Posts from August 2013

August 31st, 2013

Ink Chorus: No Passion Spent!

ink chorus

Our book today is George Steiner’s meaty 1996 collection of critical essays, No Passion Spent, which features 21 pieces drawn from two decades of Steiner’s long career as a literary journalist. During the course of that career, he sold pieces on a wide array of topics to an almost equally wide array of paying venues, from The New Yorker to The Guardian to the mighty TLS. He’s been a true literary omnivore, and the signature joy of reading his essays is how unabashedly seriously he takes everything. He’s bristlingly intelligent in every one of these collected pieces; he never takes any book, idea, or preconception at face value.

He’s a formidable guide to the books and authors he introduces to his readers. He himself has read everything – the choice bits of quotation and allusion come obediently when he calls – and although he very often takes it upon himself to interpret-for-hire the literature of the day, he’s never more comfortable than when luxuriously prowling around in the cool wooded sanctuaries of canonical literature. That’s a big part of what makes No Passion Spent so enjoyable, that sense of an enormous, passionate intellect fighting some kind of perpetual rear-guard action against an onrushing blunderbuss future. Even back in 1978, he was making typically oracular stand against that era’s equivalent of an e-book reader:

The paperback is, physically, ephemeral. To accumulate paperbacks is not to assemble a library. By its very nature, the paperback preselects and anthologizes from the totality of literature and thought. We do not get, or get only very rarely, the complete works of an author. We do not get what current fashion regards as his inferior products. Yet it is only when we known a writer integrally, when we turn with special querulous solicitude to his ‘failures’ and thus construe our own vision of his presentness, that the act of reading is authentic.

no passion spentThere are ruminations in these pages on writers from Kierkegaard to Kafka, from Socrates to Simone Weil, and always there’s such a strong, vitally contagious feeling of engagement. Steiner could summon that deep engagement almost at will – as more than one friend of his pointed out over the years, he read always with a pen in his hand:

We underline (particularly if we are students or harried book-reviewers). Sometimes we scribble a note in the margin. But how few of us write marginalia in Erasmus’s or Colerige’s sense, how few of us annotate with copious rigour.

One of the first and grandest pieces in this collection is the Preface Steiner wrote to the Hebrew Bible in 1996 – its comparatively lax guidelines forced Steiner to fall back on his own eloquence, and on his wide and rather acute familiarity with the book under consideration:

The Old Testament is as far-flung as the stars; it is also as earthbound, as localized as an Ordnance Survey. Carry it in hand and it will guide you, cubit as it were by cubit, to the field of Gilboa, to the well at Shiloh, to that hillock under the unmoving sun at Ajalon. Drive a spade into the parched ground, be it in the seeming emptiness of the Negev or the busy hills of Galilee, and the biblical past crowds at you.

Steiner affected a gruff, cynical exterior even when he wasn’t being prickly (and he was often being prickly), but like so many immigrants to the United States, he found some truly remarkable things about his adopted country – including its dedication to higher education. “American are engaged, like no other society,” he writes, “in a general pursuit of intellectual and artistic attainment in establishments of tertiary education”:

No society has ever declared and fulfilled a comparable commitment to advanced schooling in the liberal arts, in the social and natural sciences, in technology and the performing arts. No other society has every opened the doors of the academy to almost anyone desiring entrance.

And if you’re detecting just the faintest wish on the author’s part that all this intellectual egalitarianism perhaps not be so glad-handy, well, you might george and glorianot be entirely wrong. Steiner at the height of his powers could be a bit of a contrarian, wearing down some of his most exalted subjects with the strength of his  irritation at the fact that they’ve become exalted in the first place. In this volume there’s certainly no better example of this than his famous 1986 essay  “A Reading Against Shakespeare,” in which he protests in vain against the domination of the Bard – and alludes to others who’ve taken up the same doomed task:

Who now remembers Edmund Gosse’s outcry, at the turn of the century, that Shakespeare’s sheer weight and precedent was crushing the life out of English verse and out of any attempts to renew serious drama in the English language? Closely related to this protest are the attempts of both Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound to liberate the American language from the Shakespearean hold and, more especially, to find and test American verse rhythms in which the Shakespearean iambic would no longer be the implicit metronome (an attempt crucial to both the splendours and the disasters of Pound’s Cantos)

No Passion Spent is a big, densely detailed feast of a book, now out of print but perhaps not destined to stay that way. New Directions, much to their credit, has started re-issuing George Steiner with simple, attractive new covers. It looks like they started with something called George Steiner at the New Yorker and following up in 2014 with The Poetry of Thought and his great and strange masterpiece My Unwritten Books. So we can keep a hopeful eye out for a pretty new edition of No Passion Spent.

August 30th, 2013

Pigs in Clover!

pigs in cloverOur book today is Frances Noyes Hart’s 1931 charmer Pigs in Clover, which purports to record a roundabout journey by car through France that she took one holiday season with her husband Edward Hart, the son of the man who was present at the creation, so to speak, of the Associated Press.

Long before that trip, Frances Noyes Hart had been a working freelancer of indomitable industry and a great deal of effervescent talent. She wrote for anybody who was paying, doing theatrical reviews, book reviews (some under – gasp – assumed names), humorous squibs, and short stories for a long list of American venues, including the wonderful old Scribner’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Washington Post. She serialized a book called The Bellamy Trial in The Saturday Evening Post, and in 1927 it won the Pulitzer Prize (which caused positively everyone, including God in His Heaven, to take a deep breath and ponder for a moment the inscrutable ways of Fate and the Prize Committee). By the time she and her husband hit on the idea of travelling France not as dutiful momument-watchers but as “gypsies,” they were well able to afford some non-gypsy luxuries.

Their goal was to enjoy themselves in what we would today call an “unstructured” way, and her goal – ever the inventive hack – was to use the experience to write a kind of travel book that wasn’t yet invented yet: a combination of practical (she’s religious about meal costs and room rentals) and the impressionistic, designed not only to advise prospective travelers on how they should negotiate the pragmatic landscape of France but why they should want to.  The resulting book, Pigs in Clover, is a classic of travel-writing and one that knows very well its own defiance of expectations:

It isn’t at all the kind of book that I meant it to be. I had planned something highly sophisticated and faintly ironic, with plenty of good active verbs, a liberal scattering of sinewy adverbs, and not more than two severe and lapidary adjectives to a page. I know just exactly how it ought to have been done, and I’m pretty contrite about not having done it. But as long as moonlight is silver and sunlight is gold and roses are red, I’m lost and undone. I’ll et someone else think up better colors for them, and I won’t even bother to put quotation marks around “gallant” and “magical.” Someone else will have to go in for irony.

Even though the couple stressed their carefree attitude (very appealingly different from the package-tour mentality that rule the industry at the time), they couldn’t help themselves when it came to that most pleasant of all traveller’s daily duties, making itineraries:

We left Paris not a minute later than half-past twelve, which was pretty good for us, considering that we had intended to start not a minute later than half-past nine. Now that I look back on the elaborate time schedules that we drew up, and remember what happened to them, I find them as touching and idiotic as Baby’s first shoes.

In one quick chapter after another, we follow the Harts from Versailles to Chartres to Poitiers to Bayonne and Biarritz to Carcassone and Nimes, always stopping in quaint villages, always savoring the food and wine and hospitality. The effect is so hypnotic that those of us who’ve had less than perfect encounters with France and its people may begin to feel that perhaps we missed something while complaining about the rampaging heat and the obnoxious dog-hating locals. Certainly despite her hard-as-nails contract-negotiating with that grand, penny-pinching old publishing house of Doubleday, Doran & Co. Fanny Hart weaves a very elegant spell in these pages. And despite a certain road-weariness (and a strong but scandalously intermittent longing to return to their own “two smallest cares, that had blue eyes and golden topknots”), her sorrow at leaving is completely honest:

Lovely Paris – lovely, lovely France – how could we leave you, you who had been so ineffably kind to these two alien children? … And suddenly we knew that we couldn’t really leave her; we knew that no one who has loved her ever quite leaves Paris. Some part of us we each leave behind as hostage, waiting for our return.

And quite suddenly we didn’t have to pretend to be gay; quite suddenly we were. E lifted the frosted glasses and smiled across them, clicking the brims together, as we drank a toast to the lovely lady smiling up at us through the summer night.

“To our next dinner in Paris! Hasten the day!”

Hasten the day, kind gods! For we have left hostages in France.

It’s impossible to read that final chapter without recalling that only a few years after the Harts left their beloved France the whole country would suffer conquest and devastation on a scale that would dwarf that seen during the First World War; the sunny, green-shaded French countryside always and paradoxically feels far away from war and violence – and in these pages, it always will be.

August 28th, 2013

Comics: A Series of Unfortunate Events!

legion 79 - victoryHuge multi-part special-run series make good business for four-color comics companies, I get that. The basic model is now infinitely replicated: the central spine of a six or eight-issue mini-series feeding into an extended nervous system of tie-in issues designed to part nervous fanboy completists from their apparently-inexhaustible spending money. Nowadays, the leverage placed on those completists can utterly defeat the non-completists who might otherwise buy the central mini-series: nowadays, that central series tends not even to make sense without all forty ancillary tie-ins.

DC’s big hoopla event of the summer, “Trinity War,” at least tried to keep its central story comprehensible. The six-justice leagueissue mini-series created by writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis has been an almost entirely unedifying affair, mainly just issue after issue of the company’s three iterations of the Justice League (League, of America, and Dark) slugging it out and regrouping for five issues, obsessing the whole while about a maguffin in the shape of a metal skull-shaped artifact. Reis’ artwork has been superb throughout (although his habit of providing big splash panels every few pages sometimes feels oddly out of sync with the story’s dramatic beats – it’s the visual equivalent of those badly-dubbed Japanese Godzilla movies), but the ongoing frenzy of the books’ narrative has largely prevented Johns from doing much in the way of creating character or even serving up sensible dialogue (its mostly just members of the 30-something cast of characters constantly introducing themselves for the benefit of newcomers). Instead, we get five issues of build-up: what is the metal skull, and what does it do?

splash panel eightSince this event is supposed to be something of a knockout, Johns has deliberately hinted that the maguffin will involve that old familiar chestnut, an alternate reality – and not just any old alternate reality: the hints pointed at a glimpse of what long-time DC fans still reflexively think of as the “real” reality, the one that obtained before the company’s “New 52” revamp. The reality in which Superman wears bright colors, Wonder Woman wears bright colors, and nobody’s costumes have any pointless piping and cross-hatched seamwork.

And sure enough, after about six or seven big splash-pages, the metal skull does indeed open up a portal to another dimension, and super-beings step through. They’re not MY super-beings – considering how successful batman superman“The New 52” is, I doubt I’ll ever see that old gang again – but they’re sure as hell plot-twisters. Confusing plot-twisters, too, since they appear on the last pages of a limited mini-series; so what, then? The whole thing was a prologue only?

Fortunately, the extra frustration of watching a plot involving so many of DC’s flagship characters unravel so abruptly is confined to “Trinity War” this week – elsewhere in DC’s run this week is the newest issue of one of the company’s best titles, “Batman/Superman” (ungainly as all get-out, but in “The New 52,” the old title for such a book, “World’s Finest,” is already taken), lee splashwritten by Greg Pak and drawn with absolutely stunning virtuosity by Jae Lee. The first story-arc of this new title features two versions of both Superman and Batman, each plucked from different time-periods in their lives and facing the menace of Darkseid. Pak involves Wonder Woman and Lois Lane early on in his proceedings and runs his characters through some very enjoyable personality clashes (in this latest issue, Pak continues the extend these clashes back in time, here featuring the very first meeting of young-boy Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, which happens when the Wayne limousine breaks down in Smallville). But as good as his writing is, it’s blown out of the water by Lee’s revelatory artwork, which is often so stylized that you need to stop and stare at it.

This is still the “New 52” version of these iconic characters, but it’s the best version currently on the market – and it’s going to make one fine collection very shortly.

August 22nd, 2013

Comics: The End of the Legion


legion 79 - victoryDC Comics is currently in the middle of a big readership-grabbing multi-issue crossover event called “Trinity War,” and that big event is going to blend into the next, something called “Forever Evil” that will feature another mini-series and some collectible, gimmicky covers. The company’s successful reboot of its entire line of comics, its “New 52″ lineup, continues to barrel along, apparently pleasing current fans and making new ones.

Old DC readers might notice a much less noisy event that also took place this week, and to some of us, that event will seem much more stark and important than any publicity hooplas the company’s corporate owners could dream up.

This is the week The Legion ended.

That’s The Legion of Super-Heroes, one of DC’s longest-running franchises, which has taken various titles and formats over the last five decades in order to chronicle the adventures of a sprawling team of teenage superheroes a thousand years in the future. The rampant continuity-altering festival of “The New 52” left the Legion and its extensive background relatively untouched, even while it was dramatically revamping just about every other well-known DC character, turning Superman into an emotionless a-hole visiting alien, turning Wonder Woman into a banal and bloodthirsty demi-goddess, and changing the alternate-reality of “Earth 2,” where the superheroes of the World War II era grew old and mentored a new generation of heroes, into a realm where a new crop of heroes had to take over, because a super-villain succeeded in killing Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.

In this “New 52,” the Legion was still the Legion: a big, idealistic team of friends spread too thin in a galaxy teeming with chaos and villainy. At the legion lastoutset of the new continuity, the team had undergone a tragedy: a small squad of its members had disappeared and were feared dead – unbeknownst to their 31st century teammates, they were actually stranded in the 21st century, dealing with the likes of Superman and Batman and trying to figure out how to get back home. For a great moment there, fans were getting two Legion titles every month, and best of all, they were being written by Paul Levitz, one of the greatest Legion-creators of all time.

It was an uneven run, and right at its end, Levitz began orchestrating one of his signature enormous, epic storylines – this one involving the villainous Fatal Five, who figure out a way to disrupt the basic power source of all 31st century technology, effectively bringing galactic civilization to its knees and throwing the Legion into scrambling chaos. It becomes of their most desperate and bloody battles, and although they emerged – last month – victorious, they did so in the rubble of Earth, with several of their members dead or maimed.

This current issue, #23, is the last of the series. For the first time in a long time, there’ll now be no Legion comic coming out from DC every month. This issue’s cover, showing the team’s resident super-genius Brainiac-5 sitting slumped, holding his head in his hands, could easily function as a visual shorthand for Levitz himself, sitting in the disheveled chaos of his creations. That chaos is also reflected in the fact that the book has had four or five different artists in four or five different issues – concluding here with some of the best work the usually-irritating artist Kevin Maguire.

legion disbandedIn the issue, as the Legion is picking up the pieces and Brainiac-5 is trying frantically to come up with a ‘master plan’ to put the galaxy (and the team itself) back on its feet when they get a rude awakening: the government of Earth has decided to disband the Legion immediately.

It doesn’t make any sense, but it happens anyway, and Levitz winds up the issue with a series of epilogues showing various team members coming to terms with the fact that the Legion has ended with a whimper and not a bang. And in almost all of those epilogues, the characters allude to other realities, alternate realities where perhaps the team still flourishes. And in one of those epilogues, Levitz goes a bit further: he has a character allude to the fact that … a super-villain a long time ago killed Superman!

So: this entire version of the Legion was the Earth-2 version all along? Despite the fact that its lost splinter-team was clearly on Earth-1? So long-time fans are left with an empty bag, naturally wondering what about the Legion of Earth-1? This wasn’t actually just the last issue of the Legion – it was a colossal imposture of the whole concept. It’s bizarrely disappointing that such a gesture would come from someone as central to Legion lore as Paul Levitz, but at least long-time fans have his earlier masterpieces to console them.




August 16th, 2013

Fashion-hunting in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchIt’s fashion month in the Penny Press these days, which means the square-bound glossies are suddenly a bit thicker and much more tightly crammed with full-color full-page spreads of varied and frenzied incomprehensibility. As many of you will have no trouble believing, fashion is a mystery to me; not only do I completely lack the physical traits that make it feasible in the first place, I also completely lack the herd mentality at the very heart of the very perry ellisconcept. You need to be susceptible to that kind of herd mentality in order to justify spending money (often exorbitant amounts of it) specifically for the purpose of looking ridiculous – the only way an otherwise normal person would do that is if it were very important to them that they be doing something lots of other people are doing, and damn the consequences.

Take young men’s current fashion as a case-in-point: skin-tight clothing, pantlegs that end at mid-shin, no socks, ridiculous faux-1950s hats, enormous barn-owl sized eyeglasses (worn almost exclusively by pretty illiterates) … the combination of these things makes the wearer look, objectively speaking, like a homeless superhero in secret identity mode. Even now, without the benefit of twenty years’ hindsight, such a getup looks just plain ridiculous, like all those embarrassing photos of grown men wearing dashikis in the ‘70s. But fashion not only embraces the ridiculous, it caters to it – so the lavish photos filling these issues can be a mysterious little education in themselves. I sometimes stare at one or another of them, trying in all seriousness to figure out what the point is. What’s the point of a Perry Ellis ad featuring a young man staring in wonder at a woodpecker, for example? I don’t know and I don’t think I ever will know. I’m not meant to know. Such ads are windows into an entire world that I will never visit.

Fortunately, I can still manage to find my footing even in fashion-crazed theme issues. Magazines like Esquire and GQ might rent out more space than normal at this time of year to ads showing James Franco hawking perfume of Tom Brady championing shoes (at least, I think it was shoes – maybe you’re not supposed to care; maybe you’re just supposed to say “Oh look, it’s Tom Brady”), but their editors aren’t entirely driven from the field, and so some genuine content can still be found if you did far enough into the rear section of the magazine.

Take the latest Esquire, for instance. It has plenty of clothing ads, but it also has the redoubtable Scott Raab turning in the capstone to his magnificent esquire chris hemsworthchronicle of the rebuilding taking place at Ground Zero in Manhattan. When he started this project, I thought it was a dud of a subject, the subsuming of the sublime into the quotidian, but I should have known better: it’s the writer who makes the subject, not the other way around. Raab’s ongoing chapters have been superb (award-worthy, one might add), and this latest one – about the 1 World Trade Center that’s been erected at Ground Zero and the people (certifiably insane in my opinion, but Raab is more sympathetic) who are contemplating setting up offices inside what even an optimist has to consider the world’s biggest terrorist target.  Raab puts as valiant a spin on things as he can:

Gutting the values and principles that’s we like to think define us as an exceptional nation – you know, that whole Bill of Rights deal – isn’t the response of a country confident in its freedom It’s the cowardice of a nation to fractured by fear to face the truth about the human condition: We’re always vulnerable – all of us, together and alone.

It takes courage to accept that vulnerability and not let it rule our lives, private and public. That’s exactly what the rebuilt World Trade Center demonstrates already, already filled with people courageous enough to embrace life and liberty as a matter of fact, not foofaraw. In short: Americans.

It’s all hooey, of course – anybody who voluntarily works in that building is publicly telling their friends and loved ones that they’re perfectly OK playing Russian roulette every single day – but it’s certainly Grade-A hooey. I wouldn’t be surprised if that quoted passage weren’t read aloud at the mass memorial service, in the wake of the next attack on this specific target.

The odd confluence of foofaraw and Americanism is at the heart of another standout piece in this issue, John Richardson’s antic, surprisingly nuanced profile of nutjob radio host Alex Jones, who’s become the darling of the frothing lunatic fringe mainly because he doesn’t believe in any narrative of past or present events whatsoever that he hasn’t constructed himself. The moon landings? Fake. The attacks of 9/11? Inside jobs. The Boston Marathon bombings? A ‘false flag’ operation by the Obama administration. Jones is the high priest of the cover-up; in his world-view, enormous forces are at work constantly, everywhere, planting plausible-seeming cover-stories over every single thing that makes the headlines. It’s permissible to enjoy him for about fifteen minutes of YouTube clips (his idea of gun-rights defense, for instance, was to challenge Piers Morgan to a boxing match – the musky rumpus rooms of men like Jones are the only places in the West where the fantasy of trial by combat lives on), but any more than that and your brain starts to go mushy with an overdose of paranoia and shouting.

He’s a punchline, in other words, but Richardson, to his credit, doesn’t treat him that way. Although he does gets in some of the exasperation he must have felt while spending time with his subject:

There is something oddly comforting about being with Jones. In a world where so many of us suffer from an “inability to constellate,” the modern affliction where stars no longer arrange themselves into the outlines of gods, he has the reassuring authority of Father Knows Best updated for the apocalypse. But when he’s talking in italics, it must be said, the dude is freakin’ exhausting…

gqIf anything, Richardson’s profile of Jones is a lot more palatable than Tom Chiarella’s star-struck fluffery in the same issue about Avengers star Chris Hemsworth. Chiarella talks with him on the deck of a borrowed beach house overlooking the crashing Southern California surf, where the star is munching on fruit served to him by his pretty actress wife, Chiarella breathlessly reporting that the whole time Hemsworth seems genuinely happy as if this is some sort of counter-intuitive revelation (the reason why they’re out on the deck instead of inside – that Hemsworth was chain-smoking throughout the interview – is of course never mentioned, nor is the star’s rather banal Aussie brand of stupidity).

Over in the latest GQ, the hunt for actual substance is a bit grimmer and more protracted. The issue is full of blathering about the NFL and how to eat like a man, but sure enough, if you wade far enough back, there’s a choice nugget: Matthew Woodson’s excellent dissection of the attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, in which 15 Taliban dressed themselves like American soldiers, entered the heavily-fortified base, and proceeded to blow things up. Woodson has a fantastic story to tell, and he’s up to the task, pacing his dramatics perfectly in a story that seems ready-made for Hollywood:

[Major Robb] McDonald had no idea how many attackers had slipped in, but he knew where he might find them: out on the flight line, looking for more aircraft to burn. He enlisted three Marines to have a look. “I’m gonna go count the jets,” he quipped to a startled sentry on his way out.

Ultimately, when my Penny Press reading time was up, I’d learned a good deal about a handful of fascinating subjects and enjoyed a big healthy dose of great prose. I was still in the dark about the woodpecker, however.





August 8th, 2013

Anne Boleyn!

anne boleynOur book today is Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts, written in 1974 when our author was the ripe old age of 75. But before all you Norah Lofts fans go shuffling to the bookshelf, rest assured that I’m not mixing up the title of Lofts’ great 1963 Anne Boleyn novel The Concubine; I’m referring instead to the honest-to-gosh biography she wrote about Henry VIII’s divisive second wife. Lofts, who won the National Book Award, wrote a handful of nonfiction works in the spare minutes left over from writing her dozens and dozens of novels – which might not sound like much in an age where Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, and Carolly Erickson, to name just three best-sellers, often switch from one genre to another, but Lofts was something a trailblazer in the cross-market move. Like her later literary heirs, she often found herself in a position where the extensive research she’d done for her historical novels was just sitting there, ready to be otherwise employed.

In this case, she returns to the raw material from which she fashioned The Concubine, and she brings to that material exactly the same novelist’s sensibilities that made virtually all of her books so popular. The resulting biography is far more impressionistic than is currently in vogue – it would be a very sloppy researcher indeed who would ever use Lofts’ Anne Boleyn as any kind of reference material, despite all the fact-checking work that went into it. But right alongside that impressionistic novelist’s flair, informing it, is the distillation of a lifetime’s deep reading, often revealed in offhand comments that never fail to provoke a smile – as when she tells us, “‘The Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose,’ as Shakespeare, who knew everything, said.”

She takes us through all the familiar stages of the King’s Great Matter, always with an eye for the well-set scene, and always trying to inject some common sense analysis into her retellings:

Henry cited Leviticus and his troubled conscience in a secret little court, called together, by his own request, to accuse him of making an incestuous marriage. Wolsey was there, anxious only to please his King and visualizing another, more fruitful marriage for him with a young French Princess, Renee. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, was there – he had long ago expressed doubts about the validity of the marriage. There were lawyers there, too, some to accuse, some to defend the King of this concocted charge, for after all if he had been living in sin with Katharine, he had done so openly for eighteen years. And although to a King a marriage without a son might be tantamount to being childless, Mary’s existence, the short life of the little boy, dead before his navel healed, even the miscarriages, seemed to prove that the Levitical curse of childlessness did not apply here.

But the best aspect of this Anne Boleyn book is also its most frequent-occurring aspect: Lofts loves to tell a story, and she knows that the first step in doing that well is to establish vivid characters (you can see it even in that heartbreaking little line “dead before his navel healed”). She retails the familiar story of how Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “remembered as a turncoat, the man who recanted, and then, recanting upon his recantation, was condemned to be burnt as a heretic” – and how he thrust his right hand into the flames first because it had signed his recantation. She knows that Cranmer will have a sorry reputation among her readers, but she wants to assure than that in reality “he was a man, capable, like most men, not of steadfast courage, but flashes of bravery every now and then.” She points out one such flash of courage, when Cranmer wrote to Henry the day after Anne Boleyn was confined to the Tower on suspicion of capital crimes. Cranmer owed his heady elevation entirely to Henry, but he was an old friend of the Boleyn family, and the crisis had thrown him into turmoil. And being incurably bookish, this turmoil prompted a letter, which Lofts uses all her novelist’s license to bring to life:

‘I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in women than I had in her,’ he wrote, ‘which maketh me think she should not be culpable.’One imagines the pen halting there and the perplexed mind asking itself: Too strongly worded? Likely to offend? He wrote on, hastily, ‘And again, I think that Your Highness would not have gone so far, except that she had surely been culpable.’ The well-meant, slightly schizophrenic letter went on to say that Cranmer hoped Anne would be able to prove her innocence, or that if she could not, the King would be merciful.

The King’s mercy is a subject that exercises her quite a bit in her book’s necessarily dark final chapters. Like everybody else who writes about Anne Boleyn, Lofts can’t help but begin litigating the famous case, sifting for indications of guilt or innocence on the part of all involved:

The four men who had denied the sin of adultery did not confess on the scaffold. That was significant for the Tudor Age was a time of belief. Men might differ about ritual, about who as Head of the Church, but there were few agnostics or atheists. George Boleyn, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton all believed that when their heads were struck off, their souls would face God and His Judgment. To die with a lie upon your lips, or a sin unconfessed was to invite a punishment far more severe than any man could inflict; yet not one of them cleared his conscience by making a last-minute confession. This – strong evidence in Anne’s favour – meant far more in the sixteenth century context than it does today…

She has the wit to quote from William Davenant and the discretion to leave it at that:

But ask not bodies doom’d to die

To what abode they go:

Since knowledge is but sorrow’s spy

It is not safe to know.


Anne Boleyn caught some flak when it first appeared because Lofts talks a bit about the role witchcraft might have played in Anne’s seduction of Henry, but there’s a case to be made that her treatment of the subject is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. And whatever her intentions might have been, the passages themselves (especially the final one, in which Anne of course returns to haunt the night-darkened halls where once she ruled) make for some corking good reading. Which was, one suspects, the whole point.

August 5th, 2013

The Swarm!

the swarmOur book today is Frank Schatzing’s 2004 doorstop eco-thriller Der Schwarm, which was translated into English (by Sally-Ann Spencer) in 2006 as The Swarm, and it just naturally calls up a line from Cooper’s Creek by that literary household name, Alan Moorehead: “Nothing in this strange country seemed to bear the slightest resemblance to the outside world: It was so primitive, so lacking in greenness, so silent, so old.”

Only imagine, instead of the vast expanses of the Australian interior, the incalculably vaster expanses of the Earth’s oceans – the ultimate alien world, despite the fact that some amiable scientists early on in Schatzing’s immense novel are thinking more about the other kind of aliens:

“ … Plenty of folk would rather we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. If other civilzations knew we were here, they might rob us of our planet. God help us, they might even eat us for breakfast.”

“But that’s ridiculous.”

“Is it? If they’re clever enough to manage interstellar travel, they’re probably not interested in fisticuffs. On the other hand, it’s not something we can rule out. In my view, we’d be better off thinking about how we could be drawing attention to ourselves unintentionally, otherwise we could make the wrong impression.”

It turns out the wrong impressions have been made alright, but not upon space aliens – rather, it’s the disastrous damage humanity has done to Earth itself that has long since acted as a calling card to the yrr, an ancient ocean-dwelling species that has up till now been content to ignore the surface world. When that happy equilibrium begins to fritter away, opportunistic Vancouver whale-watch guide Leon Anawak is among the first to notice the outlying initial signs – and among the many, many characters in Schatzing’s book who think in blocks of exposition:

Although Anawak had turned his back on his homeland for the best part of two decades, he was well aware that industrial chemicals, like DDT and highly toxic PCBs, were transported by the wind and the currents from Asia, North America and Europe to the Arctic Ocean. They accumulated in the fatty tissue of whales, seals, and walruses, which were eaten by polar bears and humans, who fell ill. Breast milk from Inuit women contained high levels of PCBs that were twenty times higher than the amount listed as harmful by the World Health Organisation. Inuit children suffered from neurological impairments, and IQ levels were falling. The wilderness was being poisoned because the qallunaat still couldn’t, or wouldn’t, grasp the way in which the world worked: sooner or later, everything was distributed everywhere, through the winds and the water.

Was it any surprise that something at the bottom of the ocean had decided to put a stop to it?

Not surprising at all when you put it like that, and sure enough, mysterious attacks start happening to ocean-going humans all over the planet, from marauding fungi to ship-battering whales:

The Lady Wexham was seventy-two metres long, far longer than any humpback whale. She had a permit from the Ministry of Transport and conformed to the Canadian Coast Guard’s safety standards, which required passenger vessels to be able to withstand rough seas, metre-high breakers and the occasional collision with a lethargic whale. The Lady Wexham had been designed to cope with all such misfortunes. But she hadn’t been designed to contend with an attack.

In fact, very little of what Schatzing’s large cast of characters have handy is much use in contending against a coordinated attack by a species capable of militarizing the denizens of the deep. Schatzing uses his book’s great heft like a Sumo wrestler, spreading his pivotal scenes all around the planet in order to provide his standard-issue humans-versus-Bug-Eyed (or Tentacled)-Monsters plot with some real feelings of breadth. As with most 800-page novels, it’s really a 300-page novel on black-market Tour de France steroids: the result is gaudy and impressive but essentially fraudulent. An entire sizeable novel could have been excised from these pages and still left this novel completely intact, mainly because every single character just talks and talks:

I don’t know about noble. It’s pretty reprehensible to go around polluting the atmosphere with exhaust fumes, like we do – but what about breeding and manipulating other life-forms to suit your own needs? Is that any better? Anyway, what interests me is how they might perceive our threat to their habitat. We’re always talking about the destruction of the rainforests, Some people militate against it, others keep chopping. What if metaphorically speaking, the yrr are the rainforests? I’d say there’s evidence for that in the way they deal with biology, which brings me to my second point. With the exception of the whales, the organisms they’re using are almost exclusively creatures that live in shoals or swarms. Millions of creatures are being sacrificed for the yrr to achieve their goals. The individual doesn’t matter to them. Would humans think like that? Sure, we breed viruses and bacteria, but for the most part we use man-made armaments in manageable quantities. Mass biological weaponry isn’t really our thing. But the yrr seem fairly expert at it. Why? Well, maybe shoals and swarms are what they know best.”

“Do you mean …?”

(Oh yes, that’s just what we want – more elaboration)

Still, Schatzing’s done quite a bit of research into the state of environmental affairs from a decade ago, and even in purely historical terms, that ends up being interesting more often than it’s not (although sometimes from a bittersweet nostalgic perspective, since things are so very much worse environmentally in 2013 than they were in 2004; I think I remember that the yrr were recently found dead and shriveled at the bottom of an illegal Japanese line-net). And even in a somewhat tone-deaf translation, he’s got a very good sense of dialogue and pacing. Just as you might experience with other such quasi-nature thrillers (Michael Crichton’s Timeline and Steve Alten’s The Loch both come to mind), you’ll deplore the pedantic excesses of The Swarm – but the smart money is that you’ll keep reading anyway.





August 4th, 2013

The Life and Times of Viscount Falkland!

marriott's falklandOur book today is The Life and Times of Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, a sturdy hardcover by J. A. R. Marriott put out by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1907, when King Edward was on the throne of England and John Marriott was a professor of history at Oxford and Lucius Cary, the second Viscount Falkland, was two centuries in his grave.

I found the book on a sunny summer afternoon at the outdoor carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop in Boston (where gift certificates in my name can be cheerfully provided to any caller with a valid credit card …), and I plucked it instantly from the profusion on offer there. I couldn’t fail to be interested in the young man Matthew Arnold referred to as “the martyr of lucidity of mind and largeness of temper in a strife of imperfect intelligences and tempers illiberal” – this young man who died fighting for his king during the English Civil War and who’s praised so soundly in the History of the Rebellion by our old friend Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. About Falkland, Arnold wrote, “He and his friends, by their heroic and hopeless stand against the inadequate ideals dominant in their time, kept open their communications with the future, lived with the future.” How can you not be interested in someone who could inspire such Grade-A rhetorical fertilizer?

Falkland interested Marriott too, who took up the subject with the honest zest so typical of the Edwardian era, proudly staking his researches against the set dogma of the biographical tradition:

For nearly two hundred years the fame of Falkland suffered complete eclipse, or, at best, suggested an opportunity for a passing sneer at a character compounded of genial amiability and political ineffectiveness. Horace Walpole was remarkable rather for incisive malignity than for profundity of historical research. But the sketch of Falkland in his Royal and Noble Authors is important as having struck the note of historical criticism for several generations. Walpole bluntly suggests … that nothing but the literary skill of a partial friend [Clarendon] had rescued the memory of an undistinguished but amiable nobleman from well-deserved oblivion. Royal and Noble Authors has fallen into deserved neglect, but a passage which apparently inspired the judgment of not Hallam only, but Carlyle and Macaulay may perhaps justify quotation …

And then he quotes from Walpole (the neglect of whose Royal and Noble Authors is most certainly not deserved – I’d snatch it up just as quick as Marriott’s book, if it ever crossed my path at the Brattle):

There never was a stronger instance of what the magic of words and the art of an Historian can effect, than in the character of this Lord, who seems to have been a virtuous, well-meaning Man with a moderate understanding, who got knocked on the head early in the civil war, because it boded ill: and yet by the happy solemnity of my Lord Clarendon’s diction, Lord Falkland is the favourite personage of that noble work … That Lord Falkland was a weak man, to me appears indubitable.

It wasn’t so indubitable to his many friends, especially the lively informal literary salon he gathered about him at his country estate in the Cotswolds village of Great Tew (a salon which included Ben Jonson, no middling judge of intellect). Falkland wrote tracts of moderate readability today, and he married and produced a little Falkland, and when civil war came, he remained loyal to his king rather than to the ring-leading Parliamentary usurpers. It was no less a figure than bestselling Victorian man of letters Lord Lytton (talk about undeserved neglect!) who best characterized the man, in a truly masterful long essay for The Quarterly Review:

Falkland, from the first to the last, was a lover of Liberty, but Liberty as her image would present itself to the mind of a scholar and the heart of a gentleman. It is no proof of apostacy from the cause of Liberty if he thought that a time had come when Liberty was safer on the whole with King Charles than with “King Pym.

Falkland is credited with one of the great quips of all time, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” He was a fan of settled order and a steadfast enemy of blind, heedless change – he’s celebrated for this kind of temperance time and again in Clarendon’s great work, and this pleases Marriott in very obvious ways. Indeed, the mentions seem to please the good professor more than the great work does, although I guess even qualified praise is better than the complete oblivion that has now swallowed Clarendon’s book (more eclipses in this post than in an astronomy blog):

Much may be said in criticism of the History of the Rebellion. A great lawyer is perhaps constitutionally unfitted to be the impartial chronicler of such a period, nor could one who played a leading part in the drama be expected to view with impartiality its successive scenes, culminating in the great tragedy of 1649 … but its merits and defects alike contribute to its perennial fascination. As an analysis of the causes of the Rebellion it is wholly inadequate; as a gallery of contemporary portraits it is interesting and valuable beyond all verbal computation.

Viscount Falkland in the end grew as tired of the strife of his times as he did of the actual fighting. There’s always been a strong little tradition that he intended to get

the village of great tew
the village of great tew

himself killed on the battlefield rather than face the bitter days into which his life had led … in fact, he started the tradition himself, and most historians haven’t challenged it (although they haven’t exactly been lining up to study Falkland in any case). Marriott, however, is not most historians, and his Edwardian ebullience prompts him to defend his hero against any hint of contemplating suicide. For Marriott, Falkland’s death at the First Battle of Newbury in 1643 was the product of youthful valor, not resigned surrender, and who’s to say for certain that he’s wrong?

He makes many studied judgement calls in the pages of The Life and Times of Lucious Cary, Viscount Falkland, taking readers from the Viscount’s ghastly nouveau riche parents and even-worse grandparents to his own family to his grand Parliamentary speeches, here produced in full. Marriott writes the whole thing so robustly and engagingly that you hurry to turn the pages and keep gulping down this larger-than-life life story. But time, as Falkland knew quite well, works in unpredictable twists and turns – demonstrated in this case by the fact that the pages of that old copy I found at the Brattle didn’t turn: they were still uncut. And later in the evening, on the couch gently cutting the pages, I realized that time had not treated it as it might have expected. The book was moderately popular upon publication in the UK and US; it inspired some critical conversations and garnered a couple of good blurbs before it vanished into jumble sales and basement boxes. No doubt the brand-new hardcover was bought for some older male relative whose taste in reading matter perhaps ran more to detective thrillers than the giver knew. In any case, the book spent its entire life going from recipient to recipient – and probably from used bookshop to used bookshop – not only unread but unexamined, as if to dramatically illustrate the “eclipse” Marriott mentions.

At least now it’s found a home. And it’s available in full online, as well!





August 3rd, 2013

The Safety of the Longlist in the Penny Press!


That annual literary freakshow, the Man Booker Prize, has resumed in earnest with the publication of the ‘long list’ of potential winners for the big prize announced in October. London bookies will now trumpet the odds of each candidate, and tepid discussions will spring up in the leafier groves of the Internet. In general, the book-chat world will take the opportunity to feel good about itself – it so rarely moves into the news headlines, and the prize itself, despite having been given to some extremely redolent pieces of poop in the past, retains an undeniable intellectual cache.

But that kind of unusual spotlight can have a pernicious negative side-effect, as anybody who’s ever felt it can attest: if you like the feeling, you can find yourself courting it. It’s perfectly natural to revel in the world’s attention if it should happen to turn your way while you’re in the course of doing what thrills your heart. But if you seek the world’s attention, you are a foul creature, lost, as inherently false as Norma Desmond now ready for her close-up.

Such is the fate that’s befallen the Man Booker Prize, and we can only hope it’s temporary. This is supposed to be an award for “the best novel in the opinion of the judges,” according to the incredibly affable Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. There’s a very pleasing simplicity to that standard, but it’s a lie.

The new longlist is thirteen titles long. Here they are:

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

The Kills by Richard House

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelsohn

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Without even talking about the literary merits of the books involved, we can tell right away that literary merits weren’t the governing criterion: fear was. See how you tell? Yes: the gender split. Quite apart from the longlist’s racial or geographical distribution, half the titles (plus a gallant extra one) are by women. Not three or four, and not eight or nine – neatly half.

It’s by such craven little capitulations (Trewin and his colleagues imagined shrill headlines – easy enough to do, since everyone reading this right now can also easily nyrb tocimagine them; perhaps they had nightmares of hectoring, clueless graphics taking meme-flight on Facebook and Twitter) that culpability is avoided – and credibility is lost. Because it’s almost impossible to arrive at such an even gender distribution (or anything distribution, for that matter) by random chance. Given the weird vagaries of contract deadlines and teaching workloads and publicity demands, greater skews (or even, very rarely, unanimous ones) are to be expected; an impeccably even split can only ever be the product of conscious design. If the Booker committee had been given their tranche of manuscripts scrubbed clean of all author names, there’s not one chance in a billion the list would have looked like this.

Instead, they sat around a table (or their various computers) and sorted possible candidates on the basis not of the literary quality of each book but on the ability of each author to bring a fetus to term. This year’s judges will be presented with a neat little lineup of books from which to choose the recipient of one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world – but the lineup they’re being handed is a political one, not a literary one. And such is the damnable ease with which so many of our current female literary pundits toss around terms like “rape culture” that not one critic will condemn that switch, much less point out that when a literary prize starts judging anything other than literary quality it adulterates both prizes and literature.

As it happens, this is an exceptionally strong longlist – one of the strongest in years. I’ve read nine of the thirteen: Tash Aw, NoViolet Bulawayo, Eleanor Catton, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colum McCann, Ruth Ozeki, Donal Ryan, and Colm Toibin (so, since I know you counted, four women and five men). Of those nine, only the books by Tash Aw and Colum McCann were flatly bone-stupid (and even they seem like Tolstoy alongside Lydia Davis, so these things are somewhat relative). Jhumpa Lahiri and – to my amazement (and substantial crow-eating), Jim Crace – both wrote masterpieces, for instance, and Eleanor Catton’s book, though an odd choice for the Man Booker, is wonderfully intelligent, as is Colm Toibin’s short story. From my various spies I’ve heard nothing but good things about both The Kills and Almost English, and in the extremely unlikely chance that the award is not given to Colm Toibin, Donal Ryan is my personal pick to take it.

A strong field, then – but it doesn’t matter, since the strength of the field wasn’t the governing rule here. The actual quality of the prose involved is almost a kind of accident; the real point is shamefully, obviously otherwise.

So now we wait until the autumn, to see who the Man Booker Fairness Calculation goes to.

August 1st, 2013

The Cecils of Hatfield House!

the cecils of hatfield houseOur book today is Lord David Cecil’s 1973 compendious charmer, The Cecils of Hatfield House, a zesty character-driven history of the many generations of the storied Cecil family which rose to prominence when canny William Cecil decided to risk his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor (a relative term with the Cecils, but still) on young red-haired Princess Elizabeth and later became Lord Burghley, her foremost trusted councillor, a role that went to his diminutive, sweet-tempered son Robert upon the old man’s death. It was Robert Cecil who stepped smoothly from the death of the old queen to the ascension of that slightly strange foreigner, James of Scotland, and once that transfer of loyalties is complete, David Cecil’s story has a firm foundation from which to flourish

It’s quite a story, even at its beginnings, when homely, bug-eyed Robert Cecil was dealing with the phoenix of Elizabeth’s final years, young Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, whose appeal – then and now – David Cecil takes pains to dissect rather coldly:

His appearance had something to do with this, his magnificent handsomeness, at once so male and aristocratic, with his tall, slim, broad shouldered figure and athletic grace and winning smile, all enhanced by the charm of glowing youth and by what especially appealed to the Elizabethans, both high and low, the glamour of an ancient lineage. For Essex, unlike his rivals, traced his descent from the old nobility. The impact of this exterior was reinforced by the fact that it was the expression of a nature at once fiery and magnetic, with a glitter about it which enabled him to draw the crowds wherever he went, and even to dazzle subsequent historians. For, like Mary Queen of Scots, Essex has managed to impose himself on posterity as a figure of romance. All the more because, again like her, he had the luck to have his head cut off: a spectacular

Hugh Dancy as the Earl of Essex
Hugh Dancy as the Earl of Essex

death is a great help towards a romantic reputation. Essex would not have been a hero of romance if he had lived to die of old age.

Of course, David Cecil can be just as amusingly harsh on his own forebears:

The history of the Cecils raises baffling questions for believers in inherited talent. Two generations of able, energetic men were succeeded by two more of great distinction, notable for acute political insight. Then – was it the result of Robert Cecil’s marring simple-minded Elizabeth Brooke? – came an abrupt change. Robert’s successors were undistinguished men conspicuously lacking in political insight.

But the family’s travails – the up and downs of their genetic lottery – though the obvious theme of the book, is not the selling point of the narrative. No, the reason to read and re-read this marvelous book is our genial host himself, for David Cecil, raconteur and crank, was one of the 20th century’s great biographers (and a decent reviewer of books – his The Fine Art of Reading is well worth your time), an urbane and knowing judge of personalities, with an unfailing ear for the perfect story. One of the things that makes The Cecils of Hatfield House so joyously irreplaceable is the fact that in its later chapters, many of those perfect stories came to David Cecil as oral histories, cherished and handed on from generations then living, about towering figures now long dead:

Gladstone, though the Liberal Leader, shared my grandmother’s religious views, and she liked him. During one visit he met in the passage my Uncle Hugh, only five years old, but already an ardent Conservative. “You are a very wicked man,” he said. Gladstone was disconcerted. “My dear boy, what would your father think if he heard you say that?” he said. “He thinks you are, too,” replied Uncle Hugh implacably, “and he is coming to kill you in a quarter of an hour.”

Hardly any old family is ever lucky enough to find a chronicler from within its own ranks like the Cecils did (although there are always chroniclers from inside the ranks – two dozen English country houses have such manuscripts locked in ancient roll-top desks – they hardly ever produce anything that can withstand the light of day). The family’s legendary luck held out for that, at least.