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The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1987 : BIOGRAPHY PRIZE

October 11, 1987

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.

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.

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"

\o7 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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