Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lisa Cohen, _All We Know: Three Lives_

A NOTABLE BOOK of 2012, according to the New York Times, but that is putting it mildly--All We Know is destined to be a classic.

How do I know this? well, here's one indicator. Cohen mentions that Esther Murphy, the first of her three subjects, was the model for a character in Sybille Bedford's first novel, A Visit to Don Otavio, which was based on a trip the two took to Mexico during the time they were lovers. Having fallen a little in love with Esther Murphy, thanks to Cohen (much as Lytton Strachey had gotten me to fall a little in love with Queen Victoria), I repaired to Amazon.com, only to find that used paperbacks of Visit to Don Otavio were fetching sixty dollars apiece. Since used copies of Bedford's other books were going in the 5-10 dollar range, I concluded that (a) quite a few people are reading Cohen's book and (b) all of them decide they must must must get a hold of a copy of Don Otavio. (My tip: try abebooks.com; I found a very reasonably priced one there).

All We Know, as its Steinian subtitle suggests, contains three linked biographies, but the linkage is hard to categorize. The book is not exactly a group biography, like Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men or Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, for although its subjects all knew each other, they were not a collective in any way. As in Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, the relationships of the subjects are in the foreground, but Cohen's book is not built around a thesis, as Rose's is, and is attentive to other aspects of its subjects' lives. Like Strachey's Eminent Victorians, it uses biographies to draw the portrait of an age--but Cohen comes not to knock the busts off their pedestals, but to make us see a world long occluded: the interwar transatlantic lesbian milieu. And does she ever--not by dusting off the brighter stars, like Stein, or Barney, or Barnes, or Hall, but by bringing to life three women who might but for her efforts have easily been forgotten.

The simplest way to describe Esther Murphy is that she was the sister of Gerald Murphy, the model for Fitzgerald's Dick Diver--a slender claim to posterity's attention, but thanks to Cohen we now also know that she was erudite enough to match Edmund Wilson conversationally, could keep listeners enthralled with a party piece on the Hanseatic League, and appears in a novel that is quite a bit more fun than Tender Is the Night.

Mercedes de Acosta was, briefly, a groupie, specializing in Hollywood icons--Garbo, Dietrich--but before you draw any ungenerous conclusions, let's note that there is a special class of groupies--e.g., Anita Pallenberg, Miss Christine, Bebe Buell--whose attentions are crucial to certifying that one is an icon in the first place. If you don't think being maîtresse en titre demands an extraordinary skill-set, you need to think harder about life at courts.

Madge Garland is the one of three who was relatively famous--longtime editor of the British Vogue, the first Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art.  Garland is the subject who makes most visible what may be the closest thing to an explicit thesis that the book has: that modernism was not just the works that wound up in museums and on syllabi, but a temperament that altered perceptions in clothes, in politics, in personal relationships as well as in painting, music, and literature. There are Picasso, Woolf, Stravinsky, et alia, but they also serve who keep the parties lively.

Everything reminds me of Ranciére these days, but he certainly seems germane here, as his conception of the "aesthetic régime" has to do with artists insisting on claiming for art various objects, processes, and subject matter that had previously been, for art, beyond the pale. From our vantage point, it's easier to see that Esther Murphy, who never got any of her projected books written, was creating performance art; that Mercedes de Acosta's archives, including "a blank card that Greta Garbo sent her with flowers," would now seem entirely appropriate in an MFA exhibition; that clothes are art.

Cohen re-establishes the truth, somewhat kicked-about and covered over lately, that biography is an art.  She writes like a goddess. Here's how one of the chapters on Garland opens:

Look at her again: It is London in the early 1950s. She is teetering down the street on enormously high Ferragamo shoes ("as soft an easy to wear as a pair of gloves," she said), draped in a broad-shouldered coat of skunk pelts, drenched in Worth's Je Reviens.

The abrupt imperative opening, the flash of rhyme in "teetering" and "street," the brand names, the perfectly-dropped-in dollop of Garland's own voice with its own little rhyme, the specificity of the brand names, the alliteration of "draped" and "drenched"...all this and "skunk pelts" too.  There is a treat like this on virtually every page. Sometimes several.

This is a book that could re-set the course, like Queen Victoria or Quest for Corvo.  Or so one can hope.

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