||Montreal, Mon Amour
by Eric Miller
What is the relationship between sex and art? They are very close, yet very distant. Franz Kafka once remarked, of his feelings for a woman, that the only resolution possible was intercourse-or literature. Like many writers, male and female, he preferred literature. Dance, however, is not like writing. The whole body participates centrally and visibly in this art, making a more-or-less stylized sexuality powerfully apparent. Notoriety accrues to the person of a dancer. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Emma Hamilton's European fame arose from her capacity to strike attitudes, in a slow, intense, interpretive dance. In 1789, Goethe enthused about this woman's strange gift:
"Sir William Hamilton . . . has now, after many years of devotion to the arts and the study of nature, found the acme of these delights in the person of an English girl of twenty with a beautiful face and a perfect figure. He has had a Greek costume made for her that becomes her extremely. Dressed in this, she lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions, etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realized before him in movements and surprising transformations . . . The old knight idolizes her . . . In her, he has found all the antiquities, all the profiles of Sicilian coins."
How much distinguishes Emma Hamilton's attitudes from a burlesque act? The question is not disrespectful. Or if it is, the irreverence goes directly to the heart of aesthetics. All knowledge is carnal. So-called exotic dancing may often qualify as art, because (other circumstances aside) it can manifest talent as well as beauty. Although stripping sometimes succeeds as art, actual physical consummation of the desire aroused by this art may disappoint. Richard Lippman, the young Montreal-dwelling hero of William Weintraub's comic novel Crazy About Lili, never consummates his love for the striptease artist Lili L'Amour. In a certain sense the novel, with its delightfully turned sentences, exists as a result of this long non-consummation. In the world of the novel itself, Richard's yearning motivates his bad but copious poetry.
When, in 1948, Richard first sets eyes on Lili L'Amour, she is playing Marie Antoinette, facing death in 1793:
"Seeing the guillotine, Lili recoiled in horror. She retreated to a corner of the stage and stood there, trembling, as the music became quiveringly plaintive. But then a smile came to her lips. She had a plan. As the music quickened, she glided to the centre of the stage, took off her huge hat, and hurled it into the wings. The audience immediately understood her strategy. She would reveal her naked body to the Executioner, who would be so overwhelmed by her beauty that he would have to pardon her. And beautiful she certainly was, more beautiful than any woman, or any photo of any woman, that Richard had ever seen."
This Marie Antoinette gets a reprieve from death: beauty, eventually naked of all but legally mandated pasties and a G-string, dances free of the doom of history. In something of the same way, Weintraub's novel rescues the Montreal of the 1940s, preserving the feel of its history while comically modifying that history-to redeem it, in part, from its real inherent violence.
Although she is not a resident Montrealer, the vivid Lili incarnates many aspects of her place and time, which had its liabilities: anti-Semitism and sexism, WASP supremacy, francophone bigotry and the padlock law. These make identifiable appearances in Weintraub's story, but their cruelty occupies the periphery of events, and they exist for the most part as impulsions for narrative energy, shapers of choice and character. Weintraub's writing is consistently droll as he mocks youth (especially male youth), the Catholic church, Montreal's anglo establishment, champagne socialists and other targets. Yet he is virtually never unkind. He writes farce, but farce given a weightless weight by the particularity of its details. Crazy About Lili is neither politically correct nor politically incorrect; instead it is (for the most part) literarily correct, fulfilling the amusing obligations of farce, while grounding its humour in fact. As we laugh we learn, for example, that gramophones in the 1940s sometimes operated with needles made from cactus spines, that the use of such needles implied poverty and that the preferable steel needles had the brand name Spearpoint. We are present at such auspicious moments as the inaugural marketing of the electric can opener. We learn the name of the dancer who managed to swing the tassels attached to her breasts in different directions, simultaneously (Ginger Snapp, the Texas Tornado). To the reader who consents to the rules of the genre in which Weintraub works, there is much pleasure to be had from his novel.
Note: the quotation from Goethe is modified from Edgar Vincent's Nelson: Love & Fame.
Eric Miller's second book of poetry, In the Scaffolding, appeared in 2005.