Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Enlightenment

Cleopatra's Nose 39 Varieties of Desire; Judith Thurman; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 428 pp., $27.50

December 16, 2007|Meghan Daum | Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist for The Times.

Judith THURMAN, the award-winning biographer of the authors Isak Dinesen and Colette and a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1987, begins her latest book, "Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire," with a candid and, by today's standards, brow-raising anecdote about her first piece of published journalism. Writing in 1974 for Ms. magazine, Thurman, then in her 20s, produced a portrait of Dinesen (her National Book Award-winning biography would come more than 20 years later) framed around a fictional interview with a fictional subject.

Thurman doesn't offer much of an explanation for her choice of device except to say that her literary ambitions as a young writer had run toward poetry and that "rigors [of nonfiction] require a focused mind that I don't naturally possess." She then tells us -- as if to suggest that the cultural criticism for which she eventually would become known had certain divining properties -- that the invented interview subject, an elderly Danish countess who purported to be a childhood friend of Dinesen's, was so convincingly rendered that Dinesen's literary executor was sure she knew just who this was. "I can't explain . . . the uncensored ease with which I produced it, and which I have never been able to recapture," writes Thurman. "But while I was culling these essays from a much larger body of work, I had a mildly uncanny revelation. In 1974, I was hearing a staticky broadcast of my own mature voice speaking from the future."

Presumably, Thurman also was hearing the echoes of the New Yorker's formidable fact-checking department. All but one of the pieces in "Cleopatra's Nose" first appeared in that magazine, the legendary fastidiousness of which should allay any fears that her subjects, ranging from such literary and political figures as Nadine Gordimer and Teresa Heinz Kerry to such fashion innovators as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, are fabricated Danish countesses. Instead, Thurman's research and maximalist prose resulted in pieces that might be described as snapshots, were it not for the fact that they're more like short Imax movies.

In this mix of profiles, fashion writing, book reviews and the occasional plunge into an unlikely area such as tofu-making, Thurman's subject matter is broad and her intellectual range even more so. She has the biographer's knack for distilling large amounts of information into manageable bites and an uncanny talent for picking the most surprising and salient details that speak volumes in only a few sentences. To read Thurman on Anne Frank, Chanel and French critic and sex memoirist Catherine Millet, to name a few, is to feel that there is no need to read anything further on the subject. That is, of course, unlikely, since the pieces are generally between 10 and 20 pages long. But much of the pleasure of reading the New Yorker comes from the dopamine-like effects of getting a full-length book's worth of bang for your 10,000-word buck. In that respect, Thurman is a company woman.

In other respects, however, Thurman sometimes appears to be trying too hard to assert her Kulturkritik credentials. If she's at her best when spelling it out for us, when using her unique precision of language and exuberance of thought to tell us what happened, then her attempts to tell us what it all means can sometimes be wobbly, if not unintelligible. It's a good instinct for an essayist to pepper her prose with the kind of declarative sentences that evoke a camera pulling back for a wide shot. But for Thurman, with her particular fondness for assertions whose metaphysical pretensions outshine their relevance to the topic at hand, this works about half the time. She gives us, for example, such perfectly buyable statements as (on French author Andre Malraux), "A mediocre school record is often the first possession that the self-invented upgrade," and (on poet Edna St. Vincent Millay), "It's striking how many writers of both sexes have been offspring of mothers like Cora Millay, exceptional women disappointed in marriage and thwarted in ambition and desire who give all and ask for nothing except that the special child live gloriously enough for two."

Fair enough. But what are we to do with wide turns into jargon such as this (on Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga): "Piety and chic may not obviously be compatible, but penitents and perfectionists tend to have a lot in common" or this (on photographer Diane Arbus): "Idolatry is a form of vandalism that often inspires a violent counterreaction of antipathy to the idol"?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|