** Below, there’s an opportunity to win your own copy of A Complicated Marriage ** [Edit: Now complete.]
The sound of high heels clicking. The spill of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker’s music. A paisley-draped foam couch. Smoking a Pall Mall. Drinking a gin and tonic. A handkerchief kitchen.
Janice Van Horne adeptly sketches the scene which begins the tale of her Life with Clement Greenberg. Readers are immediately and wholly engaged, all senses transported to the 1955, adopting the taut and tenuous gaze of a twenty-one-year-woman at a New York City party.
A Complicated Marriage is, however, told from ages and ages hence, looking back on the point at which the author perceives having taken a turn onto the road which shaped the rest of her life.
The first and fourth parts of the book are of roughly equal length — “Our First Year” and “Our Last Years — with the bulk of the narrative divided between “Artists & Wives & a Trip” and “Together/Separate”.
Some scenes are sketched very swiftly (like Stone Henge, Hyde Park Gate and Tokyo) but others have a more prominent place in the narrative. Particularly striking are the places in which she and Clem spend many evenings in New York City as a couple.
“Bon Soir was not a place where an entertainer stood elegantly in front of a mic, delivering some patter or a song, like at the Blue Angel, or #1 Fifth Avenue, or the uptown hotel nightspots. At Bon Soir the audience felt like insiders, performers ribbed each other and us, it was theater, it was family.”
Janice (Jenny) Van Horne’s style brings these places off the page for readers who have never inhabited them. Though other places are vividly sketched in this memoir (notably East Hampton and Provincetown), none resonates like New York City. “We never did just one thing. An evening was like a fan that slowly opened.”
At Bon Soir, they heard an eighteen-year-old Barbra Streisand. They went to the Algonquin (“the Mecca of the literati”), and spent many events at the jazz clubs (the Half Note, the Five Spot on Cooper Square, the Vanguard) where they heard Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. They spent many hours at the Cedar (with its wall-to-wall artists) and many evenings in the homes of friends.
Throughout, Janice (Jenny) feels that she is an outsider visiting in Clem’s world. He is an older, respected art critic, “the most famous, the most important, art critic in the world”, as her friend declares on the night they met. Jenny has no credentials and does not believe she even speaks the same language.
And yet there is something incredibly compelling about this world. On their first “real date”, Clem takes Jenny to René Bouché’s, where she sees, for the first time, an artist’s studio: a “cluttered, paint-filled, strange-smelling room”. They have dinner with him and Paul Weiner and his wife, Ingeborg ten Haeff.
“That night may have been my first date with Clem, but the night really belonged to Ingeborg. She was the first woman I’d ever seen who so profoundly defined herself, who so clearly presented to the world the self she knew herself to be.”
This is a vitally important passage in the work, for it offers readers a glimpse of the ultimate attraction between Clem and Jenny, the way in which she views herself as a woman in his company.
“Watching Ingeborg, I glimpsed that, as grown-up as I might ever come to be, I would never be so clear, so defined, so sure of who I was that I would dare to expose the fullness of my self to others.”
And, yet, in her relationship with Clem, Jenny comes closer to that; Ingeborg might appear to be the gate-keeper to Clem’s world, but Clem takes Jenny’s hand and pulls her in.
“I liked who I was on that evening,” she writes. And, so, her life with Clem begins.
And, yet, it is complicated from the start. Even the first evening they spend together challenges many of Jenny’s assumptions about relationships and Clem sets the bar for disclosure unexpectedly high. Jenny had not expected so many contradictions, but she seems to revel in them all the same.
She writes: “I now loved wallowing in all the reasons I shouldn’t marry, while inside me, safe and snug, were all the reasons I most certainly would.” Nonetheless, readers also learn of her first job in the city (at TV Guide) and of the gradual transition from young working woman to bona fide housewife, with a set of pots and a vacuum.
The contradictions proliferate, however: herein, lie the complications.
She feels most free now that she is attached (although she is taken aback by Clem’s declaration that theirs will be an open marriage).
She seems to lead an interesting an glamorous life, but is often overwhelmed with feelings of boredom and deadness.
She loves the intimacy that comes from constant contact with Clem when they travel, but she is worn down by the unrelenting togetherness.
She is torn between “envy for such a conjoined couple and revulsion for the crippling consequences of such bondage”.
Meanwhile, she is acquiring citizenship in Clem’s world. “I had come to take for granted that artists took up all the available space and filled up the air with their single-minded passion for their work.”
And although she hears artists variously described (e.g. as teddy bears), she finds many of them inaccessible and struggles to find the line between self-absorption and coldness. “The distinction mattered, because in those days I was concerned about whether I liked those people and, more important to me, whether they liked me.” Nonetheless, there are always artists in Clem’s life, in Jenny’s life with Clem.
Through this lens, readers are introduced to Hans and Miz Hofmann, Barnett and Annalee Newman, Jack and Mabel Bush, Clyfford and Pat Still, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, and David Smith (among others).
Undoubtedly these portraits and experiences would be of great interest to those with a pre-existing interest in the art world. (The work is diligently indexed, so students could readily consult with specific subjects in mind.) But Janice Van Horne’s tone is open and authentic, and her commentary is interesting even for readers familiar with this world only through the context of her relationship with Clem.
Although a regular visitor to Clem’s world, however, even after years have passed, Jenny does not seem to inhabit it comfortably and completely. “Had the years of schizoid shifting between Clem’s world and mine kept me from making a full-out commitment to work and to myself, kept me from taking risks?”
The Cedar is no longer the art scene; there is a whole Art World beyond. Theatre in New York City in the ’60s is no longer just about Broadway. Clem has had a network of encounters — both meaningful and not-so-much — with women other than Jenny, and Jenny has reached out to other relationships as well.
Heading into the 70s, Jenny is realizing that while her own experience is circling, Clem’s has been a straight line from ambition to achievement. (From a feminist perspective, this aspect of the memoir, and the years that follow — including many experiences in the world of theatre and publishing — is particularly fascinating.)
And this is the ultimate complication, as Jenny circles that question, approaching it from new directions.
“Clem’s path was a throughline unaffected by my choice. It fulfilled the promise of the career line in his palm that was so deep and long and unbroken, that line that so clearly proclaimed a life devoted to the steadfast pursuit of learning and the achievement of his goals. I had not been so blessed. I always felt unformed, had always searched for answers.”
A Complicated Marriage is not a novel, so perhaps it is disingenuous to back away from the highlights of the author’s life at the memoir’s midpoint, but Jenny’s discoveries are shared in such a forthright and genuine manner that it is peculiarly satisfying to have them unfold on the page.
Complicated stories: my favourite kind.
Thanks to TLC for sending me a copy of this work, and for providing another copy for giveaway via Counterpoint Press. Please leave a comment below, before midnight EST July 26th, 2013, for an opportunity to win.
Need more convincing? Check out these other TLC readers’ thoughts:
Turn the Page
Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Dreaming in Books
A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
A Bookish Way of Life
The Book Wheel
I’m Booking It
The Relentless Reader
River City Reading
Dwell in Possibility
Kelly’s [Former] France Blog