At the beginning of her life, Misia Sert met Liszt, whom she remembered for his warts, long hair and transvestite travelling companion. She lived almost long enough to meet two more piano-players, the co-authors of this book. In between, she knew just about everybody who counted in artistic Paris. The painters painted her and the composers aired their masterpieces at her piano, which she herself could play very well. But what gave her long life its fascination, and gives this book its strength, is that she was no mere dabbler. Her taste was original, penetrating and in most cases definitive. Without directly creating anything, she was some kind of artist herself - rather like Diaghilev, of whom she was the soul-mate and valued adviser. For most of her life she was too rich to be a true bohemian, and too passionate about art to be a true representative of high society. Instead, she was, for her time, the incarnation of that special energy released when talent and privilege meet. This book has several faults but at least one great merit: Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale have seen that Misia's personality, even if it can never quite be captured, remains highly interesting for the light it casts on how talent can cohabit with gracious living and yet still keep its distance. Misia features a good deal of novelettish speculation about the way people long dead 'must have' thought and felt, but on the whole it is a refreshingly humane book about how creative work actually gets done. It would be praiseworthy at any time, but is particularly so now when too many abstract treatises are being foisted on us by coldly able young academics who behave as if the arts, like their salaries, came out of a machine.
LRB 4 September 1980 | PDF Download