Posts from October 2010
October 29th, 2010
Our book today is Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two-Ocean War, and it’s a response to the readers (Silent Majority card-members all!) who wrote to me wondering how I, of all people, could recommend an abridged book – in this case Leon Edel’s one-volume version of his massive five-volume biography of Henry James. Surely I, of all people, stood for the purity of the whole work, not the superimposed guesswork of somebody – even the author – deciding which scattered bits will be of interest to the mythical ‘common reader’?
Not a bit of it! Abridgments serve self-evident good purposes, and they can be works of art on their own. There are facets of enjoying a subject that can get dulled or buried entirely when an author who’s done a massive amount of research decides to share the whole of it with his readers. The sheer technical feat of keeping a narrative both coherent and interesting over the course of such an enormous work is within the reach of only a handful of writers, and it becomes all the more impressive when some of those writers can turn around and say, “OK, now that my world-encompassing labors are done, I’m going to write the 200-page book on this subject that was my original intent, and I’m going to make it just as good in its own way as the mother work is in all its splendor.” It takes a certain kind of humility to do that (a humility perhaps brought on by the need to eat, since it’s almost always those 200-page one-volume versions that actually sell) – and a certain kind of craft, which is why you’ll find many such abridgments on my bookshelves.
Morison’s is an obvious and sterling example. In order to generate his gigantic fifteen-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” Morison was given a rank and the freedom to move about from ship to ship as the official historian of the greatest naval war in the history of the world. He served on eleven wartime vessels and harvested unprecedented amounts of first-hand information and observation (much of it first-hand – Morison was no desk-bound historian; he served on fast ships, and he put himself in harm’s way), and he had one crucial thing besides: a pronounced flair for writing history. His prose is half-Herodotus and half-Thucydides, bristling with facts and figures but also alive with heartfelt passion.
It goes without saying that I enthusiastically recommend that fifteen-volume account. I’ve read it straight through a few times and also rejoiced in picking up single volumes. In those volumes, Morison allows himself to give his subjects – the major battles, the major figures, the major trends – all the room and detail they deserve. Digression abound and are welcome. But I read very fast, and I devote almost all my waking time to reading, and I’m perfectly well aware that these things aren’t true for most readers in the world – and Morison was well aware of it too. When his publisher (and his long-suffering agent – he wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with) suggested a one-volume abridgment of his life’s crowning achievement, Morison not only jumped into the task with gusto (he jumped into everything with gusto – when he paid a restaurant bill, onlookers got the impression it was the first time a restaurant bill had ever been paid, and they were tempted to applaud) but got it done in time for the Christmas book-buying season.
The Two-Ocean War sold like hotcakes, and deservedly so. In place of the sprawl of the original, Morison’s largely reworked abridgment has the speed and punch of a torpedo. Here, in short order, readers get the whole of the war in the Atlantic and Pacific, from the dark early days when German U-boats, Italian mini-subs, and the mighty Japanese Imperial Navy seemed to have no serious hindrance anywhere in the world. The signal naval victory of those early years was of course the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and Morison gives us a concise look at how such a disaster was possible (modern readers familiar with the details leading up to the 9/11 attacks will find the scenario gruesomely familiar):
A series of false assumptions, both at Washington and Oahu, added up to something as serious as the sins of omission. In Hawaii, the Navy assumed that the Army had gone on full alert, and that the radar warning net was completely operational. The Army assumed that the Navy was conducting an effective air reconnaisance around the island. Admiral Kimmel assumed that aerial torpedoes could not operate in the shoal waters of Pearl Harbor. Both Army and Navy Intelligence officers assumed that Japan was sending all her naval forces south, and that in any event Japan would not be so stupid as to attack Pearl Harbor. In Washington, Colonel Bratton of Army Intelligence assumed that the Pacific Fleet would go to sea after the 27 November “war warning,” so to him the intercepted reports of ships’ positions by the Japanese consulate registered waste effort; and Captain Wilkinson of Naval Intelligence assumed that these reports were simply evidence of the Japanese inordinate love for detail. Rear Admiral Turner of War Plans assumed that this and all other relevant intelligence was going to Admiral Kimmel, and General Gerow of Army War Plans assumed that Kimmel and Short were exchanging every scrap of what they did get, which was considerable. Washington was as vague and uncertain about what was going to happen on the first or second weekend after 27 November as Pearl Harbor itself. It was a case of the blind not leading the blind; false assumptions at both ends of the line.
And Morison is there with us throughout – as the United States, ironically granted a boon at Pearl Harbor (no aircraft carriers were hit, nor were the vast oil tank fields that were well within the range of all those Japanese fighter-planes), rapidly poured men and material and money and technology into fielding a huge navy in both theaters. Morison wisely reminds us that despite this build-up, the numbers in any given engagement still often favored the Axis powers; the flame that animates his thrilling book is heroism, and that goes well with the occasional underdog scrap.
And he’s alive, naturally enough, to the hand of history that lay over it all. This is a quality you’ll find in all of Morison’s books – he’s never so focused on what he’s researching and writing about that he fails to see its wider importance, as in the epic and game-changing Battle of Leyte Gulf, where he pauses even in the midst of the frantic action to recall its larger significance:
Mississippi‘s one salvo, fired at Yamashiro just after Admiral Oldendorf ordered Cease Fire, concluded this major phase or the battle [of Surigao Strait]. Silence followed, as if to honor the passing of tactics which had so long been foremost in naval warfare. The Battles of Lowestoft, Beachy Head, the Capes of the Chesapeake, Trafalgar, Santiago, Tsushimam, Jutland, every major naval action of the past three centuries, had been fought by classic line-of-battle tactics. In the unearthly silence that followed the roar of Oldendorf’s 14-inch and 16-inch guns in Surigao Strait, one could imagine the ghosts of all great admirals, from Raleigh and De Ruyter to Togo and Jellicoe, standing at attention to salute the passing of the kind of naval warfare they all understood. For in those opening minutes of the morning watch of 25 October 1944, Battle Line became as obsolete as the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Syracuse.
Such moments occur often in that fifteen-volume official history, and they’re every bit as moving and powerful – but how many readers can find them? The sheer size of the work can serve to hide its highlights, whereas here they’re served up one after the next in a brilliant performance.
And it’s not the only performance of its kind! In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at other abridgments that stand as worthy works on their own. My shelves abound with them, and my shelves are at your disposal, after all.
October 28th, 2010
When we last joined our hero Paul in his book-cover odyssey, he was in a dystopian future in which he was slowly learning to express his smoldering inner self in two key ways: skimpy clothing and discreet bondage. Both of these key ways might have felt a bit risky for a young man who, despite an exhibitionist streak a mile wide, is essentially a shy person – but jobs beckoned, and nothing in the Undergear catalog calls for its models to be roped to one of the swaying palm trees or gritty fire escapes in the background of their shots (one suspects the magazine’s sales would quintuple if they did). Fulfillment had to be sought elsewhere.
Then in 2007 author Joey W. Hill came along, and Paul got the chance of a lifetime. Not only could the whole skimpy clothing/light bondage motif get a sexy purple spotlight turned upon it, but there could be the added safety-precaution of relative anonymity. On the cover of Hills scorchingly erotic novel The Vampire Queen’s Servant, we see the broad, muscular, naked back of a man; a woman’s nails are raking appreciatively up his trapezius, and his tense, fisted hands are cuffed at the small of his back. The man’s face is turned entirely away from us – only those who are already very familiar with Paul’s appearance (perhaps even in similar poses? Who can say?) would be able to identify him.
But surely his identity is not a surprise to those of us who’ve been Under the Covers with Paul Marron so long? The compact musculature, the stiff, bristly brown hair, the defiant demeanor – only our Paul could smolder so effectively without even looking at us!
He smolders throughout the book, too. In Hill’s addictive story, he’s Jacob, part-time carney and one-time vampire hunter, who voluntarily becomes the sexual thrall of Lady Elyssa, the vampire queen of the book’s title. Lady Elyssa is a thousand years old, and like everybody who hits that magic number, she needs a constant supply of beefy sex slaves – a handsome, defiant young man who’ll obey her every whim, cater to her rather feisty sexual appetite, and submit to any kind of bondage she happens to think up. And in exchange, said slave gets a drastically prolonged lifespan and an eternally-young bedmate. It’s like Renfield, only without the bugs – and with a whole coffin-full of kinks.
Naturally, Paul is willing to make the trade, although at first he can scarcely imagine the full degree of helplessness Lady Elyssa will force him to endure – nor really experience it either, since at first he persists in performing nightly escapes from his chains/cuffs/shackles. These escapes confound Lady Elyssa, and Hill is very skilled at conveying that her confusion comes at least as much from her own reluctance to punish her errant manservant for this cheeky behavior as it does from wondering how the heck he does it.
The bondage Paul accepts here is total – he’s suspended, chained, stretched, immobilized, and toyed with. Actually, since Hill isn’t coy I shouldn’t be either: Paul is rogered by Lady Elyssa, rogered repeatedly, rogered good and proper, and he does plenty of rogering in return. If Hill had written this book in 1907 instead of 2010, she’d have been jailed, tried in a kangaroo court, and burned at the stake on Boston Common. Even in our more depraved-enlightened times, reading The Vampire Queen’s Servant is virtually guaranteed to produce extremely pleasant palpitations in pretty much any part of you that’s inclined to palpitating. Passages like this one are among the tamer ones:
He’d never been forced to submission by a woman, never gotten aroused by it as she’d made him respond. At least to himself, he was forced to admit the thing imprisoning his cock made him hard mainly because she’d wanted to put it on him. It made him think of how she’d described the pleasure of slowly binding a servant, letting him feel his gradual descent into helplessness. The clasp of the cock harness kept the image of her hands there. The fascinated desire in her eyes ran through his mind, over and over.
The oddest thing about the book is that in the midst of all these exotic accessories and gyroscopic body parts, there’s an actual story, and Hill is, I suspect, such a geek that at times the story almost threatens to actually distract the reader from the presence of Paul grimly struggling against ropes and chains only a few paragraphs away – something I, at least, wouldn’t have thought possible. Lady Elyssa is very old and very powerful, ruler of a distant vampire bloodline, and she’s in a constant power-struggle with the Vampire Council, where she’s not an official member but rather a kind of unaligned rival power. Hill has worked out the details of her imaginary world precisely (or else she’s spent time at a certain retail bookstore-chain whose power structure is rather eerily echoed here):
The vampire world was divided into Regions, groupings of territories won through battle or influence during the formation of the current vampire society, before the Council had been appointed. The heads of those Regions were known as Master vampires. A vampire who accumulated enough wealth and influence might be awarded an overlord title and a territory inside the Region by the Council, preferably with the consent of the Region Master. Vampires lacking the power or experience to be an overlord applied to reside in a territory. The overlord then put then in charge of different business interests. In return the vampires gave the overlord a percentage for his protection and backing. The overlords served the Region Master.
Odd but true: if Hill didn’t have a rather depraved set of ants in her pants, she could easily write some very good vampire novels. Even considering the shackles and chains, she’s done just that.
And what of Paul, I hear you all asking? Is this the great awakening that will lead him to find his true book-cover destiny? Is this the beginning of the Age of Paul that must be the culmination of any series such as this?
Oddly, no. Having leaped to embrace the twofold path to fulfilling his destiny, it’s possible that Paul felt he’d gone too far, too fast (or perhaps the unspoken implications of the cover of one of Hill’s sequels – in which not only is Paul now clearly recognizable but he’s sharing space with another man – were too risque). What followed The Vampire Queen’s Servant, as we’ll see, was a spasm of conservatism – and a jump in genres – that must have left many a Paul fan quite confused. We’ll begin sorting it all out, next time.
October 25th, 2010
Our book today is a pure palate-cleanser: it’s The First Fast Draw, a slim little Western by Louis L’amour.
The role of the palate-cleanser in reading is much the same as it is in pretentious dining, and in both cases it’s a bit of an unsung hero. Although I’d like to claim my reading is far too energetic and comprehensive to require such a thing, it’s not – I think everybody needs to hit the ‘reset’ button on their reading once in a while. After a spate of ‘serious’ reading, it does the mind a lot of good to stop, breathe, and read a book with no real ideological connection to anything else you’ve been reading or plan to read, a book that just is – and if it’s a guilty pleasure, so much the better.
I do a lot of reading, so I have lots of different kinds of guilty pleasures. Some of them, as long-time readers of Stevereads have come to know, are very guilty – virtually anti-intellectual, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. No book so bad, as a wise-enough man once said, but that there’s something of worth in it. Often there’s a great deal of worth, only on a lower register or a different pitch than, say, Gogol. I seek out such books with the same energy and enthusiasm I lavish on … well, all other books. Somebody had to write them, after all. Stands to reason somebody ought to read them.
Not that I give any book a blank hall-pass, mind you. I adhere very strictly to the ‘pleasure’ part of ‘guilty pleasure’ – if the book in question is tedious, I don’t care how disreputable it is!
Louis L’amour never wrote a tedious book (unless you’re one of those benighted souls who consider Westerns as such to be tedious), although there’s certainly an argument to be made that he never wrote an entirely good one either. His pace of work was ferocious – he makes the hand-wringing agonizing of our modern tortured ‘sensitive’ novelists look just plain ridiculous (and those of you who’d respond by saying those novelists need the extra time to write on a higher level should think of Anthony Trollope and keep your lazy yaps shut). I think the official estimate of his novel-count at his death stood somewhere just shy of 100, but the simple truth is, we’ll never known just how much prose fiction L’amour produced in his lifetime. Between novels, novellas, and innumerable short stories (quite a few under fake names), the result could well be the equivalent of 200 or even 300 novels. He wrote on contract and on deadline, and his books all bear the tell-tale marks of a writer who lives in his prose but never, ever revises it.
The First Fast Draw is just a L’amour book picked at random (OK, maybe not completely random – this one has a particularly silly cover illustration) – any other would have served as well (perhaps not his one long historical novel, the flaws of which are more apparent because the ambition is greater) as a palate-cleanser here. As in all Westerns, the attraction here is the triumph of the underdog – in this case Cullen Baker, who’s framed for a crime by the desperado Sam Barlow and driven into hiding. While in hiding, he practices the ‘fast draw’ of the book’s title, and it stands him in good stead later in the book when he’s forced to fight Barlow and his gang of cutthroat owl-hoots and perhaps win the affections of pretty, reserved Katy.
But as in almost all L’amour novels (I can only think of one or two where it absolutely doesn’t happen), there’s an added attraction, in addition to watching him negotiate the Western’s Euclidean plot-strictures. Unlike the great majority of such plot-driven dime-Westerns that have flourished in the last century, L’amour’s books every so often turn sideways a bit and embrace a lyrical moment. You can never quite predict where such a moment will crop up, but I’ve got a whole slew of favorites, and The First Fast Draw has a good one. Our laconic, reticent hero has been asked by the spirited Miss Katy to tell her something about the West, where she fancies she would have traveled if she’d been a man. Despite his bloody ways, Baker has a poetic soul, and at first he balks at his ability to convey the things he’s seen:
Tell her of the West? Where could a man begin? Where could he find the words to put the pictures before her that he saw when she asked about the West? How could he tell her of the fifty-mile drives without water, and the cattle dying and looking wild-eyed into the sun? How could he tell her abou the sweat, the dust, the alkali? Or the hard camps of hard men where a word was a gun and a gun was a death? And plugging the wound with a dirty handkerchief and hoping it didn’t poison? What could a man tell a woman of the West? How could he find the words for the swift-running streams, chuckling over rocks, for the mountains that reached to heaven and the clouds that choked the valleys among the high peaks? What words did he have to talk of that?
But then in the way of most L’amour heroes, he finds the words somehow:
“There’s a wonder of land out there, Mrs. Thorne,” I said, “a wide wonder of it, with distances that reached out beyond your seeing where a man can ride six days and get nowhere at all. There are canyons where no white man has walked, canyons among the unfleshed bones of the mountains, with the soil long gone if ever there was any, like old buffalo bones where the buzzards and coyotes had been at them. There’s campfires, ma’am, where you sit over a tiny fire with a million tiny fires in the sky above you like the fires of a million lonely men. You hover over your fire and hear coyotes speaking their plaintive words at the moon, and you smell the acrid smoke and you wonder where you are and if there’s Comanches out there, and your horse comes close to the fire for company and looks out into the dark with pricked-up ears. Chances are the night is empty, of living things, anyway, for who can say what ghosts haunt a country the like of that?”
It’s just a quiet little moment before the shooting starts up again, but it separates L’amour from most of his imitators and all but a handful of those modern writers who learned more of their craft at his feet than they’re willing to admit (we’ll get to Elmore Leonard one of these days, here at Stevereads). You finish The First Fast Draw just like you finish all of his Westerns: satisfied with a good, simple story – and rested, eager to move on to more exciting, more challenging fare. Just exactly what a palate-cleanser should do.
October 22nd, 2010
The November Atlantic has one of those big special features that always sound more interesting than they end up being. In this case it’s “Brave Thinkers,” and the whole it can be painlessly skipped, or skimmed. Ditto the now-obligatory piece on the so-called Tea Party, a phase of national mania that should no more be covered in The Atlantic than it should be in Natural History. In earlier Stevereads entries, we’ve lamented the increased commercialization of The Atlantic – lamented the fact that half a dozen very intelligent young people of my acquaintance skim or skip not only the magazine’s special features but the entire magazine itself. A hundred years ago – hell, twenty years ago – that would have been unthinkable.
Times change, yes, and writing priorities change (except, I’d hope it goes without saying, here at Stevereads), and The Atlantic moved out of Boston – so really, we’re lucky it still boasts any of the intellectual spirit and gravitas that made it great.
To get that, I always turn to the back pages of every issue, to the Books section run by Benjamin Schwarz, and this time around, I was pleased in triplicate when I got there. The books-and-the-arts section of The Atlantic this time around features not one, not two, but three of the greatest books-and-the-arts critics alive today, all rubbing against each other cheek-by-jowl. The only thing more enjoyable than that would be having all three of them over here for wine and all-night book-chat.
Ironically, it’s the very quality of his assembled material this time around that must present something of a problem for Schwarz, and here I’m using classic Miss Marple thinking, in which the goings-on in humble little St. Mary Mead are asserted to form instructive parallels with the big teeming metropolis. Because I once had Schwarz’ job, and it could get mighty frustrating.
My St. Mary Mead was scenic little Iowa City, where for a time I was the Arts Editor of a local newspaper. And the frustration comes from the fact – surely immutable regardless of the size of your venue – that those special features? Those Tea Party bloviations? They require space, and there’s only so much of that to go around. In Iowa City, the special feature – indeed, the only thing most Iowans considered ‘news’ at all – was sports. The unbroken mastery of Dan Gable. The mighty empire of Hayden Fry – these were the things our well-intentioned but lowbrow publisher wanted to see in the back section of his paper; all that artsy-fartsy crap was just good as garnish.
The result was that some of the most handsome, muscular young men in the newsroom could sometimes act like out-and-out beasts. There were many, many days where their hunger for the limited number of pages we shared between us was nothing short of ravenous – and when any self-respecting Arts Editor had to brave their monosyllabic objections and fight for the right to review every dumb Woody Allen movie that came down the pike.
I don’t imagine that pitiless calculus ever really changes when you’re talking about the physical print media (you’d think it would be eased a bit online, where space is more or less infinite, and yet my colleagues at Open Letters patiently inform me that there simply isn’t room for all the giant-killer-shark reviews I’d like to run…). I imagine Benjamin Schwarz has to deal with a species of it himself, and that must be frustrating.
Never more so than in a case like this, where the acerbic, hyper-intelligent B. R. Myers and the rollicking, lancingly smart faux-bumpkin Clive James have to divvy up that limited pages-space with Schwarz himself, who’s as passionate as Myers and as pithy as James and at times exhibits a moral faith in the redemptive power of literature that both those old salts either seldom feel or wouldn’t ever confess. The three of them together are riveting reading (kind of like when all the big guns at Open Letters are firing simultaneously, although there may be a touch of St. Mary Mead in that too).
The calculus is frustrating for Atlantic readers as well, since when confronted with a limited amount of space and giants like Myers and James wanting chunks of it, Schwarz does what any arts editor would do: he abbreviates himself in order to free up room for his guests. In this issue he’s writing about H. L. Mencken’s translation to the firmament by being inducted into the Library of America (“Better late than never” is the dry-ice way Schwarz opens his review), and he’s fantastic as always:
Mencken told American intellectuals that their country’s popular culture – not just its folk culture – was a worthy, in fact vital, subject to scrutinize. True, Mencken’s jaundiced view could lapse into a sterile cruelty (in this he resembled his admirer, Evelyn Waugh, who had an appointment to meet him the day after Mencken suffered the stroke that ended his creative life). But usually he regarded the carnival of his country’s buncombe with an indulgent horror. To hate like this is to love forever.
(In the classically waggish manner, Schwarz doesn’t bother to identify the source of the slangy adaptation of his final line – we’re all adults here, after all). Mencken is one of those authors I’ve never warmed to – his verbal showmanship has always seemed to me to be mocking not just pretension but intellect itself – but that’s one of the things we want our best critics to do: take up the praise-song of some figure we hate and make us reconsider (I could tell you all sad stories of the valiant efforts along these lines I’ve made myself, and yet my OLM colleagues remain close-,minded about the glory that is the Legion of Super-Heroes). I wanted Schwarz to make the whole case, to present the full-length definitive Mencken piece he could make so glorious. Instead, I got six paragraphs.
Then we were on to B. R. Myers and another province of the critic’s role: championing gems that are unjustly overlooked. Myers makes a regular side-show out of doing just that, but the practice carries perils – foremost of which is that you can back the wrong horse. In this issue, Myers backs a nag called Patrick Hamilton, a much-neglected novelist of the early 20th century who richly deserves to become entirely neglected. The advocacy here never goes anywhere, mainly because Myers sticks to the OLM-style review in which copious quotes from the matter under consideration are served up for the reader. When it comes to Hamilton and his wretched prose (it’s not even purple – it’s more a dirty orange), just one of those quotes should be enough to send all but the most masochistic reader sprinting for the hills. Still, the spectacle of the effort is reassuring: even Myers, it turns out, is human enough to have a soft spot for lost causes.
And then there’s the glory of this entire issue, a review by Clive James of Larry Stempel’s new history of that greatest of all American art forms, the Broadway musical. James is a ruddy-faced wizard, and although his long, discursive essay here is a soup-to-nuts review of Stempel’s book, it’s also a fantastic, fast-paced, and eminently quotable mini-version of that Broadway history itself.
James is in top form here, and if this is the essay for which Scwarz had to make ample room, the trade-off is almost worth it. The priceless (and pricelessly phrased) observations follow so fast one upon the other that it’s tempting just to quote them all, but I’ll restrict myself to a couple:
“I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair …” Ensign Nellie Forbush sings that line three times in one stanza, as if it were an interesting line in the first place. It isn’t, but just try for a moment forgetting it. Some alchemy of words and music, some enchanted something or other, benumbs the critical powers.
or this, about the casting of Rossano Brazzi for the lead in “South Pacific”:
As European and distinguished as a Romanesque cathedral with only superficial bomb damage, Brazzi was perfect in every way but one. He was lying when he said he could sing. When Rodgers and Hammerstein found out that he couldn’t carry a tune any further than a few inches, they insisted that his voice be dubbed, even though Brazzi himself was adamant that he could do the job. Dense as well as proud, he never got over not being allowed to, and for much of the filming, as the recorded sound was played in so that he could make with the mouth, he behaved like a beast with its amour propre on the line. They could have got me for half the money.
The whole piece is like that; James has reached the point in his critical life where his unabashed inclusion of himself in the very substance of what he’s writing about is just something he does as a matter of course – he no longer cares about the narrow confines of feigning impersonal objectivity, if he ever did care about them, and his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The point is, he delivers the goods, every time, which a smart writer once described as the only inescapable obligation of any author.
Needless to say, I wanted this particular Books section to go on like that forever, these three magnificent critical voices, so unlike each other but so united in their abiding conviction that this stuff matters enough to bring your best thinking – and your liveliest prose – to bear on it. I’m not going to reconsider Mencken any time soon, and I’m never, gawd help me, going to read another Hamilton potboiler again, and I am (um, to put it mildly) already a big fan of the Broadway musical (that hypothetical wine-and-books evening would almost certainly end, around 4 in the morning, with James and I bellowing our endless mental repertoires of Broadway songs known and unknown – we could sell tickets!), so in one cramped way of looking at things, I ‘got’ very little out of this issue.
But in all the ways that matter, I’m inestimably richer. So the Hawkeyes can go suck eggs. So there.
October 20th, 2010
Our book today is a tiny little classic close to my heart: the 1949 Golden Nature Guide to American birds – part of the quietly fantastic Golden Nature Guide series that we’ll get around to one of these days here at Stevereads. And this great little book is on my mind this evening for a familiar melancholy reason. Late September and October signal a change in the nature of the bird-world all around us – the population changes. Everybody who’s hard-wired to migrate is either gone by now or is all fattened up and ready to go, leaving New England with a sparser nation of birdhood populated by our hardy year-rounders.
It’s the kind of simple observation that’s utterly alien to all those of you who wouldn’t notice the bird-world if their lives depended on it, and of course it’s to sway and entice those very people. The simple optimism of the book’s ethos is wonderful – and, those first editors hoped, contagious: all you need to join the world of birding is a pair of eyes. And that encouragement is couched in 1950s complacency – as an old friend of mine proved to his own satisfaction (and decades-long enjoyment), you can do perfectly well with only a pair of ears.
The book set the template for all those that followed. We get a general introduction to the subject of birds and birding; we get a brief sketch of their natural history; we get a glimpse of their biology; we get that ringing endorsement of the whole concept of simply going outside and watching them (or even staying inside – and this I can attest to as well: the joys of a bird-feeder well-placed for indoor viewing are not to be underestimated); and then we’re off to the illustrations.
Drawn with calmly assertive low-key folksy charm by James Gordon Iriving, those little pictures have captivated me for half a century. Their practical purpose is to show at one glance the kind of place you’re most likely to encounter the bird starring in the picture – a plowed field for the mourning dove, for instance, or a building ledge (with poop!) for a pigeon, or a picturesque mountain lake for the loon. But for me, they’ve always had more than practicality to them – they’ve been discreet little compositions, as self-contained and evocative as an Audubon setting.
Almost all of the Golden Guides are like that to one extent or another – virtually none of them disappoints. But the recurrent theme of the paragraph-long descriptions in the bird guide underscores the emphatic presence of birds, their vibrant uniqueness. Time and again we’re told what we’re told about, for instance, the red-winged blackbird: that the markings of these birds are incredibly distinctive, impossible to miss or confuse. Of course that’s the point of a beginner’s guide like this one – it only lists the main examples of the most easily found and observed kinds of birds. Like all Golden Guides, its main purpose is to encourage.
Most subsequent guide books inadvertently sabotage that encouragement while in the act of facilitating it. They still show you the birds in a typical setting, but they bombard you with half a dozen seasons and plumages and genders and ages. Their goal is laudatory – they want you to be absolutely certain what you’re looking at. But the end result more often than not runs counter to intuition – we get a picture featuring the adolescent male and female colorations and fully adult male and female colorations and seasonal colorations, all jammed together into one drawing. It’s definitely more comprehensive, but it makes me miss the simplicity of the old guides.
I think about those old guides – and the bird guide in particular – every year when the weather changes and the bite of autumn can be felt in the middle of my kitchen. Even in the depths of the woods surrounding Forest Hills Cemetery, the bird population has thinned and changed. It’s not drabber, not at all (that’s only the surface appearance to those who don’t spend time looking), but nonetheless, there are quite a few people missing, gone on their way to Florida or South America or Africa. The months will feel long until one by one they begin to return, and every year I’m glad I have this guide to tide me over.
October 16th, 2010
You win some and you lose some when it comes to comics. I know this. Crap can come in all guises and colors – it can even be published by DC, although always in a comfortingly small percentage when compared with Marvel, which has been having a love affair with crap since it gave Herb Trimpe a regular paycheck. This increases the caution when buying Marvel comics, but still: all comics are mighty expensive these days, and some of them have won major science fiction awards usually reserved for works of un-illustrated prose, and it’s widely acknowledged that the audience for these things is older – and presumably a bit more discriminating – than it’s ever been. You’d like to think a new series about a super-powered football player or truck driver wouldn’t even get past the conference stage, and that every artist who’s allowed to work on one of these $4 comics would at the very least be doing more right than wrong.
So I bought a bunch of comics this week, and that bunch of comics kicked me in the teeth over and over and over again, and that’s depressing. You win some and you lose some, I know, I know – but two things made me hope for better this time around: first, when I was reading these things (on a rainy Fung Wah trip back to Boston), I was really in need of a pick-me-up and consequently more vulnerable to disappointment. And second, I had the always-fun experience of buying that bunch of comics not at my usual haunt of Boston’s Comicopia, and not even at new discoveries like JP Comics & Games, but instead at that dragon-horde of legendary comics shops, Broadway’s Forbidden Planet. That also ups the expectations just a bit, as irrational as that is.
And Forbidden Planet wasn’t the only one upping my expectations (actually, I doubt they give a crap about my expectations one way or the other, although the staff of hipster doofuses there is really quite a bit nicer than you’d expect, considering that New York City retail staffs and comic book staffs are two of the rudest sub-categories of human beings on Earth) – the subject matter here helps quite a bit too.
Take Thor, the focus of quite a few recent comics postings here. The second issue of the new Matt Fraction/Pascual Ferry run on that character’s main title was one of the crappy comics I got in my stack of crappy comics – and for a new arc of a book featuring such a high degree of talent to stink on only its second issue is something of a new speed record.
The issue features painted pencils by Ferry that are duly gorgeous, but the minute you stop gawking and start reading (almost always a bad idea, when it comes to Marvel comics), all that fascinating stops cold. The characters here – aside from the I! Am! Freed! hyperventilating bad guys, that is – spend the issue acting like morons, and none more so than Thor. The little scene I liked from last time, the one in which Thor tells Jane Foster that he actually misses his evil half-brother Loki? Well, that scene is repeated in this issue, only now Thor’s whining to Balder, and incredibly, one bit of that whining goes like this: “All this loss wouldn’t be so bad to bear, were I granted someone to bear it with. Someone of my blood, of my flesh.” Spoken to Balder, who was recently revealed to be a son of Odin and Thor’s brother – a revelation Thor admitted to when questioned by Balder. Guess Matt Fraction didn’t read that issue, or didn’t like what he read.
Thor matter-of-factly tells Balder that he’s going to ‘bring Loki back’ and then at the end of the issue flies off to do just that – with no explanation of how he’s going to do that, let alone why. I finished the issue feeling absolutely certain that if you asked Matt Fraction how on Earth Thor can suddenly raise somebody from the dead, his answer would be “Because I say so.” Always an encouraging thing, in a writer.
That particular burst of crap was disappointing because, as we’ve covered here, I like the character of Thor and have enjoyed some runs on his book more than any other Marvel titles I’ve ever read. And Marvel wasn’t done with the pointed depression! Another title I really enjoyed from the House of Ideas was the Invaders, and I’ve always thought reviving the book would be a great idea. Granted, my thought was always to set it in World War II and give us more of the adventures the team had back then, but when happenstance and the work of a handful of writers brought back all the original Invaders in the present-day Marvel universe, I admit I started to think of a modern team-revival as well.
Wish I hadn’t. Because as soaringly good as the Alex Ross covers for this mini-series are, the inside artwork by Caio Reis is a bitter disappointment and would be even if I were to discover that Reis is actually only 10 years old. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, and although it might prompt me to make diplomatic comments to his mother, if I were alone with the tyke himself, I’d say: you know, you could have tried a little harder here, and here, and here. The writing here, by Christos Gage, is fairly good, but for Pete’s sake, Gage and Ross created the concept of the reunion and the story of this arc – would it really have been impossible for Ross to give a few pointers to this Reis person (or conduct a more extensive talent-search in the first place), to avoid saddling hapless readers with panels like this one:
Still, the Invaders is just a neat-o concept, not something to which I’m imaginatively wed. Too bad the same can’t be said for that greatest of all Edgar Rice Burroughs creations, John Carter of Mars. Those are books I’ve read and re-read for the whole of their life on Earth, loving them, thrilling even to the hackneyed prose and the less-than-successful volumes in the series (if there’s anybody alive who’s read Thuvia Maid of Mars more often than I have, I’d like to meet him – hell, it’s pretty clear from the book that even ERB didn’t read it all the way through after he wrote it). Naturally, I’ve always yearned for it to be translated to the medium of comics. In 1977 I got that wish in spades when Marv Wolfman and the great Gil Kane started a wonderful series for Marvel – a series that really deserves its own Masterworks volume and that had distinct high-notes. But 1977 is a long time ago, so naturally I was thrilled that morning at Forbidden Planet to find a company called Dynamite bringing out the first issue of a series called “Warlord of Mars.”
I should have taken as my first sign of trouble the cover by Joe Jusko, a crappy cartoon version of the iconic Frank Frazetta poster I’ve loved for decades. And the inside of the issue was even worse, being the first part of a “tale of two worlds” arc that follows the entirely human gold prospector John Carter and the giant Thark warrior Tars Tarkas as their separate adventures lead them, presumably in three or four issues, to meet on the plains of Mars. The pace is pokey, the artwork is stiff and mechanical, and the very title of the series – ‘Warlord of Mars’ – is, by my reckoning, about 30 issues away. Even at the $1 cover price, I was overcharged.
My love affair with the concept of John Carter of Mars made that piece of crap harder to bear – so just imagine how bad my reaction was to the latest issue of DC’s Adventure Comics featuring my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion is my favorite DC creation and their richest piece of comics history, and this run on Adventure is being written by Paul Levitz, one of the greatest Legion writers of all time. To put it mildly, this is not where I expect to find crap.
And yet, crap I found. Not the story, mind you – it was good and fast-paced and multi-layered as are all Levitz productions. No, the problem here was the artwork by Eduardo Pansica, which featured Legionaires who looked like they’re five years old – all his characters are gaunt, asymmetrically angular, and oddly posed, but that’s not the worst of it. No, the worst thing was the faces, those endless horrible pre-pubescent faces all caught in the very moment of an orgasm they neither want nor understand. I don’t know who DC’s art editor is these days, but for grife’s sake, Paul Levitz himself has worked with some of the best comics artists of the last four decades, and he had to have seen these pages before, for instance, I did. So he saw the indelible image of Ma Kent fondling a four-year-0ld Brainiac 5 into extremely premature ecstasy – and he thought it was OK? There’s absolutely nothing OK about this image:
And yet I’ll carry it with me to my cryo-chamber, now that my unfortunate eyes have beheld it.
You know the comic you’re reading is crap when the back-up feature – starring the Atom, by all that’s holy – is more entertaining than the main feature. I hear on the grapevine all sorts of fascinating things about my beloved Legion – that more titles are in the offing, that the current management at DC is slowly starting to realize what older teams have periodically had to relearn: the Legion has a huge number of insanely devoted fans who will turn almost any well-done Legion product into a solidly-selling item. I hope it’s all true, but the success or failure of any Legion venture in this day and age hinges entirely on that ‘well-done’ part, and that can’t happen with this Pansica guy doing the penciling. Nor should it have to happen that way, dammit! The Legion is a venerable property for DC – it should no more be a training ground (or dumping ground) for third-stringers than should Superman or Batman. In Adventure Comics, DC has given the Legion the exact right writer – an artist to match isn’t too much to ask.
So, you win some and you lose some, and I can always hope for better next week. And in the meantime, I’ll always have that iconic image to close out my little screed:
October 12th, 2010
Our books today form a little sampling of the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, since a number of you wrote to ask me (privately, of course … sigh) if her fiction stands the test of time as well as her memoir Blue Remembered Hills. Several of you expressed fond memories of reading her when you were children, which is something I myself never did – so I revisited a handful of her novels to see what I could see.
It turns out they hold up quite well. In fact, they’re wonderful. One of them has an afterword by the wretched Young Adult novelist Scott O’Dell in which he accidentally says something both true and powerful. Sutcliff, he tells us, “writes all out, the best she can, and mostly for herself.”
That last part is of course the key, and you can certainly feel it reading through her many novels: she passionately loves the material she’s shaping – taking the early history and mythology of Britain from as many sources as she can find, mixing it all together, imagining all the stories big and small that must have filled the interstices of Britain’s long abandonment by Rome and long conquest by the Saxons. She tells and re-tells all the old familiar stories of those dark ages, and she does it without an ounce of sugar-coating and without once talking down to her audience. These are perfect examples of the kind of “Young Adult” fiction I always cite as being ‘all-ages’ stuff; good teen readers don’t want anything simplified for their benefit – they want problems, complexity, and unhappy endings, because in part they yearn for reading to hasten all the non-boring parts of adulthood. The worst YA writers pander not to teens but to their watchful, over-protective, and openly sentimentalizing parents – the best ones know they’re providing an often essential counter-balance to all that.
Not that such things were on Rosemary Sutcliff’s mind in the decades of her writing career, although increasingly through her writing she strikes me as the type who would have been a very tough critic as a young girl.
As some of you may recall from that earlier entry, Sutcliff suffered from a rare and nearly debilitating form a arthritis for the whole of her life, and she had no access to the state-of-the-art analgesics she’d get for such a condition today. So she had to summon an enormous force of will merely to produce her books, but it goes deeper than that: not only did her medical condition prevent her from really pursuing her first love, painting, but it also inculcated in her early on a sympathy for underdogs and an admiration for the kind of valor that presses on despite overwhelming odds. Those are some of the things that make her novels so enjoyable, time after time.
Critics have sometimes referred to our first choice among those novels, 1965’s The Mark of the Horse Lord, as her best. It’s the story of Phaedrus, a gladiator in Roman Britain, who’s quickly tangled in a plot to usurp the throne of a Scottish kingdom and masquerade as its king. In the process – amid violent plot and counter-plot – he learns a lot about what it means to be a king, and a lot about himself. I’m not sure I agree with those critics who call this her best work – but the book is dark and brooding and not at all sugar-coated, and through it all, as through all of Sutcliff’s writing, you can see the painter at work:
Sleet was still spitting down the wind, but the yellow bar of a low dawn edged the eastern sky; and as Phaedrus mounted the Crowning Stone, and with his left foot on the hide of the King Horse set his right into the deep-cut footprint that had held the right foot of every king of the Dalriadain since first they came from Erin across the Western Sea, the first sunlight struck the high snow-filled curries of distant Cruachan.
She sticks much closer to recorded mytho-history for 1971’s Tristan and Iseult, which follows the classic love story closely, with one major exception – an exception our author addresses herself, in a note that’s charming both for its sincerity and its lack of apology:
In all the versions that we know, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because they accidentally drink together a love potion which was meant for Iseult and her husband, King Marc, on their wedding night. Now the story of Tristan and Iseult is Diarmid and Grania, and Deirdre and the Sons of Usna, and in neither of them is there any suggestion of a love potion. I am sure in my own mind that the medieval storytellers added it to make an excuse for Tristan and Iseult for being in love with each other when Iseult was married to somebody else. And for me, this turns something that was real and living and part of themselves into something artificial, the result of drinking a sort of magic drug.
So I have left out the love potion.
By the time of 1981’s The Sword and the Circle, Sutcliff was a living legend in the writing world, somebody who had won literally generations of readers and suffered no dimming of her powers over time. The combination of all this heady acclaim is perhaps the only reason why a novelist as perceptive as she was would attempt what she does in this book: the story of King Arthur, soup to nuts. Not that unusual, you say, and you’re right – when attempted by not-very-perceptive authors. The really sharp ones know they can’t possibly out-do one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, T. H. White’s immortal The Once and Future King. That book came out in 1939 – Sutcliff must have read it dozens of times just like the rest of us. She must have known she couldn’t match White on exactly his own turf (this is why the best subsequent Arthurian novels have come at the whole story from side-angles, and more power to them), yet that’s exactly what she tries to do. Talk about underdogs! When she comes to the iconic scene where young Arthur, desperate to find a sword for his brother Kay to use in the joust, pulls a sword from what he hurriedly takes to be some kind of war monument, she gives it her most visual, evocative prose:
When he reached the garth of the abbey church he dismounted and hitched his cob to the gate and went in. The fresh snow lay among the tombstones, and in the midst of the tall black sentinel towers of the yew trees the pavilion glowed crimson as a rose at Midsummer; and the sword stood lonely in its anvil on the great stone, for even the ten knights were gone to the jousting.
Then Arthur took the sword two-handed by its quillions. There was golden writing on the stone, but he did not stop to read it. The sword seemed to thrill under his touch as a harp thrills in response to its master’s hand. He felt strange, as though he were on the point of learning some truth that he had forgotten before he was born. The thin winter sunlight was so piercing-bright that he seemed to hear it; a high white music in his blood.
And it’s very, very good – but those of us who’ve been under White’s spell all this time will smile a little sadly, because there isn’t really a contest with his depiction of the same moment:
There was a kind of rushing noise, and a long chord played along with it. All round the churchyard there were hundreds of old friends. They rose over the church wall all together, like the Punch and Judy ghosts of remembered days, and there were badgers and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares and wild geese and falcons and fishes and dogs and dainty unicorns and solitary wasps and corkindrills and hedgehogs and griffins and the thousand other animals he had met. They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn. Some of them had come from the banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields about – but all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his powers grow.
The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.
But even so, The Sword and the Circle is sharp, pure gold – as are all Sutcliff’s books. We’ll get to them all in due time here, with two in particular more certain than the rest: of course we must look soon at her Trojan War book, written last in her life, Black, Ships Before Troy. And naturally, a thorough look at Eagle of the Ninth will be in order when the movie comes out and bombs at the theaters! An inanimate block of splendor like Channing Tatum was nothing Rosemary Sutcliff ever foresaw, for all her powers of imagination. We’ll have to see how the two of them fare, when they finally meet.
October 11th, 2010
Our book today is 2007’s Resistance by cutie-patootie young Welsh author Owen Sheers, and it raises long-standing questions that have no bearing on the book itself and yet have never been more pressing in publishing circles – foremost of which is: to what extent is a young author’s career aided by being a cutie-patootie, and is that extent growing, as the world slips deeper and deeper into a fin-de-siecle obsession with all things pretty (a descent led by America, of course)? Owen Sheers was a published poet and nonfiction writer before he wrote Resistance, but when the question is looks, it’s almost infinitely regressive – has he always been aided by the fact that he’s easy on the eyes?
It’s actually a question I ponder (big surprise there – I ponder lots of things!), and usually when I’m pondering it, I’m angry; usually, I’m reminded to ponder it by the appearance in bookstores of yet another wan, preening autobiography by some blow-dried pretty young thing with all the depth of an 8 by 10 glossy headshot. When societies are in decline, they focus on trivialities – and what could be more trivial than how a person looks? – and I seem to see more and more books whose existence wouldn’t have been contemplated for a second if their figureheads weren’t attractive (our latest Open Letters Bestseller autopsy is heavily populated by examples of this).
I’ll go right on pondering, and in the meantime, it’s lucky that the issue can be easily dismissed in the case of Owen Sheers. His looks might have made some of his initial judges more forgiving, but his talent, happily, is real. And his debut novel is well worth your time.
It’s most daring aspect is its premise, and it’s such a shopworn premise it could easily have scuppered the whole project, if it had been handled poorly: the Nazis, victorious in the East, have successfully repulsed the D-Day attack and launched an invasion of their own – they’ve overrun England’s coastal defenses and conquered the country. To say the least, it’s a scenario that’s been proposed before, by many, many writers less attractive than young Sheers.
The best part of the premise is its believability. The triumphalism of time has largely obscured the fact that the world very nearly saw such a premise, as reality. The Eastern problems the Nazis faced in invading Russia weren’t half as intractable as they’re made out to be by most historians – and if the Nazis had fully mobilized the forces they already had waiting in Normandy, D-Day would have been an Allied bloodbath. And Hitler’s failure to attack England when it stood alone against his Fortress Europe remains a mystery – had he made the attempt, England would have fallen with exactly the speed and muddled heroism Sheers portrays in his book.
The key to Resistance‘s success is the through-a-keyhole way he portrays that conquest. He sets his story in the Olchon, a remote valley in Wales, and he very nearly keeps the focus there throughout. One morning young Sarah wakes in her cold bedroom and instinctively reaches for the indentation her husband Tom leaves in their horsehair mattress – she isn’t reaching for him, because she expects he’s already up and about, working on their farm. But she likes to run her fingers over the still-warm indentation, tracing his presence by his absence, feeling the warmth he’s left behind. It’s a wonderfully intimate way to start the book – most young writers, eager to impress, would have started with the Luftwaffe and Winston Churchill in chains, that sort of thing.
Sarah quickly realizes what all the other women in the valley realize: their men are gone. They’ve left in the middle of the night, taken coats and meager supplies, left no notes whatsoever. The reader is told they’ve gone to join the resistance and left no word because they knew their women’s ignorance would be their best defense, but the women themselves hardly suspect this, and some of the book’s most heartbreaking passages deal with the anger and resentment that mass abandonment causes. These are hardy women, not prone to complaining, and it works on them, that they have no idea whether or not their men-folk are dead, or imprisoned – nearby or far away. Sheers does a confident job of keeping us mostly in the dark about these things too – his book is at its strongest when it’s signaling what’s missing:
The hill fort itself was now no more than a series of faint concentric rings buried beneath centuries of soil and grass. It was as subtle a feature on the ridge as the banks and dips of Tom’s body had been in the horsehair mattress of Sarah’s bed. Like Tom’s outline, the missing physical presence of the fort, its ramparts and defences, could be traced only by someone who knew the place intimately, who could still see what was no longer there in the earth echoes underfoot. A careful eye, sensitive to the landscape, could make out where a gate once stood or the foundations of huts where men had once slept and fought and loved and cooked. To the casual observer, however, there was nothing there, just a toothless gap in a long grassy jawbone of earth and a few faint humps beneath a tangled mass of bracken and gorse.
Sheers himself possesses that careful eye – one of the most rewarding things about Resistance is how undemonstratively adult it all is. The women have only one real choice: to carry on, to help each other get through the coming winter, to wait for the return of their men. Before their one radio goes silent, they get reports of the epic events happening in the rest of Britain, but at first they’re confident they themselves won’t be involved, as their matriarch, Maggie, says:
“But we’re not going to see any Germans here anyway, are we? I mean, what would they want here? The tractor? Some eggs? We’ve hardly got anything ourselves, and for once that’s a good thing, because it means we haven’t got anything for them either. They’re not going to bother coming all the way up here. Not in winter they won’t.”
But of course the Nazis do come – a small detachment led by quiet, introspective Captain Albrecht Wolfram (in a conceit only a poet would conceive, he’s descended from Wolfram von Eschenbach), who’s under orders, and personally inclined, to impose no strict martial law on the Olchon but rather to help the women keep their farms operating. Despite how well he’s delineated (Sheers is very good at setting up his characters), Captain Albrecht is the book’s only real weak spot: the tortured Nazi is too easy a staple of WWII fiction (just as the brutal thug Nazi is – simple working-stiff Nazis seem to be a thing undreamt of in most writers’ philosophies). Every note of that old refrain is struck here – he’s war-weary, he’s lonely, he’s sensitive, and he’s awestruck by the beauty of the Welsh countryside:
It was nature in all its massive certainty, from the crowds of trees running along the valley floor to the barren challenge of its hilltops. He’d never seen anywhere like it before … he’d never seen somewhere quite like the Olchon before. Somewhere so still, so bluntly beautiful and yet possessed, within that same beauty, of such a simple, threatening bareness, too.
All of this combines with the fact that he finds Sarah attractive and works a kind of change in him – the change confuses him, but that’s only because he’s presumably never read any WWII fiction:
He’d already begun to feel the faintest of turnings within himself this past week. He knew it was the valley that had engaged this turning and he wanted it to continue, this slow rotation inside him like the tumblers of a lock edging into place. If it went on for long enough, until the end of the war, then who knows? It might just unlock him altogether.
That unlocking – and its after-effects – is the most predictable thing about Resistance, but it matters oddly little: the story is so deftly presented, the characters so well-drawn, that readers won’t mind a little predictability here and there. The subtlety of this novel would do credit to a writer twice young Owen’s age – one wonders at the sheer amount of poetic compression it must have required (and one notes, rather ominously, the lack of subsequent published fiction). The natural comparison to make here is with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which deals similarly with a bit of Nazi-occupied Britain (only in that case, there’s nothing hypothetical about that occupation) and a cast of strong-willed women. That book became a gazillion best-seller beloved by all, whereas Resistance commands a smaller fan-base – despite the aforementioned Sheers rugged good looks. So the pondering continues …
October 9th, 2010
Our book today is Henry James: A Life, Leon Edel’s massive 1985 one-volume abridgment of the monumental five-volume James biography he worked on for twenty years. That five-volume set, finished in 1972, constitutes another classic example of a “Steve book” – a book my friends are a) certain I’ve read and b) almost equally certain they themselves will never get around to reading.
I can’t vouch for the second part (one day I may get my fondest wish and the rest of you may finally devote a proper amount of time to reading!), but the first part is true: I’ve read that five-volume work twice over, and I did it with increasing desperation, because Henry James remains a (metaphorically speaking, of course) closed book to me. I’ve heard stellar estimations of his work for a hundred years, had colleagues at the old Boston Transcript and Boston Ledger telling me he was the greatest novelist since Richardson even while I was in the act of penning a pithy damnation of his latest serialized piece of sop-work in Scribners. And of course the ensuing decades have only more firmly enshrined James in the literary pantheon – you won’t see any five-volume biographies of Booth Tarkington.
Even for a reader as confident as I am, such universal praise can be unsettling. You start to wonder (if you’ve kept an open mind, that is): could I be wrong about this guy’s work? Could I be missing something? Can fourteen million Frenchmen, as the saying goes, possibly be wrong?
I keep meaning to return to James’ novels with an unbroken concentration to sniff out any particular worth in them. I said I’d do it in 2008, then in 2009, then in 2010. I’m not averse to finding that worth – but I keep putting off the search, mainly because some of my worst reading-memories of turn-of-the20th-Century literature are associated with my last run-through the Master’s canon.
In the meantime, I’ve searched Edel’s volumes for hand-holds to help scale the mountain – and although I don’t think I’ve ever found any, I’ve enjoyed the biography itself immensely. Gore Vidal once witheringly referred to the five-volume set as an extended historical novel, and over the years I’ve spent an absurd amount of time pouring over individual volumes making a mental effort to exonerate them from this claim. I confess that even in the one-volume abridgment, Edel provides plenty of fuel for Vidal. There’s penny-ante psychoanalysis on virtually every page, as in this bit about William James’ sudden marriage:
He [Henry] was patently jealous of the young bride and for complex psychological reasons. It was not that William was rejecting him. William had pushed him away ever since their childhood when he had plainly told Henry he was too much of a sissy to play with boys like himself who curse and swear. The drama, as critics have suggested, resided now in the struggle of the two brothers, and after half a lifetime of “twinship,” to achieve their individuation.
But the reason my efforts were absurd is because I forgot one of the cardinal rules of Gore Vidal: never take his apercus seriously. The only apercus one should ever take seriously are one’s own.
And besides, those incidences of head-shrinking aren’t but a fraction even of the abridged volume. Mostly what we get on page after page is Edel’s frank and inviting prose and his unceasing spirit of inquiry, as when he’s chronicling James’ rise from simple literary immigrant to the toast of England’s landed elite:
The crude state of poverty in London gave Henry pause. He was stuck by “the rigidly aristocratic constitution of society; the unaesthetic temper of the people; the private character of most kinds of comfort and entertainment.” The Victorian world was carefully organized to preserve – to reinforce – respect for traditional institutions. This was one way of maintaining national stability. To a member of America’s upper middle class, where society was in a state of flux, England’s codes and rules, and its stratified class structure, proved a revelation. The thought occurred to James that in a nation in which personality was repressed to such an extent, there had to be some safety valve. Where had the Britons placed the “fermenting idiosyncrasies” that had been corked down? “The upper classes are too refined,’ James was to write, “and the lower classes are too miserable.” The judgment may have seemed to him in later years too summary, too unsubtle. His revising pen altered it to “The better sort are too ‘genteel,’ and the inferior sort too base.” This might be the measure of the distance he was to travel from Bolton Street into the life of England’s leisured class.
No, it’s not Edel who bothers me in every re-reading of his biographies (and although I’m not sure any writer deserves a five-volume biography, I whole-heartedly recommend this one-volume condensed version – it’s still far and away the life of James to read, if you’re so inclined), it’s James himself, just as always. Here he is simpering and temporizing and pettily guarding secrets nobody wants to know. Here he is counting coins even when wealthy, making waspy remarks even about his own gracious hosts, and through it all exuding an aura of petulance that makes even a sympathetic reader gasp for cleaner air. Edel is just about as sympathetic a biographer as James is likely to get from the ranks of first-rate historians, and yet even in his account, the Master comes off as an essentially small man, a treasurer of trifling transgressions, his own handiest sycophant.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the central apostasy of James’ life, his much-ballyoo’d expatriate status. Edel paints this picture with the same accuracy he paints everything else, but that does James no favors. We read again James’ own justifications for his removal to England. In a section of Edel’s book on James’ biography of Hawthorne, we read the expat’s acidic little aria to all the things England has that his own country lacks:
No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom or Ascot!
That half those assertions were wrong even when they were made is both obvious and infuriating; but it’s far worse that the original sentiment – which was Hawthorne’s, from The Marble Faun – is twisted out of context and drained of affection:
no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land
Is it any wonder that James’ piping little “No Epsom or Ascot!” should infuriate his erstwhile countrymen and perhaps make them hate him just a bit – or more than a bit?
In fairness to Edel’s enormous talent if nothing else, I should grant that the hatred is hard to maintain for the whole of this graceful, persuasive book. This is a warm, even-handed portrait of the artist, and that portrait contains some personable elements, some charm. And it’s not like we need personal perfection from our writers, Heaven knows – I may believe that James’ contemporary and friend Edith Wharton was the much better novelist, but three biographies of her have convinced me I probably wouldn’t have liked her any more than I currently like James. Her novels are far less self-consciously fussy, but it’s possible, just possible, that James was tangling things up for effect, in full cognizance of how it read.
Maybe I’ll grant him that, in 2011.
October 9th, 2010
The New Yorker this week presents the single most depressing cover-illustration of its entire hundred-plus year existence, a bleak, heartbreaking image of a husband and wife sitting at the kitchen counter hopelessly going over their bills while they’re depressed, ignored little daughter does a make-believe version of hopelessly going over her bills. It’s called “Discovering America,” and it’s by indie-darling cartoonist Chris Ware, and before you’ve read a single article in the issue, before you’ve even opened it, this cover image will make you choke up a little, perhaps even cry. So yay for the New Yorker, I guess.
As a kind of partial, straining compensation for adorning their mid-October issue with a sodden gut-punch, the issue features a quick sight-gag by Matthew Diffee that might provoke at least a chuckle from those few readers who could face opening the issue after first having had all their dreams for the future shredded by the cover:
So there’s at least that, to tide us over until next week. Yeesh.