Writers seeking to explore that ultimate mystery, inspiration, by latching their stories to the experiences of dazzling real-life performers or composers or authors run many risks. They can get caught in the minutiae of chronology or blinded by the cult of personality. Their representations might pale in comparison with their vivid, perhaps flamboyant, subjects. Or they might write the literary equivalent of the biographical clip job, pasting places and dates to stale dialogue and secondhand description, hoping readers will take it all seriously because the protagonists are cultural icons. Literary critic Carlin Romano calls such efforts the “Bulldungsroman.”
But just when we’re fed up with such tales, along come two releases that sprint gracefully ahead of the pack: White Swan, Black Swan, Adrienne Sharp’s bittersweet collection of dance stories, and Max Phillips’ darkly fanciful take on Alma Mahler, The Artist’s Wife. Sharp’s is an assemblage of spare, episodic, loosely connected tableaux of dancers famous and anonymous, slaves to a tainted but sometimes divine beauty that shapes and occasionally breaks beyond their world of endless, rigorous physical effort. Phillips’ is a zaftig, ambitiously imagined character study of the woman who wed composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and writer Franz Werfel, and who also took as lovers the artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. Though utterly different in tone and approach, both books marinate nicely in the mood of their subjects’ surroundings, imbuing their tales with credible and affecting immediacy.
Sharp comes from the write-what-you-know school, having trained in girlhood as a dancer and landed, as a teenager, a spot at New York’s Harkness House for Ballet Arts. “One day,” she says in press material, “while doing grands battements at the barre, I had a traitorous thought, which was simply: I’m sick of doing this. So I left ballet and began the task of assembling a regular lifea difficult task when you don’t have the glamorous discipline of tooling the body.”
That “glamorous discipline” has a hard edge in Sharp’s stories. We peer behind the velvet curtain to see George Balanchine’s freakishly obsessive loves for a series of young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet, and Sir Frederick Ashton’s attempt to find a Britishly refined dialect of both dance and desire at the Royal Ballet. We spy upon a dancer’s violent, drug-torqued relationship with his partner on- and offstage. We cringe as Alexander Gudonov defects to America, only to find that defecting Russian ballet stars, like astronauts, have lost their novelty, and then douses his sorrows in vodka. A fiery Rudolf Nureyev sparks a career resurgence for the aging Dame Margot Fonteyn, but the purity of their partnering under the lights splinters into unsanctioned urges and pedestrian concerns beyond the concert hall.
Balletomanes will surely find some cracks in these coolly crafted tales. For instance, novelist Laura Jacobs, in her review of the book in the Washington Post, chides Sharp for describing “short Nilas Martins as ‘all height and elegance.’” Touché. However, Sharp gets the broad strokes right.
The narratives about the big names are gripping, told with spare eloquence in scenes whose scope and shape reflect, not at all coincidentally, the tidy arcs of ballet acts. But between those acts are some of Sharp’s sharpest characters. These are the ballet grunts in the aptly named corps, which in terms of single-minded devotion is not unlike its marine counterpart, its enemies sloppiness and halfheartedness. Like the ghostly, lovelorn Wilis of Giselle or the sepulchral shades of Swan Lake, these girl-women (we don’t like them to grow up) spin a jealous beauty around their lively principals, who leap gallantly center stage toward their unhappy fates. Sharp also touches on the inhabitants of that taboo and slightly suspect world, modern dance, tracing the bright flash of a onetime wunderkind choreographer’s company as it flares into an AIDS-ravaged, financially mismanaged puff of smoke.
Like all fine books about beauty, Sharp’s has its share of the grotesque, the skeleton under the grace, the musky underside of the razzle-dazzle surface. In “The Brahmins,” my favorite of the dozen stories in the book, a dancer-turned-filmmaker catches some girls talking after ballet class. “I ate two bowls of granola, three pieces of toast, and half a bag of Oreos when I got home after class yesterday,” says one. “I’m going to have to throw up or use an enema before weigh-in tomorrow.” Ah, the little dearies. Worse still is “the ubiquitous whippet-thin forty-year-old freak who, like Zelda Fitzgerald, thought she could take up ballet at this age and actually make a go of it.”
Of course, the ugly close-ups set up the noble distance shot. Says the filmmaker narrator:
Where do you see yourself ten years from now, I’d asked, and, without exception, each one saw herself as Giselle or the Swan Queen or Nikiya or the Sugar Plum Fairy, center stage. In other words, a Brahmin. Not one of them pictured herself in the corps de ballet, a Wili, a swan, or a shade. After all, who dreamed of standing at the back of the stage, behind the stars, an Untouchable in a long white line of other Untouchables? And yet, the footage of these girls in class, so intent, so dedicated, so beautiful, told me a truth: they were already Brahmins and always would be.
The sentiment might be summed up this way: “Ultimately one loves one’s desires and not that which is desired”which just happens to be the epigraph from Nietzsche that introduces The Artist’s Wife. It surely holds true for the Alma Mahler that Phillips has so painstakingly and wonderfully composeda flesh-and-blood (quite a bit of both) man-eater of the Viennese school, 20th-century-modernist model. Indeed, for Alma, once she’s tackled the man she desiresfor the most part, almost literallydesire recedes like the sneeze that never quite arrived. Phillips’ Alma is vain, calculating, lazy, jaded, materialistic, alcoholic, pretentious, and mildly anti-Semiticthe last trait particularly inconvenient because she has a habit of falling in love with brilliant, troubled Jewish artists, particularly ones with bad hearts whom she grudgingly nurses while dreamily planning her widowhood and finances. She’s a terrible mother, a mechanical lover, and rude. And, largely because of her razor-sharp candor, we root for her from her first utterancewhich, by the way, is from the grave:
Death, also, I find to be a disappointment. There are no arches of cloud or tunnels of fire. Instead, there’s knowledge. Your own little cupful is emptied out into the general ocean, you vanish as a drop of blood vanishes in the cool sea, and after that, you swim through all the moments that ever were, the way water swims through water.
Alma is the ultimate silent partner, though an exceptionally noisy one. She allows the neurotic, egotistical Mahler to throw himself at his true love, music, while she throws herself at hers, Gropius. She enables the self-indulgent, witty, whimsical Werfel (author of The Song of Bernadette) to buckle down thanks to her ungracious ministrations, rather than buckle over. Only Gropius’ career doesn’t burn bright thanks to Alma’s fanningwell, that and the pesky First World Warbut it thrives nicely with his indignant energy when she betrays him.
How does she find the time, you may well wonder, to also bed the wild Klimt, who sifted in his art, as Alma did through her life, nuggets of visionary splendor from the dirt of day-to-day drudgery?
Klimt painted a woman in the stars, in some heaven of complicated gold, but down in the world she’d sit on a dirty chair with dirty feet, on a coarse cloth, wrinkled, so that when she got up there were red marks across her posterior as if she’d been whipped….All over the floor were drawings and cats. I said, “The cats are walking on your sketches. And what if they do their business there?” “It’s the best fixative there is,” he said, “the small business. And if they do the other, well, a cat is also entitled to her opinion.”
Kokoschka is made out to be, more or less, a genius nutjob, Grade A, but also something of a mystic, painting Jungian visions on fans. When Alma rids herself of him, he marks the occasion by throwing a party and having the guests shred and behead an effigy of her.
Oh yeah, and did I mention her affair with the high Catholic clergyman? It’s hard to keep up.
All this adds up to more than the peeping-Tom variety of meetings-with-remarkable-men literature, mostly because if the artists are larger than life, Alma is larger than the artists, a seductive but inwardly ugly survivor who allows beauty to survive alongside her. Hard of hearing after a childhood illness, a musician in her own right who composes some notable songs, she watches two of her husbands and two of her children succumb to illness. A daunting study in impregnable self-centeredness, Alma sees, even in the fall of Europe to the fascists, a slight to herself. After an argument with Werfel, she thinks, “Alma…this man doesn’t like you. Europe must be finished, if there was a man in it who didn’t like me.” When Hitler rolls, triumphant, into Vienna, “[h]is face was warm as sun-heated iron. I hated him for banishing my Franz, but at the same time, a part of me hated Franz too, for obliging me to creep away from my home like this when everybody else was celebrating.”
They creep away to California, which turns out to bewho knew?as weird, if not yet as violent, as the rest of the world. Phillips captures splendidly how the midcentury Pacific Coast is seen through the analytical eyes of the bewildered, relieved, and haunted European refugees. Driving around L.A., Alma critiques the architecture. “They’re like children’s drawings of buildings,” she says. They see a tamale stand shaped like a giant tamale. “How excellent!” says Werfel. “Form, function, Walter [Gropius] would be pleased. What’s a tamale?”
“Hollywood was a sort of Vienna for savages,” Alma explains. “There was the same obsession with perfect young women and historical façades and dramatical productions and putsches among the divas.”
Phillips has followed his acclaimed Snakebite Sonnet with a rich, satisfying portrait of a lady who thrills us because she’s so different from us in her devotion to beauty, and who moves us to sorrow because she’s so much like us in the petty strategies behind that devotion. This Bride of the Wind (a phrase taken from a painting by Kokoschka) will obviate any need to see the much-panned recent film of that name when it spawns again in video and may compel you instead to brush up on that old Tom Lehrer song, which while half-joking, was half-serious: “And that is the story of Alma/Who knew how to receive and to give/The body that reached her embalma/Was one that had known how to live.” CP