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BOOK REVIEW: What the writer did not learn

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2011

ART AND MADNESS: A MEMOIR OF LUST WITHOUT REASON
By Anne Roiphe
Doubleday, $24.95, 220 pages

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who lived in a series of privileged cocoons: the Upper East Side of Manhattan, private school, elite women's colleges. Yet she was never at home there, partly because she was acutely aware of the fragility of fortune that had placed her so fortuitously when, across an ocean, other Jewish girls of her age met a fate almost too horrible to comprehend.

But mostly it was because she saw the rottenness of her golden apple from the inside: the mother who smoked and drank too much, the successful father she heard bribing a judge and then rationalizing it to her. And Roy Cohn was her real-life cousin. So no wonder this young girl, who eventually would metamorphose into the writer we know as Anne Roiphe, was disillusioned.

So disillusioned, in fact, that she couldn't wait to jump ship, to embrace anything antinomian or just plain opposite, to be like Milton's Satan in "Paradise Lost" - "evil be thou my good" - as she now realizes with half a century and more worth of enlightened hindsight. After detailing an endless list of prohibitions she grew up with, Ms. Roiphe is quite frank about where they impelled her:

"It is true what they said about the fifties. You really were supposed to behave. And all of this was to keep life at bay, life like the big waves at the shore, to be rushed into, to be ridden up and down, life that tasted of salt and could pull you out over your head, that kind of life was to be avoided at all costs and that was just the life I was seeking."

But, of course, that life tasted of much stronger and more dangerous substances than salt, and now she knows she was very lucky not to have gotten in so deep, so irredeemably, as to be lost irretrievably. Ms. Roiphe makes this point repeatedly throughout her text, as if she cannot drum it into her readers' heads hard enough. Or is it perhaps that she still feels the need to tell that young girl she once was - or even her present self?

In case anyone still doesn't get the point, the book has a trenchant introduction from her writer-daughter Katie Roiphe - whose 2007 "Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1930" demonstrated her own sophisticated understanding of unorthodox couplings - which makes explicit anything her mother might have missed.

Anne Roiphe's particular pathway to hell came in the form of a playwright who believed himself a genius. As it turned out, the drama world didn't share his high estimation of himself, but she did. Reader, she married him, and you might say that "Art and Madness" is a chronicle of what happened to her jumping on the roller-coaster ride that ensued. There are plenty of other villains along the way, and Ms. Roiphe does not spare herself or her ultimate culpability for what she did. But there was a whole world like this in New York in the 1950s and '60s, and she encountered many characters who did achieve fame and, if you can call it that, artistic accomplishment there and even in the wider world.

What strikes me as particularly remarkable in Ms. Roiphe's account of her Orpheus-like descent into this countercultural nightmare is how steeped she was in literature and yet how she didn't draw any of the right lessons it contained that could have led her out. T.S. Eliot was on her shoulder, but where was her Objective Correlative to guide her out of her maze, to give her the means to cut the net in which she was ensnared? How long it took for her to make that oh-so-necessary willing suspension of belief. And, she, who grew up in Holden Caulfield's actual world, how could she not have realized much earlier on that many of these people, whose own estimation she took at face value, were nothing but gilt-edged phonies?

So, what's wrong with this picture, then? Why do I turn away from "Art and Madness" just a little unsatisfied, with some doubt nagging at me? Perhaps it's because, despite the lessons learned through bitter experience and the hard-won wisdom so repeatedly and unexceptionably expressed, there is too much wallowing in that miserable, self-reverential world. Eventually, you feel that if you encounter the name George Plimpton one more time, you'll gag. (To her credit, Ms. Roiphe does quite a number on him by the end.)

Reading this book is a little like reading the mea culpa of a reformed sinner who dwells a little too lasciviously for comfort on those long-ago transgressions or the homily of a recovering alcoholic who lingers a little too thirstily and expressively on those drinks, each of which was a veritable Lorelei luring him to doom. Ms. Roiphe knows better, but the fact that the siren song still plays a little too seductively makes me uneasy.

Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.

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