Monday, 1 April 2019

Book review: Imperfect, Lee Kofman (2019)

Kofman in her book takes a look at physical beauty and its obverse, disfigurement, and it’s an involving journey from her own childhood undergoing surgery for a defective heart when she was a small girl, followed by reconstructive surgery necessitated by being run over by a bus when she was a bit older. The scars from these events followed Kofman from the country of her birth to Israel, where her parents, who were devout, migrated after receiving permission to leave from the Russian government. Here Kofman grew into a young woman and began her lifelong love affair with the written word. She was also in the armed forces and worked in a variety of jobs before emigrating to Australia. She still lives in Melbourne.

The scars went with her through all of these alterations of time and place, and in her memoir Kofman examines what it has meant to go through life with visible reminders of the past etched into her flesh. She also goes looking for information on the nature of beauty and of normalcy and its opposite by talking with other people she meets: people who modify their bodies, people who like going out with large-sized women, and people who are recovering from burns. The range of opinions she takes in in her catalogue of imperfection – a thoroughness no doubt assisted by her doctoral research, on which at least part of the book is based – seems exhaustive. The number of themes she touches on is similarly large, and includes such things as desire, shame, pity, resilience, the redemptive power of humour, and the transformative power of beauty.

This last idea seems to have been one of the things that impressed itself most forcefully on the author in the course of her investigations. Rather than ignoring the problematic nature of disfigurement, she suggests, people should learn how to find agency despite the debilitating aspects of life lived with it. You cannot simply dismiss the reality of a visible scar resulting, for example, from a burn or from cancer treatment. By the same token, you cannot ignore (as Kofman herself would not during her life) the ability of beauty to signify something important about humanity. The remedy for a diversity of body types is not to reject beauty outright but to find it in difference, and Kofman applauds moves by makers of popular culture to normalise it by featuring it in their dramas through the use of actors with different body types.

I found Kofman’s struggles with the idea of beauty to be the most interesting part of this lengthy work, a work that tries to get under the skin of corporeal diversity and to find clues there to the nature of happiness and of personal fulfillment. Her withering take on the politically correct approach to beauty belonging to parts of the intelligentsia formed for me a dramatic crux in the book. In this deliberate and fresh take on one aspect of contemporary feminism I perceived the very heart of the approach to the material being studied.

Good works of creative nonfiction by Russian women are becoming something of a trope on this blog. Back on 18 June of last year I published a post about Maria Tumarkin’s ‘Axiomatic’ little thinking that in less than a year I’d be reading another migrant’s work that would be nonfiction written in a fictional style. What both of these books share is an outsider’s viewpoint. The ability to turn the object under consideration through 45 degrees so that a new aspect of it is revealed.

The obverse of Kofman’s being an outsider is the existence of some archaic terms like “sin” and a reliance for the creation of signification on the old Greek myths, which are elements that a writer such as Helen Garner or Chloe Hooper might not use in a work similar to this one. In some sections furthermore I felt that the writing was a bit underdone, as though the author had not adequately reviewed her own work. This characteristic of the text gives the book a flavour of reportage and a discursive informality that does not so much reflect poor style but it would not suit all nonfiction writers. Perhaps more time spent going through the work to make sure that all of its ideas were conveyed with equal clarity would not have been wasted.

I also have to say that it is a relief to find, as I do from time to time, another reader who never took to Steinbeck. I don’t remember which of the American author’s books I read but there was something about the beginning of it that told me that there would be loads of tragedy in what was to follow. I felt cornered, as though there was no space to escape from the author’s plan.

Just a note as well on formatting. I read this book on Kindle and the parts that are in italics are very small and hard to read. Normally this is not a problem because italicised text in the book is usually short, just a word or two. But some passages are entirely set in italics and these were almost impossible to read.

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