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September 30, 2014 / GO Brooklyn / DUMBO / Books / February Houses

Review: ‘Isel’ by Mina Loy

Novel paints complex picture of artists in 1930s Paris

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Paris is yearning.

British poet Mina Loy’s posthumously published novel “Insel” — recently republished in a new, expanded edition from Dumbo’s Melville House — takes place in Paris between the world wars, and uses this often-idealized artistic setting to chart some pitfalls of artistic idealism.

The book’s title character appears at first to be a perfect, romantic figure of the unconventional artist — economically marginal, otherworldly, charismatic, and creating great works under a sort of mystical compulsion. Insel is a surrealist painter who is perpetually on the brink of starvation. The narrator, herself a frustrated artist, is fascinated by him.

Regardless of whether the reader finds Insel so charming, the portrait is painted lovingly. He has sacrificed or abandoned everything, including his health, for his creative work. Bathed in the light of the narrator’s imaginative obsession, Insel seems sometimes a holy hermit, sometimes a sweet but hapless struggling artist, and sometimes a drug-addicted scammer. The narrator works at an art gallery, supporting herself comfortably by selling the art of others, and soon enough she’s supporting Insel as well. She knows the role she is playing — “This man is fearfully banal,” she admits, speaking sarcastically of “that enjailed jewel, his artistic spirit.”

Loy, who died in 1966, has a style that is poetic and idiosyncratic. The book is written in English, but feels at times like a slightly awkward translation from something else. Even commonplace things that Insel does inspire in the narrator extraordinary, visionary flights of fancy, sustained surrealist fugues that showcase Loy’s lyrical chops.

The characters’ artistic love affair is delectably suffused in La Vie Boheme. It unfolds along the banks of the Seine, at smoky basement dives, in drafty garret painting studios, and most of all outside Montmartre’s artist-infested all-night cafes. “Man Ray came up and sat with us and went away,” writes Loy, who is said to have based the novel on her own relationship with German surrealist painter Richard Oelze, who she met in Paris.

But the relationship of patroness and patronized is not placid. There is an aggressive edge to the narrator’s treatment of Insel. He is an object of interest to her — maybe more than human, maybe less, but not an equal. He begins to accuse her of stifling him. Their mutual resentment coalesces into veiled and then unveiled sadism. At one point, the narrator vividly imagines herself transformed into a huge red beefsteak, presumably for her pet painter to devour. Who is using whom, and to what ends?

The reader is also taught an ugly but valuable lesson — just because someone is artistic, it doesn’t mean they have good politics. Our narrator is racist, which surfaces distractingly on a couple of occasions.

When the narrator’s frustrations with Insel begin to overwhelm her idealization of him — and when his petulance gives way to passive-aggressive nastiness — the book becomes more compelling, and more interest attaches to the question of whose tears it will all end in. Until then, Loy’s fresh, unusual turns of phrase and eruptions into virtuosic fantasy keep this painterly piece of Parisian steak sizzling.

“February Houses,” named after the 20th-century Brooklyn arts commune, spotlights recent or noteworthy literature from Brooklyn publishers. To send books for review, contact xjulesbentleyx@gmail.com.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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