by Nalini Haynes
This essay was written to comply with an assignment brief for the subject ‘Writing nonfiction’, part of the Professional Writing and Editing associate degree program at RMIT University.
Stravinsky’s Lunch compares the lives of Australian women artists Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, entwining their stories with Drusilla Modjeska’s (the author’s) pondering of feminist history, using Stravinsky’s patriarchal demands of familial service as a foil.
King (2000) uses a situation as incitement for writing each novel. Modjeska uses the situations of three historical figures to discuss gender roles.
Hart (p.43, 2011) says point of view addresses three issues: through whose eyes the story is told, from what direction and from what distance the story is told. Hart (p.66, 2011) also says “The humanity that a clear-cut persona brings to a personal essay is one of the charms of the form”. Stravinsky’s Lunch is like an extended personal essay in that it is a personal exploration of historical gender roles with the author/narrator appearing distinctly as interrogator.
Modjeska’s intent is to ‘tell their stories, similar and different both, as a koan in my own practice as a woman and a writer. I tell them to understand’. Wikipedia (2014) defines Koan as a story, dialogue, question or statement used in Zen-practice. Thus Stravinsky’s Lunch is an exploration of the impact family life and gender roles have upon career women.
McEvoy (2012) says ‘…the dilemmas creative women face in balancing the demands of love and art appears in much of Modjeska’s work.’ Modjeska’s implied thesis – disclosed during her first-person exploration of her subject – appears to be that little has changed.
As indicated by the publisher’s cataloguing data, Stravinsky’s Lunch is primarily biography with a secondary listing under ‘Painting’. McEvoy (2012) says it ‘transcended conventional notions of genre’ presumably because Modjeska combines biography and personal interrogation to question gender roles and their consequences.
Prior to Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska published her PhD in History thesis Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981) followed by award-winning philosophico-feminist fictionalised biographies Poppy and The Orchard (Straus 2000).
Hewitt (2007) acknowledges the historical invisibility of women in her comparison of Modjeska’s and Wiesenfarth’s writing, saying ‘Wiesenfarth reserves judgment on Ford… for whom women were essential handmaidens.’ Ford’s memoirs omit the women who lived with him enabling his work.
Hilary McPhee (Collins 2000) says ‘This sort of thing has not been done here before nor I suspect in the English language. It is not art history, nor is it classic biography by any means; nor is it a memoir.’ Dessaix (Collins 2000) says Stravinsky’s lunch will be ‘one of the most important books of recent decades… because of the way she tells the story.’ Thus it appears there are no antecedents for this feminist-perspective personal engagement with art history as biography.
Straus (2000) said, ‘Modjeska seems much more interested in process than product… Unfortunately, the lack of analysis is compounded by a glut of spectacularly banal filler…’ Although Straus’s comments have some validity with regards to Modjeska’s (at times) excessive personal presence in the narrative, Straus seems to have missed the point: Stravinsky’s Lunch is intended as a feminist précis using historical figures to discuss gender roles.
Kirkus Reviews (2000) said, ‘…her subjects get lost in the glare of her reflections—all solid stuff for the postmodern set but not much fun for anyone else…’ Fink (2000) and Schiff (2000) both comment on Modjeska’s intrusive voice although Fink moderates her comments with admiration for Modjeska’s success: placing Stella Bowen within the annals of Australian art.
Scheding (PanMacmillan n.d.) says ‘This is the most beautifully written book about the processes associated with the art of painting that I have read in a long, long time’. Stravinsky’s Lunch won the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Award for Non-Fiction, Nita Kibble Literary Award and the Australian Booksellers’ Association Book of the Year Award in 2000 (Modjeska, n.d.). Although reviews are mixed, Stravinsky’s Lunch received numerous accolades.
Market and audience
The market is broad, aiming at an audience interested in biography, art, history and feminism. Critics focusing on Modjeska’s alleged failings seem oblivious to Modjeska’s thesis being other than recounting art history. This suggests the purist art history audience may not have been receptive to Modjeska’s style.
The critics who extoll the virtues of Stravinsky’s Lunch appear to have a biographical or feminist interest rather than an art focus. Being seen to come from a historical perspective – especially with a PhD in history – may have given Modjeska’s feminist slant on these historical figures a wider market than if she had a purely feminist background.
Every story needs a storyteller but the extent to which that storyteller comes to the fore varies. Modjeska has over-done her personal presence, be-labouring her engagement with her subjects until she detracts from her story, re-orienting focus, like an artist emphasising individual brush-strokes to the detriment of the whole picture.
In contrast, Garner (2006) and Hooper (2009) balance their presence in their writing, conveying their concerns more effectively. Hooper detracted a little from her story with her repeated observation of Chris Hurley’s good looks, however Garner and Hooper’s voices (mostly) enhanced their narratives.
My training was that ‘undergraduates do not have opinions, undergraduates only cite others’ opinions.’ Also adjectives, metaphors and colourful language was fodder for scorn, ideally replaced with dry arguments and referencing. Thus my writing tends to be self-effacing: I have argued my opinion but occasionally readers have given feedback that I’m not owning that opinion. My goal is to find a middle ground where the story comes alive with the storyteller’s voice without overwhelming the story.
Stravinsky’s Lunch received awards and accolades from some critics while also inciting the ire of art critics. Accusers lambasting Modjeska’s thesis for not being sufficiently art-focused or bringing new insights into art history seem oblivious to Modjeska’s stated intent of interrogating how gender roles impact upon creative women. Valid criticisms include Modjeska – at times – intruding too much into her work, asking too many questions, miring her narrative in self-indulgent exposition. I seek a balance between Modjeska and the invisibility imposed upon me by my prior academic career, a middle ground ideally resulting in an engaging narrative enticing readers forward.
Modjeska, D 1999, Stravinsky’s Lunch, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Modjeska, D 2014, Exiles at home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945, HarperCollins, Sydney.
Modjeska, D n.d., ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’ author’s own promotional webpage, Modjeska, Sydney, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.drusillamodjeska.com/my-books/stravinskys-lunch/.
Collins, J 2000 ‘Stravinsky’s lunch’, book review, Island, No. 80-81, Spring-Summer 1999-2000: 94-99.
Fink, H 2000 ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, book review, Meanjin, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2000: 215-219.
Garner, H 2006, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, PanMacmillan, Sydney.
Hart, J 2011, Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Hewitt, H 2007, ‘A comparative review of Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women by Joseph Wiesenfarth and ‘Conversation Piece’ in Stravinsky’s Lunch by Drusilla Modjeska’, Australian Humanities Review, Australia, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-August-September%202007/Hewitt.html.
Hooper, C 2009, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, Penguin, Melbourne.
King, S 2000, On Writing: a memoir of the craft, Hodder & Stoughton, London.
Kirkus Reviews 2000, ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, a review, Kirkus Reviews, viewed 11 March 2014, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/drusilla-modjeska/stravinskys-lunch/.
McEvoy, M 2012 ‘Interview: Drusilla Modjeska’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/interview-drusilla-modjeska-20120503-1xzvo.html
PanMacmillan n.d., ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, publisher promotion, PanMacmillan, Sydney, viewed online 11 March 2014, http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/display_title.asp?ISBN=9780330362597&Author=Modjeska,+Drusilla.
Schiff, S 2000, ‘A studio of one’s own’, an essay on Stravinsky’s Lunch, New York Times, New York, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/17/reviews/001217.17schifft.html.
State Library of NSW n.d., ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, sales promotion/review of book, NSW Government On-line Shop, Sydney, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.shop.nsw.gov.au/proddetails.jsp?publication=8366.
Straus, F 2000, ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, a review of the book, PW (Publishers Weekly), viewed on 11 March 2014, http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-374-27089-6.
Wiesenfarth, J 2005 Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin.
Wikipedia 2014, ‘Drusilla Modjeska’, encyclopaedia entry, Wikipedia, viewed 11 March 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drusilla_Modjeska.