For several years I’d been working on a series of essays on writing craft, and in particular what writers can learn from visual artists. I had a vague idea for a piece about form and tension in the work of Louise Nevelson , thinking her blend of abstraction and intense sensory experience might challenge my usual instinct to avoid abstraction in narrative …. I decided that before I could write the essay I had to read everything Nevelson had said about her work. I spent the next few weeks delving into interviews, a pair of biographies, and her oral history …in the last were a couple of the most intriguing and baffling paragraphs I’ve ever encountered. Nevelson describes, very briefly, and with hardly any specifics, her encounter with the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline on a ship to Paris in 1933 and their subsequent correspondence and near-affair. When they met, Celine had just published Journey to the End of the Night and was already a literary sensation. Despite his blatant anti-Semitism, he clearly fascinated Nevelson, who was an unknown then, recently divorced and trying to discover her voice and her medium. … There was such conflicted emotion in her words and yet so little detail of her actual interaction with this figure who both repelled and attracted her that even before realizing I’d abandoned the essay, I found myself trying to imagine these moments and contemplate her competing desires.
Scott Nadelson, Contributor Note
I seldom see patterns in the stories included in BASS volumes, but this year, as I am just about two-thirds finished, I see two threads: first, stories built around real people, and second, women who find themselves attracted to assholes. Interesting, even brilliant assholes, but assholes nonetheless.
The story is perhaps best described as a fictionalization of one aspect of Louise Nevelson’s life, the time just after she abandons her marriage and child and tries, unsuccessfully, to find her place as an artist in 1933 Europe.
In order to devote herself wholly to art, Louise Nevelson—born Leah Berliawsky—has left her marriage of thirteen years. She’s been drawing and painting since childhood, but at thirty-four she’s hardly more than a novice. She has never had a show of her work, has not yet discovered her medium. It will be many years before she’s famous for her massive monochromatic assemblages, considered a queen of modern sculpture.
….Any discomfort caused by deserting her husband, however, is minor compared to the guilt she carries over abandoning her son. Myron – who prefers to be called Mike – is nine years old and bewildered by the changes thrust upon him. Last summer she sent him to stay with her parents in Maine, and though she tried to tell herself he’d be perfectly happy there, her mother spoiling him with her baking, her father, a builder, teaching him how to frame a house, she nevertheless imagined him smothered by the same boredom that had driven her to marry the first wealthy man she met, when she wasn’t yet twenty-one….
She agonizes over Mike, and yet the thought of her own suffocation were she to stay overwhelms all others. She books her passage and sends her son back to Maine.
The story is written in the present tense, and for me that has the effect of emphasizing that it was taking place in a different time. Because we are living in her future, all sorts of associations come up: Nazi Germany, of course, but also Katherine Ann Porter’s novel Ship of Fools and the Stanley Kramer film made from it. Nevelson would not have had those associations, of course; though anyone who’d been paying attention in 1933 could have recognized the direction Germany was taking, at this point Hitler was often considered a clown (those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it).
Both a divorce, and a woman seeking a career in art, were bold choices in 1933. Her guilt over her son puzzles me; maybe my family was different, but it seems to me children weren’t clutched to the bosom as much in the past as they are now, and sending Mike to live with his grandparents wouldn’t have been that big a deal. Then again, she did seem to think it would be a permanent arrangement, though it turned out to relatively be short term.
On the ship to France, she keeps running into a French doctor who has written a book. He turns out to be Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose novel Journey to the End of the Night is wildly popular and is later credited with “a new style of writing that modernized French literature” (that’s straight from Wikipedia, I’m pretty weak in French literature beyond Manon Lescaut and Madame Bovary, both of which I found to be hilarious).
What Céline lacks in tact and charm, he makes up for in passion:
He jumps from topic to topic but always follows a central thread: the essential corruption of humanity, the yearning for filth even among the most so-called refined of society – he mutters this while jutting his chin at a well-dressed couple across the table – which itself is a cesspool, needing to be emptied and scoured.
Everything he says is bitter and morose, and yet there’s a charm in his passionate insistence, a relief after so many years of listening to Charles and his relatives speak with mild disinterest about even those things they claim to value most. …She wants to hear him say more about how he recognized her as an artist just by looking at her ….
She keeps spending time on shipboard with Céline, though he seems uninterested in her life and ambitions. It isn’t until he makes a crudely anti-Semitic remark – comparing the Jews of Europe to “shit floating on a flooded river” and “bottom-feeders” – that she recoils. She wonders if he realizes she is Jewish. He chooses this moment, after that diatribe, to try to kiss her, but she demures and walks away.
But for the rest of the day she is less horrified than fascinated. It’s an important discovery, she thinks, a profound one: that someone can detest what he desires or desire what he detests. Which comes first, the wanting or the loathing, she doesn’t know.
It doesn’t seem that strange to me. History is full of this stuff: Germans raping Jews, American slaveholders raping slaves. Oh, it’s not the kind of rape from Roman times, or even from the pogroms when rape was a weapon of war and terrorism. But it’s still about power and degradation, not about love. Or, I should say, not necessarily about love; there might have been an exception or two. Even today, there’s the cry, “I can’t be racist, my spouse/best friend is black/Jewish/Asian/whatever”. People have married for reasons other than love since the beginning of time, and cover for racism, or having power over someone (and yes, marriage is about power; the best marriages are about sharing power, but power is always involved), aren’t the strangest reasons.
The ship arrives in Europe, and Nevelson’s trip does not go well. She wants to move on from France to Germany, where she spent a happier time the year before, but she’s advised not to go (oh, the decisions on which our lives turn), so she returns home to New York where her son again joins her as though “this has been her plan all along.”
To her surprise, Céline writes her. His letters continue to include racist tripe, and Nevelson continues to wonder about wanting what you despise even visits her. To her greater surprise, he visits her, bringing copies of his book, which she can’t read since it’s in French. He proposes marriage. “Which is worse, she wonders, the fanatic who wants what he hates or the one who wants what hates her?”
Nadelson inserts a brief flash-forward here, where, after the war, more of Céline’s writings come to Nevelson’s attention, such as blatantly racist pamphlets.
She will give away the books he inscribed for her, tossed his letters into the fireplace. She will regret doing so, not right away, but later, after Mike has grown up and moved out, while working on the first of the many walls of black boxes for which she will become known around the world, filled with arrangements of found wooden blocks and cylinders that suggest the messy intricacies of mind and heart. She will think he was one of the few who understood her, because, like her, nothing could ever appease him. And she’ll think, I wasn’t ready then.
Where I was puzzled by the placement of the flash-forward in McCracken’s story, I think I can understand the placement here. The future had to come into it, and it’s important to know how she looks back on this. She’s gone through a lot of changes both artistically and personally, and the last question Céline poses whens he turns down his proposal – Is this a world worth thriving in? – sets up a conflict between optimism and pessimism, between growth and cynicism. Has she, later in life, realized that her achievements are not all she thought they would be? Or has she grown to the point where she can absorb contradictions, even horrible contradictions, with equanimity?
I’ve said many times I’m art-blind, and that’s confirmed every time I read a book about art or artists. So take this with a grain of salt: As I look at her work – the “black boxes” mentioned above – I see less the “messy intricacies of mind and heart” and more the ability to compartmentalize. To put Céline’s passion and desire for her – and don’t forget, being desired is very attractive – in one cubby, and his anti-Semitism and fascism in another, just as she once long ago put her guilt about her son in one place and her desire for art in another and chose which to foreground.
I discovered something else that gives this story more meaning to me. It’s part of Nadelson’s 2020 collection of short stories, One of Us, stories examining questions of Jewish identity in various times and settings. One pre-reader put it like this:
Small moments lead to big questions about what it means to be a man, an American, a Jew, or – inevitably – all of these things at once. When we say someone is One of Us, who is the ‘one’ and who is the ‘us,’ and what do they – what do we – owe to each other?
Justin Taylor blurb
This refocused my attention from Nevelson’s art and career to what I see as a question that’s both more vague and more important: how can the reactions and feelings attributed to her in the story – which, remember, is a fictionalization based on a couple of brief paragraphs she wrote about Céline – be viewed in the context of her Jewish identity? Or, perhaps it’s more like how is Jewish identity revealed through this story? This opened up a new possibility for the “I wasn’t ready then” remark: she wasn’t ready, then, to speak out, to feel enough pride in her Jewish heritage to act to honor it.
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Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Her simultaneous fascination and revulsion of Celine seems to be a creative spark to what would become her monochromatic sculptures that so enraptured Nadelson, he started to study all about Nevelson’s work for a different project and ended up writing this story instead.”
Paris Review interview with Louis Ferdinand Céline, Art of Fiction No. 33, 1964 (partially available for free)