Judith THURMAN, the award-winning biographer of the authors Isak Dinesen and Colette and a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1987, begins her latest book, “Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire,” with a candid and, by today’s standards, brow-raising anecdote about her first piece of published journalism. Writing in 1974 for Ms. magazine, Thurman, then in her 20s, produced a portrait of Dinesen (her National Book Award-winning biography would come more than 20 years later) framed around a fictional interview with a fictional subject.
Thurman doesn’t offer much of an explanation for her choice of device except to say that her literary ambitions as a young writer had run toward poetry and that “rigors [of nonfiction] require a focused mind that I don’t naturally possess.” She then tells us -- as if to suggest that the cultural criticism for which she eventually would become known had certain divining properties -- that the invented interview subject, an elderly Danish countess who purported to be a childhood friend of Dinesen’s, was so convincingly rendered that Dinesen’s literary executor was sure she knew just who this was. “I can’t explain . . . the uncensored ease with which I produced it, and which I have never been able to recapture,” writes Thurman. “But while I was culling these essays from a much larger body of work, I had a mildly uncanny revelation. In 1974, I was hearing a staticky broadcast of my own mature voice speaking from the future.”
Presumably, Thurman also was hearing the echoes of the New Yorker’s formidable fact-checking department. All but one of the pieces in “Cleopatra’s Nose” first appeared in that magazine, the legendary fastidiousness of which should allay any fears that her subjects, ranging from such literary and political figures as Nadine Gordimer and Teresa Heinz Kerry to such fashion innovators as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, are fabricated Danish countesses. Instead, Thurman’s research and maximalist prose resulted in pieces that might be described as snapshots, were it not for the fact that they’re more like short Imax movies.
In this mix of profiles, fashion writing, book reviews and the occasional plunge into an unlikely area such as tofu-making, Thurman’s subject matter is broad and her intellectual range even more so. She has the biographer’s knack for distilling large amounts of information into manageable bites and an uncanny talent for picking the most surprising and salient details that speak volumes in only a few sentences. To read Thurman on Anne Frank, Chanel and French critic and sex memoirist Catherine Millet, to name a few, is to feel that there is no need to read anything further on the subject. That is, of course, unlikely, since the pieces are generally between 10 and 20 pages long. But much of the pleasure of reading the New Yorker comes from the dopamine-like effects of getting a full-length book’s worth of bang for your 10,000-word buck. In that respect, Thurman is a company woman.
In other respects, however, Thurman sometimes appears to be trying too hard to assert her Kulturkritik credentials. If she’s at her best when spelling it out for us, when using her unique precision of language and exuberance of thought to tell us what happened, then her attempts to tell us what it all means can sometimes be wobbly, if not unintelligible. It’s a good instinct for an essayist to pepper her prose with the kind of declarative sentences that evoke a camera pulling back for a wide shot. But for Thurman, with her particular fondness for assertions whose metaphysical pretensions outshine their relevance to the topic at hand, this works about half the time. She gives us, for example, such perfectly buyable statements as (on French author Andre Malraux), “A mediocre school record is often the first possession that the self-invented upgrade,” and (on poet Edna St. Vincent Millay), “It’s striking how many writers of both sexes have been offspring of mothers like Cora Millay, exceptional women disappointed in marriage and thwarted in ambition and desire who give all and ask for nothing except that the special child live gloriously enough for two.”
Fair enough. But what are we to do with wide turns into jargon such as this (on Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga): “Piety and chic may not obviously be compatible, but penitents and perfectionists tend to have a lot in common” or this (on photographer Diane Arbus): “Idolatry is a form of vandalism that often inspires a violent counterreaction of antipathy to the idol”?
What are we to do? We smile, shake our heads and stay with our author. For all Thurman’s cerebral preening and biceps-flexing, what’s distinct about her work is that she gives herself to her readers, not by revealing her emotional experience but by letting us watch her brain in action. Even though the first-person narrator is more present than not, Thurman generally keeps that voice at a low pitch. The result is that when she does allow us past the foyer of her gray matter -- we see her taking a break from New York Fashion Week coverage to play paint ball with her son and his friends, we suffer pangs of real estate envy as she describes her narrow brownstone on the east side of Manhattan -- we’re actually left wanting more, which certainly cannot be said of every author who ever typed a capital “I.”
But even a mind as capable as Thurman’s, evidently, is not entirely sure how to answer the question that’s most vexing to a writer or editor when assembling a collection of short works: Are these pieces linked by any discernible theme, and if not, how can readers (or publishers) be convinced otherwise? In her introduction, Thurman attempts to delineate a theme by way of accounting for her title. Inspired by the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, she was evidently struck by how closely her own observations about the political, religious, even moral significance of beauty mirrored those that Pascal expressed in “Pensees.” “Cleopatra’s nose: had it been any shorter,” wrote Pascal (speaking both in and of an era during which a prominent aquiline nose was a coveted feature rather than an occasion to visit a cosmetic surgeon), “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”
Thurman describes herself as “a critic whose beats at a secular journal tend to fall under the heading of ‘human vanity’ ” and then offers up the idea that she, like Pascal, is interested in the link between beauty and corruption, a premise she extrapolates further in order to suggest that one of her primary subjects in these pieces concerns “lost women” -- her mother, a “fugitive from a life she might have lived,” being for her the original example.
But Thurman’s relationship to her subjects is at once so respectful and so authoritative that this attempt to connect the dots is unnecessary. The only linking device really required is that they all originated in her word processor. Besides, there are motifs here (albeit less grandiose ones), many of which concern the complexities of charismatic women (and sometimes men) as well as the operatic (read: circus-like) qualities of the fashion world. And just as Thurman needn’t try so hard to prove that they all fit together, her objective statements do better when the scale is smaller. “If Millay was a genius, it was as a diva,” she says of the poet (whom we also learn was a morphine junkie and major drunk). In a piece about the Bronte sisters and their various biographers, Thurman describes Charlotte as “a changeling princess” and Emily as “more like a Masai than like a Victorian maiden.” Jacqueline Kennedy, Thurman writes, “cultivated the perfect simplicity of manner that is often the grandest of affectations.”
Thurman has chops. Still, in “Cleopatra’s Nose,” certain twee intonations that can only be called New Yorkerese at times give the prose a mildly (if only momentary) self-parodic feel. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, writes Thurman, “was a strikingly attractive if hectic figure.” Daywear in an Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim is “pensive” and “a little thyroid-deficient,” and the family of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was “a photogenic trout pond of pulchritude and distinction.”
Indeed. But in an era in which cultural criticism has largely gone soft, often forgoing serious intellectual inquiry out of an obligation to explain to readers what in God’s name it’s talking about, Thurman’s refusal to talk down to her readers is as much a moral position as an aesthetic and literary standard. And although “the uncensored ease” of her early fabulism in Ms. is, as she laments, decidedly not in evidence here, Thurman’s willingness to be unapologetically difficult is better by half.
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