals aimed at winning over the hearts of Southern whites, that the movement would have to pursue. Only through confrontation could the nation be shown the true essence of segregation and racism. “We are merely bringing to the surface the tension that has always been at the heart of the problem,” King told one audience. Demonstrations “may be peaceful and nonviolent, but you make people inflict violence on you, so you precipitate violence.”

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Throughout the Birmingham protests, both King and Walker had been more attuned to the potentiality of federal executive intervention than to the distant possibility of obtaining strong congressional legislation. The goal, Walker admitted in early June, had been one of “creating a crisis so severe that government--the federal administration--has to grapple with it and do something immediately.” Both he and King had been deeply pleased by the forthright stance that John Kennedy had taken on June 11, but neither man had high hopes for the passage of Kennedy’s legislative proposal.

“THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS”

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

(Simon & Schuster)

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This American saga follows the Fitzgeralds’ rise from Boston’s Irish Catholic ghettos to the pinnacle of city politics, and their alliance with the Kennedys to found one of this century’s most important political families.

In the evening, (John) Fitzgerald escorted his daughter to “the greatest ball” ever, he said, a dazzling affair whose guests included the wealthiest people in the country, the Vanderbilts, the Searses and the Whitneys, dressed in the handsomest gowns and wearing the richest jewelry he had ever seen. Not surprisingly, Rose agreed that “she was having the time of her life.”

So the precarious balance in the struggle for Rosie’s heart seemed to tip temporarily toward her father. But in the end, for all his contagious charm and his magnetic warmth, Fitzgerald was up against a will far stronger and far more singleminded than his own. When he chose, Joe Kennedy could be as captivating and as warmhearted as Fitzgerald; and toward the people he loved he exhibited great gentleness and untold kindness. Unlike Fitzgerald, Kennedy did not honestly care for a single soul beyond the circle of his friends and his family. If he found it convenient he could be as tactful and as dignified as the next man; yet, if it suited his purposes, he could be brutal, relentless and cunning. In a world that he saw as a never-ending battleground, he could plot and make use of people without compunction. Whereas Fitzgerald was divided by the conflicting desires of pleasing thousands and winning approval of far-distant crowds, Joe Kennedy stood all of a piece: His character, his qualities, his talents were all subordinated to his ambitions. When he set his wits on getting something, no one could stop him.


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