Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters. As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to set the record straight, the open secret of his affair reaches a boiling point and a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light. From the acclaimed author of The Epicure's Lament, a scintillating novel of secrets, love, and legacy in the New York art world. BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Kate Christensen's Blue Plate Special.
Writing the above reminds me that when I read the dust jacket flap, I thought to myself, "I'm probably not going to like this." How wrong I was! Christensen's characters are as complex and surprising as any you're likely to meet in fiction and her understanding of the human heart is profound. She also has really great things to say about inspiration and creativity. I was particularly impressed by this passage, one of those times in reading where one says, "Yes, that's it exactly!"
"Maxine hated to be interrupted when she was working, even by Katerina. Being dragged from the world of painting back into the world of life was as difficult as forcing herself from the world of like back into the world of painting. A thick but permeable membrane separated them. Going from one to another required a shape-shifting in the brain. She was never entirely safely ensconced in either world: the demands of the other one could be heard, muffled from whichever one you were in, so no matter where you were, you felt a tug of anxiety that something might go wrong in the other one in your absence, something you'd failed to account for before you left. It would have been much easier if the transition could have been accomplished through a series of of soundproof air locks, decompression chambers. It felt as if there were only room in one lifetime to inhabit one of these parallel worlds, but here she was, trying to cram them both in. Each parallel life sucked the air out of the other one. When she was deep in painting, she felt how short her time there was and panicked because she would never get to do it all before she died. It only got harder as she got older, harder because, as with sleep, she could never be as fully in either world as she'd been when she was younger. The membrane had become worn and weakened with age, like everything else."
Pretty good, eh? And I wouldn't know a burnt umber from a raw sienna but that comes about as close to how I feel when I'm writing as anything I've ever read. At the end of that quote you also get a glimpse of just how smart Ms Christensen is about aging. Her three main characters are all card-carrying seniors of long duration yet she lets them have complete personalities, desires and ambitions, colored by their histories but not overwhelmed by them. It's a remarkable achievement for a writer still decades away from these experiences.
In a year that started out strong and has had more than a few gems strewn along the path, I'll remember The Great Man as one of the great ones.
Christensen's novel combines satire and comedy of manners in a story of a deceased painter, Oscar Feldman, as he's remembered by his wife, his sister, and his mistress--or one of his mistresses. In the decade of abstraction (the 1960s), Oscar stuck with representation, painting nudes of whoever would take it off. Now, five years into the grave, he is about to be memorialized by two young (and male) biographers. Their inquiries elicit the memories that are the novel's substance.
Their probing results in revelations concerning the origins of one of Oscar's most famous works. Mainly, though, the novel is about the present-day feelings of the surviving women and the adjustments they make as they get on with their lives. If you like hearing women in their eighties talk about getting laid, you might have fun with some of this. But conversations over lunch extend for pages, spiced with loving descriptions of the lemon butter, the asparagus, and the escargot, and "yes" is never a one-word response.
Christensen knows the art world, and there's good satire in some of the talk about painters and styles. If you suspect that much of what we hear about artistic intentions is bull, and if you know anything about Jackson Pollack of Ed Keinholtz, you'll find moments to enjoy. But when the purpose of a novel is to unearth a banality, and when this purpose is repeated often enough with no higher wisdom offered as an antidote--then the banality rubs off on the novel itself. What could have been good fun as a novella becomes tedious at over 300 pages. Minimalism has its place in writing as in the other arts, and there's way too much paint on this canvas.
But, before I even realized what was happening, I soon found myself engrossed in the tale of the 6 disparate women who loved this "Great Man."
The Great Man is Oscar Feldman, a deceased artist well-know for his unfailing devotion to the female nude. Five years after his death, two separate would-be Oscar biographers interview the surviving women in his life: Abigail, his wife; Teddy, his longtime mistress; Ruby, one of Oscars two daughters by Teddy; his sister Maxine, a moderately successful abstract artist; and Teddy's friend Lila, who long nurtured unrequited love for Oscar.
The biographers provide impetus for the women to work together to preserve Oscar's legacy, even though a long-lingering secret threatens to realign Feldman's place in the art world.
This secret is really at the heart of the novel -- and the introduction of it into the story is when Christensen's narrative really comes alive. Christensen artfully moves her women away from their earlier stereotypical selves and onto paths of rejuvenation. These "old ladies" are not sitting around sipping tea; they are wonderfully alive, even as the story of the dead man who binds them is rewritten.
Christensen has an excellent knack for describing the frenzied relationship between artist and viewer, and that of artist and subject. Her portrayal of Maxine (Oscar's sister) as an acerbic aging artist who longs after lost love, is particularly well done.
In short: give the book time and enjoy the blossoming of each woman. This book is plodding at times, but overall it is a funny, tight novel that lays bare how we look at art, love and women.
The spark that ignites the book is that two biographers are simultaneously researching the painter Oscar Feldman, the "great man" of the title. Feldman was a painter known for his female nudes -- both for painting them and for bedding them. He never ventured into abstraction or any other form of modern art, but stuck solely to representational paintings of the female body. He was opinionated, stubborn, and a complete shit toward women, no matter how much he admired their physicality.
Oscar was married to Abigail, the mother of his only son, the deeply autistic Ethan. It is never clear whether or how much Oscar loved Abigail, or whether she was merely a deep pocket to keep him in food and shelter while he developed his art. Certainly Abigail loved him, but the greater love of her life seems to have been her son, whose care consumed her life. There is evidence that perhaps Oscar had a deep, abiding, unexpressed and unexpressable love for her that was somehow divorced from sexual passion. Perhaps their marriage was oddly happy. And perhaps that is why Abigail does what she does when the biographers come around.
Oscar's longtime mistress was Teddy, a secretary in the law firm that took care of Oscar's legal affairs. Teddy is the mother of Oscar's twin daughters, for whom Oscar never provided a penny in support. In fact, Oscar did not leave Teddy so much as a single painting when he died, and she found out about his death by reading the obituary page in the New York Times. Teddy never wanted Oscar's support, because she deeply valued her independence. She had a passion for Oscar, clearly, but it seems almost to have been an intellectual passion more than any other sort -- not a cool commingling of minds, but a hot, fierce passion that erupted into sex more often than not, a love of argument that contained a heat and light that is rarely depicted in literature. She now lives in genteel poverty, and takes great pride in making do.
Oscar's sister was Maxine, now a woman in her mid-80's, who is also an artist. She is, perhaps, a greater artist than Oscar ever was, but she has never received the recognition that Oscar did. Certainly no one is working on her biography. Her work is abstract, cerebral, and her palette limited to black and white. Her work, like Oscar's, hangs in museums around the world. But she has reached old age without wealth, without a partner, and with precious few friends. She is grumpy and defensive, including of Oscar's reputation, but also extremely competitive with her famous brother, even after his death. And there is a secret about Oscar that she is protecting, although she seems to be yearning for the secret to be revealed.
The probing of the two biographers leads to dramatic changes in the lives of all three women. It is a delight to see older women -- in fact, old women, women well past the point where we would call them middle-aged -- portrayed as having passion for life, sexual passion, plans for their futures. They form new friendships, meet new men, reassess old relationships, reassess their own lives. These women are thoroughly alive and do not intend to stop living before they die. There is not a one of them I wouldn't like to meet and befriend. There is not one of them I do not intend to emulate, each in a different way.
Christensen's writing is strong and elegant. Her viewpoint wanders from woman to woman, sometimes without warning, so that in one paragraph you're seeing the world from Teddy's eyes and in the next from Maxine's. Seeing the same scene through different eyes -- the pride Teddy has in a meal she has assembled, for instance, as seen through the eyes of one of Oscar's biographers -- enhances every description (and Christensen's food descriptions are especially gorgeous, leading me to believe that her earlier book, The Epicure's Lament, is probably very tasty; it's now on my list).
This book belongs on your shelf next to such volumes as Susan Minot's Evening and Michael Cunningham's The Hours. I'm surprised not to find The Great Man on the New York Times list of notable books of the year; it's that good. You'll definitely find it on mine.
Some markedly poignant segments about life and love. But otherwise lacking in the prose I expect in a literary novel. Somewhat disappointingly the book is devoid of imagery and a book so intertwined with the beauty of art well should in my opinion have some imagery.
The story was good. A little contrived but who doesn't enjoy a good girl power book once in a while.
The "great man" is dead, and the women with whom he was involved- mostly his wife, his mistress, and his sister- are (with the help of 2 aspiring biographers) working out his legacy- both public and private.
It was a fascinating look into both the modern art world, and into the ways we women navigate and explain our lives- and how we can re-interpret, at least occasionally.
The image we gather of the "great man" ends up being pretty nuanced; some of his flaws are widely known, and some more private, but many come to kight. He does seem like a fairly awful human being... but for some reason, he was able to attract the respect and attention of some very fine women, and it was fascinating to see how they moved on once he and his charisma were out of the picture.
This is not the sort of novel I usually read, but it was pretty gripping. Somewhat recommended, because although well-written, it was not so much to my taste.