As some of you will recall, I’m judging a literary award this year, and as a result, I’ve had to spend much of my spare time reading books chosen for me by other people (which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy them). This weekend, though, I took a busman’s holiday and treated myself to a pair of books that I read solely and only because I wanted to read them.
The first, George Jacobs’ Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra (HarperCollins), the ghostwritten autobiography of Frank Sinatra’s valet, is a piece of lowbrow trash, though I will freely admit that I gulped it down in a single sitting, pausing only to perform necessary bodily functions, and not always even then. I read it partly for the dish value (which is considerable), but mostly because it sheds a strange half-light on Sinatra’s artistry. He was and is one of the unsolved mysteries of American culture, a man of limitless vulgarity who made art of the utmost sensitivity, and the more I learn about his life, the more puzzled I am by the fissure in his soul that made it possible for him to record albums like Only the Lonely, then go out and do the things Jacobs describes with seemingly unselfconscious relish in Mr. S.
Because Jacobs had no understanding of Sinatra the artist, his book supplies a shockingly lucid portrait of the dark side of a double man. Perhaps not surprisingly, it barely hints at the existence of the other Sinatra, the self-conscious introvert whose record collection consisted mostly of classical music and who sang the great American popular songs as tenderly as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang Schubert. I hope somebody will get around to writing a book about that Frank Sinatra, and I’ll read it with equal attention, but I’d never make the mistake of supposing that the sensitive Sinatra was the “real” Sinatra. Both Sinatras were real, which is why the man they comprised was so endlessly interesting–and, I suspect, ultimately unknowable.
The second book, John Updike’s Just Looking: Essays on Art, is a paperback reissue by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts of a 1986 collection of fugitive essays about the visual arts by a famous novelist for whose books I’ve never much cared. Still, it’s always interesting to see what a distinguished artist (and Updike is nothing if not distinguished) has to say about a medium not his own. I wish more such folk would write this kind of “amateur” criticism, which more often than not turns out to be surprisingly good. Philip Larkin, for example, was both a very great poet and an eccentric but hugely entertaining jazz critic.
While Updike isn’t that good, his occasional ventures into art criticism are both readable and not infrequently illuminating. By coincidence, he writes in Just Looking about a painting by Fairfield Porter that I just saw for the first time, Cliffs of Isle au Haut. If you’ve been keeping up with the blog lately, you’ll remember that I went to Maine last month in search of the actual cove portrayed in that painting. (Porter used it as the basis for a 1975 lithograph of which I own a copy.) Here’s what Updike had to say about it:
From the Abstract Expressionists Porter learned boldness, the boldness of broad monochrome expanses and of loaded brushstrokes. Often he defines a tree’s structure by slashing into its mass with daubs of the background color. Sunlight explodes with terrific violence at the windows of his hushed interiors. In Cliffs of Isle au Haut (a canvas that seems to borrow some of the color-by-number texture of Welliver’s landscapes), a spiky blob as opaquely black as anything in Kline or Motherwell overspreads the foreground without “reading” as the natural phenomenon it undoubtedly was. The two children’s heads peeping over the lichenous rocks restore us, however, to Porter’s domestic world.
Not too shabby for a novelist, I’d say.