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Suffer the Little Artists

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at carolynsee.com
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C09


By William Boyd

Knopf. 277 pp. $24

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Most of these elegant, sometimes pretentious stories by William Boyd deal not simply with art vs. life but with the terrible demands that art makes upon the artist -- the human who, despite his or her lofty calling, may be a second-rate ninny, barely able to tie his or her shoes, let alone produce an object that may elevate the human race. Added to this theme, though, is another, more self-indulgent one: These tales are often told in deliberately differing styles. They could be by R.S. Surtees or Saki. They could be by Agnes Varda or Alain Resnais. (Remember "Last Year at Marienbad"?) This second conceit can get old fast, and it interferes with the first.

In "Notebook No. 9," a film director who knows that he is far past his prime -- through in the business, as we say in Hollywood -- lounges in a series of bars, hotel lobbies, pubs, in New York, London, Cannes, always carrying a notebook in which he can record his profound thoughts. When you are alone in a public place, writing, it is to be presumed that you have an exciting inner life that simply can't be ignored. But this poor director doesn't have a profound thought to his name. He lives on memories of his old hits and gnaws on a sexual obsession for Tanya, the leading lady of his last film, who is so clear about how bad it is that she stands him up for its Cannes screening. The director drinks too much. His deals fall through. He drinks some more. Then he's out of the picture. The end.

In "Adult Video," an extremely unpleasant would-be novelist-pundit chews upon the many injustices of his academic life. His tutor thinks, correctly, that he has a second-rate mind. He obsesses on the awful marriage he is going to be forced to make (so that his wife can support him), his amazing literary success (which will show "them" all) and a television celebrity life in which he is renowned by an adoring public for his cutting epigrams. Which of these "takes," if any, are true? Writers and artists make things up all the time. What is genuine, real, authentic?

And in "Fascination," the title story, yet another unpleasant self-defined poet genius describes his life. He, too, has made a hash of his university experience, having had the prerequisite nervous breakdown (how can you aspire to be a great writer without one of those?), and now spends his time in a seedy beach resort thinking not about history and philosophy but about toothsome young girls. He finds a rich woman, marries her, she has a baby. He then rewards his little family with an unwholesome dose of contempt. A great writer shouldn't have to worry about where his next meal is coming from. Meanwhile, between bad poems, he's reduced to writing sports profiles about female athletes he then tries to seduce. If only he'd gotten a job selling coat hangers! But of course he can't. He's a writer, an artist.

Yet artists -- good or bad -- do experience genuine shifts of consciousness: elation, sorrow, depression, mania. Whether or not the art produced is noteworthy, the nervous breakdowns often are. In "A Haunting," a world-famous English landscape architect has landed an enormously lucrative commission from a Los Angeles millionaire. But the architect begins to freak out on the plane trip over: "I rarely suffer from headaches -- but I remember this one because it seemed almost physically to move around my head, almost as if something were crawling around the interior of my skull, starting at the nape of the neck and then shifting around the right side of my head to lodge itself in the center of my forehead." Even in agony, the man has an eye and ear for observation and detail, and for the rest of the story he watches himself fall apart, losing his assignment, the love of his wife, the friendship of his business partner. Something has happened to him. He's slipped over into the place where only tweaked minds dwell, and the odds on whether he will survive are, at best, even up.

In his "Aspects of the Novel," E.M. Forster attempted to describe the creative process -- that state of mind we currently and rather stupidly call "the flow." You sit down to write, and three hours later it's time for tea. But where did that other time go? You were in the other place, the place of art. Why, then, Forster asks, is so much art second-rate if it comes from such a sacred and unknown place? He answers his own question blithely, as the Bloomsbury elitist he was: Most minds are second-rate to begin with, so what else can they be expected to produce?

In "Beulah Berlin, an A-Z," a monumentally self-absorbed and moronic woman spends her life as a performance artist. She photographs people's feet. She decides to name her child -- no matter what its sex -- "Qwertyuiop," reasoning that "he or she can then make any name they want out of that combination of letters. Trey. Opi. Ute. Power. I don't care." Haven't we all known "artists" like that? Impossible! Impossible people.

And yet, in "Varengeville," the most lovely story here, an old, lonely artist makes a fleeting connection with an equally lonely little boy, and without trying any harder than giving him a carelessly drawn picture, gives the kid a way to look at his terrible world and grin. If the mediocre artists of the world can coax a smile from a heartbroken soul, it has to be more than worth it.

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