July 26, 2006
If you think you might buy this slim gem for a friend, think again. Get a copy also for yourself. What delicious satire! — caustic, clever, convincing.
Edward Sorel, master caricaturist, whose work is well known to readers of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, has nailed the pretensions, hypocrisies and well-known idiosyncrasies of 10 major literary talents in Literary Lives. What a skewering, and how timely and significant, particularly because what Sorel fastens on matters considerably in our own day: political and artistic integrity.
Why these targets — Leo Tolstoy, Ayn Rand, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Lillian Hellman, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Eliot, Bertolt Brecht and Norman Mailer? Only Sorel knows. But relax and enjoy the savaging, some of which turns on surprising, little known biographical facts.
In a delightful, brief forward, the East End's own E.L. Doctorow provides an insightful introduction that not only celebrates but captures in memorable prose the essence of Sorel's art. What a delight, Doctorow implies, that Sorel, a "serial perfectionist" whose "dilatory lines and squibbles" carefully and indelibly eviscerate, skewers without apology. Sorel's like a prosecuting attorney, says Doctorow, one intent on suppressing evidence "that might let the defendant off the hook." But what's to be fair about Jung's thinly cloaked attraction to Nazism, Sartre's cruelty in the name of sexual freedom or Proust's exchange of temps perdu for time spent spying on customers through a hidden peephole at the male brothel he owned?
Sorel's slanted text scrawls and telling face and body gestures remind readers that at the heart of successful ridicule lies what Doctorow rightly calls "austere judgment." Satirists are essentially moralists who at their best only slightly disguise outrage with humor and style. Count Leo Tolstoy, a giant among literati for the breadth and depth of his visionary, historical novels, gets it for coming lately, and falsely, to spiritual espousing.
Renouncing his earlier life of dissipation, and advocating celibacy, he somehow gets his wife pregnant for the 13th time, a mystery wonderfully depicted by Sorel's floating nude angels awash in linear abandon who hover over the befuddled author.
Ayn Rand, née Alisa Rosenbaum, smiling and evil-looking, pen in one hand, cigarette in holder in the other, not only creates a Fountainhead hero "born without the ability to consider others," but manages to attract "Jack Warner (born with the same problem [to buy] the movie rights." As for Objectivism, the philosophical cult she spawned, Sorel shows Rand in 1958 alongside a Mosaic tablet bearing the inscription: "Push, Grab, Take, Keep."
Yeats? He comes in for his inane addiction to spiritualism, including Celtic fairies, and for his adoration, first, of the actress Maud Gonne, and then of her illegitimate daughter, and then of Mussolini. As for Hellman, "no beauty," her estate was valued at $4 million in part because she finagled the rights to Hammett's work, which should have gone to his daughters. Besides, she was an admirer of Stalin. At her funeral, Sorel shows Hellman being hailed for "integrity, decency, uprightness."
Sorel's Jung sequence is particularly hilarious — and sobering — as wispy Wagnerian characters mock a "collective unconscious" hypothesis that explains why "Aryans are heroic and Jews aren't." This, from Freud's former acolyte!
Sartre is indicted for his phony rebellion against WW II that made him rich and famous. George Eliot, born Marian Evans, may seem a strange inclusion in this parodic pantheon, but read — and look on. Evans' husband, 20 years her junior, is driven to commit suicide in Venice, though he does come to his monetary senses after she dies and describes their marriage as paradise.
Brecht emerges as an exploiter of women, especially of Elizabeth Hauptmann who really wrote his stuff, and as a dubious "champion of the working man," since he, too, loved Stalin. Mailer is shown as a sycophant leftie fellow traveling with the right, a friend of Roy Cohn who admits he would have been "good in the CIA."
Such is Sorel's persuasive skill at depicting in a single ink-on-wash frame the absurdity and dishonesty of these literary icons, that though their artistic reputations will no doubt survive his attacks, their peculiarities (all senses) will forever stay in mind and perhaps mitigate their influence on those who believe that authors' lives are inseparable from their work.
Literary Lives by Edward Sorel, Bloomsbury, 112 pp. illus. $14.95.