Both the big superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, are currently in continuity turmoil that would be shocking if it weren’t so crucially boring. And it makes the weekly trip to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston a bit of a trial. Gone beyond reclamation – almost beyond recall – are the days when superhero storylines had a comforting sameness, when Thor was fighting Ulik the Troll and the Justice League was teaming up with the Justice Society. Gone, indeed, are the days when the basic givens of Thor – good guy, hell, even male – or the Justice League were, in fact, givens. Instead, what with Marvel’s Secret Wars and its upshot and DC’s Convergence, every given of previous decades seems to be up for grabs, and the ongoing monthly titles that will arise from both these events very likely won’t resemble anything old or be anything stable themselves. The Fantastic Four? Gone. The X-Men? Split. The Avengers? A quantum astrophysicist couldn’t figure out their current eighteen teams.
It’s lead to bizarre shocks for a stuffy old comics reader such as myself. I had such a shock a few weeks ago when I stumbled into a Superman story that I initially took to be a dark, weird, alternate-reality take on the character: not just possessing, as near as I could tell, his original 1938 power set, but also having had his secret identity as Clark Kent exposed to the world. It turns out this isn’t an alternate-reality isolated story at all – the confusing thing is only that DC is unfolding the story in an odd (perhaps incompetent? I can’t imagine them wanting to roll it out ass-backwards like this) way, giving us the aftermath in Action Comics before giving us the big events themselves in Superman. In Action Comics, we see a bitter, buzz-cut Superman, secret identity already exposed, living an embattled fugitive existence. In Superman, we see the more ‘traditional’ Superman, still fighting to save his secret identity from an anonymous blackmailer, still abundantly superpowered, etc. Reading these issues week-to-week is an oddly disjointed experience.
But one thing struck me today as I browsed the shelves at Comicopia: comic book artists have to eat. The best of them go where the money is, and their work is every bit as enjoyable as whether or not the stories they serve make much sense. And for a nice stretch of issues now, Superman has been drawn by one of the best comic book artists in the business: John Romita Jr. And reading his latest issue – in which it’s Lois Lane herself who reveals Superman’s secret identity to the world, in order to free him from the grip of his blackmailers – was like listening to a comic book symphony … just fantastic work on every page. Fantastic enough, I was happy to discover, to allow me to ignore the nonsense of the story itself.
Of course, it’s nicer not to need to do that, and today’s comics gave me another art-driven opportunity: the great artist/writer Mike Mignola, who’s currently producing (veeery slowly, but still) a series starring his signature character, Hellboy, called Hellboy in Hell. It’s a protracted and tangled story in which our demonic hero dies and goes to Hell for his latest series of adventures (once I’ve scrutinized the inevitable graphic novel, I’ll report back on the plot itself), and it features the best artwork Mignola has ever done.
Paging through Hellboy in Hell was in some ways a very different experience from paging through Superman – Mignola has mastered the now-outdated art of making his character consistently interesting while also keeping him consistently the same – but the two comics had that one big thing in common: giants doing the art. And in these chaotic latter days, that’ll have to be good enough.
The latest issue of Harper’s very much wanted me to pay most of my attention to William Deresiewicz’s cover essay on how colleges and universities these days have been co-opted by a “neo-liberal” agenda that infests institutions of higher learning – and how the students themselves have also been co-opted by this agenda, now solely concerned with what practical, business-world advantages they can get out of their college years instead of, I suppose, wandering the quad in togas contemplating the nature of perfection, as Deresiewicz implies they did in the good old days.
This kind of silliness is the main Harper’s stock-in-trade: Subject X isn’t as good as Subject X used to be back when we were young, and the reasons why are both a) the product of lazy indulgence, and b) not our fault. Deresiewicz uses the formula almost without deviation (the raw chunks of misunderstood or just-plan-wrong information from America’s educational history are a bonus), worrying for thousands of words that students aren’t coming to colleges anymore in order to commune with the Muses but rather to hustle, to make connections, to grab what information they need in order to hurry on to create business start-ups and the like. Whither Pope? Whither Swinburne? “It is not the humanities per se that are under attack,” he writes. “It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” According to him, students aren’t coming to college anymore in order to reflect and think and grow, and the change is having a demoralizing effect on those lonely warriors on the front lines:
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are lots of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office – rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next – to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
This piece wasn’t the first thing of Deresiewicz’s that made me wish he’d occasionally (maybe out of a sense of intellectual mission?) set one foot off an Ivy League campus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This is an author who can do all the background research necessary to write a piece like this – research about the internationalization of the jobs market, and about the skyrocketing of college costs, and about the increasing deficiencies of high school education – and come away from it all blissfully untouched by any sense of what it means that college costs at least $25,000 a year, or that for most people, $25,000 a year is a lot of money. Come away from it all still content to write a piece carping at young people for not majoring in the Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetic and then, fully ensouled, leaving college and living the rest of their lives on the annuity Grandfather Bigelow set up during the Pierce administration.
As I mentioned, the magazine clearly intended Deresiewicz’s headline piece to grab my attention, but the real goodies were to be found elsewhere in the issue (just as last month readers had to grit their teeth through a headline piece on parenting by loathsomely self-absorbed people like Sarah “Kid or no kid, it’s still all about me” Manguso before they could enjoy a great essay by Sam Sacks on, well, what’s wrong with war fiction today), ranging from Elaine Blair’s fantastic review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel to Matthieu Aikins’ searing piece on a dangerous gangster running the streets of Karachi.
But my favorite thing in this issue was the photo-spread by the great Glenna Gordon,
“Romancing Kano,” in which she gives readers a vibrant, complex glimpse into the lives of the women of Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. She concentrates this Harper’s collection around littattafan soyayya, the “love literature” homemade romance novels written by women and bought by women in a city under siege by a strain of mouth-frothing Islam that would forbid women physical freedom, let alone literacy.
I’ve been to Kano, and I’ve experienced the immense hospitality (and utterly infectious laughter) of Nigerian women, and these beautiful photos both brought back memories of those days and also raised old familiar fears about the candles of those lives being snuffed out. One of Gordon’s photos shows a woman laying on a bed in her home, reading one of these Kano-market novels, and it’s a lovely image, and it takes a minute to remember how enragingly, doubly blasphemous (a woman reading, and a woman reading something that’s not the Koran) such a picture is to the armed Islamic fanatics currently destroying 2000-year-old ruins and mass-kidnapping schoolgirls for sex slavery. It was the highlight of this issue, seeing these slender glimpses of hope.
Our book today is My Own Cape Cod, which Gladys Taber wrote in 1971 about her many idyllic seasons at Still Cove, her house on Mill Pond at Orleans on Cape Cod. We’ve met Taber already here at Stevereads as the once-popular author of the Stillmeadow books (hence the name of her cove), and in this book she collects all of her favorite anecdotes and observations from years of summering by her serene little salt water inlet. She tells of watching the fishing boats come in at sunset, of hearing the soft movements of rabbits in the garden under her windows, of wonderful relaxed porch conversations with friends, and of the soul-reviving but stubbornly indescribable brightness of the Cape air:
The Cape sunlight has a clarity I have never seen anywhere else. Perhaps the vast expanse of ocean on all sides and the countless small salt ponds may reflect extra light which woods and fields inland swallow up. It is not a hard diamond-like light but reminds me of melted crystal (if that could be) I spend a great deal of time looking at this sunlight and trying to capture it in words.
She spends enough time there to feel something of the double-edged proprietary feeling that even regular seasonal house-holders begin to experience, a proprietary feeling that comes under siege every season by the very same hordes whose money supports the whole economy of the place:
Full summer means bumper-to-bumper crossing the bridge. It means the beaches bearing a heavy crop of humanity. It means campsites so full not one more car is admitted. It means trailers and old cars with their windows tinted by 3M Tint Installer in Ottawa, Onand still made into contraptions with canvas tops and bunks, no matter if they are insurance with insurance4motortrade.co.uk they can still be mad into contraptions. We have to be realistic, no matter how we feel about the Cape, for it also means that countless people dream of this all year, and save for it, and feel they have a handhold on Heaven even if only for one week or two.
She feels a sympathy for those hordes of summer tourists, and like so many people whose arrangements allow them to stay a little later (or, the lucky few, year round), she comes to equate their packing up and leaving with both the end of noisy congestion and the end of precious summer. The feeling is always abrupt, because the summer feels so natural at the Cape:
Summer slides so gently into autumn on Cape Cod that it is easy to believe there will be no end. Day dreams toward twilight, skies are sapphire, the tide ebbs quietly. I begin to think time itself is arrested and the green leaves will stay forever on the trees.
As I’ve written before (here, for example, and here), the last days of summer always make me think of the Cape and of my own wonderful times there over the decades. Taber’s warm, personal book captures quite a few lost details from the best of those long-gone times; if you find My Own Cape Cod – most likely in the “Cape Cod” section of a salt-smelling Cape used bookstore – you can be reminded of those times too.
Our book today is The White Ghost, the latest historical mystery by James R. Benn starring Bostonian ex-detective and now WWII Lieutenant Billy Boyle. In this tenth Billy Boyle adventure (each one of which easily stands alone for new readers), Boyle and his friend Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, an expatriate Polish count who functions as a more polished thinker and sounding board for Boyle’s rough by tenacious insight into crimes like fraud and especially murder, are summoned in 1943 far, far from the European theater of the war. By a series of military transports, they’re hurried to Guadalcanal, their highly irregular travel sponsored and smoothed by the powerful Kennedy family (Joseph Kennedy, the dismissed but still powerful patriarch of the family, is pulling the strings all the way from the US).
The Kennedys have a vital interest in having their fellow Boston-Irish ward-boy Boyle look into an incident that recently happened in the Solomon Islands: a PT boat was destroyed in a surprise encounter with a Japanese ship, and the PT boat’s young captain, recuperating from his injuries at a naval hospital at Tulagi, has discovered on a nearby beach the body of local Coastwatcher Daniel Tamana. The mystery arises from the fact that the circumstances of the crime scene seem to implicate the young captain, and the Kennedy family’s urgency arises from the fact that the young PT boat captain is one of their own: John F. Kennedy, the former ambassador’s second son – and, we’re quickly told, the boyhood nemesis of young Billy Boyle.
Boyle and Kasimierz no sooner make their way to Jack Kennedy’s hospital room than Boyle is grippingly reminded of both the power and peril of the man even at a young age:
I saw Jack before he spotted me. He had always been skinny, but I wasn’t prepared for how frail and bone-thin he looked. But the smile was there, the same one I remembered. The kind of grin that took you in and swallowed you whole. There was no denying a smiling Jack.
Boyle and Kasimierz aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to deny or affirm in the case; as more than one person hints to them, the Navy itself isn’t sure whether to court martial young Kennedy or give him a medal. And the murder of Daniel Tamana only complicates things, since his wounds could easily have been caused by the cane Jack Kennedy now needs while walking on his lacerated feet, and Kennedy himself seems both evasive and combative on the whole subject.
Benn has been steadily growing into this series as the books have come along, and The White Ghost is even stronger than 2014’s The Rest is Silence. His characters are wonderfully drawn, especially his star duo but also in this case also Jack Kennedy, not the easiest historical figure to capture convincingly. And his picture of the world of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War is terrifically evocative, both in its dangers from marauding Japanese and in its natural beauty, so foreign to a kid from South Boston:
As we cruised on, the dusky light at the horizon faded into black, and all that was left was the twinkling of more stars than I’d ever seen. This wasn’t like being offshore on Massachusetts Bay, where the lights of civilization glowed in the distance. This was pure darkness. No moon, no electric lights, nothing but inky-black velvet heavens draped around us, blending into the dark ocean, the play of starlight on the waves making it impossible to see where air and water joined, the horizon an invisible thread.
The narrative tangles up quickly with further murders and with plenty of sly inclusions of walk-ons from a number of historical figures (people familiar with Boston history will be particularly pleased), several of whom, from a charming Lieutenant Cotter to a less-than-charming Air Transport Officer Dick Nixon, would make excellent alternate suspects in the murders. And Benn does such a nicely textured job at the historical novel side of his task that it ends up being just as strong as the murder mystery side of his task. The combination makes The White Ghost a delicious summer hour’s read.
Our book today, Felicity Wigan’s oversized 1987 treat The English Dog at Home (with beautiful photographs by Geoffrey Shakerley) might more accurately have been titled The English Dog at the Stately Home, since the dogs in question aren’t exactly the spavined little mutts owned by every Darby and Joan in the tenements of Leeds. No, these are well-to-do dogs, many of them show-dogs and all of them accustomed to a higher standard of living than 99 % of the human beings on Earth. They’re the dogs of the privileged.
And yet, in example after example of the owner profiles Wigan has assembled here, that very fact serves to underscore some of the ways that doting dog-owners are exactly the same regardless of how many family estates they happen to own. Almost all of these posh owners are every bit as overly indulgent to their dogs as any naff chav from Bradford East would be – in fact more so, since they have so much more largesse to dispense.
Take the example of Archie, Tigger, and Bandit, the whippets owned by the Duchess of Roxburghe and given the run of Floors Castle in Scotland, and listen to the Duchess recount what’s obviously a favorite tale:
It is in the dining room that Archie’s and Tigger’s manners leave a little to be desired. Janie recalls, ‘When we had the first really big dinner party after we got married, the table was beautifully laid with white damask and I came floating down to dinner all dressed up. I put the dogs out but it was raining and Tigger came back into the house covered in mud, got up on to the dining room table and ate all the butter and toast. There were little paw marks all over the table.’
For some of these upper crust owners, the care and wellbeing of not just their own dogs but all the dogs within their considerable ambit has become a load-bearing pillar of their lives. The upper crust doesn’t get any upper or crustier, for instance, than the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the foremost peers in the land, and there under their entry is the late and enormously caring Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk. She was the daughter of the 3rd Baron Belper and married the 16th Duke of Norfolk, became the mistress of his vast estates, and spent the rest of her life tirelessly doing charity work – including caring for the great crowds of dogs that would always be found roaming in and out of Arundel Castle:
Overseeing this unique brood are Bessie, Lavinia Norfolk’s original Labrador, and Lara, a graceful retriever who belonged to a friend of Sarah’s. Bessie came from the Labrador Rescue Society along with two other Labradors, one blind and the other with severe hip displacement, the result of being permanently chained in a kennel. There were severe sores on her legs where she had sat for too long, but the Duchess cured the dog with exercise in Arundel Park.
But did I err and call the Duchess of Norfolk the highest of the high? Heaven forfend! There is, of course, one rung higher, and it happens to be occupied by one of the world’s most famous dog-lovers – and her savage, stubby-legged entourage:
The Queen is one of the most experienced breeders of Pembrokeshire corgis. She always choose the sire herself, aiming for good looking puppies that maintain the red colour of the original Pembrokes. Owners of suitable studs are asked to bring their dogs to Windsor so that the Queen can make her choice.
And where the dogs themselves might be a little bit excessively mundane, Felicity Wigan steps in with her graceful narrative in order to give them a little boost of interest, as in the case of the rather pudgy bull terrier named Lambchop who had the run of the great country house of Sledmere that was designed by Capability Brown (about whom you’ll all hear quite a bit if a copy of Jane Brown’s excellent biography should ever make its way to the Brattle Bookshop bargain carts) in the Yorkshire Wolds. Wigan does her compassionate best to invest Lambchop with rather more, um, bottom than I suspect an objective reading of the facts would allow:
Bull terriers are never slender, but at one point Lambchop swelled to the sense of occasion at Sledmere to such an extent that she weighed four stone. Even slimline, Lambchop is a slow mover. She slinks, which is the most dignified way of doing things, deliberately. During the monthly concert in the library at Sledmere, Lambchop may be seen slinking silently down the grand staircase. Pausing briefly for breath by the splendid statue of the Apollo Belvedere (a 1780 copy by Wilton, of which the original is in the Vatican), Lambchop cocks an ear to Beethoven and, having deduced that the guests are unlikely to be dispensing chocolate biscuits in her direction, decides the party is not for her. Lambchop’s expression implies long and complicated thought processes, all of which are concentrated on food. Having dismissed the concert, she ambles towards the more reliable option of the kitchen.
But alas, some specimens are resistant to any amount of spin-doctoring …
On newsstands now, as the saying goes, is one of my very favorite semi-regular Penny Press confections: a New Yorker cartoon collection. This one is meant to commemorate the magazine’s 90th anniversary (as unbelievable as that figure must seem to some of us), and (equally unbelievable, in its own way) this seems to be the only such recognition that milestone is going to get in 2015 – a glossy bound magazine rather than a book. Still, for $13 this is one nifty little anniversary item and might just reach more New Yorker fans than a $50 hardcover would have done.
This issue is set up decade by decade, a fairly standard arrangement that’s still irresistible, since it shows the steady evolution of the magazine’s cartoonists efforts to mirror the fads of their society. When you watch that evolution, driven by temporary fads, played against what’s often demonized as the eternal New Yorker “themes” (therapy, class friction, downtrodden workers, over-privileged kids – basically, the Upper East Side), you get a weird and not at all unpleasant suggestion of an institutional brain guiding the whole process, decade after decade, allowing for changes in architecture and clothing styles and argot, but keeping the feel of everything remarkably consistent. It’s a big part of what makes New Yorker cartoons so oddly comforting – at their best, they’re predictable but not boring, socially relevant but also anodyne, simultaneously cutting and coddling. All of which might sound vaguely horrifying to some people (I’ve known various changing guards of such people my entire life), but me? Sign me up! As an old friend discovered just recently, one of the surest ways to make my eyes positively light up on a book-gift is to give me one of those mildewy old hardcover cartoon collections the New Yorker used to publish fairly regularly back when the Cold War was on.
This magazine substitute isn’t half bad either. Most of the New Yorker all-time classics are here, including “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it” and “I don’t care what you say – I’m cold!” and, a personal favorite for obvious reasons (and taped to my old transparent blue desktop computer), “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” New Yorker greats like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, George Booth, my beloved Helen Hokinson, Saul Steinberg, and my favorite, Gluyas Williams (whose “The Day the Cake of Soap Sank at Procter & Gamble’s” leads off the collection even though it’ll make no sense whatsoever to most of the issue’s readers) are all represented here, as are newer giants like Dan Shanahan, Joe Dator, and the mighty Roz Chast, although the collection’s “more than 262.5” selections means quite a few favorites are going to be left out, this issue is full of wonderful stuff.
And by flipping through the pages, you get to see some of those standby New Yorker themes slowly adapt themselves over the decades. The earliest cartoons lean heavily on a semi-affectionate spoofing of the cluelessness of the very uppermost ‘class’ in America in the ’20s and ’30s (you see this quite often in the Saturday Evening Post covers of the time as well), the joshing of the toff. But gradually both toffs and their ribbing disappear from the landscape. The very rich remain (they shall be always with us), but they slowly take on more sinister and cutting tones, especially after President Eisenhower warned the country about the military-industrial complex. Likewise artful innuendo (including a famous “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!” panel by James Thurber) is replaced by explicit talk of sex, and Botox, and Facebook.
I could have hoped for another elaborate hardcover volume like the one the magazine produced to celebrate its 75th anniversary – after all, it’s not every magazine that gets to turn 90 – but this glossy issue will certainly tide me over until the big 100-years hoopla commences in 2025. And in the meantime, there may still be one or two of those mildewy old volumes I haven’t yet discovered …
Our book today is Sir Edward Creasy’s durable 1851 classic work of popular military history, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, a worthy work that no 21st-century reader can approach without feeling just about the saddest irony in the world. Creasy, surveying the sunny morning of his Victorian era, with Napoleon Bonaparte long since defeated and with international diplomacy enjoying its golden age, could look upon his subject – warfare – with the complacency of a doctor looking at the last remaining laboratory specimens of a once-rampant disease:
It is an honourable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilised states with gradually increasing aversion. The Universal Peace Society certainly does not, and probably never will, enrol the majority of statesmen among its members. But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried; and when the law of self-defence justifies a State, like an individual, in using force to protect itself from imminent and serious injury.
Still, he concedes immediately, “There is an undeniable greatness in the discipline, courage, and in the love of honour, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.” And through close accounts of fifteen big battles (‘big’ is one of his unapologetic criteria, although he’s much keener to ‘pivotal’ than his critics used to give him credit for being), he gives his readers ample amounts of honor, courage, agony, and destruction.
He’s got a sweet tooth for enormous set-piece affairs, especially if they’ve got a moral twist to them. From the ancient world, he picks the battles of Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, and the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest, where Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions and a great big crowd of auxiliaries through both tactical stupidity and, as something Creasy lays on with a trowel, through a vaguely Asiatic and very un-Roman decadence that the German mercenaries all around watched with steely interest:
For this purpose, the German confederates frequented the head-quarters of Varus, which seem to have been near the centre of the modern country of Westphalia, where the Roman general conducted himself with all the arrogant security of the governor of a perfectly submissive province. There Varus gratified at once his vanity, his rhetorical taste, and his avarice, by holding courts, to which he summoned the Germans for the settlement of all their disputes, while a bar of Roman advocates attended to argue the cases before the tribunal of the Pro-consul; who did not omit the opportunity of exacting court-fees and accepting bribes.
From the Middle Ages, he picks the Battle of Chalons in 451, the Battle of Tours in 732, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (how could he not?), and Joan of Arc’s victories over the English at Orleans in 1429 – the whole while adding a running context that actually makes this a more fluid reading experience than “Fifteen Decisive Battles” might suggest. And as his time-frame inches closer to his own day, he chooses the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Battle of Pultowa in 1709, the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the Battle of Valmy in 1792, and of course he winds things up with the grand finale of Waterloo in 1815. And it’s all done with such quintessential Victorian gusto (and a good deal of very solid research – military historians are a notoriously fussy lot, but several of these accounts hold up in their main lines even today) that the book is immediately readable.
Still, there’s that clinging sad irony, inescapable when Creasy hits his favorite triumphalist note:
In closing our observations on this the last of the Decisive Battles of the World, it is pleasing to contrast the year which it signalised with the year that is now passing over our heads. We have not (and long may we be without) the stern excitement of martial strife, and we see no captive standards of our European neighbours brought in triumph to our shrines. But we behold an infinitely prouder spectacle. We see the banners of every civilised nation waving over the arena of our competition with each other, in the arts that minister to our race’s support and happiness, and not to its suffering and destruction.
Creasy died in 1878, so he lived long enough to at least begin to see, in names like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, that he and all his fellow club-members had been wrong about the demise of armed warfare. But he was gone to his grave long before he could learn just how wrong he’d been. The horrible roll-call that’s extended since his death – the Somme, Verdun, Kursk, Luzon, Khe Sanh, and on and on – might have been sufficient to curb his armchair enthusiasm for that “undeniable greatness.”
After a solid week of Penguin Classics, what better palate-cleanser could there be than a sojourn through the Fall Fashion issues of the glossy magazines? It’s a way to run a quick finger down the ‘content’-xylophone from the deeper notes of Longfellow and Dostoevsky to, well, to the very, very strange world of fashion.
Almost all the big square-bound glossies indulge in a Fashion issue at least once a year, doubling their page-length with very lucrative ads from all the biggest designer houses, and usually I avoid these issues like the proverbial plague, mainly because the editors of these issues tend to shelve any serious freelance articles they may have on the docket until later issues, figuring, no doubt, that a probing expose on Salvadoran torture gangs doesn’t exactly mesh well with the latest runway exotica from Paris and Milan.
I go to these magazines for those serious freelance articles, naturally, but I confess, I always feel a touch of interest in these elaborate fashion digressions, and for the least likely reason: oddly enough, I’ve known a few professional male models in my life, including one who, when he was in the business, was, you could say, fairly prominent. And from these three young men I’ve heard many war-stories from that business, fascinating stories and fascinating theorizing about what high-fashion bizarrities really are. One of these young men offhandedly told me that the weird, other-worldly stuff paraded down the high-profile runways aren’t, of course, meant to be worn in daily life but are instead “what poor people will be imitating in ten years” (what can I say? One of these three young men was a bit of a douche). Another said the big fashion shows are meant only as “comic book versions” of the designers’ actual aesthetic vision. All three told tales of clouds of tobacco, rivers of hard liquor, and discreet piles of cocaine (and, incidentally, daily eating habits that even I would consider indulgently bad), as well as horror stories of megalomaniacal show-runners and designers treating models like herd animals. I believe there were a couple of mentions of sex as well.
The fashion issue of Details gives a mighty snapshot of that world on its cover, which features 31 of the top male models working today, and the Details crew devotes their efforts 100 % to their subject – the issue has virtually no editorial content whatsoever (not that it’s ever exactly War and Peace), just display after display of preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
The fashion issue of Esquire is a slightly more substantial affair. It has a profile of arrogant young actor Miles Teller (profiled before the box office performance of his starring vehicle, Fantastic Four, gave him a bit less cause for arrogance), an interview with Keith Richards by the redoubtable Scott Raab, and a short but meaty review by Richard Dorment of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. But the issue is nevertheless crammed full of the aforementioned preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
And then there’s the fashion issue of Vanity Fair, a big fat thing which has a very interesting article about Chelsea Clinton by Evgenia Peretz and a hilariously appalling piece by Nancy Jo Sales on the ‘culture’ of Tindr – but which is mostly just one fashion display after another. And turning through those slick pages, one after another, looking at all these impossible-looking people draped in these impossible-looking clothes, I was struck by two things: the egregious fragility of the fashion items – you can tell just by looking at these things, from the handbags to the sweaters to the blouses, that they’re not constructed to survive even ten uses – and also, secondarily, almost incidentally, their obscene expense. The Salvatore Ferragamo scarf? $450. The Marcelo Burlon shirt? $279 – and the matching poncho? $638. The Bottega Veneta polka-dot dress? $2400. The Haute Dogs lip glosses? $50 per color. The grotesque red Gucci bag? $2980
These figures are only fractions of the price tags you find in the men’s “gear” magazines, where $10,000 wristwatches are not uncommon, but they’re still mighty depressing. The pictures are gaudy and weird and eye-catching, but its depressing to think there are people in the world who’ll pay $3000 for a flimsy shoulder bag that would fall apart if it were asked to carry, say, ten books – not to mention the fact that $3000 would buy you 3000 $1 books at the Brattle bargain carts.
The people who are the actual customers for the kinds of clothing in these fashion magazines are the people I sometimes see at the Brattle sale lot – glancing at it in blank, uncomprehending disinterest before passing on without a second thought. It’s a shame – but at least I managed to hook all three of those former model-boys in reading for pleasure! And we’ll get back to that very thing tomorrow, now that we’re done with the camera-flashes and the runways.
First and most strikingly, there’s the physical appearance of the thing. In its history with Penguin Classics, Crime and Punishment has had, it must be admitted, some gawd-awful cover choices. This is a dense 500-page Russian novel about doubt and doubtful redemption … the very last thing it needs, in any popular reprint series, is a boring or off-putting cover. So some of those earlier Penguin choices – an entirely static out-of-focus black-and-white photograph of a street, or the ever-popular some guy in a hat – well, they weren’t exactly inviting.
That problem has been dramatically solved in this new Deluxe edition (which also has the advantage of feeling very sturdy in the hand – this is a Crime and Punishment truly built for the briefcase and backpack), which features a vibrant, eye-catching wraparound cover by popular illustrator Zohar Lazar. The back cover is a pathetic St. Petersburg street scene complete with plenty of word balloons (the heavy influence of the great Will Eisner in his “Contract with God” phase is evident in every brush-stroke). Front and center on that cover we see the novel’s hapless protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the pockets of his ratty coat bulging with stolen baubles, his hand gripping a bloody axe, and his panic-stricken eyes staring down into his own twisted reflection in a spreading pool of blood. In the grand new tradition of the Deluxe Classics, the staid quality of earlier covers has been abandoned in favor of a first impression that agrees with Virginia Woolf about this novel: “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”
The second strength of this new edition is, thankfully, the translation itself. The earlier Penguin version was by David McDuff and could at times succumb to the kind of bloat our new translator, Oliver Ready, rightly notes as a cardinal sin of Dostoevsky translators. Ready then proceeds, in his Introduction, to raise the specter of mind-numbing academic tedium with this frankly terrifying call-and-response:
The troublesome question ‘Why retranslate the classics?’ has perhaps only one satisfactory answer: because the translator hopes to offer a closer approximation to his or her experience of the original than is otherwise available.
Happily, this is the only Casaubon-like note Ready strikes. His short but intensely interesting Introduction characterizes Raskolnikov as “an inveterate literary critic” and casts a great deal of the action surrounding him in intriguingly literary terms:
Raskolnikov has blood on his socks and ink on his fingers. He prepares for his crime not only by extensive reading, but also, we later learn, by attempting his first literary debut – a scholarly article with the same theme as the drama in which he plays the starring role. Published without his knowledge, this article is shown to him much later by his proud mother, whereupon, despite the grotesque incongruity with his current situation, he experiences ‘that strange and caustically sweet sensation which every author feels on seeing himself published for the first time, especially at only twenty-three years of age.’
And his translation itself is nothing less than a wonder. He mirrors the tonal shifts in Dostoevsky’s original more nimbly than any English-language translator has before, and he catches the dark humor that runs through the book mostly below its surface, and best of all, he captures the essential, unchanging absurdity of Raskolnikov perfectly, especially in the many key, priceless scenes of confrontation between him and the deceptively mild detective Porfiry Petrovich, including the first such encounter, when Raskolnikov is nattering on about how he has items on offer in the shop of a murdered old pawnbroker (a murder he himself has committed, both before and after interminable soul-searching) and doesn’t want that forgotten in the event of a sale, because he’s a trifle short of funds:
‘You see, for the moment all I wish to do is declare that the items are mine, and when the money comes in …’
‘Makes no odds, sir,’ replied Porfiry Petrovich, unmoved by this clarification about the state of his finances, ‘but if you prefer you may write directly to me to the same effect, namely, that being apprised of such-and-such and declaring items such-and-such to be mine, I request …’
‘Ordinary paper will do, I take it?’ Raskolnikov hastened to interrupt, expressing his interest once again in the financial side of the matter.
‘Oh, as ordinary as you like, sir!’ – and Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him with a sort of blatant mockery, narrowing his eyes and even winking at him. Or perhaps this was just Raskolnikov’s impression, for it lasted no more than an instant. In any case, something of the sort occurred. Raskolnikov could have sworn he winked at him, the devil only knew why.
‘He knows!’ flashed through him like lightning.
Crime and Punishment is rife with such teetering, electric moments – Virginia Woolf was, as always, right – but I confess, I hadn’t seen that fact while slogging through previous translations (including the version from my beloved Constance Garnett, here clearly out of her psychological depth and producing a work of such murk that while reading it for the first time, a literary friend of mine quipped, “The ‘punishment’ part is coming through loud and clear”). Ready’s version crackles with grubby, demented vitality – I’m hoping it, and this lovingly twisted Deluxe edition – enjoys a long life as the go-to edition in English.
Some Penguin Classics are clear, almost necessary improvements on their own Penguin predecessors, and we’ll be closing out our week of Penguins with two of those – starting with a new collection of the writings of Gertrude Bell called, somewhat redundantly, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. The volume is edited by Georgina Howell, author of the 2007 biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nation, who writes that she hopes it will “stand in” for the autobiography Bell never go around to writing. And it certainly comes a lot closer to being that autobiography than did the previous Penguin volume of Gertrude Bell, 1953’s Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell, which consisted mainly of letters bell wrote to her father and stepmother over the years, regaling them with studiously nonchalant stories of her travels (“if it were not for a little touch of frostbite in the feet I should be merrily on my way to fresh adventures …”) and painting (as was her custom – her letters were often very long and always exceedingly quotable) vivid pictures of the far-off experience her family’s ironworks money was financing, as when she wrote to her father about a journey through the desert to Hayil in January of 1914, with this entry on the 25th:
To-day we set off in a frosty dawn and marched on down the valley. Ali and I walked on for an hour and waited in a sandy hollow for the camels, and the foot-prints were all round us in the sand. ‘They are fresh,’ said Ali. The valley ended in a wide, open plain, set round with fantastically riven hills black and rusty red as the volcanic stone had weathered. The light crept round them as we marched across the plain. They stood in companies watching us, and in the silence and emptiness were extraordinarily sinister. Suddenly Sayyah called out, ‘There is smoke.’ A tall spire of smoke wavered up against a black hillock. I must tell you that we were waterless and thirsty – the camels had not drunk for four days. We were not at all sure when we should find water, neither did we know in the least what Arabs had kindled the fire whose smoke we watched, but the consensus of opinion was that it was a ghazu – raiders. These are the interesting moments of desert travel.
The letters in that Penguin volume from sixty years ago were all chosen by her stepmother, who acknowledged that “there had clustered round her in her lifetime so many fantastic tales of adventure, based on fact and embroidered by fiction, tales of the Mystery Woman of the East, the uncrowned Queen, the Diana of the Desert …” But she doesn’t acknowledge what she had to have known: that a sizable chunk of those fantastic tales had originated with Gertrude herself, who wasn’t at all averse to the idea of being a legend in her own lifetime (after all, she’d seen it happen to friends of hers, including Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence). To the real pioneering treks she made up European mountains and across Arabian deserts, she added innumerable passages about the wildlife, the curious customs, and most of all the ferocious weather of the region:
We have had a week of fierce heat which still continues, temperatures 122 odd and therewith a burning wind which has to be felt to be believed. It usually blows all night as well as all day and makes sleep very difficult. I have invented a scheme which I practise on the worst nights. I drop a sheet in water and without wringing it out lay it in a pile along my bed between me and the wind. I put one end over my feet and draw the other under and over my head and leave the rest a few inches from my body. The sharp evaporation makes it icy cold and interposes a little wall of cold air between me and the fierce wind. When it dries I wake up and repeat the process. This evening Sir Percy and I went out motoring at 7 but it was too hot. The wind shrivelled you and burnt your eyeballs. They say it does not last very long like this – inshallah!
It’s all very evocative, but weather is also the letter-writer’s first choice for a safe subject, which might be why there’s so much of it in the letters of this earlier volume. And even when the subjects vary, they can only begin to hint at the vast variety of things Gertrude Bell wrote in her life. Not just letters by the tens of thousands but also diaries, archaeological guides, hundreds of position papers for the British government, and eight published books. Georgina Howell quotes from a tempting range of these writings in the course of A Woman in Arabia, giving readers a much fuller picture of Bell in the process, if also making the interested reader wonder why the whole thing is only a little more than 250 pages long when it could easily have been three times that length without risking the inclusion of a single boring sentence. In her advisory capacity to Arabian kings and British ministers, in her pivotal role in putting King Faisal on the throne of a newly-conceived kingdom of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quite literally helped to draw the map of the modern world’s most volatile region – but here she gets 200 pages less than the Penguin Classics book of ghost stories. An enlarged edition might be something to consider.
As it is, perhaps A Woman in Arabia should be seen more as a supplement to Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell (and vice versa) rather than a replacement for it. If only the two could be combined; it’s consistently fascinating to watch Bell contour the details of what she’s writing to the interests and tastes of her recipients. We don’t get much of that variation by simply reading the 1953 volume, since most of its letters are written to her parents. And there isn’t much more of that variation in Howell’s book, since she’s more concerned with showing us Bell in all her various capacities (the chapters of A Woman in Arabia have titles like “The Desert Traveller,” “The Lover,” “The War Worker,” and “The Nation Builder”). But reading the two books side-by-side can yield many intriguing moments of difference, moments when we can almost look into Bell’s mind as she subtly alters the stories she’s telling, first to her father:
We are camped within sight of Hayil and I might have ridden in to-day, but I thought it better to announce my coming and therefore I sent on Muhammed and Ali and have camped in the plain a couple of hours or so from the town. We finished with the Nefud for good and all yesterday – and to-day we have been through a charming country – charming for Arabia – of great granite rocks and little plains with thorny acacia trees growing in them and very sweet scented desert plants. We passed a small village or two, mud houses set in palm gardens and all set round with a mud wall. I hope the Hayil people will be polite.
And then, in an entirely more jaunty tone, to her close friend and almost-lover Richard Doughty-Wylie (the ellipses being Howell’s):
We are within sight of Hayyil and I might have ridden in today but I thought it better to announce me auspicious coming! So I sent in two men early this morning, Muhammed and ‘Ali, and have myself camped a couple of hours outside. We had … a most delicious camp in the top of a mountain, Jebel Rakham. I climbed the rocks and found flowers in the crevices – not a great bounty, but in this barren land a feast to the eyes … Yesterday we passed by two more villages and in one there were plum trees flowering – oh the gracious sight! And today we have come through the wild granite crags of Jebel ‘Aija and are camped in the Hayyil plain. From a little rock above my tent I have spied out the land and seen the towers and gardens of Hayyil, and Swaifly lying in the plain beyond, and all is made memorable by Arabia Deserta. I feel as if I were on a sort of pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites. And the more I see of this land the more I realize what an achievement that journey was. But isn’t it amazing that we should have walked down into Nejd with as much ease as if we had been strolling along Piccadilly!
To her father, on September 5, 1920, she can strike a grim (and damningly prescient) note:
We’re near to a complete collapse of society – the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We’ve practically come to the collapse of society here and there’s little on which you can depend for its reconstruction. The credit of European civilization is gone. Over and over again people here have said to me that it has been a shock and a surprise to them to see Europe lapse into barbarism. I had no reply – what else can you call the war? How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?
But only a few days later, in Howell’s book, we find an excerpt of an entirely different tone:
The thing isn’t made any easier by the tosh T. E. Lawrence is writing in the papers. To talk of raising an Arab army of two Divisions is pure nonsense … I can’t think why the India Office lets the rot that’s written pass uncontradicted. T. E. L again: when he says we have forced the English language on the country it’s not only a lie but he knows it. Every jot and tittle of official work is done in Arabic; in schools, law courts, hospitals, no other language is used. It’s the first time that has happened since the fall of the Abbasids …
The experience of reading back and forth between the volumes is delightful; it reads back in to Bell something of her curious chameleon quality, which is a different thing from being multifaceted, and which is often the first quality to be steam-pressed out of a conventional linear biography. Some hints of that chameleon quality are preserved in A Woman in Arabia, which benefits enormously from Howell’s extensive biographical grounding of all the various excerpts she presents. In a way, especially for a writer as prolific and self-aware as Bell was, this may be the truest form a biography could take.
“In guiding the new British administration of Iraq,” Howell writes of Bell, “she was doing the most important work she had ever undertaken. To the people queuing up outside the secretariat in Baghdad, she was more than an administrator; she was someone they could trust. She spoke their language and had never lied to them.” Those people lining up outside, as well as thousands more around the world, were grief-stricken when she died in 1926. Her boss, the High Commissioner, wrote, “Her bones rest where she had wished them to rest, in the soil of Iraq. Her friends are left desolate.” T. E. Lawrence, her old colleague and sparring partner, called the loss of her “nearly unbearable.”
Reading the collection Howell has assembled here, it’s easy for a reader to understand that loss. Bell’s voice in all of its energy and so much of its contradiction is captured quite well here. “Strange isn’t it? To be so much in the midst of it all – strange and delightful for I love it,” Bell wrote at one point, and we feel it in every page of A Woman in Arabia. Now if the nabobs at Penguin could be convinced to do a nice reprint of the Selected Letters …