Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Book of Secrets

In her front-page review of A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd in The New York Times Book Review (8/7/11), Toni Bentley quotes these lines of poetry from Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West: “My heart was more disgraceful, more alone/ and more courageous than the world has known./ O passer-by my heart was like your own.” The almost unbearable romanticism and beauty of the lines is tempered by the rhyme. But there is also something blatantly untrue about them, at least on the basis of Bentley’s exegesis of Holroyd’s work. Bentley’s review is a bit of meta-biography in and of itself, as it humorously remarks on a level of promiscuity that requires the diagramming of genealogy. “Got it?” she asks at one point. “If not, reread, and make a chart. I did.” It’s not true that Violet Trefusis’s heart was like your own, dear reader, as she was an obsessional character whose heart was powered by devices and drives, including some degree of self-dramatization, that set it above the quiet desperation of the mass of men. “Today Violet would be on a Lexapro cocktail with an Abilify chaser, Ritalin with some Ativan on the side for particularly fiery outbursts, while attending daily meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous after a few weeks of inpatient therapy with Dr. Drew at Almost-a-Celebrity Rehab,” Bentley opines. This last is reminiscent of an old Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon that speculates on how pharmaceutical psychiatry would have affected the creation of works like Waiting for Godot. Still, the poetry and the passions described are sensational in all senses of the word.

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