montparnasse paris

Carolyn Burke


Becoming Modern:
The Life of Mina Loy

Salon, Megan Harlan

“Her contemporaries considered Mina Loy to be one of the great Modernist poets, as well as perhaps the first "modern woman." After decades of obscurity, her recent "rediscovery" poses a peculiar challenge for readers of poetry and redressers of history. Will her dazzling and far more easily apprehended legend-in-the-making—that of a glamorous bohemian chameleon whose friends and admirers included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp—overshadow the formidably difficult brilliance of her work? To read Burke's lush, nuanced biography is to marvel at how aptly Loy served as a "cartographer of the imagination" in the post-Victorian era: her hand sculpted burgeoning movements from feminism to Futurism. She had an impeccable instinct for being at the right place at the right time. Loy is tough. But if ever there were an era ready to decipher her self-described "music made of visual thoughts," visionary confessionalism, and sexual frankness, it's now.”

 

Washington Post, Carolyn See

“Mina Loy . . . turned 18 when the century turned and lived until 1966. As the title of this terrific book suggests, her life was preoccupied with an enduring project: to become "modern," to stay that way and then live with all the consequences of that decision. . . . Mina's life looks like a template for the lives of many modern women. She hated "trade"; it reminded her of her tailor dad. But she had children to raise. She had to make some kind of money. She was beautiful and headstrong, and while she didn't seem to love those futurists, at least there was some kind of emotional scuffle and glow when they were around. She knew Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, but she didn't have the emotional drive of the former or the artistic determination of the latter. As her brilliant biographer so compassionately shows us, Mina was fragmented. . . . There's not a judgmental word in this book. It's an amazing examination of "modern life" in this century.”

 

Booklist (starred review)

“[A] mesmerizing biography."

 

The Times Literary Supplement, Thom Gunn

“Mina Loy: there was the legend of her life and the reputation of her poetry, both of them oddly difficult to check up on. . . . Carolyn Burke's biography fills in the gaps between the few facts we have been able to pick up earlier and makes sense of what is in any case a remarkable life.”

 

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An important contribution to a neglected corner of modern literary history.”

 

Choice, J. N. Ingo, Jr.

“Assiduously researched and lushly detailed . . . a jewel of the biographer's art.”

 

Flatiron News, Alexander Thorp

“Burke has a novelist's eye for recreating a vanished era, and she does an especially good job in describing the lost art nouveau world of Munich and Paris where Mina Loy spent her early years after a difficult Victorian childhood in London.”

 

American Book Review, Marjorie Perloff

“Burke . . . has a fascinating story to tell. Loy's life is the stuff of Hollywood legend: it would (and probably will!) make a great movie.”

 

Women's Review of Books, Rachel Blau DuPlessis

“An intelligent, loving, and readable biography. . . . Mina Loy emerges as a key modern writer, one of those we must understand to know the spark of the new. ”

 

The Nation, Harriet Zinnes

“This legendary life in the art centers of Paris, Berlin, Florence and New York in the early decades of this century is described in great detail, with wonderful photographs, in Carolyn Burke's fine biography.”

 

San Francisco Chronicle, "The Editors Recommend"

“This impressive and non-judgmental biography of Anglo-Jewish modernist Mina Loy (1882–1966) explores European aesthetic movements through Loy's life at the turn of the century and lucidly interprets Loy's difficult, free-verse poetry.”

 

The New Republic, Mark Ford

“In this superb biography, Carolyn Burke does full justice to the mercurial nature of Loy's temperament, and offers judicious assesments of her work. Burke captures the glamour of Loy's presence.”

 

The Atlantic Monthly, Phoebe-Lou Adams

“Mina Loy (1882–1966) was the daughter of a Hungarian Jew who prospered in the men's-clothing trade in Britain. There he married an English rose who developed into such a thornbush that nothing their daughter Mina subsequently did can be considered unreasonable. . . . Ms. Burke has done extremely well in describing the variety of distinguished people Loy knew and in chronicling the cultural disputes in which they engaged, making her book as much a history of early twentieth-century aesthetics as it is a biography of a woman who took part in all the turmoil.”

 

Harper's Bazaar, Larissa McFarquhar

“When you think of women writers who experimented with modernism and sexual limits in between-the-wars Paris, names like Gertrude Stein, Colette, Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Nin come to mind. But this list leaves out one of the most notorious figures of that literary world, a woman whose reputation has until now been in unfortunate eclipse: the ruinously beautiful poet-painter Mina Loy. Born in London in 1882, Loy did not become widely known until her early 30s, when she published Love Songs, a series of poems whose bizarre grammar and garish sexuality caused a sensation. Around the same time, Loy acquired a reputation as a radical, conducting illicit affairs with the two leaders of the Italian Futurist movement—Filippo Marinetti and Giovanni Papini—and composing the startling "Feminist Manifesto," which advocated the surgical destruction of virginity in pubescent girls. In the '20s and '30s, Loy's poetry was held in high regard. Ezra Pound, an admirer, coined a word to describe it: "logopoeia, or poetry that is akin to nothing but language"; the poet and critic Ivor Winters thought it more important than the work of Marianne Moore or Wallace Stevens. Now, after decades of obscurity, Loy is on her way to being rediscovered. . . . Loy made the most of the liberating spirit of the '20s. Her avant-garde résumé is impeccable: she danced at Webster Hall with Marcel Duchamp, reeled through Paris with James Joyce, took tea in Florence with Stein and Alice B. Toklas. And she married the flamboyant poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, who was later dubbed the father of surrealism by André Breton. Read now, Loy's writing seems a little dated, but it's wonderful for precisely that reason. It explodes with an idol-smashing brave-new-world energy that reminds you of the exhilarating side of modernism. Take this line from her Nietzschean "Aphorisms on Futurism": "To your blushing we shout the obscenities, we scream the blasphemies, that you, being weak, whisper alone in the dark." The critic Carl Van Vechten begged Loy at the height of her notoriety to write poems "without a sexual undercurrent," for the sake of her reputation. She replied, "I know nothing but life—and that is generally reducible to sex."”

 

Boston Book Review, Paula Friedman

“Carolyn Burke has given us an expansive and detailed view of the qualities that make Mina Loy an intriguing modernist figure, both as a personality and an artist. . . . Becoming modern, as Burke demonstrates in this stimulating biography, was a complex process for Loy, one that engaged, in equal measure, her personal history and the diverse cultural impulses of the times. ”

 

New York Times, Nicholas Fox Weber

“Gertrude Stein, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wrote that Loy "has always been able to understand." Loy had the ability to transform herself, and to move from one world to another. We learn from Ms. Burke's informative book how Loy bravely escapes a miserable and draconian English childhood to discover the possibilities of free verse, free love and the latest in art and style on the continent and in the United States.”