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A fiercely intelligent continuation to An Unfinished Woman.

  • Sep 5, 2001
Rating:
+5
Pentimento: A Book of Portraits is electrfying in its earnestness and candor, incisive in its tone, acerbic in its wit and picturesque in its mental imagery - a memoir (unlike An Unfinished Woman) that is a bit more honed and focused and less formless in how the recollections and diary entries jump from one to the next. Be that as it may, let it not mitigate the merit of An Unfinished Woman, for in its own right, it is a very worthy read and most deserving of its National Book Award. Each chapter in Pentimento is framed, each segment representing a person, place or experience that had a certain signifigance to Lillian Hellman's life and development not only as a playwrite but as a person. The book chapters are listed as thus: Bethe, Willy, Julia, Theatre, Arthur W.A. Cowan, Turtle, and Pentimento. The writing fluidity is fragmented, almost jarring, but the fierce, explicit prose enhances the flavor of the volatile, broken mishmash of truth and hyperbole, a choice style that is not a detriment to what Hellman has to say. With magnetic intimacy, the portraits all have something meaningful to declare; they range from the profound to the wittily bizarre. The latter is best represented in the portraits entitled "Arthur W.A. Cowan" and "Turtle." It is in these two portraits where Hellman's mordant humor especially shines.

From Arthur W.A. Cowan:

I said, "Oh, shut up, Arthur."
And he did, but that night as he paid the dinner check, he wrote out another check and handed it to me. It was for a thousand dollars.
I said, "What's this for?" "Anybody you want."
I handed it back.
He said, "Oh, for Christ sake take it and tell yourself it's for putting up with me."
"Then it's not enough money." (P.235)

And

From Turtle:

Toward afternoon I telephoned the New York Zoological Society of which I was a member. I had a hard time being transferred to somebody who knew about turtles. When I finished, the young voice said, "Yes, the Chelydra serpentina. A ferocious foe. Where did you meet it?"
"Meet it?"
"Encounter it?"
"At a literary cocktail party by a lake." (P.278)

Considering the period, the one-liners are quite sharp; the portrait that obviously stands out the most is "Julia," the 'supposed' friendship that developed between Hellman and a Freud disciple who happened to be an anti-facist supporter - a 'friendship' that later formed the basis for the Academy Award-winning film of the same title. Whether the story is fact or fiction, that is up for the reader to decide. Whether "Julia" represented a single woman or a group of dedicated individuals fighting to stop/lessen the evils of war whom Hellman truly admired and who thus wanted her name associated with, may also never be known. But what can be said of the Julia portrait is that it is a written down homage to a person or persons who tried to make a positive difference in that dark epoch of our global history.

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More Pentimento (Back Bay Books) reviews
review by . May 11, 2013
A fiercely intelligent continuation to An Unfinished Woman.
Pentimento: A Book of Portraits is electrfying in its earnestness and candor, incisive in its tone, acerbic in its wit and picturesque in its mental imagery - a memoir (unlike An Unfinished Woman) that is a bit more honed and focused and less formless in how the recollections and diary entries jump from one to the next. Be that as it may, let it not mitigate the merit of An Unfinished Woman, for in its own right, it is a very worthy read and most deserving of its National Book Award. Each chapter …
About the reviewer
Christian Engler ()
Ranked #690
Not much to say; my info section and likes pretty much says it all. Cheers.
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Hellman's 1973 title was the second of three volumes of memoirs written after she had dried up as a playwright. These remembrances have come under fire by many who claim she lifted some of these stories from others, such as the famous "Julia" chapter upon which the film was based, and completely invented others. Whether fact or fiction, begged, borrowed, or stolen, who cares? This book makes for great reading.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Details

ISBN-10: 0316352888
ISBN-13: 978-0316352888
Author: Lillian Hellman
Publisher: Back Bay Books

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