Posts from August 2014
August 30th, 2014
Our story today is an oldie from the halcyon days of 1974, when a United States increasingly mired in the Watergate scandal got some much-needed distraction by turning to the pages of Marvel Comics for the comics event of the year (if you don’t count the first appearances of both the Punisher and Wolverine – but since they’re two of the dumbest, most boring comic book characters ever created, I’m not counting them): the wedding of Quicksilver and Crystal.
Well, OK, so ‘the United States’ in general didn’t get any much-needed distraction from that event; the United States in general was reading Jaws and pining all unknowingly for Internet porn. Nevertheless, the aforementioned wedding was the talk of comic book geeks! Quicksilver, the hot-tempered Avengers member capable of running at super speed (who made his big screen debut in this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past played by pack-a-day tobacco addict Evan Peters, and who’ll make very much bigger splash in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he’ll be played by five-pack-a-day tobacco addict Aaron Taylor Johnson), had been injured in a recent storyline left to recover in Attilan, the hidden Himalayan refuge of the Inhumans, a secret race of genetically-altered beings ruled by the silent, regal Black Bolt. In Attilan, Quicksilver was cared for and eventually fell in love with a young Inhuman named Crystal, who’d years before been a temporary member of Marvel’s inaugural super-group, the Fantastic Four, where she’d been in love with Johnny Storm, that group’s Human Torch.
Quicksilver’s sister, to whom he’d shown fanatical devotion over the course of fifty issues of The Avengers, lost that devotion when she fell in love with her fellow Avenger the Vision; Quicksilver hotly disowned his sister, telling her he wouldn’t speak with her as long as she professed to love a machine, and in Avengers issues immediately preceding the ones we’re eventually going to discuss, the Scarlet Witch had more pressing concerns than her brother’s bigotry – namely, a Vietnamese martial arts superhero named Mantis, who’d recently moved into stately Avengers Mansion as the Yoko Ono-style girlfriend of the Swordsman, who’d returned to join the team. Mantis turned out to be, you’ll forgive the term, just a touch predatory; she showed less and less interest in her loser boyfriend – and more and more interest in the Vision.
Patiently and intelligently, Avengers writer Steve Englehart developed this love-quadrangle into some of the most sophisticated romantic and cross-romantic relationships ever seen in superhero comics, and for most of that time, not a peep was heard about Quicksilver; he wasn’t in The Avengers anymore, and Crystal wasn’t in The Fantastic Four (although by a strange quirk, that team had recently taken on Crystal’s older sister and fellow Inhuman, Medusa, as a new member), and the Inhumans were still a few years away from having an ongoing title of their own – fans just assumed that brother and sister weren’t speaking.
Which brings us to the bombshell that opens Avengers #127, “Bride and Doom”: the Avengers – consisting of the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Mantis, the Swordsman, plus Thor and Iron Man (as usual, the absence of Captain America from any Avengers story feels somehow wrong) – have just sat down to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner lovingly prepared by their butler Jarvis (even though the Scarlet Witch and the Swordsman still have their costume gloves on, and even though the Vision doesn’t eat food, and even though Iron Man still has his face-plate bolted on – and isn’t Mantis just insufferable enough to be a vegetarian? Guess Thor would have been doing most of the turkey-eating) when suddenly in a flash appears among them the gruff Inhuman Gorgon, alongside the enormous teleporting dog Lockjaw. Gorgon is easily provoked, and the stamp of his hooved feet cause mini-earthquakes, but at first he’s all smiles. “So, my friends, have I arrived too early, then?” he asks. “Why aren’t you prepared to depart for the wedding?”
When he tells them which wedding, the team is shocked (Sal Buscema does the fine artwork for this issue, beautifully inked by Joe Staton, with a wonderful, brooding coloring job by Englehart himself)(although a great many of the female faces have been quietly re-drawn by Marvel’s butt-insky art director, John Romita, Sr.) – and the fact that his errand has misfired enrages Gorgon: “You did not know! It was arranged for that arrogant, posturing fool to notify you, but you did not know!” Seismic foot-stamping follows, quickly pacified by Mantis, who soothes Gorgon by saying, “Your frustration may well be justified … yet you must not vent it upon our house!” (To which the Scarlet Witch immediately responds, “This is the Avengers’ house, Mantis. You’re here merely as a courtesy to the Swordsman! But let it pass” – the final bee-yotch being left unspoken)
And right at that point, this storyline should have ended. The Scarlet Witch should have said, “Well, Gorgon, neither I nor the Avengers will be attending this wedding, since the groom, though a former Avenger, hates both me and the Vision so much that, as you can see, he couldn’t bring himself to invite us.”
But instead, inexplicably, the Avengers decide to go, and from that moment on, one realization before all others begins to impress itself upon the reader about this issue: how little sense it makes. In what was then a very rare move in comics, Avengers #127 is continued not in Avengers #128 but in Fantastic Four #150 – but there’s no logistical help forthcoming in that issue, since it’s even more screwed up than its predecessor (the weird inconsistencies start even with the respective covers: the Avengers cover, drawn by Gil Kane, is a powerful, iconic classic, whereas the Fantastic Four cover, despite also being drawn by Gil Kane, is a dorky and confused mess).
The problems start right away. The Avengers are greeted upon their arrival in Attilan by the Inhumans (in a bit of dialogue no doubt inserted by continuity-freak editor Roy Thomas, Crystal tells the Scarlet Witch that it’s nice to meet her) and by the Fantastic Four, consisting of Reed Richards and his wife Susan, the Human Torch, the Thing, Medusa, and the Richards’ young son Franklin, whose in the care of his nanny, the ancient sorceress Agatha Harkness. Everybody’s all smiles, even though Quicksilver isn’t present (Crystal tells us that Gorgon ‘radioed’ to tell everybody in Attilan that the Avengers would be jetting in instead of teleporting – presumably he used the Avengers’ radio to do that, since he wasn’t carrying one himself), and while everybody’s moving to the banquet area, Mantis points out an enormous, garishly-costumed statue and asks about it. Medusa tells her it’s Omega – a machine created by Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus, a machine that was powered by the social guilt and bigotry the Inhuman royal family felt about their repression of the “Alpha Primitives,” a kind of Inhuman serf class. Omega, Medusa explains, had been rendered inactive once the Inhumans decided to face their prejudices and initiate legislation making the Alpha Primitives full equals before the law. Immediately before this scene, we’d seen Maximus in his own quarters, ranting to somebody off-camera about how, together, they would wipe out the Inhumans; that mysterious stranger then blasts Maximus unconscious and declares an intention to act alone. We next see that mysterious figure – now cloaked – inciting a group of Alpha Primitives to rebellion.
The scene shifts to the banquet area, where our heroes are performing various feats of strength and skill for a cheering crowd as Black Bolt and Crystal (but still no Quicksilver) look on. Suddenly, Iron Man and Medusa begin attacking the Alpha Primitives in the crowd; they’re restrained by their teammates, whereupon they pass out – leaving some very angry Alpha Primitives, who rage, “Despite his ‘reforms,’ Black Bolt wants us dead, brothers!”
But they don’t actually do anything, and the scene shifts to nighttime, where at last we see Quicksilver, having an earnest conversation with Crystal about the fact that her sister and Iron Man went berserk a few hours ago and started attacking Alpha Primitives in a crowd of spectators – no, no … sorry, they’re not discussing that! Neither one of them seems to care about it – they’re talking about how Quicksilver still hasn’t reconciled with his sister. When the Scarlet Witch shows up, Crystal leaves them to talk in private and goes out walking – where she’s suddenly abducted by … a revived Omega! He grabs her and walks off – no guards in Attilan, I guess, and no onlookers to notice a thirty-foot-tall giant striding toward the imperial palace)(and no resistance at all from Crystal, despite the fact that she’s one of the most powerful Inhumans – and when our assembled heroes learn of it, they immediately suspect Maximus and troop off to his cell, where they find him unconscious.
When the Avengers confront the Alpha Primitives about whether or not they revived Omega, they’re met with instant denials and hostility: “We have had enough of Black Bolt’s repression!” Whereupon Quicksilver loses his temper: “You spew slogans while my fiancee’s life is threatened? You posturing fool – learn what it means to mock Quicksilver!” – and he starts slamming into them at super-speed. Maximus regains consciousness, grabs a laser-rifle, and starts firing on the Alpha Primitives himself, clearly under the same kind of mind control as Iron Man and Medusa (but not Quicksilver, who seems to attack the Alpha Primitives just because he’s a violent jerk).
There erupts a violent fight that’s quickly interrupted by the re-appearance of Omega, who’s now emitting some kind of energy that gradually paralyzes all members of the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, and the Avengers (this happens without first making them insane, and there’s no sign of Crystal). Once all his enemies are motionless, Omega pulls off his face-mask and reveals himself as … Ultron-7! The vicious killer robot who, as Ultron-6, had recently been defeated and dismantled by the Avengers! Had that more innocent generation had the terminology, it would collectively have gasped “WTF???”
It’s a mess of an issue, yes, but hoo-boy, things get EVER so much worse in the conclusion, over in Fantastic Four #150! Here the writing is by Gerry Conway and the art is by Rich Buckler-doing-an-extended-Jack-Kirby-homage, and the scene opens right where we left off – kind of: the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans all stand paralyzed before Ultron-7, who explains that a) he used ‘the power of his computerized will’ to immobilize them (why this would work on, for instance, Thor, or right through Iron Man’s armor, isn’t explained – but hey, who knew anything about computers in 1974?) and b) he’s now releasing them from that control because he wants them to “experience” their destruction at his hands. He explains that Maximus used a tractor beam to retrieve his severed head from the rubble of his earlier defeat, ‘revive’ it, and attach it to the body of Omega.
Once our heroes are released, they immediately try to fight Ultron-7 – at which point he unleashes even more of that computerized will, threatening to ‘strike to the depths of your souls – and drain the last vestige of your mentalities! Your skulls will be filled with psychic rubble … your bodies will be possessed by gibbering idiots … and there is nothing you can do to stop the process … Nothing you can do at all!”
But Ultron-7 reckoned without one little x-factor: Franklin Richards! As Conway’s narration tells us, “Franklin … who has lain in a coma these many months. Franklin, a mere child … whose brain contains power enough to consume an entire planet!” Franklin wakes up, zaps Ultron-7, re-unites with his overjoyed parents, and we cut straight to the big wedding.
As Benjamin J. Grimm would say, “Yeeesh.”
I remember loving the fact that this storyline jumped from one title I loved (this run of Avengers is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history) to another title I loved (this run of Fantastic Four is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history), but oh my, this two-parter doesn’t bear forty-year scrutiny well at all. As I re-read it, a thousand questions cropped up – questions neither Englehart nor Conway (or Roy Thomas, who was the editor of both these issues) even seem aware of, let alone able to answer.
Why would a mutant, an android, a Vietnamese Buddhist, and a Norse Freaking God even observe Thanksgiving?
Why would Gorgon make the trip with Lockjaw without asking his own cousin Crystal whether or not the Avengers had actually been invited?
Why would the Scarlet Witch decide to gate-crash her brother’s wedding without such an invitation? Just to be … well, something that rhymes with Scarlet Witch?
Why wouldn’t the Avengers return to Attilan with Gorgon and Lockjaw, as was clearly Gorgon’s intent?
If Maximus attached Ultron-7’s head to the body of Omega, how could Omega’s deactivated body still have its head when Mantis asked about it? Since Maximus is gunned down before the Avengers arrive, he’d have had no opportunity to make the switch.
Omega’s body is thirty feet tall – but Ultron-6’s head was normal human-sized. So how did it get to be gigantic? If Maximus did it, how could he lose control of a robot whose very brain he had to take apart and rebuild? And if Ultron-6 did it, then why would he have needed Maximus’s help at all?
Why would a disguised Ultron-7 try to create dissent among the Alpha Primitives? What would he care about internal Attilan politics at all, let alone enough to manipulate Medusa, Iron Man, and Maximus into attacking the Alpha Primitives and thereby inciting a riot?
Why would Ultron-7 disguise himself as Omega at all? And once he’d done that, why would he kidnap Crystal? And what the heck happened to Crystal? One minute he’s stalking off with her, and the next time we see her, she’s with Quicksilver at the altar – where was she during the big fight?
And speaking of the big fight: why didn’t Ultrons 1-6 display this ‘computerized’ ability to paralyze biological brains? For that matter, why didn’t any subsequent Ultrons display it either?
And why would Conway tell us Ultron-7’s electronic death-rays revived little Franklin from a coma when Englehart clearly showed us Franklin awake and smiling in the earlier chapter?
True, Conway does give us a nice little moment where Thor and Iron Man, hesitating to join the wedding, each reflect on their romantic pasts – Thor mentioning both his mortal girlfriend Jane Foster and his immortal girlfriend Sif, Iron Man talking about his trusty friend Pepper (and musing, a bit disturbingly, “I’ve been searching for someone to replace her since”) – but for the most part, the issue reads as if he and Englehart never even talked about this joint venture they were undertaking … which, given the state of the Marvel command structure at the time, may well have been the case.
Re-reading that joint venture was undeniably fun – these old issues hold so much emotional resonance for me, this period in which it sometimes seemed like Marvel could do no wrong (Reed and Sue getting divorced! Peter Parker acting like a real adult! A simmering love-quadrangle at the heart of the Avengers! The Infinity Saga over in Thor! The ongoing glory that was the company’s Conan titles at the time, etc.). But even so, this two-parter really underscored how much better at shared-title stories Marvel (and DC) have become. That improvement may have been entirely profit-driven (witness the sixteen “Original Sin” spin-offs and tie-ins currently proliferating around that summer event in Marvel’s current lineup), but it’s largely yielded stories with a LOT more internal consistency than this one.
Marvel fans will be encountering Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Ultron (and the Vision? Could he be the mysterious caped figure floating above the battle in the leaked poster?) in the next two-billion-dollar Joss Whedon movie, but I’m guessing Ultron will employ legions of killer robots in that movie, not the power of his computerized BRAIN …
August 22nd, 2014
Our books today are two unconventional little hand-sized guidebooks to the marvellous city of Venice, 1966’s very popular and often-reprinted classic Venice for Pleasure by J. G. Links and Another Venice from the year 2000 by Jacopo Fasolo.
Of course these two books are two little bits on a towering heap of Venice guidebooks – hundreds and thousands of such books of every shape and price have been manufactured over the last two centuries – but these two are interesting on one level for the subtle ways they stand in opposition to each other. Links’s book has a Canaletto painting on the cover and is chock-full of black-and-white photographs and reprints of the many classic works of art and architecture, whereas Fasolo’s book features only his own drawings, for instance, but there’s a more fundamental difference. When he wrote his book half a century ago, Links set out a fairly revolutionary approach to sightseeing for his readers, namely eschewing the gaudy, booming gondola industry and hoofing it:
There is not a building in the city proper that cannot be reached on foot and the spread of cafes on land has done much to compensate for the loss of amenities on the water. This being the case, it seems only sensible to walk in Venice; nowhere else will the walker be so well rewarded, and the streets, hard though their surface appear, have a miraculous spring in the paving which makes fatigue almost impossible.
Whereas Fasolo comes down firmly on the other side: “To see the buildings of this “other” Venice, you will have to climb into a boat and silently glide along the city’s remoter canals, those without foundations.”
They nevertheless share some things in common (aside from making sure they hit all the big sites and top-notch churches, that is), not only with each other but with virtually all other Venice guidebooks ever written. All such books have to begin with a kind of aesthetic decompression sequence; they have to reassure their readers that their initial impressions of Venice might not – horrors – be entirely favorable. Links tells a familiar story:
Let it be said at once, many people are disappointed in Venice. ‘Do you know what he said to me when he came back from Venice?’ a distinguished old gentleman asked me once; ‘he said he was disappointed! I must say I envied him his power of imagination.’
And he’s plainspoken and funny about the way the city regularly overwhelms its visitors:
Very few travellers seem to enjoy their first visit to Venice. They are awed, dazzled, overwhelmed by its appearance. Its sights arouse their admiration, or, sometimes, their disgust. They marvel at its art, grow incredulous as they learn its history and thank heaven fasting for its existence. Above all, they are exhausted by it; physically, mentally and emotionally, its assault is too much for the ordinary human being to withstand in the few days usually at his disposal. He flees to Florence, where everything has its feet firmly on the ground.
Fasolo opens his own little book with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, written way back in 1907 and summing up some of the same visceral reactions:
It almost seems difficult for me to admire this Venice: you have to start at the beginning to learn. Its marble is ashen, a pallid grey, as luminous as the edge of a coal that has just stopped smouldering. How inexplicable are the red of the walls and the green of the shutters; so restrained and yet impossible to ignore; it is the past, but in the fullness of flight; it is so pale, just as people turn pale as their emotions increase.
Unlike Links, Fasolo quickly slips into the kind of quasi-exalted verbiage designed to allay this feeling of being overwhelmed, although he’s at least quite good at it:
The water breathes in unison with the ocean, permeates every nook and cranny of the city, constituting its roads and walkways and infusing the buildings with an ever-changing light, reflecting their image and constantly forging new forms. Each step is punctuated by exceptional motifs and a wealth of sensations that the ever-mutating situations of the light and water surfaces multiply and extend to the very limits of the surreal.
He’s entirely right about that surreal quality of the city proper, just as Links is entirely right about the incredibly limiting effects of having only a few days to take it all in – and the two elements together can make Venice a very frustrating place for visitors, a frustration little guidebooks like these two do relatively little to ease. I’ve been very lucky in my own experience with Venice: I’ve had the chance to soak in that surreal light-shifting quality at leisure (and in all seasons, which is equally crucial), and I’ve had the luxury of time. When I re-read things like Another Venice or Venice for Pleasure, I’m reminded of the luxury, and of the crowds of hurrying tourists I used to watch scuttling from church to church in the sweltering summer months. Probably some of those tourists had one of these books stuffed into their backpacks, and maybe they perused those books in just the right circumstances: in an comfortable chair, on a lazy afternoon, back in Iowa.
August 19th, 2014
It’s been two blessed years since the New York Review of Books reprinted John Williams’s flatulently boring 1965 novel Stoner and the presumably bored grandees of the book-chat world surprised all rational people by taking it up as some sort of lost classic and singing its praises from every literary pulpit in the English-speaking world. Two blessed years since this furtive and thankfully short-lived attempt at a Williams revival.
It was long enough for me to hope that the lunacy had departed from the book-chat ranks, who’d then drift back to over-praising stridently pixie-ish Workshop women. But no – the NYRB struck again by reprinting Williams’s stupefyingly dull 1972 novel Augustus, and it, too, has reaped heaps of grotesquely inaccurate praise. The attractive paperback features a specially-commissioned new Introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, one of our most intelligent and pleasingly mandarin book critics. At first his excellent essay raised my hopes, since for the first few hundred words it seems very pointedly to avoid actually praising the book (I smiled when he calls it Williams’s “most rigorous” book, which is certainly true as far as it goes). But no, the ether eventually affects even his first-rate brain and the superlatives start rolling out – culminating rather unforgivably in his equating of Augustus with a handful of truly great historical novels like The Memoirs of Hadrian and the novels of Mary Renault.
And one of my most reliable reactions to such a frustration – turning to National Geographic – was thwarted this time around, and for, amazingly enough, the exact same reason! The latest National Geographic features a cover story that doesn’t just flirt within the prospect of renovating the reputation of the Roman emperor Nero but actively engages with it. I wasn’t prohibited from inquiry by the issue’s absolutely awful cover (quite possibly the worst the magazine has ever sported – an illustration of a statue of Nero holding up a lighted match while a background of Rome burns), and I settled in with Robert Draper’s article hoping against hope that the tag-lines about revisiting “Rome’s Bad Boy” was an exaggeration merely meant to sell magazines.
But no, alas. Draper goes to Rome and manages to find half a dozen bumptious Italian historians willing to say that Nero got a bad rap – that despite all those murdered relatives and despite the fact that he flattened half of Rome for his egomaniacal building projects (helpfully illustrated in the text), he was actually a progressive and misunderstood ruler. Two of the people Draper interviews say the same thing: that Nero was “no better and no worse” than the emperors who came before him or after him – a statement so preposterous it must require, I guess, the restraint of a National Geographic writer not to laugh right in the faces of the people who say it.
So: Roman revivals on all sides! Where to turn for relief? Well, fortunately the world of high fashion always makes such perfect sense …
August 18th, 2014
Our book today is a gorgeous 1974 Thames & Hudson volume called The English Country House: an art and a way of life, written by Olive Cook with loads of great photos by A. F. Kersting. The book has one of the most interesting and charming subjects of them all to examine, and it opens with a quote from Henry James that couldn’t be more quintessentially true:
Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house.
James of course knew what he was talking about; he himself made a habit of shuttling (ever so unwillingly, of course) from country house to country house during his time in England, and if you’ve ever visited such a country house, you’ll understand immediately why – under the right circumstances, they can be little pieces of Heaven on Earth.
If you have visited such a house, it’s overwhelmingly likely you’ve visited it as a paying customer, handing over your entrance fee to the smiling National Trust employee standing in front of the velvet rope in the front hall. I confess I’ve done that too, many times – I’ve visited almost every country house Cook and Kersting document here, and I know the history of these magnificent old buildings to the last detail. But books like this one have an added allure for me because one of my oldest friends comes from English “old money” (the main branch of her family’s own country house, just outside of Leeds, is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener) and through her kindness – and in her company – I’ve spent many weeks and weekends not just visiting but actually living in English country houses all over the country, in all seasons. I met and came to know some of their current owners, spent many deliciously peaceful afternoons tucked into upstairs nooks while autumn rain pattered on inner courtyards, or walking on the grounds during England’s preternaturally elongated twilights.
Cook and Kersting’s book brought back all those memories and more. They tour their readers vicariously through some of the grandest old buildings in England, and Cook is throughout the book a lively and highly informed guide, shifting easily between historical overview and architectural developments, as when she’s telling us about Great Chalfield Manor in scenic Wiltshire:
Brick gave wing to unprecedented flights of fancy in various directions: it encouraged romanticized elaborations of the traditional house of the immediate past, it gave rise to new, extravagant forms of customary features and it also stimulated the feeling for ordered design already apparent in the composition of Great Chalfield Manor. It even led to a structural absurdity – the replacing of the wattle and daub filling in the important timber-framed houses with brick. For of course the timber frame becomes redundant in the brick-built house.
Some English country houses are of course known for their oddities as much as for their quiet grandeur, and some manage to combine the two – like Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, with its gorgeous rooms and its overlooking view of the quiet river Gadder and its gaudy moat meant to evoke an entire martial past the place never came close to actually warranting. Cook is particularly good about this place, which passed into the hands of the National Trust half a century ago:
A less overweening expression of individual pride and power, a more romantic allusion to the past than Faulkbourne Hall, Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk translates the theme of the moated, quadrangular castle into weathered red-brick domesticity with conspicuous success. It is unforgettable because of the contrast in scale between the symmetrical south ranges and the immense, dominating and co-ordinating gatehouse, seven storeys high, and also because towers, battlements, stepped gables, oriels and crenellated chimneys, starting up like carefully positioned castles in a game of chess, rise so directly from the moat upon which the house seems to lie like a galleon becalmed.
“Like a galleon becalmed” is, come to think of it, a pretty good shorthand description of the effect most English country houses have on even the most familiar visitor; like castles, manors, and country houses everywhere, they’re intended to be worlds unto themselves, bastions and refuges, and they retain something of that feeling even though their beds have been soaked with blood and their walls have echoed with the screams of the unmedicated dying for centuries. I once spent a torrentially rainy week in a rather large old country house in the beautiful country of Kent and I came to know a reed-frail boy who was the youngest son of the family. He never spoke above a low murmur, and he was painfully shy, but once he opened up to me, he confessed how much he loved the house and grounds. After a couple of conversations, I had an astounding realization and had to ask him outright to confirm it: I realized he’d never actually left the house and grounds – that he’d never, in 16 years, set foot outside.
He admitted it, and I thought there would follow some expressions of regret or longing – but there were none. I asked him if he were ever curious about the world outside the Park, and he sighed and said, “I’d be so afraid of being disappointed.”
That wasn’t the only week during which I knew exactly how he felt, and this wonderful book – a Brattle find, naturally – brought it all back to me.
August 12th, 2014
Our book today is another recent Brattle find: Enrico Dandolo & The Rise of Venice, a 2003 study of medieval Venice (and its most remarkable citizen, whose life spanned almost the whole of the twelfth century) by Thomas Madden, who has a wonderful way of scraping away the romantic veneer of post-Renaissance Venice and showing his readers the decidedly less glamorous city two centuries before:
In the eleventh century Venic was a different place. Dirt and mud abounded. A boat ride down the Grand Canal was anything but spectacular. Venice’s central waterway was flancked, not by gowering palazzi, but by piers buzzing with workers loading and unloading merchant vessels, wooden buildings ranging from large warehouses to tiny hovels, and, most of all, land. Yes, open areas were still plentiful in Venice. A traveler on the Grand Canal could watch farmers cultivating vegetables, fishermen netting their catch in closed-off rivers, and men and women tending vines and inspecting their grapes. Many Venetians also scratched out a living in the lagoon’s plentiful saltworks. The city’s landscape was dotted with marshes crossed by tributaries flowing out of the Grand Canal. On the banks of the canal, where one day masterpieces of architecture would stand, cows grazed and pigs ate at the trough.
Madden chronicles the contentious international relations of the time and the rise of powerful new mercantile families like the Dandolo clan. There are plenty of drawn daggers between these clans (perhaps inevitably, Madden has written a particularly violent book), but the main villains of the piece are the marauding Normans muscling in on Venetian trade routes and land bases. “The Normans were wild and warlike,” Madden writes, adding wryly, “in other words, bad for business.”
In 1147, when the Normans invaded the Adriatic and conquered the Byzantine island of Corfu, threatening those trade routes, the Venetian patriarch (of the Polani family) announced Venetian participation in a naval war to repel the Normans, but the Dandolo family objected – a puzzling step Madden duly interrogates:
Although in keeping with reform thought, Dandolo’s decision to oppose the alliance with Byzantium is an odd one, suggesting that he and his supporters had become overly zelous in their goals. Having already captured Thessalonica, the Normans were gunning for Constantinople itself. It was in everyone’s interest, both in Venice and in Rome, to stop them. Control of Corfu already gave the Normans an opportunity to close off the Adriatic Sea, thus strangling Venice’s access to eastern markets. Few Venetians could accept such a state of affairs, least of all the Dandolo, who derived much of their wealth from trade.
At the heart of all these dangers and intrigues is Enrico Dandolo himself, old as the hills and sharp as a tack despite many personal tragedies and the loss of his eyesight. In most histories of the Fourth Crusade, Dandolo is an arch, almost cartoonish planner, a figure trusted by nobody. Madden has to deal with this figure before he can develop his much more complex and nuanced picture:
A word should be said at the outset about the character of the doge. A great many accounts of the crusade rely heavily on the harsh words of Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine senator who never met Enrico Dandolo. To this is added the shopworn stereotype of “Venetians first; Christians afterward.” The result is a rather grotesque caricature of the doge, based on little knowledge of the man or his world, which is then pressed into service to explain the outcome of the crusade. Dandolo in these accounts is portrayed as a conniving and clever trickster who beguiled the naïve northerners into a web of confusion so as to pervert their pious crusade into a war of Venetian profit and revenge. He kept his designs secret, mulling them over in the dark recesses of his black heart, where they apparently can be discerned only by the sharp eyes of contemporaries who never met him and by various modern historians.
“Needless to say,” he writes, “this colorful character will not receive another airing here.”
It’s the groundwork to the more famous Renaissance Venice that’s being laid in these fascinating pages. I read the book in one eager gulp, and I still scratch my head a bit that I missed it when it originally appeared. But catching omissions like that is part of what Stevereads does, so here it is at last!
August 7th, 2014
Our book today is an oversized ‘coffee table’ treat, Vincenzo Labella’s lavishly illustrated 1990 tour of the Italian Renaissance, A Season of Giants, 1492-1508: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael. Labella claims right from the start that his book centers on three titanic artistic geniuses of the period, and when it comes to those three, our author never met a guide-book cliche he didn’t like:
This book is about that season and its protagonists. They were not supermen; to the contrary, even as they climbed to the highest peaks of excellence and fame, they retained their natural vulnerability. Far from being unassailable, they were hurt, and in turn, hurt others by envy, jealousy and pride. They were arrogant in the self-assurance of their talent, humble in the knowledge that beyond any finishing line there was another and yet another to be crossed. The threads of their lives were spun from different origins, yet were interwoven, and often entangled, in that unique loom of the Renaissance tapestry that was Florence.
Ordinarily, that kind of thing fairly quickly irritates me (no doubt because I’m prone to it myself), but there’s something about the unabashed, almost boyish enthusiasm with which Labella goes about the task of giving his (fairly good, fairly breathless) summary of the high Renaissance that wins me over every time I dip into this book. And of course Labella doesn’t confine himself to his central three artists – could anybody have that kind of self-control? No, we get all the other big names of time time: from Columbus and Machiavelli to those two opposite pole-stars that briefly pulled at Florence’s – and at Michelangelo’s – imagination, the vicious religious zealot Savonarola and the thinking man’s libertine, Lorenzo the Magnificent:
The two sides of the Florentine coin, the sacred and the profane, had always attracted Michelangelo with equally suggestive power, as did the classical greatness of the Magnificent’s new Athens and the religious revival of Savonarola. His first sculptures, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapithae, are perfect examples of this dichotomy; and the later Bacchus and his first Pieta executed in Rome would confirm it.
Labella comes by his easy penchant for scene-painting in the best way possible: he paid his dues as a hack journalist and thereby learned how to make virtually anything interesting – and how to make interesting things downright riveting. Time and again in A Season of Giants, he zeroes in on just the perfect human scene to offset the epic struggles of genius that are his main theme. Take for example the discovery of the Laocoon:
Rome awoke on the cold morning of January 14, 1506, to a sweeping tramontana wind that carried the icy breath of snow across the mountains into the Tiberina valley. In the vineyard of Felice de Freddis on the Esquiline hill, amid the ruins of the baths of Emperor Titus, a farmer was digging holes in the frozen ground to bury seedlings.
Suddenly, he stopped, reeling back and crying in horror. A hand had emerged from the earth, the pale whiteness of skin visible beneath the dirt. The man ran to the house of his master. Soon a small crowd gathered around the spot; someone dared to touch the hand, cold as marble. Indeed, marble it was: a mutilated arm, a head, then a tangle of arms and serpents and more heads emerged as the digging continued. Finally, a large statuary group, surprisingly well preserved, was unearthed.
I’m sure a big part of the allure of this particular book (there are, after all, many, many books on the Italian Renaissance) for me is the fact that it was the companion-volume to a long-gone TV mini-series that was such a frothy blend of crap and quality (often in the course of the same two-minute scene) that I fell in love with it instantly. The mini-series showed on TNT and starred a bunch of really good actors – F. Murray Abraham, Ian Holm, Jonathan Hyde, John Glover – doing some of the worst work of their entire careers (although even that was subject to maddening fluctuation; true, Hyde and Holm’s work can’t be salvaged, but Abraham is an at times very effective Pope Julius II, and there’s one fleeting moment of John Glover’s Leonardo that will absolutely break your heart). The mini-series also starred handsome Mark Frankel as Michelangelo in a stiff and studious performance that doesn’t really give you much inkling of what this actor was capable of (he died in a daredevil racing accident only a few years after this mini-series aired). The pacing and directing of the mini-series is just as problematic as the acting, alas: most of those four hours are, I can objectively look back and admit, pretty unwatchable no matter how prettily they’re filmed … and yet, there are moments – the nighttime journey of the David on rollers to its morning unveiling spot, for instance, and especially the surprisingly moving final moments of the show, when Michelangelo’s stern, carping father stares in gaping awe at the newly-finished Sistine Chapel ceiling and realizes – in a very smart bit of emphasis on the part of the show – that the whole staggering cycle of the thing is about the reconciliation of fathers and sons.
I got the oversized companion book back in 1991 mainly because I was taken with the mini-series, and I ended up liking the book on its own merits. I kept that original copy for years and years, packing it into boxes and moving it from apartment to apartment, until finally at some point I lost track of it. Just recently I found it again at (where else?) my beloved Brattle Bookshop – and I don’t just mean ‘found a copy’ – I mean, of course, ‘found my copy,’ complete with pages of dog-sketches tucked into the back. I’ll try a little harder to hold onto it this time.
August 4th, 2014
Our book today is By My Hand, the new Commissario Ricciardi mystery by Maurizio DeGiovanni – a richly textured and enormously enjoyable series starring a morose young police detective in 1930s Naples who, since his childhood, has had a gift – or, from his own viewpoint, suffered under a curse – that helps him in his job solving murders but tortures him in the process:
I see the dead. On every street corner, at every window, I see the dead. I see them as they were when they died their violent deaths, their bodies ravaged, blood pouring, bones jutting out from their torn flesh. I see suicides, murder victims, those who were run over by carriages, those who drowned in the sea. I see them, and I hear them obsessively repeating the last obtuse thought of their broken lives. I see them, until they dissolve into thin air, to find a peace that may or may not exist. I don’t know where. And I feel their immense pain at abandoning love, for all time.
By the time this latest novel, the fifth in the series, opens, Ricciardi’s police team know his routines well: at any murder scene, his men form a cordon and let their boss enter first alone. They don’t know the reason for this (Ricciardi keeps his baleful secret to himself), but they know the results, the uncanny intuitive leaps their leader seems able to make after leaving any crime scene.
The scene in this book is typically brutal: a man and woman savagely hacked to death in bed in a seaside apartment building, the dead woman forlornly repeating Hat and gloves? and the man saying I don’t owe a thing, not a thing. Ricciardi is faced in these pages not only with the task of untangling these necessarily cryptic final utterances (as usual, the author does a clever and in this case touchingly ironic job of bringing the crime’s resolution back to the words Ricciardi initially hears from the dead) but also with his complex feelings for his neighbor Enrica, a wonderfully-drawn character who worriedly attended the detective’s bedside after the near-fatal car wreck that ended the last book but who has, since then, withdrawn from even the very tenuous connection she had with him – loading just a little more heartache onto our somber hero. She’s even closed the window through which Ricciardi used to watch her go about life in her own apartment, observing her as though she were yet another ghost in his life:
He missed finding in the serenity of her movements – as she made dinner for her parents and siblings, or read or cleared the table, listened to music or tutored children at home – a haven from the blood and sorrow that assailed him at every street corner, a respite from the pain that serenaded him, and him alone, with its horrible song.
As I’ve enthused on a couple of occasions now (here and here), this is an absolutely terrific series, the jewel of Europa Editions’ superb line of original paperbacks. And new readers can easily jump in at any point – and so they should!
August 3rd, 2014
My last experience with the every-other-month Boston Public Library books sale was so pleasing – not just the sight of lots of enthusiastic young people eagerly browsing the books but also a near-complete paperback set of Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent series of Aubrey/Maturin novels – that I hardly hesitated this morning to make the short trip through Boston’s choking, swampish humidity to the dear old McKim building. I didn’t go to the same location inside, alas: the book sale has been moved from its spacious quarters downstairs to the third-floor Charlotte Cushman Room (under the gorgeous, recently-restored Sargent murals). So I climbed the stairs I’ve climbed so many innumerable times, revolving in my head the dimensions of the Charlotte Cushman Room in my mind’s eye, trying to figure out how the library’s sale could possibly fit in its much smaller confines.
The answer? Horribly. The BPL’s staff did everything they could with the space they had, but even so, the city’s book-lovers seeking bargains were packed into the hot, humid room like sardines in a can, and simply browsing the shelves I found myself saying “pardon me” more times in one hour than Richard Nixon did on the phone with Gerry Ford.
And this time around, I found no finds comparable to that Aubrey/Maturin set (there was just such a set, this time of Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series, but that series has never really grabbed me – I was hoping for the whole run of “Flashman” books, or perhaps the Cairo Trilogy, but no such luck), but even so, I easily managed to fill the crook of my arm with goodies:
Tricked and Trapped, two mass-market fantasy novels by the delightful Kevin Hearne, both from 2012 and starring his himbo action hero, two-thousand-year-old Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, who has modern-day adventures in sorcery and sexual innuendo much in the nature of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” These “Iron Druid” books are extremely enjoyable candy-reading, and their general tone is captured well in the dying advice O’Sullivan’s father imparts to his sun millennia ago: “A man’s supposed to shit himself after he dies, son, not before. Try to remember that, lad, so that when your time comes, you won’t make a right girly mess of it. Now fuck off an go play in the bog.”
Also fiendishly enjoyable but far more elegant is Rose Macaulay’s 1935 collection of spirited little squibs, collected into one of those little miscellaneous nonfiction titles I always seek in order to give as sure-fired gifts. Personal Pleasures features little meditations on bed (both “Getting Into It” and “Not Getting Out of It”), armchairs, flattery, fire engines, shopping, traveling, and of course reading. This collection includes perfect little classics like “Christmas Morning” and “Booksellers’ Catalogues,” and it’s always a joy to find, in large part for the delicious anticipation of finding some new recipient for it. Every reader should have a copy of this book – but then, every reader should have all of Rose Macaulay’s books. That she’s only known in pretentious hip-lit circles for the first line of one novel of hers is an intellectual scandal.
Almost lost amidst the trade paperbacks was Alan Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel The Spell, but its setting hardly matters, since this book is always just about being lost, sandwiched as it is (along with the not-quite-as-good The Folding Star) between this author’s meteoric debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, and his incredibly good two latest novels, The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. I’ve had copies of The Spell a handful of times over the years and always managed either to lose them or give them away, so it’s always a pleasure to find a copy in some narrow crack of of some book-sale. There’s always at least a few gay themes running through Hollinghurst’s novels, but The Spell is the last of his novels that’s specifically about being gay, and all four of its main characters are the perfect Hollinghurst combination of archetype and individual. I’ll probably re-read the book tonight, and this time, I think I’ll keep it; young gay men can, after all, find their way to the local library just like plain folks.
The Spell has an arresting cover in its Penguin US paperback, and it was an equally-arresting cover that caught my eye for the Modern Library edition of Rudyard Kipling’s grotesquely overpraised 1901 novel Kim, which shows a young man silhouetted by blazing sunlight in an ornate doorway. It was just a bonus that I found this volume had an Introduction by Pankaj Mishra, who at least pays the book the compliment of warning readers that it’s not a particularly happy reading experience:
To read the novel now is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy’s journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man’s world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for him the anguish of abandoning his childhood.
Far more enjoyable to read – though even more tragic in effect – is the next book I got, Peter Burcard’s 1965 book about Robert Gould Shaw, the handsome, charismatic 25-year-old who led the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to its death under the batteries of Fort Wagner outside Charlestown in 1863. Burchard (who was, like Hearne, a hell of a likeable guy) tells the whole story of Shaw’s short life, from his boyhood on Staten Island to his meeting with Abraham Lincoln and his sight of battle in the Shenandoah – and tells it all with such lean and poetic prose that you won’t want to stop reading (I can make the same recommendation for Russell Duncan’s 1992 collection of Shaw’s letters, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find that at the BPL)(and, needless to say, my own original copy is long gone). Thousands of rude tourists tramp up Boston Common every steaming-hot summer to look at the magnificent bronze relief of Shaw and his regiment by Augustus Saint Gaudens; finding this wonderful little volume made me want to tramp up the Common again myself to look at the Shaw Memorial (I’ll do it on Monday on my way to the Atheneum, if that isn’t too unbearably Boston a combination).
By a neat coincidence, One Gallant Rush at the book sale led me next to Burke Wilkinson’s fantastic 1985 biography of Saint Gaudens, which I read and loved all those years ago and tremendously enjoyed. I’ve been a fan of Saint Gaudens for a very long time and consider him one of the greatest sculptors since the Italian Renaissance. I’ve marvelled at his statue of a standing, brooding Lincoln in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and I intentionally sought out his Hiawatha statue in Philadelphia, and many times, in bright daylight and warm, sad rain, I’ve stood in awe of his memorial statue to Clover Adams in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. In all of those moments (and plenty of others; Saint Gaudens did lots of work in his career), I’ve found myself sharing the thought that Charles McKim (who designed the library in which I found Wilkinson’s book) had when he first learned that his old friend had died. He wandered into the Church of Saint Giles in Edinburgh and stood looking at Saint Gaudens’ bas-relief of Robert Louis Stevenson:
The pilgrimage there was the nearest I could come to him, but it was a comfort to me to be able to visit the church and to see his great work constantly surrounded by the public, who did not even known the name of the sculptor.
The gulf between him and the next best man in his art will long remain unfilled.
It was great to find The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens and thereby get another chance to read it, and I got a similar second chance with the next book, historian Alison Weir’s historical novel The Lady Elizabeth, which I read (and reviewed, of course, in my rollicking-good-fun “Year with the Tudors” for Open Letters) back in 2008 and liked quite a bit more than I’ve ever liked any of Weir’s nonfiction. I didn’t keep that original volume I read and reviewed, and that’s just as well, since the copy I found today was even more squarely in my sweet spot than that long-lost original, because it’s a UK paperback, and I have a weird little fascination with UK paperbacks. Their trade editions are bigger than the UK counterparts of the same titles, and because their print-runs are gigantically smaller, the thickness of their paper and binding can be commensurately greater – they have a marvellous heft that their Amerian counsins almost always lack. I not only don’t remember how I lost my original copy of The Lady Elizabeth but I also never mourned for the loss, whereas this paperback will go onto my permanent shelf of Tudor fiction (until it mysteriously disappears, that is).
The last goodie I took home from the BPL today was Nicholas Murray’s 1999 biography of 17th-century lyric poet Andrew Marvell, World Enough and Time, in which Murray does a first-rate job of not only analyzing Marvell’s writings but also of filling in the many, many details of Marvell’s life that skimmers of the Oxford Book of English Verse are likely not to know. In short, Murray gives us an intensely political life of Marvell, the Royalist sympathizer and satiric genius who was also an MP for Hull for a quarter of a century. I of course eagerly gobbled up Murray’s book fifteen years ago when it first arrived at the bookstore, and I enjoyed it enough to wish it were twice as long. Even so, it disappeared from my collection (in this case probably not mysteriously – it was probably lost in the fire of 2004 where I lost 99 percent of the biographies I then owned), so I’m glad to have it back.
I might have found other choice items (I particulary neglected the paperback romance section, alas), but after a bit less than an hour, the airless heat and closeness of the room finally got to me, so I wiped my brow, paid my pittance, and lugged my books back to the apartment, where I found two over-warm old dogs peacefully sleeping. I took them for a little stroll, then we all cuddled into my tiny book-filled little monk’s cell and basked in air conditioning for a couple of hours, where they slept soundly and I glommed over my new books.
The next BPL book-sale is the first weekend in October, when it might be a bit cooler and drier. I’ll certainly plan on being there – who’ll join me?
August 1st, 2014
Our book today is Saladin, the great 2008 biography by Director of Research at Paris’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Anne-Marie Edde, now at last available in a sturdy paperback in an English-language translation by Jane Marie Todd. And although six years is a disgracefully long gap between French intellectual curiosity and American intellectual curiosity, the book’s appearance is a happy occasion nonetheless. Saladin, the powerful and oddly charismatic 12th century Kurdish Muslim who founded a dynasty, shone with brilliance on a dozen battlefields, and, most famously in the West, beat the Europeans of the Third Crusade and yet showed them more of what they themselves called “Christian mercy” than they ever showed to the Muslims they fought.
“The actions by which he distinguished himself are relatively well known, the individual less so,” Edde quite accurately writes. “In Saladin’s case, the difficulty of grasping his personality is amplified by the success of his legend.” That legend found expression in countless romances and poems, a handful of national delusions (it hardly escaped Saddam Hussein’s notice, for instance, that he and Saladin shared the same home town), and dozens of English-language biographies in the last century alone. Like most of the rest of those biographers, Edde has to spend a little preliminary energy dealing with that outsized legend:
His name is usually associated with the Crusades, with chivalry and courtliness, generosity and respect for one’s foes. His image, portrayed since the Middle Ages in various chivalrous romances and chansons de geste, has continued to evolve in conjunction with the historical circumstances. During the Age of Enlightenment, authors such as Voltaire and Gotthold Lessing depicted him as an enlightened sovereign, tolerant and open to all religions. Even today, he is probably the only Muslim ruler in history whom Hollywood studios could imagine casting as a hero.
In greater detail and with more disgressive curiosity than any recent Saladin biographer, Edde looks at the whole of Saladin’s life and legacy, scraping away as much of the accretions of legend and embellishment that has grown around the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and she concentrates very refreshingly not on Saladin’s clashes with Richard the Lionheart but rather on his constant manuevering to maintain power against threats from his own tenuous alliances. The result is a biography that feels broader and more true than any previous Western Saladin biography, constantly revivified by Edde’s determined efforts at balance:
It would be futile, however, to seek behind that bombastic rhetoric any real ambition to extend the empire from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic, or any desire to obliterate all trace of Christianity. Saladin’s actions on the ground, his clearly displayed priorities – to reunify the Muslim Middle East and drive out the Franks – and the measures he took to allow non-Muslims from his territories to live in peace are proof of that.
Lag-time or no, it’s very nice indeed to add this big, learned biography to 2014’s shelf.