Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cleopatra's Nose by Judith Thurman

It’s time for me to admit that I am never going to finish this book. It’s been hanging around on my nightstand for months, and I’ve been occasionally dipping in, but for every three essays that I read, I hate two of them. That’s not a good enough average to keep going.

Thurman writes arts and cultural criticism for the New Yorker. Cleopatra’s Nose is a collection of her pieces written in the earlier part of this decade. They cover subjects such as Anne Frank, Leni Riefenstahl, Coco Chanel, and a visit to an artisan tofu maker in Japan. I’m linking to a review of the book that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The author of that review, Meghan Daum, does a much better job of explaining the book’s problems than I can do. If you are truly considering reading this book, you should read Daum’s review first. I am going to just quote a few lines from her review here to give you a sense of what’s going on:

Thurman sometimes appears to be trying too hard to assert her Kulturkritik credentials…It's a good instinct for an essayist to pepper her prose with the kind of declarative sentences that evoke a camera pulling back for a wide shot. But for Thurman, with her particular fondness for assertions whose metaphysical pretensions outshine their relevance to the topic at hand, this works about half the time.

(Or for me, one third of the time.) Daum goes on to ask:

… what are we to do with wide turns into jargon such as this (on Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga): "Piety and chic may not obviously be compatible, but penitents and perfectionists tend to have a lot in common" or this (on photographer Diane Arbus): "Idolatry is a form of vandalism that often inspires a violent counterreaction of antipathy to the idol"?

Daum says what we should do is shake our heads and stay with the author. I disagree. When I encounter a statement like the one above, about Arbus, I feel like I’ve just run into a cinderblock with my car. Everything comes to a crashing halt, and I stand there saying “whaaaa???” Daum praises Thurman for not talking down to the reader; I criticize Thurman for being so purposefully obtuse as to baffle the reader and interrupt the flow of the essay.

Maybe if Thurman followed a statement like the Arbus one with an explanation, for example “I believe that idolatry is a form of vandalism because….” I would have more patience for it. But she just drops these bombs into the middle of her essays and then moves on, like the truck ahead of you that has dropped the cinderblock and driven away without noticing or stopping to see if you are hurt.

After the shock wears off I find myself thinking that I must just be too stupid to understand what the author is trying to say. But I know I am not stupid, so my next reaction is that the author is showing off and that somehow she wants me to feel stupid. Neither interpretation makes me enjoy what I am reading, so I’m abandoning this. Just for the record, I did like one essay, called “Reader, I Married Him” about Charlotte Bronte. It contained no cinderblocks.


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