Adding to my reading list

Erudition, wit, substance, and style are all welcome characteristics in criticism—but I think my favorite kind of book review is one that makes me feel a strong desire to immediately read the work under discussion. Many of the pieces in Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints meet this description; in fact, upon the strength of her recommendations I bought four titles (Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems) at the Printer’s Row Book Fair yesterday. In addition to the pieces on writers ranging from M.F.K. Fisher to Philip Roth, the collection includes several essays on choreographers and dancers, plus one on sculptor Louise Bourgeois and two (as the title would suggest) on saints.

The whole of the collection is loosely themed on the idea of artists struggling through difficult circumstances in order to find their voices and make good work. Refreshingly, Acocella (as she notes in her introduction) isn’t particularly interested in “early pain, conquered and converted into art,” but instead “the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with it.” Though her essays typically display a great deal of interest in the lives of her subjects, at the same time, she’s highly suspicious of biographical criticism that relies on psychological speculation, and in several cases (Lucia Joyce, Jerome Robbins, Primo Levi) she mounts devastating attacks on biographers for doing so. Instead, she’s fascinated by questions like how Nijinksky was able to make dances even while suffering from mental illness, and how M.F.K. Fisher’s choice to go home to take care of her elderly father altered her subsequent career as a writer. At their best, Acocella’s essays display a deep passion and understanding for the work of her subjects, as well as a keen curiosity about the lives they led, and also about how their lives shaped the production of their art.

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