T.J. Clark's book is exhilarating to read because, like everything of Clark's, it is clearly, almost seductively, written. What is more, it is shot through with his passion for the pictures he has chosen to consider: You can almost sense him running his fingers over the surface of the paintings to assess the way pigment has been applied--whether with palette knife or brush or finger--to the canvas or panel, the way tones merge from broken and contrasting colors. Yet for all his love of the particular, there is nothing episodic about the book: However vivid the detail, it is always grafted onto some theoretical considerations. If you are at all interested in the painting of the last century, you will have to read the book.
CHILDHOOD; By Patrick Chamoiseau; University of Nebraska Press: 124 pp., $40 cloth, $15 paper
Lovers of language, rejoice! A new Chamoiseau has flown north for the winter. If this name means nothing to you, then you're in for a discovery. "Texaco," Patrick Chamoiseau's only novel, won the French Prix Goncourt in 1992 and created a whisper in American ears. With its translation and publication in 1997, along with a volume of "Creole Folk Tales" and the memoir "School Days," Chamoiseau's portraits of his native Martinique exploded into the English language in a fascinating mixture of classical oils and Creole colors.
The new Chamoiseau is, in fact, his oldest. This second memoir, "Childhood" was written first, in 1989, and chronicles the preschool days of the author. Chamoiseau's cousins-in-memoir are not the Kathryn Harrisons and Frank McCourts of the plot-rich, tortured childhoods, but the Derek Walcotts and Marcel Prousts, whose memories are haunted by ghosts and scents, lodgings and longings. What is glorious, as always, is Chamoiseau's poetry, whether the subject is childhood ("a treasure whose geography you never clearly reveal") or twilight ("A tormented red dripping from the sky bloodied the upper facades and the dusty windows. Then--whop!--shadow swallowed everything. Chomp!--like a mongoose at the neck of a chicken.") It is the grown Chamoiseau's mastery of language rather than psychology that justifies the examination of the past. "Memory," he cries in one Homeric invocation, "let's make a pact long enough for a sketch, lower your palisades and pacify the savages, reveal the secret of the traces that lie at the edge of your brushy borders. I bring neither sack for kidnapping nor knife for conquest, nothing but intoxication and a mighty docile joy at the rhythm (flow of time) of your flow." We cry with him, not sympathetic memoir tears of broken bones and broken homes but with the real pain of time lost.
THE DIARY OF VASLAV NIJINSKY; The Unexpurgated Edition; Edited by Joan Acocella; Translated from the Russian by Kyril FitzLyon; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $30
The dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the most celebrated, brilliant and mad artists of the 20th century. He seemed to confirm the link that many believe exists between madness and artistry because both involve a certain unhinging of one's imagination from immediate reality. He left, according to Joan Acocella, editor of the riveting new unexpurgated edition of his diary, "the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis." Nijinsky's complete diary, in addition to giving the anatomy of a mental breakdown, is an extraordinary portrait, through Nijinsky's emotional lens, of the relationship between the artist and society. Nijinsky's story has fascinated for decades because it suggests the most extreme risks and challenges of remaking one's body as the artistic medium of dance. Now with Nijinsky's diary at last available in its entirety, in a richly literate and annotated translation, his final tortured effort to communicate his inner demons is complete. Acocella is a masterful midwife to this extraordinary tale.
PUSHKIN'S BUTTON; By Serena Vitale; Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 352 pp., $30