Sunday, November 18, 2007

Passionate Minds

After recently claiming that I don't read much non-fiction I now find myself in the strange situation of reading not one, but two collections of essays at once. I'm part of the way through The Grave of Alice B. Toklas by Otto Friedrich and after I posted on his essay about Alice B. Toklas I picked up another book that has been sitting on the shelf for a while: Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont. I originally planned to just read her essay on Gertrude Stein but I've found myself swept up in the essays and have gone on to read several more.

Pierpont declares in her introduction that she has chosen to write about 'literary women of influence (very different from women of literary influence)', hence some surprising inclusions such as Mae West who I had never thought of as a writer (it turns out she wrote several plays, film scripts and of course her autobiography). The first section, most of which I've read now, is loosely group around the issue of sex, and includes essays on Stein, Mae West, Anais Nin and Olive Schreiner. There are two other sections dealing with politics (Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy) and race (Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty). These are interesting, diverse selections.

I had expected that the essays would be reverential in tone as sometimes is the case in these kinds of collections of writing on influential women. In fact Pierpont is quite critical of some of her subjects and does not fall into the trap of romanticising them. She acknowledges that much of Gertrude Stein's writing was incomprehensible and of Anais Nin's writing she says:
For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages through the mere act of closing a book- such a simple deliverance- relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside.

Each essay is a kind of mini-biography and I've enjoyed learning about the lives of these women who I mostly didn't know much about. Pierpont convincingly argues that each of her subjects changed the world in some way. While Anais Nin might not be the world's best writer, her writing, and her life, showed women that it might be possible to view their own sexuality in a different way, that women should acknowledge their desires in the way that men have been able to in the past. Mae West similarly showed audiences that women could enjoy their sexuality without the burden of romantic love through her creation of the bawdy character, Diamond Lil. In Stein's case she thought that a woman could achieve as much as a man by purging herself of what is expected of women and writing 'like a man'.

The essays I've read so far concern the lives of very different women but they intersect in interesting ways. All of them struggled against societies expectations and all of them had periods of hardship and mixed fortune even after they had achieved fame. Sometimes it feels as though Pierpont has tried to squeeze too much in here- it's hard to condense these rich lives into essay form- but it still makes for interesting reading.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Grave of Alice B. Toklas

I should be reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks at the moment, especially as I set it for myself as a kind of personal reading challenge for Remembrance Day. Instead I keep picking up a collection of essays by Otto Friedrich called The Grave of Alice B. Toklas & Other Reports from the Past.

This collection was published in 1991 and it's comprised of writing from throughout Friedrich's career as a writer and journalist. It's a surprisingly engaging book, especially for someone like me who tends not to read much non-fiction. Maybe I've enjoyed it so much so far because the first few essays deal with the process of writing and creating art.

The title essay describes Friedrich's youth and the years he lived in Europe fancying himself as the next great novelist. With the incredible confidence of the young, he goes about meeting many of the great living writers in a Europe that is just emerging from the devastation of World War II. His journey finally leads him to the living room of Alice B. Toklas who nurtures and encourages his writing. Friedrich's output is incredibly prolific (at 20 he has already written two novels and is planning a quadrilogy) and ambitious (his quadrilogy will 'capture' the second World War and its impact). Friedrich writes 'Somewhere Gertrude Stein had written that writers don't need literary criticism, they need praise' and this is what Toklas gives him. Their friendship lasts until Toklas' death despite Friedrich's failure to publish his early novels, or to achieve the literary greatness he had hoped for. In some ways the friendship becomes burdensome to him towards the end, a reminder of what he has failed to become, and this gives the essay a certain poignancy. Still, it is an interesting portrait of Toklas who spent so many years in the shadow of her more famous partner Gertrude Stein.

Another interesting essay is about Wagner. Friedrich uses Wagner as a way of discussing the guilt felt by many people of German ancestry, including Friedrich himself, after the holocaust and how far art can be implicated in politics. Can Wagner ever be free of association with Hitler and the Nazi party? Or can it be enjoyed as art separately from its political associations? And just how does the audience survive a four hour sitting of Parsifal with no intermission?

Now that I think about it, some of these issues are pretty appropriate for Remembrance Day so perhaps I needn't have worried about neglecting Birdsong after all.