Posts from December 2008
December 31st, 2008
This is the 400th posting here at Stevereads and the last one of 2008, so I wanted to take a moment to thank everybody who’s read along these past few years and everybody who’s left comments to tell me what they think. In 2008 I read slightly more than 400 books and slightly more than 400 periodical articles of one kind or another. I posted roughly 155 entries here this year and discussed roughly 110 books, plus lots of comics, articles, and the occasional TV show.
And more to the point, I had great fun doing it! There’s a simple and utterly reliable pleasure, I find, in writing about what I read, and if I continue doing it in 2009, I plan on doing more. 155 entries is a slightly anemic total, after all! 300 would be much better!
So if Stevereads continues in the new year, you can probably look for more of the same: In the Penny Press, Comics, Bible Study, Geographica, and of course lots and lots of book-discussion! And as always, you’re all warmly invited to pipe up whenever you feel moved to do so! Thanks again, and Happy New Year.
December 29th, 2008
Against all odds, a tenacious little thread of hope worked its way through 2008. A great deal of that hope was grafted to the American presidential race and its singularly restorative outcome, but even in the realm of books, all was not bleak. True, tidal waves of crap still crash onto bookstore display tables every single week, and true, a dispiriting amount of this crap isn’t recognizedas crap – some of it is even praised in public, by review organs that ought to know better.
But even so, the best stuff has a way of shining through – and here it gets the spotlight it so richly deserves! Here are the best books of 2008, starting with two sequels that will recall Stevereads lists from previous years:
10. Bats at the Library by Brian Lies – in this raucous follow-up to Bats at the Beach, Lies gives us a premise every bit as winning: some careless (or compassionate?) small-town librarian has left a window open overnight, and when the local bats find out, they hurry to take advantage, flitting all around the deserted library, reading the books, frolicking in the water fountain, and just generally rejoicing in all things reading. I don’t know of a sweeter love-letter to all the wonders even a modest library offers its patrons.
9. The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin – Our blessed, brainy lady Adelia returns in this sequel to Mistress of the Art of Death, and now she’s investigating the death of Henry II’s storied mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Franklin’s writing is as hypnotically strong as ever, almost embarrassingly better than the huge majority of the ‘historical mystery’ sub-genre, and watching the cerebral Adelia deal with love in all its messy incarnations is more fun even than the gripping multiple whodunits at the book’s core.
8. Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin – The legendary science fiction author here tries her hand at speculative historical fiction, telling the story of the native Italian woman wandering Aeneas eventually marries for state reasons. Lavinia utters not a peep in Virgil’s epic poem, but here she’s given a beguiling voice, and her world is masterfully fleshed out. I know a little about the rarefied world of classical pastiche, and I doff my cap to Le Guin for doing it so well.
7. American Made by Nick Taylor – I would never have expected to read – much less love – a history of Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, but Nick Taylor’s vast, engrossing book just proves what I’ve maintained all along: the right author can make anything interesting. This is social and ‘theme’ history being done about as well as it can be done … perfectly-chosen anecdotes bring all the actors to life, and suddenly this long-shuttered federal program becomes something you want to read about.Don’t be put off by any preconceptions you might have (I almost was): buy a copy of this book when it comes out in paperback.
6. Death, a Life by George Pendle – Death narrates his own story in this very witty – and surprisingly erudite (though its author would kill me for using that word) – little fantasy, and the Author Bio gives you an excellent taste of the goodies in store: “Death was born in Hell, the only son of Satan and Sin. He was educated in the Palace of Pandemonium and the Garden of Eden. Since before the Dawn of Time, he has ushered souls into the darkness of eternity. This is his first book.”In a year crammed full of bungled attempts at sustained comic conceits, the easy accomplishment of Pendle’s book is cause for joy.
5. The Learned Banqueters by Athenaeus, translated by S. Douglas Olson – Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Series can often be a dreary, text-mired business, seemingly more concerned with the correct placement of commas than with the eternal worth of the texts they deal with. But Olson’s new translation of Athenaeus’ sprawling second century catch-all (songs, poems, digressions, crackpot theories, home remedies, you name it) is a startling, delightful exception. Here is a multi-volume Athenaeus that instantly restores the author to his rightful place as a first-rate classic; here is the first real version of Athenaeus in English, the version generations of future scholars will happily use as their starting-point. Olson’s Introduction might be a trifle on the slipshod side, but his translation of Athenaeus is one long, sustained marvel to behold.
4. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow – Equal parts boys adventure story and passably profound meditation on what it means to grow up (at whatever age you choose to do so), Doctorow’s story of a near-future in which power-drunk government agencies mess with the wrong kid is like nothing else published this year, or this last handful of years. The sui generis nature of the work is reflected in much more than the fact that you don’t have to pay to read it (it’s available online for free, with the author’s enthusiastic encouragement); even the usual sugary teen-fiction bromides about individuality and the value of knowledge are given some much-deserved tweaking, and the book’s main character is vividly, sneeringly unforgettable (and, for those of you who care about such things, it sports the damn coolest cover of any book, good or bad, in 2008).
3. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens – For a 150 years, Stonewall Jackson has been an unimpeachable avatar of the romantic South many Southerners badly want to believe really once existed: a courtly man, a God-fearing man, and a military genius of stunning capacity, able to inspire and maneuver his compact army in the hills and hollows of the Shenandoah Valley to such a degree that it could hold at bay not one but three much larger Union armies. In a meticulously researched and miraculously suspenseful narrative, Cozzens hammers away at that romance, giving us instead a pigheaded, weirdly unfocused Jackson who did everything he possibly could to thwart his own great good luck. In addition to being great debunking fun, this is the best volume on any aspect of Civil War history in quite a few years.
2. A Mercy by Toni Morrison – Another big surprise for me, that any novel by Morrison would ever make it onto a list such as this from me, but Morrison’s latest, a slim, poetic novella set in a pre-Revolutionary America populated by all races of people in all kinds of slavery, struck me as almost infinitely more successful than all of her other novels combined. In the past, I’ve found her heavy-handed and tiresomely operatic; here, she’s whittled her prose into blade-edges of perfect precision and beauty.
1. Animal Life by the American Museum of Natural History, edited by Charlotte Uhlenbroek – This gorgeously-produced (DK, naturally) compendium of the entirety of animal life on Earth is so much more than the ‘coffee table book’ it at first appears.Here are not only eye-poppingly incredible photos but also gorgeous graphics and layouts, engaging and transparent prose, and most of all the bewildering variety of the natural world, offered in all its profusion and detail. Uhlenbroek and the team at the American Museum have wrought a marvel, nothing less than the perfect, all-encompassing guidebook to life on Earth. It’s the best DK production in that company’s distinguished history, the best Natural History production in 150 years (if we don’t count Theodore Roosevelt), and, certainly, the best book of 2008.
December 29th, 2008
Hard to believe another entire year has passed since the last ‘Worst of’ list, but there’s our emblematic elephant-crap picture to prove it! That picture symbolizes not just what’s awful and redolently crappy, but the worst of what’s awful and redolently crappy – the books listed here.
As always, there was a great deal of garbage published this year, in every genre, in every month, in every format. I read a huge percentage of that garbage, and a huge percentage of what I read will find no place on this list, either because it wasn’t bad enough (several fiction debuts, for instance, and about 350 Lincoln books), or because it was so predictably bad that listing it would be redundant (it wasn’t a banner year for Star Trek fiction, for instance). No, these are the cream of the crap, the books that stand out in my memory even against the vast multitude of their crappy brethren:
10. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria – an infuriating little piece of America-bashing that would be laughable if it hadn’t managed to find such a widespread audience (president-elect Obama is said to have read it, but I think he can be trusted to tell a bad book from a good one), Zakarian’s screed pats poor, ailing America on the head and tells her she’ll be OK, that life as just another post-empire Britain isn’t all that bad, that she’ll never be so fat or so ugly that the boys in the G8 won’t dance with her at least once (probably while that foxy Indonesia is in the ladies room). Zakarian obviously thinks his book raises all kinds of penetrating questions about America’s waning influence in a growing world, and in response to it, I had a few questions of my own, like: whose schools trained you? Whose institutions pay your living? Who published your book? Whose talk-shows host you? Who has the most nuclear launch-codes? And ultimately (asked with the proper Brooklyn accent), Aw, who needs you?
9. The World Is What It Is by Patrick French – This long-awaited authorized biography of the largely talentless Czechoslovakian author V. S. Naipaul (I know, I know – but you nearly exploded when you read that , didn’t you? Proving my point: without his endlessly trumpeted and synonymous nationality, this guy is virtually nothing) proves beyond a doubt that Naipaul is just as boring and loathsome to know as he is to read.
8. Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange and Why We Suck by Dennis Leary – impossible not to list these two as one entry, since they’re basically the same book and equally disgusting. There’s a very specific picture of an American guy being painted in both these books: he’s brash, crude (refers to any affection expressed in any way between any two men as “homo shit”), and horny, and he absolutely under no circumstances thinks about anything. He’s a man’s man, knows what’s right, stands up, never backs down, walks the walk, shit like that. He smokes, he drinks, he makes fun of everything, and as a good friend of mine once said (with appropriate scorn), he’s never had a thought that somebody else didn’t have first. Actually caring about anything at all (other than beer, pizza, and The Game) is the worst possible sin in this guy’s world. These two books exult in exactly the kind of brainless-goombah version of the Ugly American that was decisively rejected in the last presidential election and that will no longer be represented in the Oval Office, which brings us to:
7. American Lion by Jon Meacham – The stunning sales success of this book about America’s second-worst president (I know all of you young people out there are nodding, thinking I’m reserving the bottom spot for the worst president of your lifetime, George W. Bush, but sorry: nobody is ever likely to be worse than Richard Nixon) is troubling, to say the least. As I’ve had to point out to more than one potential buyer of Meacham’s credulous, execrable book, Andrew Jackson was a liar, a braggart, an inept military leader, a moron, a hopelessly out-of-his-depth president, and a thoroughly bad person – none of which you’ll learn from this brazenly mendacious campaign biography. Jackson was all of those things and one more: a fraud – it’s not possible to be an exponent of ‘popular democracy’ if you personally own human slaves. Like I said, the country has decisively rejectedthis kind of destructive, moronic prank-puller as a fit occupant for the White House. Meacham should be ashamed of himself, and so should all the hundreds of thousands of Americans buying his book.
6. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill – Yeesh talk about commercial success! This wretched, boggy misfire of a novel has been wildly popular in 2008, despite the fact that it’s just about the crassest, most cynical, laziest botch-job of an alleged 9-11 novelimaginable (although Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close comes incredibly close). That O’Neill couldn’t exercise sufficient self-control to turn his cricket-research into the Esquire essay it should have been is bad enough; that he grafted onto that research one of the worst tragedies in American history is pretty much the ultimate addition of insult to injury.
5. The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie – I don’t know what’s worse, the porn star name of the author or the tortured, pointless meanderings of the book; oh wait, yes I do – the book is worse, because unlike the name, it holds out not even the illusion of enjoyment. The historical fiction segments of this morosely awful novel read like dislodged Wikipedia fragments with bad dialogue pasted on, and the present-day segments (the book plays the one against the other, of course, because as we all know, the past only existed to give focus-depth to the maguffin-chasing antics of the present) are unendurably wooden – a description that brings us back to Titania Hardie, and so prompts us to move on to:
4. 2666 by Roberto Bolano – The specter of one’s imminent demise, a wise man once said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. Alas, it doesn’t do squat for the creative powers. This enormous, multi-tentacled monstrosity by the late Bolano is a heartbreaking picture of a dying writer’s urge to get out on paper all the various ideas, fantasies, and fixations that still remain inside him, but since that’s only half the job of being a writer (and since Bolano died before he could do the shaping and pruning that is the other half), the end result is about as satisfying as if Evelyn Waugh had published the disjointed, half-coherent final ravings of the dying Lord Marchmain as a book in their own right. Since nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, and since book critics are generally craven in the face of very long books, this thing has had a holiday among the reviewers (Sam Sacks at Open Letters being, once again, a godsend of an exception) – and so a lot of people have bought a bookshelf-curio they’ll never actually finish.Lucky them.
3. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman – Who exactly decided that this garrulous idiot was a writer? Who, after reading his stoned, paint-by-numbers hackwork in the various magazines thought his attempts at writing fiction would be worth razing a forest to print? Gawd only knows what Downtown Owl is about – Klosterman seems to be trying to write about his parents’ generation, back in, you know, olden times, but the scene-setting only lasts as many sentences as Klosterman feels like writing at any given time (and as for revising? Pshhhhhh-yah! Not!), and the dialogue is from a pretty bad movie of those olden times, and what’s the point of all of it anyway? What could this loser possibly write that wouldn’t make “Have you read the latest Klosterman?” the grim, dutiful setup to a punch line?
2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – The author of The Tipping Point (i.e. Follow Blindly) and Blink (i.e. Don’t Think) has dashed off a new sure-fire bestseller, Outliers (i.e. It’s Not Your Fault), and it’s every bit as anile and preposterous as the previous two. This time around, Gladwell’s … well, ‘theory’ is clearly overstating things … his madcap idea is that cultural differences account for much more of what makes outstanding thinkers and leaders (in the Gladwell universe – and especially in the minds of the Gladwell target audience – those two things are always the same) than individual capacity or effort. The ‘outliers’ of the title are those few, isolated, industrious little brown people who abandon their kooky aboriginal cultures and come to enlightenment (i.e. Target) from odd, invigorating angles. And we can all be outliers! All we need to do is mimic some of that outsider flair! Just don’t forget to pay them their social security while they’re cleaning your pool and you’re mimicking them – you can get into such trouble if you don’t!
1. Churchill, Hitler, and the ‘Unnecessary War’ by Pat Buchanan – That Buchanan is a pig-eyed, pea-brained, arch-conservative, close-the-borders, two-guns-in-every-garage nutjob is well-known, but before this disastrous, poorly-written, ineptly-researched single worst book of 2008, it was possible to believe he wasn’t actually insane. The ‘Unnecessary War’ removes all doubt. His overriding animus is of course bigotry, in this case thinly disguised as ‘real-world politics’: that America should have steered clear of the foreign entanglements of World War Two, that Hitler was at heart just a misunderstood German statesman trying to find a modus vivendi with the irrationally touchy great powers of Europe, that the fight erupting between them was a local matter that shouldn’t have embroiled the United States. Buchanan’s book sank into richly-deserved obscurity almost instantly after publication, but Buchanan himself deserves a different fate: he should be hooked up to a saline drip and monitored by a hospital triage staff, so he stays alive as each living Allied serviceman and woman, the descendants of each dead Allied serviceman and woman, each living Holocaust survivor, and the descendants of each dead Holocaust victim takes a turn giving him one solid punch in his fat, smug face. When all of them are done, every living actual historian should also get a shot. Whatever’s left of Buchanan should then be patched up and deposited in the nearest courtroom to be pauperized by the world’s biggest libel action.
And there you have it – the worst of the worst of 2008! Luckily for all of us, the clowns don’t yet run the circus, so next time, we’ll talk about the good stuff, the best of the year!
December 28th, 2008
Our last look at the Penny Press in 2008 features two accounts of the shot and fray of war – and some of the perils attendant in writing about it!
In the 18 December London Review of Books, Thomas Laqueur turns in a long and extremely thoughtful review of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Sorrow and Mark Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction. Faust’s book he loves (“a spectacularly good book,” which sounds a little like a contradiction), and Neely’s book frustrates him with its central tenet that the American Civil War was neither so bloody nor so destructive as 150 years of historians have rejoiced in saying it was.
I thought Faust’s universally-praised book was almost hysterically overwrought, and I thought Neely’s book was simply dull – you would never read a long, detailed exegesis of either one of them on Stevereads (much less Open Letters). But Laqueur is always worth reading, even when I don’t agree that his subjects are worth reviewing. In this case I think he might be a little too hard on Neely, taking him to task for relativizing what he never meant to belittle. For instance, Laqueur has little patience with Neely’s subtraction from the overall mortality of the Civil War the many thousands of deaths from infection and disease, although it’s hard not to agree with a reviewer when he’s making his points so calmly and eloquently:
The 225,000 Union and 194,000 Confederate soldiers who died from disease were just as dead as their comrades. They too left survivors bereft; they too filled graves, probably in disproportionate numbers because their bodies were more easily identified and recovered. More important, death from disease or exposure is not an act of God but a real consequence of the violence of war. It would be very odd to exclude those who died of cold and hunger in Napoleon’s or Hitler’s Russian campaigns if one were trying to quantify their human cost.
Likewise, over in the 12 December TLS, W. V. Harris reviews two volumes in the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare series – Volume One, on Greece and the Rise of Rome, and Volume Two, on Rome from the Late Republic to the Late Empire. Here, also, there’s disparity and a little literary bloodletting (this being the TLS, the latter is significantly less delicate than in other review organs).
Some of Harris’ observations are a little wobbly, as in his lengthiest digression:
At the Battle of Pydna, for instance, the commander Aemilius Paullus is said to have thrown a precious Roman standard in among the Macedonian enemy, which in effect obliged the legionaries under Paullus’ command to drive the enemy back in order to retrieve it. …. Unimaginable in a modern army, this sort of behaviour was apparently quite common in Republican Rome.
Not so common: military commanders who tried such melodramatic stunts risked a great deal, and certainly a general as experienced as this particular Aemilius Paullus never actually did it. But I’d argue that it isn’t so unthinkable in a modern army, or at least its modern equivalent isn’t. And that equivalent wouldn’t be ‘throwing a standard in among the enemy, thereby forcing your men to more greatly endanger themselves to retrieve it’ but rather ‘imitating Alexander the Great’ – who pulled that stunt (and the much riskier one of the personally leaping into the press of his enemies himself, thereby forcing his men to rescue not just the standard but the standard-bearer) quite often. And if we generalize that to ‘imitate the great stories of what battlefield courage is supposed to be,’ the thing becomes easily imaginable, even in modern-moment Iraq.
But that’s a quibble, and it shouldn’t keep us from Harris’ own bloodletting, this time in the form of a classic lightning-quick TLS knife-thrust. He’s running down the various merits of some of the Roman volume’s better essays when the knife suddenly goes in:
At the other extreme is a chapter on Rome’s early international relations marked by quite breathtaking vapidity.
Eeep. Perhaps fortunately for all involved, the writer of that chapter isn’t named. The morbidly curious will have to Google it on their own.
These two forays into military history and the reviewing of military history form our last look at the Penny Press in 2008. It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for periodical reading. Harper’s has been almost relentlessly inconsequential; GQ and Esquire have amped up their gadget-and-g-spot coverage, at the expense of anything else (ditto Men’s Journal and Outside); Vanity Fair has become thinner and slighter; The New Republic has become shriller; The New York Review of Books has become almost distractingly more political; worst of all, The Atlantic‘s move and recent redesign have combined seriously to undercut its intellectual heft.
Fortunately, the mighty TLS remains the same. And Open Letters keeps getting better and better. So there’s hope, in the Penny Press.
December 26th, 2008
Our book today is not just Ovid’s epic, twisty-delightful poem The Metamorphoses but one particular English version of it: the translation by Arthur Golding begun sometime in the early 1560s and given its more of less final form in 1567.
Although Golding probably did most of the early work on his translation while staying on the estate of that ultimate Elizabethan courtier William Cecil, nobody should mistake Golding himself for a courtier, at least not of the polished, refined kind that’s become synonymous with the word. Golding came from money, it’s true, but it was the money of a grounded, four-square landowning family out in the hills and dales of Essex, not a newly cosmopolitan clan like the Cecils. Golding came from livestock-keeping, cony-catching, ruddy-faced rural stock. He was what a later writer of genius would term a country booby squire. A great English novelist could have been describing Golding’s father:
He was a short, stumpy man, with red cheeks and a round face; who was usually to be seen till dinner-time dressed in a very old shooting coat, with breeches, gaiters, and very thick shoes. He lived generally out of doors, and was almost as great in the preserving of game as in the breeding of oxen. He knew every acre of his own estate, and every tree upon it, as thoroughly as a lady knows the ornaments in her drawing-room. There was no gap in a fence of which he did not remember the exact bearings, no path hither and thither as to which he could not tell the why and the wherefore.
Unfortunately for Golding, when his father and brother left the world, they left behind a mass of financial entanglements and debt, but it would likely not have mattered in any case: Golding was terrible with money and it was terrible with him – when he died in 1606 (after having spent a couple of stints in debtors’ prison), he had scarcely an unattached farthing to his name.
He always had hopes of money, however, and never more so than when his sister married one of the foremost peers of the realm, John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford. That John’s son – and therefore Golding’s nephew – was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has been catnip to conspiracy theorists for over a hundred years, for obvious reasons. Shakespeare’s plays are absolutely rife with allusions to Ovid, echoes of Ovid, thefts from Ovid, and in one case Ovid’s book as an actual prop on stage. Shakespearean scholars have proven to their own satisfaction that their boy (despite Ben Jonson’s claim) could read Latin with handy skill, but even if this is true (it isn’t, but even if), it’s still certain he knew Ovid in English translation front to back – and that means he knew the Golding Ovid, since there were no other serious contenders for the whole of that generation. Authorship theorists naturally say young Edward had a hand in writing Golding’s translation, and even if he didn’t, they say, surely the presence of his uncle-in-law translating away right under his nose is the reason Ovid’s work is so heavily represented in Shakespeare’s – that is, Edward’s – famous stage plays.
Golding certainly dedicated works to Edward, no doubt in hopes of financial consideration, and the dedications themselves are enough to satisfy the authorship theorists, despite the fact that Golding’s prose reads nothing like Edward’s, and despite the fact that his signature iambic heptameter (his rolling “fourteeners,” a meter that’s gone entirely out of fashion, alas) is both better and worse than – and in any case totally dissimilar to – anything Edward wrote. There comes a point, always, with authorship theorists where you just have to declare a pace on all their houses and walk away from the whole subject. If Edward de Vere wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, well then his connection to Golding makes all that much more sense. If Shakespeare wrote his own plays, his debt to Golding – and his ease of contracting it – is obvious.
In either case, we come back to the Golding Ovid itself, the poem Ezra Pound was fond of calling the most beautiful in the English language (rather embarrassing that, even for Golding fans such as myself). Critics have pounded on Golding’s clumsy inaccuracies since the ink was first wet on them, and more than one august modern authority has pronounced him shallow, wayward, and thoroughly obtuse – bad Latin and worse English. These authorities always grudgingly admit that his version of The Metamorphoses is fun to read (one recent editor compares Golding to a sports caster), but that’s about as far as they’ll go – as a translation of Ovid, they’re all quick to point out, Golding is a travesty.
Let’s see an example from one of these killjoys, in this case John Frederick Nims:
In XIV the Sibyl tells Aeneas that nothing is impossible for human worth to achieve: “Invia virtuti nulla est via.” The point is in the words: no via is invia. If one believes, with Goethe and Valery, that what one wants from a translator of poetry is not mere paraphrase of thought but a rendering of equivalent effect, then one will not be satisfied with a translator who ignores such points, as Golding does with “No way to vertue is restreynd.”
But is this so unsatisfying? Ovid’s word order is intentionally inverted, to start the line with its own obstacle, literally something like “Impassible to virtue, there is no way” (by smoothing this out to ‘no via is invia,’ Nims is, ironically enough, misserving Ovid) – and Golding preserves this by starting his line with that flat ‘no way.’ He also preserves the liquidity of Ovid’s agent in the line – his ‘to vertue’ very neatly acts as both a path and a personification: vertue is both the seeker and the destination.
A best-seller in his own day because of how incredibly damn lively his verses were, Ovid would certainly have approved of how lively Golding’s version of his great poem is. Examples are everywhere (his time in William Cecil’s house wasn’t wasted), and in order to enjoy them, all the Latinless modern reader has to do is a) overlook the less formal spellings of the day, and b) train the ear to hear the bawling, anthem-at-the-ballpark rhythm of the ‘fourteener’ at its best. Here’s poor Cadmus in the horrifying process of becoming a snake:
He falleth groveling on his breast, and both his shankes doe growe
In one round spindle Bodkinwise with sharpnd point below.
His armes as yet remayned still: his armes that did remayne,
He stretched out, and sayde with tears that plenteously did raine
Adowne his face, which yet did keepe the native fashion sownd:
Come hither wyfe, come hither wight most wretched on the ground,
And whyle that ought of mee remaynes vouchsafe to touche the same.
Come take mee by the hand as long as hand may have his name,
Before this snakish shape doe whole my body over runne.
He would have spoken more when sodainely his tongue begunne
To split in two and speache did fayle: and as he did attempt
To make his mone, he hist: for nature now had cleane exempt
All other speach.
And his wife’s misery at witnessing this transformation is no less riveting:
His wretched wyfe hir naked stomack beete
And cryde: What meaneth this? Deare Cadmus, where are now they feete?
Where are thy shoulders and thy handes? thy hew and manly face?
With all the other things that did thy princely person grace
Which now I overpasse?
And Golding’s lifelong protestations of extreme devout (even Puritan) religious belief – in his dedication to the Earl of Leicester, he actually tries to maintain that reading Ovid is good for your moral fiber – are constantly undercut by this translation of his, since staying true to Ovid means giving readers (including Robert Dudley, who needed no instruction in the ways of princely persons) time after time things they won’t find in their Sunday psalters, as, to look no further, Cadmus’ serpentine reaction to his wife’s entreaties:
When this was spoken, Cadmus lickt his wyfe about the lippes,
And (as a place with which he was acquaynted well) he slippes
Into hir boosome, lovingly embracing hir, and cast
Himself about hif neck, as oft he had in tyme forepast.
Purists (from whose ranks Golding has had the bad luck to draw virtually all his editors) will protest that whatever this is, it isn’t Ovid – and technically they’ll be correct. Ovid’s Latin is whittled and supple, cascading over the listener with the transparent mastery of water. He achieves metrical effects that even Marlowe, attempting to translate, couldn’t duplicate.
Those purists will point out that even if Golding’s conscious response to this steep gradient was therefore to embrace the effusive prolixity of English, to make a country song out of what was a city entertainment, he largely fails, stuffing Ovid’s gorgeous lines with inept circumlocutions that a better poet – even a better 16th century versifier – would have avoided.
To which I say, fine, yes, you’re probably right. But Golding was good enough for Shakespeare (even a heroically Latinate Shakespeare), who knew a thing or two about versifying, and if you spend even half an hour reading Golding’s Ovid, you’ll see why. There’s life here, in leaping, quarreling, laughing abundance. That’s pretty good, for a country booby squire. I’m no poet, but I think Ovid would have approved.
December 26th, 2008
The winter snows, the year’s close, the accumulated prose … all things focus the attention on Open Letters – ah, but which? A hundred years ago, ‘Open Letters’ was a semi-autonomous little duchy of that grand old gal, The Century magazine. That ‘Open Letters’ had its own separate staff – a small fraternity of editors who had the good fortune also to be friends who generally respected each other’s abilities – its own deadlines, and its own procedures. Technically, the department was supposed to deal with the mail – sorting, answering (that was done, back then), and occasionally publishing. Even, very occasionally, responding in print.
But that was only ‘technically’ – in reality, ‘Open Letters’ often found itself -and often prided itself on – dealing with all sorts of disjecta membra from the rest of the magazine. The editors knew that their little fiefdom was the last thing in every issue before the joke-material traditionally put in the very last pages – they strove to be the best thing in every issue as well. They strove for variety, for liveliness, even for a modicum of timeliness.
As, for instance, when one particular issue of ‘Open Letters’ from a century ago dealt with that most pressing issue, higher education for women. A freelancer had recently published a wind-baggy piece asserting that the more schooling women got, the more obnoxious they became, and he was roundly taken to task in a letter by Christine Ladd Franklin:
The moral of my argument is very plain. Let women have the best education that can be given them. Permit them to make the most of their intellectual powers, however humble those powers may be. Because women excel men in virtue, they have not laid down the rule that men shall not be encouraged to practice the few small virtues that they are capable of. Preachers do not urge men to shun gentle manners, lest they should unsex themselves. Why not let each half of the human race cultivate whatever qualities it has, instead of crushing some of them altogether, because it is possible that they are too small already?
The receipt of this letter prompted one of the editors to comment, “I’ll wager it’s not only her argument that’s very plain,” but he was shouted down by the rest, who were taken by Miss Franklin’s spirited common sense.
The Century‘s American Artists series prompted W. Lewis Fraser (1897 was still very much the era of three names, now sadly departed) to supply additional biographical material about the great Boston-born painter Walter Gay, also commenting “The chief distinction of his paintings lies in the diffused light and vibration of atmosphere. Their color, somewhat sad and cold, is admirably wedded to the subjects, which lean to the pathetic.”
And a letter from Charles Moreau Harger of Abilene, Kansas, went on at some proud length about the writer’s possession of a lock of Napoleon’s hair, fully authenticated, black-brown in color with just a tinge of gray. Harger wrote:
There is no doubt of the authenticity of the lock of hair, and of the other interesting though less valuable relics. The hair is particularly notable, as it is probably the only bit of that which was mortal of the great emperor now on this continent.
This drew a comparatively rare public riposte from the oldest of the ‘Open Letters’ editors:
Not the only. The writer in his youth was present when was opened probably one of the lockets containing Napoleon’s hair which were distributed, by the Emperor’s direction, at his death. A single hair was given to the writer; he tied a bit of silk thread about it and placed it for safe keeping in his watch; the watch was left with a watchmaker for repair. The next day he went back to the shop and asked if a small piece of thread had been found inside the watch. “Yes, I blew it out.” “Then you blew out a piece of Napoleon Bonaparte,” said the writer.
(Note the ostentatious use of three semi-colons in one sentence; the editor in question was always a bit of a show-off)
Readers coming upon all this stuff now, at the tail-end of 2008, will no doubt find it fustian and faintly absurd, and such readers are duly warned: with the possible exception of certain two-term presidents, nothing looks as absurd while it’s happening as it will in a hundred years. We are all surrounded by subjects we take very seriously that will look very silly a century from now. The threat of looking silly is the price of caring about things – and it’s a threat everyone with a brain and a heart must brave.
Still, the repartee of that long- ago ‘Open Letters’ doesn’t quite embarrass, even after all this time, and if you were to find an old, tattered issue of The Century and sit down (in a window seat, preferably) to read it, I bet you’d find things in it to interest and even please you, no less than if it were the latest New Yorker.
That’s all any publication can do, and that’s all it can hope for: work your hardest, put your best material forth, keep your ethics and your sense of humor about you, and hope to be at least in the game in a hundred years time. Try always to be new and fascinating, yes, but keep one part of your mind also fixed on that window seat so far removed from so many of the concerns you have now. Strive to find the truth at the heart of everything you write. Strive to be anthologizable.
The present-day Open Letters (staffed entirely by two-namers, alas) is still very much in the game, and its new issue is published in mere days. January is its special Poetry Issue, celebrating both that most exalted of all the arts and also the return to active duty of Poetry Editor John Cotter, who has assembled a great lineup of pieces on a stunning variety of poets and poetic topics, from ancient times to the present day. He’s also managed to find quite a few actual poems worthy of your time, which is no mean feat (The Century routinely failed to do so, for instance, and that earlier ‘Open Letters’ never even tried). And for those of you not feeling quite up to poetry so soon after your New Year’s celebrations, there’s a smattering of fascinating articles on more secular subjects, all crafted with the greatest care and presented to you free of charge. So mark the first of January on your calendars for something other than the resumption of all your bad habits – save room for a good habit, and read the latest Open Letters Monthly!
December 25th, 2008
Our book this Christmas Day is The Christmas Day Kitten by All Creatures Great and Small author James Herriot. This is a little children’s book he did in 1976, with horrifying illustrations by Ruth Brown. It’s the story of sweet-natured Mrs. Pickering:
A feral cat is in the habit of visiting Mrs. Pickering, especially on cold, snowy days. This cat, Debbie, doesn’t ask much – she mostly enjoys basking by the fireside for a while.
And although Herriot concentrates his little parable on the good Debbie ends up bringing into Mrs. Pickering’s life, it’s quite obvious from Ruth Brown’s illustrations that evil has already taken firm root there. If you study this picture, you’ll be able to spot it:
Still, Mrs. Pickering soldiers on. She’s distraught one Christmas Day when an obviously-ill Debbie brings a single bedraggled kitten to her house.
Herriot is called to attend to the cat, but it’s obvious Debbie is dying – much to the delight of the evil lurking just on the other side of the festive Christmas tree:
Debbie dies (gas, needless to say, is suspected), and Mrs. Pickering names the kitten Buster and takes him into her home. This decision causes consternation among the forces of evil that already infest the home, as can be seen in the dark, dead-eyed expressions they wear:
Unfortunately for those forces, however, Buster eventually grows to weigh an entire pound and so proves far too formidable an adversary for evil to confront directly. There’s only one possible course of action: instant gloppy belly-exposing submission:
And so Mrs. Pickering and Buster live happily ever after.
The dark clusters of evil still remain – but only because actually leaving would require too much energy:
And the moral of our Christmas story? Be very careful what animals you take into your home.
December 25th, 2008
Well, the mega-crossover-event that has convulsed the entire line of Marvel Comics for the last few months, the “Secret Invasion” storyline, is now over. For those of you who quite rightly abandoned the whole mess early on, it goes something like this: the evil shape-changing alien Skrulls find a way to flawlessly mimic several dozen Earth people (including several superheroes and super-villains) in preparation for a full-on invasion of Earth. Innumerable plot complexities follow, and in the end Earth repels the invasion – with two big pieces of fallout: first, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) resigns as head of the uber-governmental agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and second, arch-bad guy Norman Osborn (whom my generation knew as the villainous – and thoroughly dead Green Goblin) gets the job and becomes, essentially, the most powerful man in the world.
Once he gets the job, he does what any reputable super-baddie would do: he convenes a table-full of the world’s other super-baddies, raises his glass, and says, “Gentlemen – to evil!”
Not really, but damn close enough. He summons a choice roster of guests: Emma Frost, the mind-reading mutant White Queen and current leader of the X-Men, Doctor Doom, deposed ruler of Latveria and long-time arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, some gun-toting loser named The Hood (apparently, he’s the new leader of the underworld gangs once ruled by the Kingpin), Loki, the now-female (formerly male) evil Asgardian god, and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. And he makes these guests an offer he hopes they can’t refuse: in exchange for ‘hitting’ whatever he wants hit, no questions asked, he’ll use his newfound power to give them whatever they want – Doom wants to be restored to power in Latveria? Done! Emma Frost wants to keep her fellow mutants out of concentration camps? Done! The Hood wants his thieves and drug-runners to operate free of restrictions? Done! Loki wants to rule Asgard? Done!
Yah, the whole thing screeches to a halt right there, doesn’t it? I know, I know – I noticed it right away too. But let’s limp on a little anyway and come back to it later.
Anyhoo, Norman Osborn is nothing if not thoughtful. He tells his guests “We all know that our best moments have been private ones … while our defeats have been very public. I say, instead of pushing against that fate, we embrace it. Let’s keep our wins quiet. Let’s keep our victories between us. Let’s do it in a way that works to our strengths.”
It’s not a mutual admiration society he’s gathered, however, and The Hood points out the natural problem: “OK, but say when it’s time to pay the goblin, and we tell you to go @#$% yourself, because that is, historically, what we do …”
Osborn has a response ready: he gestures to a shadowy figure in the doorway, his “friend,” and threatens that anybody who doesn’t play ball will get a dire visit from that individual. He asks Emma Frost to read his mind and verify that he’s telling the truth, and she does, but neither he nor she nor writer Brian Michael Bendis feels compelled to blurt out the “friend”‘s name, so we never find out who that person is. All we know is that Osborn thinks it’s someone who could threaten even a Norse god. The meeting breaks up shortly after that implied threat, with nobody in formal agreement with anybody else about anything.
The comparison is explicitly obvious, of course. This one-shot issue is supposed to be a mirror image to Bendis’ ‘Illuminati’ series of a year ago, in which the secret leaders of the good guys gather around a table to cut deals and exchange gossip. ‘Illuminati’ and ‘Dark Reign’ have two things in common: Prince Namor, who’s on both rosters (this is fascinating, despite the fact that Maleev here draws Namor as a bald, unshaven homeless man), and …. a fairly large degree of implausibility.
With the heroes, the implausibility wasn’t quite so bad, but with the villains, it rises to nuisance level. Doctor Doom, for instance, doesn’t just want Latveria back – he wants the world, and he doesn’t want to share it with the likes of Norman Osborn. And as powerful as Doom is, he’s even more arrogant (and fearless) – there isn’t a character in the Marvel universe who could be invoked as Osborn’s mysterious ‘friend’ who would intimidate him into cooperation. And Emma Frost doesn’t just read minds – she also controls them, which would again be bad news for this ‘friend.’
And that brings us back to Loki. The Asgardian god with the ability to turn Norman Osborn and everybody else in the room into toadstools – and the ability to flawlessly mimic them, should she/he ever feel like doing so. This Loki says she wants to rule Asgard, and Norman Osborn tells her they want the same thing – but what the heck could he do to even begin bringing it about, except maybe cast an absentee ballot? And what possible coercion could he bring to bear against a god, to keep her in line?
I’m worried that there’s only one answer to that question: another god. I’m worried that Osborn’s mysterious ‘friend’ is Thor (or worse, much worse, Odin). I’ll just have to pray I’m wrong.
A slew of new titles and story lines are going to spring from this one-shot, and if Marvel’s success rate recently is any indication, they’ll all suck like a kid on a crazy-straw. The basic concept is fascinating: what if the bad guys were running the show for a change. And the story lines that should result would be great. We shall see.
December 24th, 2008
Our book today is The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, and that’s a tough row to hoe these days if you’re intending to praise the book, which I am. Despite being one of the best-selling authors in American history, despite being one of the first best-selling authors in America history, Cooper has fallen so far out of literary fashion it’s doubtful he’ll ever come back. He’s had his share of critical biographies (I reviewed the latest one over at Open Letters many months ago), but nobody reads him for pleasure anymore, and he’s virtually never assigned in schools at any level nowadays.
Once upon a time, his “Leatherstocking” tales, the adventures of backwoodsman and intrepid frontier adventurer Natty Bumppo, were as unavoidable a set of childhood fixtures as measles or toad-catching, but now that seems like a very long time ago. The Deerslayer was written in 1841 (although it’s chronologically the first of the Leatherstocking tales, it was the last one composed), and in 1895 it was savaged with perfect virtuosity by Mark Twain, who joyfully picked apart all of what he termed its “literary offenses.”
Few indeed are the works of literature that can survive being made into a laughing-stock, and The Deerslayer wasn’t one of those works. That Twain piece, combined with changing attitudes toward America’s frontiers days and especially toward American Indians, spelled a slow, irreversible doom for this book and its sister tales – The Last of the Mohicans has proved remarkably resilient, but The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, and The Prairie have faded to period curiosities, and if you take it into your head to read one of them, you’re almost required by polite reading society to have a reason, one that doesn’t inherently originate from Cooper himself.
N. C. Wyeth’s gorgeous color illustrations (The Deerslayer‘s were done in 1925, I believe; certainly I grew up with them) provide just such a reason – it’s OK to have some Cooper on your bookshelves when the members of your book club show up at your house, but only if the reason you have them can be interpreted somehow, if it can be attributed not to Cooper but to Wyeth.
Don’t get me wrong: Wyeth does some first-rate pieces for this book (all the book illustrations he did for Scribner’s classics in the first quarter of the 20th century were quite good – all those editions should be perpetually in print, but alas, they aren’t). It’s a distinct joy to be reading along and encounter one, to watch a scene you’ve imagined given such vibrant life.
But the far more distinct pleasure comes from the actual reading of the book. The story is set in central New York during the French and Indian War, and it features a wide variety of sure-fire plot devices: good Indians, bad Indians, noble characters like Natty (‘The Deerslayer’) and the virtuous Judith Hutter, ignoble characters like “Hurry Harry” March and possibly Judith’s father, Thomas Hutter, the threat of war, the treachery of blackguards, the fragile flickerings of love, and, for veteran Cooper readers, the added thrill of seeing Natty Bumppo as a relatively unseasoned young man, first learning the ways of the woods and the ways of the world but already filled with the love of nature that readers associate with him from earlier books.
This last item is too easily discounted by modern readers in search of a few tenuous ways of praising the book Mark Twain so famously condemned: the “Leatherstocking” tales were enormously popular, selling copies in every corner of the new country. For the writer of those famous stories to go back in time, as it were, and give us a glimpse of his legendary main character as a callow (and even lovestruck) youth was a pure treat, something no American writer had yet done or been in a position to do. Imagine if Arthur Conan Doyle had written such a book about a teenage Sherlock Holmes – The Deerslayer functions with the same page-turning fascination.
It’s true, some of the dialogue – OK, a lot of the dialogue – will strike the modern reader as almost unbearably treacly. An exchange between Judith and Natty early on in The Deerslayer will stand passably well for all its kin:
“And how does that concern you, Deerslayer?” demanded Judith, a little anxiously.
“It consarns me, as all things that touches a fri’nd consarns a fri’nd. I’m here as Chingachgook’s aid and helper, and if we can get the young maiden he likes back ag’in, it will give me almost as much pleasure as if I had got back my own sweetheart.”
“And where, then, is your sweetheart, Deerslayer?”
“She’s in the forest, Judith – hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain – in the dew on the open grass – the clouds that float about in the blue heavens – the birds that sing in the woods – the sweet springs where I slake my thirst – and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!”
But I submit that such a passage isn’t nearly as bad as it might seem on first reading! In addition to its electric readability (admit it: you’d have read more if I’d quoted more!) there’s an honesty in it, a straightforward conviction mingling right alongside the crass mercantile manipulation of nostalgia. It might sound odd to refer to such an old work as The Deerslayer as being nostalgic, but it’s true: Cooper’s generation was the first in America to feel that they were actually seeing one age of the continent fade away, to be replaced by a very different age they weren’t at all sure they liked better. Mark Twain enormously and calculatedly played on that same nostalgia (by the time he was writing, it was in the full strength of its generation), most openly in Tom Sawyer, so maybe he was a little lacking in generosity to the man who paved the way.
Natty Bumppo is first and always an avatar of that nostalgia. His love of the wild, unspoiled country is his most consistently-evoked trait, prompting arias like this one:
“As for farms, they have their uses, and there’s them that like to pass their lives on ’em; but what comfort can a man look for in a clearin,’ that he can’t find in double quantities in the forest? If air, and room, and light, are a little craved, the windrows and the streams will furnish ’em, or here are the lakes for such as have bigger longings in that way; but where are you to find your shades, and laughing springs, and leaping brooks, and vinerable trees, a thousand years old, in a clearin’? You don’t find them, but you find their disabled trunks, marking the ‘arth like headstones in a graveyard. It seems to me that the people who live in such places must be always thinkin’ of their own inds, and of universal decay; and that, too, not of the decay that is brought about by time and natur,’ but the decay that follows waste and violence. Then as to churches, they are good, I suppose, else wouldn’t good men uphold ’em. But they are not altogether necessary. They call ’em the temples of the Lord; but Judith, the whole ‘arth is a temple of the Lord to such as have the right mind.
The Deerslayer and the rest of Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales are routinely thought of today as books suitable only for children – ‘boys books’ no serious adult reader would pause to contemplate on their way to re-reading Huck Finn a couple more times. But there are subtleties in these books that repay their reading, and for want of a better word, their obviousnesses repay that reading too (not to mention their graphic details – when Thomas Hutter is scalped, Cooper gives us details that would make any parent quaver). True, Cooper could be tin-eared at times, and true, his plot contrivances are often outlandish. But to be fair, large chunks of Twain’s dialogue read no better (some quite a bit worse, even in the sainted Huck Finn), and his plot contrivances can be every bit as outlandish, often without the sheer gusto that Cooper brought to everything he wrote.
Ernest Hemingway, that prize-winning troublemaker, once famously opined that all of modern American fiction descends from one book, and that book is Huck Finn. He might be right (troublemakers sometimes are), but The Deerslayer and so many of James Fenimore Cooper’s other novels are also progenitors, and of an American brood no less populous: the potboiler, the cliffhanger, the genre of ‘then-what-happened.’ Granted, no Pynchon or Vollmann springs from such a lineage. But all radio dramas do, and all comic books do, and all TV dramas do (Cooper could step unaltered through time and start writing for “Heroes” – he’d have a decent chance of improving it), and all movies do, and that’s not a bad legacy for any writer, whether he’s committed offenses or not.
December 22nd, 2008
Our book today is The Collected Stories of John O’Hara, edited by Frank MacShane, published in 1984, and possessing both a nifty cover illustration by Jeanne Fisher and perhaps the most misleading title any book has ever had, anywhere, in the entire history of books. In fact, the 36 stories in this volume represent less than one-tenth of what would in truth be the collected stories of John O’Hara. The collected stories of John O’Hara, truly collected, would fill a house, including the bathrooms and any available balconies. We may never know the exact total of stories O’Hara wrote; he probably never knew the total himself. From the time he first figured out how to use a typewriter (not to be confused with when he first learned how to write, much less write well), he shed more or less finished short stories like dandruff.
If that sounds like a sideways denigration of the stories themselves, well, it is. O’Hara wrote much, much more than he should have, and he did it for the wrong reason: he wanted the money (the right reason – though the end result is never any more praiseworthy – is imminent death).
And he got the money – once he realized that there was a great current of money out there, he never for a moment consciously took his hands out of the stream of it. He wrote novels (fourteen? sixteen? and quite a few of them plump), stage plays, screenplays, screenplays of his stage plays and novels, introductions to his own collections and those of other people, speeches, dedications, squibs for the magazines, ponderous reviews … he wrote almost everything, and he wrote almost constantly. He had mortgages to afford, mistresses to upkeep, and a very large life to sustain, and it was all based on the conversion of words into money.
And if that sounds like a denigration of his artistic integrity, well, it is – partly. Of course good work can be done for money and on deadline; Michelangelo scarcely ever did anything except under both those conditions, nor did Trollope, nor Twain. But artistic integrity works itself into the picture as most unwanted interlopers do: quietly, in the middle of the night. Because if the money is ever the reason you’re writing, you’ve put your artistic integrity in a bottom drawer out of sight, or else sold it on eBay. If you’d have accused O’Hara to his face of sometimes producing bad prose because bad prose would pay, he’d have socked you in the nose – but nevertheless, he sometimes produced bad prose because bad prose would pay.
That decision, that precise decision to subjugate whatever inner fire got you writing in the first place – that decision to subjugate it to the market – is what separates first-tier writers from second-tier writers. John O’Hara made that decision – not always, but regularly – throughout his career, and that’s why he’s so firmly second tier.
The problem here is the unfair mud that attaches to the whole second-tier concept. There’s nothing wrong with being a first-rate craftsman of second-rate stories (the only people who find this unappealing are first-rate craftsmen of first-rate stories, for whom the small step down is too galling to endure, and literary critics, for whom the small step up is too galling to endure); although it virtually guarantees that in a hundred years only librarians and English majors will know O’Hara’s name, it in no way lessens the thrill and deep enjoyment so many of his stories will always provide. This is the way with second-tier writers: when you find them, you love them – but you have to find them.
MacShane’s Collected Stories of John O’Hara contains work from all the time periods of O’Hara’s life, from the really short bits he wrote in the 30s to the really long things he wrote in the 60s. There’s a decent-sized but still numerable stable of O’Hara types – amiable losers, hard-souled men, well-realized women – and all those types are here represented in what’s very often their best vehicles. No story in the whole collection flat-out disappoints, and several electrify. O’Hara can pull off wonders, even with bits you just know are tossed off, like this little moment (from “The Gentleman in the Tan Suit”) when a woman is contemplating her sister’s stylish new husband:
Robert turned his head when she let herself in the apartment. He did not stand until he had a look at her. He laughed and showed his teeth. Mary knew him for the kind of young man who would go his dentist regularly just to be able to say (truthfully) that dentists would starve if everybody had teeth like his. His teeth were so good and so obviously good all the way back that there was no suspense in watching them. She wondered if he ever bit Kay.
There’s a lot going on in that, even for tossed-off deadline prose. There’s a low-key music in the rhythm, something you have to cup a hand around your ear to hear, and that third line turns and twists like a snake. The momentary complacency of mandibular perfection is merrily exploded by that mention of biting, a risque thing in 1935 when the story saw print. The whole thing likewise has a punchy little backward-kick at the very end (all of O’Hara’s short stories have this scorpion’s tale feature; you come to wait for it).
MacShane points out, in his Introduction, that O’Hara excels at dialogue, and it’s true – often ninety percent of a story’s entire length will be composed of dialogue, and all of it so natural you won’t notice. But O’Hara is strong on place description too, a strength that shows his preceptors but marks his own ways as well, as in this evocation (in 1963’s “Ninety Miles Away”) of a typical seedy hotel:
The Royal had the smell that went with the unending war against vermin, but it had the fascinatingly unwholesome human traffic of its lobby and elevator and halls. The majority of the male guests were horse-players, including two men who worked in bookmaking establishments. The women were anybody’s women, trying not to think of the day when nobody would want them. It was an orderly place; the police had their instructions from the landowners’ representatives at district headquarters.
But really MacShane – and everybody else who’s commented on it, over the years – is right: O’Hara’s main strength as a writer lies in his characters talking to each other. His dialogue cracks with slick intensity, and he’s mastered the very Shakespearean ability to get dialogue to do all kinds of work in a scene (this may sound simple, but give it a try before you consign it to the repertoire of childrens’ tricks; easy as pie, yes, to get dialogue to be dialogue – not so easy to get it to move furniture around a room, or drive a car, or pour everybody drinks). O’Hara used to say that most of his novels and all of his short stories were born in dialogue, and reading the results, it’s easy to believe. In “Exactly Eight Thousand Dollars Exactly” (1960), the entire story is one incredibly tense, bitter scene between two brothers, and the entire scene is them talking back and forth, and it all works incredibly well. In 1964’s “The Pig,” an orderly lawyer has received a terminal diagnosis and is talking out some of his worst fears about it with his best friend:
“I watched my father die, or rather I watched my mother watching my father die. I could have been watching myself, too. We knew he wasn’t going to last long. He had Bright’s disease, as they called it then, and he was in the final stages of it. But he hung on and hung on. He’d have a bad night, then a good night, and that lasted for weeks. I was just out of college, living in Waterbury and getting ready to go to law school. But as I say, my father hung on, and I began to notice what it was doing to my mother. I wasn’t bright enough or possibly honest enough to notice what it was doing to me, but as the days went by and he stayed alive, my mother got tired of him. That’s putting it very coldly, but I think it’s an accurate statement of what was happening to her without her knowing it. Almost but not quite saying, ‘Good God, if you’re going to die, die.’
“And she didn’t want to see him suffer,” said Mike.
“That’s what she told herself, and that’s what she always believed. But I don’t believe that. She simply exhausted her emotional resources – or he did, by hanging on. And now I’ll tell you something else. When my mother was dying, about seven or eight years ago, she hung on. She had heart trouble and she was condemned. There was no chance that she would ever come downstairs again. And that was when I began to understand what she’d felt about my father. Because I was secretly saying, ‘Mother, if you’re going to die, die.'”
Every other way to convey all that same information in a story is a worse way (although that “and now I’ll tell you something else” creaks just a bit), including the droning exposition that would be the only choice for a short story writer working today (again, the Munro Doctrine), and O’Hara deserves all the credit he gets for seeing that and rising to the challenge.
He always thought he deserved more credit than he got (this was a widespread affliction in the Age of Hemingway), and that feeling was never sharper or more painful than when, after a long hiatus from publishing novels, he wrote A Rage to Live and the powers that be at The New Yorker (where O’Hara had published some 15,000 short stories over the years) unleashed their attack-Pomeranian Brendan Gill to piddle all over it. Gill’s wildly condescending portrait of O’Hara in Here at the New Yorker (a thoroughly delightful book, only one-fifteenth of which should be believed) and his review of A Rage to Live are bookends of a type, and they may have done more to set aside the immediacy of John O’Hara than anything else written in the 20th century. They created a caricature of O’Hara as a jowly Gatsby, yearning for swank and glamor but destined for lower things. And it’s unlikely that his short stories and novels, full as they are of jowly Gatsbys yearning for swank and glamor but destined for lower things, will dislodge that caricature.
And if that sounds like I in large part agree with Gill’s waspish view of John O’Hara, it’s because I do – although not with the malice behind it. O’Hara had a bulldog productivity and an immense amount of courage (neither of those things could be said of Brendan Gill, for instance, or of most of the critics who’ve had their way with O’Hara’s reputation over the years), and he had undiluted an Irishman’s gift for knowing what makes a story and producing it, pitch-perfect dialogue and all. He left behind a huge body of work, almost all of it dating as steadily as last year’s dance craze, and he is not a mystery: we know right now the full extent of his contribution to the field of literature.
But that field is composed of more than the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the Ernest Hemingways. John O’Hara wanted literary fame, and he got it. He wanted a comfortable living, earned by his pen, and he got it. He wanted entree to all the best parties, and he got it. And he wanted to be deserving of literary immortality – but you can’t type your way into that. As the poet says, they also serve who only stand and wait – and are William Dean Howells.
In the meantime, Frank MacShane’s The Collected Stories of John O’Hara will please you very much.