Joan Acocella: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints

Joan Acocella has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for I don’t know how many years, and I am just now starting to pay attention to her. She writes mainly about dance (her dance columns are amazing – and I don’t go to see much dance, but it’s a testament to her writing that I always read her column anyway) – but on occasion covers other topics too. My first encounter with her was in 1998, when she wrote a massive piece on Mikhail Baryshnikov for The New Yorker called “The Soloist”. It’s one of the best personal profiles The New Yorker has ever run, and certainly one of the best profiles I’ve ever read, period. It was over 20 pages long. It was brilliant.

She’s an amazing writer. Her stuff is quite eclectic, perhaps delicate, and so there isn’t the mass appeal of someone writing about movie stars or something like that – but she can’t be beat as an author. I don’t know her background, she has mentioned that she was basically a dance fan – it wasn’t her vocation at first, she was a writer, but she found her “niche”, almost by accident and she’s been writing about dance for years. It is obviously her calling.

Finally, a collection of her essays over the years has been released in a wonderful edition called Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays. I have been working my way through it, ever so slowly, unable to read more than 2 or 3 pages a day … but a collection of essays seems to suit me right now. Anything longer is too much of a commitment.

It’s been marvelous to get to know her better as a writer, first of all, and to realize the sheer DEPTH of her knowledge, not just about dance, but about many things. She is the kind of essayist and journalist I most admire. I can kind of get that her area of expertise is the early 20th century and the birth of modernism. She knows what she’s talking about. The lives intersect – Joyce and Freud and Nijinsky and Stefan Zweig – and you get the sense that she is writing about a time that is still fully alive for her, a vibrant frightening time of upheaval for European artists. She’s marvelous.

Many of the essays in the book, of course, focus on dance. There is a huge essay on Nijinsky. The Baryshnikov essay is included. She has essays on Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine, Lincoln Kerstein, all the giants of 20th century ballet. But also, delightfully (for me – who is just getting to know her) – she also has in-depth essays on authors of that period, too, some whose names I have heard of – but many whose work I don’t know at all. Joseph Roth. Heard of him, knew nothing about him, never read him. I must rectify that immediately. Stefan Zweig. When I get back into fiction, Beware of Pity will be first on the list (Acocella wrote the foreword to the latest edition). She seems to have a fondness for Austrian writers of the early 20th century, the assimilated Jews who were big supporters and defenders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and watched, horrified, as it collapsed, leaving them stateless and unprotected. She has a magnificent essay on one of my favorites, Primo Levi, basically defending him against a psycho-pathological biography which annoyed her. Acocella is awesome when she gets annoyed. I find her very funny, too.

As I read some of the essays, I realized I had read one of them before as well – her review of a biography of Lucia Joyce, Joyce’s daughter. I had referenced Acocella’s article here, in my annoyed blog-post about it.

One of the themes that emerges, as I read her work all together, is her interest in the business of art, how artists do what they do, how they compromise and sacrifice, and what it takes, psychologically. For some it is easy, for others it is torment. There are no easy answers. Acocella wants to examine the process. She is fascinated by people’s processes. Some are delighted by fame, others hounded by it. To say one is right and the other wrong is to place a highly simplistic value system on something that is quite complicated – the diversity of human personality. I love her perspective.

There’s an entire essay on the phenomenon known as “writer’s block”, and she recounts some of the most well-known stories (Ralph Ellison, primarily – what a tragedy – but others, too – Fitzgerald, Eugenides – the terror of the “second novel”). I think a lot of my affinity for Acocella is that, obviously, I agree with her point of view. She is more interested in the work, than in the explanations or psychologizing placed on motivation, etc. Her essay on Nijinsky (which is, actually, a book review of a psychiatric history of the poor doomed dancer) is a masterpiece in this regard. I love her focus.

I also love her for making my reading list longer, for introducing me to huge gaps in my education, and I am always grateful when someone does that, and with such elegance and wit.

I can’t even count the times I have put down the book and just let myself THINK about what she just wrote. There’s something very satisfying about it. These are not just profile pieces, but intellectual analyses, and I find myself getting very worked up thinking about all of it.

Just a smattering of her startlingly eloquent and funny and moving paragraphs below:

From “A Fire in the Brain”, her essay on Lucia Joyce, the mentally ill daughter of James Joyce:


Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott) or seventeen (Nabokov) – to make a career – you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage. Lucia Joyce encouraged obstacles and threw up her hands; James Joyce faced worse obstacles – for most of his writing life, publishers ran from him in droves – but he persisted. When the critics made fun of Zelda’s novel, she stopped publishing; when Scott had setbacks – indeed, when he was a falling-down drunk – he went on hoping, and working.

From “Blocked”, her essay on writer’s block:


A story that haunts the halls of The New Yorker is that of Joseph Mitchell, who came on staff in 1938, wrote many brilliant pieces, and then, after the publication of his greatest piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in 1964, came to the office almost every day for the next thirty-two years without filing another word. In a series of tributes published in The New Yorker upon Mitchell’s death, in 1996, Calvin Trillin recalled hearing once that Mitchell was “writing away at a normal pace until some professor called him the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence and stopped him cold.”

There are many other theories about Mitchell. (For one thing, “Joe Gould’s Secret” was about a blocked writer.) It is nevertheless the case that, however much artists may want attention, getting it can put them off their feed, particularly when it comes at the beginning of their careers. That may have been the case with Dashiell Hammett.

From “True Confessions”, her beautiful profile of Italian modernist Italo Svevo (whose life was changed from an encounter with James Joyce):


Svevo simply did not have enough certainty to join the ranks of Balzac and Zola. His world was not theirs, the world of causes – social, historical, economic – but something almost causeless, the mal du siecle, in its turn-of-the-century form: the crippling of action by thought, the erasure of the present by the future (fantasy) and the past (remorse). Bad as his circumstances are, Alfonso’s main problem is internal. He cannot seem to do anything; he is too self-conscious, too busy watching himself. Like Joyce and Proust soon afterward, Svevo had discovered the subject of the twentieth-century novel, the self-imprisonment of the mind, but he didn’t know how to write anything but a nineteenth-century novel.

From “Quicksand”, her riveting portrait of Stefan Zweig:


Zweig, like many bold writers, posed himself problems that he could not always solve. In such cases, one has to ask oneself what feels true, what feels false, on the page. In Beware of Pity, what feels true are the scenes in which we are shown the futility of pity. This is a horrible lesson; it is also what makes the book radical and modern.

I knew very little about Zweig, although he does show up in Joyce biographies, because they met on a couple of occasions. His life was absolutely hair-raising, and Acocella has made me want to read everything this man ever wrote.

From “The Frog and the Crocodile”, Acocella’s review of the recent publication of letters between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren, a man who gave Beauvoir her first orgasm at 39 (take THAT, Sartre – I think my brother would agree), and who reduced the world’s foremost feminist into a puddle of need and desire. Good on him. The hottie American proletariat and the prickly French intellectual. A tragic story, though – of missed connections and futile feelings – and when Beauvoir died in the 80s she was buried wearing a ring that Algren gave her in the 1950s, a ring she had never taken off. Pretty wild stuff. Here is the doomed pair, with another woman (who was also one of Sartre’s mistresses):


But anyway, I love Acocella here.

When The Second Sex was published, in 1949, Frenchwomen had had the vote for only five years. If Beauvoir’s mind, as her detractors claim, was swamped with “masculinist” ideas, those were the only ideas around at the time. If she omitted to tell her public about her lesbian experiences, to do otherwise would have been fatal to the reputation of any woman writer of that period. (Beauvoir’s critics should also take another look at her defense of lesbianism – a whole chapter – in The Second Sex. For 1949, that was brave.) It is possible that the best writers on social injustice – certainly the most moving – are those who grew up when the injustice in question was not viewed as a problem, and who therefore say things that get them in trouble, later, with holders of more correct views, views that the earlier writers gave birth to. I am thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s pre-Civil War statements on the inferiority of Negroes, so decried by recent historians. It is one thing to free a people whom you regard as equal. But what does it take to free a people whom you have been trained to regard as inferior, and who, by your standards, are inferior? It takes something else, a kind of imagination and courage that we do not understand.

In the recent flap over Beauvoir we see again what might now be called Philip Larkin syndrome: the insistence on the part of modern critics that celebrated authors’ lives be as admirable as their books. In the case of Beauvoir one might answer, “Do as she said, not as she did.” (That, in fact, is the title of an article that Deirdre Barr was oved to write for the Times Magazine in response to the outrage over the revelations in her biography and in the Letters to Sartre.) But even if we did as she did, we wouldn’t be doing so badly. After all, she did not move to Chicago, and her reasons were not just Sartre but also her career, her place in the literary life of Paris. If that career was tied up with her servitude to Sartre, good writing has sprung from more humiliating conditions. And, of course, the relationship with Sartre helped to germinate The Second Sex. The affair with Algren, so sexual, and therefore so searing, may have released her knowledge of the condition of women, but, whatever her denials, the knowledge was certainly there before.

From “Becoming the Emperor”, a wonderful essay on another writer I knew very little about, Marguerite Yourcenar, author of Memoirs of Hadrian:


Before she left Europe, Yourcenar had deposited a trunk in storage at a hotel in Lausanne. She had been trying for years to get it back, and one day in 1949 it arrived. Opening it, she looked first for some valuables, but they had vanished. All that was left was a bunch of old papers. She pulled her chair up to the fireplace and started pitching things in. Then she came upon the drafts of a novel about Hadrian that she had begun when she was twenty-one and had later put aside. At the sight of those pages, she said, her mind more or less exploded. It is hard to understand how she managed to produce Memoirs of Hadrian in two years. In a bibliographical note appended to the novel, it takes her seventeen pages to list the sources she consulted (mostly at Yale) in order to make her account factually correct: ancient texts by the score; histories in English, French, and German; treatises on archaeology, on numismatics. Then, there was the matter of writing the book, but she said that she composed it in a state of “controlled delirium”. She recalled a train trip she took at the time:

Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb, I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station where I awaited a train blocked by storms and snow; then again until dawn, alone in the observation car of a Santa Fe Limited; surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal pattern of the stars. Thus were written at a single impulsion the passions on food, love, sleep, and the knowledge of men. I can hardly recall a day spent with more ardor, or more lucid nights.

Clearly, she was simply ready to write this novel, as she had not been at twenty-one. She herself said that the crux was time: “There are books which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty.” She was forty-five when she went back to Hadrian.

From “A Hard Case”, her essay on Primo Levi, an author I adore. She reviews a biography of Levi that she basically finds annoying, for reasons that I find a lot of biographies annoying. The essays should be read in its entirety, she obviously loves Levi – but here is a bit where she gets her Irish up:


As for his life, the position she [the biographer in question] takes is roughly that of a psychotherapist of the seventies. She’s okay. We’re okay. Why wasn’t he okay? Why did he have to work all the time? Why didn’t he take more vacations? And how about getting laid once in a while? She records that as a teenager he mooned over various girls, but whenever he got near one he blushed and fell silent. “What was this?” Angier asks. “Can anyone ever say?” I can say. Has Angier never heard of geeks? They are born every day, and they grow up to do much of the world’s intellectual and artistic work. One wonders, at times, why Angier chose Levi as a subject – she seems to find him so peculiar. And does she imagine that if he had been more “normal” – less reserved, less scrupulous – he would have written those books she so admires?

From “European Dreams”, her essay on Joseph Roth:


One of the remarkable things about Roth’s early writing is its political foresight. He was the first person to inscribe the name of Adolf Hitler in European fiction, and that was in 1923, ten years before Hitler took over Germany. But what makes his portrait of the Nazi brand of anti-Semitism so interesting is that it was done before the Holocaust, which he did not live to see. His treatment of the Jews therefore lacks the pious edgelessness of most post-Holocaust writing on the subject. In one of his novels of the 1920s – the best one, Right and Left – which opens in a little German town, he says that in this place most jokes began, “There was once a Jew on a train,” but on the same page he narrows his eyes at Jews who ignore such jokes. In an essay of 1929, he speculates comically on why God took such a special interest in the Jews: “There were so many others that were nice, malleable, and well trained: happy, balanced Greeks, adventurous Phoenicians, artful Egyptians, Assyrians with strange imaginations, northern tribes with beautiful, blond-haired, as it were, ethical primitiveness and refreshing forest smells. But none of the above! The weakest and far from loveliest of peoples was given the most dreadful curse and most dreadful blessing” – to be God’s chosen people. As for German nationalism, he regarded it, at least in the twenties, mainly as a stink up the nose, a matter of lies and nature hikes and losers trying to gain power. He was frightened of it, but he also found it ridiculous.

And two excerpts from “After the Ball Was Over”, her gorgeous essay on Vaslav Nijinsky:


What we need to know about Nijinsky is not what was on his mind but how he transformed this material into art – how this tongue-tied introvert managed to become not only a great, eloquent, and (by all accounts) surpassingly glamorous dancer but also the first modernist choreographer in the history of ballet. In other words, we need a psychology of creativity. And that is exactly what most psychobiographers do not concern themselves with. Creativity – the thing that actually distinguishes their subject from the rest of humankind and therefore needs explaining – is to them a given. They work backward from there, to libido and aggression, the things that in no way distinguish their subjects from the rest of humanity.

Amen, sister!


Whatever Nijinsky was in reality, he is by now a legend, a major cultural fact, and not just because of his extraordinary story but because of the way that story ties in with certain critical issues in ballet. Ballet’s relationship to time – the fact that the repertory, unanchored by text, is always vanishing, just as the dance image on the stage is always vanishing – forms a large part of the vividness and poignance of the art. We are always losing it, like life, and therefore we re-create it, mythologize it, in our minds. Nijinsky’s life – his rapid self-extinction and the disappearance of his ballets – is like a parable of that truth. If dance is disappearance, he is the ultimate disappearing act. Accordingly, he is held that much dearer. If many people today still believe that he was the greatest dancer who has ever lived, that is partly because there are so few records of his dancing.

And finally, from her masterpiece essay on Baryshnikov, “The Soloist”:

What has made Baryshnikov a paragon of late-twentieth-century dance is partly the purity of his ballet technique. In him the hidden meaning of ballet, and of classicism – that experience has order, that life can be understood – is clearer than in any other dancer on the stage today. Another part of his preeminence derives, of course, from his virtuosity, the lengths to which he was able to take ballet – the split leaps, the cyclonic pirouettes – without sacrificing purity. But what has made him an artist, and a popular artist, is the completeness of his performances: the level of concentration, the fullness of ambition, the sheer amount of detail, with the cast of the shoulder, the angle of the jaw, even the splay of the fingers, all deployed in the service of a single pressing act of imagination. In him there is simply more to see than in most other dancers.


She’s a fine fine writer and I look forward to the rest of the collection.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Joan Acocella: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints

  1. Diana says:

    I just read that essay on Baryshnikov in the collection of New Yorker Profiles called Life Stories (which I’m loving). I thought this essay would be sort of boring for me because I thought I knew everything I wanted to know about Barishnykov already. I mean, he’s been around forever, I’ve read things here and there for years, I’ve seen his movies, I even saw him in Sex and the City.

    But then her essay just fascinated me and I was up late nights on Youtube searching for Barishnikov videos! That last sentence of the excerpt above made me think of her, that through her eyes there is simply more to see.

    I think her book is going on the library list next.

  2. red says:

    Yes, I have that Life Stories collection – it’s so wonderful, isn’t it?

    I am so impressed with her work, and I am loving it because it is introducing me to whole new host of characters. Characters who have been on the periphery of some of my main passions, like Joyce, but who now take center stage. She’s a wonderful writer. Funny, too.

  3. Diana says:

    Books like these remind me that real people are just SO interesting. But then again… I’m also kind of reading (in fits and spurts) Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels and in the one I’m reading now, Counterlife, the narrator says something about Zuckerman’s brother Henry being dull and boring and that Zuckerman will have to write about him to make him interesting. I love that thought that perhaps we’re really all terribly boring but that great writers can disguise that!

  4. red says:

    Diana – I love that last thought!! One of Acocella’s gifts as a writer is that she seems to take people at their word, and she doesn’t psychoanalyze them to death. She looks at what they DO. For example, Primo Levi most probably committed suicide. After all, he had survived Auschwitz and also had clinical depression. But he also apparently spent nights at a friend’s house, with a group of people he loved, playing charades for hours. BOTH things are true. Biographers are often BAFFLED by such contradictions, but they miss so much by being confused. Can’t both be true? Can’t Levi have been haunted by his memories and tormented by depression and ALSO loved life and laughter and drink and playing party games?

    I love Acocella for just taking him at his word. That he found life to be unbearable AND that he loved life dearly.

    It is a much more difficult truth, but one that really resonates with me.

  5. Marissa says:

    How funny–I just bought a copy of this book the other week and it is currently next on my “To Be Read” list. Very much looking forward to it now–I love books that fill up gaps in my knowledge (I, too, don’t know much about dance) and introduce me to other great artists.

    A similar book that I read recently is “Cleopatra’s Nose” by Judith Thurman–another compilation of essays by a New Yorker staff writer. Thurman’s favorite topics include fashion design, powerful women, and female artists; she writes with great eloquence and thoughtfulness about things that sometimes get dismissed as frivolous. Highly recommended if you’re looking for something similar after you finish the Acocella book.

  6. red says:

    Marissa- I have heard of Cleopatra’s Nose but not read it. I’ll put it on my list, thanks. I do like a writer who can show me with eloquence another world that I have never even really considered – the major players, interconnections, all that. I’m finding it fascinating.

  7. george says:

    Sheila, here you have the downside to your blog. An introduction to Ms. Acocella, a wonderful writer judging by the samples, and “Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints”, a collection of essays about as intriguing a collection of artists as I could not even imagine. I am now compelled to read the book, which will lead to having to track down the inevitable “more”, which I know I’ll never come close to getting around to, which will make me feel guilty ‘n all, which will… never mind. I hope you’re proud of yourself!

  8. red says:

    George – Ha!! My work here is done!!

    I’m reading her essay on HL Mencken right now – like, we go from Suzanne Farrell to Mencken and it’s all just fantastic!

  9. Kristin says:

    I read your blog all the time, and somehow have missed until now that you’re a fellow fan of Primo Levi. Have you ever seen the one-man show called Primo? It’s available on DVD with Antony Sher. I haven’t seen all of it (it aired on PBS last year), but what I have seen is really moving.

  10. “The performance is now.” – Suzanne Farrell

    Like most people, I have heard of Suzanne Farrell and knew she was a big deal in the world of ballet. Names like Gelsey Kirkland and Allegra Kent and Darci Kistler … well, first of all … aren’t those…

Comments are closed.