• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.
The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.
Summed up so baldly, The Great Man sounds like a feminist tract, but in fact it is a well-managed piece of plot-juggling in which Christensen detonates genuinely unexpected surprises at satisfyingly regular intervals, in between writing with impressive intelligence about the art world and its inhabitants (“Maxine’s paintings were intended to punish the viewer for failing to see what they were about”). She is, like Angus Wilson, the sort of novelist who is at pains to let you know that she has everybody’s number, but such knowingness is a venial sin in so smart a writer, especially when it is mixed, as it is here, with real sympathy.
Christensen has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the author of sharp-witted novels in which she frequently tries her hand at literary impersonation. In Jeremy Thrane (2001), for instance, she pulls off the tricky feat of writing in the voice of a gay man. In The Great Man, by contrast, most of the principal characters are women in their seventies and eighties, a difficult age for a youngish author to comprehend, and one that Christensen portrays with what looks to a middle-aged reader like complete understanding:
“Listen, Henry,” she said. “Oscar was my beloved mate. I never had any other or wanted one. But after forty-odd years, the word beloved takes on some fairly perverse complexities. You’re probably too young still to know. To be truly loved is to be . . . known, of course, which also implies despised and even hated.”
Less successful are the bookends of pastiche that frame The Great Man, a New York Times obituary of Oscar Feldman and a Times review of the two biographies of Feldman, whose writing sets the novel in motion. Christensen has no gift for parody, and neither piece sounds remotely believable. (Among other implausible things, the real-life Hilton Kramer would never have described any painter as “ballsy almost to the point of testicular obnoxiousness.”) A good editor would have encouraged Christensen to lop off these superfluous excrescences, and might also have nudged her to pare away some of the excesses in her rich prose style. Still, these are surface flaws in a novel good enough that I was forced by dint of sheer excitement to read it from cover to cover in two lengthy sittings. I don’t follow the work of very many younger novelists, but from now on I plan to keep up with Kate Christensen.