Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Literary Lives," Edward Sorel: "avarice, duplicity, and selfishness can be amusing."

Some claim the comics page as their first exposure to literature ("once you can read the words in the balloons, the drawings are a zillion times funnier,"cartoonist Matt Groening says his brother explained to him before he could read). Edward Sorel's Literary Lives is a collection of cartoons lampooning the careers of ten writers -- in sharp, acerbic, sometimes wildly funny episodes -- and all of them are far from a Classics Comics telling of literary history.

Depending on your appreciation of Yeats, Jung, and Ayn Rand (to name three whose tales appear), Sorel's pen skewers or demolishes the reputations of some of the world's prominent literary figures.

It's not surprising that the skepticism and anti-authoritarianism evident in his political cartoons surfaces in Literary Lives. He's always had a mistrust of authority, Sorel said in an interview when the book was published, in 2006. Frankly, he admits, "there may be some deep psychological need I have in tearing down people who are better artists or writers than I am."

While he was creating the biographies, which originally appeared in The Nation and The Atlantic, the artist realized that "once artists or writers receive a lot of fame they seem to think of themselves as godlike, and they change a lot."

This realization created a change in Sorel's approach. Tolstoy was only "just odd and kind of crazy," Sorel explained, and his first piece, on the life of Honore Balzac, turned out to be quite sad; Balzac spent much of his life trying to win the approval of his mother, and was a very sympathetic character. Not surprisingly, the Balzac biography isn't included here. Sorel told an interviewer it "wasn't funny."

After these first two installments, the artist decided to bring out the darker and more unpleasant traits of his subjects which most biographies ignore. As he put it, "avarice, duplicity, and selfishness can be amusing. Vices are amusing, and these are all writers with vices."

"They weren't all bad ... but some of the others were nasty. (Lillian) Hellman was nasty and Bertholt Brecht was one of then 10 worst people in the whole world, I'd say. And so was Carl Jung. I was not too fond of Sartre. No, they were nasty pieces of work."

The aging Yeats is shown infatuated by Maud Gonne, who turns him down; then he turns his attentions to her daughter. Norman Mailer sneaks into the hospital and suggests to his recovering wife she doesn't tell the police the truth, that he stabbed her at a party: it might hurt his New York mayoral campaign.

Sorel can be gently satiric as well: he imagines Proust's hometown filled with billboards advertising madelaines and, in the Illiers-Combray town square, there's a Cafe du Temps Perdu.

There's more: During the Nazi occupation of France, where he is a successful playwright, Jean-Paul Sartre (in tuxedo) gets his cigarette lit by a German soldier. Next to Sorel's child-like script declaring
A Cult Is Born, Ayn Rand holds a biblical tablet emblazened with the wordsPush Grab Take Keep to frenzied admirers. And, as can be expected by Sorel's distrust of idealogues, Yeats comes under fire for his admiration of Mussolini.

This sort of satire lends itself to the single-panel layout of each page, as the hunan follies (and character flaws) of each artist gets the full-color Sorel treatment. Jung imagines himself as the Aryan Christ holding the golden-haired Brunhilde; another panel shows Jung, in 1933, suggesting to a group of psychologists that "the Jews be forced to dress differently so they are not mistaken 'for people like ourselves'."

I'll be the first to admit I can't read Ernest Hemingway -- not skewered here, but with hope there'll be more Sorel to come -- without thinking of Kurt Vonnegut's assessment of Hemingway's war novels: "He was never a soldier, and never shot a human being except, finally, himself." Exactly.
Whatever a reader thinks of a writer for good or bad, casting a critical eye on the foibles of heroes is great fun in Literary Lives. It's also a hell of a lot more entertaining than the entire library of Classics Illustrated comics.

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