Counterblows: Reading The Uncannily Strange and Brief Life of Amedeo Modigliani
I’m lying on my stomach in bed reading Amedeo Modigliani: An Uncannily Strange and Brief Life, a tiny, beautiful book, and I love tiny, beautiful books. A novel that isn’t really a novel, and I love books that aren’t really novels and aren’t really not-novels. I start thinking about a dream that a friend of mine had, where she was with me and Wassily Kandinsky in a hotel lobby somewhere. I was wearing dramatic eye makeup, and I kept saying, “It was black, black as a wing.” Then Kandinsky tied a rope around an elevator car and pulled it from the wall.
In real life, I’m not wearing any eyeliner. In the mirror, I look startled, like someone made me come out into the light before I was ready, like I got off the plane and it turns out I’m in the wrong airport, in a different country than the country I thought I’d left for. I’m not sure why I’m thinking just now about my friend’s dream, a dream she had a year ago, and then I turn to page 65 and the next section of the Modigliani book is called, “Dream, Kandinsky.” It’s so uncanny that I expect the section to be all about my friend, and her dream, or all about me outside of her dream, or all about wings or elevator cars, and it isn’t. In the section, it seems to him in his delusion that he’s been born anew. He cleans the dust of angels out from under his lover’s nails, and from her fingers.
The next section ends with a quote from Waldemar Georges: “Modigliani lived in a heroic age. He suffered its counterblows.” I don’t know about heroic ages, but he did suffer -- an alcoholic, tubercular death in his thirties, choking on his own blood. 1920. His gorgeous common law wife threw herself out a sixth floor window then. She was eight months pregnant. They orphaned a daughter, too, who was just over a year old. In the 1950s, she wrote a book about her dad, Modigliani: Man and Myth, and it must be strange to write a biography like that, a biography of a father you didn’t know. In this tiny book I’m reading, Amedeo Modigliani hangs out a lot with Chaim Soutine, a favorite artist of mine. I want to write like Chaim Soutine painted, the way he kept a death-scented carcass of beef in his apartment in order to make the painting, Carcass of Beef.
In a later section, four days before he dies, Modigliani comes across a drunken Jean Cocteau. Cocteau is burning copies of The Divine Comedy. When Modigliani puts a hand on Cocteau’s shoulder, Cocteau says, “Hello, bird,” without raising his head. When he sobers up, he explains that he burned Dante for the benefit of literature. “Mon ami,” he says, “after Dante all our efforts in the field of literature become pointlessly comic and stupid. And anything that makes human efforts pointless, comic or stupid deserves to be burned, doesn’t it?”
I don’t think I believe in heroic ages. I think, it’s all the same age, and blows are counterblows. Sometimes when I run out of beautiful, tiny books in translation and I can’t face the disappointment of another made-up, labored American novel, another American misery memoir, I’ll reread E.M. Cioran, but lately I’m mad at E.M. Cioran. E.M. Cioran says: “Our disease being history’s, the disease of history’s eclipse, we must fall back on Valery’s remark, must exacerbate its bearing: we know, now, that all civilization is mortal, that we are hurtling towards horizons of apoplexy, toward the miracles of the worst, toward the golden age of terror.” And I think maybe that’s the kind of age that Modigliani lived in, really, already, in the years before his death in 1920, and the age that Chaim Soutine lived in when his stomach ulcer burst and killed him in 1943 (he was hiding from the Nazis in Paris), and maybe too the age that Dante lived in, the age that Rembrandt lived in when he painted his own Carcass of Beef, my age.
I’m mad at E.M. Cioran, though, because I just read an essay of his I’d never read before, about Maria Zambrano, and it starts: “As soon as a woman takes up philosophy, she becomes vain and aggressive, with all the reactions of a parvenu. Arrogant yet uncertain, visibly dumbfounded, she is not, evidently, in her element.” He goes on to coo about how Maria Zambrano is the exception, but I already don’t like him anymore the way I used to. And even though whenever I try to think things out I get vain and aggressive, arrogant and uncertain, and visibly dumbfounded myself -- even though I’m most in-my-element lying around in the bed reading beautiful little Bosnian-French non-novels, daydreaming needily about unrequited love, and wearing lacy things I didn’t pay for myself, a bad parody of Age of Terror femininity, I still feel betrayed. Then again, as Maria Zambrano once wrote, “Every representation is already a lie.”
My neighborhood used to be a meatpacking district. It smelled of beef carcasses and decay, even as recently as a decade ago, when I moved here. It’s old-fashioned of me to keep believing in Manhattan. Last week I was rambling through private artist’s apartments in the Westbeth Arists Community a few blocks southwest of me. It was the International PEN World Voices Festival, they were hosting readings by writers from all over the world in these little studios and one-bedrooms and duplexes overlooking the river, the lights of New Jersey. The event was called a “literary safari” -- it was all about wild writers, temporarily caged. The readers, listeners, observers, were given a guide to the different rooms where we could find different writers. After the readings, there was a reception with a long table with twelve or thirteen bowls of cheese straws; the working artists also served prosecco.
It was a great event, less like a safari and more like a zoo, hippopotamuses here, coyotes and jackals there, it didn’t really seem like the jetlagged writers could get out. I kept thinking, is this the apartment where Diane Arbus died? Or this one, or this one, but it seemed rude to ask the artists. Noelle Revaz was there, reading in a tiny apartment that reminded me of my own apartment on 14th street, a delicate-looking Swiss author whose With the Animals keeps getting compared to Céline, but it makes me think more of Chaim Soutine, the certain way it’s brutal but actually about brutality, male but actually about masculinity. I remember a critic’s observation that no corpses have ever been more alive than Chaim Soutine’s, that it looks like his work has been made with mud and blood instead of with paint.
Maria Zambrano also wrote, in her analysis of Plato on poetry, that only poetry has the power of lying -- only poetry can escape from existence, and mock it. Poetry is, in reality, hell -- a place without hope. I confuse all the other arts with poetry, and poetry with all the other arts, I think of every truthful novel or painting as a poem.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fiction and autofiction, biography and autobiography, about the badly-workshopped memoirs that sell best in my own country, and never get showcased by International PEN. How would With the Animals -- told from the first-person viewpoint of a brutal man -- be different if a brutal man, somebody with a body like that and a life like that, had written it? How does it change the book that this lovely, willowy young woman -- the sixth child in a family of nine -- is its author? What if Chaim Soutine’s canvasses had been painted by a young girl, a girl with a dead ox in her dusty apartment? When Chaim Soutine’s beef carcass -- ox carcass? -- piece de boeuf, Le Boeuf Écorché -- started looking wrong, not fresh enough, he would rub off the decayed bits and cover it with fresh blood from the butcher. (Maria Zambrano: “The poet asks the painter to capture appearances for her, appearances that philosophy disdains… Painting is a ghost of a ghost.”)
The Uncannily Strange and Brief Life of Amedeo Modigliani is filled with dreams. Modigliani’s beautiful lover, in the section “Morning, Hunger I,” is “not the same as she was in the dream. In reality she is far less real.” It’s filled with dreams and fears and different deaths, the death of a butterfly, images of birds, and even with all of the dreams there’s a section with a quote from Borges about two types of insomnia: “It is the horror of being and going on being.” The author, Velibor Colic, was born in Bosnia and lives in France. There’s an epigraph, a note “for Mary-Jane [1956-90] with all my love that proved inadequate…” And the whole book makes me think of adequate and inadequate love, heroic ages and unheroic ages and ages of terror, of what it means to show up in art history or in someone else’s novel or in your own novel or in someone else’s dream.
I haven’t remembered any of my own dreams lately. I sleep, but it seems dreamless. And then life outside of dreams is extremely surreal, full of art everywhere, and with the kind of things in a city that aren’t art. Walking around in the Westbeth corridors, I wasn’t sure whether I was dreaming, there was something so strange about walking around in strangers’ apartments. In some way it reminded me of travelling, of the time I was in Warsaw sleeping in the sunlit apartment of someone I barely knew. It was the anniversary of the ghetto uprising. There’s something sad about the ways people come together and come apart.
In one of the Westbeth duplexes, Norwegian writer Karl Knausgård explained why he named his 3500+-page work of autofiction My Struggle. A few days before that, I was at a Knausgård event staring out the windows of a thirtieth-floor penthouse in a different section of town, and I’m terrified of heights so I kept expecting my fear to kick in, my hands to sweat, but it never happened. Things didn’t go the way I’d expected. I was fine. Karl Knausgård explained that his earlier work was influenced by Proust but he didn’t know how Proustian it was until after he’d finished writing it. He was asked whether he ever revised his work. He answered, No. “With every idea born in us, something in us rots,” wrote E.M. Cioran, but I’m still mad at him.
I’m lying on my stomach in bed, thinking about all this. Thinking about Chaim Soutine, how when the police came by after his neighbors had complained about the disgusting smell of his beef, he gave them a little speech about art. How, after he’d spent years going hungry in the city, suddenly Albert Barnes bought sixty of his paintings. (He pocketed the money in shock, and went to Nice.) I think about Velibor Colic, his interest in exiles. How his home in Bosnia was burned, and there were manuscripts inside that turned to ashes.
“The truth is,” writes Maria Zambrano, “that this image of life as a shickwreck, life as a fall, was not original to Platonic philosophy, or to any philosophy.” All Plato does, she says, is “rationalize the hope into assurance, twisting it into certainty, and still into something more, into a certainty I can force.” And poetry? “Poetry is to live in the flesh, drilling into it, knowing of its distress and of its termination.” She goes on to write about the difference between poetry and dreams.
I think maybe somewhere, right now, I’m with my friend and with Wassily Kandinsky, walking through the lobby of some grand hotel, a hotel like in Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy maybe, or a hotel where Greta Garbo is staying in one of the rooms. I can actually feel this happening, the way I’m starting to get a sense of the carcass in my apartment. It feels just as real as what’s actually real. If a stranger wrote my biography, or a stranger wrote my fictional autobiography, there are so many ways they could tell the story that would be true, that would be just as full of truths or poems or lies as anything I could say about my own life. Colic’s Modigliani book is subtitled, A Mosaic Novel, and the art world, the human world, is a bit like a mosaic, all of these fragments of mortality, broken and wedged together into a picture.
I go with a friend to the Strand so that he can show me a book of anatomical art -- the drawings are crazy and beautiful, scary and gross. All of these human bodies with the muscles cut and flayed, finger-muscles hanging off of fingers, arm muscles hanging off of arms. When we get to the part about diseases, that’s where he says, “Oh, see, here’s where you lose me.” Then we go upstairs because I want to show him a print of Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, but we can only find it in black and white, and the thing that makes it quiver with life is the color, not just the flesh of the dead animal, but the dirty blue-grey background, the background that looks like the dark spaces of an artist’s apartment. The dead flesh looks so nakedly, terribly alive. Chaim Soutine, wrote the critic Mark Stevens, “denied himself the smart and fashionable protections of irony.”
In the section of Colic’s Modigliani book called “Circus, Silence,” Modigliani gets drunk with Chaim Soutine. They drink wine at the Rotonde, “like thirsty soldiers, alone, each absorbed in his own silence, until their eyes become poppy flowers, and their nose and ears as loud as a waterfall.” When they walk out into the meager light of Montparnasse, Soutine is holding onto the left-hand sleeve of his great friend’s jacket. He says, “Today is Friday,” but an “inexplicable, empty, vast silence” has settled in Amedeo Modigliani. He doesn’t answer. And I’m alone in bed reading, and it occurs to me that there’s no conversation more deeply intimate, or more inexplicably solitary, than writing and reading, except maybe painting and seeing, except maybe dancing and watching a dancer. It’s something the writer and reader always do together, and can never do together. Like dreaming about someone, or showing up in someone’s dream.
My neighborhood used to be full of butchers, and now there are only hordes of tourists, tourists and B-list celebrities, fashion designers recognizable from reality shows, actors from The O.C., ageing woman movie stars with toddlers, well-known chefs, occasionally someone really special passing through -- Tilda Swinton in her caftan, Donatella Versace with her knifed face, the star of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, who looks a little like one of my ex-boyfriends, Oliver Sacks with his snowy beard, Yoko Ono being Yoko Ono.
Out on my own street corner, two Midwestern tourists come and stand too near me -- one of them pokes me in my side, near my bra-line, and when I look at her she asks, “Do you speak English?” even though the reason I look confused is because my underarm near my breast is a really rude place for a stranger to poke. When I get driven out of here just like everybody else, I’ll move to Paris, I guess. Or Sweden or somewhere with pine forests, and Manhattan will go on not caring that I left.
A block north, where sometimes I’ve seen the star of The Dreamers standing around, there’s a fine-featured, lovely-looking older lady with a cane holding on to a street-lamp by the intersection. I hold out my arm for her. She asks, “Is it okay if I squeeze?” and I tell her she can put as much weight on me as she wants, but her touch is so light, it’s like a butterfly landing there or something even lighter. I ask where she’s heading, and she’s going to the cancer ward on 15th street. I walk her there and I start thinking about what her life story might be, the moment that it crisscrosses and intersects with my life story at a literal intersection, at a metaphorical intersection.
Sometimes I fantasize about divinity, about the butterfly effect, about the kind of great master plan for the universe that I probably can’t quite believe in. (Maria Zambrano: “The poet before everything and nothing, is a son. Son of a father who does not always appear.”) I fantasize that the entire purpose of my 37 years here or 58 years here or 84 years here, if not to write my books, was to show up at that streetlamp on May 17, 2012, in New York City, and walk that lady the short, sunny block to the cancer ward -- or to have some other tiny, brief meeting, with some other stranger. A reassuring fantasy that I can’t get off the plane at any wrong airport, that I’m just where I’m meant to be. The fantasy always goes away. Then I always notice that I’m living in this age, and like all the artists and writers, and all the strangers and all the celebrities, all the geniuses and meatpackers and rude tourists and gentle tourists, I’m suffering its counterblows.
The carcass in my apartment, if I had a carcass in my apartment, would have been a live beast once, with beautiful alert eyes. And then a being in a cage, and then a flayed corpse, and nothing about that creature, nothing about me, nothing about any of us is pointless or comic or stupid. And every representation is already a lie. It’s not ironic, I guess. I try not to flinch.