Neryssa

"The Master's Muse" by Varley O'Connor

148 posts in this topic

I’m reading the last of these postings while listening to the radio on President’s Day -- my local NPR station is running a compilation of interviews with authors who have written books about the presidents, some scholarly and some more conversational. One of them (his topic was Lincoln) remarked that people who write about public figures often write from their personal point of view (Lincoln as a Christian, Lincoln as an agnostic, Lincoln as an educated man, Lincoln as a rustic). It’s a stretch to go from a US president to a ballerina, but it seems that, as gooey as this book sounds, it’s more about the author, or what the author hopes to find in the subject, than about the nominal topic.

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As I said, going into people's heads is part of the novelist's task and writers have been doing it with impunity for some time now. As Quiggin says, the results aren't always edifying, but sometimes they're pretty good. If you want to be critical of an individual book, fine, but saying writers should never ever do this and suggesting as some have here that if they do their motives are invariably suspicious is going a bit far. Le Clercq has been dead for just over a decade. It's not a hundred years, but it's not a big rush, either.

This type of writing goes back all the way to Shakespeare.

Yes, but Shakespeare wrote about Richard III 100 years after his death, and it was a history play. Toibin wrote about James eighty years later, and another example of this genre, "Summer in Baden Baden" by Leonid Tsypkin, which stalks Anna & Fyodor and describes their long and sensuous swims together, was written 100 years after Doestoevky's death.

Tanaquil Leclercq's end date was 2000, she was not a significant historical figure, and she led a rather private life after her illness. That in part what makes this a somewhat tasteless exercise - also that, given the situation, the outcome would only be bad soap opera or 1950's B movie.

Biographical novels most often seem like boxing matches with the facts when they're not being surogate autobiographies. They only work when the writer writes at the level of Toibin or Tsypkin - after that there's a steep falling off.

People weren't holding off writing about Richard out of respect for the departed - like most dethroned kings after a new regime has taken over he became a sort of non-person at best, villain at worst, and there was that whole princes in the tower business. Thomas More wrote his History of Richard when the memory of his reign was still fairly fresh and More wasn't flattering, for obvious reasons (and even so he wound up dropping the work). The history plays weren't novels, true, but nobody was writing those in Shakespeare's England. (joelrw: I'm not sure if the comparison really holds with Le Clercq, whether you're using it positively or negatively, although I see what you're gettting at.)

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As I said, going into people's heads is part of the novelist's task and writers have been doing it with impunity for some time now.

Getting into LeClerq's head is precisely what this novelist can't do. If even a friend of 23 years can't do it, how could someone who never met her?

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If the resulting book is good, it accomplishes something very special — it aligns a person's inner and outer life in a harmonious and satisfying whole.

This seems like wishful thinking or a writer's neat conclusion. It lacks logic or a basis in evidence. Indeed, how can a stranger, even a researcher, do anything but print his own theories, assumptions, opinions, and conclusions? How can a reader trust the result?

Furthermore, why must outer and inner lives be "aligned"? Life is not so neat.

Posted Today, 01:10 PM

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n 20 February 2012 - 12:04 PM, said:

As I said, going into people's heads is part of the novelist's task and writers have been doing it with impunity for some time now.

Getting into LeClerq's head is precisely what this novelist can't do. If even a friend of 23 years can't do it, how could someone who never met her?"

This may be historical fiction, but it can only ever be seen as fiction, as a fantasy.

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Although we won't be able to arrive at a consensus about the issues raised in this thread, one thing seems clear: This is a novel, pure and simple, not a "novelization" based on solid research - the vaunted "hundreds of hours of documentaries and NYCB footage" do not exist, and neither Le Clercq nor her friends were talking; so, barring mediumistic intervention, there is no basis for the author's claim that Le Clercq's authentic essence has been tapped. This is what concerns me about the book - not its form, but its claims. These strike me as offensively opportunistic, even shameful. I would not have had such a strong reaction if the novel had been marketed as essential fabrication, rather than distilled essence - but then, who would have bought it?

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Obviously O'Connor or any other writer cannot literally read the thoughts of the dead, no matter how self-revealing or not they chose to be when living. That is where the powers of a novelist and the imaginative liberty permitted the writer by the form in which s/he has chosen to work come into play.

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California writes:

I'm looking at some of the entries at the nypl.org on-line catalog. It does appear some things which includes LeClercq are available for public viewing at the library.

Symphony in C: http://nypl.biblioco...2_symphony_in_c

Serenade: http://nypl.biblioco...136052_serenade

Thanks for that research effort, California.I'ts wonderful seeing that at least two major ballets with her are viewable at the library - all that's necessary is a trip to NYC from Florida :-) BTW, the problem with the Balanchine DVD - which I've seen and own - is that it only offers tiny flashes of her dancing.

Of course, Le Clercq herself never saw fit to produce a DVD of her dancing while she was alive, when the Trust would have been hard put to deny her request. I suspect the public may never see more than what's out there now. It took more than 50 years for the two clips to surface, so I guess we will have to be satisfied with what we've got in our lifetime.

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Obviously O'Connor or any other writer cannot literally read the thoughts of the dead, no matter how self-revealing or not they chose to be when living. That is where the powers of a novelist and the imaginative liberty permitted the writer by the form in which s/he has chosen to work come into play.

Yes. The writer is not "going into people's heads," but instead writing out of her own imagination about LeClerq. But as Brubach noted, because LeClerq was remarkably unrevealing, the author has very little even to base that on.

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Although we won't be able to arrive at a consensus about the issues raised in this thread, one thing seems clear: This is a novel, pure and simple, not a "novelization" based on solid research - the vaunted "hundreds of hours of documentaries and NYCB footage" do not exist, and neither Le Clercq nor her friends were talking; so, barring mediumistic intervention, there is no basis for the author's claim that Le Clercq's authentic essence has been tapped. This is what concerns me about the book - not its form, but its claims. These strike me as offensively opportunistic, even shameful. I would not have had such a strong reaction if the novel had been marketed as essential fabrication, rather than distilled essence - but then, who would have bought it?

There is an author's note in the book which describes more fully the extent of Ms. O'Connor's research. It includes at least one very important interview with someone who was on the European tour, and this has a major ramification in the book; viewing all of Le Clercq's available performances, both online and at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library; viewing hundreds of hours of documentaries and performances relating to Balanchine, his ballet predecessors, Le Clercq, Robbins, etc.; reading almost every book in English related to Le Clercq and Balanchine; Le Clercq's two books; examination of dozens of photographs, etc. The quote "hundreds of hours of documentaries and NYCB footage" does not mean hundreds of hours of Le Clercq dancing!

I think this thread has reached a point of diminishing returns. Arguments on both sides of the issue have been pretty much exhausted, and all I can add at this point is, when it comes out, read the book! Or rather, hesitate to criticize it if you decide not to read it. You can take it out from a library if you don't want to contribute to the author's wellbeing, but don't assume that the book isn't as good as Toibin or Tsypkin, or anyone else on the basis of ignorance.

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Obviously O'Connor or any other writer cannot literally read the thoughts of the dead, no matter how self-revealing or not they chose to be when living. That is where the powers of a novelist and the imaginative liberty permitted the writer by the form in which s/he has chosen to work come into play.

I think most of us are quite aware of what literature particularly great literature can achieve - forgive me for thinking that O'Connor's novel will not be listed in the literary canon of this century. I am quite open-minded about novelists such as Mona Simpson writing autobiographical novels (Anywhere But Here) because she is a fine writer but Simpson is really the exception and even she didn't succeed with A Regular Guy which is about her brother Steve Jobs. Just because somebody can write a novel about a particular topic doesn't mean (s)he should. Nothing seems to be off-limits these days, for example: Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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Although we won't be able to arrive at a consensus about the issues raised in this thread, one thing seems clear: This is a novel, pure and simple, not a "novelization" based on solid research - the vaunted "hundreds of hours of documentaries and NYCB footage" do not exist, and neither Le Clercq nor her friends were talking; so, barring mediumistic intervention, there is no basis for the author's claim that Le Clercq's authentic essence has been tapped. This is what concerns me about the book - not its form, but its claims. These strike me as offensively opportunistic, even shameful. I would not have had such a strong reaction if the novel had been marketed as essential fabrication, rather than distilled essence - but then, who would have bought it?

There is an author's note in the book which describes more fully the extent of Ms. O'Connor's research. It includes at least one very important interview with someone who was on the European tour, and this has a major ramification in the book; viewing all of Le Clercq's available performances, both online and at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library; viewing hundreds of hours of documentaries and performances relating to Balanchine, his ballet predecessors, Le Clercq, Robbins, etc.; reading almost every book in English related to Le Clercq and Balanchine; Le Clercq's two books; examination of dozens of photographs, etc. The quote "hundreds of hours of documentaries and NYCB footage" does not mean hundreds of hours of Le Clercq dancing!

Actually I've done as much out of personal interest and in relation to a project I have been researching for some time - at least one interview with a member of the New York City Ballet during that astonishing period? Only one or two? Certainly, I will be fair and read it but her research is not all that mind-boggling as far as books or interviews go. I am not a person or writer of consequence but I reserve the right to be wary - and vent as long as the forum allows me to -

P.S. I think it was established earlier that "...hundreds of hours of documentaries..." do not exist. Hundreds of hours of footage?

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Brubach's article concedes the book is well researched.

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I don't believe this author truly wanted to step on another person's grave in such a way, but she has done so. It's sacred ground, really. Some people, especially in the culture of celebrity we now live in, do not recognize such sacred borders exist.

Saying that this is what the novelist does is fairly simplistic. The novelist does not simply appropriate the inner lives of real people. That, in fact, is the opposite of what they do. They invent the inner lives of imagined people.

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Irving Stone spent his whole career doing exactly that.

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They invent the inner lives of imagined people.

Well, yes, using the known facts and historical background as a basis.

Ah, Irving Stone. Not the world's greatest writer by any means, but he introduced me to a lot of history. I remember particularly enjoying his spirited defense of Jessie Benton Fremont. And "Lust for Life" is a good book, full stop.

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They invent the inner lives of imagined people.

Well, yes, using the known facts and historical background as a basis.

Ah, Irving Stone. Not the world's greatest writer by any means, but he introduced me to a lot of history. I remember particularly enjoying his spirited defense of Jessie Benton Fremont. And "Lust for Life" is a good book, full stop.

I think I read "The Agony and the Ecstasy" something like four times between the ages of 12 and 14. Until I went to college, every thing I knew about Andrew Jackson I learned from "The President's Lady."

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Thank you, Neryssa, that was a thorough and insightful review...I, too, think that this would be a good time for Lobenthal to finally undertake his dreamt-of biography.

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My apologies for being so gauche but I was pleased to learn that she had some romance in her life before, during and after Mr. Balanchine. Anyway, I wonder why O'Connor didn't study the primary sources as in Le Clercq's archive? I wonder if one needs permission.

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Hello all,

I am the editor of the novel, The Master's Muse by Varley O'Connor. As a former dancer, I was captivated by Tanaquil Le Clercq's story and also regretted that she left no autobiography for us to read. When I came across Varley O'Connor's vivid imagining of Tanny's life, I thought that this novel would be a wonderful way for the world to get to imagine what we could never really know--how Tanny experienced parts of her own life. Isn't this the point of great fiction: to allow us to envision what others' might think or feel? I invite you all to read the book when it is released in May; I think you'll find that it is very respectful of Le Clercq and her legacy.

In the meantime, you might be interested in this article written about the book by a friend of Tanaquil Le Clercq's, which I believe Neryssa also posted: http://www.capitalne...d-times-and-aft

Enjoy and thank you all for your interest in The Master's Muse!

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i think the point of great fiction would be to envision what imaginary characters think or feel, imaginary being the operative word. there are people out there who knew her a little and those who knew her not at all. she didn't share; what your author is "sharing" is an imagination and her name is being used to sell the book and create "buzz" or whatever word is used nowadays. i'd rather read an imagined history of an imagined character. but i don't find the concept respectful and i will not read the book.

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i think the point of great fiction would be to envision what imaginary characters think or feel, imaginary being the operative word. there are people out there who knew her a little and those who knew her not at all. she didn't share; what your author is "sharing" is an imagination and her name is being used to sell the book and create "buzz" or whatever word is used nowadays. i'd rather read an imagined history of an imagined character. but i don't find the concept respectful and i will not read the book.

Well said Mme. Hermine. Exactly how I feel about the matter and I am hoping this "buzz" will produce the long awaited biography to materialize.

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Well said Mme. Hermine. Exactly how I feel about the matter and am hoping this "buzz" will produce the long awaited biography to materialize.

Yes, indeed. Perhaps a collaborative effort between Brubach and Lobenthal would be productive - one can but hope!

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Wow, great review by Joel Lobenthal: http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2012/02/5366853/muse-many-faces-ballerina-tanaquil-le-clercqs-life-and-times-and-aft

He should write a pictorial biography since he wrote such a great article in Ballet Review.

I don't find it a good "review" really. However the information he provides is very interesting and appears to be factual. As it has been

said, time for Lobenthal and Brubach to team together and produce that tome!

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There have been a number of roman a clef novels set in the ballet world. Those in the know can recognize the dancers and companies these are based on. By changing the names however, the author makes it clear that this is fiction albeit based on real people.

Why didn't Ms 0'Connor take this approach? Putting thoughts into HER head, "marketing a book about Tanaquil Le Clercq will create buzz and sales".

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