Nudes, Foods, and Lusty Old Birds

The Great Man BY Kate Christensen. Anchor. Paperback, 320 pages. $14.

The cover of The Great Man

For over four years, novelist Kate Christensen and her husband have been consumed with a home-renovation project that has now crossed into her fiction. She has bestowed their Greenpoint, Brooklyn, row house—which they’ve transformed from a ramshackle, tenant-packed residence into a two-family home with modernist and New Orleans–style flourishes—on one of the main characters of her just-published fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday). The title of her most ambitious work to date refers to her fictional creation— a recently deceased New York City artist, Oscar Feldman, who is famous for rejecting Abstract Expressionist painting in favor of more realistic female nudes. Two competing biographers are tracking down everyone he left behind: a wife and an autistic son in Manhattan, a mistress in Brooklyn and their twin adult daughters—one a polygamous poet, the other a stay-at-home mother—and a lovelorn lesbian sister, a struggling abstract painter whose talents surpass Oscar’s. None of them realize how vulnerable they feel in the wake of his death or appreciate the complexity of their feelings for the great man until they are invited to process his death.

Each of Christensen’s novels has its own voice and unique New York stories, but they do consistently reveal a couple of things about the author, namely, her passion for (and finesse with) the culinary arts and her profound interest in the have-nots (or, in some cases, the oncehads) whose lives brush up against those of the famous and the wealthy. On this warm summer evening, the author and I are sitting in her dining room, as she prepares a dinner borrowed from The Great Man. This is not the first time I’ve been invited to enjoy one of her literary tasting menus—Christensen assembled a small dinner party before the publication of The Epicure’s Lament (2004), a novel whose main character, the misanthropic bon vivant Hugo Whittier, is deeply inspired by the food writing of M. F. K. Fisher. In The Great Man, the gourmet is Oscar’s mistress, Claire “Teddy” St. Cloud—the fictional owner of Christensen’s house—whose flair in the kitchen is widely celebrated. Christensen serves up a crisp Sancerre and a delectable triple-crème cheese, and we are wistful as we remember a New York that once was and discuss the possibilities of love and sex in the autumn years and, of course, the power of the palate—and the palette.

Kate Christensen, 2006.
Kate Christensen, 2006.

BOOKFORUM: What inspired you to make this “great man,” Oscar Feldman, a painter?

KATE CHRISTENSEN: I think it was a combination of my desire to live vicariously through my characters, a nostalgia for that era, and my needing Oscar to be a maverick in a world where that really meant something. I often give attributes to characters that I wish I had, and I always wanted to be a painter and have no talent in that direction whatsoever [laughs]. I had the first and second chapters written for about a year, sitting in that proverbial drawer on my computer. They had the scene between “Teddy” St. Cloud and [Oscar’s biographer] Henry Burke, where she’s feeding him and flirting with him and toying with him. The thing that intrigued me was the tension and the power imbalance between the older woman and the younger man, where he wants something she has and he ends up being attracted to her. So the fact that Oscar was a painter was incidental. I had to make him something, and I love the way the New York art world was in the ’50s and ’60s, when it was the center of the universe. To be part of the art world was to be part of an enclave of greatness. You were making history just by painting a black canvas or deciding only to paint female nudes. You had a lot of power.

BF: As a painter, Oscar can get close to many women, and he flaunts that intimacy.

KC: Exactly. Teddy tells Henry that women—and sex with women—were his obsession, and painting was a way into that obsession, using his brush to fuck them. The instant I decided Oscar was a painter, the whole thing came into being: his whole relationship to Teddy, the fact that he painted female nudes and that he wasn’t a part of the Abstract Expressionist drink fests at the Cedar Tavern. Also, he had these two women, Teddy and his wife, Abigail, who both nurtured his ego and let him come and go. And Oscar painted one thing over and over again, and he did it well. He lived a pretty safe life. He didn’t struggle, he didn’t suffer. Back then more than now, there was a romance around artists. Bad behavior was excused. Mental problems were normal. Addictions, promiscuity, it was all fine if you were an artist. But if he had gone into his father’s butcher business, there was no way Oscar could have gotten away with it.

BF: Even underappreciated artists, like Oscar’s friend Moe Treitler—a heroin addict from the Lower East Side—were respected and romanticized. It was possible to survive in New York without money not too many years ago.

KC: I think a lot of the novel was born out of nostalgia for a romantic time in New York that doesn’t exist anymore. Oscar’s sister, Maxine, is an abstract painter; she’s one of those people who was once wideeyed, eager, and trusting, who leaped toward the world with open arms and then became cynical because she’s a disappointed romantic. Maxine was a foil for Oscar: Sibling rivalry is always good drama. In my mind, I imagined her work as deeper than his, but not as flashy and bold. Hers is quieter and less easily pigeonholed. But male artists are just taken more seriously, even today. So Maxine finally gets her big show after she discloses the big secret: that she’s painted one of her brother’s most well-known paintings. I gave her this secret to point out how her reputation ultimately hinges on his. She gets her long-overdue fame, ironically, because of Oscar. I intended the end of the novel to be entirely ironic for everyone, especially Maxine.

BF: Too bad Maxine didn’t have as much luck with the ladies as Oscar. The older women in this novel have pretty active sex lives.

KC: I’m so sick of all of these cute little old ladies in literature. It doesn’t at all reflect the old women I’ve known. And by old I don’t mean decrepit. My mother said, “When you’ve turned seventy, you’re officially old.” That’s how I use the word old. My grandmother and greataunt were rather puritanical, but they were passionate, and if you got them talking about Paris in the ’20s, they would relive all of those feelings and become these girls who had crushes on boys. They would blush, and their eyes lit up.

BF: Teddy, who is perhaps the most sexually vibrant septuagenarian in the novel, can seduce anyone with her cooking. You started integrating food writing into your fiction with your last novel, The Epicure’s Lament.

KC: I like food and sex so much: I think it takes a simultaneous sense of sensuality and cerebrality to get it on the page and put it into language. M. F. K. Fisher drives me absolutely insane because usually what she is writing about is not immediately accessible to the reader, and you have to go out and get the ingredients and make it. But she gets me to cook [laughs]. And I invent all of the recipes in my novels. In a way, it’s the same as imagining, say, a conversation between people.

BF: You didn’t test the meals before committing them to the page?

KC: No, not until recently. I’ve been making them all, like tonight. Teddy’s chicken stew came out incredibly well. But the lentil stew with the merguez sausage and the artichoke hearts was so-o-o good. When I write, I think: What would be incongruous yet sound good on the page? Because readers have an inner mental palate.

BF: Teddy makes one of those fabulous stews to win over Henry Burke.

KC: She was cooking to seduce him into loving Oscar, I think.

BF: Henry’s previous biography, to which he refers frequently, is of a little-known, terrible poet named Greta Church, who died in squalor and whose verses he quotes often.

KC: He romanticizes Greta for being a junkie and dying alone. She is Henry’s idea of an artist, and he’s in love with the idea of being an artist, which Teddy completely nails him on. But in the end, he writes the better biography of Oscar [than the competing biographer, Ralph Washington], because he suffers more. I see him and Ralph as echoing Oscar and Maxine. Oscar is the one with shtick. He’s not suffering the way Maxine is.

BF: The women in Oscar’s life are eager to talk about Oscar. Henry is genuine and warm, so he elicits a lot of information they never thought they’d share.

KC: I think it’s his vulnerability and also his worship of Oscar. Obviously, I like to write about food and everything connected to it, like alcohol and sex and stuff like that. But I am also really interested in the idea of someone with power: In In the Drink [1999], it was Jackie [the protagonist’s boss, an elderly, best-selling writer]. In Jeremy Thrane [2001], it was Ted [a closeted Hollywood actor and ex-boyfriend of the title character]. Oscar is the great man, the one with the power and fame. But what I’m writing about is the people on the periphery of that kind of fame and ego and power, the way it affects people, and, in this case, the way all of the women in his life, from Abigail to Maxine, sublimated their own egos and ambitions because they had Oscar.

BF: Maxine hates Teddy for being Oscar’s mistress, but his wife, Abigail, doesn’t. She sees Teddy as someone who has taken pressure off of her so she can focus on her autistic son, Ethan.

KC: I thought there was going to be a showdown between Teddy and Abigail when I first started writing the scene in which they first meet face to face. But I realized, with Oscar gone, they have no reason to hate each other. I actually don’t think they ever hated each other. The hermetic world of Abigail and Ethan was Oscar’s proper life. In a way, he was a good Jewish boy, raised Orthodox. But then he had to be the bad boy. So he got to be both—the artist and a father without ever having to change a diaper.

BF: Oscar needed both lives.

KC: And both women needed him not to be there all of the time [laughs]. He was a lot to handle, so they shared him. They did each other a favor.

BF: In all four of your novels, you have characters who are culturally rich but financially deficient, like Claudia in In the Drink, Jeremy in Jeremy Thrane, Hugo in The Epicure’s Lament, and Teddy in this novel. In fact, the first line of The Great Man is “It’s amazing how well you can live on very little money.”

KC: Wow, I hadn’t even thought about that. Claudia is the kind of woman who is exposed to wealth but is so poor she goes home from work on the subway and eats rice and beans.

BF: That’s the life of a publishing assistant in New York. And Jeremy Thrane lives the high life as a movie star’s kept boy, albeit on the down-low. But then he gets kicked to the curb and has to work for a living and starts writing gay porn.

KC: I was raised with no money but incredible cultural exposure. You can live very well and be poor. I grew up in Arizona, and we lived in Tempe for a while—we moved every year. There were husbands who came and went. We actually stayed in this one place for two and a half years, which was a long time, and our neighbors were Mexican kids, Indian kids, and “white trash”—and I say this with all quotation marks in place, but they were. And we were the family on the block who had the most, though we had no money. We had records and books, and we knew stuff. We went to concerts, because you could go for free. That was Tempe and Phoenix, in the early ’70s. My mother went to Juilliard and Yale. We stuck out like sore thumbs on the block, and all the kids wanted to come to our house because they sensed that we had something and that thing wasn’t financial. But we ate well and had fun at the table.

BF: Did you intend for The Great Man to be a feminist story?

KC: No. I set out to write a book that showed people as they are, and if that is construed as feminist, whatever. The inequalities are obvious, it doesn’t take a genius. A lot of women were more interesting than the men whose egos they coddled. I wonder, what did they get from Oscar? He shed light on them like a sun. He lived the life that they didn’t live. They had incomplete lives. But it made them more interesting at the end of their lives to have had to sacrifice something, because they were up for anything. They’re game old birds. They’re not smug. They’re not detached. They’re lusty and unfulfilled and full of yearning.