The caricaturist Edward Sorel, a longtime contributor to The Nation and now a featured artist in The New Yorker, often spears politicians on the tip of his well-honed pen. In his new book Literary Lives (Bloomsbury), however, he unleashes his satirical darts at the inflated images of some great and not so great writers and thinkers. The book consists of irreverent comic-strip biographies of Tolstoy, Proust, Elliot, Yeats, Sartre, Jung, Brecht, Ayn Rand, Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer. It is the gap between feet of clay and feats of greatness that sparks Sorel’s perverse comic vision.
A fierce moralist like all great satirists, Sorel can also be gently funny or playfully fantastical, a talent not always in evidence among others of this angry breed. He imagines, for example, Proust’s real hometown of Illiers, which renamed itself Illiers-Combray (the narrator’s fictional home place in the novel) after the author became famous: The skyline is filled with billboards advertising madeleines (“Ca Me Rappelle Quelquechose,” says poster-boy Marcel) and in the square there’s a “Café De Temps Perdu.” He draws the poet Yeats in one panel making several fruitless proposals to the imperious beauty Maude Gonne and then, failing in that suit, to her daughter, Iseult. All of this follows biographical fact, but the inherent ridiculousness of the fey Irish genius in love is highlighted in serial images of him on his knees, growing grayer as time and Maude pass him by.
But in addition to demonstrating that satire can be funny, even silly, he casts a cold Swiftian eye on the follies of his Pantheon–the pettiness, greed, vanity and ego that invariably anchor genius to mortal earth. He can skewer a character flaw in a single panel. For example, he comments on Sartre’s prosperity as a playwright during the Nazi occupation of Paris by showing a German soldier lighting the tuxedo-clad Sartre’s cigarette. The psychiatrist Carl Jung’s infatuation with spiritualism and mystery cults is baldly lampooned in a panel imagining Jung’s private vision of himself in full armor, his arm about a buxom blonde Brunhilde. Following that is a darker panel of Jung in 1933 proposing that “Jews be forced to dress differently so they are not mistaken ‘for people like ourselves.'” Unfair? Perhaps, but fairness does not go with the job description. Caricaturists exaggerate or invent traits to show a higher truth about their subject’s character or beliefs.
Like any caricaturist, Sorel primarily relies on comic distortion to reveal his vision of the subject’s particular flaws. He can pillory a subject without words, or sum up their essence–as in his famous Esquire cover some years ago illustrating Gay Talese’s story about Frank Sinatra: A score of hand-held lighters appear to kindle the great man’s cigarette. But unlike many deadly caricaturists (the New York Review‘s David Levine comes immediately to mind), he can effectively integrate words and text with his art. In such cases he chooses to tell his stories within the humble frame of the comic strip.
With the pictures he employs a running narrative in deceptively childlike handwriting to set up subjects for graphic comment, hanging them with their own words or a biographical fact. In other words, text serves the pictures. Thus, lampooning Lillian Hellman’s Stalinist views, he tells of the playwright refusing to approve a benefit performance of her play The Little Foxes in Finland after Soviet troops invaded. “I’ve been to Finland,” says Hellman, wearing her best tough-broad hat and sneer, “and it looks like a pro-Nazi little Republic to me.” Sorel comments: “In fact evidence suggests she has never been in Finland.” Much funnier is George Eliot cuddling her effete, younger second husband, John Cross, who turns out to be a poor candidate for marriage.
Sorel’s genius as a caricaturist, his brilliant rendering of expressions, his antic compositions–all give verisimilitude to his satiric studies. He can skewer hypocrisy or illuminate character with the pen strokes of a single panel. Consider Jung’s swollen bearing as he imagines himself “the Aryan Christ”; or the pathos of old Tolstoy’s haunted visage en route to death in a distant railroad station. While lulling you with a joke or two, Sorel will slip you a harsh dose of truth.