Posts from June 2011

June 30th, 2011

Judge on Trial!

Our book today – in honor of Translation Thursday! – is Ivan Klima’s bleak, masterful 1986 novel Soudce z milosti, translated into English in 1991 by A. G. Brain with the title Judge on Trial. Klima has the writing compunction and has been generating all kinds of prose for his entire adult, but to my mind this is his finest achievement. It’s the story of Judge Adam Kindl, who once dreamed youthful dreams of perfecting society and administering justice, but who’s now faced with the petty corruptions and subversions of the rigged legal system he serves in postwar Prague. Kindl still keeps the company of idealists like his friend Matej (whose story-line is one of the book’s most effectively done), but his inner life has become so wary and co-opted that even his own beliefs are often a source of pain and frustration to him. When we first meet him, he’s a classic hangdog Prague muddler, cleaving to the middle way with desperate consistency, trying not to give his life cause to crush him.

That cause comes in the form of a trial given him by his Presiding Judge – an open-and-shut murder trial in the state’s kangaroo courts, a trial that’s only supposed to take Adam a few days … and that will in the process test his party loyalty to the city’s Communist overlords. Adam sees his choices clearly: do as he’s bidden even though his poor defendant (another very satisfyingly complex character) might be innocent, or ruin his career – and jeopardize his safety and his wife’s safety – by adhering to his hidden principles. “The two are incompatible,” he says at one point, “power and a sense of disgrace.”

It would be a bit misleading to call Judge on Trial a comic novel, although – it being so thoroughly Czech – many parts of it are very funny. The comic zingers are here, but not the underlying gaiety. Rather, this is an almost unbearably wry novel, one in which even routine scene-setting is sharpened until all its edges cut, as when Adam is assigned a workplace roommate:

Adam had never had an office of his own, but this was the first time he had ever shared one with a woman. Dr. Alice Richterova might have been young and single (why would a woman rush into wedlock who so early in her career as a judge had already dissolved hundreds of marriages, and had heard so much evidence proving that married life is composed of deceptions, infidelities, backbiting and fakery, sexual nastiness and disputes over the washing-up and the car?) but she was definitely neither beautiful nor likeable.

Neither our main character nor most of the supporting figures around him are particularly likeable people (Adam in fact is a bit of a dull prig, intoning at one point “People who rushed to drown their senses at moments of affliction struck him as weak-willed”). It’s Klima’s great skill to make us care about what they do all the same, to hope that somehow the gloom all around them will spare them. This hope is made all the more forlorn by the fact that most of them are their own worst enemy, as in the case of Adam’s garrulous brother Hanus, who at one point writes him a long, indiscreet letter from England:

What, in fact, is essential to a feeling of freedom? People will always lack something and have to make do with what they’ve got. Who knows the right scale of values? It struck me not long ago that freedom is in fact an infinite set. If I try and compare your freedom with my freedom, for example, I am comparing two infinite sets. Or if I try and compare the limits of my freedom here with the limits of my freedom back home: I call the original factor of my limits here LF, then the limits of my freedom back home start at about LF + 20, or some such figure. Do you see what I mean?

Needless to say, such a letter is bound to make its recipient a bit uneasy in Communist Prague, although Klima’s ear for deadpan sarcasm usually cuts the tension a bit, as in Adam’s grumbly reactions to his brother’s letter:

He didn’t particularly see. He hoped that it would be no less mystifying to any possible censor and didn’t feel that the letter’s importance justified his seeking out an expert on set theory to explain it to him.

Judge on Trial is a dark and mesmerizing performance (at least if A Good Brain’s translation is to be believed! I’m guessing it is), and although it’s full of period details (the long sections – powerfully autobiographical on our author’s part – recounting the horrors Adam and his family experienced during the Second World War are beautifully harrowing), it’s really that most elusive of beasts: a universal story. What options are open to a good man when the forces of his society dictate that he do evil? Also, what temptations face such a man? Freedom may be an infinite set, but the number of novels about it that are this good is extremely limited.



June 30th, 2011

Comics! The End of the World Approaches!

Ordinarily, my comics post this week would center around the next amazing instalment of “Avengers: Children’s Crusade,” written by Allan Heinberg and drawn by the great Jim Cheung. The 6th of this mini-series’ projected 9 issues came out this week, following up on the last issue’s cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers: Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, back at Avengers Mansion with her memories and powers fully restored. Back in Marvel’s “House of M” storyline, a distraught Wanda said the simple words “No more mutants” and used her reality-altering powers to make that happen – only a handful of Marvel’s mutants retained their super-powers, and Marvel’s basic narrative was thereby radically altered. One of the biggest fan-questions about this mini-series has always been: is this the event during which we’ll finally see “The House of M” events reversed?

I don’t agree with the idea of that reversal, of course. I thought “House of M” was done extremely well – a very plausible, very sad story that should be allowed to stand. But this current issue of “Children’s Crusade” certainly looks to be the start of reversing things – at one point (after a touching scene in which Wanda finally hugs Thomas and William, her two pseudo-sons miraculously restored to reality) our assembled heroes meet up with the lame-ass super-group X-Factor, and one of its members, a de-powered mutant named Rictor, volunteers to see if the Scarlet Witch can restore his abilities (in that section of the issue, Cheung’s artwork makes clear what Heinberg’s writing doesn’t: that Wiccan and Hulkling aren’t the only gay-superhero couple in this story) – and when she does, everybody informs her that there are about a million other de-powered mutants out there waiting their turn. At the issue’s end, when Wanda says her goal is to make “more mutants” – with the pointed play on her original “House of M” pronouncement – the tension is pretty wonderful for the next issue. You’d think that’s all I’d want to talk about, comics-wise, this week.

But no. No, a very much bigger comics-topic has been looming on the horizon for weeks now, and it’s got me preoccupied. Many of you have already alerted me to this particular subject, and I’ve been reading up on it myself on lots of my favorite comics blogs. But this week the latest issue of the industry journal Previews came out with this particular topic splashed all over its front material, and now it’s all I can think about.

The unbelievable gist is this: in September, DC Comics is planning to scrap its entire continuity and start all over again with dozens of first issues – not only relaunching such secondary characters as Aquaman or Batgirl, but re-starting its most venerable flagship titles completely. September will see the first issues of such characters as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. September will see an Action Comics #1, a Superman and a Batman #1, a Wonder Woman #1, a Justice League #1, and so on down the line, from the more famous (the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Catwoman) to the most obscure (I, Vampire? Mr. Terrific?). The origin stories, costumes, powers, and entire continuity of most of these characters will be, it appears, entirely revamped from scratch, re-imagined in what I’m sure DC considers a viable grab for lots of new readers.

DC famously did something like this before. Back in 1985, the company followed it’s 12-issue mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” with a largely re-done continuity in which several traditional characters were given fresh starts and new creative teams. But what’s coming in September seems to be on a different scale altogether. Instead of a group of core characters going through a crisis that changes some of them and leaves others basically untouched, this time a far more thorough break with the past seems to be the point. Many of DC’s most respected writers are on board with the change, but a distressingly large part seems to be played by fan favorite artist Jim Lee – comics fans have learned to their great sorrow what kinds of crap-tastic disasters can result from letting artists have too much control of words and stuff. The main problem is that although Lee is a very talented comic book artist, he’s only about ten years old – it’s safe to say he has only a fractional awareness of the long history and imaginative legacy he’s been given permission to update here. I’ve been reading and loving DC comics for a very long time, and I shudder at the thought of some kid being allowed to re-design the costumes, origins, and personalities of such icons as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.

And it’s not just the whole tampering-with-tradition aspect that bugs me about this gigantic relaunch – it’s the fact that virtually all of the creators involved – artists and writers – have long track-records of picking up a title, telling fans that it’s always been a life-long dream of theirs to work on that title, working on that title for precisely four issues, then wandering off because somebody walked by their cubicle with a pretty ball of twine. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko launched an entire company’s new world of super-heroes, they took on the task for the crucial long haul of the early years, and it made all the difference in the world. If DC is really serious about these dozens of new first issues being the beginning of a new era for their iconic characters, they should be equally serious about making sure the whole thing doesn’t come frittering apart by Christmas. I mean, does anybody in the world seriously think Grant Morrison or Rags Morales or Scott McDaniel or Geoff Johns or most of these other people will still be turning out these titles in a year? Six months, even? And if not, what happens when the much-touted unifying vision of this brave new world gets bored and moves on?

I can tell you what, because like I said, comics fans went through it before: After “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” we suddenly had: a slower Flash, a weaker Superman, no Wonder Woman to speak of, no Superboy, no Supergirl, etc. Only a handful of these changes were well thought-out ahead of time, and none of them were any good – so for the next two decades, piecemeal and with agonizing slowness, they were undone by a series of writers who belatedly realized that a narrative foundation that had survived since the 1930s might just be the strongest one available. In other words, DC’s various creators – and DC as a company – eventually came to realize that its gigantic, company-wide revamp had been a big mistake – and eventually, Barry Allen returned as the super-fast Flash, Superman regained almost all of his former might, Supergirl and Superboy returned, etc. DC’s parent company just opened a multi-million-dollar “Green Lantern” movie featuring the central character Hal Jordan – whom they allowed some bored writer to kill off twenty years ago. They only grudgingly responded to the virginal outcry of fanboys everywhere to bring the character back to life, and I can’t look at this enormous new line-up of DC pillar titles without dreading another twenty years of clean-up.

I could be wrong about all of this, of course. This move could very well invigorate the entire DC Comics line (some of its older titles are only a few years away from Issue #1000, after all) – even a failure on this scale is bound to bring the company lots of curious new fans. I’ll certainly be reading quite a few of these new titles – of course starting with Superman. When the time comes, I’ll keep you all posted!

June 27th, 2011

Before the Dawn!

Our book today is Shimazaki Toson’s magnum opus, Before the Dawn, which he published in serial instalments from 1929 to 1935 and which stands in my mind as the second-greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century (first of you to correctly guess #1 gets a free copy of it!). It’s a gigantic historical novel set in the years 1853 through 1886, and it follows a big cast of characters through the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the flowering of the Meiji Restoration. The main figure in the narrative is Aoyama Hanzo, the headman of the village of Magome on the ancient road that twines its way through the Kiso valley, a remote and roughly beautiful corner of Japan tucked away in the mountains. True to the form of Japanese naturalism, Shimazaki Toson makes certain to paint the broad landscape of his story’s tapestry before he begins the finer brush-strokes of individual characters – the first lines of the book’s prologue (in the English of the brilliant and only slightly pedantic William Naff, whose translation remains the only one readily available in English)(perhaps the only one in English, period? I haven’t researched, but it wouldn’t surprise me): “The Kiso road lies entire in the mountains. In some places it cuts across the face of a precipice. In others it follows the banks of the Kiso river, far above the stream” – were at one point as iconic in Japan (and especially in the Kiso district, which became a tourist attraction on the strength of this novel) as the opening of War and Peace once was in Russia (I say “was” only because I assume here that the educated, reading classes in both Japan and Russia have been overwhelmed and all but annihilated by zombie-like hordes of Zelda-players and iPod-people, same as in the United States)(if I said to any randomly-chosen group of ten Americans “I am vast, I contain multitudes,” the only response I’d get would be “Dude, you’re totally not that fat”)(Sigh).

Aoyama Hanzo’s job as headsman of his village is to make sense of the various policies and edicts of the shogunate, transmit them to the villagers under his care, and then work with those villagers to mitigate those edicts, side-step them, somehow make them livable. He’s a passionate, idealistic man (the author patterned him on his own father), and it’s through the prism of his personality, more so than any of the book’s other characters, that we see and really experience the sweeping cultural changes brought about by the Meiji Restoration. Again like Tolstoy, Shimazaki Toson studiously imports truckloads of history into his historical fiction, and like Tolstoy, he’s sometimes uneven in how well he integrates all that research into his story. Readers will frequently encounter blocks of straightforward, undigested historical recitation:

The elimination of alternate attendance was a consequence of the reforms that had been carried out in the Bunkyu era. It had earlier been considered by the daimyo and their officials who noted the trend of the times and had decided to adopt a position favoring shogunal reforms. When their voice became the majority, asserting that it was essential to bring some enlightenment into political life and to let fresh air into the politics of the nation, many of the shogunal functions that properly belonged to Kyoto were eliminated, including the posting of guards at the nine gates of the imperial palace.

Naff makes the same outspoken protestations in his Foreward that all translators from the Japanese make – mainly that it can’t be done, that whole worlds of meaning and implication get left back in the original language. Shimazaki Toson himself tried to curtail the baroque effusions of the fiction of his day – he constantly revised his exposition and especially the speech of his characters in order to make it simpler and clearer, and even in Naff’s translation, it’s easy to see that he mostly succeeded. There’s just enough stiffness (and unglossed cultural references) to retain the sense of an alien culture, but the people speaking in that culture almost always feel undramatically real:

“It’s just been too warm this year right from the start. I kept thinking something was strange.”

As Kichizaemon spoke, Kimbei nodded in agreement.

“That’s right. Starting the year’s work in straw sandals just doesn’t happen in Kiso. And then, when the camelias on the other side of the temple road were coming into bloom and it was time to make the third-day cakes, the artemesia was already in full leaf. All that must have been telling us an earthquake was coming. Anyway, Kichizaemon, we had just finished Senjuro’s initiation and, thanks to you, he’s become an assistant headman. I can now face my ancestors. I was putting away the things from the celebration when the earthquake hit.”

“They say the earthquake at Zenkoji in the year of the monkey was big, but I don’t think it was anything like this. Not even the earthquake in the sixth month of the year of the tiger was this bad.”

“No, this earthquake is unprecedented. Absolutely.”

It’s a bit surprising that Before the Dawn hasn’t become a staple of translated Japanese literature in the West; you have to haunt used bookstores or Alibris to find a copy of the Naff edition, and that’s a shame. The book is perfectly immersive in the way all first-rate historical fiction is, weaving the reader into the picture it’s painting. Long as it is, you won’t want it to end, and that’s a testament to its author’s warmly inviting tone. We can live in hope that there’s a Penguin Classic in the works.


June 26th, 2011

Comics! The Testy House of Odin!

The entirely unnecessary new-from-#1 run of “Thor,” written by Matt Fraction and drawn by fan-favorite Oliver Coipel, is picking up steam, mainly thanks to a story idea so straightforward it hooks you right away: Galactus the world-devourer v.s. Odin and the Norse gods. The series is now up to #3 (SO ridiculous to be saying that about one of Marvel’s longest-running characters, but the mania for series re-starts will not be denied, so there’s no use complaining about it…), and the plot is unfolding fairly simply: Odin (characterized here as a cranky old bastard who just happens to a god-king) has in his possession a glowing seed of enormous energy potential, and the Silver Surfer, the noble herald of Galactus who strives always to lead his ever-hungering master to uninhabited worlds, wants Galactus to have that seed. He essentially wants Galactus to EAT that seed and so never again hunger to consume another living world. Fraction writes the Surfer as aloof and openly contemptuous of the Asgardians, who, in his estimation, don’t have any idea of the value of this ‘bauble’ they have. And to be fair to the Silver Surfer, Fraction also mostly writes the Asgardians as deserving that characterization – in his view, they’re mostly blundering jocks in Renaissance Faire dress, with Thor himself the worst of the lot, granite-browed, permanently ill-tempered, always spoiling for a fight (in this issue he whines about having a long string of bad days, like he was a musclebound bartender in Astoria). He naturally gets one such fight in issue #3 – the Silver Surfer can’t show up in some other character’s book without duking it out with that character at least a bit, so he and Thor go at it for two pages of Coipel’s typically incomprehensible choreography (what blows are landing where? Who’s falling, and why? What’s hitting what, and in what sequence? Good luck figuring it out) – older readers will pine wistfully for the visual mastery of a John Buscema, who drew the best confrontation between these two characters in the fourth issue of the Silver Surfer’s original series, back when he was a tortured soul marooned on Earth for the crime of daring to stand up against his master (also wistful: in that issue, it’s made perfectly clear that the Surfer would lose such a fight if not for the sorcerous machinations of Thor’s evil brother Loki – Fraction seems to like stressing Thor’s beatability, so I expect a drubbing by Spider-Man any issue now).

The Surfer certainly isn’t ignoring his master’s will this time around (Coipel’s visuals of the two of them together have a wonderful bleak majesty to them) – he and Galactus are portrayed here as if they’ve never been anything but a team, as if four – or is it five? – subsequent heralds never existed. This is something of a trademark for Fraction, this continuity aphasia: for him, usually, every single situation and encounter is more or less the first one. This might be good strategy from the standpoint of attracting new readers, but don’t comics mostly survive on old readers? This particular old reader found it very odd to read through this issue getting the distinct impression that Thor and the Silver Surfer had never met before.

Since his return to Marvel’s land of the living a few months ago, Odin has been pretty rough on just about everybody, which is delightful to see – he’s never been the personification of wisdom, and readers wouldn’t want him to be. In this issue, even though he’s exasperated by Thor’s hair-trigger temper and permanent willingness to fight anything that moves, he himself has just as bad a temper – and just as marked a proclivity for settling things with force rather than sweet words. The moment in this issue where he grabs the Silver Surfer by his pretty little throat and hurls him into the dust is mighty fun.

This is brisk, epic stuff Fraction is unspooling month by month, so I’ll keep reading. But that’s going to be ex-treme-ly frustrating if Fraction leaves after a couple more issues and Marvel decides to start the whole title over again with its third #1 in three years. Thunder Gods should have more staying power.

June 22nd, 2011

Soundings at Sea Level!

Our book today is a twilight gem (of an entirely different kind from Picture This!): Henry Beetle Hough’s 1980 viaticum, Soundings at Sea Level, which begins as a low-key walk-around in the author’s 82nd and 83rd years of life but quickly expands into so much more than that. Hough is a natural, homespun philosopher in the Thoreau mode, only without Thoreau’s cloying falsity and pretension. Hough was the editor of the Vineyard Gazette for nearly sixty years, and he wrote a small shelf’s worth of inviting and worthy books, including his smilingly chatty Mostly on Martha’s Vineyard and his justly celebrated mediation on getting older, To the Harbor Light. Soundings at Sea Level came after both of those books and is more infused than either of them with an autumnal taking-stock. In his eight decade Hough finds himself the oldest person at any gathering (he has to resist the impulse to tap his glass and make that formal annoucement every time), the last living rememberer of things past:

So came the era of lost things, lost establishments, lost characters: no iceman any more, no milkman, no poolroom, no watering trough, of course – the last one had been planted with geraniums as long ago as the year Betty and I arrived.

(Indeed, at one point in Soundings at Sea Level, he looks up “ice house” in the library’s latest dictionary and finds no entry – a poignant little sign of exile that all elderly know well)

The book has live, active history all through its pages: the so-called Kennedy Bill’s life and tumultuous times are recounted here by a witness at the creation, as is Henry Hough’s native Edgartown’s vociferous fight against the spread of the McDonald’s fast-food chain to the Vineyard (the Vineyard’s only semi-whimsical notions of seceding from the United States are here chronicled as well, and they make all the more fascinating reading the more you realize what a wonderful ambassador Hough is by nature). But the real pith of this book is far removed from politics and news headlines; this is a mostly quiet meditation on village life. Hough lived long enough to walk around the streets of what most of you reading this would consider the ‘normal’ Edgartown and remember a very, very different place – a place with grassy spaces between the houses, for instance, a place that wasn’t constantly being ‘developed’ and inundated with tourists, a quiet place mostly governed by the moods of the harbor, a place where normal, quiet days and nights were not only possible but standard, like the day Hough brings his lawn mower down to the cellar to store it away for another winter and sits for a moment at the bottom of the cellar steps:

An uneventful day was almost over, like so many uneventful days, and years too, and as I sat on the bottom step in this undisturbed silence down under, I felt reconciled to the little account they had been. The flow of years, eddying, catching bits of straw and chaff, trapped now and then in lazy pools, so little concerned with the mainstream and the currents and rapids out beyond, yet closer to the solid ground, closer to the bank.

I remembered a passage from William James: “The only thing we directly encounter, the only experience we concretely have, is our personal life.” It runs as it will, mostly – if we are lucky – in a succession of common and ordinary days.

The book wanders comfortably from topic to topic – old Vineyard anecdotes (some of which, true to form, have appeared in the author’s previous books), the peace of libraries, the state of book-reviewing, the various faces of nature. Graham, Hough’s big, beautiful seven-year-old collie, is a constant from page to page, accompanying the author virtually everywhere, as inseparable in prose as they were in person:

On the morning of my eighty-second birthday Graham and I were up well before five and, breakfast over, embarked on our walk to the Harbor Light. The morning was on the gray side, and Starbuck’s Neck brooded with a chill in the air. The light flashed dutifully and monotonously, without special effect. The Chappaquiddick ferry, making an early passage from the Point, did for a moment evoke a fantasy of voyaging, but not enough to change the direction of my thoughts.

There is no grand theme to Soundings at Sea Level – merely “It’s been a long time, but I’m still here, and no matter the losses or disappointments along the way, I’m very happy to be here.” The book is a wise and slightly grinning celebration of life’s little things – a mood, a kind of celebration that spending any off-season time on the Vineyard invariably produces. As with all of Hough’s books (or like the man himself, a marvellous letter-writer and book-talker, sparkling company, and – no small thing – a truly great dog-person in a world of people who mostly fail at that deceptively complex trust)(so much so that our author himself might be a worthy namesake for a dog, should the opportunity arise), the happy reader doesn’t want to quit his company. He has a writerly knack for making the reader feel at home – after very few pages, the little streets and ponds and meadows of Edgartown take on an old and trusted patina, so that readers from half a world away will feel like they could find their way from the Post Office to the Point, thanks to their gentle guide. And all along the way, the simple details are caught and savored:

As Graham and I walked home through Cottage Street the pretty girl we used to meet walking her yellow Lab puppy came out into her yard, almost to the fence, and said, “Happy birthday, Mr. Hough.” Call this a little thing, but I’ll remember it.



June 22nd, 2011

Picture This!

Our book today is Joseph Heller’s odd, intermittently brilliant 1988 novel-in-pieces Picture This, and it stands as a perfect example of the risk and heartbreak entwined in following an author’s career: sooner or later, especially if the author has always been fond of a certain amount of post-modern mugging for the camera, you’ll run the risk of them trundling off the rails right in front of you.

It’s a natural risk: the powers of stamina, concentration, and self-revision weaken with time, but the onrushing tides of worshipful undergraduates continue to wash against you. Department heads defer to you; Presidents take the works of your prime on vacation with them; some damn critic somewhere is the first person to refashion your surname into an adjective; awards committees (including the one in Sweden) come calling. Everything in the writer’s world seems to validate everything the writer does – eventually, if the worst happens, the writer begins to believe they really are infallible, that everything they write is inherently fascinating because they’re the ones writing it, etc. That way lies madness, and plenty of authors have succumbed. None, perhaps, worse than Kurt Vonnegut, who was rapturously, sloppily in love with his own works and eventually reached a point in his life where he was neither willing nor capable of reading anything written by anybody else.

John Barth – an almost immeasurably superior writer to Vonnegut in every way – succumbed as well, more spectacularly than virtually any other American writer, producing works so nauseatingly self-indulgent, self-referential, and self-approved that only tonsured acolytes could read them (and even some of those acolytes had trouble stomaching Coming Soon!!!).

Joseph Heller is a less extreme example, although along these lines he committed a literary crime more serious than anything Barth ever did: in his dotage he allowed himself to write an insipid, look-at-me sequel to a classic of 20th century American fiction – a crime made all the darker by the fact that the American classic in question was one Heller himself wrote. Nobody wins in that lawsuit.

Fortunately, before he went off the rails into unchecked narcissism – before his dissolution as a writer was complete, he wrote Picture This, which has flashes of brilliance and intelligence and humor worthy of anything Heller ever wrote. Its focal point is the Rembrandt portrait Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, and its chief and happiest gimmick is that the Aristotle in the painting is sentient and completely aware of his predicament of being in a painting. Three narrative threads weave together: we get Aristotle’s life, Rembrandt’s life, and the life of the painting itself. And if the rumors that the book began life as a straightforward historical novel about Rembrandt and only fell away from that as the author confronted the aforementioned lessening of mental powers, what of it? The tripartite quasi-fantastic mish-mash that resulted is still a wonderful conceit, and Heller’s prose still flashes at many points with his old accustomed brightness, as when he (his straight-up authorial voice hovers over all three narrative strands) talks about the Self-Portrait with Saskia:

Saskia sits on his lap like a tavern prostitute. Rembrandt has a hand on her waist with possessive unconcern, holds a glass aloft in a toast to himself, and is as proud as the peacock gracing the repast on the table.

In the last years of his life, wrote a Dutch biographer who had never met him, Rembrandt was content to make a meal for the the day of some bread and some cheese or herring.

This is one of the two self-portraits by Rembrandt in which he is smiling broadly; the other is the one at sixty in which he looks past eighty and appears pathetically demented with his time-ruined laugh. That painting is flawless.

The easy, almost simplistic sentences that crop up often here and throughout the book can be viewed (with only a little squinting) as manifestations of that elusive beast, late style – and really, who wouldn’t want to read an entire book of somebody as smart and engaging as Joe Heller was simply rambling about Rembrandt’s life and work, or Aristotle’s, or both?

Alas, even that rather minimal level of control lapses from time to time in Picture This, with results that range from awkward to embarrassing. The Vonnegut-flaw in this kind of twilight work (although Vonnegut himself, possessed of an extremely overweening ego, managed to work in twilight for virtually all of his career) is a tendency to rant – to pass along familiar, worn-smooth rants more properly left at backyard parties and late-night telephone rambles. The mildest thing that can be said about these irruptions is that they don’t contribute anything to any of the novel’s business:

Today in America there are no longer any capitalists: they are industrialists, small businessmen, financiers, promoters, and philanthropists.

We forget the name of the prominent American family whose financial dynasty began with the selling of rotten meat to the government during the Civil War. Or the other who sold blankets contaminated with smallpox disease to tribes of American Indians. Or the other who gave cattle salt to lick and water to drink before bringing them in to be weighed in the meat markets of New York. We remember the name of the man who financed the sale of condemned muskets to the Union Army. It was J. P. Morgan.

Today sound business decisions of that kind are made by blue-chip corporations.

And the worst thing that can be said about them – aside from the fact that their author ought not ever to have perpetrated them – is that they’re neither insightful nor funny:

After World War II, in 1947, the U.S. Department of War, an institution of American government sincee 1789, was abolished and subsequently reconstituted as the Department of Defense; the Secretary of War was renamed the Secretary of Defense.

And from that day to the present, the United States of America was never again in danger of war.

It was in danger of defense.

Clearly, the rot had set in. The work that Heller did after Picture This is entirely unworthy of his name and ought to be rounded up and buried in an unmarked grave somewhere out in the salt flats. But Picture This itself should stay with us; it still retains very ample powers to charm and instruct. It’s the latest of Heller’s books that I can earnestly recommend, even though I have to warn recipients every time not to expect miracles.

June 19th, 2011


Our book today is that quintessence of the road not taken, Herman Melville’s hugely successful 1846 debut novel Typee, which lushly fictionalizes a rather sordid episode from Melville’s own life.

In 1839 the twenty-something Melville and an equally-impetuous friend jumped ship from the whaling vessel Acushnet and spent a month in the Taipi Valley of Nuku Hiva, the largest and most beautiful of the Marquesas. Melville’s friend, Toby, left him to his own devices with the natives, and shortly afterwards, Melville was taken off the island by a whaling vessel out of Australia. He made his long and circuitous way to Boston and began writing about his adventures – making what would become his signature use of heaps and heaps of research. The resulting volume, Typee, stretched the blanket so much that the head of one American publishing house declared it could not possibly be true, and even the British firm that eventually printed the book had grave doubts (English publisher John Murray noted, po-faced, that the book showed many signs of a ‘practised writer’). Nevertheless, when it was published in 1846 Typee garnered mostly outstanding reviews (it’s not every debut novelist who gets encouragement from Washington Irving, much less blurbs from Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne), and Melville’s career was launched – as a rabble-rousing writer of thrilling travel-stories.

Reading Typee today, the rabble-rousing is easier to spot than the thrilling. We live now in the YouTube age where idiots regularly get themselves sting-rayed and grizzly-beared to death on camera, and there are webcams set up in even some of the remotest corners of the Amazon delta, so with a click of your keyboard you can see hot, humid rain fall in bucketloads an entire world away from the sound of your sleeping dogs. In Melville’s day (and in some part inspired by him), the South Seas exercised a powerful magic relegated to exotic locales, and its verdant, hidden valleys could still be characterized as inhabited by Rousseau’s ‘noble savages’ who slept all the live-long day and occasionally ate their enemies in elaborate ritual-feasts. In Melville’s story, his fictional stand-in wonders every day whether the natives who’ve taken him in and showed him every kindness are really just pampering him before he himself features on the menu at just such a feast. But such things seem quaint to us now (they shouldn’t: YouTube has also shown us horrifying footage of what tribal cultures sometimes do in our own day and age – and the non-tribal cultures aren’t any better), as does the sexual titillation that so shocked British readers Melville felt compelled to bowdlerize himself in his first American edition.

It’s Melville’s excoriation of organized religion – in the form of the missions trying to ‘reform’ the natives in places like Hawaii and the South Seas – his intemperate rabble-rousing, that strikes the reader today. Despite all those fears of being eaten (the tension between what he fears and what he wants to love is right here in our author’s first novel, ready to be worked to operatic heights in later books), Melville’s portrait of the natives is almost uniformly idyllic:

Nothing can be more uniform and undiversified than the life of the Typees; one tranquil day of ease and happiness follows another in quiet succession; and with these unsophisticated savages the history of a day is the history of a life.

It’s the so-called refining virtues of his own culture that he finds truly savage. “The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines,” he writes at one point, “the vindictiveness with which we carry out our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.” Needless to say, this didn’t go over well with the more religious segments of his audience, although it brought a sardonic smile to the face of his future father-in-law Lemuel Shaw, to whom the book is dedicated and whose daughter Elizabeth the author married in 1847.

This was when two roads diverged in Melville’s life. Like every 25-year-old author, he faced a choice: write for money, or write for yourself. At first, with the subsequent publication of Omoo, it looked like Melville would take the former path – that he’d spend the rest of his life making a comfortable living transforming his maritime experiences into fictional narratives. He felt something deeper and stranger stirring inside his talent, and eventually Moby-Dick swamped the confines of the adventure story and struck for depths that still haven’t been fully sounded. The story of the reading public’s antipathy toward this new, epic, and decidedly odd fictional voice is well known, and Melville himself was glumly certain he’d be remembered forever as the man who jumped ship and lived with cannibals.

In the end, much to the dismay of his own life, Melville chose to write for himself. And that has made all the difference.



June 13th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Confessio Amantis!

Some Penguin Classics will always be overshadowed by others, and that, alas, is the case with Terry Tiller’s quite wonderful 1963 abridgement of gentle John Gower’s late 14th century Confessio Amantis, a poem of some 30,000 lines written, despite the Latin title, in serious, playful, often translucently beautiful English. In the poem’s prologue – which sets it in the reign of Good King Richard II – Gower comments rather patriotically on how he’ll write his book in English, since so few men do (in his case it was very much a free choice, since he knew French and Latin quite as well and wrote books in both as well). And the minute you read even these few details – long poem in English, written in the late 14th century – you start to think of something else, don’t you? And the shadow starts to fall. Because for nearly 700 years, most readers have had two reactions to the mention of John Gower: they are reminded of Chaucer, and then they go read Chaucer instead.

That’s a shame, and the mere presence of somebody like Tiller in this volume is the biggest hint that it’s a shame. Tiller was a textual scholar of consummate acuity, but he was also a shameless old stager, an ardent popularizer in the best sense of the term, and if Gower really had been some pallid, second-rate Chaucer, Tiller wouldn’t have poured any effort into the man’s work.

No, there’s bountiful merit here, and Tiller saw it. The pity is that so few others have seen it – this old Penguin paperback is the only modern popular edition of Confessio Amantis I’ve ever seen or heard tell of, whereas every single season sees six or seven more editions of The Canterbury Tales, some outfitted with notes for college students, others slapped into mass markets by Bantam and Signet, all part of the Chaucer Industry that has flourished the whole time Gower has languished on the back bench.

The irony is that in life, they were friends – the kind of writing-colleagues who gradually become aware of each other, exchange pleasantries, then letters, then the occasional social meal, then entire long evenings of wine-soaked conversation and merriment. Chaucer had fading flyaway British hair and avaricious in-laws; Gower had a paunch, a twinkle in his eye, and the ample income of a dozen landed estates (including half a dozen in the beautiful countryside of Kent, where his country seat was – a delightful old pile of a place with rambling gardens, and wandering dogs, and attendants who were far more friends than servants). Gower wrote because writing called to him and he knew he could do it well – long before they were printed, his works circulated informally and were enormously popular with those who read them, including the King himself); Chaucer hurriedly added writing to an already-bustling career because writing was an exciting new kind of bustle.

On technical grounds, their stuff is equally good (they could scarcely have been friends otherwise) – but Chaucer’s has more raw, contradictory life in it, and more saving humor, and virtually every reader who’s ever encountered the writing of the two has noticed this. Hence the overshadowing, as Tiller (in his breezy, knowing Introduction) both notes and deplores:

It was at one time the fashion to compare Gower and Chaucer much in the manner of the school examinee comparing Keats and Shelley. This is an unrewarding pastime, for Gower’s aims were quite different from those of his friend: more modest, more sober, more serious. Gower has less wit and humour, less drama and panache, not only by nature but also by choice.

Some of that choice is perhaps at the heart of Confessio Amantis‘ second-tier status: the poem is an extended (6000 lines longer than the Canterbury Tales) conceit, a philosophical dialogue between Gower’s fictional stand-in and a Confessor-figure sent by the goddess Venus, and the dialogue revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins. Already your eyes are glazing over, and already you’re hankering for the company of the Reeve, and the Miller, and the Wife of Bath, and there’s very little Tiller or I can do to convince you to stick around. But you should, because the tales swapped and speculations swapped in that long dialogue are every bit as bawdy and varied as those of Chaucer’s pilgrims, every bit as eye-opening and thought-provoking – very nearly as fun, as in the once-celebrated section where Love’s Confessor makes the case that it’s only stuffy clerical rules that cast incest as a crime, as in the case of sweet young Canace and Macarius:

Brother and sister, as I say,

Dwelt so together, night and day,

That Nature grew beyond control:

That he, with all his heart and soul,

Beheld her as through a lover’s eyes.

The end could not be otherwise

Than that, in private meeting thus,

Canace and Macarius

First learned of Cupid how to kiss;

Then she who Queen and Mistress is

Of all, and teaches them to live

Without such laws as prelates give

(For what have they to do with her?

She is her own free arbiter):

Nature, I mean, took them to school

And brought them so beneath her rule –

By both, moreover, freely granted –

That they were, so to speak, enchanted.

Tiller’s modernizing has most of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of all such modernizing, and he’s only included here about a third of the length of Gower’s book (although his bridging sections between ‘translated’ chunks are adroitly done). But when it comes to Confessio Amantis, beggars can’t be choosers. It’s worth finding this volume for the spirited job Tiller does with condensing and popularizing the poem – and it’s worth finding for Gower’s inimitable voice, philosophical and a bit sad, as was the man himself:

In some men’s writings, all the same,

We read that Fortune is to blame;

And others are of the opinion

That starry patterns hold dominion

Over whatever men shall do;

And God knows which of them is true.

The world, by nature and by kind,

Was never to trust, in judgement blind,

And fallible in assigning fame;

It blames where there is naught to blame,

And praises what deserves no praise:

And thus whatever the world weighs,

There is deception in the scales.

And all the variance that prevails

Is ours, who ought to be more wise:

Exactly as we fall and rise,

So does the world arise and fall;

And thus mankind is all-in-all

The cause of its own weal and woe.

That which we call our fate, we owe

Ourselves alone; it springs from us.


June 10th, 2011

In the Post with the Penny Press!

One of my favorite guilty pleasures when it comes to my beloved Penny Press is the printed correspondence: the home of the crank, the crackpot, the gas-bag, the pedant, the nit-picker, and, to the limited extent this isn’t the same thing, occasionally me. Different periodicals handle this component differently – some give the letters they receive lavish space (it’s a giddy feeling, opening the London Review of Books, for example, and seeing a full two-page spread of letters) but no replies; others print fewer letters so as to leave room for angry, aggrieved responses from the writers in question; some (like the ‘lad mags’ of which I’m so unaccountably fond) print very few letters of any kind – and for a long, long time, the New Yorker famously printed none. Epic battles sometimes erupt in letters-columns, battles that can span weeks or even months, with neither the letter-writer nor the challenged reviewer/author yielding an inch of ground (every so often, the editors of the TLS, for example, will need to append a magisterial note announcing that the ‘topic’ is now closed).

To give you a good sense of the variety involved, I’m devoting this instalment of In the Penny Press to a random selection of reader missives across a small smattering of my week’s haul of magazines. We’ll kick things off with the aforementioned London Review of Books, which certainly had other things to recommend it than simply the correspondence! There’s a great piece by the mighty Diarmaid MacCulloch on Malcolm Lambert’s fantastic new book Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede, for instance, and Michael Wood also acquits himself well writing about Auden’s daffy critical prose. And Page 7 there’s a rather eye-catching ad:

And when we turn to the letters page, we find two responses to a review by Jerry Fodor of a book about illusions. One response is plaintive:

I thought the whole point of illusions was that what you see is not what you get. The illustration of the Muller-Lyer illusion on Jerry Fodor’s piece defeated the object of the exercise in that the upper line, which was supposed only to appear longer, was actually longer by nearly two millimetres.

And before you can even fully register the fact that the letter-writer measured that little line, you get this next letter:

Who does Jerry Fodor think he is?


Naturally, there are riches on hand in any issue of the TLS. This particular issue, dated June 3, has riches that seem geared exclusively for ME (an article on Katherine Parr that mentions Erasmus in its second sentence, a piece on Thomas Wyatt, another on Edmund Spenser, one on Venetian navigators, plus a positive review of The Death Marches, a truly great and ground-breaking work of history), but if we by-pass those riches for now and turn to the letters page, we find a passionate response to a review of Alan Taylor’s disappointing new book about the War of 1812, which he characterizes, bizarrely, as a civil war. The letter-write courteously (Canadian, of course) points out the simple fallacy:

The War of 1812 was not a war between groups within the same nation state or republic, which I understand to be the usual meaning of the term ‘civil war.’ The Canadas were not part of the American nation state or republic: the United Empire Loyalists who settled in Canada had repudiated participation in that nation state or republic thirty years earlier. The only nation state in the area was the United States of America, and the Canadas were not part of it. Nor could the British and Americans be said to be part of the same nation state or republic, so a war between them could not be characterized as a civil war.

Yeesh. I realize Canadians love to use repetition as a rhetorical device, but even so: that letter’s author leaned a little heavily on “nation state or republic” …

More pith than ponderousness is usually the order of the day over at Vanity Fair, where Christopher Hitchens’ recent appreciation of the King James Bible drew some equally appreciative responses, including one that’s got the best opening you could ask for:

I, a Latter-Day Saint, found Christopher Hitchens’s analysis of how agenda-driven translations of the Bible tend to skew the book’s core messages to be very useful. However, Hitchens never recognizes that, in spite of the weaknesses inherent in any translated work, the message still resonates for those who will hear in the writing its most important moral lessons. Indeed, it is American greed, not imperfect translations of sacred texts, that most often distracts from the greatness that could be ours.

No real ire there, although there’s plenty to spare over at the New York Review of Books, where Helen Epstein’s blistering recent article on inflated flu-warnings prompted a response from bio-environmental research scientist saying the World Health Organization did the right thing declaring a pandemic of the disease. “We simply got lucky,” the letter-writer asserts.

Epstein is having none of it and blasts back:

In response to criticism concern the pandemic declaration, WHO Director General Margaret Chan stated that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.” I believe her, and I also believe that she and her colleagues were following their own guidelines when they issued the pandemic declaration. However, what few of them may have appreciated is the extent to which those guidelines had been shaped over the past decade by the pharmaceutical companies that stood to profit from the declaration.

(The same issue features a fantastic article by Marcia Angell examining the reprehensible behaviors of some of those pharmaceutical companies when it comes to ‘testing’ and marketing new anti-depression drugs … more on that when the two-part series concludes next time…)

Then there are those rare letters that are more blackly infuriating than any possible instigating article could ever be, as is the case in the latest New Yorker. Michael Specter’s article on laboratory-grown artificial meat drew many responses, but one just leaped off the page for its sheer, calm, businesslike evil:

I fear that making our need for livestock obsolete may render the animals themselves obsolete. These animals have co-evolved with humans over many centuries as domesticated species cultivated for consumption. Placing a value on the existence of cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens as both edible and sentient beings gives them species-appropriate lives, albeit with a scheduled death. Participation in the animal-rearing and animal-harvesting process offers more leverage in how they are treated, and in their ultimate fate, than if the process were avoided entirely.

In the past, I’ve sometimes hesitated to agree with animal-rights activists who compared animal-‘harvesters’ to the Nazis who ran the extermination camps, but reading a letter like that takes a hammer to such hesitation. There’s no line, no phrase, no animating thought anywhere in that letter that isn’t calculated, dead-hearted viciousness, from the lies (no ‘co-evolving’ happened over those centuries – what happened was deliberately faulting inbreeding and lots and lots and lots of artificial growth hormones) to the hilarious-in-any-other context juxtapositions (“edible and sentient”) to the nauseating business-world euphemisms to disguise almost unimaginable horror and suffering (“species-appropriate lives” – as if it could be “appropriate” for any species to spend its entire life standing in a box being urinated upon by the animal in the box above you). The letter-writer’s contention – that gigantic factory slaughterhouses working 24 hours a day are actually good for cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs – certainly has the ring of pea-brained fascism about it, and reading the letter made me old-fashioned enraged. It made me hope the letter-writer experiences a species-appropriate scheduled end to their life at the earliest possible convenience.

But that – even that – is the glory of the periodical letters-page: you never know what you’re going to get, because magazines reach such a vast and varied audience, and that audience reacts in all kinds of ways. I confess that even when reading the most heady and challenging journals out there, I always turn to the letters page first. And I worry that if paper-and-staple magazines disappear, this odd permutation of them will disappear as well. The Internet has Comments fields, and they can certainly be fun – but their content is almost entirely off-the-cuff; writing a letter (even an email) and formally sending it to a magazine whose content has moved you takes more deliberation than simply firing off an anonymous comment about how cute Alex Day is. If magazines really do migrate to the Web (and magazine-reading statistics last year and this hint that this won’t be happening any time soon), I hope their odd and infuriating and endlessly entertaining printed correspondence migrates with them.

June 9th, 2011

Little Wilson and Big God!

I’ve been requested, by the world’s current foremost authority on Anthony Burgess, not to write about that author at any length or with any fanfare, lest I “spoil it” for some forthcoming and no doubt stupendous opus of his own. Dearly as I love Burgess’ writing (well, most of it – nobody succeeds four hundred times in a row, after all – except Stevereads), I love that foremost authority more, and so I comply. And so this posting will not be about Wilson’s magnificent 1986 memoir Little Wilson and Big God, one of the finest and most beguiling works of autobiography ever written in English (encountering some of its only real competition from its own mighty sequel You’ve Had Your Time, which is every bit as hefty and complex and joyously allusive). Here you will read not one word, for instance, about the youthful snobbery this provincial son of Manchester felt toward London in his youth:

In those days, for a Mancunian to visit the capital was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy. True, it had the monarch and the government, and was gratuitously big. It had more history than Manchester, but history was no more than a tourist frippery. When foreigners came to Manchester, they came to learn, not to feed ravens and snap beefeaters.

I’ll offer no ruminations on Burgess’ hilarious, bittersweet reflections on his time in the army:

Headquarters Company was queer; queer too in the colloquial sense, which was why it did not welcome intruders, especially ugly ones like Nesbit. We slept in what had formerly been servants’ quarters, beyond the green baize, four or five to a room. There were many whisperings and rustlings in the night, as well as rhythmical thuds at a distance. There were tears and reconciliations. Only outsiders like myself called NCOs by their rank. One fair-haired boy had a complete set of false teeth. He would take these out sometimes in the evenings and advertise a gamarouche for sixpence.

I won’t expand, as Burgess does to heart-wrenching effect, on the author’s fondly-held hopes of being a professional musician:

Now, there is nothing in the world more difficult than writing a libretto. Most of the failed operas fail because of this. The problem is less one of language than of plot. The plot must be appropriate to a short story, but the effect of its musicalisation must be rather that of a Jamesian novel.

Nor will I remark on Burgess’ seemingly endless ability to tweak every little scene, every little anecdote, toward a richer, wider implication, as in the sequence where he and his wife ship off for the Far East:

We travelled to the ship with our three suitcases and our Siamese cat loudly on heat in a basket. We had reserved first-class seats on the train, but these had been taken by second-class undislodgeable louts and we had to stand in the corridor. The hotel manageress at Southampton would not accept our crying cat, so we wandered the rainy town till we found a kind of dosshouse that was used to loud noises. We dined on half-cooked sausages and cool chips. We had expected to leave England in a little glow of muted monied glory, but it was not to be. England did not care whether we left her or not. We were glad to board the Willem Ruys and enter foreign territory.

No, by special request, I shall refrain from talking about these things and many, many more – it’s a difficult restraint, since Burgess is one of the 20th century’s greatest and most neglected authors, but a promise is a promise, after all.