A cleaner in a gallery pursues her passion for art in a deceptively slim novel about the act of looking and being looked at
“I wanted to write about paintings, but I wasn’t seen as someone who could say something interesting about art” – thus we are introduced to the ambitions of Vitória, a poor cleaning woman at an art museum. Indelicacy is the story of her desire for subjectivity in a world that has only offered her subjection.
Indelicacy takes place in an unnamed city, in an unknown time; though we hear mention of candles and carriages, the novella’s events could be unfolding in the here and now. It has been called a work of feminist existentialism, but it also has an allegorical, fairytale quality. I found myself thinking of Angela Carter – not in form, but in feel.
Modern fiction really began when the ‘action’ of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1925 book, The Writing of Fiction. “And this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the 17th century, wrote a little story called La Princesse De Clèves, a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of reading The Age of Innocence, that little plot summary will feel familiar, as will the preoccupation with the soul. The book, though famous for its ironic detachment – Wharton described viewing the people in 1870s New York society through “the wrong end of a telescope” to make them appear “small and distant” – it plunges us deep inside the hearts and minds of her characters. We feel their emotion. We see the world as they see it.
When we are introduced to Newland Archer, arriving deliberately late at the opera because it is “not the thing” to arrive early, he is presented as an anthropological study. “What was or was not ‘the thing’ played as a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”
Yet within a page we find ourselves not so much observing Archer as looking through his eyes. We scan the opera boxes with him, we think what he thinks about members of the audience. And we share in his shock when he sees the “slim young” Countess Ellen Olenska, soon to be the subject of his hopeless love.
From then on, Archer’s world becomes ours. We share his dilemmas. We worry about his destiny. We too are caught up in the question of whether he should give in to his love for Ellen, at the expense of his fiancee May.
Hawking’s collaborator retells his story with humour and fondness, and helps us know the famous scientist as he really was
we all feel we know the story of Stephen Hawking: his undergraduate years at Oxford; the shocking diagnosis of motor neurone disease when he was 21 and the slow decline of his physical body for half a century; his two marriages; his research into the nature of black holes that established him as one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation; and of course the publication of A Brief History of Time, which turned him into an icon, the genius in the wheelchair. A number of biographies already exist, and there is a memoir entitled, inevitably, My Brief History, as well as the biopic, The Theory of Everything, in which Hawking is played by Eddie Redmayne. But this latest, highly enjoyable, book is different.
What is refreshing is the absence of the usual adulation of an exceptional mind and celebration of triumph over adversity. In their place is a tender account, full of genuine affection, which doesn’t shy away from Hawking’s intense focus, self-centredness, unpredictability and the difficulties faced by his wives and carers. The author, Leonard Mlodinow, is in an almost unique position. A fellow physicist and science writer, he worked closely with Hawking over many years during which they co-wrote two bestselling books: A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design, the collaboration on and writing of which forms the backdrop for this memoir.
For those who have followed Hawking’s career there is a retelling of well-known stories, such as his bets with fellow physicists over certain theoretical predictions, and his views on a final theory of everything, as well as his famous sense of fun and adventure, whether joining Mlodinow for an afternoon of punting on the River Cam or hitching a ride on the famous “vomit comet” to experience zero gravity.
“The Selected Works of Audre Lorde,” edited by Roxane Gay, arrives at a time when the poet, essayist and memoirist has rarely been more influential — or misunderstood.
By PARUL SEHGAL
In her public appearances, Audre Lorde famously introduced herself the same way: “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” There were occasional variations. “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet doing my work, coming to ask you if you’re doing yours,” she’d sometimes say. But there was always that garland of identifiers — and not just because she couldn’t be defined by one word. She wanted, as Angela Davis said, to “demystify the assumption that these terms cannot inhabit the same space: Black and lesbian, lesbian and mother, mother and warrior, warrior and poet.”
Lorde died in 1992, at 58. She left riches: poems, essays and two genre-defining memoirs, “Zami” and “The Cancer Journals.” Her work is an estuary, a point of confluence for all identities, all aspects kept so strenuously segregated: poetry and politics, feeling and analysis, analysis and action, sexuality and the intellect.
“There is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love,” she once wrote.