Poet’s Wives, Rotten Lives


Having just finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I am reminded of what was once said about poet John Berryman: “All poet’s wives have rotten lives.” Messud’s novel confirms that the same might be said about an artist’s friends and family members as well.

Messud’s Nora wishes nothing more than to be a successful artist, and when she is pulled into the life of renowned artist Serina Shahid, she vicariously experiences the euphoria that intimacy with the creative process brings. But she also learns that the mesmerizing artist can be cruel, sacrificing everyone, no matter how close, in pursuit of their ambitions.

What Messud implies is true, of course, of ambitious people in general. But in the artist’s case, such sacrifices are particularly painful, for at least an ambitious plumber or lawyer can expect remuneration for hard work; pursuing the life of an artist offers no such guarantee.

Achtung: Life with an artist is not for the faint of heart. The loved ones of artists require not only sensitivity to the nature of artistic pursuit but also an unblinkered understanding that artistic endeavor requires sacrifices of them as well.

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