September 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

Literary Lives by Edward Sorel

Edward Sorel’s Literary Lives is a coffee table book that manages to make old-timey literary personalities interesting for those of us never sufficiently aroused by Atlas Shrugged or the theory of collective unconsciousness to truck over to the biography section to learn more. His brief biographical sketches of Lillian Hellman, George Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Jung, Proust, W.B. Yeats, Mailer, Rand, Sartre and Tolstoy explore the writers’ inspirations and scandals, love affairs and feuds, with subtle humor and an expose writer’s flair.

One generalization that can be made about Sorel’s subjects is that writers make crappy bedfellows. Whatever passion the literati bring to the sack seems to be outweighed by a tendency to prop the ego (and career) with conquests and betrayals. Tolstoy hated his wife, but had over ten children with her. Yeats married according to horoscopes, and told his wife that he still loved another. Lillian Hellman set up a dramatic showdown between three lovers, and despite all the romantic hoo-ha she engineered on earth, Sorel imagines her (in one of his many awesome “heaven” scenes), after death, contentedly riding through the stars with a certain mustachioed dictator.

What could have been yet another stale collection of stories about wild-eyed genius-artists and their bad habits is significantly fleshed out by Sorel’s attention to the unsung people behind some of his subjects. Beyond DeBeauvoir’s work for Sartre, Sorel spends a good deal of Brecht’s bio talking about Elizabeth Hauptmann’s massive contribution to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the work that launched him into celebrity and gave him the money and fame to marry another and have “ the benefits of a home, the joys of the casting couch, and the adoration of nubile political activists.” The panel that shows their first time in bed is a good example of Sorel’s understated wit. Hauptmann (a multi-lingual gal with a literary bent) is rumpled and wide-eyed, with a relaxed-looking Brecht draped across her lap, telling her some salient facts -- including that he is married and has a third bastard on the way. According to Sorel, “she is left speechless in many languages.”

The political dalliances of these writers also offer some nasty surprises. The trappings of fascism seemed to fascinate as much as hot booty; Sorel does a great job of showing us how the dramatics of terrifying governmental dogmas would appeal to writers hungry for power in panels with simple, yet evocative imagery. I won’t reveal who dressed in white to shriek about the invasion of Russia by the Germans or who fancied himself the “Aryan Christ,” finding out is much of the fun of Literary Lives.

Sorel’s lines are wild and wavy but come together into precise portraits of the artists that echo the passion and occasionally bizarre intensity with which they lived their lives. Ayn Rand' s eyes burst from under arched brows as she berates a straying lover, audiences elongate as they flee from Norman Mailer’s drunken obscenities, a frumpy Sartre shuffles under the blank, Aryan glare of a Nazi with a giant hat and waistline in panels that take Sorel’s style from portraiture to cartoony caricature.

Even the most bug-eyed and lumpy of Sorel’s renderings illuminate some aspect of their subject. What you already knew about the people in Literary Lives is made fresh by the comic format, what you didn’t know is much more fun than a month’s worth of US Weeklys and probably more worthwhile, even if that run to the biography section never ends up happening.

Literary Lives by Edward Sorel
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 156691064X
112 pages