A hefty collection of profiles and essays centered around the question of what allows genius to flower in the face of often gargantuan difficulties.
The galvanizing force in an artist’s success is tenacity, concludes critic Acocella (Mark Morris, 1993, etc.), specifically “the ability to survive disappointment.” These 31 pieces—most originally appearing in the New Yorker, others from the New York Review of Books—reveal the author to be terrifically attracted to the underdog. She focuses her attention on under-appreciated women (dancer Lucia Joyce, Saint Mary Magdalene, author M.F.K. Fisher), Jews (Primo Levi, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig), misunderstood artists and misfits (Frank O'Hara, Joan of Arc). Often her subjects were gay or bisexual. Vaslav Nijinsky, whose recently unearthed diary Acocella edited, seesawed between men and women; he gave his last performance in 1917 at age 28 before descending into schizophrenia. Marguerite Yourcenar didn’t write anything for a decade, living on an island in Maine with her devoted female lover, before finally producing Memoirs of Hadrian. Acocella’s obsessively detailed essays on dancers and choreographers are the book’s most enthralling. Among her subjects: Frederick Ashton, who molded Margot Fonteyn into his personal ballerina; Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, who forged the modernist New York City Ballet; Balanchine’s muse Suzanne Farrell, who had to leave NYCB after she married someone else, but eventually found her way back; and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who survived his mother’s suicide by tumbling headlong into dance at age 12. Two entertaining essays are more general. “Blocked” examines writer’s block, and “The Neapolitan Finger” explores the Italians’ gift for talking with their hands. But the emphasis here is on iconic lives, and these beautifully researched (if rather formulaically organized) pieces provide riveting insights into the nature of creativity.
Tight, intriguing and astute: Acocella is a critic with staying power.