Last week’s London Review of Books started out with a dollop of crazy and just kept barreling along! The nutty topping came first, from a letter-writer out of County Tipperary who felt the need to do a little proud confessing:

I once sold a pigsty, which is now a disguised dwelling, and built a cabin from a hundred pallets nearby. I have not willingly used a flush toilet for forty years; drink only rainwater; and have never driven a car.

memoirs of walter bagehotAnd while you’re still trying to figure out the darker implications of how one goes about unwillingly using a flush toilet, the LRB enlists one literary giant to take the piss out of another: the redoubtable Ferdinand Mount sets his cross-hairs on that arch-Victorian, Walter Bagehot. Mount isn’t reviewing some new biography, of course (I sincerely doubt we’ll be seeing one of those any time soon) – instead, he’s using Frank Prochaska’s The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot as his pretext.

Prochaska’s book is a deeply intelligent and deeply odd concoction from last year, in which the author distills an enormous amount of primary source reading into a quasi-fictional version of the memoirs Bagehot never in fact wrote. Yale University Press made a very pretty hardcover production out of the thing, but even so, it was one of the only new books from 2013 that baffled my own attempts at writing a review. I admired the spirit and scholarship behind the thing, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to say about it.

In my own partial defense, I don’t think Mount had a much clearer view of the thing than I did; instead of delving too deeply into the book, he takes the occasion of his article to delve into the critical myth of Bagehot himself, starting with a line guaranteed to irritate the man’s fourteen living fans: “The simplest starting point – and also the ultimate answer – is to say what Bagehot undoubtedly was, thoroughly, professionally, and ancestrally: a banker.” Hee. I’ve been watching Mount have this kind of donnish fun for virtually the whole of his professional career, and it never gets stale.

“It seems something of a mystery that Bagehot should endure as an icon of sagacity,” Mount writes. “[He] shows little sense of or interest in constitutional structure. All he is interested in is power, and what he tells us – this is his groundbreaking insight – is that power resides with the majority in the House of Commons and nowhere else …” It’ll take the Grand Old Man a few glowing praise-jobs in other periodicals to recover from this kind of unblinking scrutiny. The Weekly Standard already did their best; maybe The American Scholar will step up to the plate.

In the meantime, this issue featured another writer hitting all his marks: the always-enjoyable Andrew O’Hagan uncorks one after another great snide comment at the expense of David Plante’s new memoir Becoming a Londoner – and much of what O’Hagan writes is at least as quotable as the choicest bits of Plante’s own book:

His diaries are good because they are true to his own narcissism, revealing how, in the magic spectacle of London literary life, he is always able to pull his own self out of the hat.

Granted, Plante brings much of this mandarin abuse on himself, since he takes no trouble in his book to hide what a self-centered ninny he could be back when he was young and beautiful (in his defense, when he was an arrogant and extremely promising undergraduate in Boston, his Wildean sense of quippy entitlement didn’t seem quite so out of place). O’Hagan has an acute taste for ninny-hunting and never lets his victim up off the floor:

Plante and his partner were smart, pretty, adulatory and new – a shoo-in to the company of elderly gays and needy widows – but the vacancy at the centre of Planet’s ambition is much in evidence. He’s one of those who seems to have accepted early on the notion that, if he couldn’t be a great writer, he would be close to those who were.

(This last evaluation is a bit too abrupt, especially from a critic who considers Plante’s 1983 novel Difficult Women to be his best work, when that the catholicdistinction clearly goes to 1986’s The Catholic)

But as good as both O’Hagan and Mount are, by far the most memorable piece in this particular LRB is something called “Ghosts of the Tsunami” by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s the story of a man exorcising the troubled ghosts of those killed by the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan and killed nearly 20,000 people, and Parry is such a shrewd and powerful storyteller that you get pulled into the drama regardless of what you think about ghosts:

As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.

There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.

The whole thing had such a fierce observational clarity and a perfect narrative flow that it reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima on more grounds than just raw topical pathos. In fact, I’m really hoping this little essay was testing the water for a book.

  • Peter

    Thanks for the David Plante recommendation.

    It’s now in my to read list on Goodreads.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue