Reading that stirs, enlightens

Friday June 29, 2012


Much of my time as a retiree is spent reading fiction and memoirs, and going to films, plays, and art exhibits. But as I age, my reading habits have changed. The words blur and my concentration falters when I read more demanding -- formally experimental or extremely cerebral -- novels, and I often give up halfway through the book. I turn then to more readily accessible, more realistic, and more visceral work.

Another alternative is es cape fiction, where I rapidly run through plot-driven thrill ers and police procedurals, but they fail to satisfy my need for novels that are either psychologically and socially penetrating, or intellectually resonant. Reading well-written smart detective fiction by writers like Henning Mankell or Ruth Rendell just doesn’t provide anything like the emotional experience of reading John Updike or Saul Bellow.


Recently, it hasn’t been fiction, but a graphic memoir and a historical study of the playwright/memoirist Lillian Hellman that have stirred me. I don’t normally read graphic memoirs, but cartoonist Ali son Bechdel’s second graphic memoir "Are You My Moth er?" (Houghton Mifflin Har court), which she describes as a "high-wire act," struck me as a psychologically revelatory and visually intricate work.

The main thrust of this intensely self-analytic, original memoir is Bechdel’s de piction of her difficult relationship with her singular mo ther. The mother is a remote, hypercritical woman, who is a writer, avid reader, music lover and amateur actress, and someone who has never fulfilled her obvious intellectual gifts. She stopped ex press ing affection for Alison long before her daughter reached adolescence, but the connection between them remained profoundly obsessive and, at the same time, unsatisfying.

However, after years of therapy Bechdel is finally able to achieve some understanding of what the two of them share ("invisible wounds"). She also realizes her mother has "given her a way out," a way to use her imagination, and become the writer of this memoir. Not a small gift, despite the fact that so much else is missing in their relationship. I am not indulging in overstatement by saying that "Are You My Mother?" is com parable to, and even more acute than, recent memoirs by Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates.

Prize-winning American la bor and gender historian and Berkshire summer resident Alice Harris’s scrupulously ambitious study of Lillian Hellman, "A Difficult Wo man" (Bloomsbury Press), is not an exploration of Hell man’s inner life nor does it offer an explanation of the roots of her personality. But rather, it is primarily a nu anced, sophisticated historical examination of what we learn about the 20th century through Hellman’s life and the choices she makes.

Hellman was a successful playwright, a literary celebrity and a complicated woman of many contradictions, whose prickly and obstinate personality provoked a great deal of antipathy. Hellman was a Southerner, a Jew and a wo man, but none of those identities defined her. She may have been a liberated woman in a man’s world, but never joined the feminist movement, taking for granted that all women had a capacity to behave in an autonomous manner as she did. And though never denying being Jewish, she had little interest in religion, and was "ap palled" by the idea of defining herself by her ethnic identity.

The book grants a large amount of space to Hellman’s politics sometimes courageous, sometimes reflexive politics. According to Harris, throughout her life Hellman was committed to civil liberties, egalitarianism, and collective social responsibility, but because she was unwavering in her political beliefs she was also unable to repudiate her Stalinist past when almost all left-leaning intellectuals had done so.

Harris’s treatment of Hell man is balanced and sympathetic, though the self-righteous, rude Hellman is a difficult woman to like. Still, if Har ris may be a bit too re spectful of Hellman, she has written a big book that captures the writer’s personal strengths and weaknesses, and, more significantly, a sense of how she reflected and reacted to the "minefields of the 20th century."


Beyond these two books, I want to recommend the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play "Clybourne Park" for its trenchantly satiric and subtly rendered view of black-white relationships, and the Vuillard show at the Jewish Museum (1150 Fifth Avenue) that runs through Sept. 23. Vuillard is best known for his 1890s paintings of domestic interiors that seemed to merge people with fabric and wallpaper patterns. What is arresting about the exhibition is that it includes much of his later, rarely displayed work, when he moved from the avant-garde to paint more traditionally.

Finally, kudos to Kelley Vick ery for an expanded Berk shire International Film Fes tival that this year screened among many stirring documentaries -- "Marina Abram ovic: The Artist is Present," "Gregory Crewd son: Brief En counters," and "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry," about three unique artists and the nature of their work. Though Matisse’s line that "creativity takes courage," applies to all the works discussed here, it’s the multitalented, indomit able Ai WeiWei -- beaten and imprisoned by the Chinese government -- who most embodies that notion.

Leonard Quart can be reached at


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