early, honorable failure

Novel Cover

Thoughts on Flesh is Heir: An Historical Romance by Lincoln Kirstein

To say Lincoln Kirstein was a man of many talents is a massive understatement, but it seems pretty clear from his single published novel that creative fiction cannot be counted as one of them. Written when Kirstein was in his mere twenties and drawn heavily from his own life experiences, it is primarily of interest for what it reveals about its author than as any kind of satisfying reading experience. Kirstein, gutted by the patronizingly lukewarm (at best) reaction he received upon publication, gave up his aspirations to be a novelist and decided instead to devote his considerable energies to a seemingly harebrained idea of establishing a ballet company in America to rival Europe and Russia’s best.

The rest, as they say, is history. So maybe all good balletomanes, and fans of the vast amount of erudite scholarly writing on art Kirstein subsequently wrote, owe a debt of gratitude to this apparently “lost” and forgotten novel. Because without its failure, who knows what young Kirstein would have decided to do instead?

As for the novel itself: quite frankly, it is deathly dull (or at least what I managed to get through was). The prose is characteristically elegant but utterly lifeless—I dutifully plodded through the first chapter, an extended vignette set in an upper-class New England boarding school, and admitted defeat (afterwards I focused solely on several chapters pertinent to something I was researching). Really, the idea of this novel is more interesting than its actuality—it is fascinating to consider that its author, the brilliant upstart editor of Hound & Horn and considered to be at the forefront of literary modernism and all things new and avant-garde, would himself write a novel that could, at best, be charitably described as amiably antiquated. Really, it’s essentially of the quality that would have been expected of a bright, artistic but relatively unexceptional young man of a certain means during the second half of the 19th century. But in the 1930’s? This sad little book didn’t have a chance.

But it is, ultimately, this dissonance that intrigues me, and it does serve as an early indicatation one of the great contradictions that would mark all of Kirstein’s subsequent work: a man whose taste in art and aesthetics was essentially neoclassic, and yet who defended adamantly and often brilliantly to a generally skeptical American public all that was modern and experimental and new. As Flesh is Heir makes abundantly clear, this seemingly incongruous dynamic was there right from the very beginning.

And, truth be told, I do expect to return and read the whole thing someday. Only this time with properly adjusted expectations and a bountiful reserve of patience, of course.

Review of Novel from Vintage Newspaper

Crossposted at Goodreads

innocence(?)

Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Memories of a Movie:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads