Thursday, September 3, 2015

SWEET CARESS, a fictional autobiography of an iconic female war photographer, not unlike the real Lee Miller

There was a mistake the day Amory Clay was born. Times (of London) announced the birth of  "a son." So begins William Boyd's novel SWEET CARESS: The Many Lives of Amory Clay (Sept.Bloomsbury). Interestingly, this novel is not about a transgender person and, despite the title, it's not a romance. It's a fictional autobiography of an iconic female war photographer, not unlike the real-life Lee Miller, who went from the muse of Man Ray and fashion icon to the front lines of WWII and published her coverage in Vogue.

Boyd's skill is such that I came to accept Amory Clay, as a British member of the small club of freewheeling women journalists, who went where the action was. Like Clay, Miller evolved as a visual artist. Martha Gellhorn, another member of this group, is also known for her relationship with Earnest Hemingway.And this book provides a good many romantic/sexual interludes that range from "chemistry" to career moves. But there is a certain perfunctory quality to Clay's affairs, a required indulgence, that can seem generic.

What's convincing are the snapshots of and by Amory throughout the novel. As she matures through the decades, as a person and artist ,so do the photos. It was strange to be engrossed in her adventures, believing she's  real, while knowing she's a literary conceit. But the author of Restless and Any Human Heart, knows how to build a very credible yet uniquely unpredictable character.



Amory Clay, media figure, begins with the evolving consciousness of a young girl on a farm run by her tough and nurturing mother. She's protective of her sister, the precocious musician, her oddball brother, and her strangely distant father, who form her world. When her uncle gives her a camera, her life opens up. Artistic and bookish, she captures the free life on the farm, until it suddenly ends. Despite the family's poverty,Amory is "exiled" to a boarding school, where she's groomed for a rare woman's scholarship. That ambition ends because of her father's madness, Amory suffers a major trauma and is never the same. (I think it's inferred her need for action may arise from this.)

She leaves school to work for her uncle, a society photographer.When her honesty interferes with the necessary flattery of the job, she goes abroad to make a name for herself.But her  photographs of Berlin brothels bring her notoriety instead of fame. (I had no problems accepting the truth of those photos and the revelation of how Amory got them).

Broke, she's takes a steady job in New York shooting fashions for a women's catalogue--an accepted outlet for a female photographer,She also managed a volume of personal art photographs. Her love affairs occupy her thoughts though they are less interesting than her probing observations of place and people. These grow along with a desire for creative work that captures real life. Finally, she finds the strength to refuse life as an object of a man's desire. Instead, she chooses to do "her bit" for the war and the novel takes off. Amory puts her life on the line to record what she sees, conflict and how soldiers live day to day.

But these are only some of the lives of Amory Clay,  There is a wonderful Vietnam chapter, as well as snapshots with cunning glimpses of her life as a "Lady" and mother. I believed more than these shots the ones of settings and people, historical and fictional. And, when the book was finished, I felt satisfied. I respected Amory's well earned wisdom and the life lived by her own values. I will certainly see the movie.

For what is probably one of the real-life sources for Boyd's heroine, read below about Lee Miller. I possess a book w/narrative of her photographs. They are stunning, art in action. Boyd's snapshots are not even close. His achievement is to create a portrait of a woman rarely depicted. A self-made talent, uncompromising about her independence, who succeeds despite the narrow expectations and opportunities of her era..

From Wikipedia: Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose (April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977), was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris, where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue, covering events such as theLondon Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.