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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A Woman, In Bed by Anne Finger

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Simone had a knack for falling in love: if she had been an actress, she would have been said to be a quick study. (Fortunately she also had a knack for falling out of love.)

A Woman, In Bed is not quite what I expected. It’s about a woman giving in to her lusty nature during World War I and II. At the start she is filled with romantic notions, but I liked her far better when she was old and no longer had the sand of youthful sleep in her eyes. “What was in store for Simone? She had as little sense as that wambling goose, only a premonition that nature was up to no good.” One wonders how different her life would have been had she repressed her desires and stuck through her first marriage to Luc. Probably just as much mental torment in the repression as in embracing her selfish wants. We find her at the start of the novel, infant son Marcel in tow, at her Mother’s boarding house. Her husband remains in Istanbul, where the threat of fevers and illness made it vital for her to leave during her pregnancy. Her son has not yet met their newborn child. She spends her days bored by caring for her child, and longing for letters from her husband, who though she doesn’t love, certainly likes the admiration and passion, love he feels for her. A vanity of sorts. As a mother, she is disinterested, even if she tenderly cares for her son when he returns from war many years later. Likely the only emotionally charged moment that her son holds dear, after-all, she kept him alive. But that is later, first there is her lover and Marcel is still an infant. She meets Jacques Melville when he stays at her mother’s boarding house, and does all things improper. To say she is wanton is an understatement, in fact her husband notes that his wife won’t be the faithful sort early in the story. So begins their love affair, but then he leaves, letters pass between the two until  husband Luc’s thick letter with steamship tickets arrive and she is to return to Istanbul. It isn’t long before she is pregnant again and all to happy to abandon her husband for her ‘parturition’, happy to know she will once again be close to her lover, Jacques, even while fat with pregnancy. She finds a letter waiting for her from her lover, and immediately writes him. After she gives birth to Odette, she decides early on to wean her daughter within weeks, saving her body for her beloved alone.

Before long he has booked a visit and seduces her with a book of poetry, together again she cannot hide her desire and love, visiting a poet with her lover she has, with her very own hands, ‘cast herself outside the bounds of decency.’ She experiences all manner of debauchery by his side, even morphine. If she longs for love, to crawl inside of Jacques and know him to the very core of his being, she will spend decades trying to understand this closed off man. It is years before he finally discards his wife and children to marry Simone. The reader learns the ghosts of his own past, the time he spent in Madagascar, how his first wife Sala seduced him, how they came to be married. He is of a nature that will not be tamed, that resents the responsibilities and demands of marriage, of the silly notions of love. He blanches at Simone’s blatant adoration, while also welcoming all the indiscretions.

She learns that flirtations feed his fire, that her attempts at flaunting other man before him only make him hungrier for her, and so she takes many lovers, nothing to it. Other women aren’t a threat, for now. They marry, she finally has what she wished for, and as they say ‘be careful what you wish for.’ War is a rupture all throughout the novel, threatening her very son’s life. It isn’t just about her sexual revolution, she is complicit in an incident during the French Revolution. Something horrific and too real, that Jacques really doesn’t want to hear. There are many ‘animal acts’ that we civilized human beings partake of in times of war. Her hunger isn’t just sexual either, times are lean and because of war there is genuine hunger no amount of soup can fill. In time it will be her turn to be discarded now and again by her beloved Jacques for another, disgusted by her frailty, her disease. Naturally he finds some new confection of a woman, even if he does love Simone in his own strange way, he cannot remain faithful, it’s not in his nature. Some might think, ‘it’s her just deserts, for having come between he and Sala’ some will think ‘well, that’s what happens when you chose a selfish, fickle man’. What love is safe, be a woman pure or not? When she suffers a mysterious illness of her own, her passions aren’t diluted, oh no! She takes yet another lover, the stuttering, genius Pierre Laurent. There is a tenderness there, as she attempts to teach him the ways of love. Her body betrays her through life, as much as it pleases. A body that birthed children, nursed them, that welcomed many lovers and gave her much pleasure and now, a body that has a will of its own, behaving in direct defiance of its mistress. It steals her tongue, paralyses her very hands, and lucky for her she has Marie- Claire to care for her. What happens when your language is gone, and with it no way to speak your thoughts, all you have is your lonely mind?

This book isn’t for every reader, it took me a while to get into it but there is a rich story within. No, she isn’t the most admirable woman and certainly as mothering goes, cats are better mothers (couldn’t resist a Gone With the Wind quote). Simone’s life is consumed by men, make no mistake, but the real stranger (to my way of thinking) is her own heart, and her very physical body. I had to laugh a little, because even while Jacques children always kept an affinity to their mother’s side (long after she had died) they almost seem to feel Simone, the seductress, got what was coming to her but in truth their father is just as culpable, more so than Simone. If she was due a dish of punishment, wasn’t their father due a heaping serving of his own? We all suffer in love whether we earn it or not, and what of Jacques and his abhorrent treatment of the women he ‘loves?’ Somehow a woman is always to blame. There is also something very telling in his dismissive attitude when he learns of Simone and Laurent, as if her illness conjured a silly story of passion. As if once she has a ‘disability’ she is no longer capable of inspiring passions in herself, or another, since he isn’t moved to passion but revulsion towards her. As if her mind has gone to the birds, cannot connect with reality, he really does dismiss her as a feeling, living breathing human being.

I didn’t focus so much on the sexuality, though it’s an enormous character itself. I think there is a lot more happening beneath Simone’s unquenchable hunger. I flinched at the moments she thought only of herself while leaving her children behind to be with her lover, ‘Mama! Mama!’ little hands grasping air. That’s not my own nature, I was always the opposite, had to be pried from my children, I know that sounds smug, but the truth is not all mothers have that maternal warmth. Yet, the men are always absent, and why is that ‘forgivable’? Oh yes, the times… the times… It’s funny, she spends so much of her time waiting on men to notice her, to return to her and there she remains always waiting. Some have other diversions, such as new lovers, and yet another the mistress of death. She is certainly self-indulgent which may keep readers from really forming an emotional tie to her. She is needy, from the start we know she didn’t love her first husband but the attention he gave her. She never fills herself, she can’t, the maw of her soul leads to a bottomless pit that cries for more. No one will ever be enough, and she certainly doesn’t give the love her children need. I honestly don’t think she has anything to give, too busy looking for outside fulfillment. Waiting for someone else to give her meaning, satisfaction, a life.

A story that can sometimes be too wild for some readers,may be just the thing for others. The novel speaks of the impossibility of self-fulfillment, at least through lovers. Simone’s body asks so much of her in many ways she is, for a long time, a prisoner to its demands, as so many of us are.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Cinco Puntos Press