The Blazing World and Other Writings (Penguin Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Merve Emre

I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.

January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.

March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.

In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.

At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.

May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.

June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.

July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.

August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and FoundUp and DownHow to Catch a StarStuckThe Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea. 

September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.

October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)

November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.

In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.

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Fiction Must Be Fed: On Margaret Cavendish, Frida Kahlo, and Marie Curie

Lydia Davis’s story “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman” gives a condensed history of the esteemed scientist’s life. I’ve read it so many times that in my mind Davis’s Marie Curie has replaced the historical Marie who lived and developed theories of radioactivity. Historical Marie is a series of accomplishments listed in a Wikipedia entry, with a brief interlude about her personal life. Davis’s Marie is strong-willed and stubborn, a brilliant woman who lost her partner in work and life early and unexpectedly. She also won the Nobel Prize, twice.
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Davis translated a biography of Marie Curie from French, Marie Curie: A Life by Françoise Giroud, published in 1986. Her story is an extraction from this, quite literally a winnowing of the biography. The story was first published in McSweeney’s and was accompanied by an exchange between editors and author, where the author acknowledged this. The text, factual as it may be, when compressed becomes a story.
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It’s an erasure story: the elisions far outweigh the text that remains. What other stories could have been made?
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What does it mean to write a story with a historic writer, artist, figure at its center? There must be an attraction, some kind of affinity, recognition; something within their words, their work, their life, must beckon. I also think it must be a bit like acting: with the character and arc already determined, the author must find a way to inhabit the role.
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Sean Penn transformed into Harvey Milk in the biopic; his gestures became Milk’s gestures, his gruffness replaced by Milk’s sensitive, effeminate, conscientious presence. When I think of Milk now, I think of Penn’s body, its contours, flowers around his neck, arm in the air. Milk’s identity is suspended between the historical figure and the image that moved across the screen.
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Director Frances Bodomo’s film Afronauts presents a vivid reimagining of the failed Zambian space program. Bodomo spoke after a recent screening at the Graham Foundation about how images from archival footage must exist for these moments to live on in cultural memory. Like with Apollo 16 — man on the moon, space suit, barren landscape, American flag implanted — we’ve all seen it.
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Imagination must be fed, or perhaps when it’s fed it perpetuates a fantasy that becomes conflated with history.
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When memories are retrieved, they’re brought into the present as if they’re happening again. In these moments, memory can shift before it’s archived. This new information embeds and co-opts memories over time.
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In fiction, words are like gesture, observations are filtered through a singular perspective, a character’s inner life accompanies action, so that the reader observes through another’s consciousness. To write a character fully, to inhabit it, the writer must insert herself.
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Carole Maso writes in her author’s note to Beauty is Convulsive, her prose poem devotional to Frida Kahlo, that “As my own words and concerns intertwined with hers, the book also became a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialog with her across time and space — and with myself. The desire was for distance and earth to diminish between us.” Danielle Dutton says of her experience writing Margaret the First, a novel about 17th-century authoress Margaret Cavendish: “I had to let myself into Margaret, and Margaret into me.”
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Kahlo’s star still shines in cultural memory, evinced by Julie Taymor’s recent biopic Frida, and the ubiquity of Kahlo’s self-portraits, making her determined brows, her emboldened beauty iconic. Kahlo is remembered as a central figure of 20th-century art — yes, because of her (ex-)husband Diego Rivera, but also and mostly because of her energy, her intensity, her paintings. She is female artist hero. She has entered the realm of myth.
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To say Cavendish has receded from cultural memory assumes she had a foothold to begin with. We don’t read many 17th-century writers these days, and among them there were pitiably few women. Virginia Woolf brought Cavendish into the 20th-century imagination in A Room of One’s Own, (however disparagingly) and also in her essay, “The Duchess of Newcastle.” It seems the only other place one is likely to encounter Cavendish is the university, and perhaps not even there.
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Margaret Cavendish was a 17th-century authoress, the Duchess of Newcastle, wife of William, who kept company with the likes of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. She was a fiction writer, philosophizer, with a vast imagination and no formal education beyond what she gleaned from her brother’s tutors.
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Cavendish is also the subject of Danielle Dutton’s second novel, her third book, Margaret the First.
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Margaret the First reads like an attentive diary, giving glimpses into Margaret’s imaginative mind, though in the last third of the book the perspective switches to third person. This is also the period where she returns to England after a long exile, when she reaches maturity as a writer, and later descends into madness — maybe. The shift allows for more ambiguity and distance.
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Each sentence in Margaret the First is like a piece of sea glass, exquisite and unyielding. The sentences stand out for their crafting, not overly ornate or precious, but determined, assured. The language conjures Gary Lutz’s lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” — it occurs to me that these are the kind of sentences he speaks of, each sentence a feat, “a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummate language — the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.”
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The novel shows a restraint and confidence that perhaps Cavendish’s writing lacks. Virginia Woolf criticized Cavendish for her childish mind, “The impetuosity of her thought always outdid the pace of her fingers,” and “the wildest fancies come to her and she canters away on their backs.” Woolf accused Cavendish of lacking logic, of consorting with fairies. These deficiencies can be construed as qualities of imagination in Margaret the First, where a young Margaret watches lightning from a window as “a ghostly army of silhouetted trees fought against the sky.” Or when she observes her own states of mind: “There were little green-patterned moths dashing around the attic, bumping at the glass. I thought I felt like that. I dreamed the moths crept up inside the surface of my mind.”
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While reading Margaret the First, I get the sense of looking at paintings, of stillness animated while turning pages. The immersion becomes almost meditative, like sitting before a Mark Rothko painting and melting into its colors.
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In an interview, Dutton speaks of the kind of writer she has become — once fast, now slow, interested in “attention as a radical act.”
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Maso writes of devotion in her author’s note to Beauty Is Convulsive: “I see Beauty as a book of devotions. At its heart is Frida’s devotion to the image, to the vision, to the broken self, and to dream despite everything to be free.” Kahlo’s guiding theme in her work was to extract and depict “my sensations, my states of mind, and the deep reactions life has been causing inside me.” For Kahlo, painting is a lyrical distillation, to live is to experience deeply.
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In Margaret the First, in Beauty is Convulsive, Dutton and Maso write the lives of Margaret and Frida, and in doing so wrestle with what it meant to be a female artist, how Cavendish and Kahlo grew into their writing and art, and nurtured their imagination despite the cultural forces opposing this, despite (and because of) their extraordinary circumstances, despite the expectation of producing children rather than manuscripts or paintings.
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Fertility treatments didn’t work for Margaret, perhaps with relief. Later in life she “fears instead bareness of the mind.” Despite wanting children, Kahlo’s accident, her fractured hip and spine made her unable to carry a child to term.
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And yet with the accident she began painting.
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I write as if it were a triumph for her, a consolation. It was also a deep sorrow.
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It’s an erasure story: the elisions that overshadow the text. What other stories could have been made?
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I wonder about the child (missing from the) equation, how children would have influenced, inhibited, supplanted Kahlo’s and Cavendish’s creative work. I often wonder about children and women artists in general, how with a child the balance shifts, but in which direction? the way children heighten a sense of wonder and freshness and meaning, the way children drain resources and time. I wonder about this equation in my own life.
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It’s not an either/or equation, I realize. And we are living in different times.
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Cavendish’s books were received warmly, though with more criticism than warmth. She measures herself against men, the illustrious thinkers who would visit her husband, the ones whose names 400 years later still pepper our intellectual conversation — Hobbes, Descartes, Robert Boyle. Margaret is aware of the strikes against her, her sex, her lack of formal education, the way she must thrust herself, by writing, into the conversation.
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Perhaps she did not realize the ways she benefited from proximity, from wealth and class, the ways she acquired a great deal of knowledge from intuition and access to her brother’s tutors, from listening in on discussions between brilliant minds, from reading pamphlets, from her active mind. This was so much. But it wasn’t enough. What was a woman to do with ambition? Bury it, it seems; she wouldn’t. Among men she was aware of her unequal footing. This, it seems, must be one reason why writing was so freeing.
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In a world inhospitable to a woman’s imagination, Cavendish, in a sense, births herself.
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She writes books, of course, they become an archipelago for her mind. She quite literally devises a world of her own in The Blazing World, a fantastical philosophical novel, a science fiction adventure in the discoverer mode. The book begins with a lady captured by a merchant and stolen away by boat, but along their journey the merchant and crew freeze and die. The lady is only one left to encounter this new world, peopled with bear-men and bird-men and worm-men, among other strange beasts.
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In her introduction to The Blazing World, Cavendish anoints herself “Margaret the First,” the phrase taken as the title for Dutton’s book. In her imagined world, woman reigns. Perhaps the then not-so-distant Elizabethan era had helped Cavendish envision this:
That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet I will endeavor to be Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet rather than be mistress of the world, since Fame and Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.
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Dutton’s depiction of Cavendish gives her life, so much so that I find myself considering scenes from Margaret the First as if it were a primary source. This is testament to Dutton’s description, the generosity of spirit invested in Margaret. Dutton’s account weaves the tendrils of history with her own vivid imaginings.
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For example: when Margaret sheds her first menstrual blood, she is expected to act the role of a woman, which means she must do some dreadful things like wear chicken-skin gloves at night and “not spend [her] time writing little books.” The same day Margaret’s brother arrives home with a hawk, and she feels at a loss for her sex:” It is nobler to be a boy, I thought — and looked back with nostalgia, as if I had just been.”
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Does it matter how this scene unfolded? The detail is fictive, partially, perhaps entirely, but now supplants historical memory — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it appends or even amends the narrative.
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And yet, what strikes me in this scene is that Margaret had to write her own escape, she had to give birth to an imaginative place where she could be free to think. In the novel, Margaret wishes she could extend her singular existence beyond corporeal limitations: “She wanted to be thirty people…To live as nature does in many ages, in many brains.”
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Is it ironic or is it consoling that through Dutton’s depiction, Cavendish achieves this again?
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This also Dutton’s feat — these images, these imaginings and observations within Cavendish’s mind sprung from hers. I envision their worlds existing as a series of concentric circles, with Dutton’s Margaret the First the outer circle, Margaret Cavendish existing within, and Cavendish’s The Blazing World falling within the two. And yet, that’s a fiction too. Margaret Cavendish lives on through her own words, the text of The Blazing World is widely available online, easy to find and read, and Dutton’s Margaret the First may send curious readers back to the source. Perhaps it’s more accurate to envision Cavendish’s and Dutton’s writing existing within their own circles, corresponding as in a Venn diagram: their boundaries overlap and therein lies Margaret the First.
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Then again, this may have nothing at all to do with drawing circles.
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Words intermingle, conversations merge, the authorial voice gives life to characters in the reader’s imagination. “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” Cavendish/Dutton writes. Frida/Maso’s ecstatic cadences now belong to both, “ I have a cat’s luck since I do not die so easily, and that’s always something.” Fiction becomes artifact, author and subject merge.
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With Davis’s Curie, it’s curious to observe how her style deviates so dramatically from the lushly imagined Cavendish or the impassioned urgency of Kahlo. Curie, too, is terribly ambitious, but she’s steadfast and stubborn, a minimalist. A scientist. And suitably, her demeanor, like the linguistic play in Davis’s stories is cerebral if somewhat removed.
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To inspire means literally “to breathe in or into.” The subject must take hold of the author, quite literally breathe life into in order to run away with, to merge; the essence must embed. To breathe in and to breathe out, to inspire through writing and then to be rewritten, is one way to live as Cavendish wished, “as nature does in many ages, in many brains.”
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An author must continue to be read, and if not read, then considered in order to stay alive; if her work lies dormant, there’s the possibility of being rediscovered and, through this, revived. It’s a reciprocal relationship, not so different from Isaac Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
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Margaret and Frida, through their thoughts and words in Margaret the First and Beauty Is Convulsive become real (again) through this intimacy with their reimagined lives. And yet the thoughts and words contained within these books belong as much to Dutton and Maso as they do to Cavendish and Kahlo. Who births whom, who inspires, who through inspiration breathes life? What does it mean to be a female artist, or really an artist of any kind? Like Athena emerging from Zeus’s head fully formed, Cavendish and Kahlo emerge from these books as mentor-mothers, born again in imagination and time.

Image Credit: LPW.

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