F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 4
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.
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
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
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
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.