The Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer

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Or Lee could tell the real story: the one where she loved a man and he loved her, but in the end they took everything from each other- who can say who was more destroyed.

Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in Paris, France and was a part of the Dada and Surrealist movement but this is about his love affair with Lee Miller. Lee Miller was an American who began as a fashion model in the 1920’s, her passion was photography leading her to become a serious photojournalist in her own right for Vogue during World War II. Certainly photographing horrific carnage, Nazi horrors is a far cry from her days of posing nude, her wild nights of partying and lovemaking while she was working in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant and lover. Being a man’s muse wasn’t ever going to be enough for Lee, whose beauty betrayed a talent that could rival the men she worked for.  Man was seventeen years Lee Miller’s senior, photographed her obsessively, hungered to understand her beyond her flawless, ‘ideal’ beauty. Her beauty was overwhelming, blinding, a thing most people cannot look past. One must imagine she was a fascinating woman, Man Ray photographed some of the most famous people of our time and yet couldn’t get enough of Lee. Their love blazed for years, and in that time both betrayed each other in love, and in career (Man failing to credit her in famous work).

Their love seems to move in phases, sometimes he seems like her father, sometimes like her child, at other times an erotic lover hungry for all sorts of playful exploration involving pushing the edge of each other’s boundaries.  Speaking of fathers, ruminating about the relationship between Lee Miller and her own father Theodore, one can understand where the rumors of possible sexual abuse by him was born. It’s no secret she was sexually abused (raped) when she was only 7 years old while in the care of a family friend, contracting gonorrhea, a downright horrific disease for a child to suffer but that nude photos followed that event, that her own father snapped of her “as art”, can’t help but leave one feeling disturbed. Their relationship was strange, he seemed at times more a lover than a father, which comes into play in the novel when Man finally meets him. Her beauty and body didn’t belong to her in the early years, it’s hard to understand how free and open she was about nudity and sexuality after such a traumatic violation. Maybe being raised as her father’s model made her body become an instrument for her? We are the sum total of our experiences, whether we like it or not, we can let the horrible trauma we suffer be our ruin or we can decide to own our destiny. She had some serious grit! This wasn’t a woman who was going to cower in the presence of any Master.

Man Ray’s own sexuality was a curious thing for the times, rumors swirled about him, naturally he used his love of Miller as a shield. Certainly that didn’t endear him to her, nor the ways he tried to control and manage her. She was a young woman, not quite resigned to a life of staying in and playing at the ‘happy couple’ he wanted to be, she hungered for experiences that would fuel her artist’s mind. There is a line in the novel, “Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be”, and Man was guilty of molding her into some ideal too. There was always a distance within her, she loves him and questions that love, sometimes you can feel a hesitation in giving all of herself to him. She has made this happen, she was the master of her own ship, famously telling him she was to be his student, mind you he wasn’t taking any students.She wasn’t a woman who waited for things to happen, she pursued her desires whether it was for flesh or photographs. Such ambition and commitment is difficult for any of us, but for a woman in the 1930’s, wildly admirable. She needed open love, needed to fall into bed with whom she pleased, separating love from sex when it came to different people. Not such an anomaly really, plenty of people are into open love, and her youth and beauty certainly provided her a smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation, is just doesn’t bode well in a relationship with a man who wants promises.  Man was possessive and jealous, he began to need her and desperation is never attractive to the young. She has her warning early in the relationship upon meeting another of his muses, a former lover Kiki (sultry performer and dancer) who causes a jealous scene. Man tells her his former relationship was simmering in jealousies.

As with any love, the cracks begin to appear. Lee’s fresh ideas are in contrast to Man’s own lack thereof, then comes their perfecting a technique called solarization, based on her discovery, but it is the bell jar photo series that is at the heart of their relationship’s decline. Masters can’t let their students eclipse them completely, right? It’s his studio, his name… Throughout the novel he wants to possess and consume her, crack her skull open, know all her secrets and dissect her because he never seems to reach the center. Man becomes a vulnerable mess, a beggar, desperate that she never leaves him. He loves her, they have fierce passion for each other, but sometimes love that starts as a fire can fizzle out, and all that’s left is ash, smoke.

The story flows between the past and the future where Lee Miller is working as a photojournalist for Vogue, where some of her most famous, shocking  work was produced, during the Second World War. The woman she became seems nothing like the beautiful muse of the past, but she was always there inside, waiting to break free. Then she reinvented herself into a wife, Lady Penrose. The attic becomes the keeper of her past. What a hell of a story! I am going to read her son’s (Antony Penrose) memoir about his ‘unconventional’ mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

This book has quite a bit of sexuality, of course it does, this is Paris in the 1930’s following a Bohemian set. It’s all sex, art, and libération! Much of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship was about their sexual need for each other as much as their creative life together, it is said Man couldn’t get enough of her. This really is a brilliant book!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

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