Like a dog who circles again and again around the same spot before finally lying down in it, Anne Roiphe's newest book, Art and Madness: A Memoir of Love Without Reason, threatens to do the same. The achronological, time-stamped life she presents us with includes much of what we're used to in memoirs of mid-century debauchery: Key parties, happenings, "testosterone poisoning," sex with George Plimpton. The bottomless tumblers; the never-ashed cigarettes. She writes though for women and children, the casualties of the so-called genius that these props adorned, while at the same time summoning her own expired awe: "I wondered how women married men who did not want to be writers, men who would be ordinary...What were those women doing with their lives?"
While still a student at Sarah Lawrence, she meets Jack, a supposedly brilliant, verifiably alcoholic playwright, who "was not meant for ordinary tasks of mortal days." Her impulse to "save him," determined after their very first drink, is obviously doomed. He describes himself as a logical positivist; she describes him, decades later, as a "snake charmer." They fall in love, travel to Europe, have a baby ("the child"), and settle into the life of the literati on the Upper East Side. But soon, Jack begins staying out all night, getting other women to pick up his tab at Elaine's, and spiraling into maelstroms of depression when his plays get bad reviews.
There are points in the memoir that veer into dangerous territory, points where Roiphe seems to actually be harnessing the very sort of sophomoric stupor she deems phony in others: Hollow mentions of Hegel, gratuitous references to Kierkegaard and grandiose statements about art through the ages that would make even a recent college graduate shudder. It turns out that Roiphe the enraged wife is a better writer than Roiphe the lyrical woman of letters.
hide captionAnne Roiphe was a National Book Award finalist for Fruitful, and is also the author of Up the Sandbox. She has written for Vogue, Elle, The New York Times, and other news organization, and lives in New York City.
Mary Ellen Mark
With less canny marketing, Art and Madness could have easily been packaged as a polemic against alcoholism in the arts; many pages are devoted to a hard boiled examination of its disastrous affects on the families of the creatively inclined: "The alcohol consumed is meant to put out the flame but it serves instead as an accelerant." She goes into labor while her husband is on a bender; she's pained when her 16-month-old baby recognizes the smell of scotch; she remembers a drunken father promising his small child a horse. "You cannot do that," his wife states firmly. "You cannot promise her a horse." Alcohol, in Roiphe's epitheting prose, "was the romantic grease of a dark story: the vampire love of my youth."
The Roiphe of 2010 is estranged from her former self, the one preoccupied with the aporias of art-making ("It may be that to see and tell the story of human error is to dare to expose yourself to the sacred flash of truth than can drive you mad. Or are you mad to try in the first place?") She isn't tired by those old, nagging questions so much as she is now convinced of their answers. If ever a book has been redeemed by its final paragraph, it's this one: "I meet Carol Southern, long divorced from Terry, at a party on Fifth Avenue, the home of a musician and his painter wife. Carol and I look at each other. We shared memories that need not be spoken. 'Do you regret it' I say. 'No,'she says, 'I loved every minute of it. I would do it again.' She smiles her radiant and gentle smile. She is telling me the truth. I, on the other hand, would never do it again. Never."
Excerpt: 'Art and Madness'
by Anne Roiphe
Art and Madness By Anne Roiphe Hardcover, 240 pages Nan A. Talese List Price: $24.95
1963-4: In the fall I go to George Plimpton's. The night is long and the married woman with young children have left to go to bed so that they can rise with their children. I am talking to William Styron. He is bleary. He lives in Connecticut. He is broad and his face has a beaten up look, circles under his eyes, his chest wide and he leans out to me. I want to go to bed with you he says. Why not, I say. Why not anything? Does he want to go to bed with me because I understand and admire his books? I don't think so. Does he want to go to bed with me because I am appealing and warm breasted and dark haired and not entirely stupid. I don't think so. I can see that he wants to go to bed with me because he needs to go to bed and soon before he passes out and he wants to go to bed with me because I am there, in the first hours of the new day with the other men sprawled on couches and chairs and I am still awake and I have an apartment to go to, and I am someone whom he knows as one of the crowd , Jack Richardson's ex-lady, and he has a southern mewl that makes me think for a moment he might desire me and that in the vast ebb and flow of time, stone age to now, desire is a constant and ought not to be ignored because what else have we, I agree. His breath is heavy with nicotine and so much alcohol I wonder that his tongue isn't on fire. Yes, I think he is a wonderful writer. Yes, I think he is a stranger from another place where magnolia hangs heavy on bushes and dark crimes are different from the dark crimes I know. I look in his eyes and I see Faulkner and sweat pouring off shoulders lifting bales of cotton and Scarlet and Rhett and I think I see a stripe of blood across his back when he turns over in bed. I don't mind that he rises in the morning and puts on his pants and his shirt and tie and grabs his jacket without waiting for a cup of coffee. He has to return to Connecticut. He has a wife and children and he has a typewriter up there and pages more to go. Also he has bottles of his favorite aphrodisiac stored in his study. I am like a glass left on the bar, empty, a lipstick stain on the lip, a melted ice cube at the bottom. It is not yet dawn when he leaves and I stand in the doorway and wait with him for the elevator. He taps his foot impatiently. I wonder if he will come back. A few more times, late at night we found each other as the room was emptying out and George was already in his room with the door closed with some sweet girl with hopes he might offer her a job on the Paris Review and he does know my address and gives it to the cab driver without my help. I try to say interesting things to him. His eyes are always far away as if he were staring at me across a muddy river where the mist never lifts . He has certain feelings about Jewish girls. He married one after all. He likes our ferocity I suspect. But then he doesn't like competing with the Jewish writers who stamped onto the stage without asking leave, writers like Mailer and Malamud and Bellow. He does not like the righteousness of the Jewish writer or the taint of slavery that follows him, an innocent southerner, about. That I learn when reading Sophie's Choice more than a decade later.
One Friday night at George's, the ethnic drama breaks out. The gladiators each have their supporters. Out on the landing just before George's apartment voices are raised, a crowd begins to gather around. Norman Mailer attempts to hit Doc Humes and the two are fighting on the stairwell. I am there watching. Doc thinks Norman has sold out to the FBI. I think Norman suspects someone is after his money or his rights or his name. Some one said an ugly thing. George is standing between them, bending a little because he is taller than the others. He tries to joke. He puts a friendly hand on one shoulder or the other but as if two bulls were pawing the ground the air becomes steamy and thick and the cigarette smoke swirls above and Norman has already put a pen knife in his wife Adele's belly after a party and Doc Humes, a Ferdinand if ever there was one suddenly has an enraged look in his eye. I turn away. I don't want to get testosterone poisoning. I don't remember how it stopped. Norman was tougher, but Doc was crazier. Others separated them perhaps before a single blow landed. I know that the writers who witnessed the fight all thought of ways to write about it. I know that in a place where it was understood that manhood needed to be earned over and over again and could be taken away from a contender at any minute the actual prize should have gone to George who really didn't want blood on his stairwell. Did he understand that Norman was the intruder from the immigrant Jewish side of the street and Doc was the defender from the old family that took America for granted?. Did he know that all the women there were like the flowers on the tables at a wedding, wilting, waiting to be thrown out.
Afterwards there was talk and more talk about the fight. It grew to mythical proportions, constellations in the sky were named after the encounter. Odd that. A real war had taken place in all our childhoods- a war in Korea had taken old friends and left them rotting on scubby hills one identical to another. Many of the men in the room were veterans of that war which they, just like their older brothers did not want to talk about, not ever. The death of us all waited in the muscles of an itchy finger on a cool button under a distant mountain. And yet we were riveted by the tale of Norman Mailer and Doc Humes late at night on the stairwell of George Plimpton's apartment. I thought of the encounter as if the Tyrannosaurus and his arch enemy had danced around each other on a primitive plain, one on which the other beasts gathered around were holding martinis in their claws.
Do not go gently into that good night, said the Poet Dylan Thomas, which is a lovely line, encouraging the human spirit against the gravity of death which certainly had that drinker in its grip. Actually the writers gathered at George's for an evening of pleasure and pain did not want to go gently into the next day, never mind the coffin. These kings of the hill were jostling for prizes named and unnamed and sometimes I was one of those prizes which was fine with me.
Excerpted from Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason by Anne Roiphe. Copyright 2011 by Anne Roiphe. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.