Reviewed: Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

Strike a pose.

Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Thames & Hudson, 448pp, £19.95

A life that burns short and bright is one thing but in the case of Diana Vreeland, who was fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and editor in- chief of American Vogue, life was not only bright but long. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s well-paced biography is an account of impressive self-invention by a woman from whom gravelly aperçus coiled like the endless smoke from her cigarette holder (she died from emphysema in 1989).

Through the pages of Vogue, Vreeland introduced America to Lauren Bacall, celebrated the Beatles, championed modernity and started or boosted many careers. She didn’t need to work and always gave the (false) impression that she fell into Bazaar in 1936 by accident after meeting the then editor, Carmel Snow, at a party. In reality, Snow had written about her in the society pages a decade earlier. Despite Vreeland’s stance of inadvertent amateurism, Richard Avedon called her the “most hard-working person he had ever known”.

Diana Dalziel was born rich in 1903 in Paris. The money came from her mother, Emily Hoffman, a Wharton-esque American heiress, who went to Paris at 25. Stuart shows how the young Diana’s Parisian origins permeated the rest of her life, both in a keen appreciation of European glamour and in her habit of making up whatever suited her story. She maintained that she had come to America at the age of 11, speaking only French; the truth is that she arrived in New York as a one-year-old baby.

At school, Diana was bright, imaginative and cut counter to convention: tall, skinny, beaky and squinty. Thought ugly by some, she retired to her adolescent diary to create the perfect “girl”, excitingly dressed and fascinating, who enslaves all around her. At 20, she married the handsome Reed Vreeland and they set off to Paris, then London.

When Vreeland was asked to work at Harper’s Bazaar, she leapt. She began a series of columns called “Why Don’t You?” that encouraged readers to enter a fantastic, upper-crust world: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s head in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” She also cultivated the appearance that would last a lifetime: thinness, black hair, red lips and often black clothes, plus a “loping camel’s gait, with her long neck thrust forwards like an inquisitive tortoise”.

Promoted to American-fashion editor, Vreeland set about coercing Seventh Avenue manufacturers to compete with Paris and promoted American clothes alongside the reigning Parisian ones. War, which blockaded French imports, helped this.

As years passed and Vreeland became a powerful grande dame, her imperial foibles, satirised in films such as Funny Face (1957) and, much later, Factory Girl (2006), developed. She called all her assistants “Girl” and threw her coat at one of them. Yet, in 1957, when Carmel Snow was fired, the obvious successor was passed over. Later approached by Vogue, Vreeland quit Bazaar to start the most influential period of her life.

Vogue was caught in a 1950s girls-andpearls time warp whose clasp Vreeland violently snapped. Fit and slim herself, she promoted lithe bodies, bare skin, miniskirts, personal verve and sexuality. David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, Nicholas Haslam, Andy Warhol and Mary Quant were all brought in to play. There were photo shoots of models perched on top of mountains, horses caparisoned in tinsel, the first black supermodel and Nijinsky dancing naked: heady stuff and part of the “youthquake” phenomenon that she named, applauded, packaged and sold.

Yet, Stuart notes, by 1970, the 67-year-old Vreeland missed how young women wanted to work and in easier clothes. With her vision of luxurious unreality, Vreeland, who felt that the Pill had given women all the freedom they needed, fell out of step. Accusing her of having too much power and her work of being “too daring for its time”, the Condé Nast supremo Alexander Liberman (who had brought her in) pushed her upstairs. At this point, most people would take to slippers and a pipe. Instead, Vreeland entered the third phase of her career, organising 12 blockbuster costume exhibitions at the Met in New York. Though they were unorthodox, often unhistorical and eventually lambasted, her shows were hits: her 1976 exhibition “The Glory of Russian Costume” broke box-office records.

Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs. The fashion designer Bill Blass said that she combined “Twain’s reverence for the reinvented self with Barnum’s love of showmanship”. This vigorous biography offers a near-perfect example of the American dream.

Philippa Stockley is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is “A Factory of Cunning” (Little, Brown, £19.95)

Diana Vreeland: the first lady of fashion. Photograph: Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos (Main)

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism