Excerpt form 'The Complete Madame Realism'


The Complete Madame Realism

And Other Stories

By Lynne Tillman


Copyright © 2016 Lynne Tillman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58435-190-0


Introduction by M. G. Lord, 9,
Madame Realism, 19,
Madame Realism Asks: What's Natural About Painting, 25,
Dynasty Reruns, 31,
Madame Realism's Imitation of Life, 40,
On the Road with Madame Realism, 46,
Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale, 66,
Madame Realism in Freud's Dreamland, 73,
The Museum of Hyphenated Americans, 85,
Madame Realism's "1999", 101,
Lust for Loss, 107,
Madame Realism Looks for Relief, 117,
Madame Realism Faces It, 128,
Madame Realism Lies Here, 133,
Madame Realism's Torch Song, 140,
Madame Realism's Conscience, 148,
Love Sentence, 161,
To Find Words, 187,
Thrilled to Death, 211,
Drawing from a Translation Artist, 243,
Seven Times, Times Seven, 252,
Cindy Sherman, 257,
Still Moving, 266,
Stories Tell Stories, 274,
Head and Heart, 280,
Afterword by Andrew Durbin, 287,
Sources, 295,




Madame Realism read that Paul Eluard had written: No one has divined the dramatic origin of teeth. She pictured her dentist, a serious man who insisted gravely that he alone had saved her mouth.

The television was on. It had been on for hours. Years. It was there. TV on demand, a great freedom. Hadn't Burroughs said there was more freedom today than ever before. Wasn't that like saying things were more like today than they've ever been.

Madame Realism heard the announcer, who didn't know he was on the air, say: Hello, victim. Then ten seconds of nothing, a commercial, the news, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

She inhaled her cigarette fiercely, blowing the smoke out hard. The television interrupts itself: A man wearing diapers is running around parks, scaring little children. The media call him Diaperman.

The smoke and her breath made a whooshing sound that she liked, so she did it again and again. When people phoned she blew right into the receiver, so that she sounded like she was panting.

Smokers, she read in a business report, are less productive than nonsmokers, because they spend some of their work time staring into space as they inhale and exhale. She could have been biding her time or protecting it. All ideas are married.

He thought she breathed out so deeply to let people know she was there. Her face reminded him, he said, of a Japanese movie. She didn't feel like talking, the telephone demanded like an infant not yet weaned. Anything can be a transitional object. No one spoke of limits, they spoke of boundaries. And my boundaries shift, she thought, like ones do after a war when countries lose or gain depending upon having won or lost. Power has always determined right.

Overheard: A young mother is teaching her son to share his toys, the toys he really cares about. There are some things you can call your own, he will learn. Boundaries are achieved through battle.

Madame Realism was not interested in display. Men fighting in bars, their nostrils flaring and faces getting red, their noses filling with mucous and it dripping out as they fought over a pack of cigarettes, an insult, a woman. But who could understand men, or more, what they really wanted.

Dali's conception of sexual freedom, for instance, written in 1930. A man presenting his penis "erect, complete, and magnificent plunged a girl into a tremendous and delicious confusion, but without the slightest protest.... It is," he writes, "one of the purest and most disinterested acts a man is capable of performing in our age of corruption and moral degradation."

She wondered if Diaperman felt that way. Just that day a beggar had walked past her. When he got close enough to smell him, she read what was written on his button. It said be appropriate. We are like current events to each other. One doesn't have to know people well to be appropriate.

Madame Realism is at a dinner party surrounded by people, all of whom she knows, slightly. At the head of the table is a silent woman who eats rather slowly. She chooses a piece of silverware as if it were a weapon. But she does not attack her food.

One of the men is depressed; two of his former lovers are also at the dinner. He thinks he's Kierkegaard. One of his former lovers gives him attention, the other looks at him ironically, giving him trouble. A pall hangs over the table thick like stale bread. The silent woman thinks about death, the expected. Ghosts are dining with us.

A young man, full of the literature that romanticizes his compulsion, drinks himself into stupid liberation. He has not yet discovered that the source of supposed fictions is the desire never to feel guilty.

The depressed man thinks about himself, and one of the women at the table he hasn't had. This saddens him even more.

At the same time it excites him. Something to do — to live for —at the table. Wasn't desire for him at the heart of all his, well, creativity?

He becomes lively and sardonic. Madame Realism watches his movements, listens to what he isn't saying, and waits. As he gets the other's attention, he appears to grow larger. His headache vanishes with her interest. He will realize that he hadn't had a headache at all. Indifferent to everyone but his object of the moment, upon whom he thrives from titillation, he blooms. Madame Realism sees him as a plant, a wilting plant that is being watered.

The television glowed, effused at her. Talk shows especially encapsulated America, puritan America. One has to be seen to be doing good. One has to be seen to be good. When he said a Japanese movie, she hadn't responded. Screens upon screens and within them. A face is like a screen when you think about the other, when you think about projection. A mirror is a screen and each time she looked into it, there was another screen test. How did she look today? What did she think today? Isn't it funny how something can have meaning and no meaning at the same time.

Madame Realism read from The New York Times: "The Soviet Ambassador to Portugal had formally apologized for a statement issued by his embassy that called Mario Soares, the Socialist leader, a lunatic in need of prolonged psychiatric treatment. The embassy said the sentence should have read 'these kinds of lies can only come from persons with a sick imagination, and these lies need prolonged analysis and adequate treatment.'" Clever people plot their lives with strategies not unlike those used by governments. We all do business. And our lies are in need of prolonged analysis and adequate treatment.

When the sun was out, it made patterns on the floor, caused by the bars on her windows. She liked the bars. She had designed them. Madame Realism sometimes liked things of her own design. Nature was not important to her; the sun made shadows that could be looked at and about which she could write. After all, doesn't she exist, like a shadow, in the interstices of argument.

Her nose bled for a minute or two. Having needs, being contained in a body, grounded her in the natural. But even her period appeared with regularity much like a statement from the bank. Madame Realism lit another cigarette and breathed in so deeply, her nose bled again.

I must get this fixed, she thought, as if her nostrils had brakes. There is no way to compare anything. We must analyze our lives. There isn't even an absolute zero. What would be a perfect sentence?

A turn to another channel. The night was cold, but not because the moon wasn't out. The night was cold. She pulled her blanket around her. It's cold but it's not as cold as simple misunderstanding that turns out to run deep. And it's not as cold as certain facts; She didn't love him, or he her; hearts that have been used badly. Experience teaches not to trust experience. We're forced to be empiricists in bars.

She looked into the mirror. Were she to report that it was cracked, one might conjure it, or be depressed by a weak metaphor. The mirror is not cracked. And stories do not occur outside thought. Stories, in fact, are contained within thought. It's only a story really should read, it's a way to think.

Madame Realism turned over and stroked her cat, who refused to be held longer than thirty seconds. That was a record. She turned over and slept on her face. She wondered what it would do to her face but she slept that way anyway, just as she let her body go and didn't exercise, knowing what she was doing was not in her interest. She wasn't interested. It had come to that. She turned off the television.



Madame Realism, like everyone else, had a mother, and her mother had bought and hung two prints by old masters in their home. One, by Van Gogh — a bearded man sucking on a pipe. One, by Renoir — a red-headed girl playing with a golden ball or apple. Since there were redheads in her family, Madame Realism assumed that the girl was a relative, just as she assumed the bearded man was one of her grandfathers, both of whom had died before she was born. As a child Madame Realism thought that all pictures in her home had to do with her family. Later she came to understand things differently.

With some reluctance Madame Realism went to a museum in Boston to look at paintings by Renoir. By now she felt a kind of despair when in an institution expressly to look at and judge something which she could no longer feel or experience as she once had. Boston itself was a site of contradiction and ongoing temporary resolution. She knew, for instance, that in Boston the arts were led by the Brahmins, the Irish dominated its political machine, and the Black population was fighting hard to be allowed anything at all. But in an institution such as a great museum, where lines of people form democratically to look at art, such problems are the background upon which that art is hung.

Madame Realism was moved along by the crowd, and in another way she was moved by the crowd. "Sinatra is 70 this year," she heard one woman say to another as they baked at a picture on the wall. There's nothing of Sinatra in this picture, Madame Realism thought. Not the skinny New Jersey guy who made it big and for a brief moment was married to Ava Gardner, also thin, then. On the other hand (one has so many hands these days), he did rise like cream to the top, not unlike Renoir, whose father was a tailor. The crowd swelled, especially at the paintings whose labels had white dots on them, as they had been chosen by the museum for special auditory instruction through machines. Madame Realism loitered in the clumps and listened as much as she looked.

In front of a nude, one young woman asked another: "Do you think that's how fat women really were?" Automatically, Madame Realism moved her hand to her hip. She strained to hear the answer, but the crowd advanced, and she completed it as she thought it would be. Women were allowed to be fatter, it was the style. You'd be considered more desirable, voluptuous. There's more of you to love. Diets hadn't been invented. Madame Realism felt self-conscious standing alone, if only for a moment, in front of that nude, her hand resting on her own 19th-century hip. And she thought again of Frank Sinatra and supposed, whatever other troubles he'd had, he'd never had a weight problem. Quite the reverse, she thought, giving the phrase her version of an English barrister's accent.

She didn't like these paintings. They were almost ridiculous when they weren't bordering on the grotesque, and then they became interesting to her. What had happened to this guy on his rise to the top? Was he so uncomfortable that what he painted reflected his discomfort by a kind of ugliness? The women were all flesh, especially breasts, and the faces of men, women and children were notably vacant. Madame Realism imagined a vacancy sign hanging in front of Sketches of Heads, like a cheap hotel's advertisement that rooms were available.

In the middle of her own mixed metaphor, which unaccountably made her think of The Divine Comedy, Madame Realism followed a museum instructor, whose students were trailing her with the determination of ducklings after their mother. The woman was saying something about me differences between the 18th and 19th centuries, but became confused as to whether the 18th century meant the 1800s, or the 19th century the 1800s. Madame Realism's heart went out to her on account of this temporary, ordinary lapse, and she wondered how this might affect the students' imprinting. The instructor recovered quickly and said, "You have to look for the structure. The painting, remember, is flat." It wasn't hard to remember that these paintings were flat she thought, and stood in front of a painting of onions. Renoir's onions are flat, she said to herself. His onions. It's funny that in the language of painting what someone paints becomes his or, sometimes, hers. His nudes. His people. Madame Realism recalled a still life of peaches by Renoir that she'd seen in the Jeu de Paume. Years ago she stood in front of the painting and thought they were perfect, just like peaches. The peaches of Europe, her grandmother was recorded as having said, how I miss them. And there they were. In a bowl. His peaches. Nature at its best. Not vacant like those happy faces. His happy faces.

Two women were deep in conversation, and Madame Realism eavesdropped with abandon. The first woman was saying, "He had an apartment near his dealer's, and his wife didn't know about it, and he had to distort her face so that she wouldn't know Madame Realism Asks: What's Natural About Painting / 27 who the model was. So he made the faces like penises and vaginas." "The faces? the second woman asked. "Yes," said the first, "like the nose coming out? That's a penis." They were talking about Picasso, Madame Realism figured out, because whatever else you might say about Renoir, his noses didn't look like penises. Although, upon viewing a late painting of nudes, she wanted to rush over to those women and tell them that a Renoir elbow looked like a breast. Or like a peach. Peaches and breasts. Peaches are much more like flesh than apples, or for that matter, onions. A bowl of breasts — a still life. She looked again at the masklike faces of children, the hidden faces of men dancing with women whose faces and bodies were on display. If masks, what were they hiding? she asked herself, moving closer to the painting as if that would reveal something. Instead, she saw brushstrokes. Disappointed, she walked on and thought about D.H. Lawrence and how the flesh and its passions refuse education and class, are, in a sense, used to defy them. She wanted to look at these paintings with something like sympathy rather than indifference. But somehow this evocation of the simple life and its joys, the contented family, the gardens of Eden, did not produce in her pleasure, but she did become aware of how hungry she was. Madame Realism was not one to discount this effect, and couldn't wait to sit down and eat. But there was more to see.

Facing Sleeping Girl with a Cat Madame Realism heard two young women agree that the cat looked just like theirs; it was so real, down to the pads on its paws. But, said one, "Doesn't that girl look uncomfortable?" Madame Ralism agreed, silently. The sleeping girl had been positioned so that the light would hit her bare shoulders and partially exposed chest. This was supposed to be a natural position, though any transvestite could tell you that 28 / The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories naturalness wasn't easy to achieve. Although, according to one of the writers in the exhibition's catalogue, Renoir had "an instinct" for it. Naturalness, that is, not transvestism. Shaking her head from side to side, Madame Realism followed the crowd to Gabrielle with jewelry. Women are home to him, she thought, big comfortable houses. And if representation has to do with re-presenting something, what is it we repeat over and over but our sense of home, which may become a very abstract thing indeed. She imagined another sign. It read: Representation — A Home Away from Home.

Wanting very much to leave and eat, to go home, tired of the insistent flow in front of paintings, of which she was very much a part, Madame Realism was entrapped by another conversation, carried on by two men and a woman. The first man to speak was waving his arms, rather excitedly, saying, "The washerwomen were square. He was painting things as if they were rigid, fixed in a space that wouldn't move." The woman responded, "You can see why his paintings would appeal to the common man and woman. His people are just so unselfconscious." The first man countered, "But his talent was remarkable." The second man asked, "In his notes and letters, is there a more cerebral quality?" The first man answered, "No, and he wasn't a happy person." The woman exclaimed, "But his paintings have such joy." Both men said "vitality" in unison. "It's often true," said the first man. "He was a very cranky guy from a poor family. The sensuality in all his paintings ... Just wishful thinking." The woman said, "He was like Mozart, a basic talent, but without intellect." The first man threw his arms out again and implored, "But he was a natural flowing talent. It just flowed out." The seoond man said, "Genius." At genius, Madame Realism walked out of the exhibition to the souvenir shop. He sounds more like a fountain than a painter, or more like an animal who holds a paintbrush. If, according to that same writer in the catalogue, Renoir's brush "was part of him," then maybe he didn't even have to hold it. Madame Realism bought five postcards and thought the paintings looked better in reproduction than as originals, just as a friend of hers told her they would. Maybe that's why he's so popular, she thought.


Excerpted from The Complete Madame Realism by Lynne Tillman. Copyright © 2016 Lynne Tillman. Excerpted by permission of Semiotext(e).
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