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"The Master's Muse" by Varley O'ConnorNew novel about Le Clercq and Balanchine


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#106 dirac

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 01:32 PM

Yes, I forgot Charlie. Nonetheless, substantial passages of the book are related in the first person by Burr. (The choice not to use the first person allows Vidal to elide those episodes in Burr's life where we don't know quite what went on, among other things; I rather doubt he employed the device of Charlie because he had any special qualms about getting inside Burr's head.) Another good one, "The Persian Boy," by Mary Renault, qualifies for your third person requirement, but not quite, because the Persian boy of the title is also a historical figure. Offhand I can't think of too many novels of the type we're discussing that would fulfill your requirement perfectly.....of which titles were you thinking?

#107 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 01:43 PM

Yes, I forgot Charlie. Nonetheless, substantial passages of the book are related in the first person by Burr. (The choice not to use the first person allows Vidal to elide those episodes in Burr's life where we don't know quite what went on, among other things; I rather doubt he employed the device of Charlie because he had any special qualms about getting inside Burr's head.) Another good one, "The Persian Boy," by Mary Renault, qualifies for your third person requirement, but not quite, because the Persian boy of the title is also a historical figure. Offhand I can't think of too many novels of the type we're discussing that would fulfill your requirement perfectly.....of which titles were you thinking?


Oh, some real potboilers! Robert Harris' wonderful Cicero novels (told from the point of view of his slave and secretary, Tiro) and Philip Kerr's "Dark Matter," in which Sir Issac Newton, as head of the Royal Mint, solves a murder mystery. I forget -- who narrates Vidal's "Lincoln"?

I'll have to put on my thinking cap for more.

#108 dirac

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 02:29 PM

Gotcha. Haven't read those.

"Lincoln" isn't narrated by anyone. The story is told through the eyes of John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries. Very different book, in tone, approach, and I would say intent, from "Burr," which is lively and irreverent. He used Charlie Schuyler again for "1876." And I now recall that Charlie's mistress in "Burr" was the unfortunate and quite non-fictional Helen Jewett. But I digress....

#109 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 07:54 PM

OK, I did a little thinking about this while I was traipsing around the city tonight. I didn't mean to imply that what I referred to as "inside" novelizations were entirely illegitimate. I think they're risky because they're speculative recreations of the subjective experience of a real person and they can be very powerful: once you've put the book down, it can be nearly impossible to dislodge the fictional version of that person from your mind forever after. But any number of celebrated authors have tried their hand at them: Susan Sontag ("The Volcano Lover"), Don Dellilo ("Libra"), William T. Vollman ("Europe Central"), Beryl Bainbridge ("The Birthday Boys"), Hilary Mantel ("A Place of Greater Safety" and "Wolf Hall"), Penelope Fitzgerald ("The Blue Flower") -- I've read and enjoyed them all, but they've made me uneasy all the same. (And in at least two cases the books take liberties with the documented facts.)

"Outside" novelizations are risky too, of course: there's always the possibility that they paint a distorted picture of real persons and events. But by shifting the point of view to a third party the novel at least replicates something that we all do consciously or unconsciously, which is to try to understand something about another person's life based on what we see them do and say.

#110 Quiggin

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 10:40 PM

Kathleen O'Connell

... Penelope Fitzgerald ("The Blue Flower") -- I've read and enjoyed them all, but they've made me uneasy all the same.


But Fitzgerald is so discreet and meticulous and uses Novalis' journals and notes to structure the novel. And Novalis sort of gives the writer permission in a fragment that Fitzgerald quotes at the beginning of The Blue Flower:

"Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."

(And elsewhere Novalis writes something like: where philososphy ends poetry must begin.)

#111 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 07:37 AM

Kathleen O'Connell

... Penelope Fitzgerald ("The Blue Flower") -- I've read and enjoyed them all, but they've made me uneasy all the same.


But Fitzgerald is so discreet and meticulous and uses Novalis' journals and notes to structure the novel. And Novalis sort of gives the writer permission in a fragment that Fitzgerald quotes at the beginning of The Blue Flower:

"Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."

(And elsewhere Novalis writes something like: where philososphy ends poetry must begin.)


The Romantic Generation did have something of an enthusiasm for turning the lives of historical personages into art, although I don't think one reads Schiller's "Maria Stuart" or "Don Carlos" to deepen one's understanding of Elizabethan England or Philip II's Spain. (And if you're like me, you toss them aside and cheerfully listen to Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" and Verdi's "Don Carlos" instead. Posted Image ) You might read them for a better understanding of the particular concerns of Schiller and his contemporaries, however, and I think that's at the heart of my concern. We can see now how Schiller's Mary Stuart is the projection of those concerns rather than a "true" depiction of the historical queen (who might in fact be rather shocked by the philosophical ideas held by Schiller and his contemporaries). But perhaps we can't see the ways in which a contemporary novelized biography is more the reflection of our own early 21st century notions than an accurate depiction of another person's consciousness. Think of all the novels, plays, and biographies that were written when we were in the grip of a now much discredited Freudianism.

That being said, Fitzgerald's lovely book is indeed a model of tact, and it's charming that someone even thought to write a book about Novalis targeted towards an English-speaking audience!

#112 dirac

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 10:26 AM

But any number of celebrated authors have tried their hand at them:


Yes. It's a perfectly legitimate genre. One or another may not like it, a famous and controversial example being Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" -- but it's done all the time and frequently done well.

I don't have a problem with liberties taken with the history, depending, obviously, on how far they go and what they are; again, this is is something that the novel form allows the writer to do and on occasion may compel him to do in order to provide shape to the narrative. I did wonder about a recent effort that took Laura Bush as subject, who is obviously very much alive even if she is a public figure.

"Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."


Thanks for that, Quiggin.

#113 Quiggin

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 11:28 AM

it's charming that someone even thought to write a book about Novalis targeted towards an English-speaking audience!


I was apprehensive about reading about Novalis through an English voice, and so I didn’t pick up The Blue Flower until only this year but then I was so happy I did.

There’s a great scene where the young philosophers run into Goethe on one of his walks in the woods and break up into small groups because they know Goethe doesn’t like to run into too many people at once. It’s one of mixes of the grand and the everyday which Fitzgerald brings off again and again in the book. It’s as if she is allowing the great ideas of idealism their earthly body and analog - a gentler, kinder Dr. Johnson.

Though it’s not exactly about a real person, Javier Marías has a scene in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me about a Spanish prince who watches a video of Chimes at Midnight late one night when he cannot sleep, and in describing it to his speech writer, he comes to identify with the Orson Welles Falstaff character. A nice meeting of history and artifice.

#114 Neryssa

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 09:59 AM

Ugh. Publicity video:



#115 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 11:15 AM

Ugh. Publicity video


Per Varley O’Connor: "There's not enough written about her [LeClercq] for a biography." Huh? Is that not the very reason good biographers track down family, friends, and colleagues for interviews and dig around in the archives for as yet un-mined source materials? She seems to be suggesting that she'd have penned a biography but for the the fact that not enough other people have written about LeClercq yet. I'd feel better about the project if she'd just said "I wanted to turn this woman's amazing life into a novel" or "I'm not a scholar but I needed to tell this story" or "I think a novel will reach a wider audience than a standard biography" or even "I couldn't get the kind of advance I needed to support the research a real biography would require."

I know it's an unfair extrapolation on my part, but the subtext I hear in that quote is "so of course I had to make stuff up."

Edited to add: I actually don't think O'Connor needs to justify writing a novel based on LeClercq's life, although I suspect she feels a lot of pressure to do so given the pushback. I don't recall William T. Vollmann going to any great lengths to justify novelizing incidents from the lives of Käthe Kollwitz, Dmitri Shostakovich, Anna Akhmatova, et al, in Europe Central although there was more than a little grumbling about his having done so and, especially, with some of the liberties he took regarding Shostakovich's life in particular. (He really did make stuff up.) Susan Sontag might have wept in frustration that her novels weren't esteemed as highly as she wished, but she would surely have brushed away complaints about fictionalizing a scandalous episode in the life of the revered Admiral Nelson like so many pesky flies. Did Don Delillo bother to justify novelizing Lee Harvey Oswald? One might argue that these authors are better writers than O'Connor, that their works aren't "exploitative" of their subject matter in the same way, that their subjects have been dead longer, or that they have the literary celebrity's equivalent of "F*** You" money, i.e., critical esteem bordering on reverence -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that they get a free pass and O'Connor doesn't. (And let me hasten to add that I haven't read any of O'Connor's work, so I can't comment on the quality of her writing or the degree to which she fastens on the sensational for fame and glory.)

Nor do I think anyone needs to justify feeling queasy about O'Connor's endeavor, especially persons who knew LeClercq personally.

O'Connor's novel itself is fair game, of course.



#116 California

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 11:21 AM

Not a single photo of LeClercq (other than the book cover) and no video of her dancing. All those lovely old Degas paintings tell me that the Balanchine Trust and whomever is controlling her estate refused to cooperate on marketing this book.

I was also struck by the comment that the author had heard that the marriage was falling apart, but they were married for 17 years! I had understood that the marriage was indeed falling apart until she contracted polio and Balanchine stayed with her because he felt so guilty about her illness. Is that what others understood?

#117 Neryssa

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 12:10 PM

I was also struck by the comment that the author had heard that the marriage was falling apart, but they were married for 17 years! I had understood that the marriage was indeed falling apart until she contracted polio and Balanchine stayed with her because he felt so guilty about her illness. Is that what others understood?


Indeed, I've read a few times that the marriage was over and they would have separated in January 1957 had she not contracted polio.
O'Connor's breathless delivery really irritates me. To be fair - or rather unfair, anything she says or writes at this point will annoy me. I'll be curious to see what publications review it.
P.S. I know I am being critical and bitchy but O'Connor uses the word "crippled" instead of paralyzed or disabled. I don't even recall news reports or friends ever using that verb. Very odd and annoying. I am in a bad mood today; my apologies.

I know it's an unfair extrapolation on my part, but the subtext I hear in that quote is "so of course I had to make stuff up."

Yes, I heard that justification too.

#118 Quiggin

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 02:39 PM

"Reinventing herself"? This is a very bizarre performance - something Cindy Sherman or Laurie Simmons would do at the Kitchen or PS 122 if they were performance artists, making LeClercq into a manikan or play doll. O'Connor is capitalizing on the sentimentality that has accumulated around LeClercq's image over the years, with little of the original person left.

I was going through my books this morning, thinking about Pamela Moberg's new topic about ballet libraries, and came across this interesting, slightly harsh take on LeClercq by Ann Barzel from the 1953-54 edition of The Ballet Annual:

Tanaquil LeClercq, though often cast in classical roles, more and more proves her talents lie in the special fields of the grotesque, the mysterious, the macabre, the decadent, the ridiculous. Her finest title is the detached mystery of Afternoon of a Faun. She inherited the role of the novice in The Cage and was most successful bringing to it the physical attributes, the movement quality, the instinctive cruelty of an insect ...


[Anyway I hope I haven't contradicted myself too much, but this isn't turning out to be a Penelope Fitzgerald novel on City Ballet - which might have been quite nice - like At Freddies.]

#119 Neryssa

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 05:47 PM

"Reinventing herself"? This is a very bizarre performance - something Cindy Sherman or Laurie Simmons would do at the Kitchen or PS 122 if they were performance artists, making LeClercq into a manikan or play doll. O'Connor is capitalizing on the sentimentality that has accumulated around LeClercq's image over the years, with little of the original person left.

I was going through my books this morning, thinking about Pamela Moberg's new topic about ballet libraries, and came across this interesting, slightly harsh take on LeClercq by Ann Barzel from the 1953-54 edition of The Ballet Annual:

Tanaquil LeClercq, though often cast in classical roles, more and more proves her talents lie in the special fields of the grotesque, the mysterious, the macabre, the decadent, the ridiculous. Her finest title is the detached mystery of Afternoon of a Faun. She inherited the role of the novice in The Cage and was most successful bringing to it the physical attributes, the movement quality, the instinctive cruelty of an insect ...


[Anyway I hope I haven't contradicted myself too much, but this isn't turning out to be a Penelope Fitzgerald novel on City Ballet - which might have been quite nice - like At Freddies.]


I am looking forward to the 3rd edition of The Dimwit's Dictionary: More Than 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them: (it will be published next month). I hope the verb "reinvent" [oneself/herself] is in it. I am SO SICK of writers and entertainment reporters using it. As for Ann Barzel's comments on Le Clercq, I wonder if they are unwarranted. Wasn't Balanchine pushing Le Clercq to dance more classical roles such as Swan Lake by 1956? Of course, that was a few years later.

#120 Quiggin

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 11:21 PM

Neryssa:

I hope the verb "reinvent" [oneself/herself] is in it ... Wasn't Balanchine pushing Le Clercq to dance more classical roles such as Swan Lake by 1956?


Not only is it overused, it's a sort of an awful idea.

I checked John Martin's reviews in the New York Times written about the same time as Ann Barzel's. Here's LeClerq's debut in Swan Lake, November 24, 1952:

It is perhaps still a bit too big for her, and her performance still has its empty patches, but it is nonetheless an engaging and thoroughly promising piece of work. The slightly coltish gaucheness, which is perhaps Miss LeClercq’s most winning characteristic, give an unfamiliar youth and helplessness to the enchanted princess; and though she handles the dramatic elements of the role with fine instinct, she is never guilty of the grand opera dramatic soprano approach that so often creeps into the role. We shall probably have a most original and effective Swan Queen from her one of these days.


In March 1956, however, he gives LeClercq a rare unflattering review:

At yesterday’s matinee Miss LeClercq and Jacques d’Amboise had the leading roles in “Swan Lake,” and that was ill-advised on both counts. There is much work ahead for both of them before they can bring the necessary authority and outward style to this masterpiece of another age.


On November 25, 1956 Martin sadly writes this:

... she is a highly individual artist and, like all individual artists, virtually impossible to replace. Her colt-like, long legged figure gives her a distinctive manner of moving, but beyond that she brings onto the stage with her a strongly personal mental atmosphere.

One face of it is an impish pseudo-innocent kind of comedy; the other face is a childlike sort of lyrical universality. The former finds its outlets through the varied surfaces of Balanchine’s “Bourree Fantasque” at one extreme and his “Ivesiana” at the other, with his bouncing “Western Symphony” and his curious “Metamorphosis” providing a somewhat comparable set of extremes.

But the other face of her talent shows us in Robbins “Afternoon of a Faun” a simple poetic power, able to endow the slenderest of emotional lines with enormous tensility, like a spider’s web spun before our eyes. It is this same persuasive quality that Balanchine evokes from her rather more touchingly in “La Valse.”


Robert Garis says at first he found LeClercq lacking Maria Tallchief's technique and persistence, that she gave the same part Tallchief had done inThe Nutcracker "only a lick and a promise." Much later he recognized her dance genius and realized that she foreshadowed the direction in which Balanchine would move with Suzanne Farrell.


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