Book Shorts

Hugh Kenner

Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings

University of California Press

          RIDDLE ME THIS: How is a cartoon like a cathedral? (Forget about the latest feature-length Disney atrocity; we're talking those old six-minute reels.) The answer is that both art forms can be produced only under certain conditions; when those conditions no longer obtain, the art goes out of business. There are reasons (which I will not go into here) why every vacant lot is the future site of a Wal-Mart, while the construction of new cathedrals remains in a four-century slump. As for the six-minute cartoon--the kind made to be shown in a movie theater, before the feature--its death knell was a 1948 antitrust ruling that forced movie studios to divest the theater chains they owned, and its executioner was that blue-eyed cyclops: the teevee set.

          But oh, the monuments left behind. On the one hand, you've got Chartres, created by anonymous artisans; on the other, Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? and One Froggy Evening, produced under the supervision of a guy with a stupefyingly ordinary name. As Hugh Kenner writes in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, "Should you ever face the solemn task of preserving just one six-minute instance from the unthinkable thousands of hours of animated footage that's accumulated... since 1914, you'd not go wrong in selecting 'a Jones.'"

          Kenner is a heavyweight scholar, the most distinguished of all the literary critics who overrate the poetry of Ezra Pound. In his admiration for Chuck Jones, however, Kenner is right on target; and thankfully, this brief book moves gracefully, with a minimum of citations and pontifications. For Kenner, the essence of Jones's art is to show "Character by Way-of-Moving, not by mere Appearance." With the help of illustrations provided by Jones, the critic explains how this was done at Warner Bros. in the '40s and '50s. And he gives a brief tour of the history of animation, which explains why it isn't being done any more--too labor-intensive. (Although the 84-year-old Jones does have a new Daffy Duck short in selected theaters this fall...) Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings may be about an art form whose best days are long past, but it's a vigorous, enjoyable read. It'll blast your beak around the side of your head. (Steve Schroer)

Michele Zackheim

Violette's Embrace

Riverhead Books

          SOMETIMES YOU'VE GOT to wonder who edits books anymore. For example, who told Michele Zackheim, an artist for 36 years, that for her first book she should tackle the wildly complex and tormented life of Parisian writer Violette Leduc? And not only that, but should contort it into a semi-autobiographical account of her own development as a writer? If you're confused, well, you should be. First off, don't feel hopelessly ignorant if you've never heard of Violette Leduc. Her contemporaries--including De Beauvoir, Sartre, Genet, Gide, Cocteau, and Camus--respected her talent, but she was virtually unread until 1965, when her acclaimed autobiography, La Batarde, was published.

          "My mother never held my hand" is that book's first line, an appropriate opening to a tragic life. Leduc was raised by a hard-hearted single mother, and constantly ridiculed for her looks (her own mentor, De Beauvoir, called her "the ugly woman"); she fell in love with gay men, and saw her writings on lesbianism censored while gay male contemporaries were praised. She struggled with mental illness, was institutionalized, and died more or less alone, save for a few friends. Her only solace was writing; and toward the end of her life, when she'd settled in her own house in Provence, she told a friend she had finally found a home, a world, in words. Jean Cocteau once wrote of her, "Violette Leduc does not what is done, but what will be done. It is the secret and mythology of true artists."

          It's an incredible story, mostly told to us by an incredible character, Lili Jacobs, an old friend of Violette's whom author Zackheim met in Paris. Lili's own tales--of work in the Resistance, life in a Gestapo prison, and marriage to a Jewish intellectual--adds depth to Violette's. There are also wonderful details about Parisian cafe society and Leduc's life as a black market smuggler during the war. Jacobs describes Leduc's obsession with De Beauvoir (whom she called "God" in her journals); her horrendous botched abortion; and numerous other intimacies. Yet we must also read rather pointless descriptions of Zackheim's travels, her family, and her ever-so-lovely home in New Mexico. They bear no weight on Leduc's story, they distract, and ultimately, they bore. How very American to presume one is entitled to an audience, and to inject oneself into someone else's story. (Kate Sullivan)

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