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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 25, 2005

These Great Artists Seemed to Suffer for their Craft

If creating great art is as hard as it appears to be from these biographies, then it is no wonder there are so few great artists and writers. The dedication required and the cost exacted is staggering .

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey (Picador, 2003).

About halfway through this engrossing biography of the great, neglected post-World War II novelist and short story writer Richard Yates, I grew uncomfortable with the many revelations of his personal life, and I cannot help but think that Yates would be outraged at the violation of his dignity.

On the other hand, the intimate details are consistent with Yates' unflinchingly realistic method of writing. So I kept on reading. It was just too good.

Though Yates hated his artistic mother, whom he considered a pretentious and self-centered alcoholic, he shared many personality traits with her. Also an alcoholic, he imposed the emotional turmoil of his everyday life on those who tried to love him.

Through it all, though, he stuck diligently to his art, and his first novel, Revolutionary Road, is considered to be the "Great Gatsby" of his generation.

Yates was an infantryman in World War II, having failed by one point to qualify for the Officer Candidate's test. His war experience shaped his life, informing his gruff masculinity, his gruntlike endurance and his stoic disdain for survival .

Ultimately, my exasperation with the man was replaced with genuine pity, which also would have angered him.

February House by Sherill Tippins (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

During 1940 and 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II, an extraordinary group of artists lived together in a Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y. The group was a volatile mixture of Englishmen and Americans that included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The house was the idea of George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. All the residents were young and talented. The oldest and most famous were Auden, in his mid-30s, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in her late 20s. Anais Nin came up with the name February House, because so many of the residents' birthdays fell in February.

The "mother" of the house was Auden, who enforced the rules and made sure the bills were paid. Davis tutored Lee, who was on sabbatical from the stage, in the art of mystery writing as she toiled on The G-String Murders. McCullers sipped sherry and wrote like a Southern angel, though her health even then was precarious.

Bowles and Britten engaged in a war of composers . Britten and Auden worked on their American operetta, Paul Bunyan, together, but their friendship didn't survive their unsuccessful collaboration.

The house was madly bohemian, but somehow all the artists did some of their best work there. They worked as if they didn't have much time left, since it was just a matter of time before the war would change everything.

Gustav Mahler: A Life in Crisis by Stuart Feder (Yale, 2004).

The author is both a psychoanalyst and professor of music at Juilliard, and is well-qualified to write a life of the complex Austrian composer.

Feder's fascinating psychoanalytical biography shows how Mahler was a man pursued and obsessed by death.

As the favorite child of his mother, he was a confident adult who ruthlessly advanced his conducting career and took for granted that his composing should be the center of his family's life.

Mahler was able to overcome every crisis in his life except the last one, when his wife, the Viennese siren Alma Mahler, began an affair with architect Walter Gropius. His heart was fatally infected by his chronic bouts with strep throat brought on by overwork and anxiety.

One cannot help but wonder whether it was one more case of beauty killing the beast.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.