Theater great Stephen Sondheim told us, “Art isn’t easy/Any way you look at it.” Art is part of what defines us as humans; it helps make living worthwhile. So, whether you produce or consume it, you’ve got to respect the creative process that makes it all possible. In this week’s Brit + Co book club, we cover the impetus behind creative pursuits, in the worlds of writing, theater and even cartoons, via academia, biography and fiction.
1. The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein, translated by Adriana Hunter ($19): Who would have thought that a little grand cultural larceny would change the course of a country’s writing? After the French Revolution, the returning army brought home the spoils of war, which just happened to include many works by artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, Raphael and Turner. To “justif[y] this plunder,” these works, which soon populated art museums throughout Paris (concentrated in the Louvre), could be seen for free, and the population took full advantage. Muhlstein won the Goncourt Prize for her explorations of conventional and unusual items of artistic influence, from novels to food, and her latest work shows a strong partnership between the stolen visual art and the novels of the authors captivated by it.
Muhlstein’s focus is on five well-known authors, and how each author’s specific relationship to visual art shaped his writing style into something unique. Émile Zola painted landscapes with his writing, showing readers a far-ranging world. The mythological and Biblical figures in Gustave Moreau’s works inspired the Symbolist writing of JK Huysmans (not Rowling). Honoré de Balzac’s desperate desire for Delacroix’s devotion resulted in the artist and his works practically becoming characters in his novels. Guy de Maupassant’s short stories resembled the most detailed miniatures, and Marcel Proust was heavily influenced by Impressionist landscapes.
Lauded by book reviewers, art critics and museums alike, The Pen and the Brush is a valuable piece of scholarship that shows nothing is created in a vacuum.
2. The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan by Patricia Bosworth ($18): Patricia Bosworth, known for her journalism and biographies of stars like Jane Fonda, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, started her professional life in their world as an actress. She details her coming of age in New York in this follow-up to her first memoir, 1997’s Anything Your Little Heart Desires.
Bosworth’s early life was filled with both privilege and tragedy; her father, Bartley Crum, a well-known attorney, ruined his career by defending the Hollywood Ten, a group of producers, directors and writers who were blacklisted and branded “subversive” by Joseph McCarthy and The House Un-American Activities Committee. Dealing with a family relocation to New York, her closeted brother Bart Jr.’s suicide and an abusive marriage before the age of 20, Bosworth threw herself into acting at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. She details her studies, mentorship and roles on Broadway that shaped her as an artist before her departure into writing.
Bosworth fills her book with juicy stories of the golden age of theater in New York, particularly involving the drama of The Actors Studio, both onstage and off (predictably, there’s much more drama behind the scenes). A measured, realistic love letter to her family and mentors, the men who shaped her life and career, it’s also about being a woman who flouted societal expectations and survived. “For most of my life,” she writes, “I’ve been able to hide my feelings; indeed, I’d have to say I’ve been virtually defined by my ability to hold back. Until now.” We’re just lucky she’s not holding back anymore; her star-studded tales are both juicy and revealing of the world behind so many of our creative icons.
3. The Animators by Karla Rae Whitaker ($16): Karla Rae Whitaker takes a fictional look at the creative process with her novel about two women trying to break barriers in the male-dominated field of animation. Complementary opposites in nearly every way (except for their similar working-class backgrounds), best friends Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses have been nearly inseparable since the beginning of college, and spent most of the intervening decade living in the cheapest studio in Brooklyn they could find, trying to draw their way into artistic fulfillment and success. Now, extroverted Mel and driven but demure Sharon are finally achieving their dream: They’re releasing their first full-length feature based on Mel’s tumultuous childhood. As you can probably guess, their success brings with it new problems and questions. It’s a familiar story, yet anything but cliché.
Sharon and Mel are now the toast of the indie crowd, but Sharon’s shyer personality leaves her feeling on the outside of her own story. She wonders whether she’s even an artist at all, or whether she’s been carried all along. Couple this with a visit from an old friend from home, and the women’s delicate creative balance threatens to topple.
“I had chosen art,” Sharon says, “because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember, my fervent, neon wish to be someone else.” Boasting great reviews from Kirkus to Booklist, the New Yorker to Elle, The Animators draws vivid characters that are colorful but not cartoonish, and offers a touching, unsentimental story of the trauma so many turn into beauty but never fully surmount. It’s a process many of us could do worse than to follow: As our girl Carrie Fisher said, “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”
What books spark your creativity? Tag us in your next inspirational read @BritandCo.
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