September 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

$120.73: Reading Scandalous Women

“I do not want to read, draw, talk or see tonight. I hope this doesn’t last long,” wrote Francesca Woodman, the photographer who used her own naked teenage body in her work and then killed herself at twenty-two. The day she died, according to her father, she found out she’d lost a grant, and she’d had her bike stolen. It was a crappy day, the kind we all have. She left a note explaining that melodrama wasn’t the reason. Not being able to make it in New York wasn’t the reason. “I was (am?) not unique but special,” she wrote. “This is why I was an artist… I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see, and show them something different.”

I’m watching The Woodmans, all these images of Francesca’s beautiful breasts and soft skin in the corners of rooms. I’ve gotten a call from a friend in a faraway country who says, “I want to commit suicide so someone will invite me to a party. You know?” It gets like that -- there are so many points to prove, and then nothing on hand to prove the points with. I don’t want to read tonight, and I don’t want to talk, and I don’t want to think, and I’m watching some movies. One of them a friend made, years before we met, and I realize I’m somehow a character in his movie. It makes me feel some strange, other kind of love. I watch that, and The Woodmans, and Little Dorrit.

“I am very feminine in the pink and lacy fashion,” writes Francesca Woodman, “I don’t know how this came about.” I think a reason I like Francesca’s work is that I’ve never written a word outside of a girl’s or a woman’s body, with everything that means or doesn’t mean. I do everything from inside here. It makes me happy, except when it doesn’t.

In my book pile is Scandalous Women: the Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. I skip ahead to the chapter on “Scintillating Seductresses,” then backtrack to “Wayward Wives,” and there’s Zelda Sayre, who died in a fire at age 48 in one of her mental institutions. She wrote a novel once, Save Me the Waltz, and got it published. Scott Fitzgerald told her she was a third-rate writer, and a third-rate dancer. She got $120.73 for the novel.

According to Scandalous Women: “Fitzgerald was on the five-year plan at Princeton University and hadn’t graduated. In his Brooks Brothers uniform, his handsomeness almost made him look feminine. ‘He smelled like new goods. Being close to him, my face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store,’ Zelda later wrote.”

Here is where, just to make sure, I go to the bookshelf and pull out an old, yellowed, paperback copy of Save Me the Waltz. It’s the third printing from a 1968 edition. A man bought it for me, more than a decade ago, for 15¢ at a flea market. In the back, it asks, “Have you read these current bestsellers from Signet?”, and it lists The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Love Story and The Crazy Ladies by Joyce Elbert and The Affair by Morton Hunt. I reread some of the beginning -- Alabama, Zelda’s protagonist, secretly wears rouge. She reads the dirty bits of the Decameron hidden in her sister’s drawer. She wants to keep wearing short skirts during the day so she can run. Her sister’s boyfriend kisses her after a dance performance and, “She was afraid; she thought her heart was a person walking. It was. It was everybody walking all at once.” She meets and falls in love with the talented painter, David Knight, and here it is, page 45:

“Dancing with David, he smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales.”

Is this really true? Has a section of Zelda’s novel been switched from the third person to the first, the characters’ names taken away, with no explanation, over her dead body?

I check to make sure my copy of Scandalous Women isn’t a galley, that Zelda’s right to invent a character won’t be restored to her by a fact-checker before publication. Save Me the Waltz is listed in an “On Page and Screen” appendix (“The following is a brief list of the films and fiction featuring the scandalous women in the book to whet your appetite…”) It’s not listed in the Selected Bibliography, where there are a couple of Zelda biographies listed. Maybe one of these is the source of her stolen character, David Knight the painter turned into Scott Fitzgerald the novelist, Alabama turned into Zelda, the writer of Saved Me the Waltz, third-rate or not, turned from an artist creating something into just a girl featured in it. Or maybe Zelda actually wrote that passage, exactly, in the first person, about herself, and then changed it into the third person later, and made it about Alabama and David. Either way I’m irritable about it. Either way the author of Scandalous Women needs to mention that it’s in the novel. Either way I think this wouldn’t happen, ever, with a passage from Tender is the Night. The difference between a writer like Scott Fitzgerald and a painter like David Knight, the difference between a name recorded from life and a new name, the difference between the smell of a character in your novel and the smell of your real-life lover -- all of these matter, even when they seem not to be different at all.

Francesca Woodman’s mother, also an artist, says she doesn’t think Francesca’s work was autobiographical, other than the basic way that all art is autobiography. Francesca was using her own naked body to show something else. This has been on my mind, writing from inside my pink lacy body, because I notice that some of what I think is autobiography isn’t -- one character, based exactly on someone from real life, has morphed and snaked into someone different on the page. Another, an invented character, has turned into an exact rendition of someone I know, photo-real. And of course Scott and Zelda are famous, and of course it’s titillating, all the Scott and Zelda books about the real Scott and Zelda. And even in my own head, let alone out in the world, god knows I am too tired to try to make this point without the equipment to prove it, god knows I am too tired to raise the whole question “would Francesca Zelda Sylvia Ana Mendieta Frieda have been so famous without the tragedy, without being married to him,” too tired even in my own head to make some tired point to myself about genius and merit and Tender is the Night and Save Me the Waltz and Alma Mahler and sex and race and bodies and “art” and is it art and what is art. It’s a point that’s been attempted but never made. People sniff and turn away.

“A woman’s place is with the wine.” David Knight says. “There is art to be undone in the world.” Alabama sighs and stretches. She says, “It’s a man’s world.”
“David worked on his frescoes; Alabama was very much alone. ‘What’ll we do, David,’ she asked, ‘with ourselves?’ David said she couldn’t always be a child and have things provided for her to do.”

There’s a beautiful essay about Zelda Fitzgerald in Justine Picardie’s My Mother’s Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. The essay is also about Picardie’s mourning over her little sister, Ruth, and about The Gap, and about how “clothes can, if not bridge the gap between the living and the dead, then provide (as Kipling observed) a bulkhead between despair and the edge of nothing. This doesn’t always work -- you need only remember those horrific pictures of piles of shoes, collected together in heaps after those who had worn them had been gassed in Nazi concentration camps -- but sometimes, in smaller ways, in less extreme moments of history, the bulkhead holds.” She quotes Zelda’s letters from different psychiatric clinics, her Mrs. Dalloway-like stream-of-consciousness given with memories of clothes -- “my white knickers that startled the Connecticut hills… a pink dress that floated and a very theatrical silver one.”  Zelda writes Scott: “Do you still smell of pencils and sometimes of tweed?” She writes, “Have you ever been so lonely that you felt eternally guilty -- as if you’ve left off part of your clothes -- I love you so, and being without you is like having gone off and left the gas-heater burning, or locked the baby in the clothes bin.” Scott writes, and maybe does not send: “You were going crazy and calling it genius, I was going to ruin and calling it anything that came to hand.”

Picardie starts her essay with Emily Dickinson’s poem #546:

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and ‘twill yawn the more—
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

After she died, Francesca Woodman’s father was grieving too much to read. But then he discovered Emily Dickinson, and read each of her 1200 poems. I always think about Emily Dickinson when I think about art and autobiography.

I do not want to read, draw, talk, or see tonight. I am mad (mad angry or the other kind of mad?) I have a book of Mina Loy’s essays and stories, and reading her is thankfully not like reading or drawing or talking or seeing, it’s like watching someone solder an abyss or reopen one. “MAN IS A COVERED-ENTRANCE TO INFINITY.” Yes. Her tiny, dazzling piece on Gertrude Stein makes impossible-to-make points, which help, even if they will have to be made again.

"Twenty years ago,” she wrote in 1924, “people used to say to me, ‘the days when a genius could appear suddenly, and be unappreciated, are well and truly gone… Bizarrely, however, our culture is destined to find that any truly new thought will burst upon it like a fury… For nearly twenty years, Gertrude Stein built up her oeuvre, in relation to which our culture allowed nothing to see the light save the odd bit of bullying from the wittier journals. She went on building her oeuvre, in a manner which—despite established usage in such cases—I shall not call courageous (for only the most vulgar error could lead us to believe that the enlightened have need of courage in the face of the unenlightened.), but rather serene. And the slight, contented smile with which she met the bullying to which she was subjected pleased me immensely… Gertrude Stein is not a writer in any of the currently accepted senses of the word. She does not use words to present a subject, but rather uses a fluid subject to float her words on. I can point you toward what her art is made of by observing that you never hear anyone say, ‘I have read such and such a book by Gertrude Stein.’ People say: ‘I have read some Gertrude Stein.’”

They aren’t reading, drawing, talking about, or seeing her work, but her. Maybe then in my madness, or in my madness, I am getting it all wrong. Maybe I am making a vulgar error.

“Perhaps,” writes Mina Loy, “much of the opposition unleashed against Gertrude Stein stemmed from the fear of those people who claimed to be stunned.” Yes. And, “If I ever let myself go so far as to understand all this—one fine morning I will no longer be able to—order my breakfast.”

Alabama Knight, née Beggs, is a dancer. Near the end of Save Me the Waltz, she learns that while she hasn’t lost her foot, she’ll never be able to dance again. It’s David who tells her:

David came in whenever anything new occurred like a parent supervising a child who is learning to walk.

"And so -- you must know sometime, Alabama," he said at last. The bottom fell out of her stomach. She could feel the things dropping through.

"I’ve known for ages," she said in sickly calm.

"Poor darling -- you’ve still got your foot, it’s not that," he said compassionately. "But you will never be able to dance again. Are you going to mind terribly?"

"Will I have crutches?" she asked.

"No -- nothing at all. The tendons are cut and they had to scrape through an artery, but you will be able to walk with a slight limp. Try not to mind."

"Oh, my body," she said. "And all that work for nothing!"

"Poor, my dear one -- but it has brought us together again. We have each other, dear."….

She lay there, thinking that she had always meant to take what she wanted from life. Well -- she hadn’t wanted this.

Zelda Fitzgerald wrote Save Me the Waltz in the clinic, during her treatment for schizophrenia. She died in fire. “Her body was so badly burned,” writes Justine Picardie, “that it could only be identified by her slipper, which was found lying beneath her corpse.” At the end of Save Me the Waltz, David has taken up the theme of ballerinas in his paintings. David and Alabama are at cocktail party where mountains of hors d’oeuvres are shaped to look like things they’re not, canapés like goldfish, caviar in balls, butter bearing faces. The men have been saying “attaboy” and “twenty-three skidoo” since the Depression. David is talking about the secret life of man and woman -- “dreaming how much better we would be than we are if we were somebody else or even ourselves…” The guests tell the Knights, “you two are lucky.” Alabama answers, “You mean that we’ve parted with segments of ourselves more easily than other people -- granted that we were ever intact.”

Francesca Woodman wrote parts of her journal in the third person. “Does it,” she writes, “read as a book one wonders.” On the edge of one of her prints, there’s the note, “There is the paper and then there is the person.” It all makes me think of Giorgio Agamben’s little essay on genius, which I love: “Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us.” A wonderful scene in The Woodmans shows Francesca filming herself, that beautiful naked body lying in the corner, then leaving its black imprint in a layer of flour. You hear the artist’s voice off camera, taking stock of the image: “Oh, I’m really pleased!”   

In another essay from that Justine Picardie book, she talks about the British model Erin O’Connor, walking down the catwalk in Alexander McQueen’s 2001 “lunatic show.” The models had white bandaged heads. Erin O’Connor wore razor clam shells, collected on a Norfolk beach and painstakingly made into a dress, over weeks or months. McQueen wanted her to rip off the dress onstage, destroying it. She said, “Are you sure?” After she ripped the dress, her hands were covered with blood, and McQueen was very excited, wanting her to rub the blood all over her bandages to match with her next dress. In a different show, she was wearing a thirteen-inch corset and thirteen-inch platform stilettoes, and she got very sick and the firemen wouldn’t let her go onstage. They pointed out that her arms and legs had turned blue.

I was still thinking about Alabama Knight and how she lost the use of her foot, how Zelda Fitzgerald wrote a novel but Alabama Knight never did. I was thinking about how Alexander McQueen didn’t go out on the catwalk in his own razor-clam dress, how some artists slice up their own hands and other artists find a model or a dancer or an actor or a made-up character to do it for them, how all artists die and some die from art and some die from wounds, some take their lives and other’s lives are taken. “For each person,” writes Giorgio Agamben, “there comes a time when he must be separated from his Genius. It can be at night, unexpectedly, when at the sound of a group of people passing by he feels, without knowing why, that his god has abandoned him. Or perhaps we send Genius away in a moment of great lucidity, an extreme moment in which we know there is salvation but no longer wish to be saved…” I was thinking about what would happen if a Gertrude Stein or a Francesca Woodman sprang new and fully-formed from some scallop shell in today’s America. I was thinking about the lacy pink body I write from, and the bodies I make.

Alabama Knight, dancing on a sore foot. Her toenail has fallen off: “Alabama finally taught herself what it felt like to move the upper part of her body along as if it were a bust on wheels. Her pas de bourree progressed like a flying bird. She could hardly keep from holding her breath while she did it. When David asked about her dancing she adopted a superior manner. She felt he couldn’t have understood if she had tried to explain about the pas de bourree. Once she did try. Her exposition had been full of ‘You-see-what-I-means’ and ‘Can’t-you-understands,’ and David was annoyed and called her a mystic.

‘Nothing exists that can’t be expressed,’ he said angrily.”

The day after that corseted fashion show, Erin O’Connor’s pretty legs had exploded into bruises, not from bumping into things, but “little blood veins had popped, all over” in the aftermath of her lost circulation.

“How very sinister,” said Justine Picardie.

“That’s right,” said Erin O’Connor. “But you know what? It’s my job.”

I do not want to write tonight. I hope this doesn’t last long. I’ve always meant to take what I want from life. There are abysses to be soldered. There are people to stun, there are breakfasts to order. There’s wine. There’s art to be undone in the world.