August 1st, 2016
Our book today is a clear, clean classic showing hardly any sign of floorboard decay, a good example of stages in a literary hack’s via dolorosa from griping underdog to griping Grand Dame: it’s Homage to Daniel Shays, Gore Vidal’s smashingly good 1972 volume collecting essays and book reviews from a neat 20-year span, from 1952 to 1972. This book is less than half the length of the career capstone United States, which came out twenty years later – i.e. twenty years closer to the ranting wine-soaked crackpot sage the author would become in his final decade or so.
That later Vidal wore his accumulated grievances like a body armor, every year more layered until, by the end, the man himself had all but vanished inside it. Anger-fueled alcoholic dementia didn’t help matters any – his resentments gradually morphed into a landscape, an alternate reality that struck him as eminently more sensible than the one he was so rudely forced to live in every day. His book won the Pulitzer – they just gave the award to somebody else. He won all the elections – they just gave the offices to somebody else. Throughout most of his life, he fought a successful rearguard action against his besetting mortal sin, envy, but sins are patient stalkers, and Vidal’s consumed him in the last fifteen years of his life, when he almost continuously showed the excruciating bad grace to be a very, very lucky man who whined to be luckier. Interviewing him became indistinguishable from psychoanalyzing him.
But during the years covered by Homage to Daniel Shays, there’s very little overt sign of that later Vidal. In fact, the closest hint comes right at the beginning, in the collection’s first words:
These essays are arranged in chronological order. The first was written twenty years ago, in another world; the latest was written a few months ago. Reading them from first to last, I had the sense of reliving month to month two decades not only of my life but of our most unserene republic turned empire, now turning into something else again. As themes come and go, are developed or abandoned, as politics replaces literature replaces politics again, there is a logical (and sometimes illogical) progression. There are also ironies. As the mandarin author of the first essay surveyed the state of American letters in the forties, he had no idea that he was about to give up the novel for a decade of television, theater, movies, criticism and politics, while the engaged polemicist of 1962 would have been appalled to know that he was soon to abandon actual politics in order to become again (what he had been all along?) a novelist.
You can already see the beginnings of the monumental vocational rifts that will later determine the tripartite structure of United States (the sad pun of the title being, of course, the fact that the various states of Vidal’s being were never united but rather constantly at war); the “mandarin author” (one of the only times anywhere that Vidal inches close to self-criticism, and even here, it’s not exactly meant in a negative sense, is it?) is shifting from one calling to another, brilliant in all of them but rootless, almost homesick. In these razor-sharp essays, Vidal could still use those inner longings, shaping them like a virtuoso into tools he could use to pry secrets out of the writers he examines (most of whom he knew), as in the “Writers and the World” piece he wrote in 1965 for the TLS:
To be outside the World is not necessarily a virtue. To be in the World does not necessarily mean a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fatness of soul. William Faulkner’s thirty years as a movie writer affected his novels not at all. He could do both. Finally, it is truly impertinent to speculate as to whether or not the effect of this or of that on a writer’s character is good or bad. What is pertinent is the work he does. Mary McCarthy is not less intelligent a literary critic because she plays games on television. But even if her work should shown a sudden falling off, only the simplest moralist would be able to link her appearances as a talking writer to her work as a writing writer.
And slowly, incrementally, we know that the array of critical tricks at his disposal would concentrate and dwindle to one: himself. The Vidal of 1960 was still every bit as narcissistic as extreme good looks can make a man, but he was still very much capable of hustle in a piece, to say nothing of dutiful exposition. And he’s still capable of it a decade later, but he’s much less willing to be bothered, especially if the “review” at hand is one in which he can make himself the star, shoving the book in question off to one side for as long as possible. In “The Fourth Diary of Anais Nin,” which he wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1971, Nin has an assiduous co-star:
Warning to literary historians. Deal warily with Anais’s “facts.” Small example: at our first meeting, she says, I introduced myself as Lieutenant Vidal. First, I would never have used a military title; second, I was plainly a Warrant Officer, in uniform. When I pointed this out to her in the bar of the Punt Royal, she laughed gaily. “You know I never get those things right.” Nor does she correct them. Best of the lines I was not shown (and the one most apt to give pleasure to the employees at Time): “Gore has a prejudice against Negroes.” Oh, dear. Well, I was brought up by my grandfather, a Mississippi-born senator. I have since matured. I now have a prejudice against whites.
It’s very much possible to read blissfully through Homage to Daniel Shays hitting isolated notes like these and willing yourself to forget that in time they would fuse into a grand symphony of solipsism. In these full-power years before United States, a whole variety of Vidals was still possible. The vibrant voice in these pieces might never have become shrill and querulous; the future might never have become the enemy; the past might never have become a forest of sharp-pointed lies and betrayals. As unlikely as it seems even in retrospect, this author might have aged gracefully.
July 21st, 2016
Our book today is a stiff-legged, sniffy, fascinating little thing, From a Writer’s Notebook, a quasi-commonplace book brought out by Van Wyck Brooks in 1958. You can feel the prickliness of the endeavor even from the title, can’t you? “From a Writer’s Notebook,” so carefully distinguishing the author from his proletariat readers – the writer’s droppings, his merest obiter dicta obligingly dispensed to lowly non-writers so they can treasure the wisdom of the master.
Brooks came by such an attitude as naturally as anybody can. He graduated from Harvard in 1908 and published a book a year for the next sixty years, which would give just about anybody a certain arch quality. And besides, the strange hybrid animal that is the writer’s notebook tends to make just about anybody who indulges in it look like a mandarin yutz.
So Brooks can veer from the gloomy (“There are writers who, as writers, ought to die, and the only way to contribute to this end is not to mention them”) to the pretentious:
A seed catalogue – Stumpp and Walter’s – says that if you wish to develop new and beautiful varieties, you must save the weak seedlings. The strongest seedlings are pretty certain to run true to type. Using the words “weak” and “strong” as most people use them, is this not generally true of writers also?
… to the flagrantly hypocritical: “When a writer begins to be successful, when he begins to soar, outwardly but especially inwardly, then, to save him from infatuation, he needs to be pelted with bitter apples.” And since the thing is a notebook, it can narrowly skirt the expectation of greater cohesion we’d demand of almost any other kind of book. After all, a notebook is just jottings, right? Thoughts and impressions recorded on the fly, of interest to readers now only due to the breathtaking profundity of the author. One result is that the pages can get a bit tiring at times:
People who are too agreeable and cultivated lull one insensibly into a kind of fatuity. One gets into a fool’s paradise. That is another reason why, except in small doses, “good society,” – at its best – is not good for writers. For the literary mind needs to be misunderstood; it requires something harsh in the air that surrounds it.
But it’s not all hopeless, mainly because underneath all his backhanded professions of his own genius, Brooks actually was a genius, and it’s fascinating in these pages to watch that genius latch onto all manner of subjects, literary and otherwise, and try to chase those subjects down to some kind of comprehensibility that doesn’t conflict with a lifetime of codified opinions. For instance, Brooks is never more aphoristic than when he’s making offhand comments about other writers; those are always the highlights for me, every time I re-read pieces of A Writer’s Notebook, that and the very real sense of being in the presence of a fiercely active mind, although not a particularly reflective one. When Brooks digs deep into an author’s life and personality, he very often finds himself staring back out of the details – but he doesn’t make the connection. About T. S. Eliot, for example, he writes: “Because he is dictatorial Eliot appeals all the more to an age that desires orthodoxy and desires to conform. How could such an age not wish for a literary pope?”
Nobody in the world coveted that mitre more eagerly than Van Wyck Brooks, and the sense that either he doesn’t know that or he’s daring you to mention it, well, that sense just adds to the fun.
July 16th, 2016
Our book today lands squarely in the category I’ve come to call “Near Misses”: it’s The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads, edited by Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland, and it’s a “Near Miss” because it was brought out by Harvard University Press in February of 2007 – mere weeks before my beloved Open Letters Monthly made its debut on the lit-journal scene, and hence mere weeks before its doors opened to the arrival of review copies from publishers.
Of course, the earliest months of any new journal are always the diciest times to request books from anybody; not only have you yet to secure a sizable audience (unless you’re one of those new lit journals that debuts to widespread acclaim – a truly bizarre phenomenon that nevertheless does occasionally happen), but more importantly, you’ve yet to prove that you know what you’re doing, in terms of reviewing books. By the time Open Letters debuted in March of 2007, almost all of the contacts I myself had made in the publishing world had retired or gone to that big deadline in the sky (with one rather hefty exception, where virtue was rewarded with the top office) – so OLM was forced to start from scratch in terms of getting review copies from publishers.
Even so, I’d certainly have tried for The Urban Whale. It’s a 500-page anthology of 17 scientific papers dealing with many aspects of North Atlantic right whale biology, behavior, and conservation, written by 35 of the leading scientists who study these magnificent creatures for a living – in other words, a mouth-watering example of a “Steve book” if ever there was one. I’d have requested it from the good folks at Harvard University Press, and I’d have hoped for it in the mail. As things happened, I got a copy from a friend who snatched it from the giveaway shelf of an already-established lit journal.
I love the book, and had I received it in the mail for review, I’d have been all fired up to communicate my enthusiasm about it to people who’d otherwise hear “500-page collection of scientific articles about right whales” and walked off in the opposite direction.
I’d have had a great deal of material to work with, in this case. Yes, the tone of most of these articles is fairly dry and academic (with certain exceptions, most notably the chapter called “Enormous Carnivores, Microscopic Food, and a Restaurant That’s Hard to Find” by Mark Baumgartner, Charles Mayo, and Robert Kenney), but the scope of this anthology covers so many different fascinating aspects of the northern right whale’s world that pretty much anybody even vaguely interested in whales (and who in the civilized world isn’t?) will find something to hook them and draw them in. Here we have papers on what these whales eat, where they go, how the sonarscape of their world is warped by the noise of humanity, how humanity’s ocean-going vessels and massive drag-netting presents them with constant dangers – all the very outward inquiries that are the only things we can study about a species that will always remain so utterly mysterious to humans. Right whales cover whole oceans in their travels and conduct their whole lives in worlds far, far from the surface sunlight world of their human observers. Humans will never know anything about what northern right whales think or feel toward each other; we’ll never know how they love their children; we’ll never know how they learn or what amuses them.
This book was 2007’s best summary of what science can know about the northern right whale, and it’s full of low-key nerdy wonders. I didn’t receive it in the mail back then, but I can certainly recommend it now even so.
July 14th, 2016
An old friend and I made plans to meet outside the Boston Public Library this morning on Boylston Street. It was steaming hot and humid, but we both wanted to experience the library for the first time together.
Not the first time visiting the Johnson Building, of course. I’d been going there since the place opened in 1972, when my initial reaction was, “Is this some kind of sick, twisted joke?” The building had been designed by Philip Johnson as a brutal, joyless, frowning, forbidding maximum security penal facility; it had a small handful of low-browed windows, siege-proof granite walls, and a central well letting in just enough natural light to make you feel like you were far, far underground (an impression only strengthened by the vast numbers of muttering, scabrous street people who almost instantly colonized every interior and exterior space of the whole building). At the center of that grudging well of light was a central Information Desk that tended to be staffed by goggle-eyed sweaty-browed angry loners when it was staffed at all. The bathrooms, located in a dank, dripping sub-basement, seldom had toilet paper or running water, but the deep shadows thrown by their faulty ceiling lights were excellent places to score heroin or rent boys, or rent boys on heroin. The contrast with the gorgeous McKim building next door could hardly have been greater.
The McKim building – the place I and a good many other Bostonians are thinking about when we say “the library” – was a palace, not a prison. Its jewel, Bates Hall, had soaring windows, and its courtyard was a little oasis of pure, beautiful relaxation, and it had the nation’s very first children’s room, which was the talk of Boston’s parents for years as a fine place to bring (and perhaps, in a less worried age, leave for a while) their kids. Countless are the hours I spent in the studious serenity of Bates Hall, and countless are the times I retreated there after some bookish errand or other forced me to endure the modernist monstrosities of the Johnson Building next door. For me, the McKim Building was the “real” library, and the great grey granite carbuncle next door was one of those expensive evil concessions to modernity that nobody ever actually likes. By the time major renovations on it began in 2013, I hadn’t visited in years.
But when I saw the news headline that those renovations were now complete – there’d been a ribbon-cutting and everything – I latched onto the company of a fellow bookworm and went to see what all those millions of dollars had bought.
The first difference is obvious long before you go inside: the sidewalk along the entire front of the Johnson Building is now dotted with trees instead of massive plinths of granite that once walled it off from view. The effect is unexpectedly dramatic: you feel like you’re passing a building that wants you to enter, as opposed to one that wants you to go away.
So we ventured inside! The first impression inside the front doors was mildly discordant: the sound of bit-drills. Turns out the ribbon was cut a bit prematurely, as all ribbons tend to be: work is still being done to finish the first-floor cafe.
But that discord almost instantly fades to wonder – the entire Boylston Street first floor of the place is now a vast open space, flooded with natural light from huge, nearly-continuous ground-floor windows, and right in front of you as you walk in is the newly-positioned central Information Desk, redesigned as a “Welcome Center” and outlined in bright panels.
The change from the old massif-bunker atmosphere is simply astonishing – whatever the final tally on the price of this renovation, it was money well-spent.
The New Releases shelves are right there as you walk in, not just handy but also conveniently laid out, very much as books you might end up loving rather than product the library staff resents moving around all day long. There are help desks and BPL staff at hand everywhere – none of the furtive searching through shadows that typified needing help in the bad old days. There are more bathrooms, and they’ve been redesigned for greater wheelchair accessibility. There are water fountains and power outlets scattered all over.
As we moved around the first floor and then went up to the mezzanine and second floor, one of the much-touted features of the redesign became overwhelmingly apparent: the BPL now has a lot of public-access computers. And the more I thought about it, the more this struck me as the heart of the wisdom behind this renovation. When the old McKim building opened in 1895, it proudly welcomed its visitors with the motto that’s still above its front door: “Free To All.” What was meant at the time was of course books but also more than that: all that free access to books (and the quiet in which to read and use them) could mean to the Bostonians who walked through its doors – the freedom and the power that come from access to a world-class library.
In the 21st century, as painful as it might be for a die-hard bookworm such as myself to admit, that freedom and that power no longer come from bound-and-printed paper books. They come from the Internet. The fact that anybody can walk into the new Johnson Building, sit down at any of the 85 terminals, and browse or work online is the exact cultural descendant of that earlier “Free To All.” Where I might once have expected the purist in me to be scowling at the sight of so many computers taking up space that might have gone to more editions of Plutarch, instead the sight made me smile.
Of course, there are still plenty of books, as we saw when we worked our way into the various subject-sections. Only ‘work’ isn’t quite the word, as it certainly was in the dark old pre-redesign days. Back then, there were no labeled subject-sections; instead, there were rows upon rows of tall light-blocking metal stacks differentiated by multiple-digit call numbers and crammed with books that hadn’t been checked out by anybody in twenty years. These rows were narrow, suffocating spaces, tiny corridors that seemed intent on crushing any of the sense of wonder their contents were designed to inspire. The unspoken message was loud and clear: Hurry up and find your book, and then GO.
Again, the “new” Johnson Building setup couldn’t be more different. With so many lower bookcases and so much natural light, the old canyon-effect has been effectively eliminated, and the subject-sections are designated not by a 13-digit call number you had to scribble down or memorize but rather by bright red banners hanging from the ceiling, and by bright red globes shouting the types of books in that area. It’s a trite kind of word to use, but it’s true nonetheless: the whole arrangement was immensely inviting.
By the time we were done touring the place, we were each surprised to realize that we’d easily spent an hour, talking about books the whole time. An hour is a pittance amidst the glories of the McKim Building, but not very long ago, the prospect of spending an hour in the Johnson Building would have been depressing, very nearly alarming. Not so now; we could easily, happily have stayed longer.
Against every one of my expectations, I walked out not only happy but proud: the new renovations to the Johnson Building are so thoughtful, so well-executed, and so successful that it actually feels like Boston has been given an entirely new library. My friend and I aren’t easy patrons to please, and yet we were utterly delighted. So now I have not one but two “real” BPLs – which will be a bit disorienting for a while, but it’s a problem I like having.
July 11th, 2016
Our book today is the latest Star Trek novel, Greg Cox’s Star Trek Legacies: Captain to Captain, the first volume in a new trilogy from Pocket Books commemorating 2016’s 50th anniversary of the original appearance of the “classic” version of the show. The idea is clearly to celebrate the show’s rich history; the plot Cox unfolds is set in the original five-year-mission of the USS Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, and he casts that plot backward into the show’s past.
Or at least a version of the show’s past. In Captain to Captain, the Enterprise welcomes a special guest: Captain Una, who for years was an officer on the Enterprise under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, an cool, collected officer enigmatically named “Number One.” She styles the reason for her visit as simply a chance to catch up with her old shipmate Mr. Spock, but in reality she has a secret motive: she wants to steal a special alien artifact she knows is hidden in the the captain’s cabin – knows that because the knowledge of the artifact has been kept a secret from Starfleet but handed down privately from captain and first officer to captain and first officer over the years, starting with Captain Robert April, through Christopher Pike, to James Kirk (if your eyebrow went up, Spock-style, at the prospect of a miracle device not only going unfound during ship-wide refits but also going unused during the drastic emergencies that happen to the Enterprise every week … well, mine did too). Captain Una has come to the Enterprise in order to steal that device and use it to save a small group of crewmates she lost years before – but first, there’s a friendly reception to get through:
The reception, which was being held in the main rec room, had been under way for some time. Officers and enlisted personnel mingled freely, sipping brightly colored drinks while sampling a buffet of exotic hors d’oeuvres from the ship’s galley, including Antosian puff pastries, Rigelian caviar, Illyrian mango slices, and bite-sized cucumber sandwiches. Given that the crew was already overdue for shore leave, Spock judged the festivities good for morale, which he had gradually come to realize was a significant issue with respect to humans and other more emotional species. The party was, of course, being held in honor of Captain Una, who certainly merited such hospitality.
It’s a brick wall, isn’t it? Maybe even a duranium wall. We’re told that the reception was held in the main rec room, as if we’d need to know that in order to get there; we’re told that “officers and enlisted personnel” were present, as if we’re reading the event notice on the ship’s bulletin board; we’re told that all the alien goodies came from the ship’s galley, in case we were wondering if Rigelian caviar came from the engine room; we’re told that Captain Una certainly merited the hospitality, as if Cox himself, not Mr. Spock, were reminding us of that.
It’s sludgy prose, and it fills the book. Captain Una succeeds in stealing her alien MacGuffin and escapes on her sturdy single-person space shuttle. Kirk and Spock quickly discover what they should have been able to predict before it happened and give chase, and by the time they catch up with her, she’s reached her destination: an abandoned alien laboratory on a world contested by the Klingons, who are now in hot pursuit as well. But even at what should be the book’s dramatic high point, everybody still remains not only firmly out of character but unbearably turgid. This is the ship-wide announcement Captain Kirk makes to his crew as they race to a very probable confrontation:
“Attention, all crew. This is the captain speaking. No doubt you are wondering what we are doing here in this disputed region of space. Certain details are classified, but I can tell you this: Captain Una has absconded with a potentially dangerous piece of alien technology that was recovered from Libros III some eighteen years ago, when the Enterprise was under the command of Captain Robert April. We have reason to believe that she is pursuing her own agenda on the planet, but her objective is uncertain and her mission has not been sanctioned by Starfleet Our goal is to recover Captain Una – and the aforementioned technology – before either can fall into the hands of the Klingon Empire. We hope to achieve that goal and return to our previous course with all due speed. Captain out.”
I read every new Star Trek novel, and I honestly have no idea how to explain stuff like this. The authors of these books always profess their long-standing love of the TV show, but who, after watching even two or three episodes only once, could think that endless corporate memorandum sounded anything like the Captain Kirk in the original series?
And what about that original series? In the history of Star Trek book-adaptations (excluding only the early quickie-adaptations done by James Blish, who was working from scripts in any case), the underlying “canon” has always been determined not by other books but by film: if something’s made it to the screen (small or big), it’s canon – and if it hasn’t made it there, it’s not. For instance, throughout Captain to Captain, we’re told that Number One is an Illyrian – because there’s a long fan-fiction history along those lines – but since we’re told nothing at all about Number One in the one filmed episode in which she appears, that’s not canon.
But what about somebody who is canon? I refer to poor Captain Jonathan Archer, the first captain of the Enterprise, who most certainly is canon, having helmed his vessel for several seasons of a fine TV Star Trek show. It’s true that his command took place before that of Captain April, but he’s not even mentioned when the book refers to “the earliest voyages of the Starship Enterprise” – Cox’s clear implication is that he’s working with the pre-Archer timeline of the original show, in which the Enterprise‘s command went first to April, then to Pike, then to Kirk. It was oddly pleasant to re-visit that version of the show’s fictional history, but it still made me feel sorry for poor Captain Archer and his beagle.
The next book in the “Legacies” series will be written by David Mack, who’s written a whole slew of some of the most stodgy Star Trek novels in the bookstore. But there’s a hum-dinger of a big plot buried under Greg Cox’s own stodginess, so I’ll have to hope Mack can tease some of it out.
July 9th, 2016
Our book today is that horrendously-titled 1986 masterpiece But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? – alternately known as Homage to QWERT YUIOP and Other Writings, a total loss either way and a prime example of why authors should never be allowed to pick the title of their books – especially authors as freakishly widely-read and as whimsical as Anthony Burgess.
But we mustn’t always judge a book by its title! Especially in a case like this, where the book is an enormous gift to the reading world: these are dozens and dozens of book reviews Burgess tossed off for the odd $200 over a span of just about eight years, from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s. The sheer range of books under consideration is staggering: famous novels but also totally forgotten novels, major works of history but also monographs so obscure their authors probably fainted dead away upon learning that Burgess had even heard of them, landmark biographies of fellow dough-faced ex-pat tobacco addicts like Joyce or Beckett but also bagatelles and miscellanies chosen for review solely so that Burgess, a master of bagatelles and miscellanies, could show off a little.
Or show off a lot. Because although the types of books under consideration spans virtually the whole spectrum of literature, there’s really only one subject in this book’s 600 pages, and that subject is Anthony Burgess. No book-critic ever wrote faster entries to reviews (a piece on a collection of Dickens letters opens with “The energy of the man!”; a review of some forgotten compendium begins with “This is not the kind of book you can borrow from the library”), the speed comes partly from jettisoning baggage: Burgess’s “reviews” are often nothing of the kind, since they dispense with the context that readers require. No, the great majority of these great pieces are more like recorded snatches of literary chat, and there’s always only one chatter, and his voice is both fascinating and boorishly certain of its own fascination.
This usually produces a weird kind of double-vision while reading the pieces themselves. The focus is always shifting, foreground to background and back, but the object of the focus is likewise always moving, and it’s always Burgess. And since Anthony Burgess was an old-style Johnsonian man of letters, his fixation on the million hues of his own stained glass genius actually unifies his occasional prose rather than fracturing it into monochrome solipsism. So when he reviews a work that naturally feels like it might have been written by himself, such as John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer, he can ruminate on its innovations with an insider’s intimacy:
Enough or too much? I see no harm in it. I would go further and say this kind of colour is essential if anything like a book is to be made of Chaucer’s life. When biographical materials are so scanty, as with Shakespeare even more than Chaucer (Chaucer is our Bach, says Gardner, and Shakespeare is our Beethoven: I’m not too happy about that), only a novelist – with his vocational intuition about all people laughing when they’re tickled – can be trusted to make something out of little. And as much as the ‘times’ is made up of Black Prince, Black Death, Lollards, Peasants’ Revolt, the only way in which the biographer can sound like something more than a rehash of Warner and Martin is to make soldiers sneeze in the rain or John of Gaunt grow pale when he discovers there is a bubonic rat in the palace.
And when he reflects on the parlous words-to-screen trade, with which he was likewise first-hand familiar, he can shift an (always idealized) version of himself into the persona of other veterans of the trade, like poor old fellow polymath Robert Graves:
Graves as too old to express much satisfaction in the BBC’s televisual adaptation of I, Claudius, and an earlier contractual screwing ensured that he got no money out of it. It is nearly every writer’s sad story, but Graves has kept his primary vocation inviolate – or rather the very nature of that vocation has not tempted the world’s bemerding fingers.
Of course, the danger of writing always about yourself is that sometimes you slip up and write only about yourself. Burgess drank Kingsley Amis-amounts of alcohol every single day of the period during which these reviews were being dashed off, and maybe that much lubricant made some slipping up inevitable. More than one colleague in his life associated his prose with the word “gibberish” (he joked about it in precisely the tone he always reserved for things he didn’t consider even remotely funny), and it’s one of the first words that springs to mind when confronting, for instance, passages like this:
I have been living in Monaco, which is as much as to say France, for the last two years. French is my language of daily intercourse with shopkeepers and bureaucrats and police, but I avoid the language, and hence the intercourse, as much as I can. I huddle over my typewriter, which, though German, disgorges only English., as I would over a Sussex fire of pearwood or a gasfire in Camberwell. And yet French is my second language; I have known it for forty-five years. I try to explain to myself my seemingly volitional rejection of part of my culture and communicative equipment, a rejection expressed not only in avoiding its use but also refusing to understand it when others speak it. I watch French television and reduce its voices to an unintelligible nasal babble. Why?
Why indeed? And also what, and who, and especially where. But even as gibberish, it’s rakishly grand, and that’s why we come back to the nonfiction of Anthony Burgess (so much of which is scandalously out of print, including this volume – it’s unlikely anybody will ever reprint this terribly-titled tome). As a point-by-point critic, he’s blowzy and frequently incurious, and as a dissector of literature he can be maddeningly indirect; when he thinks something is stupid, he calls it “useful,” and when he likes a book he ignores it and talks about its author instead. But as a reader, nakedly showing us the actual process of reading with all its random associations, embarrassing prejudices, and sudden gasps of wonder, capturing that symphonic mental phenomenon, Burgess is a maestro.
July 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, are classics in their own editions in addition to their reprinted contents. Whether it’s the Tain or Magna Carta or the Shahnameh, these monumental volumes feel like much more than simply the purveying of accessible translations – they’re self-contained seminars in their own right.
The happy phenomenon applies equally well to works not in translation. A fine case-in-point is Isaac Kramnick’s 1987 edition of the Federalist Papers, which was hailed at its original appearance by no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Burger, who called Kramnick’s introductory essay “an outstanding piece of work.” (This Penguin edition rounds out its contents with a reprint of the United States Constitution in its entirety – one imagines Justice Burger either primly skipped that part or else found it very, very strange reading). Of all the readily-available popular-press editions of the Federalist papers, Kramnick’s is by far the best, which is probably why I gave my original copy away to some first-year fascist law student a decade ago. So I was naturally pleased to find it again at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and use the discovery as a flimsy excuse to re-read the entire thing, Introduction, papers, notes, and even that dear old Constitution.
The eighty-five Federalist papers were originally published over the course of a year, from 1787 to the spring of 1788, as an attempt to sway public opinion in New York in favor of ratifying that new dear old Constitution as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation that had seen the fledgling Republic through the Revolutionary War. And Kramnick’s authoritative Introduction gives an Olympian sheen to the inevitability of that process, citing how impolitely unworkable the Articles were, with their overriding emphasis on the inviolate sovereignty of individual States and its abhorrence of the coercive power of strong centralized governing bodies. After all, the Articles had only shepherded the united colonies to independence from the most powerful empire in the world – why, forms of government do that kind of thing every day! Such piddling achievements certainly couldn’t be allowed to stand in the balance against all those impolitic, unworkable flaws that are so easy to spot from the professor’s study:
From the perspective of historical hindsight it is easy enough to see the obvious defects of the Articles of Confederation which led to demands for its reform and ultimately to its replacement by the Constitution in 1787. The Congress of the central government could not deal with individual citizens but only with the states in their corporate capacity. It could not tax individuals or regulate their commerce. It could not carry out a foreign policy without the goodwill of states that perceived themselves as sovereign and independent. All of this was clear cut and formed a highly persuasive brief moving many to want change. But equally important on the road to Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention was the activity of the state legislatures. Indeed, for some the abuse of power by state legislatures was the principal reason America needed a new Constitution.
In this Penguin Classic edition of the Federalist Papers, we get the full range of reformist eloquence, and the reading is every bit as invigorating as it always is. And if we don’t also get the anti-Federalist Papers, those equally-eloquent rebuttals of the idea of both the need to scrap the Articles of Confederation and the sublime beauties of a massive centralized government, well, Kramnick is at least willing to quote some brief qualms of the time, like this one from an aggrieved citizen of Massachusetts:
Does not this Constitution … take away all we have, all our property? Does it not lay all taxes, duties, imports, and excises? And what more have we to give? These lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, they expect to get into Congress, themselves. They expect to be managers of this Constitution, and get all the money into their own hands. And then they will swallow up us little fellows, like the Great Leviathan …
The lawyers arguing in favor of the new Constitution expect to be its managers! Why, “they expect to get into Congress, themselves.” Yes indeed. As much of a classic-within-a-classic as Kramnick’s edition is, it possibly could have done with more of that kind of equal representation. But then, there is no Penguin Classics edition of the Anti-Federalist Papers, so interested readers will, in this rare instance, have to go elsewhere to read the whole story. American readers ought to, especially on the 4th of July.
July 2nd, 2016
Our book today is not exactly the Final Word: it’s The Story of Nell Gwyn (and the Sayings of Charles the Second), as “related and collected” by the now-forgotten Victorian editor and biographer Peter Cunningham in 1883. It’s a slightly oversized gold-gilded production of recounted Restoration trifles, just the kind of things for which Cunningham was, as London editors knew, an extremely reliable source. He was a rummager of archives and a knocker-together of friendly books of extracts, the kind of historian other historians tend to disdain – and who passes on that disdain in liberal helpings whenever possible. In the second paragraph of The Story of Nell Gwyn, for instance, he manages the smooth knight-fork of condescending not only to his subject but to his readers and his entire country of birth:
The English people have always entertained a peculiar liking for Nell Gwyn. There is a sort of indulgence towards her not generally conceded to any other woman of her class. Thousands are attracted by her name, they know not why, and do not stay to inquire. It is the popular impression that, with all her failings, she had a generous as well as a tender heart; that when raised from poverty, she reserved her wealth for others rather than herself; and that the influence she possessed was often exercised for good objects, and never abused.
There isn’t much accuracy in that parting string of accolades, but you don’t have to read much of The Story of Nell Gwyn to realize that accuracy isn’t high on Cunningham’s list of priorities. This is primarily a moralizing tract, and since our author is aware that his “Nelly” has lost none of her power to charm for being several centuries dead, he takes pains to remind us of his pious assumptions from time to time. “I have no intention,” he writes, “of finding a model heroine in a coal-yard, or any wish either to palliate or condemn too severely the frailties of the woman whose story I have attempted to relate.” Charming.
Predictably, the latter section of his book, the pages related to King Charles II and his witticisms and his Court of prissified sycophants, is rolled out with more gusto and less arm’s-length disdain. Here Cunningham is ready with every favorable anecdote about the “Merry Monarch,” eager to repeat the praise of every hanger-on as Gospel truth:
That he understood foreign affairs better than all his councils and counsellors put together was the repeated remark of the Lord Keeper Guildford. In his exile he had acquired either a personal acquaintance with most of the eminent statesmen of Europe, or else from such as could instruct him he had received their characters: – and this knowledge, the Lord Keeper would continue, he perpetually improved by conversing with men of quality and ambassadors, whom he would sift, and by what he obtained from them (“possibly drunk as well as sober”), would serve himself one way or other. “When they sought,” his lordship added, “to sift him – who, to give him his due, was but too open – he failed not to make his best of them.”
Although not even the late-Victorian pining for a male monarch can completely suppress the moral scold – historical condescension is a tough habit to break. “His love of wine was the common failing of his age,” we’re rather delicately told of Charles. Charming.
July 1st, 2016
Our book today is Terrorists & Novelists, a 1982 collection of great New York Review of Books pieces, New Statesman pieces, and New York Times Book Review pieces by the novelist and essayist Diane Johnson, who’d go on to score very nice sales with her 2000 novel Le Mariage and its 2003 follow-up L’Affaire. Re-reading the pieces reprinted here serves as a wonderfully enjoyable reminder that the novelist is also a first-rate book reviewer (and reporter: the two-part study of the Jonestown Massacre included here is entirely assured).
There are plenty of well-elaborated insights in these pages. Like all really good readers, Johnson isn’t worried about letting digressive thoughts into her dissections; her pieces are always stronger for the occasional rumination that crops up, as in the brief expansion on historical research that happens in the middle of a review of E. L. Doctorow’s historical fiction:
History is a queer disrupter of fiction. People always seem to enjoy a dash of verisimilitude, the real name of a real newspaper or town, or a reference to a street they know. But the introduction and distortion of true events are often greeted with wild, rather mysterious approval: for instance, that which has greeted (in America, at least) the novels of Doctorow, with their “real” characters, Houdini, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and so on. Perhaps historical characters are preferred to real ones because they make the reader himself feel less frivolous. Soon you will read the seven volumes of the history of World War II; meantime, here’s this interesting book about Hitler’s early life. I wonder how much of it, the reader asks himself, is true.
There are classic compositions scattered throughout this book, essays like “Colette in Pieces” or “Flaubert Dashes Off a Letter” that stand easily today, decades after they were written, as clean and lovely exercises in smart prose. And there are some wonderful turns of phrase, as when Johnson mentions “that slightly condescending sense of wonder on which the liveliest of travel literature depends” – although that frisson of condescension is totally absent from Terrorists & Novelists, despite how often these pieces seem to be about some kind of traveling, including, in some very canny ways, the traveling that is reading. Curiously, I found this evoked most clearly in a passage from the masterful “Ruskin as Guide” that seems on the surface to be one of those little anachronisms created by the march of technology:
The relation of a traveler to his guidebook is a sensitive one; an unsuitable choice can blight your expensive and brief visit to a distant city as surely as finding yourself there with an incompatible lover, or a fussy eater, or someone whose feet hurt. Anyone who has trudged across miles of strange streets to find himself looking at a dull municipal mural or a museum that’s shut has some intimation of the delicacy of this relation; not only must your guidebook have its facts straight, it must also understand what you have come there for.
On one level, those travelers trudging across strange city streets are tired and unhappy in large part because they live in a time before cell phones and iPads and museum apps, but the deeper question is what we want from our critics. Re-reading the pieces collected in Terrorists & Novelists, the main thing I wanted from this particular critic was more; what massive volume of book-chat could be assembled from the working life of Diane Johnson? I’d like to see it.
June 23rd, 2016
Our book today is a lovely old slip-cased thing from 1945: the volume of Louis Untermeyer’s “American Poets” series dedicated to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This series was done up very prettily: solid binding, high-quality paper, and original artwork for each volume – in this case, wood engravings by Boyd Hanna that are as wonderful on still scenes and animals as they are cringe-worthy when it comes to depicting actual human beings.
The volumes in this wonderful series serve as a reminder of what a great editor and general all-purpose book-organizer Untermeyer could be, despite the off-kilter and ramshackle mess his life almost always was. In this case, he oversaw the creation of a Longfellow volume fit to stand alongside the many very pretty such volumes publishers had created in the last century, betokening Longfellow’s status as the most popular and beloved poet in the United States. And in addition to the artwork and the technical quality of the thing, there’s also what for some readers would have been the main selling point: an Introduction by Untermeyer himself that’s absolutely wonderful, full of pith and politely borrowed cadences.
In the brief essay, Untermeyer tells Longfellow’s story, from his birth in Portland, Maine in 1807 to his impulsive three-year-long trip to Europe when he was a newly-minted eighteen-year-old Bowdoin College graduate, a trip that Untermeyer shrewdly characterizes as something of a wake-up call for Longfellow, who never gazed upon an ancient cathedral or dusty heap of ruins without pining for the New World:
But he was not meant to be an expatriate. He missed the trim orderliness, the whitewashed tranquility of New England, the wineglass elms, the dark evergreens, the flaming maples, the walled cornfields studded with golden pumpkins. Europe, after all, was too European; it had no “orchards by the roadside, no slab fences, no well-poles, no painted cottages with huge barns and outhouses ornamented in front with monstrous piles of wood for winter-firing.” There was nothing, he confessed in a burst of homesickness, “to bring to the mind of an American a remembrance of the beautiful villages of his native land.”
And as generations of schoolchildren once knew, it was that fresh, beautiful New World that formed the very breath of Longfellow’s poems, filling such pieces as “The Herons of Elmwood” with its flashing autumnal grandeur:
Warm and still is the summer night,
As here by the river’s bank I wander’
White overhead are the stars, and white
The glimmering lamps on the hillside yonder.
Silent are all the sounds of day,
Nothing I hear but the chirp of crickets,
And the cry of the herons winging on their way
O’er the poet’s house in the Elmwood thickets.
Call to him, herons, as slowly you pass
To your roosts in the haunts of the exiled thrushes,
Sing him the song of the green morass,
And the tides that water the reeds and rushes.
Sing to him, say to him, here at his gate,
Where the boughs of the stately elms are meeting,
Some one hath lingered to meditate,
And send him unseen this friendly greeting;
That many another had done the same,
Though not by a sound was the silence broken;
The surest pledge of a deathless name
Is the silent homage of thoughts unspoken.
But Untermeyer goes beyond simple biography in his splendid Introduction. In the 1940s, writing about the universally famous author of “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “Evangeline,” our smiling editor knew he was addressing an audience that both knew Longfellow well and was also beginning to feel the strong undertows of the modernist versifying that would very soon, within the generation, consign Longfellow to an oblivion not even the most fanatical betting man would have predicted in the day’s of the poet’s fame. To that unsettled audience, Untermeyer feels the need to clarify – almost to re-introduce – the foremost poet of their parents’ generation:
Longfellow is not for those who demand ecstasy; yet what he lacks in force is made up in finesse. The verse is delicate, at times even thin; but it has an unusually even tone, an extraordinarily fine-grained texture. Such poetry is not heaven-shaking; it rarely strives for passionate heights. Nor does it probe psychological depths. But it maintains itself on its own unperilous level; it persists quietly in the mind as well as in the heart. It expresses a kindliness which is spontaneous, and a homeliness which is winning because it is so straightforward.
Untermeyer’s selections in this volume lean in the direction of that homeliness; softly-sighing pieces like “Hymn to the Night” crop up throughout the volume:
I heard the trailing garments of the Night
Sweep through her marble halls!
I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
From the celestial walls!
I felt her presence, by its spell of might,
Stoop o’er me from above;
The calm, majestic presence of the Night,
As of the one I love.
It’s a melancholy thing, to find one of these stately old volumes at the outdoor Brattle sale carts. Once upon a time, they sat proudly on retail bookshop shelves, priced for special occasions, ready to be restocked for college graduations and faculty retirement parties. Once upon a time, the poets honored in this “American Poets” series were the everywhere-recognized titans of the art. Now, in 2016, handing a literate person a gift volume of Longfellow would have to be accompanied by a lip-curl of irony in order to make any sense, and that process was well underway when this great series first appeared. But there’s sometimes a pendulum to these things, the hopeful remind themselves.