Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.
Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints
Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching
Musee Picasso, Paris
In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.
By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.
Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.
While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”