Writers and the Women They Worship

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times April 17, 2013

These three delightfully deranging books offer alternatives to your staid biographies. They’re a bit dangerous, a bit rude — free from the tyranny of good taste. The authors, first-rate obsessives, riff on the women who’ve consumed them — bearing out Frank Bidart’s line, “What you love is your fate,” with mischief, feeling and a rare frankness. That’s the thing about obsession. It can’t be faked.

17jackie-articleInlineWayne Koestenbaum has written frequently and fondly about his favorite heroines, but there’s a Wildean clip and glimmer that distinguishes “Jackie Under My Skin” (1995), his take on Jackie Kennedy. “Writing about Jackie, I enter a terrain of embarrassment, error, excess. When I speak about Jackie, who do I become? A weirdo? A stalker? A fan?” He concedes that “the quest for self-realization via Jackie contemplation isn’t a standard male route,” but when he thinks about her, he’s at his “most collective and communal.”

Mr. Koestenbaum zeroes in on his subject with an unhinged intensity, Humbert Humbert fresh from a course on semiotics. “I am so hermetically contained by the perimeters of Jackie contemplation that I can only point to Jackie, and interpret her, from within the circle of terms that originate with her,” he writes.

Everything she touched becomes swollen with significance. Her laddered stockings. Her pink maternity shift. He practically swoons when he notices “the faint blond hair along her arm” in a photo. He mines the many meanings of her unpolished fingernails, her eyebrows that never looked “effortfully plucked,” her slimness. We feel his shiver of pleasure at Jackie’s memo to her staff requesting the curtain braid in the Blue Room be turned lest it be further sunburned.

And who else could shake out such a wealth of interpretations from Jackie’s shellacked bouffant? “From the hairdo we learn that she is composed and contained; like an armadillo or a turtle, she carries built-in protection,” he writes. “Her hairdos remind me of the bubbletop over the presidential convertible — the bubbletop that should have been lowered in Dallas.”

As a young man in the 1970s, the novelist David Plante had a talent for ingratiating himself with famous older women. “Difficult Women” (1983), his account of squiring around Sonia Orwell (wife of George), Jean Rhys and Germaine Greer, makes for fascinating if squeamish reading. Scenes of an elderly Rhys falling drunkenly into a toilet and getting stuck, or Ms. Greer accidentally flashing the author, are so uncharitable they make Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” look like hagiography. But there’s tenderness here, too. Mr. Plante is frank about what drew him to these women — their fame excited him, yes — but it was their misery that he fed on. “I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t,” he writes of Orwell. “I had been drawn to her darkness because she, who commanded a place in the world, was justified in her darkness, and justified mine.”

“Difficult Women” is worth reading for Ms. Greer alone. The author of “The Female Eunuch” — who loathes Mr. Plante’s book, incidentally — proves to be the most difficult woman of all because she has no need of Mr. Plante. She isn’t helpless like Rhys or depressed like Orwell. She’s a jolly and vastly competent woman with a ribald sense of humor. She speaks a handful of languages, knows everything there is to know about shock absorbers, and takes great pride in her garden and her “long, long, violently fluttering orgasms.” In one scene, she remonstrates a baby for not using finger paints properly and instructs him on technique.

Hilton Als’s “The Women” (1996) is devoted not just to women, but to the “Negress” — the word his Barbadian-born mother used to describe herself. Mr. Als takes the term to indicate a stereotyped narrative of black womanhood, which his mother so determinedly fulfilled: a life of self-abnegation, silence and victimhood. He and the women he writes about — the downtown fixture Dorothy Dean, the poet Owen Dodson (who self-identified as a woman), Malcolm X’s mother — alternately buck against and embrace “Negressity.” For Mr. Als it is a powerful connection to his mother and sisters: “I buried myself in their clothes, their secrets, their desires, to find myself through them.”

But “The Women” is about choice as much as it is about constraint, about performing identities and shucking them off, sometimes with tragic results. Take Dodson, Mr. Als’s lover for a time (“my first woman,” he calls Dodson). Or Dean, “unofficial historian of New York’s mid-to late-20th-century gay world.” Harvard-educated and the first female fact-checker at The New Yorker, she worshipped whiteness. “Dean believed that intellectual life was a function of being European and male,” Mr. Als writes. She rejected the politics of oppression; instead she “chose her own oppression,” and started claiming to be a white gay man trapped in a black woman’s body. Mr. Als is superb on why gay men so took to Dean, how their mutual attraction was based on language of a particular kind, “language as a tool to obscure intimacy and enforce distance.” The language of this book does the opposite. It brings us closer and closer. Every page implicates us. Every page shimmers.

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