BOOK OF THE WEEK
Monsters: a fan’s dilemma
by Claire Dederer (Scepter £20, 288pp)
Years ago I ended my 1,200-page Peter Sellers biography by saying that geniuses should take a vow of celibacy. That way they only ruin their own lives.
It’s always the partners, kids, close friends and co-workers who will have a reliably awful time, swept up in the vortex, as the Big I Am sucks up all available oxygen – these “beasts of depth,” as Claire Dederer calls her cast of monsters, these ‘beasts of sensibility’.
Ernest Hemingway’s son died in a Florida jail and his granddaughter, Margaux, drank herself to death. Bing Crosby “beat his kids.”
Two of Picasso’s wives committed suicide, as did his grandson Pablito. John Lennon “hit his wife,” and Miles Davis’s widow said in 2006, “I’ve actually stopped running for my life more than once.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Vera, had it easy. All she had to do was fold the maestro’s umbrella and lick his stamps.
Uma Thurman starred in the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) directed by Quentin Tarantino calling him a horrible bully
Thurman said Tarantino’s treatment of her on the set of Kill Bill resembled “dehumanization to death.” (Tarantino has since apologized)
Nevertheless, he committed the crime of writing Lolita, which is about “men who have sex with very young girls.” So is Nabokov as bad as his novel’s anti-hero, “the dirty old man disguised in a fancy prose style”?
At least there is no evidence that Nabokov pounced on children in real life. But what about Woody Allen, whose film Manhattan explores “the issue of middle-aged men having sex with teenage girls.”
Dederer reminds us of Allen’s excoriation from Mia Farrow and their son, Ronan: for the comedian did not run off and marry Mia’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
“Sleeping with your partner’s kid – that takes a special kind of creep,” Dederer sighs.
Perhaps Allen was surpassed by Roman Polanski, who in 1977 seduced a 13-year-old girl to strip naked and get into a Jacuzzi. He drugged her with a Quaalude and raped her. The film director is still a fugitive from US justice.
The fact that his mother was killed by the Nazis and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family is no lasting excuse.
Monsters is a long list of offenders. David Bowie took the virginity of a 15-year-old girl in a hotel room, who said, ‘The way it happened was so beautiful. I remember he looked like God and had me at the table.’
Gauguin’s paintings show the way he “slept with young Tahitian girls.” Michael Jackson seduced young boys, an evil Peter Pan on his Neverland Ranch.
Roman Polanski pictured with his wife, American actress Sharon Tate. In Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer writes that in 1977, Polanski seduced a 13-year-old girl into stripping naked and getting into a Jacuzzi. He drugged her with a Quaalude and raped her
Allegations and counter-accusations have been rife since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, “a story of continued, systematic, repercussive abuse.” And if it’s not about sex, it’s about power.
Uma Thurman said Quentin Tarantino was a bully and his treatment of her on set resembled “dehumanization to death.” (Tarantino has since apologized).
Nobel laureate VS Naipaul ‘was quite horrible personally’; Ezra Pound a “fascist sympathizer” and TS Eliot “was an anti-Semite.” It is difficult for Jews to listen to Wagner’s music knowing that his operas were theme tunes for the Reich.
And JK Rowling is in the dock for claiming that sex is determined by biology rather than individual choice — which led to Terry Gilliam joking, “I don’t want to be a white man anymore.” I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world. I’m telling the world now, I’m a black lesbian.’ (I saw him at J Sheekey’s restaurant. The resemblance is amazing.)
So, here’s the fan’s dilemma. If artists are accused of doing or saying something horrible, can we continue to enjoy their art?
Although Dederer has met people who firmly believe that “all the work of artists who have exploited and abused women should be destroyed,” she finds Polanski’s films of lasting “furious, unrelenting beauty.” She adds, “I just wanted to watch the movies because they were great.”
She feels the same way about Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, admiring “the integration of lame jokes with an emotional tenor of ambivalence.”
Dederer is less sure about Picasso. His portraits are of “bright pink bodies and stark animal faces and hostile-feeling distortions.”
Pablo Picasso is pictured with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque. Two of Picasso’s wives committed suicide, as did his grandson Pablito
The painter was a “rat” to mistresses and muses, and “having spent many nights extracting their essence after they had bled out, he would throw them away.”
Dederer makes him sound like Count Dracula.
But just when it seems like her book is veering toward stridently anti-dude, anti-masculinity — “If we could get rid of the gnarled men, we’d be living in an innocent world of good people.” making good art’ — the author accuses Virginia Woolf of snobbery and sues Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing for abandoning their children and seeing motherhood as a dead end.
Before turning on the gas, Dederer says, Sylvia Plath had put her young children to bed and taped the door frame shut.
“What was truly monstrous about Plath,” worse than sticking her head in the oven, “was just leaving those children motherless.” One of those children, Nicholas, committed suicide himself in 2009.
We live in a world with too many nosy biographies, too much meddling in the celebrity press, and social media gossip.
It is impossible to keep the artist and his art separate, leaving things “soured, stained.” Well done, we know so little about Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Keats.
“Everything is everyone’s business,” says Dederer. “There’s a market for every piece of information.”
Dederer writes that Picasso was a “rat” to mistresses and muses, and “having spent many nights extracting their essence after they had bled out, he would throw them away”
What about statues coming down, university lecturers canceling, people being reprimanded – all this ‘collective outcry’: the public, if they were honest, would admit to enjoying ‘the drama of denouncing the monster’, provoking a frenzy of justified indignation.
“Audiences are turning and refusing to see another Kevin Spacey movie ever again,” and are imbued with moral smugness. It’s the 21st century version of witch burning.
But beneath it all, “this is the human condition, this creeping suspicion of our own wickedness,” says Dederer brilliantly.
Even though the genius is “physically, extra-alive, moved by a mind outside of themselves,” what they do, what they accomplish, in song, paint, or language, is to explore the available hostility, passion, erotic urges, anarchy and mayhem. for all of us, where we, ordinary morals, are (fortunately) too law-abiding and shy to raise.