Posts from February 2010

February 27th, 2010

The Englisher!

Our book today is The Englisher, the second volume in Beverly Lewis’ “Annie’s People” series set in Lancaster County and featuring the old order Amish who live there – which you’d think would make this a specialty-niche production to end all niche-productions. Most people in America have little or no idea who the Amish are, most of those who do would rather read insurance charts than fiction about them, and of course the Amish themselves have no use for such ‘modern’ things as books (unless the book is the Bible, of course, or perhaps a farmer’s almanac). You’d think if for some arcane reason Beverly Lewis (a pleasant-faced mother and grandmother who’s written over 70 books) was seized with the desire to write about the Amish, her book would sell only in certain tiny gift shops in Pennsylvania and Iowa.

And you’d be wrong. Hoo-boy, would you be wrong! On the contrary, Beverly Lewis is what’s known in publishing circles as a phenomenon: her books, all adorned with warm, pastel covers, form the nucleus of the ‘religious fiction’ section of every bookstore, Christian or Barnes & Noble, from Boothbay Harbor to Sausalito. Her earnest, leadenly-written tales of the trials and tribulations of one tiny, dying, ignorant, inbred sub-sub-sub-sect of Christianity routinely sell in the tens of thousands, which means any reader – even one who’d never actually read one of her books – must ask: what the Hell is going on here?

It’s not like she’s a secret firebrand of unconventionality. In every one of her books, the Amish are depicted with great affection and reverence, despite the fact that they’re in reality a hidebound, repressive, intensely stupid people. In the first two volumes of “Annie’s People,” for instance, we meet young, artistic, quietly charismatic Annie Zook, who’s made a promise to her father to abandon her painting and devote herself to her people, to worship and motherhood. Annie is fairly well-drawn as Lewis’ characters go (usually the closest you’ll get to character individuality is one person dropping the ‘g’s from some words whereas other people don’t)(when this happens, it’s never meant as a sign of ignorance – ignorance as a subject is given a wide berth in Lewis’ novels – necessary, when writing of a sect that hates the intellect, represses the imagination, and stops all schooling at grade eight),yet at no point in either of this book or its prequel is the promise itself called wrong-headed, much less sulfurously evil. Always the Amish are portrayed as a community where a simple, grassroots-style Christianity is very much alive – struggling constantly with the intrusions of ‘moderns’ all around it, but still hewing to the eternal patterns of the Good Book: simplicity, devotion, and some good old-fashioned sexual slavery, as when Esther ponders the foul mood her husband Zeke has been in lately:

How will our children soak up the love and acceptance of their heavenly Father if they don’t see it in Zeke?

She brooded during the meal, only glancing at her family twice before Zeke called out his desire for pie and more coffee. She leaped up, responding as she knew he wished her to.

About Esther, Lewis tells us: “Her greatest joy came both from the Lord and her children, in that order” – and if we’re tempted to laugh the Monty Python logical absurdity posed by that sentence, we should pause and remember that this woman is a millionaire many times over on the allure just that kind of writing has to countless thousands of ‘religious’ people buying books in this country. Like I said, it’s not a foolish thing to ask what those people are finding in these books that they aren’t even looking for in Trollope.

Lewis’ novels are mild, certainly. They contain no obscenities, hardly any violence, no multi-layered ideas, and every single character is always striving to feel really good about every single other character. (there are no cranks, in other words – no Irish need apply). Innumerable scenes set at kitchen tables are limned in the uniform light of nostalgia, and as we all know, nostalgia works just fine even on readers who’ve never sat around a wooden table peeling potatoes and talking about the menfolk. Characters – precocious young Annie included – are shown to live by much simpler time-tables and rules than those that govern our hectic world. Their joys and anticipations are much, much simpler:

With the warmer days came the anticipation of Good Friday’s fast day. The membership would contemplate the Ordnung prayerfully, and, if all were in one accord, they would rejoice by taking communion as a group, followed by their twice-yearly foot washing. Shortly after that would come the start of baptismal instruction. Annie found herself looking often at the calendar, counting the days till she and the other applicants would meet with the ministers. She knew she had to be certain of her resolve before making the commitment to study, a thought which kept her awake at night.

And I think that’s the key to the appeal of these books: they serve up, chapter after chapter, just exactly the kind of lie millions of brainless Christians want desperately to believe about themselves, their world, and their faith. These brainless Christians (as opposed to the smart Christians, constantly on their toes in a modern society that’s outright gunning for them, always agilely looking for ways to serve and learn as their Savior instructed – but needless to say, smart Christians make no appearance whatsoever in Beverly Lewis’ novels … they’re as unwelcome as blacks, gays, and Jews. Indeed, they’re beyond unwelcome – none of the characters in these book even imagine their existence, and our author never disturbs their mental isolation)(what I wouldn’t give to see a series of novels about smart Christians – but of course, such a series wouldn’t sell) take great comfort from the image of a place somewhere in the depths of Lancaster County where Christianity is practiced as it should be – simple deeds, simple faith, and the women leap to get their husbands more pie. Lewis supplies that world, shakes it a little for her mild dramas, then burnishes it to a gentle glow.

But it’s pernicious, because this is not pick-and-choose Amish: we get the whole package.  The “Englisher” of the title is Ben Martin (in their ignorant, clannish way, the Amish refer to anybody who isn’t Amish as English, like it was still the goddam 17th century), a sexy young thing who’s interested in Annie but not so much in twice-yearly foot-washing. And she’s interested in him – but again, it’s mild, it won’t last, it’ll certainly never supplant the repressive expectations of her people. Ben is of course a thoroughly gelded male character (in that he’s identical to every other male character in every other piece of “Christian fiction” ever written), but even so, the scene at what passes for this book’s climax, when he’s standing in the Zook attic and finds a carefully-wrapped painting by Annie that displays all the talent she’s mothballing for her faith, there’s a sentimental punch that will surprise even a seasoned reader.

A forlorn quest even to read a book like The Englisher, really: it was never meant to be enjoyed – or even understood – outside its target demographic of cowardly, sentimentalizing Christians. And no doubt Lewis’ legion of fans would say I’m exactly missing the point, that the best part of “Annie’s People” and all the other novels is that the Hollywood twist of the pretty young girl giving up her repressive faith in order to run away with the cute boy doesn’t happen – that instead, people stay and grapple with faith and its demands.

Maybe so, but you can certainly have too much of a good thing. Glorifying a sect trapped in collective religious psychosis might be a bit far to go, in order to avoid Hollywood.

February 23rd, 2010

Nine Lives!

My, my! The Silent Majority has certainly spoken (silently … in private … sigh…)(it would KILL you people to leave comments? You used to do it all the time, when Stevereads was young and sexy!) – who knew you all harbored a love of really good biographies as deep as my own? Or is just that you like to hear me natter on about them? In any case, Nine Lives is now a permanent rotating feature here at Stevereads, and to honor the occasion, I thought I’d make the second installment longer and denser than the first! Hee.

And it’s not just my nattering, I know that – there’s an essential allure to the literary form of the biography, a simplicity that appeals to everybody: let’s follow this one individual story, this life, and see how it turns out. Every one of these subjects starts out equally naked and helpless (well, there are stories about Attila the Hun, but we’re not dealing with him yet! I know just the volume I want to praise, and of course I can’t find it anywhere), all fight through a clutch of the same illnesses, all are either afflicted or blessed by the random circumstances of their lives, and many – if not most – either make an affliction of their blessings or a blessing of their afflictions. There’s an elemental indentifiability in that, a human commonality that’s unbeatable as a dramatic premise. And of course the dramatic payoff is the personal-biographical version of the lottery, because the subjects of these lives take that commonality and then do something with it. They seek to cut a flash, to strike amazement, to reaffirm some virtue or slake some hunger. At some point, willingly or not, they leave the everyday world they share with us and step out onto a broader stage, and they seem to dare us to do likewise.

(Needless to say, biographies that don’t bother with that final step – life stories that just stay in the mundane what-happened-next stage – won’t be considered here; bad enough I have to see the now innumerable examples of I’m a fat/racist/junkie. Still. Now. Yeah. “memoirs” crowding bookstore shelves these days … I’m certainly not going to waste time eviscerating them, or the lazy reading public who find it somehow reassuring to read about losers and nonentities)

Certainly nobody’s life lays down that dare to do likewise as loudly as that of 19th century British novelist Anthony Trollope, who managed to find time in a very busy life to write four bookcases full of novels. In

Anthony Trollope by James Pope-Hennessey, 1973

veteran biographer Pope-Hennessey (we’ll get to his greatest work in the fullness of time here – hint: it’s another biography!) swiftly and adroitly tells the story of Trollope’s gradual, grinding rise to the pinnacle of literary fame and fortune, including the treasured attendance he made every Sunday afternoon at the Priory, the Regents Park residence of another, far more revered British novelist:

But to Anthony it was George Eliot herself he had come to see, and he grew to ‘love her very dearly’. Her particular cast of mind, her ponderous sibylline epigrams, even her lack of humour, stimulated and yet soothed him. His pronounced admiration for Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt and Romola gratified her, and he is said to have relished ‘those qualities in her work that secured her the compliment of comparison with Shakespeare’. She, on her side, readily acknowledged the influence of his novels on the writing of Middlemarch. ‘I am not at all sure,’ she remarked thoughtfully to a dangerous literary gossip, Mrs Lynn Lynton, ‘that, but for Anthony Trollope, I should never have planned my studies on so extensive a scale for Middlemarch, or that I should, through all its episodes, have persevered with it to the close.’

The little gasp the reader gets there – no Middlemarch without The Vicar of Bullhampton? – is just delicious, one of the perfect little revelations all really good biographies have in store for their readers. The patterning out of connections we might have missed in less particular overviews, the chasing down of influences and deciding factors – all good biographers since the genre was born, or reborn (we’ll deal with the guy who birthed it, don’t you worry – and we’ll deal also with the guy who re-birthed it) live to do these things, as in

King David by Steven McKenzie, 2000

when the author reminds us of the importance of a wife’s cache in a story that too often overlooks it:

David and his band [of fellow outlaws] were good at what they did. They soon became a force to be reckoned with, both militarily and politically. The single most important step in David’s political rise was his removal of the Calebite chief whom the Bible calls Nabal. By marrying his widow Abigail, David appropriated not only his wealth but also his social and political position. This also significantly enhanced his power base. From there it was a short way to the throne of Judah. It is no accident that David was anointed king of Judah in the Calebite capital of Hebron, or that Abigail accompanied him there.

Sometimes the surprises come not so much from the research as from the biographer’s passionate insight. This is overwhelmingly the case in a book some of you will have known would be coming up here (and this won’t be the last time, either), a volume I’ve recommended to many, many a reader grown tongue-heavy on dry-as-dust biographies. Of course I refer to

The Personal History of Henry VIII by Francis Hackett, 1929

in which the author aggressively re-imagines virtually every aspect of the 16th century world his researches have brought before him, sparing a moment to pity poor Katheryn Howard for the whining, dangerous creature she’d married:

The world was betraying his mellow mood. In spite of his big expenses for defense, his ramparts at Dover, Portsmouth and Southhampton had just crumbled. In spite of his big efforts to become shapely, the banquets had undone the early rising, the fistula had closed alarmingly and “he is very stout and marvelously excessive in drinking and eating, so that people with credit say he is often of a different opinion in the morning than after dinner.” In spite of his dreams of making a son, Katheryn was not yet pregnant. It was an unkind world. He mirrored it by his own sourness. He spent Shrovetide “without recreation, even of music.” He stayed in Hampton Court “more a private family than a King’s train.” He abused his people, saying “he had an unhappy people to govern whom he would shortly make so por that they would not have the boldness nor the power to oppose him.” He abused his Privy Council that, “under pretence of serving him, were only temporizing for their own profit, but he knew the good servants from the flatterers, and, if God lent him health, he would take care that their projects should not succeed.” He abused, finally, those who had devised Cromwell’s death. “On light pretexts,” he violently asserted, “by false accusations, they made me put to death the most faithful servant I ever had!”

This was the fitful volcano that Katheryn had to live with.

or beautifully describing the nature of Henry’s contest to break away from his rightful Queen – the sheer enormity of what he was taking on in order to marry Anne Boleyn:

Like monsters on whose heaving backs two rival pagodas had been reared, this King and this Queen were to affront one another, freighted with toppling towers. But the battle of Henry’s conscientious scruples went beyond the normal. It became an edifice of figment erected tier on tier with the intention of supporting his cause and giving his arquebus the chance to sweep his enemy. Out of his love for Anne grew a divorce, which, to be valid, required an entirely new foreign policy, a new council, a new hierarchy, a new church establishment, a new chancellor, and, strangest of all, a new wife. And with these novelties the man himself evolved, if not a new nature, at least a nature alarmingly new in its assertion.

It’s striking, in reading biographies, how often unhappiness is a recurrent sub-theme. Henry was of course hugley unhappy for most of his life (and it wasn’t just that suppurating fistula – although that would do it for most people – no, his was a nature badly in need of the one thing his position could never tolerate: a best friend), and much of his unhappiness was of his own making. This is true also of another famous monarch of his era, who’s given her most magnificent, enduring tribute in

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser, 1969

and Fraser’s long and immensely sympathetic account of that doomed queen’s troubled life (a book I’ve praised before, waaaaay back in 2006, in the tossed-off precursor-feeler to this very feature)(I like the new title better) is constantly, beguilingly betrayed by its sympathies. Fraser wants very little actual wrong to attach to the queen of whom she’s so obviously fond, and although she never stoops to suppressing evidence, she can’t suppress her own historian’s instincts for accuracy either. The result is an endlessly fascinating game of Emperor’s New Clothes:

Elizabeth’s refusal [to grant Mary a safe conduct to travel through Britain] gave Mary Stuart her first public opportunity of rising magnificently to a crisis. She now displayed for the first time that quality of cool courage, when in the public eye, which was to be a feature of her later career. It was courage which owed nothing to physical well-being. At the beginning of July Mary had a renewed attack of the tertian fever, and when Throckmorton saw her on 9 July he noted that it had ‘somewhat appaired her cheer’, although she herself dismissed it lightly and said that the worst was over. Now, when she received Throckmorton on 20 July at Saint-Germain, having heard the news of the denied passport, she was infinitely composed; in a series of speeches to the English ambassador of fine histrionic power, she showed herself to be not only brave, but also reasonable and even charitable towards the woman who had thus rejected her – as well as incidentally having an eloquent command of the language. Like an actress before an audience, the eighteen-year-old queen seemed to derive strength from the fact that the eyes of Europe were upon her.

You can see what I mean here – what Fraser goes out of her way to paint as rhetorical power and eloquence – even as courage – can just as easily be seen (and from her own account) as just the kind of vain foolhardiness that will land the Scottish queen in prison for years, and then send her to the block. Mary couldn’t control herself, so goes the age-old historical judgement against her – if she’d been able to do that, she’d have been able to control those around her and wrest from her life some kind of happy ending. It’s Fraser’s main gift to make us really want that happy ending for her main character, despite herself.

That phenomenon – characters in biographies being revealed in spite of their biographer’s all-but-explicit intentions – happens quite a bit in biographies, which always begin, after all (and often remain) a spirited dialogue between two individuals, writer and written about. It’s yet another allure biographies have for their readers, the nonfiction equivalent of fiction’s unreliable narrator. You think your guy’s a saint (or a monster), so why do I get the impression he was a monster (or a saint)? It’s never more obvious than in a sympathetic work about a historical figure everybody hated when he was alive. A perfect case in point is

Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy by Richard Pollard, 1969.

‘The tides that erode or add to historical reputation,” Pollard tells us, “are as strong and persistent as those that reshape the coastline or redraw the channels of an estuary.” Which is certainly true, but nevertheless, some coastlines are friendlier than others, and Holmes in life was like the icy escarpments of Scapa Flow. If the great diarist Samuel Pepys, the great poet Andrew Marvell, and our old friend Edward Hyde the Earl of Clarendon all hate you – and they all hated Holmes passionately – you’ve got to be doing something wrong. But Pollard is having none of it – he insists his estuary is approachable, even when his own anecdotes tell any impartial reader (in this case not me, but maybe you) otherwise:

For the first fortnight [of the cruise along the African coast from Gabon] fresh gales carried them prosperously onward. But on September 12th the wind fell light. For ten days they made little way. ‘Very little wind’. ‘Calm all night’. The laconic entries leave much to the imagination. A day without wind is a long day in a sailing ship. On the 23rd the storm broke – but it was not the weather. The commanders of the Goulden Lyon, Brill, and Expedition came aboard the Jersey to complain that they were short of water and to propose an immediate alteration of course for the Barbadoes which they believed to be near at hand.

Holmes was furious, both at their incompetence in running short of water and at their slovenly navigation:

I chidd them very severely … I called for their Journalls, as alsoe all the Journalls of the officers that kept any board of all the shipps, and finding them all too much to the westward I told them I thought they were all mistaken. For that observing my pendulas I had on board, which I constantly attended, either they could not be true or … we must be much more to the Eastward …
The combination of personal and professional authority sweetened by a diplomatic appeal to reason carried the day.

Of course, some biographical subjects neither get nor deserve any sympathy from either their biographers or their readers, and certainly Hitler tops that list. In

The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1947

the author in 1945 is instructed to make a full historical inquiry into the details of Hitler’s death, just as dozens of unsavory rumors are sprouting on the subject. He goes all over Germany, sifting records still warm from their compiler’s hands; he discovers the marriage certificate of Hitler and Eva Braun – and he discovers ironclad proof that Hitler shot himself and had his body cremated. The resulting work is slim in page-count (especially weighed against the countless Hitler-themed behemoths that would follow) but incredibly strong on insight, always grimly wonderful to read, despite its subject:

This conception of Hitler as a phoenix, rare in human centuries, a cosmic phenomenon exempt from ordinary laws, was not universally accepted inside Germany. It was not accepted by the generals, those hard-headed, unmystical, military engines. To them he was never more than a vulgarian of extraordinary power who fell short of their idea of genius. “When I was working with him,” says Halder, the ablest of that class, “I was always looking for signs of genius in him. I tried hard to be honest and impartial, and not to be blinded by my antipathy to the man. I never found genius in him, only the diabolical.” But one man accepted it completely, and his acceptance of it was the basis of its success. “At long intervals in human history,” he wrote, “it may occasionally happen that the practical politician and the political philosopher are one. The more intimate the union, the greater his political difficulties. Such a man does not labour to satisfy the demands that are obvious to every philistine; he reaches out towards ends that are comprehensible only to the few. Therefore his life is torn between hatred and love. The protest of the present generation, which does not understand him, wrestles with the recognition of posterity, for whom he also works.”

The author of that description is Hitler himself, and it is a self-portrait.

Still, in most cases biographers of sad subjects feel a sympathy for their charges that they want us to share, especially if their charges fall into that mysterious category of people who are miserable mostly for no reason. The American poet Delmore Schwartz was one of these, an extremely talented young man who cut quite a swath at Harvard, impressed all the right people, embarked on a freelance writing career that could only be called meteoric (reading about him reminds you how influential literary book-criticism was – and still is – when it’s well done; Schwartz’s reviews and author overviews were cathedrals of compressed wit and malice), and yet, as we learn in

Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas, 1977

Even the lavish praise of the publisher Salman Schocken failed to move him. “He thinks you’re the only creative Jewish writer in this country and would very much like to get you to do something for his house, no matter what,” Elliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary, wrote in February; but what Delmore found most significant about this offer was the question of “a permanent connection,” a phrase he underscored.

Such people are always cat people (I’ll resist the temptation to draw conclusions), and Schwartz was one too:

… he reserved his deepest affection [in the rooming house on Kirkland Street, while teaching at Harvard] for his cat, Riverrun – the first word in Finnegans Wake – with whom he carried on an elaborate relationship, feeding her expensive Portuguese sardines, worrying like a parent when she failed to come home, and coaxing her to sleep in his bed.

And the perfect antidote to them (although not to the book in question, mind you! Atlas’ volume is dourly gripping, despite how increasingly awful Schwartz was to everybody in his life as he grew older) is a great biography about a dog person – or even better, about a dog person’s dog! You’ll be expecting My Dog Tulip here, but no: the spot this time goes to a far more refined class of little bitch, and exuberant, opinionated pug who takes center stage in

Clara: The Early Years by Margo Kaufman , 1998

which is nothing less than the tale of her effortless triumphs over every obstacle in the way of her own pampered happiness – even if one such obstacle is her mysteriously demanding human owner:

Once Clara was vaccinated and immune from the myriad virulent dog viruses that could result in instant death, I put a piece of soiled newspaper in the yard and explained the situation: “If you want to go shopping in Beverly Hills, you’ve got to give up The New York Times and use the grass.”

Clara looked pensive, no doubt determining if Beverly Hills was worth such a sacrifice. Meanwhile, Sophie [the less-than-bright other pug] wool-gathered in the yard, shredding bougainvillea, scratching her back against the bark of the jacaranda tree, and chewing grass (which she invariably threw up the instant she came inside). “Dammit, Sophie, hurry up,” I begged.

Clara made a note: The Moron is annoying the Human.

She pranced over to a blooming mound of impatiens and squatted daintily. She received more praise than I’ve received in my entire writing career, and a sliver of Monterey Jack cheese.

Hee.

And we’ll close this installment of Nine Lives with yet another over-bred pampered show-dog, this time of the human variety. Many of you will be vaguely familiar with Lady Georgiana Spencer, who married William Cavendish, the fabulously wealthy and somewhat remote fifth duke of Devonshire and got her own star treatment in

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire(here title The Duchess for the release of the quite good movie) by Amanda Foreman , 1998

because the timing of the book’s release tapped it into the collective British/sappy American zeitgeist over the death of Princess Diana and rocketed Georgiana to bestsellerdom. It would be unjust to raise the suspicion of opportunism, and it would be criminal to hint at rushed or shoddy material – quite the contrary: this is an extremely grounded, authoritative life (hard to see how Georgiana could have a better one – or merit it) about a woman who did indeed strike amazement in the kind of well-funded but unaligned adjacency with her noble husband that was described so well by Britain’s third-best novelist (hint: #2’s already been mentioned in this entry! #1, I trust, goes entirely without saying):

If Lady B can raise herself also, if she can make her own occasion – if she be handsome and can flirt, if she be impudent and can force her way, if she have a daring mind and can commit great expenditure, if she be clever and can make poetry, if she can in any way create a separate glory for herself, then, indeed, Sir Jacob with his blue nose may follow his own path, and all will be well. Sir Jacob’s blue nose opposite her will not be her summum bonum.

And yet for all its careful research, a great deal of the wit and titter – a great deal of the fun – of Foreman’s book comes Gibbon-style, in the numerous footnotes describing the peccadilloes of the day:

George, the eldest son of Lord Hervey, died unmarried. The second son, Augustus, who became the third Earl of Bristol, did so in a blaze of scandal. Many years before, he had secretly married Elizabeth Crudleigh, a rambunctious lady-in-waiting at court with ambition and a reputation to match. The alliance was short-lived and both of them agreed to maintain the pretence of there never having been a marriage. Elizabeth then married the Duke of Kingston, who knew nothing of her previous life, but after the Duke died her past was exposed in a court case over the will. The Countess-Duchess – as Horace Walpole called her – was tried for bigamy in the House of Lords in 1776 in front of 6,000 spectators. One of the many peeresses who crammed into the gallery during the lengthy trial was Georgiana. Because of her age and status, the Duchess of Kingston escaped branding on the hand, the usual punishment, and was allowed to retire abroad. Augustus was condemned for conniving in the deception, and his punishment was severe: the Lords insisted the original marriage was indissoluble, thus depriving him of legitimate heirs.

Almost like having the society papers right there in front of you, isn’t it?

So there you have it! Nine more lives to read about, ruminate upon, and, if need be, find at the library! Coming up in about a month: nine more!

February 22nd, 2010

The Engineer of Human Souls!

Our book today is Josef Skvorecky’s rollicking, hilarious, and ultimately extremely touching 1977 novel, The Engineer of Human Souls (in the original Czech – hold onto something now – Pribeh inzenyra lidskych dusi), and I’m taking refuge in it today for two reasons: first, it’s a genuinely great book, endless inventive and sad and funny, certainly Skvorecky’s masterpiece (although all his books are very, very good), and second, because it’s been my experience that if the subject of ‘great 20th century novels’ comes up at a party or a bookstore or a convivial all-you-can-eat hostelry, any mention of Skvorecky will be met with blank stares. Even a recondite cinderblock like The Recognitions (which, don’t mistake me, I also heartily recommend) will have at least one or two heads nodding, but Skvorecky? If people want to talk about great modern Czech writers, they’ll talk about Milan Kundera. You can just guess what I think about that.

It’s odd, because he has the just the kind of c.v. hip young litterateurs should love: born in 1924, enslaved by the Nazis while young, a patriotic Czech at a time when the Soviets were inclined to kill you for being that, a champion of freedom and a publisher of dissidents, by all accounts a mesmerizing teacher (though rather hard on his favorite students’ livers), and most of all, a tireless writer, always working at his craft.  You think comp lit. grads would gobble him up.

My guess as to why they don’t is because his books are big – they’re labyrinthine, super-garrulous, endlessly allusive (none more so than The Engingeer of Human Souls) – they disdain simplicity for simplicity’s sake, they are unafraid of taking foolish rhetorical stances they can in no way justify, and they can almost never resist a squirt of seltzer water in your face, even in the most serious circumstances. In other words, despite the fact that Skvorecky wrote them in a relatively comfortable exile in Canada, they’re pure Czech.

The Engineer of Human Souls concerns the young Czech writer and dissident Danny Smiricky, who has many misadventures with the occupying Nazis (all of which are described with the pitch-perfect precision of high comedy, a thing Wodehouse understood, and Joe Heller – an incredibly difficult and painstaking kind of art that has endured many hardships over the centuries, including having to hear And Then We Came To The End described as ‘high comedy’), including an scatterbrained sabotage attempt that’s derailed when Danny inadvertently blurts out “Sorry!” to his Nazi Obermeister Uippelt, thereby revealing the highly suspicious fact that he speaks English. Naturally, the Nazi officer has questions about this. Here’s a bit of the nervous interview that follows – just look at the incredibly subtle shiftings going on here from slapstick to tragedy (“Mr. Katz, now probably dead…”) and back:

Without even being aware of it I stood at strict attention. He stared at me like a blue-eyed suckling pig, but it wasn’t his usual geheime Staatspolizei squint.

“’Sorry’ …,” he said ponderingly. “Warum haen Sei diesen Englischen Ausdruck benutzt?”

“I’m- I’m learning English,” I replied in German. “I said it without thinking.”

Warum lernen Sie Englisch?”

Oh God! Why, indeed, did a citizen of the Protektorat learn English with the Reich waging a victorious war against the English-speaking world? Why not learn Italian? Or, if you like – given the way the Italians were conducting the war – why not learn Japanese?

“I – we used to take it in school. I haven’t been able to forget it …”

Warum wollen Sie’s nicht vergessen?

He had me cornered.

“I …I …”

Na?”

Once more the words flew involuntarily out of my mouth. The source of this next evident untruth was my teacher at the time, Mr. Katz, now probably dead. “Once you know something, no one can take it away from you.”

Uippelt raised his eyebrows,set his prince-nez on his nose, and I lost my courage. Against my will, I began babbling like a quisling. “I mean – after the war we will – I mean, Germany will occupy England – and then we will need to know English – vielleicht …”

The little blue eyes blinked and Herr Obermeister leaned towards me over the blueprints. I expected an explosion in elegant, baroque German, but Uippelt merely said in a soft, confidential voice, “Bullshit.”

The book is organized almost entirely around other books, other authors – this is, among all its other virtues, one of the most sustained and stunningly enthusiastic hymns of praise to books and reading you’re ever likely to read (the chapters are titled “Poe,” “Hawthorne,” “Twain,” “Crane,” “Fitzgerald,” “Conrad,” and, wonderfully, “Lovecraft,” and some of the academic comedy here – as Danny must deal with his terminally stupid students – is among the finest such ever written). There are readings of the authors in question – and dozens of others – that you’ll remember forever, but the bookish never upstages the forward-surging tangle of the book’s two plots, nor the hedge-growth of subplots in which Danny teaches his students and falls in and out of love (there’s a scene on a train in which young Danny realizes a girl he grew up with has become a fervent Nazi that will quite simply break your heart)(but you’ll be laughing at something five pages later).

I think it’s this studied, lively busy-ness  that tends to keep The Engineer of Human Souls from being known at those parties and bookstores and all-you-can eat hostelries. Skvorecky can be wistful, melancholy, and sometimes very, very sad – but he is never solemn, and maybe that’s one sin too many in the current comp-lit hymnal. Danny hints at such a thing himself, after regaling his students with yet another story of the hapless Czech resistance fighters under the Nazis (this one involving, among other things, a series of events that cause a Nazi official to take a sip from a glass of what he thinks is champagne but which is in fact a more common yellow liquid altogether) and encountering their outright skepticism:

“You’re making this up,” says Irene. “it’s like a scene from a screwball comedy.”

“Svensson,” I say, “kindly remember this most banal of all truisms: the most incredible comedies are written by life.”

“My life is more like a railway timetable.”

“Just wait till time intervenes. The alchemy of time transforms everything into comedy. Everything.”

Naturally, I’m of precisely the wrong ethnic background to believe that myself, but Skvorecky did – or at least this wonderful book does. It would no doubt spare a rueful chuckle even for its own desuetude, although I don’t find that funny either. Somebody should hurry up and reprint this book – no need to commission a new translation: the snappy, cheerful one by Paul Wilson that I’ve been quoting from is quite good enough.

February 18th, 2010

Winter’s Tale!

Our book today is Mark Helprin’s luminous 1983 novel Winter’s Tale, certainly the author’s masterpiece and one of the only sustained examples of so-called ‘magical realism’ that didn’t strike me as lazy, condescending, or both. As most of you will already know (I’ve seldom met a well-read person who hasn’t read – and loved – this book), the skein of the story concerns innocent young barbarian Peter Lake, who leaves home to come to a towering, imposing New York City of a bygone era. There he finds/is found by an immense magical white horse named Athansor, and the two have adventures, but the cast of characters here is almost limitless, and in many ways the most memorable one is the city itself:

Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace of a hundred million chambers, many-tiered gardens, pools, passages, and ramparts above its rivers. Built upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland, the palace of a thousand tall towers was undefended. It took in nearly all who wished to enter, being so much larger than anything else that it could not ever be conquered but only visited by force. Newcomers, invaders, and the inhabitants themselves were so confused by its multiplicity, variety, vanity, size, brutality, and grace, that they lost sight of what it was. It was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.

For this reason, it occurred to me just the other day that Winter’s Tale would make a very satisfying re-read during a long-planned bus-ride to Manhattan. Bus and train are really the only ways to approach NYC; driving your own car, you’re too concerned about not getting killed to appreciate the experience, and flying is by its very nature anti-climactic. But when you approach slowly, over the course of four hours, you can watch the scenery gradually flatten out, as though in preparation for the immensity to come. You roll past the vast, faceless industries (reclamation plants, storage facilities for things and people) that exist only to support the daily workings of the thing you’re soon to encounter, and then, like a clockwork miracle, it appears: a city so huge it feels like a provocation just to approach it. In an unbeatable visual irony, you pass miles-wide and carefully-maintained cemeteries as you draw nearer, and your eyes can effortlessly shift from landscape that is quiet and determinedly horizontal to one that is intensely vertical and so raucous you can swear you hear it as you get nearer.

How nice, I thought, to re-read this quintessential hymn to New York City while driving into the heart of it. So I packed Winter’s Tale along with everything else.

Unfortunately, I also packed a monstrous pathogen, and after a mere 90 minutes of bus-ride (in the middle of a decidedly un-inspiring winterbound Connecticut landscape), my ears, nose, eyes, throat, and stomach erupted in a series of time-lapse geysers that left me trembling, weeping, sitting on the front step of the bus, begging the driver to let me off.

So my oh-so-neat English major’s idea of re-reading Winter’s Tale as I approached New York didn’t happen (looking back, I think the travel-gods were almost certainly punishing me specifically for being so insufferably artsy-fartsy), and, being of 100% Irish descent, I a) thoroughly destroyed that copy of the book and b) will never bring another copy  on a trip of any kind ever again, even at Mark Helprin’s specific behest. If innocent inanimate objects can’t be blamed for the misfortunes that befall us, say generations of Donoghues from Donegal, then what good are they?

Still, upon reflection (and after fifteen hours of sweated-through fever dreaming in which my fat basset hound did all the hippo’s dance routines from “Fantasia”), I see no reason to taint the book itself, nor to call for any of my loyal (and silent … sigh …) readers to shun it. “I have been to another world, and come back,” Winter’s Tale’s motto urges us, “Listen to me.” Readers have, and readers should. Not only is there wonder aplenty in this book, but there’s also a great deal of pitch-perfect humor (indeed, Helprin is so good at evoking the wonder that I think his humor is underestimated), as in the following little epiphany by the questionably sane Reverend Mootfowl, which ends with the perfect zinger:

“A bridge … is a very special thing. Haven’t you seen how delicate they are in relation to their size? They soar like birds; they extend and embody our finest efforts; and they utilize the curve of heaven. When a catenary of steel is hung over a river, believe me, God knows. Being a churchman, I would go so far as to say that that catenary, this marvelous graceful thing, this joy of physics, this perfect balance between rebellion and obedience, is God’s own signature on earth. I think it pleases Him to see them raised. I think that is why the city is so rich in events. The whole island, you see, is becoming a cathedral.”

“Does that leave out the Bronx?” someone asked.

“Yes,” Mootfowl replied.

Joyful little hoots pop up all through this book, and they fit so well with the solemnities that you can only stand in sheer awe of the work it must have required to write this book. In fact, Helprin could almost be writing about Winter’s Tale itself when he has a transformed and visionary Peter Lake proclaim:

“You see, it works. The balances are exact. The world is a perfect place, so perfect that even if there is nothing afterward, all this will have been enough.”

As we all know, ‘afterwards’ has included some less-than-stellar work and some gems (one of which, Freddy and Fredericka, I reviewed way, way back in 2006!) … but nothing shines quite as brightly as Winter’s Tale. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this book, hurry out today and do so. But mind the pathogens.

February 15th, 2010

Travel the World with The Lifted Brow!

The latest installment of Australia’s great literary journal The Lifted Brow is now out – and sold out! Ronnie Scott, the journal’s weirdly youthful proprietor and mastermind, is currently working on a limited second run, so do your best to get on that list (or desperately Craigslist anybody you know in Australia, begging them to find you a copy).

There are two reasons why this issue sold like hotcakes: first, the days when The Lifted Brow may have been the best-kept secret on the international literary stage appear to be over. And second, this issue is so damn much fun – and when was the last time you could say that about The New Republic?

It’s a travel-themed little behemoth of an issue this time around. Travel, as the old saw goes, can broaden the mind. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it can also get you blown up, dysenteried, dengued, taken hostage, flight delayed, flayed, beheaded, or at the very least pauperized. In recognition of these dismaying facts (and in the spirit of the aforementioned fun), this issue brings the world to you: dozens of writers, including Justin Rice, Clancy Martin, Andrew Holder, the insufferable Reif Larsen, Douglas Coupland, Benjamin Kunkel, the moderately sufferable Adam Golaski, the late David Foster Wallace (and yours truly), each hones in on a different corner of the world and tries to convey something of its flavor, its culture, its commonality, or its strenuous irrelevance. The issue also features two CDs of vaguely world-themed music by lots of people I’ve never heard of (but it sure filled my room with strange and ultimately alluring sounds when I popped it into my computer!) – all in the service of The Lifted Brow’s obvious (though unstated, because that would be so stuffy) message, that literature should be collaborative, multi-genre, and invigorating, while we’re all young. To keep us all young. To make us all young.

So it’s an odd position I find myself in here: I’m unabashedly plugging a great literary production that’s almost completely unavailable specifically because of how great it is. Nevertheless, do your best. Go to the website, spring for a subscription (so this doesn’t happen to you again!), look around, sign up for yet another  reprint of this issue. It’s got lots of art, lots of good words, and lots of good music – it’s worth the bother.

February 14th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: The Selected Poems of Dryden!

Some Penguin Classics abridge their subjects, for necessity’s sake. Take the 2001 edition of the selected poems of John Dryden, for instance. In confronting the text of England’s greatest poet, editors Steven N. Zwicker and David Bywaters were faced with an insuperable problem: Dryden wrote for a living, and he wrote a lot.

This wasn’t always the case. In his comparative youth, he had a mortal horror of work, of making art into work – the usual imbecility of the young and talented. As a result, he came to writing relatively late – but he made up for lost time! Once dawn finally broke, once he was convinced that he would only be alive this one time, that everything in the history of the world that would ever be written by John Dryden would have to be written by him in a paltry handful of years, he began filling his days and nights with writing, and although he often complained about it (deadlines, money, wretched printers, heedless audiences, etc – the writer’s complaints never change), that daily overwhelming brought him a joy so deep and complicated that it’s evident in virtually every line he wrote.

But, as noted, he wrote a  lot of lines. The collected edition assembled by Sir Walter Scott (no stranger to productivity) ran to 18 volumes, and the super-scholarly (not to say nit-picky) University of California Press rounds out at 20. Our editors put it succinctly:

He wrote about politics and religion, about trade and empire; he wrote for the theatre and for public occasions; he composed songs, fables, odes and panegyrics, brilliant satire and savage polemic; he translated from many languages and formulated an idiomatic, familiar and fluent prose style. Dryden virtually invented the commercial literary career …

Given all that, a Penguin Classic of Dryden’s complete verse would be something of a logistical impossibility, especially since he would have to include not only his translations of Horace and Persius, not only his ‘adaptations’ of Chaucer, but also all 12,000 lines of his 1697 edition of the works of Virgil (which our editors rightly call “a resounding and rehabilitating commercial and artistic success”), a monstrous magnum opus that plagued Dryden with doubts and elicited a premature apology for its defects:

What Virgil wrote in the vigor of his age, in plenty and at ease, I have undertaken to translate in my declining years: struggling with wants, oppressed with sickness, curbed in my genius, liable to be misconstrued in all I write…

(Anyone who’s actually read the Dryden Virgil will know that it has very little in the way of defects, but then, Dryden was a worrier)

Even leaving out the longer translations, the tracts, the glorious plays, and most of the prose (our editors cannot bring themselves to exclude all the prose – they include a few choice specimens, even though the inclusions take precious space that could otherwise have been devoted to more verse), there’s still an overwhelming amount of immortal verse, so further selection is necessary – and for form’s sake, Dryden’s first published poem, “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings” (1649) has to be here, even though it’s … well, shall we say not good? Hastings died at age 20 of the smallpox, which gets a clinically accurate but poetically disastrous treatment:

Each little pimple had a tear in it
To wait the fault its rising did commit

And of course space must be made for Dryden’s hilarious and vicious satire “MacFlecknoe,” in which he mercilessly sends up every single one of his literary rivals and quite a few literary innocent bystanders. It’s one of the most superb extended outpourings of pure bile ever written, and our editors are duly appreciative:

MacFlecknoe allowed Dryden to ridicule and crush his rivals, and without departing from the suave tones and manners of literary greatness. In the abuse of rivals, only Pope equals Dryden as a master of irony and mock-epic scorn.

Although readers might at times be hard pressed to detect suave manners in the poem itself, although they’ll have no trouble spotting the blood splatters, as when the aged bad poet Flecknoe is surveying the field of his literary descendants, intent on picking an heir. He’s drawn to Dryden’s chosen target Thomas Shadwell, who’s the main course of the poem:

Sh—- alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness, from his tender years.
Sh—- alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh— never deviates into sense.

Most of Dryden’s first-rate poems are here – there’s “Annus Mirabilis,” “Astraea Redux,” “Absalom and Achitophel,” “The Medal,” “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” “The Hind and the Panther,” and many others. And the end notes manage to be both brisk and compactly informative. In short, this Selected volume does exactly what it should: it gives the curious reader an inviting taste of this one supreme writer. It’s one of literature’s great crimes that Dryden’s work is today almost as little known as Shadwell’s – his verse never read except by unwilling undergraduates, his plays never performed despite how much fun they are, his essays never read even though they were the intellectual primer for every generation of subsequent critics. Maybe the right introductory volume – the one to catch the public imagination – hasn’t arrived yet. When it finally does, my money’s on it being a Penguin.

February 12th, 2010

The Writing of Fiction!

Our book today is The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton’s 1924 treatise on her chosen profession, and it brings to mind a comment a certain wit made in the 1970s, that writing workshops were places where “the unqualified instruct the untalented the fine art of the unteachable.”

Whether or not the art of writing fiction is teachable is a question for the books on that subject that periodically appear on publisher lists and get review journals all stirred up pro and con. Certainly the ever-expanding shrub-growth of writing courses in the world’s universities implies its own answer, and I myself have not only attended one of those workshops but also done my fair share of teaching the subject, formally and informally, for many years.

I think I side with the academics on this one, at least as far as common sense can take it (which, given the generally addle-pated nature of academic thinking, means I side with them for about ten minutes). The actual intangible talent of writing, that mysterious alchemy by which brain chemistry fires on particular word-choices and narrative structures, obviously can’t be taught, and you wouldn’t want to teach it if you could.

But I’ve come to believe that actual intangible talent accounts for only a very small part of what makes a good writer. There are hard outer skills that need placement around that intangible center, and those skills can certainly be taught: the art of editing yourself, the knack of finding the precise physical rituals that work for your best production, and most of all, so toweringly important that virtually everything else fades into insignificance beside it, the discipline to make yourself actually generate material. Regularly. At length. Without that discipline, it literally doesn’t matter how much intangible talent you have: you’ll just go from being unhappy to being unfulfilled to being unbearable, unless you learn how to make yourself write.

And since discipline is muscle, the more you exercise it, the better it’ll work. I’ve known so many young writers who fought me on this point, who complained that there wasn’t enough time in their day, who worried that the whole making themselves work thing would kill the sweet, pretentious joy they felt every sixteen months when their inner Muse was moved to write two lines, or even a paragraph. And I’ve always had ready answers for those young writers: first, there most certainly is enough time in your day (it’s been my experience that almost every human being on Earth wastes about five of the six hours they’re awake every day). And second, yes: that pretentious joy will indeed die – and not a moment too soon! Not all joys are good, after all, and that one’s really, really bad. The joys that will gradually take its place are really, really good: actually generating material trumps wanting to every day of the week, and there’s an indefinable pride in being able to feel those discipline-muscles getting stronger.

Needless to say, Edith Wharton isn’t really setting out to teach any of those skills, despite the title of her elegant, typically elusive little book. This is one of our greatest American prose writers, after all, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, the creator of The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, and The House of Mirth – you almost don’t expect such an august personage to be able to hunker down and tour your through the mechanics of skill and discipline, and you can breathe easy: Mrs. Wharton doesn’t soil her gloves in such a fashion in The Writing of Fiction.

Instead, she does just what you’d hope: she chats. Oh, she thinks she’s teaching, but everything is delivered in such Olympian tones that it’s like a sunrise thinking it’s teaching you how to shine. The only possible response is grateful absorption. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t often hit on points worth making, things any sensible writing instructor tells beginners. One of the most important of these she puts (naturally) quite well:

No writer – especially at the beginning of his career – can help being influenced by the quality of the audience that awaits him; and the young novelist may ask of what use are experience and meditation, when his readers are so incapable of giving him either. The answer is that he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (or his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondence, and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will some day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it.

And she of course has easy access to dudgeon, as successful writers always do:

No one who remembers that Butler’s great novel “The Way of All Flesh” remained unpublished for over twenty years because it dealt soberly but sincerely with the chief springs of human conduct can wonder that laborious monuments of schoolboy pornography are now mistaken for works of genius by a public ignorant of Rabelais and unaware of Apuleius.

And, since writers (especially great writers) are among the least informed about how it is they do what they do, she sometimes contradicts herself, following her points into box canyons from which the only escape is the bluff of authority:

When I read M. Maeterlinck’s book on the bee (which had just made a flight into fame as high as that of the insect it celebrates) I was first dazzled, then oppressed, by the number and the choice of his adjectives and analogies. Every touch was effective, every comparison striking; but when I had assimilated them all, and remade out of them the ideal BEE, that animal had become a winged elephant. The lesson was salutary for a novelist.

The lesson in question might be salutary for the author of Ethan Frome, but how much poorer would we all be if the author of The House of Mirth had taken it to heart! In her big novels, the exact opposite of this sequence occurs: we are first oppressed, then dazzled by the blizzard of perfectly-selected details in which we find ourselves, and we would have it no other way.

The Writing of Fiction (in any of its various elegant editions) belongs on any shelf reserved for great writers chatting about their craft, but it will always be a slightly maddening presence there. Like her famously undisclosing autobiography, this little treatise is at times gorgeously opaque, and not in the accidental-feeling sense that Henry James’ writings on the same subject sometimes are. No, instead this is Mrs. Wharton saying what she always says in her nonfiction: of me, this much and no more. Even so, we read it again and again.

And for those of you who just know you want to ask me, the answer’s yes: Maeterlinck’s book is wonderful.

February 11th, 2010

Essential Avengers Volume 7!

Our book today is Essential Avengers No. 7, which carries Marvel’s ‘essential’ black-and-white omnibus collections of the Avengers forward into the 1970s and features some fascinating themes and moments in the series’ run. This volume makes for great reading, mainly because the writers of these issues – Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, and Jim Shooter – were all comics fans themselves and were resolutely writing for adults who could be presumed to have better things to do than read comic books all day.

The anthology starts off with a bang – or is that a Kang? (sorry- couldn’t resist) As with any super-team book, certain bad guy story arcs get recycled, and this book opens with two of those familiar arcs in full bloom: the Avengers squaring off against the Squadron Supreme (think: a watered down ripoff of the Justice League, and you’ll have it pretty close) (hence the joke made by the Avengers’ resident bow-and-arrow man Hawkeye in the recent crossover mini-series in which the Avengers meet the actual Justice League; he assures everybody they’re just dealing with some watered down ripoff of the Squadron Supreme!), and the Avengers dealing with the recurring villainy of the time-travelling villain Kang the Conqueror.

The Squadron Supreme story is writer Steve Englehart at his most socially sardonic, mixing some lively superhero action sequences with cultural and political commentary, some of which appears to be delivered by none other than Nelson Rockefeller (it’s a long story):

They [the Avengers]’re not the real problem anyway – I am, I and all the other corporate and conglomerate executives who have taken control of this country! We run your lives and you don’t know it – since so few of us ever stop out from behind the scenes. Even then, all you see is an image – a carefully-crafted image, like any other products! We talk a lot about honesty, and pride, and team spirit – but what we really want is power! The talk’s just to get you to give it to us. And you do! We commit the most outrageous acts – turn completely around on anything we’ve ever claimed to stand for –and you go right along, pretending not to notice…

And as for the Kang story, well, there Englehart abandons all subtlety: the Avengers’ biggest gun, Thor the Norse god of thunder, is in these opening issues just coming off several frustrating encounters with Kang, and the highlight of this segment comes when Thor has finally had enough – he knocks Kang outside of his citadel and decides to finish things once and for all, in a classic sequence that features brute force over political commentary.

Another long-time Avengers story-theme that’s done very well in this anthology is the team’s changing roster. The Avengers was the first super-team book to make such a big fuss over this question of who was in and who was out – previously, various members would wander into and out of team-pages largely based on what use the writers had for them (anybody they couldn’t use that month was said to be ‘on a mission’ or some such). Here, it’s a media event, with reporters doing television specials on the speculation leading up to the announcement of a new team-roster. And there’s an illicit thrill for Avengers readers, too, in this theme – there’s always something fun about seeing a new lineup in place for the first time, wondering how its dynamics will play out (I wonder if this tradition will be maintained when Marvel re-launches the Avengers in the wake of the Siege mini-series … it would be a shame if the opportunity were wasted), speculating on the character interactions.

The roster in this entire ‘essential’ volume is remarkably stable: there’s the Beast (a former X-Man whose slow integration to the team is the thematic spine of this volume), Captain America (here written a bit less woodenly than previously or afterwards), Iron Man, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Hank Pym (here going under his Yellowjacket persona), and the Wasp … and for most of the volume, that core is joined by the disastrously boring revived character of Wonder Man (the Sentry of his day, as it were).

That team fights the Squadron Supreme, Doctor Doom, a lameass bad guy named Graviton, lots and lots of each other (Vision squares off against Wonder Man, the old World War II speedster the Whizzer takes on Cap, Iron Man, and the Beast, and – in one of the first panel-sequences that really started to show the burgeoning strengths of artist George Perez – Ant-Man comes believably close to taking on the whole team), and, of course, Ultron: the anthology’s epic confrontation with Ultron, the near-indestructible killer robot first created by Hank Pym, is not only the brooding high point of Jim Shooter’s writing career with Marvel Comics but also some of George Perez’s most visually detailed and arresting work to that point (Perez, as many of you know, continues still to improve as an artist – as seen most recently in Legion of 3 Worlds but also in yet another Avengers/Ultron showdown, from about ten years ago).

There are fill-in issues (including one with atrocious Herb Trimpe artwork and one with atrocious George Tuska artwork), naturally, and there are sub-plots that go nowhere or get metamorphosed along the way (Englehart , for instance, was notorious for that), but page-for-page, this is yet another fantastic volume in Marvel’s ‘essential’ line. Bring on volumes 8 and 9, I say; let’s hurry up and get to the Steve Epting 90s!

(a perhaps unnecessary end-note: of course Marvel’s ‘essential’ volumes are in black-and-white, so the glorious colors you’re seeing in these examples won’t appear in the book you’ll be buying – but that book is a whole lot less expensive than buying all those issues would be, so resign yourself to using your imagination a little, for pete’s sake …)

February 8th, 2010

Keeping Up With The Tudors: The Other Boleyn Girl!

Our book today is the one that started it all: Philippa Gregory’s totally unexpected runaway bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl (originally titled The Other Boleyn Sister – obviously it was feared that historically illiterate American audiences would feel they were reading a sequel, as with The Madness of King George III)(although I myself actually prefer the American title here – it has a slightly more brutal, impersonal tone, one that fits the book’s mercenary tale better than the more familial ’Sister’).

Safe to say no historical novel written in the last thirty years has been as influential as this one. In only ten years, The Other Boleyn Girl has generated five spin-offs, two different movie adaptations (one for the BBC and one for the mysterious ongoing purpose of keeping Eric Bana employed), an ongoing HBO series (since The Tudors would be unthinkable without the success of the book), and a vast, untrackable ocean of like-minded books set in the Tudor era (I plumb that sea at greater depth here). And like great touchstone historical novels before it, The Other Boleyn Girl has exerted its main influence as a kind of imaginative primer. Just as Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur opened the floodgates for Roman historical fiction, just as Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber opened the floodgates for a brief resurgence of Restoration bodice-rippers, so The Other Boleyn Girl has taught a generation of readers that the Tudor era isn’t something they need a Ph.D. in history to enter and understand. Such teaching often pays long dividends, and this time is no exception: Hilary Mantel owes her recent Man Booker win as much to Philippa Gregory as to the intrinsic strength of Wolf Hall.

Gregory’s book stands like an imperturbable tower above the brick-bats that have been hurled at it by its critics (myself included, way back when and under a pen-name), who for years have assailed its historical accuracy. Those critics, being critics, would have done that anyway, although in this case they were egged on by Gregory’s own claims for the historical accuracy of her book. Historical novelists almost always make such claims, and critics are well-advised to ignore them and concentrate on the important things about fiction, foremost of which is this: does it work?

The Other Boleyn Girl incontestably works. Gregory had written extremely competent if tweedy historical novels earlier in her career (including a whole series chronicling the exploits of a family of gardeners to royalty – how’s that for an English double-whammy?), but in this book she makes some key decisions, and they all pay off.

As you all know, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was the first of Thomas Boleyn’s daughters to catch the roving eye of King Henry VIII, who’s portrayed here as tiring of his aging Spanish queen and hungry for sexual adventures – and a male heir. Gregory decides to tell the story from Mary’s point of view, to tell it sharply with none of the fustian palaver that had usually infested Tudor novels, and to shape her characters into resolutely modern people in period costume. Scenes unfold and transform with almost time-lapse rapidity, and Gregory’s previously languid approach to character development is here whittled to a series of mostly pointed observations. In crafting such a narrative, Gregory inadvertently grants Mary far, far more intelligence than she really possessed, but it’s a minor infraction, especially considering the sheer amounts of fun that result. The Other Boleyn Girl is above all a quite fantastic read. It’s comforting to think that alone might account for a great deal of its success.

Despite the cavils of historical critics, there’s a good deal of accurate research at the back of this book. But its main delight comes in it quick exchanges of dialogue, as in the tense little scene in which Anne sends her sister off to be with Henry:

“Are you clean?” Anne asked sharply.

I nodded.

She looked at me anxiously. “Go on then. And you can resist for a bit, you know. Show a little doubt. Don’t just fall into his arms.”

I turned my face away from her. She seemed to me quite unbearably crass about the whole matter.

“The girl can have a bit of pleasure,” George said gently.

Anne rounded on him. “Not in his bed,” she said sharply. “She’s not there for her pleasure but for his.”

I didn’t even hear her. All I could ear was the thud of my heart pounding in my ears and my knowledge that he had sent for me, that I would be with him soon.

“Come on,” I said to George. “Let’s go.”

Anne turned to go back into the room. “I’ll wait up for you,” she said.

I hesitated. “I might not come back tonight.”

She nodded. “I hope you don’t. But I’ll wait up for you anyway. I’ll sit by the fire and watch the dawn come in.”

I thought for a moment about her keeping a vigil for me in her spinster bedroom while I was snug and loved in the King of England’s bed. “My God, you must wish it was you,” I said with sudden acute delight.

She did not flinch from it. “Of course. He is the king.”

You can see several of the basic ingredients of The Other Boleyn Girl in that little scene (and a few of its key weaknesses, here symbolized in that repeated ‘sharply’): the modern speech cadences, full of contractions and free of ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ the economical evocation of setting (characters in the book imagine each other doing things almost as often as they actually do things), and of course a free-wheeling willingness to make a scenery-chewing Lucifer out of Anne Boleyn.

Gregory’s also not above winking a little at her audience, as in this much later scene in which Mary and George attend the banquet in honor of Anne becoming the Marquess of Pembroke (and honor bestowed by the besotted Henry):

At the banquet George and I sat side by side and looked up at our sister, seated beside the king.

He did not ask if I was envious. It was an answer too obvious to be worth inquiry. “I don’t know another woman who could have done it,” he said. “She has a unique determination to be on the throne.”

“I never had that,” I said. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted from childhood was not to be overlooked.”

“Well you can forget that,” George said with brotherly frankness. “You’ll be overlooked now for the rest of your life. We’ll both be as nothing. Anything I achieve will be seen as her gift. And you’ll never match her. She’s the only Boleyn anyone will ever know of or remember. You’ll be a nobody forever.”

It was the word “nobody.”At the very word the bitterness drained out of me, and I smiled. “You know, there might be some joy in being a nobody.”

“You’ll be a nobody forever” indeed. There are Other Boleyn Girl tours, Other Boleyn Girl garden parties, Other Boleyn Girl stationary lines and book clubs … and I already mentioned the legion of knockoff novels set in a Tudor court suddenly become so lusty it’s a wonder anybody ever had time to trade dispatches with the Venetian ambassador.

We all owe that renaissance – the good and the bad of it – to Philippa Gregory and her improbable blockbuster of a book. Each publishing season, roughly 400 hopefuls plop their Tudor wares on the counter and hope the public will consume them in equal quantities, but so far that kind of success has evaded them all (and Gregory herself – none of those sequels sold more than a fraction of what the original did and still does). This is only natural, though the poor things don’t see it. The next lynch-pin book that catches and sparks the public’s imagination will be as unexpected as The Other Boleyn Girl was, and it will turn all eyes toward a different era entirely. The Windsors, anyone?

February 5th, 2010

Comics! Siege 2

A bunch of comics came out this week, but in the superhero world, only one of them mattered much, and it would matter even if it didn’t matter, if you know what I mean – because the writing features Brian Michael Bendis doing his choppy, impressionistic, weirdly beguiling thing with dialogue (he’s the best of the current bunch of ‘no exposition’ comics writers), and because it features the stunning, mind-warpingly great artwork of Olivier Coipel. These two could make Scrooge McDuck matter.

The series of course is “Siege” from Marvel, and naturally it matters for reasons other than its creative team, although it should be stressed that said team has seldom been in stronger form. No, this four-issue mini-series matters because it’s the culmination and climax of the company-wide “Dark Reign” story that’s been playing out in Marvel’s comics for the last few years. Some of you will already be familiar with that scenario (from previous Stevereads entries, if nothing else – just follow the tags!): Norman Osborn, the ersatz Green Goblin, has wormed his way into the country’s good graces and taken command of H.A.M.M.E.R., a gigantic paramilitary force of stormtroopers. And when he’s wearing his super-powered armor and going under the code-name Iron Patriot, he also commands his own team of Avengers, composed of villains dressed in hero costumes – plus the Sentry (think: Superman only biddable and psychotic) and Ares, the Greek god of war.

In the lead-up to “Siege,” as we’ve seen, Norman Osborn, manipulated by the evil norse god Loki (and drunk on power the old-fashioned way), has declared war on Asgard, the home city of the norse gods, which is currently floating above Oklahoma. Osborn talks about how the city forms a real and present threat to America just by being there, and in the first issue of “Siege” he gathers his troops and invades.

So “Siege” #2 starts off in the chaos of general battle, with Osborn’s troops and Avengers fighting a city full of enraged and not all that out-gunned Asgardians (swords and spears are pretty damn effective if you’re super-strong, which every single Asgardian is). Coipel’s pencils are magnificent – he’s able to convey the huge sweep of what’s going on without taking any drama away from the one-on-one encounters throughout the book, the first of which is key to this issue: the Asgardian warriors Balder and Heimdall convince Ares that he’s been duped, that Osborn is really his enemy.

There’s other stuff going on in this issue, but that’s the core story: Ares turns on Osborn, knocks him out of the sky, and is about to cut his head off when the Sentry intervenes, beats the stuffing out of Ares, and then, well … takes him out of the fight entirely, let’s say. The issue ends with Osborn unleashing the Sentry on Thor, Asgard’s greatest warrior and resident super-hero – and with Osborn himself coming under attack by none other than Captain America, alive again and fighting mad, leading his own group of reinforcements into battle. It’s a great cliffhanger ending to a great issue, but it leaves me wondering two things:

First: if Bendis is going to portray the Sentry as so powerful – able to dispatch the god of war with relative ease, likely to pound the stuffing out of Thor in the next issue – then why would Osborn need this mysterious reserve operative he’s been darkly hinting about for the last year? We don’t know who that mysterious operative is (although if you follow the aforementioned tags, you’ll see where I made my own prediction, months and months ago – a prediction I’m sticking with), but he hardly seems Needed, if this is what Osborn’s pet psycho can do all by himself.

Second: Even at the breakneck pace this thing is developing, how can it possibly wrap up in only two issues? Captain America re-entering the fray; Thor fighting the Sentry, this mysterious operative entering the fray, Iron Man presumably showing up at some point … not to mention the fact that if long-term grudge-matches are going to be honored here, Spider-Man (currently just a background member of Cap’s reinforcements) should surely take pride of place, no? Osborn killed his beloved Gwen Stacey, after all! How Bendis can possibly resolve all this in only 50 more pages is beyond me.

But I’ll certainly be along for the ride. This issue erases all my slight misgivings about the first issue of this series: this is epic-style Marvel done just right.