Monday, February 18, 2008

Nureyev: The Life

So I wasn't actually planning to read the new(ish) Nureyev biography for at least a little while, but I saw it at the library a couple weeks ago and impulse borrowed. Chalk that one up as a mistake.

I had issues with it both stylistically and in terms of content and think it's, well, not good. I'll start with my stylistic issues since those are rather simpler and smaller.

The first, and I admit it's really a personal thing, is that I hate the constant use of quotations that are unattributed in the text itself. Kavanagh isn't doing anything wrong because they're attributed in the back of the book, but I find having to flip constantly if I want to know who said what thoroughly frustrating. I'd much prefer the names of the people to be incorporated into the text itself.

My other issue is the prose itself, particularly in some of the beginning sections. At the start of chapter four, Kavanagh writes:
Teja Kremke was a seventeen-year-old East German boy with an erotic presence as visible as a heat haze. A student at the Vaganova school, he had shiny chestnut hair, pale skin, full lips, and intense gray-blue eyes--extraordinary eyes whose seductive glint through long black lashes was there even when he was a child.
Ok, so first of all that's some fairly subjective stuff being suggested as fact there, particularly when the author never actually met Kremke in person and is therefore either putting forward the views of others or judging off pictures. Second of all, why exactly is the "seductive glint" of his eyes when he was a child relevant in the first place when he doesn't come into Nureyev's life until he's in his late teens? And third, "an erotic presence as visible as a heat haze"? Really? I know that I tend to prefer fairly spare prose and that's a personal preference but lines like that just aren't good.

That's not an isolated example either. On the first page she describes Lake Baikal as a "sunlit ocean of ice" that seems "to merge with the far-off white mountain ridges of Khamar Daban." No I suppose you could argue that she's setting the scene for Nureyev's birth there but I mostly find myself wondering if one of her interviewees, presumably a child at the time, actually described the lake that way or if Kavanagh is making assumptions and allowing herself some artistic license there.

I could look past those complaints, though, if I thought that the actual content of the book justified my doing so. Let me say before I begin that I don't think she had an easy job. Like Mark Epstein in his Edna St. Vincent Millay biography (which I wrote about here) Kavanagh is faced with the task of writing about a deeply-flawed, formidably-talented individual with a sort of charisma that inspired people to great love and devotion. Now I'm really not comparing the two, but I do think the task of explaining why someone is adored when the reason for that seems to be something outside the realm of words and explanations is a difficult one.

Kavanagh though, doesn't seem much interested in explaining or analyzing though; her focus seems to be relating events, facts, and the opinions of others without a cohesive narrative viewpoint. And sometimes when she does seem to be putting forth an opinion of her own it feel unsupported. For example she writes:
Self-retreat, combined with a mistrust of joking, suspected conniving by "so-called friends," and the violent stomach disorders from which he suffered, can be indications of the schizophrenic process, although friend close to Erik [Bruhn], including the young doctor Lennart Pasborg, insist that he was not psychologically disturbed.
So the people who were close to him claim that he wasn't mentally ill, and she doesn't provide the assessment of anyone else who might have been in the position to know and does think he was schizophrenic. So my question is, why does she feel the need to mention that he had certain attributes of schizophrenia at all? There is no doubt in my mind that many people who are not, in fact, schizophrenic, are in possession of certain aspects of schizophrenia. It seems to me that it's rather irresponsible for Kavanagh to mention it at all if she's going to mention it in such a throwaway fashion in the biography of someone else.

At another point Kavanagh writes that, "the troubadour style of Erik's letters [...] express a language of longing too conventional at time to be convincingly real. [sic] " Not to belabor the obvious here but writing in one's second language can be kind of hard, regardless of how fluent one is in that language. I don't think that Bruhn is well served by the publication of his letters--letters that were meant to be destroyed, I might add--much less analysis of their literary styling.

Which brings me to another point--that of taste and privacy. Often, while reading this particular biography, I felt like a voyeur. I didn't really want to read Erik Bruhn's letters. I didn't feel like it was any of my business nor did I feel like it added to my understanding of Nureyev as an artist to do so. I also didn't want to read about Margot Fonteyn's pelvic floor muscles or intimate details of Nureyev's sex life. Don't get me wrong, it really doesn't bother me that he had a lot of sex with a lot of different people. And I totally understand that sex and sexuality were important to his art as well as his personal life. I have absolutely no quibble with it being dicussed in those terms, but I couldn't help but feel that there was something malicious and prurient about the way Kavanagh presented certain information, or, I should say, about the fact that she felt the need to write about certain things at all. There were more interesting things she could have focused on.

And once you get past his youth, that becomes kind of a theme for me. There are entire sections of the book that read like society pages. The assumption seems to be that these people were rich and/or famous and close to Nureyev so they must be interesting, but that's really not the case. And by focusing so much on them, Kavanagh makes the biography significantly less interesting than it could be. I would have liked to hear more about his dancing from people who saw him in his prime, more from the critics, etc. That was there certainly, but at times it was overwhelmed by the other stuff. If you're going to write a 700 page biography about an artist and pop culture phenomenon, why not trim some of the fat and focus more on that?

Or better yet, why not spend some time providing critical analysis of his importance as both a dancer and public figure? Kavanagh's refusal to do this, instead focusing on his twin obsessions of money and dance with a bunch of sex thrown in there to sell books and make people feel like they're getting the gossip they paid for (theoretically, that is) makes the book seem insubstantial for all it's considerable bulk. For all the incredibly extensive and in-depth research that clearly went into it this biography, in the end, what it gives you doesn't seem all that worth having.

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