Revolutions In The Heart Essay, Research Paper
Revolutions in the heartCoco and Igor by Chris Greenhalgh 311pp, ReviewPeople punched each other at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Maybe it was the heat in the packed Thétre des Champs Élysées on the warm, Spring evening of May 29 1913. Maybe it was the primal, groin-thrusting immodesty of Nijinsky’s choreography. But the raw, rhythmic violence of Stravinsky’s score soon spilled over into the auditorium, inciting the detractors and defenders of this epoch-making music to blows. Stravinsky’s ballet music was described by one contemporary critic as being like “Russian vodka with French perfumes”. The description was more apt than he realised; among the baying, brawling crowd at the first performance of the Rite of Spring was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The careers of Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel took a remarkably close course. In the first years of the 20th century, Stravinsky studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at the same time that the orphaned Chanel developed her precocious skills as a seamstress. In 1910, the year of Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballet the Firebird, Chanel registered as a milliner. Three years later, the Rite of Spring was launched and Coco opened her first shop. Having revolutionised the worlds of music and fashion respectively, they died within a year of each other in 1971.The artistic missions of composer and couturiere were remarkably similar. He set out to re-write the rulebook of classical composition, she sought to democratise women’s fashion. Chanel called for clothes that women could actually move in, creating minimal designs in jersey cotton, a cheap fabric previously used only for shifts and chemises. Stravinsky liberated tonality from its traditional, harmonic corsetry, stripping western music to its underwear. When Stravinsky arrived in Paris, seeking refuge from the First World War, it seemed inevitable that his path would cross with Chanel’s. The introduction was most likely to have been made by Diaghilev, and in 1927 the two worked together on the oratorio Oedipe Roi, for which Chanel designed the costumes. But Chris Greenhalgh’s impressively realised novel seizes upon the tantalising possibilities of an earlier encounter in 1920, when the exiled composer was invited to stay at Bel Respiro, Chanel’s art nouveau villa on the outskirts of Paris. Did an affair occur between Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel? In Edmonde Charles-Roux’s standard biography, Chanel insists that she and Stravinsky were lovers. Robert Craft’s first-hand account of the composer’s life is more circumspect. He concedes that an affair may have been the reason why Stravinsky peremptorily departed Paris for Biarritz, but later contradicts himself by stating that the journey was undertaken so that Stravinsky could be with his mistress, Vera Sudeikina – the real love of his life – whom he eventually married in 1940. Nor, when he took up Chanel’s offer of accommodation, could the composer have been described as eligible. A squat, balding man with a prominent nose and bad teeth, he arrived with his ailing first wife, Katerina, and their four children in tow. But Coco’s villa – which she had ostentatiously stuccoed in her trademark black and beige – was hardly a haven of conventional behaviour. Shortly after Stravinsky arrived, Coco also installed the strapping 29-year-old Grand Duke Dmitri, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II and one of the assassins of Rasputin. Their presence under her roof must have stimulated Coco to some degree. Her collection of Russians became manifest in a Russian Collection, full of heavy furs, blousons and peasant influences. Even if the brief flirtation between Stravinsky and Chanel did not redirect the course of their lives, Chris Greenhalgh makes a remarkable job of spinning this emotional footnote into a plausible fiction. He opens the story at the moment of Stravinsky’s greatest triumph and deepest humiliation – the farcical first night of the Rite of Spring. Coco has just come in to her fortune, Stravinsky has just been relieved of his. With his savings appropriated by the Bolsheviks and a return to Russia impossible, Coco sees Stravinsky as a needful case for charity and a potential conquest. Greenhalgh casts Coco as a determined, impish figure, used to getting what she wants: “a snake capable of swallowing someone twice her size”. Coco and Igor brilliantly rehearses the dynamics of a doomed relationship, spiced with illicit pleasure and laden with guilt. It’s an erotic, anxiety-ridden adulterer’s tale, full of the blunt uncertainties of an artist’s life at the cutting edge. As an established poet, Greenhalgh writes his debut novel with an economy and precision which suggests that he is reticent about using up too many words at once. He is also notably keen not to re-hash scenes which have been rehearsed many times before. While the riot which accompanied the Rite of Spring offers rich pickings for descriptive prose, Greenhalgh views the proceedings from an oblique perspective. He incorporates images only a poet would notice: such as the entrance of the musicians “thickening like knots of crotchets”, or the fans flapping in the rising heat “like trapped birds all over the theatre”. He also evokes the rather inelegant nature of the protagonist’s relationship. Stravinsky does not so much fall into Coco’s arms as stagger blimpishly towards them. The critical moment occurs not at a romantic climax with violins and thunderstorms, but when Chanel notices that the composer has a button missing on his shirt and kneels to sew it back on. Somehow the act acquires an almost indecent aura of intimacy and eroticism. Less plausible, however, is Greenhalgh’s intimation that Chanel was single-handedly responsible for sloughing off Stravinsky’s sexual timidity, thus causing him to move to America, as far away from Coco as possible. By that time his former patroness had moved on to the Duke of Westminster and the little black dress. But that, like Stravinsky’s extraordinary encounters with Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and P T Barnum’s elephants, is material for another novel altogether.