Lives and Letters

By Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 426 pp. $30.00. ISBN: 978-0-374-29882-1.

In his tenure as a theatre director, Orson Welles popularized the technique of “breaking the frame,” or the dissolution of the metaphorical fourth wall between the actor and the spectator that Denis Diderot first theorized in the nineteenth century. Physical rapprochement notwithstanding, the presence of a “fifth wall” between critics or readers and practitioners of theatre frustrates contemporary artistic production. Consider, for example, the friction inherent in the meta-voyeuristic viewing of Manet’s “Olympia”, between the act of spectatorship, the painter’s simultaneity of figurative presence and literal absence, and the subject’s presence. Yet, taken more broadly, consummate arts criticism anticipates—engenders, even—the breaking of both frames. Mediating between his reader and the work of art he critiques, which, in turn elucidates an original work, the critic unites the reader with the original work. The imbrication of lives lived, observed, critiqued, and read is profoundly meditative, sage, and revelatory.

Enter Robert Gottlieb, man of letters, whose storied tenure as a media and publishing baron at such bastions of literature and criticism as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Simon & Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf has enriched a keen intellectual acuity and deep sensitivity to the arts writ large. Both sensibilities, learned and learning, infuse Lives and Letters, the concinnity of pieces on the world forgot—actors, singers, authors, dancers, and directors celebrated in their time, but presently overlooked, especially by today’s youth. Prefiguring accusations of solipsism that a critical reader may map onto his compendium, Gottlieb opens with an apology for his self-indulgent style and apparent lack of organizing principle. Yet the capacious intellect to which we privileged readers are privy here obviates the need for an apology from this late-career polymath. Nor is the collection quite as random as its author signals. A touch of audacity in the preface, as well as in the ensuing essays, would be both apposite and merited.

Character sketches both lapidary and measured follow. Gottlieb questions our captive interest in Sarah Bernhardt, whose floruit dates place her “well past her glory days and well out of our reach?” In an informative essay rife with charming anecdotes, he posits that her own fictive self-presentation (“she was provocative, generous, maddening…and constitutionally untruthful: constantly self-dramatizing, embroidering, storytelling,”) coupled with her agonistic influence on novelists such as Henry James, whose Tragic Muse she inspired, Mark Twain, Freud, and D.H. Lawrence, and her raw talent, openness to unfamiliarity (she broke her contract with the established Comédie Française and the Odéon to found her own production company and embark on a tour of America), and indefatigable energy enshrined her in artistic memory.

Confluence and continuities abound between this essay, “Long Distance Runner” and “Bringing Up Biographer,” those on Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn respectively. Gottlieb asks why, of the silent film stars who faded into oblivion, Gish alone built a sixty-year career. Historical moment aside, the antinomies of Bernhardt’s character and acting style and Gish’s match—both were artfully enigmatic about and fiercely independent in their personal lives, yet unabashedly melodramatic as actresses. Interviewing Gish, he observes “something steely about her guardedness: she had decided on her version of the past, and no other version was discussable.” She tells a lifelong friend, “It isn’t easy being a Lillian Gish.” Hepburn, similarly, was “strident, evasive, patchy, and willful” in her autobiography, brazen in her actions, and completely in command of certain key friendships, notably with her biographer A. Scott Berg. Permanence in the theatrical and cinematic worlds, this intimates, necessitates an orchestrated and prolonged act of self-creation. Yet Gottlieb’s incisive reading of this act breaks, for viewers and readers, the frames these actresses so carefully constructed for themselves.

The essays of greatest resonance explore the architectonics of emotional and editorial judiciousness and equilibrium. “Francine du Plessix Gray: Him + Her = Them” probes the conflicted yet balanced memoir of the novelist’s upbringing by a narcissistic Russian milliner and a magazine editor of protean loyalties. “Who Was Charles Dickens?” traces the valences of Dickens’s biographers’ treatment of his behavior toward women, from John Forster, a close friend, to Michael Slater, a literary scholar. A panoptic treatment of even the canonical Dickensian biographies is no mean undertaking, and Gottlieb’s careful assessment of their respective opinions drew my preternatural appreciation on the first serial appearance of this article in the New York Review of Books. In “Max and Marjorie: An Editorial Love Story,” too, Gottlieb is in finest form, mapping the epistolary friendship between the lionized Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. Revering Perkins for knowing that “editing lies in another, larger kind of sympathy—the sympathy that can intuit the kind of book a given writer may have in him or her to write,” he evinces not only his own humility and charismatic approach to writing and editing, but also posits himself as a designated mourner, to borrow a term from Wallace Shawn. The essay is a poignant requiem for Perkins’s formal, deeply empathic style, and for the bygone age of his form, letters.

In a patently compassionate collection, few essays resist the gentle erasure of the censorious in Gottlieb’s critical voice, yet those that do adduce aptly chosen detail to support their wisely sardonic tone. To wit, “Becky in the Movies: Vanity Fair,” a critique of cinematic mises-en-oeuvre of Thackeray’s masterpiece, is a beautifully wrought eschewal of feminist representations such as Mira Nair’s or those that render Becky Sharp the cynosure of the audience’s eye. Though Gottlieb does not mention it, to this reader, the essay pivots on Thackeray’s own subtitle, “A Novel Without a Hero,” a contention that adaptations should portray a society under great strain rather than an individual character’s storyline.

The work of linear connection, understanding the organizational framework that underpins an essay collection, the better to enter the frames the critic so gracefully breaks, is that of the reader. To my mind, Lives and Letters is a matter of rearranging our sight lines in remembrance of things past. Gottlieb’s portraits provide historical moorings for the younger generation of film, theatre, and literary enthusiasts, in the same vein as David Thomson’s “When is a movie great? The perils of medium and magic” (Harper’s Magazine, July 2011). An occasional wish for a more stentorian note in his criticism is the strongest critique one might level, for, like Francine du Plessix Gray, he’s essentially “too decent” a person to let cavil shape his creative direction. Rather, his wry, warm ethos evokes Joan Acocella’s in Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and his modest, empathic, and visionary approach recalls Geoff Dyer’s in Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. We, as witnesses and participants in this frame, are blessed.

This piece was published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Colorado Review.

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