Posts from September 2013
September 30th, 2013
Our book today is a lovely volume called The Illustrated Bede, produced by John Marsden, translated by John Gregory, and featuring dozens and dozens of gorgeous full-color photographs by Geoff Green. The thing was put out by Floris Books in 1989, and it features chunks of translations from Bede’s various eighth-century Latin bestsellers, interspersed with editorial scene-settings designed to orient modern-day readers to the world of the gentle scholar our authors rightly refer to as “one of Northumbria’s greatest sons.”
The bulk of the book is devoted to Bede’s best-known work, his great Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, that nerdy, magnificent, eye-popping concordium of saints’ lives, gossip, and local color that possesses as its base-note the steady rhythms of Bede’s monastic world, which Marsden captures perfectly:
There is little reason to imagine that Bede’s early years at Wearmouth and Jarrow were greatly different from those of any other boy in a monastic community of the time. The monastic life was dominated by discipline and order. The daily round of communal prayer began with matins – sometimes as early as two in the morning – and ended with compline in the late afternoon or early evening. The remaining hours of the day were passed in study, contemplation and manual labour. There was corn to be threshed and winnowed, livestock to be fed and fish to be caught. The brewing of mead and growing of herbs were activities of especial importance at Jarrow, while the kitchens and bakehouse provided their own round of daily tasks. A contemporary source tells us that simple but wholesome food was served in the monastic refectory. Fish – always a prominent item on the menu at Jarrow – and flesh meats, kitchen herbs and beans, butter and cheese were washed down with ale when it was available and water when it wasn’t.
In addition to those excerpts, however, the book also boasts a real treat: additional experts from some of Bede’s other works, like his fantastic Life of Cuthbert or his wonderfully colorful Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, where he summons one magnificent pen-portrait after another of the great secular and religious figures looming over his mental landscape – and almost always piping up himself in defense of his own extensive scholarship, as in a typical passage from his account of Bishop Aidan, founder the abbey at Lindisfarne:
I have written this account of Aidan’s character and life without in any way commending or approving his inaccurate knowledge of the observance of Easter. On the contrary, this is something that I abhor, as I have shown very clearly in my book on chronology; but as a truthful historian I have given a straightforward account of his deeds and of events associated with him, giving praise where due to his way of life and setting it on record for the benefit of my readers. He cultivated peace and love, self-discipline and humility. His heart had the mastery over anger and avarice, and was contemptuous of pride and vainglory.
But the best part of The Illustrated Bede is the “illustrated” part; all those gorgeous color photos on almost every page, showing cold coasts and candlelit stone abbey walls and hardy ducks and, lastly, Bede’s own black-stoned tomb in Durham Cathedral. They do something even the great Penguin Classics paperback can’t manage: they viscerally remind readers that Bede was real and lived in a real world, a world bursting with color and brightened by dawn every day, a world bordered by whitecapped inlets and nodding fennel and primrose. I’d like to think Bede’s lively prose makes that world speak in living tones to modern readers who can scarcely imagine it today, but I’m not naïve enough to ignore the thousand words each of these pictures represents. It’s nice to know such a thing as The Illustrated Bede exists; it’s hard to imagine a bookseller or a book critic who would feel otherwise.
September 26th, 2013
Of course the dance of disagreement is the primary three-step when readers encounter reviewers in the Penny Press – we all know that going in. But some weeks are more trying – and more exhilarating – than others. Take my most recent batch, for example: on virtually every other page, there was something I either whole-heartedly agreed with in spirit but disliked in execution or something I loved in prose but hated in principle, and all the shadings in between.
In the mighty TLS, Nicholas Kenyon spends a lovely amount of space praising a truly great book, Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, but then he ends his review with a piece of asinine silliness:
Elie believes that technology and recording are the dominating forces in our culture, and they have indeed been a major influence now for more than a century – yet without live performance, constantly renewing, reimagining and indeed reinventing our understanding of Bach’s genius, they would be nothing.
You tell ‘em, gramps! Kids these days and their portable gramophones! They have no respect! If those row-house kids in Laoyatai or Falkirk or Lawrence can’t be bothered to spend three days on a bus to the nearest symphony hall and then a month’s pay on tickets and then three days back home to parents who’ve in the meantime disowned them for their absence, they shouldn’t bother listening to ANY classical music at all! After all, those endless free streams of Bach and Beethoven and Liszt they can get at any time the cellphones that are their sole possessions? They’re nothing, because they’re not live performances. Yeesh.
Likewise the review of Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies by Ruth Franklin over in The New Republic. Franklin is great, and the review is one of the year’s best extended pieces of critical prose, sporting passage after passage of exquisite cold outrage:
Were it the work of anyone else, Subtle Bodies (even the title is beneath him) would simply be a failure: a novel that never quite gets moving and still feels incomplete, with an unsubstantial plot and characters who are either too weird or too banal to merit the time spent contemplating them. But the fact that it is a novel by Norman Rush makes it an interesting failure, not only because it shows how even a great writer can take a terrible misstep, but because it reveals the problems inherent in his fictional method.
It’s a joy to read such book-reviewing prose, but the joy in this case is decidedly mixed, since Franklin couldn’t be more wrong about Subtle Bodies, and who knows how many unwary readers, esteeming her as I do, will read this review and never even bother to try the book?
Likewise over in The New York Review of Books, where Wilton Barnhardt’s absolutely crackerjack new novel Lookaway, Lookaway gets a long, glowing review, just as it should – but the review is by Cathleen Schine, author of the single worst novel in the history of the world (that would be 1995’s The Love Letter), and any reader who knows that will be strongly tempted to associate awful with awful and drop any idea of reading Barnhardt’s book. All the way through the piece, I wanted to yell to those readers: “Pay no attention to her praise! The book is actually good!”
Or back to the TLS, where a reviewer named Daisy Hay writes at quite satisfying length about Robert O’Kell’s enormously stimulating book Disraeli: The Romance of Politics and generally praises it – except for saying that “at times his thesis feels dogmatic,” which is one of those classic book-reviewer no-win traps, akin to “So Mr. Williams, when did you stop beating your wife?” O’Kell has some central, guiding ideas about strands that link Disraeli’s novels with his public life, and he pursues those ideas, and if he didn’t, Hay would have snapped the trap shut from the other end, sniffing about how the author’s ideas don’t ever cohere into anything resembling a central dogma. Disraeli got nailed by that same reviewer’s trick in his own day, and it’s alive and well all these years later.
Naturally, though, even in this welter of ambivalent responses, there are some clear clarion calls. One of them – the most baleful – is sounded elsewhere in the New York Review in just such tones as I feared: the ordinarily wonderful Tim Parks decides to exercise some pure malice upon his readers by not only reviewing but recommending the new English-language translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s 7000-page notebook Zibaldone. In an excess of gleeful hatred, he calls it “one of the key documents in the history of European thought,” and since he’s usually one of our best essayists, it stands to reason some readers will believe him and perhaps give this new edition of the Zibaldone a try. But they shouldn’t, and the piece should have FDA warning labels all over it. The book isn’t a book – it’s a nightmare of fragments and ramblings. It’s a sacrilege to the writing profession. Far from being a key document in the history of European thought, it’s not even a key document in the intellectual life of Giacomo Leopardi. Readers should avoid it (or better yet, buy copies and burn them), and Parks should confine his vicious pranks to bachelor parties where they belong.
Fortunately, some clarion calls are of the positive variety, as is the case over in Time, where the great Lev Grossman turns in an extremely sensitive and knowing short review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s calmly magnificent new novel The Lowland. Grossman is one of the three best fiction critics regularly working today, and in the pages of Time he’s in a perfect missionary perch to reach the demm’d elusive common reader and maybe get him to read this lovely book.
And likewise back in the London Review, where Edmund Gordon delivers a smart, glassy demolition of Colum McCann’s new piece-of-crap novel Transatlantic, pausing first to go for blood when dealing with the author’s penchant for churning out brainless adulatory book-blurbs: “I had read dozens of McCann’s blurbs before I’d read any of his novels: I doubted his ability to compose a meaningful sentence.” Hee.
The oscillation represented here – good reviewers panning good books, horrible writers praising good writers, good books that can’t be good enough, bad books destroyed beautifully, etc. – can be confusing; it can leave the poor storm-tossed reader not knowing where to turn for rock-solid definitive book-judgements. Those readers are advised to add a daily dose of all things Open Letters Monthly to their intellectual diet, stat.
September 24th, 2013
Our book today is Joseph Markulin‘s big fat new historical novel Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life, which seeks to do for the author of The Prince what Irving Stone did with such resounding sense for Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy half a century ago: dramatize the life of a famous figure in history from birth to death. Machiavelli – published in a bright, light paperback original by Prometheus Books, stages the entire life of its subject. Markulin is more than capable of writing a straight-up biography; maybe he chooses fiction for its approachability – and for the fact that ten times as many readers are willing to cast their lot with a work of fiction as with a work of history, in these decadent times.
Markulin has one of the richest historical eras at his dramatist’s fingertips, and he revels in it – this is, before anything else, an enormously enjoyable book, a warm-fire-and-deep-armchair book that refuses to hurry and is completely confident of its powers. The large cast of A-list historical guest-stars – those naughty Borgias (including Machiavelli’s charismatic pole-star Cesare), Leonardo da Vinci, Savonarola, even Michelangelo himself, and dozens more – are brought vividly to life, as is our hero himself, with a little help from the fact that by historical accident we happen to have a portrait of him by Santi di Tito:
His most salient feature, however, the one that most struck people upon meeting him for the first time, and the one that stayed in their minds afterward as characteristic of him, was the expression on his face. He could not easily rid himself of a sarcastic twist that played continually about his mouth, curling and uncurling his lips. The same sardonic signals flashed from his eyes, and it gave him the air of an extremely astute observer – and a very skeptical one as well. Even drunk, his powers of observation were constantly engaged, and little escaped his detection …
Tricky but permissible to generalize from what amounts to a snapshot, but Markulin always explores deeper, always expands his portraits to include the smells and sounds no painting can convey:
When he talked, Niccolo Machiavelli talked too fast – not a nervous or unsure kind of fast, but a breathless, excited fast. It was as if the rushing words were trying in vain to keep pace with the thoughts that were flying, one after another, through his head at tremendous speed.
The novel follows Machiavelli from his boyhood, through his education, his encounters with the gruntwork of statecraft, his tangles with a Church in turmoil, his political successes, his political downfall (and, harrowingly, torture), his hard-won wisdom – and Markulin fleshes out all of it with street color, spills of wine and more poisonous beverages, bellows at night, and a refreshing number of scenes set in bordellos, like the one in which our hero learns something very important and very disturbing about Cesare:
It was near the end of their conversation when Niccolo had leaned close to him, very close, that his suspicions were confirmed. In the subdued light of the brothel, they had been barely discernible, obscured and hidden among the curly growth of beard that wreathed Borgia’s mouth. But the yellow pustules were there. The disease had taken root. It’s inevitable, destructive rush to madness and death was underway.
Because Markulin is in no hurry (Prometheus has allowed his book to run to over 700 pages, and I’m betting his readers won’t want it to be any shorter – I certainly didn’t), you can be sure that a mention of something like those tell-tale pustules will occasion a factual digression. These would ordinarily be lethal to the narrative of any good historical novel, but our author is such a winning, genial host that in this case they’re included with buttery smoothness. I could listen to him natter on about STDs until the cows come home:
The Italians generally referred to it as the French Disease. The French preferred to call it the Neapolitan Disease. The Neapolitans, for their part, were inclined to label it the Spanish Disease. No one, it seems, wanted to accept responsibility. It went by many other names as well – bolle, the pox, even plague – but its effects were the same for all, no matter what it was called. It was a rapid, degenerative, and mortal illness.
The first cases of syphilis in Europe were diagnosed in Barcelona in 1493. An outbreak of the disease was discovered among the crew of the recently returned ships of the Genoese navigator Christoforo Columbo, who, sailing under the flag of Spain, claimed to have discovered a new world.
As passages like that one make clear, readers of Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life (once again, I offer my services to all publishers and all authors, anywhere in the world at any time, in coming up with good titles for their books) will come away from the book knowing a whole hell of a lot more about everything connected with the Italian Renaissance than they knew going in. But more importantly, they’ll feel like they’ve spent a long time with the people of Markulin’s grand story, especially with poor idealistic steadfast over-intelligent Niccolo himself. This big fat book is every bit as good as The Agony and the Ecstasy – or even, in its winking humor, a bit better. It’s a whale of a good time, and no hungry reader of historical fiction should miss it.
September 18th, 2013
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve had occasion to note a few times in this ongoing series, are long overdue. This is especially true – and especially understandable – when it comes to the literature of the 20th century; not only are title so fresh in time often still net-tangled in questions of copyright and estate royalties and semi-deranged old widows with promissory notes, but there’s also the risk of premature apotheosis: after all, once you admit an author to one of the most prestigious and successful reprint catalogs in the world, you can’t ever change the fact that you did it. A Penguin Classic of mid-list John Updike (and all Updike is mid-list Updike) would be a hairy little thing to live down.
They’re not all tough calls, however, even for a century so recently ended. The poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Velveteen Rabbit. The four great novels of Larry McMurtry. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The great critical volumes of Edmund Wilson. And one other very easy choice, which has now been made by Penguin Classics: the novels of the great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado.
Amado was born in the lush and conflicted state of Bahia in 1912 and wrote his first novel when he was 18. By the time he’d finished his fourth novel, four years later in 1935, he was garnering praise from the likes of Albert Camus – but his ardent Communism had him targeted by Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas. The state enmity – which he was always more or less eager to court in those early years – got him arrested and exiled, had his books burned, and drove him abroad (including to the Soviet Union, where he won that bygone keepsake, the Stalin Peace Prize, in 1951).
Return from exile in 1954 seemed to work deep changes in Amado. Slowly, but with steadily increasing power and confidence, he abandoned the explicitly political dogmatizing of his earlier novels and embraced a broader, far more humanistic authorial voice. And the rest of the world duly noticed: his 1958 novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, was the first Latin American work of fiction to break onto the New York Times bestseller list, and his three masterpieces were to follow, A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro Dagua (persistently translated as some variation of “The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell”), Shepherds of the Night, and his single greatest work, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. His books were translated into dozens of languages and adapted for screen and stage dozens of times. By his death in 2001 he was one of the most revered literary figures in the world.
So his indoctrination into the Penguin Classics line is long overdue, and these four recent volumes are all the more welcome. Even sporting hideous covers (and these are the most hideous covers in a long, long history of hideous Amado covers – they outdo the Soviet editions, for the love of all that’s holy), these are welcome sights with their black Penguin spines and white Penguin lettering.
The first of them is titled in English The Violent Land, here given to Penguin readers in Samuel Putnam’s 1945 translation. It’s the story of the ruthless, powerful land-barons who monopolized Brazil’s burgeoning production of raw chocolate, cacao, and the brawling, often seedy cast of morally suspect characters who orbit the power-struggles of those barons. This new Penguin edition draws a parallel with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! – which is technically accurate in some ways but grossly unfair in that it saddles Amado next to a talentless hack. A much better comparison would be with an unknown American masterpiece, Mildred Savage’s 1958 novel Parrish, about warring families of Connecticut tobacco-barons; in both cases, the product overwhelms all other considerations in the novel, as one character bitterly observes:
“In this land, my son, a cacao grove can even produce a Bishop. It produces railroads, assassins, outsters, town houses, cafes, schools, theatres – even a Bishop. Yes, this country doesn’t only yield cacao, it yields everything.”
Alfred Mac Adam, in his Introduction to this edition, seems to be arguing that it yields everything except compelling fiction:
Amado cannot let his characters become too human, because that would make them interesting in themselves and not a reflection of the history of Brazilian cacao. His characters may have idiosyncrasies – they may believe in black magic, go insane, or become sexually infatuated with one another – but we do not find the narrator delving deeply into their minds to reveal hidden facets of their personalities.
But the irresistible Blanche Knopf, who convinced Franklin Roosevelt to let her go scouring South America for bargain-price literary talent in 1942, obviously thought otherwise and pushed the book accordingly.
Another of these Penguin editions is also another of Amado’s earlier, more programmatic works, 1937’s Captains of the Sands, here given a less grandiloquent but more nimble translation by Gregory Rabassa and a very smart, very knowing Introduction by Colm Toibin, who rightly points out:
Part of the drama in Captains of the Sands arises from Amado’s refusal to romanticize, to evoke the city of Bahia in all its exquisite beauty. The novel is not written for tourists; it is written to give substance to shadows, to re-create the underlife of the city, to offer the dispossessed and reviled an inner life.
“Amado is writing to save his country’s soul,” Toibin claims, and this is never more acutely true than in these early Bahia novels. In the new Penguin edition of 1959’s The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, this time in a new translation by Rabassa titled The Double-Death of Quincas Water-Bray (sigh) there’s less soul-saving going on and more of Amado’s own generous voice as he and his art ripen into middle age. The book tells the gloriously Rabelaisian story of the eponymous giant among the kinds of marginal figures so poetically evoked in Captains of the Sands, who dies and is seen off into a kind of afterlife pub-crawl by his old cronies. The book is warmer and more approachable than anything Amado had done before – it’s the first book of his that seems to want readers rather than converts.
Rabassa also does the translating duties on the remaining Penguin volume in this set, The Discovery of America by the Turks, which the publisher is touting as the first-ever English edition of the work. This 1994 novel was the last book Amado finished, and it’s in many ways his oddest. The two “Turks” in the title – Arab immigrants – arrive on the Wild West Brazilian frontier in 1903 and fall into one hapless adventure after another – including a series of encounters with a merchant desperate to marry off his daughter. The daughter, Adma, is, as Jose Saramago hints in his Introduction, a bizarrely effective creation, by turns monstrous and sympathetic, not only a tribute to Amado’s love of Shakespeare but also a perfect illustration of strange, calmly confident wonders this author could work late in his career, when he’d thrown off the shackles of both ideology and expectation.
As mentioned, that career included a whole further landscape of high points, and now that Penguin has begun charting them, can Classics versions of Shepherds of the Night and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands be long in coming? We can hope so. Plenty more souls needs Amado’s kind of saving, after all.
September 17th, 2013
The Oxford University Press, centuries old and the biggest academic press in the world, founded its World’s Classics series in 1906 (having bought the imprimatur lock, stock, and barrel from the brilliant publisher Grant Richards in 1901). For over a hundred years, the line has produced reasonably-priced and expertly-edited canonical texts, proving that great and challenging books never go out of fashion and paving the path for later imitators like the Modern Library and Penguin Classics. New or old, it’s always a pleasure to celebrate Oxford World’s Classics here at Stevereads.
Michael Rossington, in his erudite Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics of Mary Shelley’s 1823 historical novel Valperga, does himself and his readers a great favor by not calling the book a forgotten work of genius. He can see as well as any of those readers the enormous elephant in the room, an elephant in this case stitched together from the corpses of other elephants: of course it’s Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, which caught the zeitgeist in a vise grip from which it has never subsequently been released. It’s usually not given to any author to catch that zeitgeist more than once in their career (only the true zealot could name any of the novels that really pleased Bram Stoker or Arthur Conan Doyle), and it only happened once to Mary Shelley. Immortality is the ultimate lucky break of genius, and the immortality of Frankenstein was obvious almost immediately – most acutely obvious to Mary’s husband Percy, who teased her that her new novel Valperga was “raked out of fifty old books.”
It’s the fictionalized story of Castruccio Castracanti, a fourteenth-century Ghibelline soldier, captain, and prince of Luca who led his forces against the Guelphs, and it complicates his tale with the lives of two remarkable women: Euthanasia, the Countess who rules the fictional Guelph territory of Vaperga, and passionate heretic Beatrice. And although these three figures (each one a fairly easily identified stand-in for someone in Mary Shelley’s life, most especially Euthanasia) dominate the action of the novel, there’s so much more going on in Valperga than emotional blackguarding: much like Salammbo and particularly Romola (and of course the novels of Walter Scott, who started the whole business), Valperga works hard to harness its vast researches for the purpose of generating the atmosphere of a different age. The characters speak with immediate dramatic honesty (unlike, for instance, almost everybody in Frankenstein), and the incredibly tangled politics of the day are made beautifully, irrationally intelligible. As far as historical fiction goes, the book is a stunning success.
It wasn’t a stunning success with the buying public, although the few book critics who took it seriously mostly esteemed it. Rossington touches with tantalizing brevity on this critical reception, preferring instead to dwell on the fact that Mary and Percy Shelley sent the very long original manuscript to Mary’s father William Godwin for editorial revision; at the time Godwin was desperate for ready money and hoped to sell the book at an advantage – which might have been one of the reasons he cut its length so drastically. Mary Shelley objected to none of these drastic cuts and edits; it’s clear that despite all the work she put into her research, she was prepared to hold the finished book at emotional arm’s length, referring to it at one point as “another landing place in the staircase I am climbing.” Percy Shelley was his usual smug, condescending self about the whole huge manuscript, and forever afterward there’s been the same sort of suspicion attached to Valperga that often still attaches to Frankenstein: just how much of either book is the work of the famous poet rather than his wife? “There is indisputable evidence that both Shelley and, to a greater extent, William Godwin were involved in the shaping of Valperga in its final form,” Rossington writes. “In the case of Shelley, his remark to Peacock, ‘I promise myself success from it’ seems curiously proprietary.”
Curiously proprietary indeed. And yet, the proof is in the reading. Just listen to a scene in which Beatrice seeks the aid of an old witch:
‘Consult your own heart, prophetess; and that will teach you far more than I can. Does it not contain strange secrets known only to yourself? Have you never owned a power, which dwelt within you, and you felt your own mind distinct from it, as it were more wise than you; so wise that you confessed, but could not comprehend its wisdom? Has it not revealed to you that, which without its aid you never could have known? Have you not seen this other self?’
‘Stop, wonderful woman, if you would not madden me,’ screamed the poor terrified Beatrice. ‘That is the key, the unbreakable link of my existence; that dream must either place me above humanity, or destroy me.’
‘You own this power?’ cried the witch triumphantly.
… and a dozen similar exchanges could easily be found, both in Valperga and Frankenstein; Percy Shelley never wrote anything like that in his entire life (one of the reasons his verse has gone to its long home in the mausoleum of schoolbook anthologies while the signature novel of his wife is so popular its title has become both a noun and a verb in the dictionary). The raw, ungainly passion of that “dream must either place me above humanity, or destroy me” is pure Mary Shelley, caught up in an agony of agency the like of which her husband never felt, though he often affected to.
Valperga, though so worthy of your time, is also destined for schoolroom trivia contests, which makes Oxford’s decision to publish this nifty popular edition such a happy one. Too much to hope that the press will take on Mary Shelley’s other ‘lost’ novels – Valperga and Frankenstein will have to be enough.
September 13th, 2013
As impossible as it is to believe, Vanity Fair is 100 years old. And yet I must believe it, for there’s Graydon Carter telling me so in his “Editor’s Letter” opening this extra-big anniversary issue, pompously holding court as he’s done so inimitably for what feels like most of those 100 years. Carter headed the team that’s recently put together the truly spectacular book Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, and the experience has put him in a gently woolgathering mood. He ranges his wind-baggy rhetoric over the century in question, stretching from the birth of modernism to the birth of the Internet, and he reflects wistfully on Frank Crowninshield, the man who gave the magazine its recognizable form. “A Yankee born in Paris and educated in Rome, Crowninshield – known as ‘Crownie’ to intimates – was cosmopolitan to his bones.”
Crowninshield died two years before Carter was born, but that slight bar to intimacy doesn’t stop Carter from calling him “Crownie” for the remainder of his opening remarks. Thankfully, those remarks are brief, although they’re hardly the end of the issue’s woolgathering. No: Carter has commissioned ten essays for the occasion – one writer per decade, and readers unwise enough (as I was) to read them straight through will get a very rocky start. The 2000s are covered by somebody named Bill Maher (a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he’s a TV talk show comedian, and a quick YouTube search reveals that he’s an imbecile) in what amounts to the transcript of an unconvincing Catskills stand-up routine. The 1990s fare far worse: their emcee is talentless egomaniac vanity publisher Dave Eggers, who’s very nearly Carter’s match for insinuating that a vast stretch of time’s main purpose is to sit still while he, the Great Man, reflects upon it. The 1980s – lucky in this as in all things – get Kurt Anderson, and things pick up from there: Lorne Michaels writes about the New York of the 1970s, Robert Stone about the turmoil of the 1960s, Jan Morris about greeting Edmund Hilary when he descended from summiting Mount Everest; Daniel Okrent dares to be dark about the 1940s, Laura Hillenbrand and A. Scott Berg do fine historical turns on the ‘30s and ‘20s respectively, and – in a neat twist that works better than it should – Julian Fellowes (he of “Downton Abbey” fame) eulogizes the 1910s.
And some of the magazine’s standard players are here like clockwork (one can’t help but wonder what kind of piece Carter would have extorted out of Christopher Hitchens – and to miss seeing it), including James Wolcott writing at the top of his game about the peccadilloes of some of TV’s celebrity chefs, including the nationally-disgraced Paula Deen:
Deen’s trademark dishes, such as her bread pudding made of Krispy Kreme doughnuts cut into cubes, recall the grand tradition of good-ol’-boy cuisine that helped Elvis Presley keel over at Graceland. Rich in sugar, flour, and nostalgia, they slow down the metabolism and thought processes, inducing a semiconscious sloth bliss state that is deaf and blind to the entreaties of Barack and Michelle Obama as they extend a head of broccoli as America’s last hope. A true American entrepreneur, Deen excelled in playing it both ways, promoting a diet conducive to diabetes and then pushing diabetes medicine.
Also in this issue, Sarah Ellison, in a well-balanced piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, swerves just slightly to get in a little well-deserved dig:
The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.
The curious thing about this special anniversary issue of Vanity Fair, in fact, is how ordinary it is – it serves as the best possible reminder of just how extraordinary the magazine always is, month after month. An old (one might almost say intimate) friend of mine alerted me to the customary VF pattern a long time ago, and the magazine has stayed true to that pattern ever since: the fluff and “Hot Type”-style flutter is always quartered in the front half of every issue, and the meat in the back half – and so it is here, with the longer, jump-cut articles after the half-way mark tending to be the highlight of the Table of Contents. Certainly that’s the case in this issue, where we get “What Lies Beneath,” a great piece by William Langewiesche about the vast, unmapped underground of New York City – the waterways, the subways, the sewer system, and how all of it fared during the pounding of Hurricane Sandy. He specifically disavows urbane-legend rumors of giant albino alligators, the killjoy, but even so, the piece is superb – we can only hope it’s the prelude to a book.
Criminal film directors, the royalties of two different countries, the idle obscenely rich right here in the United States, plus great photography throughout – special issue or no special issue, it’s a feast. Crownie would have been proud.
September 6th, 2013
Our book today is another Victorian masterpiece of melodrama, Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur. Sub-titled A Tale of the Christ, it was an immediate hit upon publication, sold in record-setting numbers on four continents, and was very quickly translated into virtually every language on Earth (several different classes of college undergraduates vied for the dubious honor of being the first to translate the whole thing into Latin, of course, and there’s been at least one Gaelic version). It tells the story of handsome young Judah Ben-Hur, a “prince of Jerusalem” during the earliest years of the Roman Empire, who lives in a palace with his mother and his sister Tirzah, and whose best boyhood friend princeling, a well-born young Roman named Messala.
The two were once inseparable best friends (and, oddly, lookalikes) while playing together in Jerusalem, but then Messala was sent away to finishing school in Rome itself, and when he came back, Judah found his opinions quite changed:
“By the drunken son of Semele, what it is to be a Jew! To him there is no backward, no forward; he is what his ancestor was in the beginning. In this sand I draw you a circle – there! Now tell me what more a Jew’s life is? Round and round, Abraham here, Isaac and Jacob yonder, God in the middle. And outside the circle’s little space, is there nothing of value? Painting, sculpture? To look upon them is sin. Poetry you make fast to your altars. Except in the synagogue, who of you attempts eloquence? In war all that you conquer in the six days you lose on the seventh. Satisfied with the worship of such a people, what is your God to our Roman love, who sends us his eagles that we may compass the world with our arms?”
Needless to say, this sort of thing ends their friendship (although, in one of Wallace’s many unjustly overlooked narrative subtleties, Messala remains high-spirited and likable even post-fascism). And in an abrupt crack in the story, we next find Judah Ben-Hur as a rowing slave on a Roman vessel. We learn that he was falsely accused of trying to assassinate a Roman official, and that Messala himself arrested his old friend and banished him to slavery, shuttered the palace in Jerusalem, and cast Judah’s mother and sister into a dank dungeon, promptly forgetting about them. While in the dungeon, a creeping horror overtakes Judah’s loved ones, described with Wallace’s perfect combination of clinical detachment and melodramatic pacing:
Once – she could not have told the day or the year, for down in the haunted hell even time was lost – once the mother felt a dry scurf in the palm of her right hand, a trifle: which she tried to wash away. It clung; yet she thought but little of the sign till Tirzah complained that she, too, was attacked in the same way. The supply of water was scant, and they denied themselves drink that they might used it as a curative. At length the whole hand was attacked; the skin cracked open, the finger-nails loosened from the flesh. There was not much pain, chiefly a steadily increasing discomfort. Later their lips began to parch and seam. One day the mother, who struggled against the impurities of the dungeon with all ingenuity, thinking the malady was taking hold of Tirzah’s face, led her to the light, and saw with anguish and terror that the young girl’s eyebrows were white as snow.
Speechless, motionless, the mother was capable of but one thought – leprosy!
Meanwhile, Judah is moving from one adventure to the next. Readers encountering Ben-Hur for the first time will be struck by the weird, seemingly unconscious way Wallace fluctuates between a kind of clean, readable, slightly archaic diction and the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of the more torrid historical romances of the day – and seeing that fluctuation, those readers will probably think Ben-Hur could be quite a slog. But re-reading the book really brings home the fact that the pace never appreciably slows down – we carom with Judah from galley slavery to prosperity in Rome to the crash and flash of competitive chariot-racing to the visceral crunch and dodge of the gladiatorial arena. Judah isn’t a particularly contemplative sort; his main goals in life are determining the whereabouts of his family and extracting some kind of vengeance on Messala. Along the way, he meets the prosperous merchant Simonides (whose previous connection to Judah’s family is evoked, again, with more subtlety than any thousand readers would ever credit to this author), his lovely – and Judah-smitten – daughter Esther, the boisterously vulgar Sheik Ilderim, and a host of minor characters who are often brought effectively to life merely through snatches of dialogue. Also along the way, in the template for The Life of Brian, we see Judah’s life intersect with that of Jesus Christ at various key points; the two come closer and closer to each other (needless to say, Jesus has a trick up his sleeve about all that leprosy business), until finally, in the book’s final third, this really does become what it most certainly hadn’t been before: a tale of the Christ.
In many ways, it’s a deeply odd story, conflicted on its most basic levels, and to that extent it probably mirrors the internal state of its author. Ben-Hur made Wallace rich, but long before he wrote it he was already famous – infamous, more like it, dating from the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 when he inexplicably bungled some fairly simple but vital marching orders from Ulysses Grant. When everybody in the North was later appalled by the sheer scope of the carnage at Shiloh, Grant promptly blamed Wallace and kept right on blaming him – in print – for the rest of his life (despite hat-in-hand personal appeals Wallace made to the great man on more than one occasion).
It was a mark of Lew Wallace’s stubbornness – or maybe his patriotism – that although this public flaying over Shiloh made him incredibly distressed (toward the end of his life, you could hear his stomach ulcers from clear across a crowded room) it never made him bitter; he kept on serving under Grant, and he kept on giving, as the popular parlance has it, 110 percent. This was never more evident than in 1864 when Wallace, in command of 5000 untested and homesick troops, realized he was the only thing standing between Confederate General Jubal Early’s 15,000 men and Washington, D.C. Staring in horror at his maps, Grant had hastily ordered reinforcements to the capital, but Early was going to get there first and deal an immeasurable psychological blow to the Union but draping the Confederate flag out the White House windows.
Wallace didn’t hesitate. He took in the horrific logistical nightmare of the terrain available to him, stretched his men out like a shoe-string between the two ends of Early’s most likely approach, and dug in.
It was hopeless, and even a relatively small flex of Early’s force soon crumpled Wallace’s line and sent him fleeing – but his men gave a good fierce account of themselves. Early was unsettled by the encounter. Not only was he unwilling to leave such a fighting force still active in his rear, but the fighting itself had cost him just enough time to make the whole thing undoable. Like Moses, he could glimpse the Promised Land (in this case, being able to see the Capital through his field glasses), but he couldn’t enter it. He withdrew, and the South never got that chance again.
Wallace should have been feted as the hero of the war, but his shame over Shiloh continued to gnaw at him. And you can tell that from Ben-Hur even if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The book is one long aria of disillusionment; Judah, though brave and idealistic, has one injustice after another heaped upon him, always with salvation just out of reach. One of the Three Wise Men is speaking a Lew Wallace credo when he says “The happiness of love is in action; its test is what one is willing to do for others.” And you can have a clear, one-shot view into Wallace’s entire concept of himself (justified or not) but another baldly-stated platitude: “As a rule, there is no surer way to the dislike of men than to behave well where they have behaved badly.”
Grappling with these personal demons may have given Lew Wallace a generally unhappy life, but the sheer energy of the struggle made Ben-Hur one hell of a compelling book. Then and now.
September 6th, 2013
Our book today is Arthur Conan Doyle’s unsinkable 1892 story collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which collects the twelve Holmes & Watson stories published from summer of 1891 to summer of 1892 in the Strand magazine. These stories followed in the wake of the novellas A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four – they were written at Doyle’s customary steam-engine speed, but unlike everything he’d done before, they were written in the full and confident expectation of an admiring audience. Sherlock-fever had already struck London and the world; now it was Doyle’s job to keep it going.
That he certainly does in The Adventures, although like almost any collection of work previously written under a dozen different deadlines (and in who knows how many different moods and weathers), the thing is uneven. Half of the stories in this collection suffer from one drastic weakness or another, whether it’s a gimmick quite obviously thought up while walking down the street (“The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “The Beryl Coronet,” “The Engineer’s Thumb”) or very nearly no gimmick at all (most infamously “A Case of Identity,” which hinges on its young heroine being so abysmally stupid that she fails to recognize a man she’s known for years because he puts on sunglasses). But oh! The other half! The other half take an already-memorable character and enshrine him in the fictional pantheon!
The other half includes the still-disturbing “The Speckled Band,” in which a fierce doctor retired from India and living deep in the country perpetrates an unspeakable evil upon the young women in his care. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will have no trouble discerning that Tolkien, too, found “The Speckled Band” indelibly memorable – especially the tense confrontation between Dr. Grimesby Roylott of Stoke Moran and Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street:
“I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of your before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes, the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”
And there’s also the near-perfect “Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a hapless thief comes just close enough to obtaining one of the world’s most valuable rare gems to regret it for the rest of his life (“The Blue Carbuncle” is also one of the many Holmes & Watson stories that sheds an invaluable sociological light on everyday life in Victorian London – a long and fascinating treatise could be written about what an observant alien could learn about the time from these little mysteries). Here we get “A Scandal in Bohemia” and our tantalizing glimpse of Irene Adler, one of the only women in the whole of Doyle’s Holmes canon who’s every bit the equal of the Great Detective in brains and brio. And here we get one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes stories of them all, “The Red-Headed League,” in which a seemingly preposterous set-up yields to a tense and satisfying climax. And before we reach that climax, we’re treated to perhaps the best of all the little moments when Dr. Watson pauses to consider his strange friend:
The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions. Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals. When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.
Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes becomes a reflex after a while; more so than any of Doyle’s other Holmes collections, the book becomes a Victorian safe haven from the cares of the present. In this particular instance, the version I chose was from the old Reader’s Digest illustrated “World’s Best Reading” set with odd, moody illustrations by Richard Lebenson. Nothing really beats the binding and paper stock of those old Reader’d Digest editions – they take a beating on subway and steamy sidewalk like no other version of the classics. That makes them congenial choices, especially on those rare occasions when one is obliged to stray from the far more civilized option of e-books. The only drawback, of course, is that every edition of Sherlock Holmes should come only with Sidney Paget illustrations – since, as another wise man once said, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
September 5th, 2013
DC Comics’ just-concluded big crossover event, “Trinity War,” ended with a plot twist designed to launch its new big crossover event, “Forever Evil.” The plot twist was the opening of a portal to an alternate dimension, through which came the Crime Syndicate, an evil version of the Justice League (Ultraman instead of Superman, Owlman instead of Batman, and – as a certain comics fan pointed out in the late, lamented Amazing Heroes about thirty years ago, Superwoman, in many ways a more dynamic character than her counterpart, Wonder Woman). And the premise of “Forever Evil” is that the Crime Syndicate proves the key-weight that tips the scales of the DC universe in favor of the villains and allows them to take over.
When “Trinity War” ended, the Crime Syndicate was just stepping through their interdimensional portal. Facing them were the combined ranks of the Justice League and the Justice League of America. And when “Forever Evil” – written by Geoff Johns and drawn by David Finch – starts off, the leagues are nowhere to be seen, and the Crime Syndicate is declaring all Earth’s big-gun superheroes dead and gone.
They obviously haven’t been declaring it long, since they’re only just getting around to shutting down the major city power grids, and here in issue #1 Nightwing and Batgirl at first aren’t even aware the Justice League has had any kind of trouble. Nightwing – Batman’s former Robin Dick Grayson, that is – finds out the hard way when he’s beaten up by Owlman and strung up by Superwoman, and then the scene shifts to the assembled super-villains of the DC universe being given their marching orders by the Crime Syndicate.
Not quite all the super-villains, however. The issue’s cover, for instance, shows Green Lantern’s arch-enemy Sinestro, supernatural baddie The Black Hand, and flawed Superman-duplicate Bizarro, but they aren’t on hand in the first issue and seem – each for their separate reasons – just as unlikely to take orders from somebody named Ultraman as they were to take orders from somebody named Superman.
And that goes five times over for the most glaring absentee villain in Finch’s superb crowd-scene: Lex Luthor. Luthor has an up-close seat when Metropolis’ power shuts down, and he’s watching from hiding when Ultraman seeks out the world’s stores of kryptonite in order to powderize them and sniff them like cocaine. “This is a job for Superman,” he sarcastically mutters to himself, “so where the hell IS he?”
I have lots of very good memories of Marvel Comics’ “Dark Reign” story-arc from four years ago, when the bad guys of the Marvel Universe, led by insane-but-compelling Norman Osborn, found themselves temporarily in control of things. And I was a fan of Alex Ross’ 2005 limited series “Justice,” in which the DC super-villains, led by Lex Luthor, mount an almost-successful assault on Superman & Co. and are only foiled at the last minute.
I fully expect that ‘at the last minute’ stuff to happen in “Forever Evil” too. How can it not? Lex Luthor is smarter than any of DC’s heroes. The Parasite can sap their power. Sinestro has all the power of a rogue Green Lantern. The Joker is the company’s most dangerous person. Solomon Grundy, Black Adam, Bizarro, General Zod, Doomsday, Mongul, Darkseid – all can go toe-to-toe with Superman. And that’s without even considering the Crime Syndicate itself. In any DC comic book series in which the super-villains gain the upper hand, the heroes wouldn’t stand a chance; they’d lose, permanently. Johns is a clever writer, so he’ll probably take the concept as far as it can be taken; the fun of “Forever Evil” will be in seeing the precise way he pulls back from the precipice.
My money’s on Lex Luthor. And I’m certainly along for the ride.
September 2nd, 2013
Our book today is Sarah Stewart’s merry, winsome 1995 Caldecott-winning children’s book The Library, about a little girl named Elizabeth Brown who starts reading as soon as she can and then continues doing it ‘at an incredible rate’ for the rest of her life. She reads under the covers at night. She reads on the porch while other kids are heading to the playground. When she goes off to school, she piles books on her top bunk until it breaks.
Preferred a book
To going on a date.
While friends went out
And danced till dawn,
She stayed up reading late.
Later in life, with a house of her own (one rapidly filling with books and cats), she’ll walk into walls while cleaning, because she’s got her nose buried in a book. Stacks of books take the place of end-tables and fascinate her visitors. When she goes to town for groceries, her list is carefully tucked in a book – and stays there, as she walks out without half the things she needs. It hardly matters anyway, since the only thing she really wants to shop for in town is books.
Books were piled on top of chairs
And spread across the floor.
Her shelves began to fall apart,
As she read more and more.
She lives a blissful life – and in David Small’s gorgeous, playfully suggestive illustrations, we see her gently aging as the piles of books grow and the cats come and go. The drawings glow with a bookworm’s delight: the books bristle with multiple bookmarks, and they’re piled neatly but not so neatly – they’re obviously more loved than categorized.
But eventually, Elizabeth Brown runs into the problem that waits for all bookworms:
When volumes climbed the parlor walls
And blocked the big front door,
She had to face the awful fact
She could not have one more.
She doesn’t meander around the problem – she walks straight up to it with her usual forthrightness. She goes to town, visits City Hall, and makes out a bit of paperwork:
The form was for donations.
She quickly wrote the line:
“I, E. Brown, give to the town
All that was ever mine.”
The town builds the Elizabeth Brown Free Library, and that’s where her collection – minus the cats – goes. Small’s lovely art shows many grateful patrons, each now with their nose in a book just like their benefactor. Elizabeth herself moves in with a friend, and they live ‘to a ripe old age’ visiting the library over and over again. It’s an utterly winning little look at how books can take over the lives of the people who fall prey to their allures – and how those people can be improved by the process. Most personal book collections aren’t lucky enough to enjoy the afterlife given to Elizabeth Brown’s – most of them scatter to the four winds (or to the Brattle Bookshop, which acts as a clearing house for the four winds). But The Library lets its young readers – and its older ones – smile and dream about a life lived entirely in books.