Neryssa

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

148 posts in this topic

It's probable that comments to her blog have to be reviewed and "approved" before they appear publicly, and there can be lag time before she gets back to it. This is normally used to prevent spammers from inundating the comments section with links to viruses and porn.

We have the same functionality for the blogs on this board, set on/off by the blogger.

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Well, now that the book is published, reviewers and readers can interpret and/or deconstruct it to infinity - are you suggesting the reviewer didn't read the book? How can one misread a book if that was his or her impression?

Neryssa, all of this is to some extent subjective but it's quite easy for reviewers to misread books. I've read reviews of books that were inaccurate in large ways and small. When one is dealing with fiction then the subjectivity factor comes into much greater play, but it's still perfectly possible for a critic to be completely off base.

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Think of all the novels, plays, and biographies that were written when we were in the grip of a now much discredited Freudianism.

Off topic, but I feel compelled (as if by a strange unconscious force) to say something on behalf of Freud whose ideas are far from being simply "much discredited" and who was himself, not so incidentally, a remarkable and witty writer.

Of course, programmatic and bad novels, plays, and biographies are written all the time in the grip of Freudianism...and Jungianism, Aristotelianism, Marxism etc. Occasionally good ones too.

I don't read many novels these days and have read few of those mentioned above but I did like Fitzgerald's Blue Flower; I still remember thinking that like other British authors writing about continental figures obsessed with philosophy--living, breathing, eating philosophy--she gives the impression that she can't quite bring herself to take their obsession entirely seriously. (Stoppard is far worse in The Coast of Utopia.)

Writers have always imagined their way into historical figures: I confess that whenever they write a fictional work about a figure I have a deep interest in or about whom I care and know something, it vaguely gets on my nerves--as if the writer were cheating their way into seeming more interesting and important than they would otherwise be with an openly fictional story (even one that actually drew on the lives of people they knew). Same w. films: I still have not seen Bright Star (film supposedly about Keats and Fanny Brawne), but I remember saying to someone who asked me about it: "If they want to make a regency romance--and have run out of Jane Austen--why not just adapt a Georgette Heyer novel?" I did not add what I was thinking "That would be more honest."

That said, I have never been able to work up my vague irritation into a serious ethical account of why writers and other creative figures should not imagine their way into the lives of historical figures. It's entirely understandable that they should want to do so (and of course "history plays" have a long history of their own, as does history painting)...Even if one distinguishes between long dead Renaissance Queens and only recently dead modern ballerinas--as one could make a case for doing--I do appreciate why an artist might be drawn to explore imaginatively a compelling event/story. And if a great writer has the 'right' to try it--well I guess a lesser one does too...though the latter may well get more of a pasting from readers. At the same time, readers may well feel compelled to raise uncomfortable ethical questions too...if only because the genre seems to call for it.

To return to Leclercq: perhaps oddly, I feel intuitively that a "friend" or insider writing about Leclercq would seem more of a betrayal. Though here, too, writing seems to make its own laws. X or Y as "writer" and X or Y as "human being" are often two quite different things--and art rarely fits into neat ethical categories--certainly not great art and maybe not even bad/failed art or not-quite art...

P.S. I've never been particularly bothered by "reinvent"... sometimes it works...

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Regarding Freud and "Bright Star" - good point about Freud, Drew. I found "Bright Star" much better than expected (link to discussion here) and it's by no means an Austen knockoff, although that was a perfectly reasonable surmise on your part - and perhaps the overlap in period helped Jane Campion to get the project off the ground, now that I think about it. ("Becoming Jane" is closer in approach to some of the historical fiction we're discussing here and it is a bit Georgette Heyer, freely taking liberties with the known facts. Wasn't a bad little movie, though.)

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One can read a preview of the O'Connor book now on Amazon. It is when she imagines details of Le Clercq's relationship with Balanchine and Robbins at specific times that set my teeth on edge. I liked Amanda Vaill's biography which revealed touching details about the Robbins/Le Clercq relationship through their correspondence (and photographs) and left the rest to the reader's imagination. O'Connor's take on it is disappointing. Anyway, from what little I have read, it is neither horrible nor great...and not particularly moving - yet. I think I could footnote this book if I had it though.

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Think of all the novels, plays, and biographies that were written when we were in the grip of a now much discredited Freudianism.

Off topic, but I feel compelled (as if by a strange unconscious force) to say something on behalf of Freud whose ideas are far from being simply "much discredited" and who was himself, not so incidentally, a remarkable and witty writer.

Of course, programmatic and bad novels, plays, and biographies are written all the time in the grip of Freudianism...and Jungianism, Aristotelianism, Marxism etc. Occasionally good ones too.

My point was simply this: Freud's theories are today more influential in the arts than they are in the sciences, where they have been largely abandoned as scientific explanations of human behavior and psychology. Writers who "imagine their way into the lives of historical figures" (as you put it so nicely) through the lens of Freud -- or Jung or Marx -- tell us as much if not more about the intellectual temper of their own time as they tell us about their subjects.

And I would hasten to add that good novels, biographies, and plays have been written in the grip of discredited or abandoned theories, too, not just bad or programmatic ones. Milton's ideas about women make me want to hurl "Paradise Lost" against the wall, but it is still a very impressive piece of writing.

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Psychoanalysis isn't highly regarded in today's departments of psychology, true, but Freud's influence in the sciences is still very muh a live issue, I think.

Writers who "imagine their way into the lives of historical figures" (as you put it so nicely) through the lens of Freud -- or Jung or Marx -- tell us as much if not more about the intellectual temper of their own time as they tell us about their subjects.

Yes. The past is a different country, etc. The same can also be true of conventional biography.

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I vowed not to buy this book, but was able to get it from the library. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I did cringe at a couple of things, and then had to remind myself, wait a minute, this is fiction.

My one objection to the book is the very negative portrayal of Susanne Farrell, which I found mean spirited and unfair, even stooping to quoting petty gossip, such as other dancers referring to her family as the Joads of NYCB.

As Miss Farrell is still very much alive and active in the ballet world, this made me very sad. I hope she doesn't read it.

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I vowed not to buy this book, but was able to get it from the library. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I did cringe at a couple of things, and then had to remind myself, wait a minute, this is fiction.

My one objection to the book is the very negative portrayal of Susanne Farrell, which I found mean spirited and unfair, even stooping to quoting petty gossip, such as other dancers referring to her family as the Joads of NYCB.

As Miss Farrell is still very much alive and active in the ballet world, this made me very sad. I hope she doesn't read it.

An unfortunate term but Suzanne Farrell was not a sophisticate (unlike Le Clercq) until she studied with Balanchine and later lived in Europe for several years. There are many cringe-worthy moments in the novel's preview but I am still waiting for the book via interlibrary loan.

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I found this book at the library a few days ago, and just finished reading it. (It was so new at the library, that I believe I was the first reader of a very new-looking book!). I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I liked it very much. I thought that basically, it was well-done, well-researched and written. It certainly was pleasant to read, and I read it in one day since I wasn't feeling well, and had taken a day off to rest. Since I have read many books about NYCB dancers and Balanchine, a lot of it covered familiar ground. As many posters here have mentioned, why not a biography rather than a novel? After reading it, I have the same question, because obviously so much research went into it. I can think of only two possibilities: first, that the writer preferred writing it as a novel, as she is a novelist! (This also allowed her to write it in the first person, which I actually enjoyed, as it gives a sense that you are privy to the main character's thoughts and feelings). Or, that she would need permission from someone to do a biography and was for whatever reason, unable to do so. At times I found that the writing itself bothered me a bit, as the author has a way of phrasing her sentences which often caused me to have to reread them as the meaning was not immediately apparent, but I got used to that. The thing that bothered me most was not knowing where the author may have inserted fictional material. She does have an Author's Note at the end which clarifies some things but not others. Basically, most of the main action and characters are apparently based on reality. The two main questions I was left with were: did the "dipping the finger in the water in Venice" really happen ( her answer to this was yes). And, was the character of "Carl" real, and did that relationship actually happen? The author did not clarify that--does anyone here know? I hope it is true! The final thing that bothered me is that she ended the story with Balanchine's death. Novelistically, I can understand this, but Tannaquil lived many years after that, and I would like to know more about her life AFTER Balanchine! In some ways. this book seemed as much a story of Balanchine as it was of LeClercq......(and, may I say, I thought the author did a wonderful job of navigating the nuances of what have been a very complex relationship and marriage).

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Thanks for the detailed review, StageRight. I have my copy waiting to be read. So many books, so little time, etc......

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Finally got around to this one. StageRight's review is on the mark. Generally well written and well researched, often using Le Clercq's own words.

The final thing that bothered me is that she ended the story with Balanchine's death. Novelistically, I can understand this, but Tanaquil lived many years after that, and I would like to know more about her life AFTER Balanchine! In some ways. this book seemed as much a story of Balanchine as it was of LeClercq......(and, may I say, I thought the author did a wonderful job of n a vigating the nuances of what have been a very complex relationship and marriage).

O'Connor does point out that Le Clercq had relationships that O'Connor chose not to mention or emphasize, preferring to focus on the marriage. (She does make it clear that Le Clercq had a life apart from Balanchine.) True, the book is called “The Master’s Muse” and it’s a legitimate choice for a writer to make, but I agree it would have been nice to read on a bit more after the death of Balanchine and in fact the story seems to end rather abruptly. The book is actually quite careful and reticent as biographical novels go – O’Connor could have plunged in a little deeper. The occasionally difficult relations between Le Clercq and her mother aren’t really touched upon. The writing can’t conjure the distinctive Le Clercquian fizz and wit, but that would be tough for any writer. Her Le Clercq doesn’t always understand le mystère Balanchine, the "cloud in trousers," and O'Connor suggests that he was in some ways finally unknowable. Not at all the gloppy fiction I had feared.

O'Connor's ballet judgments as expressed by "Le Clercq" in the first-person narrative can be doubtful. She has Le Clercq inform us that Balanchine emphasized women and Ashton emphasized men. Huh? Not a judgment a woman who worked with both men would have made. (Ashton liked to sleep with men, but his artistic preoccupations were another matter entirely.)

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I vowed not to buy this book, but was able to get it from the library. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I did cringe at a couple of things, and then had to remind myself, wait a minute, this is fiction.

My one objection to the book is the very negative portrayal of Susanne Farrell, which I found mean spirited and unfair, even stooping to quoting petty gossip, such as other dancers referring to her family as the Joads of NYCB.

As Miss Farrell is still very much alive and active in the ballet world, this made me very sad. I hope she doesn't read it.

The reference makes sense in context. I was more struck by the fact that O'Connor felt it necessary to explain for the reader that the Joads are characters in "The Grapes of Wrath." Of course, she's probably right to do so.

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I read most of this book last year. I'm glad I'm a distant poster on this topic since I hope no one reads this as it is not a positive review. But as I recall, I returned it to the library unfinished because it was just not interesting. It takes talent to turn a true life drama into soap opera. Not worth going to the library for.

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Thanks for posting anyway, pasdequatre. If you didn't like it, you didn't like it.

The line between "true-life" drama and soap opera, or melodrama, can be quite thin. (The resemblance between Nijinsky/Diaghilev - The Red Shoes - Farrell/Balanchine is remarkably close.)

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I'm new to this forum and this book inspired my interest in Tanaquil Le Clercq. I had never heard of her, but saw this book as a "librarian's favorite" at my library so checked it out. It seems to be very controversial on this forum, but at the very least it seems to have brought about a renewed interest in this spectacular ballerina.

So in this regard, I would say the book has had a positive effect.

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Many thanks for reviving this thread, Margareta. As you may know, a documentary was released on Le Clercq's life not too long ago (discussion thread here if you're interested). Sort of a boomlet of interest in Le Clercq and her dramatic story. How did you like the book?

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Dirac, I enjoyed the book. It has piqued my interest in that period of ballet, so now I'm reading Suzanne Farrell's autobiography and have finished Allegra Kent's.

I did the see the documentary - watched 2x as a matter of fact. Loved it! I do wish there was more information available about Le Clercq.

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It's nice how enjoying one interesting book can inspire readers to look further. Sounds like a great reading list. Farrell's bio and Kent's bio are an interesting contrast.

There's a fine interview with Le Clercq in Barbara Newman's collection of interviews with dancers, "Striking a Balance." Le Clercq's is one of the best. Her voice was unique. I only wish that the documentary had been made during her lifetime with her as a participant.

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Dirac, I enjoyed the book. It has piqued my interest in that period of ballet, so now I'm reading Suzanne Farrell's autobiography and have finished Allegra Kent's.

I did the see the documentary - watched 2x as a matter of fact. Loved it! I do wish there was more information available about Le Clercq.

For the completist, I recommend the Jacques D'Amboise autobiography I was a Dancer - Le Clercq figures fairly prominently, and that was one of the few sources for information on Le Clercq's personality that we had until the documentary was released.

Oh, and it is also an engrossing book. ;)

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