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F E B R U A R Y   1 9 9 4

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Unknown Modigliani

by Noel Alexandre.

Abrams, 464 pages, $75.00 until 1/1/94, $95.00 thereafter.

Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, determined on a career as an artist and undeterred by a history of tuberculosis. He was twenty-two. In a year or so he became a friend of Paul Alexandre, a young doctor (he was twenty-six) with a great enthusiasm for painting and sculpture. In fact, Alexandre rented a house where his artist friends were always welcome as casual, or at times permanent, guests. Modigliani joined the circle, and Alexandre was for some years his only buyer, a patron whose admiration led him to beg Modigliani "not to destroy a single sketchbook or a single study." As a result of that arrangement Noel Alexandre inherited from his father, who never did get around to writing the tribute to Modigliani that he intended, a mass of sketches, letters, and related information concerning Modigliani's early days in Paris. This material has been in storage for more than half a century, and its emergence will greatly benefit students of Modigliani's work. Mr. Alexandre himself believes that many people imagine the artist to have been a dissipated irresponsible who knocked off fine paintings between orgies. If any such ideas do exist, this text should correct them, for the letters Mr. Alexandre quotes reveal a hardworking painter and sculptor who took his art seriously and took life with grace and humor despite minimal sales and precarious health. The text does have one deficiency. The author, having quoted a letter, proceeds to paraphrase its entire contents instead of merely explaining the points that demand clarification. This is a trivial annoyance given the illustrations, which occupy the better part of the volume and show how Modigliani worked out ideas--simplifying here, elaborating there, distorting and correcting--making dozens of versions of a single basic figure. Anyone interested in the process of creating a picture or an image will find the book fascinating. It is not a pretty ornament for the coffee table.



The Story of Zahra

by Hanan al-Shaykh.

Doubleday/Anchor, 215 pages, $18.00.

Ms. al-Shaykh is an Arab author who was brought up in Beirut, where her novel is principally set. The tale concerns a young woman whose early encounters with deceit and family violence have caused her to withdraw into a taciturnity from which she emerges only to throw useless tantrums and take self-destructive actions. The last and worst of these is an alliance with a gunman during the Lebanese civil war. The author conveys the atmosphere of that war, as experienced by her neurotic heroine, effectively, as she does that of a stagnating colony of Lebanese political exiles in Africa. Zahra herself, however, remains too remote to arouse either real sympathy or much understanding. Her dubiously reliable uncle and her brother, an aimless young man who finds self-importance in the fighting, are, when their voices are heard, more distinct as characters. The novel clearly asserts the demoralizing influence of the war, but since Zahra was demoralized before the war began, the reader confronts an ambiguous purpose.



Genet

by Edmund White.

Knopf, 778 pages, $35.00.

Jean Genet (1910-1986), well known and highly respected in the experimental and iconoclastic literary world, had so many reasons for his hatred of all entrenched authority that it is simpler to mention his one reason for thinking well of the system. While she lived, his foster mother treated the orphan kindly. Genet was subsequently rather reluctant to admit that, preferring to have admirers like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre see him purely as an abused outsider with a savagely clear view of society's injustices. He was a highly complicated, contradictory, devious, and brilliant man, and Mr. White's biography presents his achievements with impressive research and admirable writing.



The Selected Writings of Jean Genet

edited and with an introduction by Edmund White.

Ecco, 480 pages, $27.50.

Mr. White's discussion of Genet's work, and the well-chosen examples of it, provide an excellent companion to his biography of the man.



Dance Dance Dance

by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum.

Kodansha, 393 pages, $22.00.

The protagonist of A Wild Sheep Chase returns in Mr. Murakami's new novel, still bedeviled by irrational events and supernatural meddlers. The man is older, however, and perhaps for that reason the ghostly effects are less extreme and the author's thesis is openly stated. Mr. Murakami is protesting the subordination of individual human will to the impersonal machinations of international finance. A good novel, if not as exciting as its predecessor--but what sequel ever is?



Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford

edited by Charlotte Mosley.

Houghton Mifflin, 544 pages, $35.00.

Nancy Mitford, witty novelist, biographer of Madame Pompadour, friend of Evelyn Waugh, and impassioned Francophile, was also a prolific and amusing correspondent. The letters collected here were largely directed to English friends and relatives of her own generation, meaning that most of them survived being Bright Young Things in the 1920s and stood their ground through the Second World War. Not war, nor a bad marriage, nor the British tax collector could suppress Mitford's love of malicious gossip or dim her eye for bad clothes. After a royal wedding she described Princess Margaret as "unspeakable, like a hedgehog all in primroses." Mitford's connections were almost entirely of her own well-pedigreed class, and the editor has accounted for all of them, with parents, spouses, and occupations, in case they had any, in footnotes. These notes are generally helpful, but there are moments when a non-U reader may feel like one stranded on a rainy weekend in a remote country house with nothing to read but Debrett. Such moments are rare. Mitford's letters are, overall, a lively, observant, agreeably acid record of her particular time and class.



Sixty-nine

by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy.

Kodansha, 192 pages, $20.00.

Mr. Murakami's novel covers the year 1969, which Ken, his first-person narrator, devotes to disturbing the peace of his high school, enticing his friends to similar misbehavior, pursuing a girl known as Lady Jane, and concocting an arts festival --all quite understandable activities for a seventeen-year-old brat stuck in a moribund provincial city under the grim eye and violent hand of the Japanese education system. By his own reminiscent admission, Ken's avant-garde aestheticism is a pose designed to attract general attention and specifically female interest. To be a virgin at seventeen, he confides, "is nothing to be . . . particularly ashamed of, but it's something that weighs on your mind." Ken chatters of Sartre and Marx and Proust, whose works he has not read, and of French directors whose films he has not seen. He is a superb and very funny bluffer, and one sympathizes with him all the way.



Wild and Beautiful Sable Island

by Pat and Rosemarie Keough.

Nimbus/Chelsea Green, 104 pages, $25.95.

Sable Island is known, if at all, as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. According to an elderly Nova Scotian, "There's noth'n out there but sand, seals, wild horses and shipwrecks." The Keoughs found all of those, plus the remains of lifesaving stations, interesting bird and plant life, and old photographs to supplement their own fine color shots. The place is indeed wild and beautiful, and since it is very nearly inaccessible, this small book provides a convenient view.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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