Cleopatra’s Nose by Judith Thurman

One does not come to Judith Thurman’s collection of essays with fresh eyes or with the anticipation of experiencing surprise and delight at discovering an unknown and then eagerly proclaiming a new talent to the world. Thurman has repeatedly earned high praise for her past achievements –biographies of Isak Dinsen and of the French 19th century writer Colette — and she is a staff writer for The New Yorker from where all the essays in this collection have been culled.

What we do expect before cracking open this collection is intelligence and good writing and true to our expectation, she delivers both in spades. The surprise in her writing comes from how well-versed she is about European culture, in particular French and British culture and society, (she clearly is a Francophile and a Anglophile) her wit, and her wide-ranging curiosity (perhaps ‘roaming’ is the better word) over a wide range of topics other than fashion writing which forms the core of this collection of essays. She writes about the art of tofu making in Japan, Kimono painting, reviews the book The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which curiously is labeled pornography but is written as memoir that may or may not be authentic, performance art, and a short autobiographical piece on her other career choices that came to mind after she examined the US census form.

Of the 39 essays collected here, 17 are directly about fashion designers, their histories, and their various shows. Another six essays focus on famous personalities and the clothes they wore ranging from the historical, Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette, to Luisa Casati and to the more or less present, Jackie Onassis. It almost goes without saying Thurman is good at writing about clothes. She has a descriptive painterly eye and writes about fashion the way some travel writers — I am thinking of Bruce Chatwin and D.H.Lawrence‘s travel books — write about places and landscapes. Her eyes wander lovingly over textures (she has a thing for chiffon) curves, colors, and shapes. She pauses to admire the suppleness of the material used and uses her own personal history to explain the lust some clothes inspire in her.

In other words, her descriptive prose about fashion has a certain sexy sparkle and is remarkabley detailed and informed by cultural history. Here is Thurman, for example, writing about the forgotten Italian designer Schiaparelli’s influence on the clothes of Hollywood femme fatales of the ’30s, such as Joan Crawford, and whose “ linebacker shoulders, and lavish embellishment” became de rigueur for “… nearly every sinewy, flat-hipped, chain-smoking, man-eating, social climbing, scarlet-clawed screen temptress of the thirties.” You must admit that sentence packs an eyeful.

Thurman’s writing in general has the heart of a poet wrapped in prose. In fact, in a telling detail about the development of her own aesthetic and growth as a writer, she remarks off-handily about being young and in London and writing poems that had a distinctively ‘Plathian air’. Her rejection of poet as a career choice, although perhaps initially disappointing, and her work as a scholar and biographer, has resulted in making her a disciplined prose writer and a delight to read.

Thurman has the talent all gifted literary critics share, that is, an ability to combine the vivid and sensual with the hardheaded demands of the intellect. The Dionysian and Apollonian co-exist to produce bright gem-like flashes of insight. Take, for example, these sentences from her essay on the Spanish designer Balenciaga. “And at the Bismarck show I marveled at an evening coat that was somehow as unsettling as a fetish. Its bell-shaped inner shell of absinthe-green tulle was completely feathered with curly, translucent ostrich plumes, each no thicker than a false eyelash…”

Or this pithy closing sentence from an essay on Armani: “to shop is to navigate an alimentary canal of desire.” Such sentences flicker for a moment like flashes from the unconscious.

Great as Thurman’s fashion writing may be, it left me exhausted after awhile in part perhaps because I am an average man and when all is said and done the theatrical quality of women’s couture — pardon the pun — wears thin. The other reason, and it is something Thurman notes herself, is how the success stories of various fashion designers from Bill Bass to Giorgio Armani to Givency and Yves St.Laurent each seem to repeat the same archetype that bears an uncanny resemblance to Jay Gatsby’s desire to reinvent and recreate himself for Daisy’s love in The Great Gatsby. In the world of couture it seems most designers came from humble backgrounds and dispirited childhoods and then with a combination of luck, talent, timing, and doting mothers who taught them how to sew at an early age, were able to reinvent themselves and to become recognized for the true geniuses they are today or yesterday, the fashion world being notoriously fickle.

I much prefer Thurman’s essays on artists and writers. Her essays on the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Frank’s journals, writer Andre Malraux, and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl are impressive models and it is fun to read an intelligent observer like Thurman critically explore the legacy, life, and work of the artist. She peels away the façade of respectability some tried to create in their latter years such as Riefenstahl, who as a young woman used her looks and connections in the Nazi regime to further her artistic ambitions.

Thurman also reveals to no surprise that artists often have had dubious morals and live scurrilous and surreptitious lives and are active participants in creating their own myths. Having a touch of a con man does not hinder ones career, it seems, when aspiring to be an artist; read Thurman’s essay on Andre Malraux to see what I mean.

Thurman’s essays bring to life both the character and the work, and most importantly, how they intersect. Finally, Thurman does what you expect from any good self-respecting literary critic that is, she gives you the desire to go and explore or revisit the artist yourself.

Desire is an easy virus you can catch from reading Thurman. If self-doubt is the only virtue according to Colette, then desire is the only bug worth having according to Thurman.

RATING 9 / 10