Posts from November 2016
November 29th, 2016
Self-preservation these days requires not only skipping wholesale the front sections of all the political magazines to which I subscribe but also physically tearing them off their staples and discarding them, so that not even a stray glance falls on their appalling content. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now and face an unbroken future of continuing to do it, but naturally, such a precaution left me unprepared to encounter quite such an iceberg of irritation as I did when reading the back half of the most recent Nation.
In particular, a round-up review called “Criticism in the Twilight” by somebody named Nicholas Dames, writing about three books, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, and Against Everything by Mark Greif. The first two of those are collections of book reviews and the third, Against Everything, is a collection of n + 1 pointless windbagging on various random topics. But even so, the gambit Dames chose in order to kick off his review deals with the life – and death – of public literary criticism
If you think that sounds gruesome, you’re not wrong. His opening paragraph is every bit as bad as you might expect from somebody who’s going to waste your time laying out a case that once upon a time, great critics like Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael rose above the limitations of the sub-genre (“They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline,” etc.) and achieved a kind of lit-crit immortality the very root conditions of which have disappeared today:
What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institution can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public … Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
To which, naturally, Dames appends “Or so it seems.” “Or so it seems” and its weasling ilk are the schoolhouse hall passes of the literary world, endorsed by the principal, proof against any infractions, and either envied by the fellow students who want one for themselves or hated by the fellow students who think the whole concept is a bullying scam. “Or so it seems” lets a writer spew any kind of stem-winding nonsense for the first 200 words of a thousand-word piece, without even much thinking about those words, let alone taking responsibility for them.
And sure enough, Dames then goes on to talk about things that seem like flat refutations of his opening spiel, most notably the profusion of cultural criticism that’s existed every since the Internet came of age. But it quickly becomes obvious that the thing he’s complaining about isn’t the lack of critics – it’s the lack of critics in Armonk, and the lack of readers taking the Metro North into the city from White Plains every morning on their way to the investment firm with the day’s Arts section folded under their arm. “Once,” he writes, “critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogeneous public opinion.”
Despite the obvious fact that he wasn’t quite engaged enough in struggling for legitimacy to refrain from sharing his insights, (maybe he had an idle weekend), Nicholas Dames is himself an academic, a professor at Columbia no less, and after reading his little opening outcry, this is entirely believable. But even so, it takes an academic with a particular gift for Ivory-tower innocence to believe there was ever a time when cultural Titans like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael sat at their high desks dispensing wisdom to a listening, engaged (and we can guess a couple of the other things that might be meant by that “homogeneous”) readership. There wasn’t ever such a time. Nor was there ever a time – in American history, anyway – when book-critics were serenely pondering the canon instead of chasing after things like Avengers: Age of Ultron on tight deadline for peanuts in the ephemeral pages of the Penny Press. Dames is very precisely and very cannily confusing his terms in order to push his nonsensical, contradictory old-fogie points about “debased” criticism conducted in the twilight. It’s a bit silly to talk about the death-from-irrelevance of deadline criticism in 2016, while surrounded every day by examples of it and while reviewing two collections of it for the Books section of a national magazine with a circulation of 100,000.
Silly, but hey – The Nation pays. It wilts, but it pays.
November 23rd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, no matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.
It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.
But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.
Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:
By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.
But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly scraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:
A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.
November 21st, 2016
Our books today – one old favorite and one I believe a new mention here at Stevereads – provide a warm-reminder reading experience that only gets warmer as the weather turns colder and the years go by: they’re both anthologies of travel-writing. The first, A Taste for Travel, was edited by John Julius Norwich in 1985, and the second, The Norton Book of Travel, was edited by Paul Fussell in 1987, and although they have basically the same goal – bringing the world of travel to your library – the routes they take to get there are different enough to be complimentary; in fact, not only is each of these volumes an indispensable addition to any travel-writing library, but the two of them make a tandem necessity.
John Julius Norwich organizes his book thematically, presenting excerpts from the writings of some of history’s greatest travelers grouped around certain hallmarks of all travel, headings like “Beginnings,” “Motivations,” “First Impressions,” “Architecture,” “Nature,” “Hardship,” the ever-popular “Health and Hygiene,” and “Homecomings.” After a bit of swanning about the fact that an anthology’s editor has a kind of duty to reflect his own personal favorites (why he felt the need to include this swanning, I’ll never know – Norwich has always done exactly what he wanted on assignments like this, and everybody who’s ever worked with him knows that – but maybe he was feeling self-conscious during the hour it took him to bash out his Introduction), Norwich then includes choice excerpts from a long roster of greats: Lawrence Durrell, Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Mark Twain, John Ruskin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, etc.
It’s a glorious assemblage, bringing readers right into the changing face of travel’s staples, the getting ready, the getting there, the getting about, and the getting home. The editorial approach here, relying as it does on what Norwich himself considers to fit each category, is necessarily fussy, but the tone of the Introduction will prepare you for that; it’s a fantastically mandarin mini-essay that manages to exalt the past in the most Norwichian manner possible: by pooh-poohing the present. Essentially, in His Lordship’s view, all modern travelers are doing it wrong:
There is no doubt about it: the easier it becomes to travel, the harder it is to be a traveller. Half a century ago, any young Englishman prepared to venture beyond the shores of Western Europe could lay claim to the title; patience, resourcefulness and robustness of digestion were the only qualities he needed. A year or two later he could return, the pride of his family, the envy of his friends; a trail-blazer, a hero. Alas, those days are over. Everybody goes everywhere – or nearly everywhere – buying their air tickets with their credit cards and being met by airport buses, secure in the knowledge that their hotel reservations have been confirmed, that the rent-a-car firm is expecting them, and that it will be perfectly safe to drink the Coca-Cola.
(His sense of proportion seems very faintly to pull at him; in full throat about the lost glories of roughing it, this most indefatigable and most pampered of world travelers is willing to grant “we are fully aware that these excitements were never without their disadvantages” – yes indeed, having enough telecommunications to prevent yourself from showing up at a full inn – or walking into a war zone – you know, “disadvantages” like that – can sometimes be to the good)
Fussell’s book likewise breaks the whole experience of traveling into broad categories like “Beginnings,” but he means it literally, not thematically: his book’s excerpts trace the history of travel, from Herodotus to the 18th century to the “heyday” that occurred, naturally, just before Fussell’s readers were old enough to pack a footlocker and hit the road. This bad timing half-lights the book with a thin glow of wistfulness, and in his own Introduction, Fussell addresses it directly:
But the irony of traveling can sometimes end in melancholy. Flaubert observes how sad it is to experience a foreign place that is wonderful and to know that you will never return to it. All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicitly in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time. The melancolies du voyage – Flaubert’s term – are as much a part of travel (but never, significantly, of tourism) as its more obvious delights.
The essay is every bit as delightful as Norwich’s, and just under the surface of their differences is the enormous similarity they share: both our editors, way back in the 1980s, were assuring their readers that traveling, the genuine item, doesn’t happen anymore, that it’s been replaced by credit cards and hotel reservations, that its great loss is signaled in its morphing into that dreaded word, tourism. Most tourists think they are traveling; both Fussell and Norwich would like to disabuse them of that idea.
It’s frustrating, in a small way, to encounter that prewar certainty so firmly embedded in both these wonderful books, but it’s their only frustration, and it has a charm of its own. I won’t have been the only reader to come to these books and think, “Tourism is a plague, you’re right about that – but travel, real travel, is still possible for the adventurous.”
And as to Flaubert’s melancolies du voyage? Well, as usual, Flaubert was spot-on about the reality of such a thing, and Fussell is likewise right that it’s something tourists aren’t likely to feel – why should they, when their travel experience was bought and paid for in a packaged way that can be bought and paid for identically the following year? And as is the way with syrupy sentiment, the melancholy doesn’t end when the traveling does; instead, the erstwhile traveler, now halted by age or infirmity (or, as is more often the case, the age and infirmity of loved ones, our true home ports), feels an entirely new level of it when reading and re-reading books like these. And that makes them sweeter, in an odd way.
November 16th, 2016
Our books today are posies picked from the local Barnes & Noble, a colorful trio of Regency novels all occupying roughly the middle orbit in the solar system of the British peerage: all books about earls, that strangely accessible rank of nobility considerably above a viscount and just a bit below a marquess. Any time you walk to the New Releases bay of a big bookstore’s romance section, you’ll be guaranteed of finding Regencies at any level of the peerage you like, from lowly barons all the way to dukes and even princes of the blood – at any time, it’s possible to walk out of that section with three new goodies starring the rank of your choice. I did just that the other day, and then I followed it up with a few hours of gloriously self-indulgent reading:
The Earl by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – The first of the three I read was this latest in Ashe’s “Devil’s Duke” series (following The Rogue), in which Regency England is tittering to the writings of anonymous pamphleteer Lady Justice, whose work is particularly infuriating to a coterie of aristocrats that includes Colin Gray, the tenth Earl of Egremoor, who’s determined to unmask Lady Justice. Even such a bare-bones summary of the set-up will give you a pretty clear idea of, well, every single thing that happens in the course of the novel. But Ashe is a very spirited writer just the same, and this book’s concentration on the location of Scotland is both rare in a romance that doesn’t feature a bare-chested Highlander and also surprisingly pleasing in the way it brings out a nearly poetical strand in Ashe’s ordinarily somewhat somber prose, as can be seen even in her Author’s Note on the subject:
Two hundred years ago upon the heels of the European Enlightenment, Edinburgh, Scotland, glittered with style, wealth, and sophistication to rival the glamour of London and Paris. But as the city gloried in rebirth, the Scottish countryside remained spectacularly unchanged. Dark woodlands climbed the mountainsides, gleaming lochs reflected skies that knew no coal smog, and endless emerald hills and valleys boasted plentiful sheep and the occasional turret of mighty fortresses built in earlier, belligerent eras. It was a landscape of sublime contrasts, of delicate wildflowers and towering crags, silent mists and violent storms, cozy cottages tucked into safe crevices and miles upon miles of untamed wilderness. To step off the main road in this land was to enter another world, a world in which anything could happen, even the transformation of enemies into lovers and the breaking open of two locked hearts …
Of course such a description doesn’t even have one sensible Scottish boot-heel grounded in the actual reality that obtained two hundred years ago in Scotland, either in Edinburgh, which has never, does not, and will never merit the word “glamour,” or in the blasted, verminous countryside. But then, we go to Regency romances for just such touches of earnest fantasy, yes?
My Brown-Eyed Earl by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s) – Certainly there’s fantasy aplenty in the next and best book in our pearl-string of earls, this first in a new series of “Wayward Wallflowers” novels by Anna Bennett, in which the wallflower in question, Miss Margaret Lacey (very refreshingly referred to throughout as Meg), at the end of her meager funds, desperately needs a job. She signs up to be governess to the twin daughters of William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, and she’s even more nervous than usual, because she and the Earl share, you guessed it, a torrid past: they were once betrothed, until Meg swam off in her own direction. Now, when the two of them come back into each other’s lives, the proverbial sparks fly every time they talk with each other, even when, for instance, the Earl is in the middle of a reprimand:
Meg bit her tongue and nodded. The earl paced thoughtfully in front of the fireplace, rubbing the light stubble on his chin as he no doubt debated the best way to inform her that he was sacking her. It didn’t really matter whether he fired her or she quit, but she did wonder if there was a limit to how much humiliation a person could endure in one day. Surely, she was nearing the threshold by now.
“There will be no more incidents like the one that occurred today,” he said smoothly, as if it were just that easy to command it so.
“It was inexcusable,” Meg agreed. “I should never had let the girls wander off. My carelessness could have resulted in -”
“Miss Lacey,” the earl drawled, “a brief pause is not an invitation to speak.”
Meg bristled. “No? I rather thought that was how conversations worked, my lord.”
My Brown-Eyed Earl is very nearly as intensely predictable as The Earl, but it swaps out that book’s more stately and serious undertones for a gaiety that sparkles on every page and turns the plot’s own predictability into something that feels like an asset.
The Earl I Adore by Erin Knightley (Signet) is our final book today, the second in this author’s “Prelude to a Kiss” novels (following The Baron Next Door), and it has none of the slightly wild background atmosphere of Ashe’s Scottish hinterlands and none of the unpredictable freshness of the give-and-take between Bennett’s fiery lovers. Instead, Knightley takes the aforementioned predictability of the first two novels and, in Fast and Furious parlance, floors it. This is the story of how sweet, optimistic Sophie must race to land a husband before the scandal of her sister’s recent elopement spreads an indelible stain onto her family’s respectability. She’s at Bath (of course), and she sets her sights on John Fairfax, the Earl of Evansleigh, as a promising target. Of course she’s not much better at predatory wooing than he is at being wooed, so what follows is a very comfortable combination of standard Regency maneuverings and modern-feeling rom-com fumblings, in which all of the characters are thoroughly grounded in their Regency concerns (in a way that, to take the most memorable example, Elizabeth Bennet never is):
Sophie paused, toying with the silky fringe of her shawl as she considered the question. Her entire first Season had been such an overwhelming experience, she’s simply wanted to soak it all in. The dancing, the fashion, the music – it was all so glorious. And then there were the less than glorious parts: being looked down upon for her family’s modest funds, feeling the sting of the ton’s sometimes viperous tongues, nearly falling down the stairs at her first ball. Choosing a husband in the whirlwind had seemed ludicrous.
And then she had met Lord Evansleigh.
The Earl I Adore is pure entertainment, which is lucky, since it’s only entertainment. It’s for Regency readers who want foregone conclusions and want them badly. Knightley serves those foregone conclusions up with a thoroughly practiced ease – and after the last two weeks, maybe there’s more to be said for simple, unsurprising escapism than any of us might once have thought.
These weren’t the only earls on offer at the bookstore during my latest outing, far from it – there were dukes and viscounts aplenty too, and barons and marquesses enough to fill up the Netherfield ballroom five times over. These three caught my eye this time around, but I’m sure I’ll be back for another dip into Burke’s Peerage in no time at all.
November 7th, 2016
Our book today is a “graphic adaptation,” what once would have been known as an “illustrated classic,” of Shirley Jackson’s best-known little piece of work, “The Lottery.” It’s Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery: A Graphic Adaptation, done with marvelous restrained mastery by Miles Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s grandson, who opens the production with a few remarks about the trickiness of adapting what he calls a “family heirloom”:
For me, as an artist who has spent much of his professional life adapting novels and stories into graphic form, it would stand to reason that my grandmother’s harrowing tale should entice over the years – not only because … it had become a sort of family heirloom but because of how precise and nuanced the adaptation of this powerful piece of fiction would have to be to succeed. The story is such a perfect apparatus that it leaves little room for meddling. Some books sprawl and dream and carry on in ways that seem to invite imagery in spades. “The Lottery” does none of that – it is a no-nonsense, largely hermetic structure, words joined with a jeweler’s precision.
The stark, elegant simplicity of Jackson’s story seems at first glance like a poor fit to the medium of a comic book (unless by “comic book” you mean something like Lesbian Croatian Cancer Survivors, which was spottily written and ineptly drawn by angry, talentless grievance monsters who’ve been working on the second issue since 2007; I don’t). After all, until the story’s violent climax, the whole thing consists of a bunch of people standing around talking. They’re not radioactive people. They’re not sworn to save a world that hates and fears them. Hell, they don’t even talk that much.
But Hyman’s artwork saves the day. The story is rendered in simple, straightforward, almost photographic panels, and the characters all look like convincingly foursquare denizens of the 1950s – just exactly the kind of people Jackson hated and loved to torment in her fiction. Hyman makes the wise decision to drain almost all the color and motion out of these pages. I once read a “graphic interpretation” of The Scarlet Letter that took the opposite approach; I kept expecting Hester Prynne (whose scarlet letter wasn’t so much an A as a double D) to burst out of her sensible smock and lay waste to the village with her heat vision.
Nothing like that happens here. Instead, we get sharp angles, brutal sunlight, and, in the climactic panels, a flat, raw orange monochrome that somehow uncannily isolates the barbarity of what’s taking place. After my first read-through of this book, I sought out as much of Hyman’s other work as I could find, so I’m confident in saying: this is, perhaps fittingly, by far his best. If all “graphic adaptations” of literature were this good, those old “illustrated classics” yellowing in my closet would be worth another look.