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Picasso’s lost muse and other literary finds

Picasso’s lost muse

…and other literary discoveries, including a girl raised by books

…and other literary discoveries, including a girl raised by books

April/May 2017

Dora Maar was Picasso’s lover and muse for nearly nine years in the 1930s and early 1940s. They met when he had separated from his wife and already taken up with a sensual young mistress. Maar offered him intellectual and creative stimulation. In return he allowed her to photograph the creation of “Guernica”, his masterpiece about the Spanish civil war. 

But Picasso feared rivalry. After he ended the affair in 1943, Maar never regained her artistic confidence. She died half a century later, crushed by the lover who had painted her asleep and awake, her career as a photographer obliterated. 

Louise Baring places Maar in the midst of artistic Paris after 1918. She was a “vividly subversive figure” in her startling Schiaparelli hats, a “freethinker with libertarian, leftist tendencies”, and her work (above) was exhibited alongside that of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and René Magritte. A must-read for photography lovers and romantics of all stripes. ~ Fiammetta Rocco

You are what you read
For well over half her life, through college, back-packing, love, heartbreak, marriage, remarriage and three children, Pamela Paul has trailed behind her a single book. It is “reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal”. If her house were on fire it would be the one thing she would battle to save. My Life with Bob is the story of Paul’s “Book of Books” (“Bob”, for short). It is the journal in which she has recorded every book she has read since her teens.

The entries bring back memories: Paul as a bookworm-child, as an innocent abroad after a boyfriend broke her heart, as a mother with bookworm children of her own. “My Life with Bob” analyses why humans seek solace in the well-written sentence, and how we shape ourselves on what we find there.

Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of four volumes of non-fiction, is reflective, open and at times achingly funny. “My Life with Bob” is the book that she was put on this Earth to write. ~ FR

Living with Dostoyevsky
Elif Batuman is a six-foot Turk from New Jersey who became obsessed, growing up, with the great Russian novelists. She tweets under the handle @BananaKarenina and named her first book “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them” after Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1872 novel. 

The Idiot, Batuman’s eagerly awaited long-fiction debut, also takes its title from Dostoyevsky. But instead of the good-hearted prince on a train, Selin, the central character, is the daughter of a hard-working immigrant doctor. Starting out at Harvard at about the same time as Batuman went to college, Selin encounters roommates for the first time and picks from a smor-gasbord of life-informing courses – Constructured Worlds, Linguistics 101, Form in the Nonfiction Film and, inevitably, Russian. 

Selin stands on the cusp of adulthood, that moment when life unfolds in bursts of intensity or longueurs of unbearable slowness. Much time is spent, as it ever was, obsessing about love. But this is the mid-1990s and the internet has just arrived on campus, so the obsession game is played out waiting, endlessly waiting, for emails or stalking potential lovers through the night online. Batuman’s writing is mordant, funny, free of cliché and always pitch-perfect. ~ FR

It never did run smooth
A love story between an Israeli student and a Palestinian artist could never be just about their love, even when it takes place thousands of miles from the Middle East, in frozen New York. The bond between Liat and Hilmi is self-contained, seemingly unrelated to the conflicts in the background, but its borders have been pre-ordained by religion, politics and language. 

Poignant and elegantly written, All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan was meant to be an intimate portrait of two young people, each the other’s port in a storm. But it created its own political maelstrom when in 2016 the Israeli Education Ministry banned the original Hebrew edition from high schools, immediately boosting sales in Israel. The official reason – that the book encourages assimilation – was particularly ironic in light of Liat’s choice to move back to Israel, passing up a life with Hilmi. 

Readers of the new English translation will gain a unique personal insight into a conflict too often dehumanised in the media, and an understanding of the enduring impact of ancient Jewish phobias on the lives of young Israelis. ~ ANSHEL PFEFFER

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