Posts from June 2013

June 30th, 2013

Beat to Quarters!

beat to quartersOur book today is C. S. Forester’s 1937 canon-shot of a Napoleonic sea-novel, Beat to Quarters (published in England as, sigh, The Happy Return), the book that introduced the character of Captain Horatio Hornblower to the world and single-handedly re-invigorated a sub-genre that had been quiescent for a century.

The story is taut. Hornblower’s ship, the thirty-six gun frigate Lydia, has been at sea for months under secret orders the captain has communicated to no one: he’s to penetrate the waters of Spanish America and give aid to a rebel in Panama into on overthrowing the Spanish, and while he’s about it, he’s to find and destroy the Natividad, a Spanish warship of twice his firepower. From the first chapter, Forester stresses Hornblower’s stoical tendencies – tendencies which certainly serve him well when contemplating, for the thousandth time, these madcap commands:

Those orders were the usual combination of the barely possible and the quite Quixotic, which a captain on detached service might expect to receive. Only a landsman would have given those opening orders to sail to the Gulf of Fonesca without sighting other land in the Pacific – only a succession of miracles (Hornblower gave himself no credit for sound judgment and good seamanship) had permitted of their being carried out.

Hornblower’s tasks are complicated further when he’s forced to take on board Lady Barbara Wellesley, sister to the future Duke of Wellington … and finds himself falling in love with her (and thinking clinical, unkind thoughts about his dumpy Spanish wife back in England). And Forester piles plot-strand after plot-strand on top of these, filling his quick-paced book with adventure and bringing it all under the hand of his supremely competent commanding officer – although the centerpiece of the novel is still the confrontation between the Lydia and the Natividad, an action Hornblower begins by having his men dance the hornpipe as the ship is towed into fighting range:

In later years it was a tale told and retold, how the Lydia towed into action with hornpipes being dance on her main deck. It was quoted as an example of Hornblower’s cool courage, and only Hornblower knew how little truth there was in the attribution. It kept the men happy, which was why he did it. No one guessed how nearly he came to vomiting when a shot came in through a forward gunport and spattered Hall with a seaman’s brains without causing him to miss a step.

Forester in this book is a master of narrative balance, playing off his action scenes with quieter moments, and providing a moment for readers to catch their breaths from time to time. Even during the Lydia‘s storm-tossed return home around Cape Horn, there’s one unpredictable morning of clear calm:

There was an excruciating pleasure in filling her lungs with pure air after days of breathing the mephitic vapours of below decks. She caught Hornblower’s eyes and they exchanged smiles of delight. In all the rigging the sailors’ clothes, spread hastily to dry, were gesticulating as though with joy, waving a thousand glad arms and legs in the sparkling air.

Beat to Quarters sold like cotton candy at a state fair. On both sides of the Atlantic, it ran through edition after edition. It was adapted into a very good movie the happy returnstarring Gregory Peck, and it prompted Forester to write both sequels and prequels, eventually dramatizing the whole of Hornblower’s professional life, from lowly midshipman to nobleman (it was also adapted into an addictively good A&E TV series starring Ioan Gruffudd, who manages to overcome the burden of being even better-looking than Peck to become even more effective than Peck in the role). By any measure, the whole Hornblower enterprise was a stunning publishing success – the only thing it couldn’t have anticipated was a rival half a century later, but that’s what it now has: fans of nautical fiction must declare their loyalties in an unending War of the Roses between Forester’s Hornblower novels and the Aubrey & Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian, with partisans on both sides crying up strengths and weaknesses as if the two captains were going to war with each other instead of Napoleon. O’Brian’s 1969 novel Master and Commander also (eventually) sold well, also spawned many follow-up books, and also inspired a very good movie, but the two series are famously different: where Forester is stately and informative, O’Brian is headlong and immersive. Where Forester is deliberate, O’Brian is discursive. Both series provide plenty of joys for their readers (and O’Brian’s books amply demonstrate that he himself got plenty of joy out of Forester’s books before he wrote his own), but re-reading Beat to Quarters refreshed me on just how good Forester is even without the rhetorical flourishes O’Brian uses and sometimes over-uses.

So read Master and Commander, by all means, but read Beat to Quarters too. There’s room enough in the broad sea for both captains.

June 29th, 2013

Geographica: Hunting Songbirds

nat geoAs we’ve noted in the past, the wonders of National Geographic – unparalleled anywhere else in the Penny Press – come with a price tag. Just as the magazine is capable of infusing your day with the curiosity and sheer joy of exploration (the two exultations on which it was founded), so too is it capable of placing right before your face tragedies about which you might otherwise have known very little. The joys stick with you a long time – just recently, for example, articles on Brazilian caimans rebounding, or on the newly-revealed secrets of the planet Mars – but so do the tragedies … maybe even longer.

Such is the case in the July issue of the magazine, which features an incredibly sobering article on the systematic devastation being wrought on migratory birds by hunters all across the world (basically, everywhere outside the UK and the US). The article was written by Jonathan Franzen with an extremely deft control of the pathos inherent in the subject (that this precise control is missing from his fiction is more than ironic; it’s a sure sign of a missed calling), but as fair as he tries to be, he can’t hide his bafflement, and readers won’t be able to avoid it either. These hunters slaughter migratory birds – songbirds, sea birds, even storks and cranes – for the most ad hoc of reasons, or no reason at all, and Franzen does a wonderful job of conveying how it both confuses and tortures him.

I think he’s if anything too earnest in trying to extend empathy to a bunch of trigger-happy gun-nuts. Without exception, regardless of native country or language, the hunters he interviews for the piece display the same low-burn psychopathic birds nat geoexhilaration; they know they’re doing something objectively horrific. They know they’re acting out of simple bloodlust. Despite his own shock and revulsion, Franzen tries to offer them some understanding, even on cultural grounds:

But the political and cultural divide between the West and the Middle East is also daunting. The basic message of environmental “education” is, unavoidably, that Egyptians should stop doing what they’ve always done; and the concerns of a bird-smitten nation like England, whose colonization of Egypt is in any case still resented, seem as absurd and meddling as a Royal Society for the Protection of Catfish would seem to rural Mississippians.

The article is accompanied by heartbreaking photos by David Guttenfelder and gorgeous low-key color illustrations by Mesa Schumacher, and the whole package does what National Geographic always does: it enormously and effectively informs. That process is the same whether the information deals with the glorious birth of a star or the latest travesty perpetrated by humans. And it’s important – indeed, a duty – to read both … but it’s not easy.



June 24th, 2013

Pope-enabling in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchJust the other day, at the bookstore, a sane-and-normal-seeming customer asked me for a “fair” biography of Hitler. When I stared at her, she elaborated: a biography that wasn’t “slanted,” that had no “axe to grind,” that reflected the fact that although Hitler might have been an evil man, he was also indisputably a great one.

I wanted to say, “He brutalized his own people, he tried to exterminate another people, and he almost wrecked the entire world. By no metric imaginable was Hitler a great man.” I wanted to say, “There has never been a morally-neutral biography of Hitler, nor should there ever be one.” All I actually did say was “We’ll just have to agree to disagree about everything you’ve just said.” This was wrong of me, of course – customer or no customer, I should have mocked and scorned her – but it was prompted at least in part because I know I’ll live to see just such a book, written by an accredited historian, published by a reputable house, and reviewed in respected journals on its merits. David Irving and A. N. Wilson have already made tentative steps in that direction, and as the World War II generation continues to die off, that process will accelerate.

Even so, I’d like to think there are historically-informed bastions that will resist the tide of idiotic moral relativism, and I’d like to think the mighty TLS  will be one of those bastions. But my faith in that was shaken rather badly last week when I read a review they ran: John Cornwell writing about two new biographies of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.

tlsCornwell is a natural choice to write such a piece, since his 1999 book on Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope, became a best-seller mainly on the strength of its iconoclastic argument that Pius XII did a lot more to help Hitler and Nazism than he did to hinder it. That book was fiery and fearless in denouncing a man who’s on track to sainthood, so the last thing I expected from this review was yet more moral relativism. And yet:

“Studies of Pius XII tend to focus on the war years, as if he had no life before the start of his reign.”

“Pacelli was not anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense.”

“It is clear from these new biographies that the Holy See’s concordat with Germany gave unintentional impetus to Hitler’s plans. By the same token, Pacelli gave unintentional comfort to the Nazi cause during the war, because he clothed his statements in anodyne ambiguities that could be interpreted as moral indifference.”

And by far the worst of all:

“If the papacy was found wanting, the faults were collective and historic as much as personal. Both authors believe that Pius did the best that he could after he became Pope.”

Every one of these monstrous lines had to get past at least one TLS editor. Somewhere along the life-cycle of this piece, at least one editor had to read that Pius XII wasn’t anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense and refrain from demanding a re-write.

So that morally-neutral biography of Hitler might be closer than I thought.  Now I just hope the TLS doesn’t call it “balanced, but a bit troubling.”

June 15th, 2013

The Iron Lady in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchEver since Margaret Thatcher died in April and the press set about heaping ordure on her still-warm corpse, I’ve been busily, sadly reading every notice, just as I did for Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and just as I’m sure I will for Mikhail Gorbachev. In Thatcher’s case, the sheer intensity of the vitriol surprised even me, and I was dismayed at all the editors on both sides of the Atlantic who just blandly green-lit such attacks in order to chase after some cheap controversy (the low point for me – and for plenty of other people – being The New York Review of Books’ decision to run Andrew O’Hagan’s maudlin little assassin’s-bullet of a sneer-piece in late May, the only such piece that actually decided me against reading anything else by its author).

Unconsciously, perhaps, I was waiting for better voices to enter the chorus.

I got my wish a dozen times over in last week’s TLS, and it came from perhaps a predictable source: Ferdinant Mount, the publication’s greatest, grandest dinosaur-eminence, author of the great historical novel Gem(& Sam), and one-time hack-for-hire in Thatcher’s government, fondly referred to in her great memoir The Downing Street Years as “Ferdy Mount.”

That volume of memoirs (and its companion) was ghost-written by Thatcher aide and faithful ‘sherpa’ Robin Harris, whose new biography of his former boss, Not For Turning, is one of the books Mount reviews. Harris, Mount says, “has Old Vitriolic as his permanent font setting,” but Mount gives him credit for “coaxing a full set of memoirs out of someone who was constitutionally averse to writing so much as a memo” – and he pays the books some handsome tribute:

Those two volumes of recollections are an indispensable resource, gracefully written, self-serving, of course, but with the arguments for and against her views fairly and accurately reported. They are as well worth reading as the biographical works under review and much better history than the previous biographies published.

And he likewise cedes Not For Turning top honors, despite his small but vested interest in its contents:

Almost all her choices of minister are denounced as “transparently unsuitable” (it would be unmanly not to mention here that this reviewer’s appointment to her staff is fingered in a footnote, no doubt rightly, as “another of her mistakes”). His account of the manoeuvres leading up to her fall is as savage an indictment of individual and collective treachery as I have ever read.

tls1But the essay is satisfyingly long, and it often strays into Mount’s own summaries of the so-called Iron Lady, all of which are so richly, wistfully observed that they clear quite a bit of O’Haganesque detritus off the runway. Mount is as aware as anybody of the anger his subject could arouse. “In her obituaries, the word ‘divisive’ was much deployed,” he tells us. “This is pussy-footing. She was loathed, and usually despised as well.” Even for a spotlit public figure, she burned through enemies at a fantastic clip, and as Mount eloquently observes, it wasn’t just enemies:

Much more serious was the attrition rate among her allies, who were less easy to replace. One by one, they limped off the pitch, bruised and affronted: Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph, Leon Brittan, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, John Biffen – consoled only by their CHs, a recurring suffix which an uninformed observer might have mistaken for some obscure religious order, the Confraternity of Humiliation.

He perfectly captures the wariness that allowed her to seize power and hold it for over a decade:

Nor did she welcome even the most astonishing success at face value. When the Berlin Wall fell, she was quick to point out that the break-up of empires was always a time of danger. She really did act out Kipling’s “If” (her favourite poem, as it was the nation’s) and attempt to treat triumph and disaster as equivalent impostors.

Accurately – and almost certainly hopelessly, in the current Western political climate – he writes of his old boss, “She believed in strong but limited government and a strong individual, with nothing much in between,” with a puckish aside about her Methodist upbringing. The whole piece is like that, breathing a sane and slightly sardonic assessment of one of the towering figures of the late, great 1980s. It was worth the wait.



June 13th, 2013

Reading Mary Plain in the Penny Press!


The July issue of Vanity Fair has many standard features that are depressing. First and most noticeably, there’s the cover story-hand job common to most glossy magazines; in this case it’s a ‘profile’ of Hollywood’s current top box office Everyman, Channing Tatum, whose he-man pouting on the cover over the banner reading “Channing Tatum: An Action Star Who Can Act!” The banner might be true, but if Tatum can act it hasn’t yet been caught on film, and probably the piece’s talented author Rich Cohen knows that and was under orders to produce a standard-issue bro-file fawning all over Tatum in supposedly ‘up front’ ways that are nevertheless carefully choreographed to conceal everything the chunk of meat’s management wants concealed (Cohen makes no mention of Tatum’s tobacco habit, for instance, nor does he even lightly allude to the fact that Tatum isn’t exactly brightest warbler in the aviary).

The depressing features extend well beyond the cover, of course. There’s a culture-clash/French-bashing article by James Wolcott that reads like it wasvf tatum cover assembled from a kit and depresses in exact proportion to how talented Wolcott used to be; there’s yet another fawning puff piece, this one on Pippa Middleton’s love of tennis. Ingrid Sischy’s long profile of the odious John Galliano at least works in some uplift amidst its own depression: true, Galliano is a toxic, self-aggrandizing former pretty-boy piece of pastry who was a waste of protoplasm even before he exiled himself from civilized society with The Anti-Semitic Outburst Heard Round the World, but in compensation the reader gets to spend some time in the wonderful presence of Sischy’s writing, which is always a treat. Likewise Michael Joseph Gross’ long article on the cyber-war currently being waged between the U.S. and Iran, which was upliftingly well-written but depressing as all get-out to read.

But no issue of Vanity Fair ever entirely disappoints (not since Graydon Carter took over, much as I begrudge to admit it), and this one has a true gem underneath all the depressing mud: Laura Jacobs has an absolute corker of a piece about Mary McCarthy’s blockbuster 1963 novel The Group and the shockwaves it set off, both in the literary world and among McCarthy’s Vassar classmates.

Although even in this piece, there were plenty of slightly depressing elements. True, Jacobs can be wonderful about McCarthy’s prose:

And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear into the hearts of her male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.

But I don’t agree with the weird reduction in that penultimate line, that oddly sexist equating of sexual predation with literary fearlessness – it makes a troubling lead-in to the following line, where you’re left wondering just which of McCarty’s traits these female writers are aspiring to (not that it matters in this case, since no aspiring female writer under the age of 35 has even heard of Mary McCarthy, let alone read her)(one of the sharpest young female writers I know, for instance, would scorn the very idea of reading somebody who’s actually had the bad grace to be dead – if the ink isn’t still wet on your latest chapbook, you might as well be one with Nineveh and Tyre).

Likewise troubling is the bit where Jacobs relates some of the withering critical responses to The Group and then blandly agrees with them. She quotes Robert Lowell: “No one in the know likes the book.” And she quotes Dwight Macdonald: “Mary tried for something very big but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”

To which Jacobs nods, “All true, and all beside the point,” even though it’s not true, nor is it true that the book’s “plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil.”  And worst of all is the piece’s resort to psychobabble in defense of a flawed assumption:

Novelist lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young.

Or, alternately, there’s the faint possibility that Mary McCarthy knew what she was doing, that she wasn’t just some helpless fawn banging her head against the iron cage of her Freudian childhood hangups – that, ultimate heresy, she might have understood more about what was happening in her own fiction than virtually all of her critics, then or, apparently, now. It was McCarthy’s best friend Elizabeth Hardwick who once said, “When it comes to the written word, I wouldn’t bet against Mary.” Maybe Jacobs was emboldened by the fact that Hardwick herself nevertheless frequently did bet against her friend.

But then, Hardwick didn’t write The Group

June 9th, 2013

Ghost-busting in the Penny Press!



Literary reputations are a lot like ghosts – they make odd noises, they hang around long after their heartbeat has ceased, and they attract the belief of the credulous all over the world. Just as a bloated mass of spectral ectoplasm was reputedly once a two-timing grocer, so a bloated mass of lazy bloviation was once an up-and-coming Young Turk at Yaddo. And in both cases, the thing just won’t shut up.

It gets so that the weary reader expects every seance to go the same way. The chairs around the table may be assembled differently, but sooner or later the arrow always ends up pointing to “profound, compelling … a triumph.”

Lrb-p1Such was my understandable fear, anyway, when I saw that the last London Review of Books featured a long piece on Dear Life by Alice Munro, despite the fact that the book headed up the dreaded Stevereads “Worst Fiction of 2012” list (it’s almost like the LRB doesn’t read Stevereads, as unthinkable as that is). But it turns out some seances do go in unexpected directions, as I could tell right off from the first paragraph of Christian Lorentzen‘s bravura piece:

There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career no in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.

Hee. And so on:

Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways of life is [sic] shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture, and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism.

Building and building, until the lovely coup de grace: “I started to think of reading Munro’s sentences as something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: it’s a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren’t wet.”

After the exhilaration of such an exorcism, it felt only natural to turn to Theo Tait’s review of two books on actual ghosts and get some more choice zingers, like: “Polls have consistently shown that between 30 and 40 per cent of people in Britain believe in ghosts – about the same proportion as, in principle, support the Labour Party.”

“Once you’ve accepted the notion of an afterlife the fear of revenants naturally follows,” Tait writes, “… funerals are, apart from anything else, banishment rituals.”

And if Tait doesn’t quite have the nerve that Lorentzen does to see the thing through to the bitter end – he makes a fatally wishy-washy allusion to “the genuinely anomalous” just as he’s reaching the finish line – it’s still a merry ride.

June 3rd, 2013

Hatchet-Jobs indeed in the Penny Press!


Just when you thought the whole ‘negativity-in-book-reviews’ teacup-tempest had finally blown itself out, no less an unlikely Lady Bracknell than Clive James stirs it back up again. Himself a critic of legendary and delightful omni-competence, James has recently announced that his health has gone into serious decline (he just published a poem about it – one of, one fears, many to come – that somehow managed to be both lachrymose and stoical at the same time, which is some neat trick). He’s published his long-awaited translation of The Divine Comedy, which must surely count as a major line-item on just about anybody’s To Do list, and what’s perhaps more predictable coming from a life-long memoirist, he’s begun more frequently and fondly looking to his personal good old days.

opinionatorIn Saturday’s update of the New York Times “Opinionator” blog, James looks back on his days in Grub Street and laments one thing in particular: that the Americans among whom he spends so much time and for whom he has such affection can do just about any cultural thing they set their minds to  – but they haven’t managed to master the art of “hostile literary criticism” the way they have in Britain, where “shredding” a new book is “a kind of fox hunting that is still legal today.”

James patronizes with the best of them, of course; he concedes that America is probably a more polite society and no doubt the better for it (my dear, he doesn’t quite say, although you can hear it just fine). But it’s forced, as all patronization must be, because what good is patronizing somebody if they can’t hear it while you’re doing it? No, America’s too polite a society for shredding – he points out that a recent negative review of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton had to be written by a Brit, Zoe Heller, like a literary version of extraordinary rendition, with the hapless books suddenly hooded, zip-cuffed, and whisked away to a mongrel fringe-nation where critics in ski masks are willing to get their hands dirty. “Back home, you got lots of fancy rights,” they growl as the latest novel from Curtis Sittenfeld blinks away tears under the interrogation lamp, “but here, you have only Hell.”

It’s a daft conception, and James is much too well-read to believe it. In fact, his little screed actually revolves around quite a different aspect of hatchet jobs than their frightful lack of manners, and he tips readers off to this when he mentions Zoe Heller’s fellow Brit, the late Christopher Hitchens, who in his own “shredding” work found that the citizens of his adopted country were “wonderfully easy to stir up.”

Certain elements of them, anyway, and Hitchens left behind a healthy estate because he recognized the financial potential in that fact as surely and unerringly as any carnival huckster. Thousands of star-struck acolytes in dorm rooms all over the Western world can recite chapter and verse of the thunderous attacks Hitchens made upon organized religion in the last years of his life. He famously went on a rollicking bar-storming book tour through every rickets-ridden holler in the American Bible Belt, making mincemeat out of the local snake-handlers hoisted up to debate with him, urging listeners to throw off their “mind-forged manacles” and join him in his life-long quest to free the world of religion, which, as his book’s sub-title put it, “poisons everything.”

Hitchens learned his trade in that same Grub Street world James recalls so fondly, where “the spleen gets a voice” – and where hatchet-jobs are matters of ad hoc and entirely insincere hackwork of a type that served Hitchens, among many others, quite well. Long before he wrote a book saying religion poisons everything, after all, he wrote a book saying the dishonesty of President Clinton poisons everything. And before that, it was Henry Kissinger poisoning everything. And before him, Mother Teresa. If he’d struck six-figure paydirt with any of those earlier malefactors, God wouldn’t have heard a peep out of him.

The point, in other words, is opportunism. The term for this in the Internet Age (which Brits of Hitchens’ and James’ age-group seem not to believe Clive Jamesreally exists – obviously, yes, but not really, like the little man who turns off the refrigerator light when you close the door) is trolling. When Christopher Hitchens wrote that religion poisons everything (or that the Bush administration was wise to invade Iraq, or that women can’t be funny, etc.), he wasn’t writing anything he’d believe ten minutes after he cashed his check – he was just trolling for attention, because that’s the goal of British hatchet-job journalism. Likewise James, who doesn’t really believe that Americans critics are too polite to shred the books they review – but who very much believes that writing such a thing will rattle up some attention just like the kind it’s getting here at Stevereads right now.

That scrappy, punch-drunk Grub Street ethos was indeed grand fun (James might take a moment to recall that America has a rather good record of just such gleeful gutter journalism itself – indeed, some of his readers might just be old enough to have participated in it for years and gained memories they wouldn’t trade for all the National Book Critics Circle Awards in Purgatory), but even in the UK, it never made its way out of the servants’ quarters. In London’s most prestigious literary journals, the hatchet-job transforms into the take-down by adding a smidge of perspective and a dollop of professionalism – just as it’s done in goody two-shoes America.

James knows this perfectly well, since he writes those kinds of reviews better than anybody. But he can hope Monday is a slow news day just the same.



June 2nd, 2013

No Anxiety of Influence in the Penny Press!


Throughout the year, the New York Review of Books is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reprinting excerpts from pieces by some of its most lauded contributors. The excerpts appear on the last page of every issue, and considering the lineup of literary powerhouses the NYRB has always boasted, you’d think the presence of such a Parthian shot would cast a pall backward over the whole issue.

nyrbjuneCase in point this latest issue, which features an excerpt from Gore Vidal’s famous two-part review of the 1973 bestseller list, aptly titled “The Ashes of Hollywood. It’s one of Vidal’s most famous pieces, and it’s a cocksure periodical that assumes – even hopes – that its present-day contributors can measure up.

The wonder of the NYRB, of course, is that they can. It’s what makes that final page so oddly, reassuringly triumphant.

This issue is odd, however. The front cover bills it as the “University Press Issue,” but in reality this seems to describe no so much a theme as a tic: of the 20 books reviewed in the issue, only 7 are published by university presses, and that’s not even the highest percentage – 8 of the issue’s slots are given to essays that don’t review books at all. The NYRB might just as well have called it the “Special Reporting Issue”

This is bittersweet news to somebody like me, since I’m just about as aware as a layman can be of the sheer number of fascinating books put out every season by university presses (including all the ones that don’t have 5 million dollar endowments like the ones backing most of the presses that are reviewed in this issue). The vision of an NYRB issue genuinely devoted to university press offerings is tantalizing, but luckily, the issue’s overall quality softens such pining.

David Cole’s piece on gun control, for instance, hits all the usual sobering statistics, but with fresh vigor:

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide.

Likewise Anna Somers Cocks, in her essay “The Coming Death of Venice?” hits some very familiar notes – how endless politics and bureaucracy in Venice are thwarting any real attempts to save the city from spiritual and even physical destruction. Cocks takes particular aim at the head of Venice’s powerful Port Authority, Paolo Costa – I wouldn’t be surprised if the man fires off an angry retort for the next issue; in fact, I can’t see how he can avoid doing that, or getting a flunky to do it, since Cocks pretty much blames him for single-handedly sinking the city:

In the meantime, the city is being eaten up by damp. Every inch of sea level rise counts now, because the water has overtopped the impermeable stone bases of most buildings and is being absorbed into the porous bricks, fragmenting them and washing away the mortar. The damp has reached the upper floors and is rusting through the iron tie rods that hold the houses together.

Of course, this being the Penny Press, it’s not all brie and Chablis. Andrew Butterfield turns in a review of a new Albrecht Durer exhibit up at the durerNational Gallery, and although the piece in general is very good (as I’ve come to expect from this author), it’s also got its share of dippy art-writing, as when he loses himself in admiration of the quick drawing Durer did of his fiancée Angnes:

In its frank portrayal of an informal moment of unguarded emotion, there had never been a drawing quite like this before. Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Durer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

A glance at this miraculous sketch suggests that Durer was in fact ‘fascinated’ with learning how to draw the folds in Agnes’ sleeve – her face, clearly an afterthought, barely has two lines in it.

Even worse comes from an even better writer: the great Eamon Duffy starts his review of The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken and Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley with this supremely annoying line, no doubt foisted on him by the NYRB’s copy desk:“If an anthropologist from the star system Sirius were to teleport to earth to conduct a field study of Christianity, where would she go?”

So idiotic political correctness has expanded along the starways even as far as Sirius? So intergalactic civilizations, too, must forever atone for the fact that Mrs. Pankurst wasn’t allowed to vote? So it’s not PC even to hint that a field anthropologist from the Sirius system might be an it? Yeesh.

Even so, reading these fantastic pieces and all the rest in this issue naturally prompts a subversive question: just how legitimate is the question of influence-anxiety, anyway? In other words, just how good were those illustrious names of yesteryear?

A look at Vidal’s famous essay doesn’t exactly allay the suspicion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Vidal’s attack is withering of course, but on a re-reading, its blunderbuss nature becomes more evident. He lays out his case that the bestselling authors in question aren’t even novelists at all – his insinuation is that they’re all failed screenwriters. And that would be fine and even funny if there weren’t some seriously good authors on the list he’s mocking – and if there wasn’t such a strong impression he’s dismissing them too:

I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties as a preface to the ten bestselling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to recreate new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film maker) recall past success and respond accordingly. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature.

Catch the subtle cattiness even when he’s trying to be nice: Solzhenitsyn and Renault may be in SOME way rooted in literature, but they’re still interlopers, pointedly identified by non-novelist professions. However positive Vidal may be about them (and it’s not all that positive, or rather, it’s not all that much about them – he spends his entire section on Renault, for instance, talking about his own gay novel The City and the Pillar), it’s pretty clear they appall him not much less than their peers on the list. It’s a low move (and his super-subtle blink-and-you-miss-it vicious canard about Aldous Huxley in the same piece is even lower), the type of thing you might have been able to do if you were dear friends with Barbara Epstein, but not actually up to the standard on display in the rest of this issue.

So the present is safe from the past, in this case. Sighs of relief all around, especially from those of us who toil to bring out a literary review journal every month.


June 1st, 2013

Pleasures of the “New” in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchTwo highlights this week from the curiously large number of magazines I read whose titles start with “New” (that also starts the name of the region I call home):

n yorkerIn The New Yorker, in addition to some other wonderful stuff (Anthony Lane on “Fast & Furious 6″ is predictably hilarious, for instance), there’s a simple, affecting short story, “We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma. It’s set in modern-day India, it seems pretty clearly to be a chunk calved from a longer work, and it has an understated narrative line that’s almost hypnotic:

My parents were polite with Manshu, but periodically they showed that they found him irritating too. Once, my mother told my father that everything Manshu said was probably an echo of something his mother had uttered. Another time, when Manshu passed seventh standard and his mother went around the lane giving out boxes of sweets, my father said, “Surely he must have cheated.”

Sharma is the author of 2001’s much-lauded An Obedient Father (whenever the guy writes something, it wins an award – which should make him irritating, and yet …), and “We Didn’t Like Him” raised my hopes for a sprawling epic of a new novel.

My hopes were also briefly raised by Alec MacGillis’ piece on the NRA in The New Republic, “This is How the NRA Ends.” I briefly hoped he’d done some investigative digging and uncovered secret Federal indictments in the offing, crippling internecine squabbles, anything to offset the sick-at-the-gut feeling so many shooting-traumatized Americans had when they watched the NRA, using its bought-and-paid-for senators, openly and single-handedly block gun control legislation that something like 95% of the country wants (while the rest of the civilized world looked on with disbelief). But no: MacGillis has nothing like that. He’s just certain the NRA will crumble if its bought-and-paid-for senators face backlash from their constituents. MacGillis doesn’t say why he thinks the NRA wouldn’t in that case simply buy new senators.

Fortunately, the same issue also featured a nice meaty review of John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by the mighty Maya n republicJasanoff, whose 2011 book Liberty’s Exiles is the best study of American Loyalists (that despised majority who didn’t want the American Revolution) ever written. Jasanoff is a terrifically all-knowing kind of author (we’ve got one of those at Open Letters, and she, too, is an academic – it almost restores my faith in the breed), and when she’s at full steam writing about the nuances of empire, there’s nobody like her:

The wonderful quotable quality of Kipling’s poetry has cursed him to an eternity of misreading. Not many people who talk about “The White Man’s Burden” today know that Kipling addressed that poem in cautionary terms to the United States, which had just acquired overseas colonies of its own. Those who chant, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” rarely go on to cite the reconciliatory lines that follow: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” It was Kipling who most succinctly captured the fin-de-siecle anxiety about empire in his great Jubilee-year anthem “Recessional,” in which he envisioned a British Empire lying in ruins like those of the Near East; and it was Kipling who wrote the stark, resonant epitaphs for the Imperial War Graves Commission after the Great War, from which the British Empire emerged larger – but weaker – than ever.

Those of you who know me will wonder if perhaps I liked that passage not because it’s by Jasanoff but because its about my beloved Kipling – but no! She’s also excellent on people who aren’t Kipling!