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In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was fully prepared to strongly dislike Filip Noterdaeme’s new book, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart (Outpost19). The premise—the establishment-thwarting artist recounts the life story of his cabaret-performer lover and partner that employs “unique syntax punctuation and capitalization… in meticulous homage” of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—sounds simultaneously attention-seeking and self-congratulatory. The more I read, however, the more I succumbed to this impressive work’s many charms, chief among them being a peek behind the curtain at the life of a pair of full-time provocateurs and the understated portrait of a one-of-a-kind and enduring romance.
At one point, Noterdaeme instructs a young protégé to focus more on form than message, because “message… is for demagogues pedagogues and rogues and form is for geniuses lunatics and non-conformists.” And, indeed, the author is living by his own advice—his commitment to replicating Stein’s famous work is obvious and obsessive, a tribute of dedication. Luckily for readers, however, an intimate knowledge of the source material is not a requirement for enjoying Noterdaeme’s book.
As Stein’s work was a love letter not only to Toklas, but also to Paris from the American expat couple, in Noterdaeme’s book, the story is as much about New York as it is about the German and Belgian men that find love there. The tales of their very different arrivals in the Big Apple and serendipitous meeting are among the most engrossing, and the fact that these two found each other in such a crowded and international city is enough to warm even the most jaded unbanite’s heart. Soon, though, these two Europeans are engaged in the intricate dance of those who can be counted among city’s artistic elites and yet approach everything as an outsider—Noterdaeme is the founder of the Homeless Museum, in which almost every project is a direct skewering of the art-world establishment.
While the artistic endeavors may be highbrow, much of the reader’s enjoyment will likely come from more pedestrian sources. To say the book is gossip-y would be an epic understatement. Roughly 90% of the book involves name-dropping, and many of the lines (“In those days every second girl one met wanted to be a burlesque performer and one had to be careful in dividing the talented from the desperate, in other words the ham from the spam.”) wouldn’t be out of place at a brunch table or cocktail party. And this is one of the most refreshing insights into Noterdaeme and Isengart’s life: From the outside, performance art (or any kind of art), can seem so self-serious, so it’s delightful to see how much of these two artists’ works do come from a place of genuine humor and joy of creation.
The most rewarding part of the book, however, is also the subtlest. As one reads about every minor detail of Isengart and Noterdaeme’s life together, it’s hard not to think about just how close and open of a couple they must be for the book to even be possible. And that’s the one thing I found myself craving more of; unless it’s related to the creation of a cabaret show or a work of art, there’s little direct discussion of the pair’s personal life. Still, while the book maybe many things—witty, wry, thought-provoking, even catty—at its heart it’s also deeply romantic, which is what will ultimately make it resonate deeply with every reader who comes across it.
The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart
By Filip Noterdaeme
Paperback, 9781937402488, 351 pp.