I can’t recall the last time I read 700 pages of fiction or nonfiction, but I read Ninth Street Women with relish all the way through. It tells the story of five American painters, all of whom were women and most of whom were associated with what is often called “The Second Generation” of The New York School of Abstract Expressionists. The writing is exceptional; Gabriel is a master at the nonfictional approach to telling a great story. Her prose flows like fiction, attending to the arc of the various subjects’ stories, laying out the ups and downs of their careers and their lives.
Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were married to First Generation artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Somewhat overshadowed early on by their more famous husbands, Krasner spent much of her early years minding her more famous alcoholic mate and unable to find the time to develop her own work. But she eventually got the chance to make some terrific abstract paintings. (click here and use the back button on your browser to return) https://whitney.org/collection/works/6153 Elaine de Kooning developed a career in art journalism along with her own work, which eventually moved past strict abstraction to painting portraits that employed abstract brushwork and combined the emotional feel of abstraction with recognizable imagery, producing wonders like John F. Kennedy’s presidential portrait. https://npg.si.edu/blog/elaine-de-koonings-jfk
Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were younger and never lived in the shadow of more famous mates, although Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, another First Generation artist, somewhat later in life. Hartigan sometimes incorporated human figuration into her abstraction. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79636 Mitchell developed the use of colorful brushwork into a signature style that was perhaps the purest abstraction of any of these artists, and far and away my favorite. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79586 Frankenthaler is most often associated with thinning and pouring paint onto linen or canvas to create color fields she left alone or used as background for abstract designs. I dare say this one early Frankenthaler bears some relation to two of the best First Generation painters, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
Along the way we get entertaining accounts of all the New York School’s hangouts, like the Cedar Bar and The Five Spot where the downtown artists drank and talked all night or listened to a young Thelonius Monk and others; and the Club, where the downtown and even uptown artists talked serious shop through the Fifties and Sixties. We learn about the various galleries and gallery owners who showed their work, the writers who covered them, and the East Hampton and Provincetown getaways where they spent summers and beyond. Their personal lives, and the number of lovers they took—both the women and the men—are covered in appropriate and entertaining detail. Having thought the Sixties didn’t really start until the Summer of Love, and the Fifties were more Ozzie & Harriet, I was a bit surprised at some of this.
I came across Gabriel’s delightfully engaging account of all this as part of my research for a novel set in the same time and place, involving some of these and related historical figures. For my money it’s the best nonfiction treatment, and certainly the most accessible for a general audience, of anything I’ve come across.
I teased this little volume last month based on a slim review by Ethan Hawke in the New York Times Book Review. I was hoping to find another first-rate foreign writer, whose back catalogue is ready to appear in English two or three books a year once he or she has been translated. Patrick Modiano a few years back came to mind.
I doubt that’s going to happen. In part, it’s the eccentricities of the writing. Here, Wondratschek eschews quotation marks to denote dialogue, while writing in first person from the point of view of the narrator sometimes and the separate protagonist other times. That’s a wicked combination, which while it lends mystery and intrigue sometimes, yields frustration and consternation often.
The story is a good one. Set in Vienna, it concerns an old Russian concert pianist, Suvorin, who tells an anonymous café acquaintance his story. The mystery this setup (one might say conceit) yields feels intriguing at times, and just plain false and unnecessary at others. The book shines when it has Suvorin telling his story in large stretches over drinks in his favorite café late into the night. And it’s a good story, of how he was a leading Russian pianist who gave up his position out of an irrational but very real dislike—a violent dislike, bordering on rage—of . . . wait for it . . . applause at the end of a concert piece.
The final note, it hasn’t even completely faded yet—and immediately you get screaming, noise, people shouting bravo. Not a moment of quiet, not even half a second. What ignorant people! What barbarians! No last reverberation, no lingering in that last echo, no trepidation, wonder, not a hint of abandon in those who had been listening. . . . What kind of people are they who, after a sonata by Schubert, the late one in B minor for example, completed two months before his death, break out into cheers?
It’s a good point, but can you build a novel around it? Actually, this author could. But he didn’t, in my view, largely because that wasn’t enough of a challenge. Rather than write clearly enough that we can all follow, he muddies the rest of the tale with ambiguities of every sort. Eventually we do see that Suvorin happily served the rest of his days—after the authorities in Moscow relieved him of his career—playing at night in bars in places like Vienna. But even that part of the story is denied us: It’s in the past when our unnamed narrator meets Suvorin living out his days alone, missing his deceased wife, but enjoying his talks with he-who-shall-go-unnamed. And when our correspondent returns from six months away from Vienna, Suvorin is nowhere to be found.
I don’t think Wondratschek’s mysterious back catalogue is in danger of extensive further translation. But the failure of this foray into works-in-translation convinced me to write about the singular phenomenon of Patrick Modiano.
Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. He writes in French, and for the next several years a small cadre of translators went to work producing English versions of all his novels. I believe the one who has translated the most is Mark Polizzotti. His work on one of the early translations, a book of long stories called Suspended Sentences, was one of the first to market and I fell hard for this talented writer. Unfortunately, I must have lent that one to somebody and couldn’t find it in the bookcase. So I picked one off the stack I hadn’t yet read.