Posts from January 2014
January 30th, 2014
Our book today is just about as fine an example of an intelligent, readable popular biography as can be produced in our imperfect world: Christopher Herold’s 1958 National Book Award-winning life of Madame de Stael, Mistress to An Age, which both sold like hotcakes when it first appeared but also satisfied most of the critics; the long-suffering old grampus at the Saturday Review called it “as remarkable, as biting as that legendary figure herself.”
That legendary figure was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris in 1766 and grew up in a wealthy, intellectually thriving home that was also loud and chaotic, and the family’s opulent Swiss estate of Coppet, on Lake Geneva, early on became a symbol for her of regrouping, of concentration, and, whenever possible, of calm. In what would be a lifetime of passionate love affairs and even more passionate public jousting with, among others, Napoleon Bonaparte, she would need as much calm as she could find.
At age 20 she married a buffoon named Baron Erik Stael von Holstein – a business transaction conducted entirely by her parents and in which affection, to say nothing of actual love, never played even a small part (“Happiness will come later,: she wrote, “will come at intervals; may come never”). She was a very wealthy young woman in her own right; having a husband connected to the worlds of high diplomacy gave her one of the only social caches she lacked.
Shortly after the marriage, she began her literary career in earnest, turning out book reviews, literary columns, pamphlets, plays, and a string of best-selling novels that remain breathless fun reading even today. She was thus already a noted public intellectual when the French Revolution broke upon her comfortable, chatting world like a thunderstorm. And if it proved a shock to her senses, a fundamental denial of her belief in the salutary effects of talk and reasoned, modern discourse, then the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte was very nearly a calamity. She could retire to relative safety at Coppet, but she wasn’t cut out for safety; she craved it her whole life, but she couldn’t abide by its strictures.
So began the celebrated war of wills between herself and the dictator of France, and the most entertaining thread running through Herold’s account is his insistence that those two titanic wills were far more alike than either plump little autocrat would have liked to admit. This parallel wasn’t by any stretch new when Herold made it, but his evident joy of it – and his golden prose – make it the highlight of his book:
If Germaine’s salon in the rue de Grenelle had been the meeting place of an opposition party, he would not have feared her. It was, however, something much more elusive and dangerous. Germaine could not head an opposition, since she was disliked by as broad a spectrum of political groups as was Bonaparte himself. The most prominent of her regular guests were drawn not from among the enemies of his regime but from its elite – his ministers, officials, generals, and family. It was this which disquieted him. In Madame de Stael’s house the schoolboys were encouraged to be disrespectful of their master; they unlearned the fear on which his power rested; they were corrupted by the ideas that undermined his discipline. Just as Germaine thought that to Napoleon nothing was sacred, so Napoleon thought that to Germaine nothing was sacred; they disagreed on what was sacred, but they shared a common hatred of sacrilege.
Once her virtuous husband died, Madame de Stael’s personal life became a labyrinth of lovers, ex-lovers, disaffected children (her own and other people’s), intrigued adventurers, mouthy hangers-on, and distraught friends. She was one of the most unconventional figures of an unconventional time (Lord Byron famously commented that she had the brain of a man but – “alas!” – the heart of a woman; nobody in his immediate circle dared to point out that the same could be said of him), and if these personal tangles could quickly descend into incomprehensibility (as indeed they frequently do in de Stael biographies, both in English and in French). Fortunately for his readers, Herold is always ready to pause and clear things up with his signature affectionately caustic style:
The situation in the autumn and winter of 1808-1809 may be recapitulated as follows: (1) Germaine refused to give up Benjamin, who, unknown to her, had married Charlotte; (2) Charlotte refused to give up Benjamin, who was living with Germaine; (3) Prince August refused to give up Juliette, who was living with her husband; (4) while clinging to Benjamin, Germaine was dying of despair over O’Donnell’s treachery and trying to regain the affections of Prosper de Barante; (5) Barante was explaining his love to Juliette Recamier; (6) Juliette, without depriving Prosper of hope, did nothing to fulfill it; (7) Germaine, in her letters to Juliette, suggested that Juliette was alienating Prosper’s affections; (8) all correspondence between Juliette and Germaine ceased in November 1808.
He’s also unfailing in his ear for the minor anecdotes that so neatly fill out a portrait like this, like this funny little moment finding an exasperated Madame making her way through the admittedly confusing world of English country houses:
From October until Christmas 1813 Germaine spent a large share of her time in a round of calls at the great country homes. One day, invited to Lord Liverpool’s estate at Coombe Wood, she missed her way; only after she had visited what seemed half a dozen wrong Coombes did she reach the right one, on foot and after nightfall. “Coombe here, Coombe there, we have been through every Coombe in England,” she muttered as she sat down at table.
But his mastery of every stray quip and comment his subject ever made is just a wonderful extra; Herold always returns to his central appreciation for de Stael’s most important aspects:
What made her unique was that she sought essentially moderate goals by the most passionate means. Rarely was love more exalted than by her; yet the goal was not the agonizing passion she new but the quiet happiness that eluded her. In politics and literature she never pursued extremes but always saw herself as mediator, as a channel of communication: “The circulation of ideas is, of all kinds of commerce, the one whose benefits are most certain” – thus she declared in one of her last writings, her noble essay on “The Spirit of Translation.”
“This work is not offered as a ‘definitive biography,’ Herold tells us, perhaps in a move to circumvent the eight or ten Napoleonic scholars of his day who might have looked askance at the unabashedly crowd-pleasing tone of Mistress to an Age – circumvent, but not apologize, as his immediate elaboration makes hilariously clear:
In the first place, despite the impressive literature and documentation already published on Madame de Stael and her friends, a still larger mass of material remains unknown; in the second place, definitive biographies can be written only about people who are quite dead. Sometimes, to be sure, they still show some feeble signs of life, but the definitive biographer gives them the coup de grace.
This is every bit as delightful a book on the fifth re-read as it is on the first encounter, and I was recently very happy to find an edition I like much better than the sturdy but inappropriately binary old Time-Life paperback that gave the book its widest circulation in the US book market: this one has instead a typically evocative painting by the great cover-illustrator (and long-time Cape Cod seasoner, until his death 2003) Bill Teason, who could always manage to make even a still live somehow pulse with life. I’m hoping there’s a lot of life left in this copy, since I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it again next year.
January 28th, 2014
Our book today is that fat tome from 2011, Arguably, a big bright collection of the deadline pieces and miscellaneous hackwork of the late Christopher Hitchens, who actually passed the most feared of authorial meridians and became late in the hanging interval between the book’s appearances in hardcover and its re-issue in paperback (it’s maybe out of delicacy over this fact that his publisher issued the hardcover with his puffy face staring out at the reader and the paperback with just a simple yellow background). For the better part of 50 years, Hitchens never stopped writing for longer than four days at a time, so many, many volumes the size of this one could be assembled even beyond the four books of collected occasional prose that preceded this one. Much like with Dumas and Balzac, we may never actually see the Definitive Collected Hitchens.
I’d subscribe to it, if it were ever proposed. There’s no denying the man could write entertaining and thought-provoking prose, and Arguably collects quite a bit of it, harvested from Hitchens’ usual patches in The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and the London Guardian, among other venues. A great proportion of these pieces began life as book reviews (the best of them, in fact; the more topical and invariably weaker pieces written for Slate, for instance, require more footnoting to be interesting than any author should want), and one of the most vivid things Arguably does is something it has in common with most of the other canonical works of our Ink Chorus: it reminds you just how vastly and indefatigably bookish the author was. A prodigious amount of reading is distilled in these nearly 800 pages. Take as a representative example one luscious paragraph from a 2006 Atlantic review of a Jessica Mitford letter-collection:
For a true appreciation of the character and style of Jessica Mitford, it is necessary to picture Lady Bracknell not only abandoning the practice of arranging marriages for money but also aligning herself with the proletariat, while still managing to remain a character in a Wilde play. The carrying cut-glass voice; the raised eyebrow of disdain that could (like that of P. G. Wodehouse’s forbidding Roderick Spode) “open an oyster at sixty paces”; the stoicism born of stern ancestral discipline yet, withal, a lethal sense of the “ridic,” as Ms. Mitford was fond of putting it.
There are also the familiar Hitchens hobby-horses, of course. By the time he reached 60 Hitchens had what one under-appreciated wit used to refer to as “God on the brain,” and that obsession – which generated a heap of money for the author of God is Not Great – seeps into a large number of these pieces – always entertainingly, yes, but not always exactly on point, as in this 2002 review of a book called Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy:
First, the words of Genesis are unambiguous in placing lesser creatures at our mercy and at our disposal. Second, the crucial verses do not mention the marvelous creation of dinosaurs and pterodactyls, either because the semi-literate scribes who gathered the story together were unaware of these prodigies of design or because (shall I hint?) the Creator was unaware of having made them. The magnificence of the marsupials is likewise omitted. Even more to the point, although “everything creeping that creepeth upon the earth” is cited in general, God does not explicitly seek the credit for rates, flies, cockroaches, and mosquitoes. Most important of all, there is no mention of the mind-warping variety and beauty and complexity of the microorganisms. Again, either the scribes didn’t know about viruses and bacteria, or the Creator didn’t appreciate with how lavish a hand he had unleashed life on the only planet in his solar system that can manage to support it.
And as with any feast of pieces like this, there’s some subtle opinion-shaping going on even beyond the tactical selection of the pieces themselves. Anybody writing as much as Hitchens did can hit a dull patch, a deadline piece that simply won’t cohere – “I just can’t get it to take a shine,” one such deadline-artist used to say on the rare occasions when it happened – and in service to his ego as much as to his readers, Hitchens has quietly excluded some of those dull patches from these pages (although not quite as many as he perhaps should have – the infamously idiotic “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is defiantly reprinted here). And some of the opinion-shaping happens in plain view, as in the piece “Wine Drinkers of the World, Unite” that he blurted out in 30 minutes for Slate back in 2008. The instigation is one we’re all familiar with: the over-solicitous restaurant waiter who interrupts “the feast of reason and the flow of soul that was our chat” in order to re-fill everybody’s wine glasses. The gesture moves Hitchens to high dudgeon: “And what I want to know is this: How did such a barbaric custom get itself established, and why on earth do we put up with it?”:
It completely usurps my prerogative if I am a host. (“Can I refill your glass? Try this wine – I think you may care for it.”) It also tends to undermine me as a guest, since at any moment when I try to sing for my supper I may find an unwanted person lunging carelessly into the middle of my sentence. If this person fills the glasses unasked, he is a boor as described above. If he asks permission of each guest in turn – as he really ought to do, when you think about it – then he might as well pull up a chair and join the party. The nerve of it!
The opinion-shaping is at its least subtle in the peroration’s closing line: “Next time anyone offers to interrupt your conversation and assist in the digestion of your meal and the inflation of your check, be very polite but very firm and say that you would really rather not.” Witnesses at that restaurant that evening won’t, to put it mildly, recall the “very polite” part.
But such instances of venal mirror-adjusting are (surprisingly?) rare in Arguably. In fact, the tone throughout hints at new rhetorical powers Hitchens never got a chance to develop. And there are masterpieces liberally scattered throughout, like his brutally honest long review of his good friend’ Martin Amis’ book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, or invigorating re-imagining of the Ten Commandments, or his fantastic pieces on Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and of course his beloved P. G. Wodehouse. There’s stirring prose about Hitler, Edmund Burke, and even Harry Potter. And there’s a short 2008 piece called “Prisoner of Shelves” that will be instantly familiar to any of Hitchens’ fellow bookworms.
It’s a collection that improves in the estimation as time goes on, not as finished as God is Not Great but not as narrowly ranting either, a great and generous grab-bag of feisty ruminations. It goes on the same shelf as like-minded doorstops such as United States, Enemies of Promise, Nothing if Not Critical, and even, I grudgingly admit, John Updike’s Odd Jobs.
January 27th, 2014
Our book today is Sejanus, a 1998 corker by a writer we’ll be meeting again in this Mystery Monday cavalcade: English mystery author David Wishart, whose whodunits are set in ancient Rome and star leisured, inquisitive, and smart-mouthed Marcus Corvinus and his equally-inquisitive wife Perilla. The books sport titles like Ovid, Nero, and Germanicus, so readers of I, Claudius and Claudius the God can expect plenty of familiar names to crop up – but one of the things I’ve always liked best about these books is how little they seem to care about the shadow of Graves’ monuments. These books owe a lot more to Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane than they do to Graves’ beloved Tacitus and Suetonius; Wishart takes the conversational ease and contemporary feel of Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels and amps it up a dozenfold. As his sleuthing duo confer over wine and choice delicacies, they sound like downtown relatives of Nick and Nora Charles.
Sejanus, obviously, centers around the arch political operator of by that name, the feared emissary of self-exiled old emperor Tiberius. Sejanus is hated by most of the Senate in Rome to the exact same extent that he’s blindly trusted by Tiberius, in whose name he runs the empire and rules the City. At the beginning of the book, some senators approach Corvinus to sound him out on the possibility of digging up some dirt on the man, and unbeknownst to those senators (and to Corvinus himself, for a while), he has an added reason: a letter from the deceased empress Livia, urging him to help bring down Sejanus.
Corvinus agrees to snoop, which means sifting through mountains of Senatorial records. Apparently mundane developments like that always give Wishart, a classics scholar, prime opportunities to work in some of the factual exposition he does so well:
Okay so far. There was one other possibility, that the records had been tampered with physically. Senatorial records, like normal books, are made up of standard-sized sheets glued together top to bottom and wound on a spindle. If someone wanted to lose a piece of text at the start of finish of a sheet all they’d have to do would be detach the page, cut it across at the appropriate point and glue it back along the new edge. Taking out a passage in the middle of the page would be more difficult, and so easier to spot; at the very least there’d be traces of rubbing, maybe signs of a different hand or a different colour ink in the necessary filler if the forger wasn’t all that competent.
But it’s the personalities that make these books, of course: Wishart has a gift for cutting characters in fine detail – including, in this book, inevitably, one of the toughest characters in all of Roman history, th much-misunderstood, much-maligned Tiberius himself. When most of the fireworks and plot twists are over in Sejanus, Corvinus finds himself sharing a skin of wine with the terrifying old man, and Wishart gives him a little personal summation that’s better than any of the long-winded justifications he got in Graves:
‘Oh yes, the rumours.’ The yellow teeth flashed in a snarl. ‘That I indulge my depraved tastes with a constant round of perversions. That I live on aphrodisiacs and bugger painted children in the open air.’ I said nothing; I hadn’t known that he knew. ‘Fools can believe what they like, Corvinus. I’ve never cared about their opinion. And so long as my writ runs and I hold the empire here‘ – he held out a clenched fist – ‘I’ll take Capri and slander over Rome and the petty squabbles of her fawning lickspittle Senate any day. In the end I’ll be judged on my actions and not on wineshop gossip. And if I’m not then the future can go and fuck itself. Clear?’
Clear enough! God I love these books.
January 22nd, 2014
Ordinarily, the confluence of deadline pressure, space limitations, and professional responsibility tend to level the discourse in the mainstream Penny Press – at least, the regions of it where I forage. It’s true that the front half of explicitly political magazines like The New Statesman or The Weekly Standard will be full of articles claiming man-caused runaway global warming is a myth (and featuring cartoons where President Obama looks like a lot like a monkey), but the back half of those magazines are full of book reviews dishing up snappy summaries and, one hopes, some thoughtful observations. There will hardly ever be any outright gush-jobs (although the entirely uncritical reception gifted to Earle Labor’s recent biography of Jack London came very close quite a few times), and there will hardly ever be any outright ad hominem attacks. Instead, it’ll be – for the most part – the sweet, sweet sound of book-talk.
Obviously, this holds true for book-oriented things like The New York Review of Books (although I’ve carped before about the ratio of book reviews to political pieces – the current near 50-50 split strikes me as egregiously muddle-headed). In my long tenure as a devoted reader of the NYRB, I’ve encountered almost every kind of book-talk imaginable, and I’ve had the wide range of reactions. I’ve read extremely thoughtful critiques of books I didn’t think were worth it; I’ve read hilarious write-ups of deadly dull works; I’ve seethed with frustration when some critic just doesn’t get the book he’s reviewing but instead keeps bumbling around it like a Hoosier booster trying to navigate an obstacle course. And I’ve experienced the much colder, much less pleasant, and ultimately much more rewarding feeling of watching a critic I respect butcher a work I also respect. It’s all exhilarating. It’s why I keep coming back to the NYRB.
Not in all the time I’ve been reading it, not in the eye-blink fifty years since it appeared out of nowhere on the rack at Trow’s Stationary (when I went in for the latest Superman, Fantastic Four, Rawhide Kid – and some weird new thing called Spider-Man – the proprietor handed me the NYRB, said “This looks right up your alley,” and let me read it for free “so you can tell me if I should order more”), have I felt the bottom just fall out of that exhilaration, even for a moment.
Not in all that time has the NYRB published something that was simply stupid. I got that very unwanted first taste just this week, reading the letters page of the latest issue.
Cristof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, writes a biting, thoughtful response to a review written by Jason Epstein:
I was appalled that in Jason Epstein’s review of Dana Goodyear’s book on extreme eating not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures. These animals are all capable of sophisticated behaviors that, would they occur in people, are associated with empathy, attachment, curiosity, metacognition, and conscious awareness. Maybe even food writers and their critics can acknowledge this uncomfortable truth and face up to their ethical blindness.
To which Jason Epstein replies with the only flat-out stupid thing I’ve ever read in the New York Review of Books:
We are omnivores. We eat anything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. Even Adolf Hitler, a vegetarian himself according to his intimates, with absolute power over those in his net, could do nothing to prevent this pain. I wish it were different but we are what we are.
As with all truly stupid things, there’s no responding to it, no engaging with it. Stupidity exists on a strata far below argument, out of the reach of right and wrong. Stupidity can’t be countered – it can only be mocked and shunned.
Almost needless to say, I had not before now considered Jason Epstein a stupid man. And anybody can have an off day (quick tip: if you’re using Adolf Hitler to make your point – any point, on any topic – you’re having an off day). But shame on the NYRB for running what he wrote. Shame on the NYRB for forcing me, for the first time ever, to pen “STUPID” in the margin of their pages.
January 21st, 2014
Our book today is The Court of St. James’s, a marvelous 1959 confection by that indefatigable hack E. S. Turner, who found rather early on in his life that few pleasures in this world are so reliable and so joyous as the pleasure of making words on the page do exactly what you want them to do – and knowing, with the hack’s surest instinct, that those words will go out and please their readers. He developed the ability to generate clean, snappy prose at lightning speed, and he gradually carved out a freelancing career at such venerable London periodicals as Punch and the mighty TLS that brought in enough money for him to pour real energy into writing books.
And he wrote lots of them, but to my mind none more entertaining than this one, spurred by the renewed interest in all things royal that arose naturally out of London having a fresh-faced new Queen on the throne. There’s not much pretense to scholarship in the pages of The Court of St. James’s – instead, there’s one well-turned story after another taken from the thousand-year history of the royal Court. The stories are always sparkling, and they star not only the most famous of England’s sovereigns, like Queen Elizabeth I:
Holinshed says it was a rare thing to find a courtier who could speak no language but his own. Not only were Greek and Latin widely understood, but Spanish, Italian and French could be heard on courtiers’ lips. The Queen herself set an example of lingual virtuosity which few of her Court could have emulated. There was a famous occasion when a presumptuous ambassador from Poland, addressing her in Latin as she sat on her throne, began to reproach her for her policies, and to voice what appeared to be threats. The Queen endured it for a while then abused the ambassador heartily in his own chosen tongue, to the dazed admiration of the Court. When congratulated – and this was one occasion when congratulations could be sincerely voiced – she said, “God’s death, my lords, I have been enforced this day to scour up my old Latin that hath been long in rusting.” She was then in her middle sixties.
And also those monarchs who’ve never been as well-known, like that erratically good-natured Hanoverian William IV:
Of William IV’s Court little need be said. The once hard-swearing, hard-drinking sailor had become a garrulous old gentleman of 65, very proud to be a king, very anxious to be affable to his subjects. Whereas George IV had shut himself from sight, William went out of his way to mingle informally with the public. He would even walk about London drawing a crowd behind him. Once he was kissed by a woman near White’s; another time, his German Queen in her coach suffered her hand to be held by a rapt female admirer. The courtiers, especially those who had to bundle the King away from the mob, thought it all quite dreadful.
Only very occasionally in the cheerful course of The Court of St. James’s does Turner veer into contemporary reflection, although it’s just enough to make you wish he did it more often. He was born in 1909, after all (and only finally died in 2006, the stubborn cuss), so his own personal memory spanned some of the most fundamental changes the monarchy had ever seen. Even in a book as fundamentally light-hearted as this one, he couldn’t help but reflect on some of those changes:
It is not easy to see the events of the present reign in anything like perspective, but it is probably fair to say (as Time has said) that the Court is the scene of a struggle between ‘the partisans of the pompous past and the champions of a folksier future.’ If it had been left to the traditionalists the Queen would still be touching for the Evil and the Poet Laureate would still be grinding out Birthday and New Year Odes. If it were left to the democratic avant garde, the royal family would be escorting the public through their picture galleries.
But readers seeking analytical scrutiny of the monarchy are still advised to look to Jeremy Paxman; this book is much more akin to one of those royal picture galleries. Only instead of a halting-mouthed awkward Windsor to show you around, you have a raconteur extraordinaire.
January 20th, 2014
Our book today is a delectable 1969 whodunit called The Stately Home Murder (a distinct improvement on its original title The True Steel) by our old friend Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, better known to mystery aficionados as Catherine Aird. The book has all the beloved trappings of her other fictional outings: it takes place in the mythical county of Calleshire, it features a baker’s dozen quintessentially British signatures of the previous century, from hedgerows and dotty aunts to the Stately Home of the book’s title, and of course most central of all, it stars that unflappable lawman, Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan and his loyal but dimwitted assistant, Detective Constable Crosby.
The Stately Home in question this time around is Ornum House, open to the public every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday (and bank holidays) from April to October, much to the grumbling chagrin of its current master, the thirteenth Earl of Ornum, who views the crowds walking around his grounds (designed by the legendary Capability Brown hundreds of years ago) with their picnic lunches and their guidebooks as just so many interlopers, although as usual in an Aird mystery, the genial narration offers inconspicuous judgements of its own:
The public, though, seemed to have got the idea of Capability’s pleasances. They were positively full of people taking conscious pleasure from walking in them, enjoying their alternating sun and shade and the smooth grass underfoot, and, every now and then, exclaiming at an unexpected vista carefully prepared by that master craftsman for them to exclaim at.
The House comes to the attention of Scotland Yard when – in a masterly opening gimmick worthy of Agatha Christie at her most shameless – a corpse is found inside one of the old suits of armor on display in one of the galleries (as commemorated on the cover of the old Bantam paperback, the – you’ll pardon the term – killer ‘hook’ is the lifting of the armor’s visor to reveal the dead man’s eyes staring sightlessly right at you). Soon enough, Sloan and Crosby are driving up the long entranceway to Ornum and having one of their droll exchanges – at Crosby’s expense, of course:
The gates were painted black, with the finer points etched out in gold leaf. If the state of a man’s gate was any guide to the man – and in Sloan’s working experience it was – the Earl of Ornum maintained a high standard. Surmounting the pillars were two stone spheres, and crouching on top of the spheres was a pair of gryphons.
Constable Crosby regarded them critically. “They’re funny-looking birds, aren’t they? Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that flying around.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Constable. They don’t exist.”
Crosby glanced up over his shoulder at the solid stone. “I see, sir.”
“A myth,” amplified Sloan. “Like unicorns.”
“Yes, sir.” Crosby slid the care between the gryphons and lowered his speed to a self-conscious fifteen miles an hour in deference to a notice which said just that. Then he cleared his throat. “The house, sir. I can’t see it.”
“Stately Homes aren’t meant to be seen from the road, Constable. That’s the whole idea. Carry on.”
The dead man turns out to be Mr. Osbourne Meredith, librarian to the thirteenth Earl, and the initial shock of his discovery is over when Sloan approaches the armor himself:
Sloan lifted the visor very very carefully … Inside was the face of a man verging on the elderly and more than a little dead. Inspector Sloan touched his cheek though he knew there was no need. It was quite cold.
There follows the usual quietly exquisite Aird murder appraratus, complete with false leads, red herrings, and plenty of wry asides from Sloan, who sees all, misses nothing, and is generally worth ten ordinary Detective Inspectors, a proper and imperturbable sleuth of a type most contemporary mystery authors seem reluctant to put before their readers (perhaps for fear of boring them? But then, isn’t the reading demographic for murder mysteries skewed well into geriatric brackets?). Re-reading The Stately Home Murder for the sixth time is every bit as enjoyable as reading it for the first time, I’m happy to report. And I’m equally happy to repeat: this is an author very much worth your time! Let me know if you’d like me to mail you some of her wonderful books.
January 17th, 2014
Our book today is a huge and marvellous 1977 Penguin concoction called Rebecca West: A Celebration, the cover of which shows a drawing of the author herself, hair in a Doris Lessing-style bun, sensible fake pearls in a string at her neck. “Selected from her writings by her publishers,” we’re told, “with her help.” I’ve always found that oddly comforting – and an extremely appealing prospect I’m a little surprised more authors don’t do. Of course, it might not matter if they did do it, in our much less literate age, and there’s also the problem of the author in question: how many achieve the stature of a Rebecca West while they’re still alive to help with a volume like this one? Not many, then or now.
This book is for the most part a feast of appetizers, in that it contains many excerpts from much longer works. We get bits from not only West’s excellent, criminally underrated novels like The Thinking Reed and The Birds Fall Down, but also sections from her fantastic nonfiction works like A Train of Powder and The New Meaning of Treason. And of course her greatest work (one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century), Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is amply represented, with almost 200 pages of selections, including the soaring, troubling final coda:
Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.
But for me, the real appeal of a book like this is its inclusion of things by West that would be hard to find anywhere else. The whole of her little biographical sketch of St. Augustine is reprinted here, for instance, so brimming with insights that I was just smiling throughout this latest re-reading:
Augustine took as his subject matter, with a far greater simplicity and definiteness and vigour than any earlier Christian writer, a certain complex of ideas which are at the root of every primitive religion: the idea that matter, and especially matter related to sex, is evil; that man has acquired guilt through his enmeshment in matter; that he must atone for this guilt to an angry God; and that this atonement must take the form of suffering, and the renunciation of easy pleasure. Instead of attempting to expose these ideas as unreasonable or to replace them by others, as nearly all ancient philosophers had done, Augustine accepted them and intellectualized them with all the force of his genius.
And maybe best of all, Rebecca West: A Celebration also includes a section on her literary essays and book-criticism, a kind of occasional writing at which she predictably excelled – and at which she’s always surprising. Her ice-cold assessment of Kafka, for instance, has plenty of gear-shift reversals of a type you won’t find in any other writing about this particular author, and it’s bracing:
Kafka seems to have lacked the power to perceive and appreciate character. This is not to say he was unsociable or uninterested in his kind. From an early age he was an object of veneration to a number of his contemporaries and his juniors, and he gave them and the people he met through his work genuine guidance and help. But his benevolence was impersonal; it flowed out to people in whose idiosyncrasies he was not interested. This is exactly the sort of kindness which is to be expected in a born bureaucrat.
Most of the sections in this great book work as teasers, as invitations to find the longer works from which they’re drawn, and I urge you to do that (if you haven’t buckled down and experienced the immensity that is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, you are missing one of the most impressive sustained performances in the whole of English-language literature). Alas, this isn’t the case with those book-essays; a full, annotated collection of West’s literary essays has never been made, and with every year that passes, the likelihood grows dimmer (the closest thing, 1928’s The Strange Necessity, deserves a reprint on its own merits, and it could certainly be expanded). Even so, the few samples we have here – on figures as varied as Kipling and Capote – are very much worth savoring. In a perfect Republic of Letters, a book like this would be unnecessary, because every intelligent reader would already have a small shelf full of West’s works. But as things stand in our imperfect reading world, Rebecca West: A Celebration is still a dismayingly private party.
January 15th, 2014
Our book today is a pretty thing to look at: Thorburn’s Birds, a 1982 Mermaid Books reprint of the massive 1915 opus by Archibald Thorburn, British Birds. This Mermaid edition is just a selection from that vast work, although a very good one (I’m guessing a copy of the original full-size four-volume set won’t be showing up at the Brattle Bookshop any time soon, although I could probably find such a copy at the Antiquarian Book Fair this autumn, going for more money than I have just lying around), and its editor, James Fisher, has gone through it carefully, pruning Thorburn’s occasional inaccuracies of description and simplifying Thorburn’s typically Victorian baroque complexities.
Thorburn was born in 1860 and lived until 1935, but he remained all his life a very anachronistic person, preferring the stiffest collars, the finest note paper, and the best painting materials. And he was a perfectionist, something that’s abundantly clear from these beautiful bird compositions. Fisher calls these “the alivest birds he ever drew,” and he’s entirely right. But paging through this handy paperback volume, I noticed again that it isn’t just the birds that are alive: Thorburn is marvellously adept at using background settings to convey atmosphere, something the other bird-illustrators at the turn of the 20th century sometimes slighted. His snow scenes feel cold; and even on the flat page, his beach scenes gust with breezes.
British Birds was done at the peak of Thorburn’s career, when he was already a famous illustrator, revered by ornithologists for his accuracy and loved by the bird-fanciers of England (and elsewhere – a knockoff edition of British Birds not all that dissimilar to this Mermaid edition sold well in Boston shops in the 1920s). I agree with Fisher that this book proved Thorburn was one of the greatest bird-artists of the 20th century just as his earlier books had proved him one of the best of the 19th.
The pictures are accompanied by fairly dry accounts of the birds’ ancestry, distribution, and current population, but this is hardly the kind of book a British birder would take into the field. British Birds was always intended to be a grand summation for the study or the library, not an identification guide (although Thorburn himself was fairly insistent on tramping out to see his subjects in their natural habitats), and it was esteemed in its own day as art worth having even if you voyaged no farther than the bottom of your garden. Certainly this abridged version will make a neat addition to my own always-growing clutch of bird-books, even though the birds Thorburn saw have been pooping in Heaven for a century now.
January 13th, 2014
Our book today is Dorothy Sayers’ steel-riveted 1928 Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which opens with a one-page summary of education, clubs, and coat-of-arms of its gentleman sleuth – which certainly sets the tone. Sayers’ aristocratic amateur finds himself in London’s Bellona Club on Armistice Day when the place is full of members – including ancient old General Fentiman, in his high-winged well-sprung easy chair by the fireside, who, as the novel opens, is found to be dead as the proverbial doornail. 21st century readers won’t have any experience with gentleman’s clubs or the fun humorists of the time had with the advanced age of such clubs’ members – and the likelihood that one of them could die without anybody noticing.
Since General Fentiman was ninety years old, his death would ordinarily thus be par for the course in a setting like the Bellona Club, but Sayers is a most genial complicator of plots, and the hallmark complication here is that tried-and-true spanner in the works: a tricky will. General Fentiman’s sister, Lady Dormer has made just such a will. If she dies before the General, he inherits her fortune; if he dies before her, the money goes to some distant flapper cousin. This is a matter of sharp necessity to Fentiman’s two feckless grandsons, both of whom could have used a great financial windfall, so when it becomes known that Lady Dormer died that same morning, the question of exactly how long General Fentiman sat there dead becomes vitally important enough for Peter Wimsey to be approached by the Fentiman family lawyer (since, as we’re comfortably told, it’s not really “a matter for the police”). Can His Lordship possibly lend a hand in determining exactly when old Fentiman died?
Wimsey takes to the task with the easygoing charm of a Bertie Wooster and commences to go “bargin’ around” asking questions of all the interested parties – or trying to, in the case of the flapper cousin, who sends down a curt response via her butler when Lord Peter presents his card:
“Miss Dorland presents her compliments to Lord Peter Wimsey, and regrets that she is not able to grant him an interview. If, as she supposes, Lord Peter has come to see her as the representative of Major and Captain Fentiman, Miss Dorland requests that he will address himself to Mr. Pritchard, solicitor, of Lincoln’s Inn, who is dealing, on her behalf, with all matters connected with the will of the late Lady Dormer.”
“Dear me,” said Wimsey to himself, “this looks almost like a snub. Very good for me, no doubt.”
It quickly turns out that despite his advanced state of decrepitude, old General Fentiman had a fairly active – and deeply mysterious – final day of his life, including an unexpected meeting with a shadowy figure named Oliver, who naturally attracts Lord Peter’s interest. That interest is frustrated by the oblivious grandson Robert Fentiman, who barely knows anything about the man despite having met him a few times. Lord Peter – at this point in the Sayers canon still a bachelor – vents his exasperation:
“Well, I mean, all this easy, uninquisitive way men have of makin’ casual acquaintances is very fine and admirable and all that – but look how inconvenient it is! Here you are. You admit you’ve met this bloke two or three times, and all you know about him is that he is tall and thin and retired into some unspecified suburb. A woman, with the same opportunities, would have found out his address and occupation, whether he was married, how many children he had, with their names and what they did for a living, what his favorite author was, what food he liked best, the name of his tailor, dentist, and bootmaker, when he knew your grandfather and what he thought of him – screeds of useful stuff!”
“So she would,” said Fentiman, with a grin. “That’s why I’ve never married.”
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is one of the most aristocratic of all Sayers’ aristocratic Peter Wimsey novels. Despite some excruciating walk-on parts from the lower classes, this book takes place almost exclusively in the rarefied world Peter Wimsey calls home. But it’s a mark – the high mark – of Sayers’ art that this makes no difference at all; the whole thing barrels along so readably that none of its countless absurdities slow you down for more than half a step. Wimsey is unsinkable, and it doesn’t take many pages of any of these novels for that fact to make you smile. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club has much less meat on its bones than much stronger works like Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night or the hilarious Murder Must Advertise, but in some ways that itself is a recommendation: some days, you want the fizz.
January 12th, 2014
Or is it three Supermen? DC Comics currently publishes three different versions of their flagship character – not three different Superman titles (I think that number is up to eight, yes? If we use the yardstick of ‘title which wouldn’t exist without Superman’ and thus exclude Justice League but include both the idiotically-titled Batman/Superman and the idiotically titled Superman/Wonder Woman), but three different conceptions of Superman himself. I can’t recall another time in the company’s long history when that was the case.
The first version, by default of ubiquity and popularity, is the Superman of “The New 52,” the re-envisioning of the character in the wake of the company’s soup-to-nuts reboot a couple of years ago. That Superman is decked out in a kind of super-armor, a corseted suit complete with military-style upright collars and seams of piping in random locations – and more importantly, he’s a self-absorbed and aloof douchebag, perfect and judgemental, very much an alien among us (it’s no coincidence that this version was the one handed to Zack Snyder for use in what turned out to be the most successful Superman movie of all time, the one where he lets Pa Kent die, flattens Metropolis, and murders his enemy). When “The New 52″ launched, this new Superman starred in newly-renumbered runs of Superman and Action Comics, and they were in their own separate ways almost physically painful experiences for any long-time Superman fan such as myself.
Those long-time fans recently got something of a gift from DC: a new series called The Adventures of Superman which features (bizarrely, and almost certainly for murky legal reasons of copyrighting) the traditional Superman, the one I grew up eagerly reading. The quick field-guide style identifying signs of this traditional Superman are his hair (there’s a spit-curl) and his costume: the reds are brighter, the blues are brighter, and the bright red underpants are on the outside as Rao intended. But the deeper, more important tags are here as well: this Superman, despite his vast powers, is a caring, human figure, someone well-loved and well-trusted by humanity at large. He’s a hero, not just some weird alien guy who’s dating Wonder Woman and might decide to turn against mankind at any moment. And one more little tip of the hat to that “traditional” Superman: the stories in The Adventures of Superman (which had their origins online, the kids tell me) are not only heartfelt but short and self-contained, no inflated multi-part arcs designed to be overpriced trade paperbacks.
And then there’s the third ongoing version of the character, DC’s Smallville: Season Eleven, which, again almost certainly for murky legal reasons, continues the story-lines of the popular TV series Smallville, which ended with Clark Kent (played by pucker-mouthed tobacco addict Tom Welling) taking on the identity of Superman for the first time. The Superman in this very odd series is largely undefined as a character, and since the artistic directive mandates that he and his supporting cast be drawn to resemble the actors from the show, everybody looks like they’ve had botched reconstructive surgery. But even so, this is a Superman – fighting severely re-imagined versions of the comics’ super-villains, teaming up with severely re-imagined versions of other DC superheroes (including, just recently, Batman), but in love with Lois Lane and famously – almost by definition – imbued with the very human values of his Smallville upbringing.
Reading the most recent issues of Superman, Action Comics, and The Adventures of Superman (hard-core fan that I am, I still can’t really bring myself to stomach the mostly necrophilic shenanigans of Smallville, although I’ve glimpsed fleeting signs that it could, if allowed, morph into something interesting), I was struck by something that gave me a twinge of optimism: convergence. Leaving aside the bewilderingly antagonistic world of the movie franchise and just concentrating on the comics, I couldn’t help but notice this week that that “New 52″ version of Superman seems to be moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, closer to the traditional Superman. In the latest Action Comics, for instance, written by Greg Pak and drawn mostly by Aaron Kuder (he gets a couple of assists for a few pages, because it’s a well-known fact that no human being can pencil all 22 issues of a comic book by himself), although still a god-being who floats rather than walks and who lives in a gigantic arctic fortress instead of an apartment on Clinton Street, at least shows a more openly emotional connection to his Smallville upbringing – and thanks to Kuder’s pleasingly offbeat artwork, it’s certainly thrilling to watch him fight monsters alongside his childhood sweetheart Lana Lang. There’s idealism creeping in here too, and I think this is only natural: the “New 52″ A-hole is a very new creation – today’s up-and-coming comics writers didn’t spend their youths dreaming of some day writing that unappealing character. They spent their youths dreaming of writing the real, ‘traditional’ Superman who gradually re-emerged after John Byrne’s catastrophic revisions of the character back in 1986. That re-emergence happened for the same reasons: writers want to add to the lore of Superman, not the lore of Hot Writer X.
Of course, the lore of Superman is on full display in the latest Adventures of Superman, written by Marc Guggenheim and wonderfully drawn by Joe Bennett in a heartwarming story called “Tears for Krypton” in which the Man of Steel is shocked to learn that his home planet of Krypton never in fact exploded – and that his father Jor-el is still alive. To put it mildly, it’s an old, old story idea – but that hardly matters when you’re dealing with a legendary character, and Guggenheim and Bennett knock it out of the park.
I’ve given up hoping DC Comics will ever fully restore this Superman, the brightly-colored much-admired hero who’s in love with a human woman because he considers himself human. I’ve largely made my peace with this new version of Superman who plays video games, calls people “dude,” and mostly thinks people less powerful than himself are kinda lame. But as long as The Adventures of Superman limps along at the comics shop, I can still get a little taste of that grand tradition – and if something of that grand tradition slowly terraforms the soulless new version of the character, so much the better.