Posts from November 2013
November 30th, 2013
It’s beginning to be that time of year in the Penny Press, the infamous season of year-end book-lists. And since I’m the proud proprietor of the most authoritative of those lists (if I do say so myself)(and I do), I’m always irresistibly drawn to them wherever I find them – even if it’s in the pages of a lad-mag like Esquire. In fact this especially so in the case of a lad-mag like Esquire, since I’ve been a champion many times in the past of the last thing you’d associate with such publications: intellectual content.
So naturally I turned with interest to Page 42 of the latest issue, for something promisingly titled “Esquire Year in Reading,” where the sub-title read: “And What a Year It’s Been! Here’s an Incomplete but Sufficient Roundup – The Great, the Good, and The Detestable.”
It has indeed been a year, I thought. In the United States alone, something just under 300,000 new titles (and new editions of old titles) were published in 2013 – which is a staggeringly vast array even without taking other countries into account. So any roundup must perforce be incomplete, but I liked the cockiness of that “sufficient” – such a claim is vintage Esquire.
The first page was encouraging (despite the illustration showing a glass of scotch sitting on top of a pile of books – clear visual shorthand that reading isn’t something you’re supposed to do sober, in long stretches, no: you’re more a flip-a-few-pages kind of guy, you know, while you’re waiting for your lady friend to doll herself up real nice for a night out on the town): Benjamin Percy gives a very short but pretty good rave for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “Tartt publishes a novel every decade, and damn if she doesn’t put her whole heart into it. This is what a major literary event looks like.” Up next, the always-awkward phenomenon of a really good reader recommending a weak book – in this case Esquire‘s resident literary light Scott Raab (who does a really – dare I say it – engaging interview with Patrick Stewart elsewhere in this issue … just flip past a few dozen ads for getting mouth cancer from processed tobacco products and you’ll find it) praising football player Nake Jackson’s sports memoir Slow Getting Up. But since the pleasure of reading Raab would outweigh the awkwardness even if he were recommending something truly awful, the entry was painless enough.
Things get much rockier in the next little mini-review, Tom Chiarella writing about The Cuckoo’s Calling, the murder mystery J. K. Rowling wrote under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Chiarella is an intelligent writer, but no good can come from an amateur trying to ape the obscure impenetrability of a professional weekly book critic: “The Cuckoo’s Calling is talky and overlong for a story that’s not too complicated. Rowling would have been better off just putting her name on it and taking the heat, enjoying the sales, and doing the work that comes with being the woman she is.” Hmmmm.
More promising was the next piece, where the always-excellent Luke Dittrich manages to turn in an intelligent appreciation of Wil Hylton’s excellent WWII book Vanished in only about 100 words. Vanished is a very good book, and it was nice to see Dittrich mention it here. Even nicer was the surprise of the next and much longer piece, in which Tom Junod writes about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath in tones of measured contempt despite the fact that the book, with its brainless boosterism of guys who don’t want to think, seems tailor-made for the Esquire core audience that thinks smoking is cool and women are meat products and there’s nothing obscene about paying $2500 for a wrist watch. Very nice, I thought: that’s readerly integrity trumping bro-expedience.
Then I turned the page, and bro-expedience came rushing back at me – in the form of actress Addison Timlin’s shapely little breasts.
Because the “Books of the Year” feature – the one that was “incomplete but sufficient” – was over.
I actually doubled back a few times at my lunch table, momentarily certain I’d accidentally stuck two or three pages together by handling them with gang hung lay-covered fingers. But no: Esquire‘s “Books of the Year” for 2013 consisted of … five books.
Very patently, that is not sufficient. But the debacle has at least one up-side: it serves as a perfect occasion for me to remind you all that the very antithesis of such a squib is nearly here: the great annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year is only days away, and I’ve made it bigger and more elaborate than ever. It still won’t be but a patch on those 300,000 new books published in 2013 … but it’ll have just a few more notices than six. SIX! Come on, Esquire – as you yourself have pointed out over the years, real men can read books. Dude!
November 27th, 2013
Our book today is a masterpiece so ubiquitous it’s often completely overlooked: The Norton Anthology of English Literature–although as soon as I say that, I have to qualify it. Not qualify the ‘masterpiece’ part, of course (if I could be wrong about that part, I’d shutter Stevereads and start a beauty-tutorial channel on YouTube), but qualify the Norton Anthology part: the book–now a series of books–is periodically revised, so I need to qualify that I’m referring to the Fifth Edition, issued in 1986. That edition has, heretically, less Shakespeare–it has all of Henry IV, Part I, but instead of King Lear, editor M. H. Abrams and his team, bless their bookish hearts, have used the freed-up space to include more of Sidney and Spenser. But more importantly, since it was compiled right before ‘politically correctness’ swept through higher education like a plague, its Table of Contents still reflects the reality of literary history rather than the fads of complaint culture.
In other words, since the anthology – specifically this first volume – covers the span of time from the Venerable Bede in the late 7th century to William Cowper in the late 18th, it contains writing samples from virtually no women. A handful, yes (there’ll always be that magnificent enigma, Aphra Behn, for instance), but not the strict numerical one-for-one ratio modern political correctness demands, forcing editors to the darkest back-alleys of literature so they can include fifty talentless petticoat nonentities in order that little Schuyler and Caitlinnn (the latter of whose parents have already successfully sued three different school districts for inflicting emotional suffering when they accidentally left off the third ‘n’) won’t have their feelings hurt on the rare instances that they raise their glitter-cheeked faces from their cellphones. Like the male students in their class, Schuyler and Caitlinnn are concerned only with their cellphones, their tobacco addictions, and their ability to get blackout drunk five nights out of seven, but their buttinsky parents have moral outrage on speed-dial, and so the modern Norton Anthologies have been made to construct a demographic parity that existed nowhere in real life until the mid-19th century. Genuinely important poets and polemicists guilty of the sin of being white and male have been shown the door in order to make room for Guatemalan short order cooks and semi-literate Bavarian nuns.
But not so quite yet in the great Fifth edition! Here readers still get the recognizable old boring Dead White Male canon in all its glory, and they also get that speciality of the Norton Books: notes and critical support that’s both exhaustive and, somehow, unobtrusive. The editorial team might have failed (without realizing it, the myopic dears) in their impossible dream of making this book “comfortably portable,” but they succeeded wildly at their bigger aim of creating a volume that functions as its own totally self-contained classroom, a book whose comprehensive background notes really do make it something that “may be read anywhere – in the student’s room, in a coffee lounge, on a bus, or under a tree.”
The idea was to provide with each work a quick, authoritative thumbnail biography of its author and notes explaining any of its textual oddities, so that the student – or anybody else, since some of us haven’t been students in a while – doesn’t need to break off and consult the nearest encyclopedia for clarification of who, for instance, Queen Elizabeth I is. Instead, they can just enjoy her occasional ditty:
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be surpressed.
Likewise in these earlier editions, when the reader gets to an author, they can expect to find that author’s best stuff (space permitting, that is), not juvenilia and marginalia that’s artistically worthless but happens to make sidelong mention of the African slave trade or the plight of undocumented aliens. When we reach Ben Jonson, for instance, we can count on having our hearts broken all over again by one of the saddest laments in English literature:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say,“Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
And still hanging around in the mighty Fifth edition will be all of those now-untaught architects of the canon itself. To Sidney and Spenser we might add John Dryden, hammering away with his easy, lilting power in“Absalom and Achitophel”:
Those heaped affronts that haughty subjects bring,
Are burdens for a camel, not a king:
Kings are the public pillars of the State,
Born to sustain and prop the nation’s weight:
If my young Samson will pretend a call
To shake the column, let him share the fall.
But, oh, that yet he would repent and live!
How easy ’tis for parents to forgive!
With how few tears a pardon might be won
From nature, pleading for a darling son!
The book isn’t at all comfortably portable – it’s a brick. But it’s also a library unto itself, free of fad or agenda, utterly confident in itself. And if you’re lucky (as I was in a recent re-purchase), while you’re re-reading all these old glories, you’ll find yourself following in the footsteps of some irreverent student prone to doodling – probably while stuck in class, rather than under a tree.
November 23rd, 2013
Some Penguin Classics are, I bitterly concede, necessary compromises. Surely one such is the 1989 Selected Poems volume of Robert Browning, edited by Daniel Karlin, who rather optimistically writes in his Introduction that he “tried to strike a balance between the poems for which Browning is best known (but which are not always his best) and those my own taste leads me to recommend” – a wonderful editorial philosophy that’s only grown more forlorn in the last twenty-five years. Are any of Browning’s poems “best known” anymore, especially to the general reading public (To say nothing of the contemporary poetry-world, which is more ignorant of poetry’s long and rich history than the general public is – and proudly so)? He’s still taught to undergraduates, but in a sporadic and desultory way – not as a great poet but as a Victorian curiosity (or worse, a Victorian exemplar – something with which Karlin would be very familiar, since he also edited a great anthology of the period’s verse). Hell, even the intelligentsia of his own time often seemed eager to have done with him. When Henry James famously wrote about Browning’s memorial in Westminster Abbey “A good many oddities and a good many great writers have been entombed in the Abbey, but none of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd,” he clearly meant his little apercu to be the final word ever written on the man.
To a certain extent, Browning brought on this kind of reaction himself. Even when the fame he’d sought his whole life finally came to him, he resisted it and suspected it and even mocked it (he had almost as sharp an ear for biting sarcasm as John Dryden, whose reputation has now fallen even lower than his own), as in the great “Mr Sludge, ‘The Medium'” – which Karlin includes in this little volume:
Dealers in common sense, set these at work,
What can they do without their helpful lies?
Each states the law and fact and face o’ the thing
Just as he’d have them, finds what he thinks fit,
Is blind to what missuits him, just records
What makes his case out, quite ignores the rest.
It’s a History of the world, the Lizard Age,
The Early Indians, the Old Country War,
Jerome Napoleon, whatsoever you please,
All as the author wants it. Such a scribe
You pay and praise for putting life in stones,
Fire into fog, making the past your world.
There’s plenty of ‘How did you contrive to grasp
The thread which led you through this labyrinth?
How build such solid fabric out of air?
How on so slight foundation found this tale,
Biography, narrative?’ Or, in other words,
‘How many lies did it require to make
The portly truth you here present us with?’
‘Oh,’ quoth the penman, purring at your praise,
”Tis fancy all; no particle of fact:
I was poor and threadbare when I wrote that book
“Bliss in the Golden City.” I, at Thebes?
We writers paint out of our heads, you see!”
Most of Browning’s best verse is cumulative; most of his best works are very long, book-length, and Karlin has set himself (wisely, I think) against trying to excerpt works that were so carefully wrought as wholes (although he’s successfully picked out some bits from Pippa Passes). He gives us many of the most widely-anthologized shorter poems, like “My Last Duchess,” “The Lost Leader,” “Love Among the Ruins,” and “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” and he gives us slightly longer and stranger things like “Beatrice Signorini,” “Clive,” and “Ned Bratts” – and there are deceptively sweet and perfectly-contrived works like “Meeting at Night”:
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
In all it’s a very skillfully-done volume, and it poses what I’ve always referred to as the Browning Challenge: take up this book or one like it (although I myself have never encountered a ‘selected Browning’ anywhere near as smart as this one), clear half an hour of all distractions (as the author did in order to write these verses for you), and read this verse. If at the end of that half-hour you don’t think better of Robert Browning the poet – if at the end of that half-hour you don’t want more of this very odd, very brilliant, and very sweetly playful poet, then Browning’s not for you. But you will want more, and thankfully, the mighty The Ring and the Book awaits you!
November 21st, 2013
Some Penguin Classics look at first glance like a dream come true. Take the immense 1996 translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo by Robin Buss: if you set it down next to, for example, the most popular paperback reprint of the book from twenty years ago, they hardly even look related: the old Bantam and Signet versions of the book are scarcely a quarter of the length of this most recent Penguin Classic (or the most recent Oxford World’s Classics version, which is equally huge). And even if you instantly guess the reason – the Penguin is completely unabridged – the sight of the difference will have started your incurably bookish imagination in motion: what if, in some perfect bookworm’s bookstore, there were options like this available for all your favorite books, all the ones you so badly wish were longer? Imagine looking at the same paperback copies of Pride and Prejudice and The Jungle Books and the complete Sherlock Holmes that you’ve been looking at your whole life and then suddenly seeing unabridged versions that are four times as long. A very paradise!
Surely Dumas would have considered it a paradise well, since he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo, like he wrote so many other of the gazillion books, reviews, plays, and pamphlets he produced in his frenzied life, strictly for money, paid by the line. According to Buss in his excellent, feisty Introduction, people were already making fun of Dumas’ factory-style approach to writing even when he was publishing The Count of Monte Cristo in book form, in 1845, and although Dumas could get testy (and litigious) over assertions that his stuff was plain-and-simple ghostwritten, he freely admitted that he relied heavily on collaborators. And he kept those collaborators busy (and made them some money – and himself vast piles of money he couldn’t hold onto to save his life) – in pretty much exactly the same way James Patterson keeps his many collaborators busy today, although excessive purists might find the comparison unnerving.
The one he used for The Count of Monte Cristo, Auguste Maquet, provided a great deal of skeletal factual and historic background, but there’s a good reason we don’t read thrilling adventure stories by Auguste Maquet. Dumas took the chapter outlines and the thumbnail histories and imbued them with magic. And magic runs all through this book, the story of heroic Edmond Dantes, imprisoned unjustly and hell-bent on escaping and exacting his vengeance on the evil men who orchestrated his ruin.
The unabridged version is full to overflowing with digressions of all kinds – exposition on botany, seafaring, classical literature, colonial history, and dozens of other topics, all put into the mouths of characters who love talking more than life itself, so the background of one mute servant becomes a fascinating story that could easily have gone on for pages:
‘It’s very simple … It appears that the fellow had wandered closer to the harem of the Bey of Tunis than is acceptable for a lad of his colour. In consequence he was condemned by the bey to have his tongue, his hand and his head cut off: the tongue on the first day, the hand on the second and the head on the third. I had always wanted to have a dumb servant. I waited for him to have his tongue cut out, then I went to offer the bey, in exchange for him, a splendid two-stroke repeating rifle which, on the previous day, had appeared to take His Highness’s fancy. He hesitated a moment, so keen was he to make an end of this poor devil. But I added to the rifle an English hunting knife with which I had blunted His Highness’s yataghan [a Turkish sword]; as a result the bey decided to spare him his hand and his head, on condition that he never again set foot in Tunis. The stipulation was unnecessary. As soon as the miscreant catches sight of the African coast, he flees to the bottom of the hold and cannot be persuaded to come out until we have lost sight of the third quarter of the world.’
It would be much too simple to say all these dilations and digressions were solely the result of Dumas getting paid by the pound of verbiage; this was a writer who was bursting with stories, and if it was his weakness to think all those stories were equally worth telling, it was his strength – equalled by virtually nobody else in the Western canon (Robert Louis Stevenson being the only name that springs readily to mind) – to tell them all equally worthily. Those slim abridgements might look inviting to tome-wary college students, but as appealing as the lean narrative of Dantes story alone might be, the unabridged version is an Arabian Nights of inexhaustible fascination (much like Moby-Dick and Les Miserables, two other behemoths often in the past subjected to the abridger’s flensing knife).
Translating the whole of it had to be an immense undertaking, and Buss is sharply territorial about it:
In philosophical terms I am quite willing to admit the impossibility of translation, while still having in practical terms to engage in it and to believe that everything must, to some extent, be translatable. I feel no obligation to avoid smoothing the reader’s path and none, on the other hand, to ‘getting in the way’ from time to time.
His main goal, he says, is to convey to the reader something of the sheer pleasure of reading Dumas in the original, and he’s very brightly succeeded. And there’s so much MORE of that pleasure at 1200 pages than there would be at a measly 250! Oh, for 1200 pages of Treasure Island!
November 19th, 2013
Some Penguin Classics try, with adorable flat-footedness, to jump on the zeitgeist bandwagon in order to reach those ever-elusive unconverted readers. It’s an inherently silly thing for Penguin Classics to do, since theirs are the books that created the zeitgeist in the first place; in a perfect world, our reading culture would be attentively watching what Penguin Classics did, not the other way around.
But even so, the folks in Penguin’s publicity department still try, every once in a while, to jazz up some of their offerings in order to make them seem more relevant to whatever happens to be trending on Twitter. And there’s something extra-endearing about how bad at it they tend to be! A perfect case-in-point is the fantastic little series of re-issues they’ve come out with recently called “Legends from the Ancient North.” The series features five volumes: The Elder Edda, The Saga of the Volsungs, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles, and Beowulf. Each volume’s cover has been given a wonderfully eye-catching redesign by Petra Borner with illustrations by Isabelle de Cot (whose names are printed on the bottom back of each book in unreadable micro-type – a shameful oversight on Penguin’s part, considering the fact that the popping covers are the first thing any of those unconverted readers are going to notice), and each of those brilliant covers is marred by the addition of a bright orange sticker saying “Classics that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” Which is an attention-grab not so much for Tolkien’s beloved children’s classic (which Penguin itself still cannot reprint) as it is for the Peter Jackson movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which comes to theaters just in time for Christmas and will probably make $500 million at the box office. But had the Penguin PR people had the savvy of those party-people over at TMZ, they’d have scanned the list of upcoming movies and found a closer match to these great, wintry old classics: Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World, which is actually in theaters now, and which is going to make a cool $1 billion at the box office. The Hobbit features a quasi-Northern world full of sorcerers, dwarves, elves, and dragons, a heady pastiche created by ardent medievalist Tolkien. Thor: The Dark World features the Norse gods themselves, who also stride through most of these wonderful reprints flying, fighting, talking, and joking even more ebulliently than they do in Marvel’s latest blockbuster.
It serves as further notice that Penguin Classics is first and foremost (one might almost say hopelessly) book-oriented, and that’s perfectly fitting: these five volumes are far more personal and entertaining than any pastiche could possibly hope to be.
Half the volumes are comparatively lesser-light works of old Anglo-Saxon and Norse lore, presented again at the prompting of an outlook so concisely expressed by Michael Alexander in the Introduction to his 1966 translation of The Wanderer:
The excuse, ultimately, for a book of this sort is a conviction on the part of the author that some early English poems deserve to be read by those who do not make their living out of the subject, that what is excellent should be made current. Not much Old English verse has survived, but among the debris there are some very fine things …
The contents of Alexander’s volume – which include “The Dream of the Rood” and “The Battle of Maldon” – will be the least familiar to any readers coming here looking for Hobbit prequels, and yet the ingenious riddles Alexander includes will remind those same readers of the most memorable little section of Tolkien’s book (odds are extremely good that director Peter Jackson will manage to bungle that charming riddle-swapping scene in his upcoming movie, but there’s always hope).
Likewise the ancient Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs (here reprinting Jesse Byock’s 1999 translation) will be unfamiliar to most general readers, who can be envied for encountering for the first time the flinty, blood-spattered, and austerely beautiful world it brings to life. It’s a story full of lightning-quick shifts of register, and Byock handles it deftly.
The centerpiece of the set is Andy Orchard’s splendid 2011 translation of the Codex Regius, the Elder Edda storehouse of Icelandic mythology, here given the kind of lavish popular volume it hasn’t had in like measure since the version done by Paul Taylor and W. H. Auden half a century ago. Orchard loads the work with critical support in the form of copious End Notes, but his actual translation is so good, so exciting and fresh (as is only fitting for a translator whose imagination was first ignited by the work of the great Roger Lancelyn Green), that readers caught up in it won’t often remember to consult those notes. The Elder Edda features some rollicking-grand adventures of the Norse gods – sly, sarcastic, horny Loki, treacherous, word-tricky, horny Odin, bombastic, hammer-flinging, horny Thor, handsome, valiant, horny Frey and the rest, and if these stories aren’t as well-known as their ancient Greek counterparts, they certainly ought to be. Their bawdier and livelier than anything else in the mythological canon, and Orchard catches those qualities better than any translator before him, as in the scene where Frey sends his barb-tongued servant Skirnir to woo a stand-offish Giant maid on his behalf and the exchange between the two grows hilariously acrid, with Skirnir abusing the maid:
“Hrimgrimnir is the ogre’s name, who shall have you,
down below Corpse-gates;
rough thralls there under the roots of a tree
will give you the piss of goats;
you’ll never get a better drink,
girl, whatever you want,
girl, after what I want.
“‘Ogre’ I carve for you, and three other runes;
‘cock-craving’, and ‘frenzy’, and ‘impatience';
I can cut away what I cut in,
should any reason arise.”
(The rough wooing works; she agrees to meet with Frey, go figure)
Penguin presses another translation of Michael Alexander’s into service in the set, this time his 1973 version of that perennial crowd-pleaser Beowulf with its foreboding opening set in the Grendel-haunted haul of Heorot, where the hero stands watch alone in the night:
Gliding through the shadows came
the walker in the night; the warriors slept
whose task was to hold the horned building,
all except one. It was well-known to men
that the demon could not drag them to the shades
without God’s willing it; yet one man kept
It’s inevitable that this will feel a bit galumphing when compared to Seamus Heaney’s gloriously gritty 1999 translation, and long-time readers of Open Letters Monthly might feel the same way about Bernard O’Donoghue’s 2006 translation of the final work in the set, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and although Adam Golaski’s version Green beats O’Donoghue’s version for sheer virtuosity, O’Donoghue’s is also excellent – and has the virtue of being both well-annotated and complete (whereas Golaski, in his sloth, still slumps, like Grendel, outside the grace of God).
It’s often been commented that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the ongoing Penguin Classics line is its gamesome willingness to re-invent its enormous back-catalogue to suit new creative ideas, and “Legends from the Ancient North” is a marvelous example of that. And if the theatrical resurgence of the “Ancient North” – in the form of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, or Marvel’s bludgeoningly fun Thor franchise – or even The History Channel’s utterly excellent ongoing series Vikings, which you should all be watching – is to spark a mini-renaissance of this great, violent, poetic literature, this Penguin Classics set is a perfect place for readers to start. So maybe it catches a bit of zeitgeist after all.
November 16th, 2013
DC Comics’ “New 52” company-wide reboot hit some of their flagship characters harder than others. The venerable WWII-era Justice Society was retconned right out of existence; warm-hearted primary-color Superman became a brooding, disaffected Dr. Manhattan-in-a-cape; Captain Marvel lost his mind – when teenager Billy Batson says his magic word nowadays, all he gets is a bigger, superpowered body (since he very conspicuously doesn’t get the wisdom of Solomon, I keep thinking he should now be called Hazam); poor Wonder Woman – always the loser in any continuity-tinkering – became a mindless sword-wielding warrior-drone (basically Conan, only female and able to life 50 tons over her head). Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash escaped relatively unscathed, thanks to their basically one-note premises (water, ring, speed), but the Legion was first split up then cancelled, Catwoman was a foul-mouthed nymphomaniac, and Superboy was a clone so easily manipulated he might as well have come with a big plastic handle sticking out of his back.
In its long history of continuity revamps, however, DC has usually had the good sense to leave Batman more or less alone. Part of this is crassly commercial – the character has been the focus of several successful Hollywood movies that have made a great deal of money, and lucrative movies drive comic book content to an absolutely shameful degree (in Marvel comics, Nick Fury is now black, and if any of the characters who’ve known him for fifty years were to take him aside and ask about that little fact, I suppose he’d have to say, “Dude, didn’t you see the movie?”). But part of it is also aesthetic – much as I hate to admit it (my sympathies, as should be well known to any long-time Stevereads reader, lie elsewhere), Batman is and always has been the coolest of all comic book superheroes, and it’s coolness on such an elemental level that even movie executives understand it, where they understand literally nothing else.
So the “New 52” Batman is still very much recognizably the dark and gritty take on the character that Denny O’Neill brought back from disuse and Frank Miller immortalized in Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. There’s Alfred; there’s the cave; there’s the rogue’s gallery; there’s the sidekicks; there’s the drill-bit focus; there’s the cape; there’s Gotham City. And on the Batman comic title itself, there’s the utterly glorious artwork of Greg Capullo (inked by Danny Miki with some very well-done nods to Klaus Janson’s style). Capullo is doing the best work of his entire career on this title – it’s a tremendous thrill to watch it unfold every month.
Scott Snyder, the writer of this series, pleases me much much less, mainly because although he’s fine with setup and exposition, he wouldn’t recognize a dramatic payoff if it dated him for a solid year. His “Court of Owls” story arc ended in a veritable avalanche of tedious dialogue, and his “Death of the Family” arc ended with a rampaging Joker doing … absolutely no damage either to Batman or to any of his half-dozen former sidekicks, despite having all of them helplessly bound and gagged about six times during the series.
So when it was announced that Snyder was going to do a multi-issue arc called Batman: Zero Year, I braced myself for mixed blessings. Yes, it would be hugely entertaining to see Capullo’s visual take on Batman’s origin (although the title sets the almost impossible standard of comparing this with Batman: Year One), but there’d also be Snyder, lousing up the story itself.
And sure enough, that’s just what happened. Capullo’s artwork was utterly gorgeous throughout, and Snyder’s plot felt improvised almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Then that first arc ended, and I thought Batman would go back to normal – but no: with issue #25, Snyder has started up another story taking place in Bruce Wayne’s very first days as Batman. It’s a very interesting decision on DC’s part, and it makes me wonder two things, one sordid – is this approach corporately dictated to presage some new Batman movie-reboot (as I’m convinced the “New 52” Superman was designed with the later movie in mind – and one speculative – are we going to see “Zero Year” arcs for other “New 52” characters.
I’ll eagerly read this new story mainly for Greg Capullo’s artwork, although it’s always possible that Snyder will write himself into feeling comfortable enough to tell an actual story. Certainly there are promising signs in this latest issue, including a crackling good scene in which young Bruce Wayne is talking to Alfred over his shoulder as they both climb out of the Batcave up onto the lawn of Wayne Manor. Bruce Wayne has nothing but contempt for the Gotham P.D., and he doesn’t mind sharing it with trusty Alfred:
“It seems you have everything covered, sir. Perhaps you should consider informing the police department.”
“You seem determined to make them your enemy, Master Bruce.”
“I gave them a fleet of dirigibles.”
“To spy on them.”
“I don’t trust them, Alfred. The force was full of corruption before the red hood gang infiltrated it. Even with the Red Hood gone now, who knows. To my mind, there isn’t anyone on the force worth a damn.”
That last line is said just as Bruce is reaching the surface – where Jim Gordon, the lieutenant who’ll one day be Batman’s ally Commissioner Gordon, is crouching and smiling: “You were saying, Mr. Wayne?”
It’s a neat moment, and although there aren’t enough like it in this issue (the main action sequence involves a car chase that couldn’t be less exciting if it were done with real cars), there’s a feeling of extra control here that hasn’t been so noticeable in earlier outings. Or maybe I’m mentally supplying that so as not to obsess on all the dramatic opportunities Snyder lets sail right past him.
Either way, I’ll be looking forward to these issues more than I will any other DC comic, now that they’ve done the unthinkable and cancelled the Legion …
November 14th, 2013
Our book today is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, a bristling, muscular, mazy haphazard cathedral of opinion erected by Clive James, that grinning ombudsman of the Republic of Letters. Cultural Amnesia takes its readers through an alphabet of ideas, and a look at the Table of Contents gives a great picture of the range of James’ curiosity. Under ‘A’ we have Anna Akhmatova, Peter Altenberg, Louis Armstrong, and Raymond Aron. Under ‘E’ it’s Alfred Einstein and Duke Ellington. Most hilariously, under ‘M’ it’s Norman Mailer, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Golo Mann, Heinrich Mann, Michael Mann, Thomas Mann, Mao Zedong, Chris Marker, John McCloy, Zinka Milanov, Czeslaw Milosz, Eugenio Montale, Montesquieu, Alan Moorehead, and Paul Muratov.
I was very forcefully reminded of Clive James (by his most devoted partisan, one might say) just the other day in response to my recent complaint about the scarcity of really first-rate television critics! I was reminded that James has written a small mountain of first-rate television criticism in his career, and I was doubly chastised: not only should I have remembered that fact, but I should have assumed it even if I hadn’t known it, because there’s hardly a genre or critical sub-discipline in which James hasn’t written a small mountain of first-rate criticism.
Cultural Amnesia is an utterly magnificent demonstration of that fact – it’s a bewildering profusion, and its alphabetical arrangement can be a bit misleading, since there are plenty of times throughout the book when the ostensible subject of the letter heading gets lost in the bustling, infectious chatter of James’ digressions. There’s every chance that a reader will remember those digressions longer than they’ll remember the actual subject of the essay – like this little gem on book titles:
A foreign title often loses something when brought over into English, but sometimes there is an even match – Der blaue Engel and The Blue Angel, La Peste and The Plague – and occasionally there is a substantial gain. Francoise Sagan got lucky in that respect: Those Without Shadows. So did Gabriel Garcia Marquez: not for One Hundred Years of Solitude, a title I find as spongy as the book, but for The Autumn of the Patriarch. In the original German, The Tin Drum is Der Blechtrommel. Though it is always hard to judge the weight and balance of words in a language that is not one’s first, it is just as hard to believe that Gunter Grass lost anything there, because the English phrase gives you two clear beats on the drum, while the long German word sounds like someone choking. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a faithful rendition of the Italian original, and is therefore ridiculous, because no Italian of any real literary judgment believes that Calvino, when he conceived that title, was doing anything else except putting on the dog, plus a feather boa, a plumed hat and a pair of platform shoes. (This is not to say that long titles don’t sometimes succeed: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Cental Station I Sat Down and Wept is still good, although it as never really a good book – it was an indulgence.)
I love the pinball distractibility, the unembarrassed plenitude of asides like that, so full of information, opinion, and offhand challenges. I love my inability to predict where that quicksilver mind of his will dart next. I love not knowing whose names will crop up in a discussion of Japanese admiral Yamamoto:
People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times, Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which a considered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of its own: it likes to make an effect, and it has a strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called a shaping spirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto’s plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player’s betting his whole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of The Tale of Genji into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn’t fit.
Of course the common spice of all these dozens of pieces is their combative tone (it’s the combative tone of the autodidact, although James was quite presentably educated in his youth, go figure), which can come in from any angle and almost always takes a roundhouse Johnsonian knockabout reading of lily-fingered cultural elites:
Books about Hitler are without number, but after more than sixty years the first one to read is still Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Familiarity with the events that it recounts should be regarded as an essential prerequisite to the study not just of modern politics, but of the whole history of the arts since its hideously gifted subject first demonstrated that a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture no matter how widely diffused. It is not possible to be serious about the humanities unless it is admitted that the pacifism widely favoured among educated people before World War II very nearly handed a single man, himself something other than a simple Philistine, the means to bring civilization to an end. The lessons of history don’t suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy story.
“Critics are always remembered best for how they sound when on the attack,” James writes at one point in an essay on Viennese critic Alfred Polgar. “Schadenfreude lies deep in the human soul, and to read a tough review seems a harmless way of indulging it. But the only critical attacks that really count are written in defence of a value.” Cultural Amnesia came out in 2007, and great flow of Clive James’ work has followed it (including his long-awaited translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy), all positively glowing in defense of at least one obvious but always embattled value: the worth of simple inquisitive humanism. In recent years James himself has called attention to the rapid decline in his health, and quite apart from anything else, that’s dire news for the book-chat world. Cultural Amnesia would make one hell of a memorial – but I’d much rather it never did.
November 12th, 2013
Our book today is one of those gems that turn up regularly on the outdoor bargain-carts at my beloved Brattle Bookshop: it’s an old Dover paperback from 1971 called The Best of Gluyas Williams, with only a totally perfunctory Foreward by Charles Dana Gibson and a totally perfunctory Preface by Robert Benchley separating the reader from the glories of the artwork Gluyas Williams did for newspapers and magazines eighty years ago.
Williams learned his comedic chops alongside a very creative, antic group of young people at The Harvard Lampoon a century ago; he could specialized in prose comedy fairly easily if he’d chosen – which make it all the more ironic that one of the signature brilliances of his cartoons is that they require no prose at all in order to amuse. One of his most popular regular features was a bit called “Raconteurs” featuring a group of characters huddled around a storyteller, with a long caption giving a hint of what kind of story was being told – bawdy, boring, bragging, etc. And studying those panels again at the prompt of snapping up this book, I’m reminded that good as they are, those long captions are totally unnecessary: you can get every droll detail you need from the pictures alone.
It’s that way with most of his drawings, which rely for their warm comic effect – an effect absolutely undimmed by the intervening decades and the almost total societal shifts that have taken place since the days of Prohibition and dressing up – on the reader happily studying the artwork and supplying the story themselves.
But I really should say stories, since the best Gluyas Williams cartoons are layered affairs. You enter into them with a glance and then are strongly encouraged to wander around inside them. Especially in his “Industrial Crisis” series, Williams builds many little dramas into the big central one organizing the picture, and he expertly guides your eyes around his little canvas. His drawing “The Day A Cake of Ivory Sank at Proctor & Gamble’s” (based on the old Ivory slogan “It Floats!” – which in itself will make no sense to a generation of Americans who take showers instead of baths) is a perfect demonstration of the technique, with the already-happened event in the center – the little ripples where the bar has gone down – ringed by all the drama of the first responders with their panic, their dismay, and their diving suits.
Williams got a good deal of mileage out of gentle dismay (his affectionately scathing portraits of life in suburbia display that with a newcomer’s sharpness), and this great old Dover book captures it all, in all of its facets. SO many aspects of the world Gluyas Williams drew are long gone now, but the cartoons themselves – so grinning and knowing – are still here to remind us, and to make us smile.
And the people are still entirely recognizable.
November 9th, 2013
A satisfyingly literary core of The New Yorker this week, which is always pleasing and this time helped to compensate for certain lacks of satisfaction found elsewhere in the 11 November issue. It was great fun, for instance, to read Dan Chiasson’s nice long look at the poet Marianne Moore and to read his generally intelligent take on her life and work. Of her recondite verse he says “the clandestine emotionality is a form of defense,” which is very good, and he has this neat bit evoking the feel of her creative world: “The sound of the typewriter keys (Moore was among the first important poets to write exclusively on the typewriter) is almost audible in her lines, which proceed, one syllable at a time, with what she called a “pleasing jerky progress.”
(Slightly less enjoyable was his gratuitous-seeming swipe at literary critics of the previous generation in general – “the moderately intellectual” – and one in particular: Mark Van Doren; I don’t know Dan Chiasson, but if he at this point in his life has read as many books, written about as many books, and taught as many books to as many grateful students as Van Doren did, I’ll owe him a bottle of wine)
Equally satisfying was Joan Acocella’s long piece on Boccaccio’s Decameron and its new English-language translation by Wayne Rebhorn. I found that translation altogether more impressive and less tiring than she did, but it hardly matters – the highlight of this piece is her lively discussion of the Decameron itself, which she says is full of “unfraught sex” and about which she quite rightly says “This is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon.”
But it can’t all be dead poets and classics, can it? No, this same issue also features two of its strongest writers taking on … TV shows. With decidedly different results.
I expect this, but I don’t know why I should. Television has been around for 100 years, it’s been ubiquitous for seventy years, it forms at least a small part (and often a huge part) of the lives of almost every single non-canine person I know – and yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of truly first-rate pieces of television criticism I’ve read in a lifetime of looking for it. Off the top of my head I can list four or five dozen great book critics, writers who not only act as stand-in readers but who transmute their observations into memorably good prose. Granted, books and the literary tradition have been around a lot longer than TV, but the ratio still seems bafflingly steep to me – especially considering the fact that the sheer number of people who watch TV dwarfs the number of book-readers out there in the world. You’d think there’d be first-rate TV criticism everywhere, but instead, what I’ve come to expect is a very frustrating combination of smart writing and unmistakable tone-deafness – like listening to a high school valedictorian try to give a nuanced assessment of Lucia di Lammermoor.
Case in point: Emily Nussbaum writing about the great, perversely genius show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. She starts off strong:
In its ninth season, it is still reliably original, as well as depraved. It’s as unhinged as “Monty Phython” but as polished as “30 Rock” … Mostly it is very, very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. At its finest moments, cackling-in-the-basement-while-huffing-glue funny.
All true, although she chooses different episodes to highlight than I would have. But it hardly matters which episodes she picks, because although she makes a point of stressing that the show is funny, her dissection of it is so loaded with un-funny quotes (“Do you guys think that our location is the problem?”) that readers unfamiliar with the show will avoid it like the plague – and readers who’ve watched it and loved it from the beginning will have intensely confused reactions: on the one hand, they’ll be proud that their show is written up in The New Yorker, but on the other hand, they’ll want to hide the article from any prospective new converts.
And they’ll have it easy compared to Doctor Who fans! The beloved BBC show turns a venerable 50 this year, and for some reason known only to a chuckling God, The New Yorker handed the job of writing a long retrospective to their in-house expert on … the American Revolution. The results are nothing short of grim. When writing about American history, Lepore is consistently one of the most solid writers the magazine has. But right from the start of her long piece on a TV science fiction show, she’s spouting more pretentious pseudo-intellectual gibberish than the woolliest Williamsburg hipster:
“Most of what works best in ‘Doctor Who’ comes out of ancient forms of serial historical writing, from the Odyssey to the Old Testament.”
“’Doctor Who’ is, unavoidably, a product of mid-twentieth-century debates about Britain’s role in the world as its empire unraveled.”
“’Doctor Who’ is a chronicle of the impossibility of rescue.”
“’Doctor Who’ is also a TV show about TV: a fantasy about the bounds of fantasy.”
“When Doctor Who, a character who operates as an allegory for Britain, becomes a remnant of a nearly exterminated race, a timeless atrocity is folded into the national narrative.”
These kind of highbrow malapropisms fire at the reader so steadily that reading the piece is almost physically unbearable, despite the frequent quotes throughout from series impresario Steven Moffat adamantly pointing out that the show is “mad science” entertainment, not Kierkegaard’s lost post-doctoral dissertation. For all I know, Lepore might be a fan of the show herself, but that, too, hardly matters: she comes across in this essay has somebody who’d never heard of Doctor Who before she got this assignment (the reference in that last quote to some character called “Doctor Who” is particularly tinny). Hell, she comes across as somebody who’d never heard of television before she got this assignment. Just her and her friends John Adams and Ben Franklin standing around this mysterious flat metal-and-glass object muttering questions: “So it pulls images out of the ether?”
November 8th, 2013
Our book today is a little pamphlet-sized thing newly published by DC Comics and triple-titled Superman Man of Steel Believe, collecting ten quick backup stories taken from various Superman comics titles over the last fifteen years. The cover features a little logo reminding readers that the character of Superman is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its creation by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1933, but the more cynical among those readers might wonder if the pamphlet’s appearance doesn’t also have something to do with the fact that the movie Man of Steel has earned DC’s movie division about a billion dollars since it appeared in theaters last summer.
It’s a bittersweet commonplace, that the market can drive the marketplace so completely: since it eschews vision, it’s craven at its heart, but it’s also a bounty, since it flushes some great stuff back into print that would otherwise have languished in moldering longboxes until the arrival of Galactus.
And it’s made all the more bittersweet for long-time Superman fans because this little collection incorporates the most fundamental change the character has ever undergone – not a change, really, but a ground-up rewrite. When you open SupermanManofSteelBelieve and start reading in sequential order, all seems familiar: we get the one-page origin recap (sole survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way), and then a series of quite wonderful stories that will bring a smile to the faces of any of those long-term fans. Superman uses a spare five minutes to untangle the traffic-jam woes of downtown Metropolis; Superman subs for Santa Claus (whose reindeer are sick) in order to deliver toys to the children of the world; Superman confronts the brainless might of Bizarro and the diabolical schemes of Lex Luthor; and, in the book’s best story, Superman takes Lois Lane along on the tour of the world he does every New Year’s. During a quiet moment, Ma Kent, Superman’s sweet-natured adoptive mother, tries to explain the ritual’s origin to Lois:
When you have a child … and God willing, someday you will … you develop habits, very few of which will make sense. Every night, Jonathan [Kent, Superman’s human father] would walk the house, just about midnight. Even if he fell asleep at eight, at the stroke of twelve he’d sneak out of bed, check the windows, pet Shelby on the head, and wind up in Clark’s room. “Walking Midnight,” he called it. When he’d come back to bed and I’d ask if the world was still spinning, he’d chuckle. “Just making sure Clark’s having good dreams.”
Clark’s walking midnight … he’s just got a much bigger house.
As I’ve written about a time or two here at Stevereads, DC Comics recently metamorphosed their entire line of world-famous superheroes in a company-wide revamp called “the New 52.” In addition to being made younger (and given new costumes with lots of seams and zippers and pipings, as if in anticipation of the fact that one day soon all of these characters will be played on the big screen in huge franchise movies by human actors who need to get in and out of costume), most of the old familiar characters were given a new, semi-dangerous ‘edge’ – and surely at DC headquarters, it was deemed that no character was in more need of an edge than Superman, who’d been a pillar of right and decency – often called mockingly by friend and foe alike the Big Blue Boy Scout – for seventy years. How boring! So the “New 52″ version of the character, although still raised by the Kents in Smallville, is an entirely different Superman: he’s a stand-offish, self-absorbed alien being (in one tell-tale symptom among many, instead of loving Lois Lane, he’s having sex with Wonder Woman) who floats a few inches off the floor when he’s talking to people. He doesn’t stand for anything except what he feels at the moment. Nobody could mistake him for a Boy Scout. The final story in this collection features this version of Superman, and even if you didn’t know that, you could tell it by the washed-out colors, the boxy, forbidding artwork, the antagonistic edge of all the characters, and the fact that even though this Superman saves a little boy at climax, he’s got his hand out at the exact same moment to demand his cape back. Instead of a Boy Scout, we have a Super Douchebag.
Ironically (or maybe not – maybe the folks at DC who put this collection together are long-time Superman fans too and decided to slip in a little commentary), the whole Boy Scout issue is directly addressed in an earlier story. Superman is fighting an absurd quasi-governmental agent named Major Force, whose superpowers derive from an alien metal grafted onto his skin. At one point in their fight (which interrupted a Little League baseball game in Ohio), Major Force explicitly taunts Superman with the ‘Boy Scout’ tag. Superman’s reply is priceless:
That’s a common misconception, the Boy Scout thing. And being polite. Of course I’m polite to people. Good people. But people like you? People like you frustrate me. People like you I’m not polite to.
And while he’s saying that, he’s using his heat vision to melt the guy’s skin off. And when Major Force is defeated, Superman then cleans up the mess their fight made – and sticks around long enough to hit a home run. It’s a perfect little story to illustrate the fact that DC’s mightiest character is also its nicest character, but nice doesn’t support franchises. It was the New 52 Superman who made the company that billion dollars on the big screen, so the brightly-colored and smiling Superman featured throughout most of this little pamphlet won’t be making a return appearance any time soon. I’ll probably treasure this volume all the more for that.