I cannot say that I fully enjoyed this book. Though, to say it’s a book that should not be read would be a far more inaccurate statement. As the book cover says, Art and Madness is a “memoir of lust without reason.” It is a tale of a young woman lovesick for artists – writers in particular – men, tormented and passionate and drowning in alcohol, their lives devoted to writing gorgeous creations into the world.
Yet Anne Roiphe, our narrator and heroine, flawed as she is, is tormented as well, though not by the overconsumption of alcohol and the need for artistic immortality. She is tormented by the company she keeps and the life she lives in the literary “art scene” of the 1950s and 60s.
In essence, she is lovesick because she doesn’t even realize that it is in fact not these men she is in love with. It is art, itself.
The men she consistently fawns over seem in fact not so much like the artistic and literary geniuses of their time, but more like lazy hipsters, deadbeats (at the risk of using such an un-hip term), who appear to spend more time bingeing on alcohol than actually attempting to write the next great American novel.
I found myself looking at Anne with a bit of disdain as well. She seemed like the typical artsy female hipster, who knows she is oh so unique and different from everyone around her. Thus, she must have that alternative dream of a life when she grows up, free of convention and 9 to 5 jobs, and instead lushly, spontaneously filled with art. And attractive men, of course.
She describes her own husband (and eventually ex-husband, thank God) as “being brilliant and literary and wicked while smoking furiously and waiting for someone to pick up his tab,” and later adds, “He was not meant for ordinary tasks of mortal days.”
Now, I don’t know this Jack or any of the other men Anne admired, personally, but this just sounds like pretentious, if eloquent, excuses made for someone who needs a good kick in the ass and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rather than a young woman’s love and support.
Reading about all of these dislikable people, whose personalities are honestly nothing unique to a memoir of this nature, was rather frustrating and tiresome at first. Especially since I couldn’t even bring myself to like Anne. You can dislike every character in a book, but if even the narrator annoys you, sometimes it’s best to just close the pages for good.
And then suddenly, reading word after word, I’d be made a hypocrite. My mind was stirred, my heart quickened, I’m sure my eyes dilated and brightened. Within me, out of nowhere, bloomed intrigue, infatuation, excitement, and that sweet, swelling giddiness of kinship. Because, like Anne Roiphe, I too am highly susceptible to, and am very familiar with, that feeling of arousal from the written word.
While up to this point I have been quite negatively critical of Anne Roiphe, I cannot deny that she and I have quite a lot in common. Her memoir repeatedly hit me on a personal level, as it should anyone who adores books and words and anything beautifully written. because when it comes down to it, that is who Anne Roiphe is. In the midst of all these men and struggles, unrequited love and lust, dreams and self-important artists who “cannot be bound by our rules,” is a woman with a simple yet fierce passion for words. For writing.
And she’s freakin’ good at it too. Since her first novel was published in 1967, Roiphe has had a total of 20 highly-acclaimed books published, including fiction, nonfiction, and multiple memoirs. Talk about a nice slap in the face to all the men from her past.
Art and Madness was published in 2011, making Roiphe 76 at the time. And, while I have none of her other works to compare it to, her age is evident in her writing in the most pleasant of ways. At times her writing is simple and basic, almost too simple, even blocky. There’s an apparent exhaustion and weariness in her voice as she recalls this time in her life. The last line of her book even reads, “I would never do it again. Never.”
Yet her retelling is not negative. Her youthful delusions of grandeur now gone, she tells her story with more objectivity than you’ll find in most memoirs, while still recognizing and evoking the beauty and excitement and feelings she experienced as a young woman.
Thus, while her writing is sometimes too simple, it is more often lush and lovely, even philosophical. The kind of writing that makes you smile and giddily mark up the pages with annotations, because you’re so excited to see some experience or feeling or belief you personally possess put down into words so accurately and eloquently by another human being.
Is this one of the greater books I’ve ever read? No.
But is this a book I would like to further explore? Of course.
I could go on and on about many of the topics addressed by Anne in Art and Madness. However, my ramblings and ranting have already gone on longer than I expected. So, to prevent this post from becoming too much of a doozy, I’ll save those bits for another time.
Anne Roiphe’s memoir did not capture and consume me the way books often do. However, she made me think. And anything intellectually stimulating is also very sexy.
So I may not be in love with your book, Anne Roiphe, but I am certainly in lust. And a good, healthy lust. Not at all like that horrible obsession you went through with your artists.
I need a few more satisfying tastes of your pages before I’m ready to close you up just yet.
*Author’s Note – Pardon the grammatical error in the third quote. I’ll hop on that as soon as I get access to Photoshop again. Until then, I can guarantee it’s going to drive me absolutely insane!!!