Poetry News

Mina Loy's Only Novel, Insel, Reviewed at The Wall Street Journal

By Harriet Staff


"Forty-eight years after her death, the mysterious Mina Loy continues to emerge as if from a Modernist mist," writes Martin Riker for The Wall Street Journal in a new review of Mina Loy's only novel, Insel, recently published by Melville House. So say they:

German painter Insel is a perpetual sponger and outsider—prone to writing elegant notes with messages like “Am starving to death except for a miracle—three o’clock Tuesday afternoon will be the end”—but somehow writer and art dealer Mrs. Jones likes him.

Together, they sit in cafés, hatch grand plans, and share their artistic aspirations and disappointments. And they become friends. But as they grow ever closer, Mrs. Jones begins to realize just how powerful Insel’s hold over her is.

Unpublished during Loy’s lifetime, Insel—which is loosely based on her friendship with the painter Richard Oelze....

A swift intro to Loy from Riker: "In the early 20th century, you could have used her coordinates to trace a map of the avant-garde: She studied art in France, acted in New York, was a Futurist in Italy—see her 'Feminist Manifesto' of 1914—as well as a lampshade designer, Christian Scientist, talent scout for a Surrealist art dealer, and friend to Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound and on down the line. In writing, Loy was known almost exclusively as a poet; in 1923 she published the incomparable collection 'Lunar Baedeker,' a book of playful, sharp-witted yet haunting verse. She was not a poet of emotion but was committed to the aesthetic, the beautiful." He continues:

The Loy-like narrator, Mrs. Jones, is a middle-aged writer in Paris, employed acquiring art for a New York gallery, and is interested in Insel's work. That their relationship combines business and personal elements is possibly the only conventional thing to be said about it. They are immediately drawn together by an ineffable nonsexual attraction; they "see" each other as others do not. As the book proceeds through a Spartan plot—they hang out; they talk; she washes his laundry—the drama that develops is not a conflict between the two characters but simply Mrs. Jones's quest to understand and articulate the supernatural qualities of this "Surrealist" man, Insel, and the inexplicable effect his presence has upon her.

"Insel," I asked puzzled, "how does the world look to you? Like an Aquarium?"

Insel looking no less puzzled than myself, I was taken aback. But I went on in the hope of striking common ground.

"It was the evening outside the Lutetia I experienced its effects. A sort of doubling of space where different selves lived different ways in different dimensions at once. Sitting on the sidewalk—floating in an Atlantic Ocean full of skyscrapers and ethereal cars."

"Insel" could certainly be called a difficult book, with the proviso that its difficulties are always at the heart of the matter. Although Loy can be wonderfully simple in her strangeness—"I have always presumed that hair with its electric properties will not remain unutilized in a future evolution of the brain"—the novel's pleasures require exertion, such as wrangling with bizarrely gymnastic metaphors. Describing Insel's speech, Loy writes: "In his unusual liveliness, words, like roomy cupboards, dipped into the reservoir of excited honey and flapping their open doors spilled it all over the place as they passed."

The greatest linguistic challenge, however, is the one that Mrs. Jones faces as she works to find words to describe the otherworldly qualities that Insel holds for her. Here Loy invents or cobbles together a terminology, much of it borrowed from Christian Science—words like "rays" and "magnetism"—out of which she builds an aesthetic cosmology all her own: "Some infrared or there invisible ray he gave off, was immediately transferred on one's neural current to some dark room in the brain for instantaneous development in all its brilliancy. So one saw him as a gray man and an electrified organism at one and the same time." The inclusion in this edition of "Visitation," a later ending that Loy had purposefully left off the finished manuscript, is a mixed blessing. Though an interesting piece and of scholarly value, it suggests a literal explanation for Insel's peculiarity—that he was a morphine addict—which works against the rich ambiguity that Loy took pains to create.

Coincidentally, we just bought Insel an hour ago ourselves! Can't wait to read it. Find the full review at WSJ.

Originally Published: May 20th, 2014