February 2007

Joan Acocella

Critic Joan Acocella considers the gifts of artistic genius
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As if you don’t already have enough to read! Add to the top of your growing pile Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Joan Acocella’s thrilling new collection of essays illustrating the "ordinary, Sunday-school virtues" that, she argues in her introduction, enable artistic genius to flower. Then dip into the nicely diverse set of books that provide the occasions for these intelligent, witty and provocatively entertaining excursions into the creative enterprise. Or some of the books at any rate.

"Sometimes the essay is longer and more ambitious than the occasion is huge," Acocella admits during an early morning call to her apartment near Union Square in New York City. Thus, she devotes a mere paragraph to a recent biography of Mary Magdelene before unpacking centuries of conveniently shifting views of Jesus’ closest female companion, who receives just 14 mentions in the New Testament. And she dismisses a tawdry biography chiefly focused on choreographer Jerome Robbins’ cruelty with a fatally funny quip – "Don’t worry, ladies. The Robbins story remains to be told." – then proceeds to convey vibrantly the importance of Robbins’ contributions to American dance, despite the conflicts that gnawed at his soul.

"I had some thoughts about Robbins that I wanted to unload," Acocella says simply. She speaks with a smoky, cultured voice that bears hardly a trace of a childhood spent in the hills of Oakland, California, back when it was "a nice place where you could roller skate in the street without getting run over." She came to New York with her husband, a native, for graduate school in comparative literature and made her "swerve to dance" while writing her dissertation. "I had a husband, I had a child, we needed money," she says. So she went to work as an editor and, later, as a writer. She also began attending the New York City Ballet and "had – I mean this happens to people – I had a transforming experience. I saw the works of Balanchine when he was healthy and when the company was simply wonderful, and I really lost my heart." Acocella has been the dance critic for the New Yorker magazine for more than a decade.

"I’m actually now as much a book reviewer as dance reviewer," Acocella notes. So while she is one of the great dance journalists of the era – as essays here on Vaslav Najinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham and Suzanne Farrell amply demonstrate – she devotes most of her attention in this collection to novels and novelists, many of them little-known or under-read.

In the essay "Devil’s Work," for example, Acocella writes about the difficult life and dark, satirical novels of English writer Hilary Mantel with a passionate appreciation ("I had been cooking that essay for years," Acocella exclaims, "and I just jumped at the chance to write about her"). Her penetrating essay on the remarkable novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first novel at 60 and her last at 83, includes a hilarious account of a non-interview with the author ("I flew across an ocean, I flew to England, to get that completely uninformative interview!" Acocella complains, laughing). Her essay on Primo Levi releases that author from the grip of his most extraordinary bookSurvival in Auschwitz – and makes tangible to readers just how large and courageous were Levi’s spirit and works ("Certainly, Levi is the greatest moral hero in this book," Acocella says). And in the best essay of the book, "European Dreams," Acocella essentially resurrects the career of Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth and his extraordinary novel The Radetzky March.

"I do like to call attention to people who I think are not getting enough attention," Acocella says, and adds: "In the first weeks after the publication of the Roth essay [in the New Yorker in 2004], you couldn’t find a copy of The Radetzky March in any New York bookstore. I took an enormous pleasure in that because I think he’s wonderful."

Part of what makes Acocella so persuasive is her gift for narrative. The best of these essays tell stories that are rich with insight, observation and the drama of artists transcending their limitations. "I try to describe with love what I love," Acocella explains. "My secret ambition is to pierce through the veil: think about a work and then not just describe it but arrive at something, an underlying principal or an underlying emotion and then say what the work’s true value and beauty really is."

Alden Mudge, a juror for the California Book Awards, writes from Oakland.


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