The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
William Butler Yeats
On one level, Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, is about professional ballet. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an unfamiliar world. Beginning in 1973, the story follows Joan Joyce, a member of the corps de ballet in a New York dance company, and her relationship with the company’s star, Arslan Rusakov, whom she has helped defect from the Soviet Union. Joan, unlike her roommate Elaine, never succeeds as a soloist and ends up marrying her childhood sweetheart and teaching ballet. She does, however, raise a son who becomes a tremendously talented dancer.
The story is interesting in its own right, with plenty of surprises, but what intrigued me most was the examination of the artistic life. Artists — whether they are dancers, or writers, or painters — are always striving for perfection. In a BookPage interview, Maggie Shipstead said:
But I think there’s a common experience among writers and dancers (and probably most artists) of what it’s like to spend all your time trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, something that requires a massive amount of practice and dedication and might give you a rush of satisfaction one day and then leave you feeling utterly defeated the next. It’s a precarious way to live.
Often, artists are forced to come to terms with their limitations — particularly in ballet, because of the extreme physical requirements. When Joan, who knows she will never achieve real success, becomes pregnant and retires from ballet, she feels she has escaped: “For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy”. She always has the lingering feeling, however, that the artist’s path is somehow superior to hers — a feeling that is shared by those close to her.
Her husband, Jacob, boasts to strangers about being married to a former ballet dancer. Her art is an essential part of her, and he is saddened that she has given up on it: “For as long as he has known Joan, since they were almost children, she has lived a double life, as a dancer and as a civilian, and her retirement means that she has been reduced in some essential way.” He thinks that Joan and their son, Harry, see him as “uncool” and his job as an educator is “mundane”:
Sometimes he has an urge to remind them that he is the only one with a college degree, let alone a doctorate, that he knows things they don’t, but he resists. He doesn’t want to talk himself into thinking less of his family.
The novel explores the connection between artistic success and self-absorption. Arslan, probably the most fascinating character, is a narcissist. Harry is disdainful of dancers he views as less talented than he. Jacob wonders if egotism and art are inextricably linked: “Ballet, like other pursuits that require immense determination and reward showmanship, seems to foster hubris. But maybe all art fosters hubris.”
Joan lives vicariously through Harry and his friend, Chloe, who becomes Joan’s protegé: “She had not expected to find much in teaching besides a little extra income, something to do, and a way to keep fit. She had not anticipated that she might be able to recreate, even improve, her young self through the body of another.”
Astonish Me is an impressive novel — but even more so in light of the fact that it is very different from Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Seating Arrangements (which I enjoyed immensely) is a rather dark comedy of manners that takes place over a single wedding weekend on a Massachusetts island. It’s completely different in subject matter, scope, and tone from Astonish Me. Maggie explains that her work is not autobiographical: “The WASPy world of Seating Arrangements interested me but wasn’t any more my world than ballet is. I hope I always try to push myself. I think I would be bored if I didn’t. Because my two novels are so different, though, it’s difficult to compare them. ”
Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s debut novel but not her first book. Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir of growing up as an evangelical Christian. (I haven’t read it — although having read Frances and Bernard, my curiosity is piqued.) The novel is loosely based on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. In an interview with Intelligent Life (the online culture magazine of The Economist), Bauer describes Frances and Bernard as a follow-up to her memoir: “God makes another appearance. As do two writers, one male, the other female, who have a lifelong friendship that might be love.” Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel — some of the letters are between the two protagonists, and some of them are written by these two characters to others.
Like Astonish Me, Frances and Bernard is concerned with the relationship of the artist to the larger world. Frances is determined never to marry, believing that she cannot be both a wife and a writer. After a visit to Frances’s family, Bernard writes to his best friend, Ted:
I saw also that Frances is perfectly suited to family life, that she swims about her people like a fish in their waters . . . she knows this about herself, that she could easily spend her days cooking, cleaning, and corralling children, that she could quite easily be charmed into a life in which she gave order to other lives, not words, and I think this is why she is so strict with herself on the point of marriage. She does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it is impossible . . . But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.
Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony in the late 1950s, and soon begin writing to each other. Their correspondence is both intellectual and spiritual; Frances is a lifelong Catholic and Bernard has recently converted to Catholicism. Bernard writes, “Let’s not ever talk of work in these letters. When I see you again I want to talk to you about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue”. The spiritual dialogue continues throughout the novel, even after Bernard suffers the first of many manic episodes and loses his faith.
A review in the New York Times comments that Bauer doesn’t accurately capture the voices of Lowell and O’Connor: “What Bauer doesn’t always get right is the sound of these writers . . . O’Connor and Lowell happen to be among the most unmistakable stylists of the past century”. I think this is a slightly unfair criticism, since the novel never claims to be a biographical novel about those two authors. It is simply inspired by their lives. I thought the writing was lovely, and the voices of the letter writers were distinctive and authentic. The review does note that:
What Bauer gets right is the shifting balance of literary ambition and emotional need, Yeats’s old choice between perfection of the life or of the work. “This is why I won’t marry,” Frances reflects. “I am not built for self-abnegation.” She clings to her ancestral faith like a life preserver, all the while wondering whether, as she puts it, “I cheated myself out of what might have made me happy.”
How should we live? That is the question that all the best fiction asks, and that’s the question that both Astonish Me and Frances and Bernard ask. What do we owe to the people we love? How do we know what we are meant to do with our lives? How important is it that we make the most of our talents?