The Last Nude
Last fall, the Los Angeles Review of Books published two essays by contemporary historical fiction writers that effectively articulate particular problems of writing women of the past into the fiction of today. The first was "The Paradox of Pluck: How Did Historical Fiction Become the New Feminist History," by Lois Leveen, author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser; the second was "Caleb's Garter: On Geraldine Brooks's "Caleb's Crossing," by Amy Hassinger, who published The Priest's Madonna in 2006. In their respective essays, both Leveen and Hassinger suggest that in writing novels that imagine, via historical record, the lives that particular women lived before us, many contemporary authors and readers unfortunately forget that their protagonists were real, shrouding them with historical fantasy rather than fact.
"If you're going to choose to think about this time and place -- and it is a fascinating time to think about -- through the complex and finely-tuned thinking machine that good fiction is, it seems to me that you need to go all the way there. And you need to stay there, and stay there, and stay there," writes Hassinger of Brooks's novel, set in Puritan New England. For Hassinger, to "stay there" means that Brooks's protagonist and narrative would have existed purely within the boundaries of seventeenth-century realities. Similarly, in her essay, Leveen writes that "it's no crime, of course, to create a protagonist who is exceptional. But that exceptionality of a plucky protagonist can imply that it's pluck -- rather than systemic factors of race, class, and gender -- that determines one's narrative trajectory, whether on the page or in real life."
In these essays, Hassinger and Leveen voice my issue with Ellis Avery's The Last Nude. Published in late 2011, The Last Nude purports to be a fictionalized biography of Tamara de Lempicka, a bisexual portrait painter of genteel Polish descent, living in Paris between the wars. Avery's protagonist is Rafaela, an Italian-American working-class teenager who comes of age in 1927 Paris, when the novel's set, after she escapes her restrictive, newly-emigrated family in New York. The Last Nude is the tale of Tamara's infatuation with her subject, beautiful young women such as Rafaela; the story develops into a love (or lust) story almost as soon as it begins, when the two women met in a Paris park frequented by prostitutes to meet clients. Rafaela is there to borrow one hundred francs from her prostitute-friend so that she can afford a dress for her new department store job. When the friend isn't in the park, Rafaela finds Tamara, who offers her the money she needs to paint her for a few hours. "I knew we were thinking the same thing: she had money and I needed it," narrates Rafaela. Avery's depiction of Rafaela and Tamara's portrait-sitter relationship is central to her narrative, which she recounts by way of socioeconomic facts of interwar Parisian life. However, I was ultimately disappointed by The Last Nude because it relates a perception of that relationship, filtered through a contemporary lens, rather than a picture of how it may have existed.
That isn't inherently problematic. As Leveen discusses in her essay, writing fictional accounts of historical women is often the only way to inject them into the record. Leveen's originally conceived The Secrets of Mary Bowser as a biography of the slave-born woman who became a Union spy in the Confederate White House, but historical records were too few for a book-length biography. So she wrote a historical novel instead, Leveen explains in her LARB essay, which would certainly reach a wider readership than a biography, given the genre's popularity. However, as Leveen writes, historical novels become very problematic when they fail to push readers to "seek a deeper understanding of the past." This sentiment is echoed in Hassinger's essay, wherein she argues that fictionalized protagonists are far more meaningful when novelists are faithful to historical circumstances. Too often, the protagonists of historical fiction aren't simply characters from history brought to life for contemporary readers through the machinations of fiction --they are caricatures of historical lives, invented by contemporary imagination.
The Tamara de Lempicka and Rafaela of The Last Nude fall into the latter category. From what I can tell, Avery did conscientiously research her novel: as in real life, the fictionalized Tamara comes to Paris from Warsaw, by way of St. Petersburg; she has a daughter, Kizette, from her loveless marriage; and she drives a green Bugatti. She paints sultry, studied portraits of naked women who worked as prostitutes, singers, or shop girls, and is friendly with Picasso and other prominent figures in the Parisian avant-garde. The fictional Rafaela is immortalized in Tamara's painting La RÍve (Rafaela sur fond vert), a painting similar to Beautiful Rafaela, which inspired Avery to write The Last Nude. In the novel, the fictionalized Tamara baits wealthy, influential men who want to purchase Rafaela's portrait from her, ultimately cashing in at her sitter's expense.
However, Avery's handling of the socioeconomic realities that structure Rafaela and Tamara's relationship obscures the truth of their connection in favor of camp and imagined passions. Rafaela, or the women that she represents, were once real, and for them, modeling wasn't work before it was sexy. When Rafaela sits for Tamara, she's working -- currency, be it money or other material, is exchanged. When a woman like the fictionalized Rafaela modeled for painting in order to be paid, she was doing so in an effort to overcome the same basic, persistent human struggles that we all work to triumph over. Avery eschews this truth in her novel, focusing instead on the obsession and betrayal between sitter and painter, a plot told in contemporary American English. Moreover, by titling her story of that life "The Last Nude" instead of, say, "The Last Portrait" or "The Last Sitter," Avery is further marginalizing Rafaela's reality and historical context in favor of sexualizing and thus obscuring the truth of her life and the lives of women like her.
That The Last Nude was so widely distributed and positively reviewed makes this all the more frustrating. The story that The Last Nude prevaricates, of a woman artist in a male-dominated avant-garde, and of a nascent New Woman, is necessary to our understanding of modernism, and I suppose it's the job of a persistent reader to clarify fact and fiction in historical novels. But when you have a real life, it's hard to find the time to do the research after you finish the novel.