February 11th, 2015
Our books today are the four hefty volumes that constitute the core of the old Pelican Gospel Commentaries, and we turn to them with a kind of cold-sweat urgency: as the endless snow continues to fall, as the very infrastructure of Boston begins to crumble, Stevereads continues its perhaps-futile bid to appease the peevish Deity by taking these treasured paperbacks off the shelf and admiring them afresh.
As a good friend of mine is fond of repeating, the task of Scriptural interpretation is a deliberately open-ended one, a process each generation must undertake for itself. If that’s true, older guidebooks like these are put in a precarious spot: the only way they can avoid being superseded is by being full-out classics in their own right. And if such a thing is true for these Pelican Gospel Commentaries, all of which were written in the 1960s, how much more dolorously true must it be for, say, the voluminous Gospel commentaries of Erasmus, centuries old and so long out of print? It’s a little depressing, actually: these scholars, inspired by their encounter with these writings that mean more to them than anything, pour out their hearts and the full extent of their learning, only to end up looking antiquated even in their own lifetime.
Fortunately, that good friend of mine is partially wrong, and he’s wrong for the most predictable reason: because he himself is in the business of Scriptural interpretation! An ordinary literate intelligent Christian (settle down now – that’s not the set-up to a joke), wanting to understand the Gospels both as literary and historical documents, still couldn’t do better than to make a study of these four old Pelican volumes.
Of course, such a study will be a bit uneven, not just because scholars are uneven in their training but also because the Gospels themselves are famously uneven. The synoptic Gospels inevitably produce various layers of nervous chatter about sources and derivations, for instance, something the great scholar J. C. Fenton addresses immediately in his 1963 Saint Matthew:
It is usually thought that Mark’s Gospel was written about A. D. 65; and that the author of it was neither one of the apostles nor an eyewitness of the majority of events recorded in his Gospel. Matthew was therefore dependent upon the writing of such a man for the production of his book. What Matthew has done, in fact, is to produce a second and enlarged edition of Mark. Moreover, the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not the corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness. Thus, whereas in Mark’s Gospel we may be only one remove from eyewitnesses, in Matthew’s Gospel we are one remove further still.
And then there’s the varying nature within the synoptic Gospels themselves, which often causes their exegetes to get a bit defensive. This is true in the case of the vagaries of Matthew, as Fenton was hinting, and it’s even more true of the bare-bones flintiness of Mark, a thing clearly on D. E. Nineham’s mind when he was writing his 1963 book on that Gospel:
St. Mark, although, as we have seen, he has his distinctive preoccupations, as compared with the other Evangelists, remains completely anonymous; he makes no attempt to ‘push’ his interpretation explicitly and it has to be discovered by reading carefully between his lines. This was no doubt because his understanding of Christ was for the most part simply that of the Church to which he belonged, and he was not conscious of doing anything more than commit the ‘gospel’ of that Church to writing.
But sometimes, you find just the right scholar matched with just the right book, and that’s always a happy occasion. The stand-out example in this case is G. B. Caird, who, in his 1963 Saint Luke, uses passion and eloquence (and a touch of Sherlock Holmes!) in order to re-align wonderfully all my previous impressions of this Gospel:
The study of the Gospel enables us to describe in some detail the man who wrote it. He was a second-generation Christian who had had ample opportunities of associating with those who had first-hand knowledge of the gospel story. He was an educated man who could adapt his Greek diction to different occasions, writing sometimes formal, classical prose, sometimes a racy narrative style in the vernacular of his own day, and sometimes the semitic ‘Bible Greek’ in which the Septuagint was written. His command of Greek, his constant interest in Gentiles, and his avoidance of matters of purely Jewish interest may be taken as indications that he himself was a Gentile, but he was one of those Gentiles who were deeply versed in the Greek Old Testament and in the ways of the synagogue. He had something of the poet in his make-up and an artist’s ability to depict in vivid pen-portraits the men and women who inhabit his pages. He delighted in marvels and was a little inclined to emphasize the miraculous elements in his story. He was more interested in people than in ideas. He had a lively social conscience and an inexhaustible sympathy for other people’s troubles.
And then there’s the Everest in any Gospel mountain chain: the Gospel of St. John, with its length and flights of fancy and very distinctive (and guiltily enjoyable) excesses, the Gospel of John, the epic of the New Testament, written by a full-out loon and easily capable, even two millennia later, of bringing out the loon in otherwise-sober scholars who study it. John Marsh’s 1968 volume in this series, Saint John, is longer than the others, of course, and it’s absorbingly good throughout, but when it comes to the quasi-philosophical mumbo-jumbo at which John excels, well, Marsh is what we call these days an enabler:
What has John done? Has he really distorted the message of the synoptics for something really different? Not at all. The present writer believes that what he has done is enable the reader of the fourth gospel to move from it back to the synoptics and there to perceive what the synoptic message is. This is done by keeping his readers firmly with the historical Jesus, for it is in him that they can really meet the past, the present and the future. The past means him, that is the real theological justification for typology. If some even in the past, like the exodus from Egypt, throws light (as it does) through the Passover feast on the destiny and death of Christ, it is then seen that as the fulfillment (the achievement once for all history) of what God sought to do in the Passover is at the cross, the cross itself sheds light back to the exodus. What is going on in the exodus helped many to see what was going on on the cross; but once it is seen what is going on in the event of the cross, then it is seen as what is going on all the time. The cross becomes the meaning, the one event of all history.
Although they may seem like fairly staid things to the casual glance in 2015, these Pelican Gospel Commentaries were just shy of incendiary when they first appeared, a fact that each separate author feels obligated to mention in one way or other. They take as their common starting point that the Gospels, whatever else they might be to the thousands of readers who bought these volumes, are ancient documents, vulnerable to deterioration and misinterpretation and the thousand other shocks that texts are heir to. It’s actually a quietly amazing thing, to read these books and realize that scholars might once have been burned alive for writing them.
It’s a sobering little thought, for a city so clearly under Heavenly interdict as Boston is this February. It’ll be a shame to burn these jam-packed little paperbacks for fuel, but with eighty more major snowstorms predicted for the next 17 days, I may not have much of a choice.
February 10th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are the only ones you can turn to when your city has incurred the wrath of the Almighty, as Boston so clearly has in this apocalyptic February of 2015, which has so far seen just a few inches short of 500 feet of snow. At such times, my book-hunting lapsed Catholic fingers just naturally twitch their way along the bookshelves and stop on atavistic territory – in this case, the 1961 UK-only Penguin Classic of the New English Bible‘s New Testament, released in an affordable mass market paperback in the wake of the notable financial success of the hardcover New English Bible among the general reading populace.
The committee of scholars and translators who undertook the creation of the New English Bible took their task very seriously, as the unsigned Introduction to the this Penguin paperback makes earnestly clear:
No one who has not tried it can know how impossible an art translation is. Only those who have meditated long upon the Greek original are aware of the richness and subtlety of meaning that may lie even within the most apparently simple sentence, or know the despair that attends all efforts to bring it out through the medium of a different language. Yet we may hope that we have been able to convey to our readers something at least of what the New Testament has said to us during these years of work, and trust that under the providence of Almighty God this translation may open the truth of the scriptures to many who have been hindered in their approach to it by barriers of language.
But beyond the circumspection (there were living, working New Testament scholars in 1961 who were driven to transports of livid rage by the above paragraph, though you’d hardly guess it now that all the echoes have died away completely) and the sober sense of purpose, they worked some genuine wonders; it’s always a treat for me to be reminded of just how good and new the New English Bible is. It takes nothing for granted in the courses of its rhetoric; it holds up every familiar passage into bright forensic light, dismantles it, then re-assembles it according to best translation practices rather than according to long liturgical tradition. It can make for genuinely page-turning reading.
It’s true in the Gospels, of course, but in my opinion it’s even more true in the Acts and especially the Epistles, where there’s far more of a narrative voice to capture, and where the footprints of tradition aren’t quite so deep. And nowhere is this effect more pronounced than in the greatest Epistle of them all, Hebrews, in so many ways the unknown heart of the New Testament, with its typically Pauline (though exigetical scamps say he didn’t write it) emphasis on the immediate doing of the new covenant:
So now, my friends, the blood of Jesus makes us free to enter boldly into the sanctuary of the new, living way which he has opened for us through the curtain, the way of his flesh. We have, moreover, a great priest set over the household of God; so let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted. We ought to see how each of us may best arouse others to love and active goodness, not staying away from our meetings, as some doe, but rather encouraging one another, all the more because you see the Day is drawing near.
Simply in terms of translation, I have my little doubts about that lovely ‘hearts sprinkled clean’ – but I’m hardly in a position to quibble, especially with Boston’s own Day so obviously drawing near. And if we meet our snowy Creator with Penguin Classics in our hands, shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
February 8th, 2015
February 7th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – as several of you readers have pointed out to me, hopeless bookworms that you are – revamp earlier Penguin Classics, as is certainly the case with the Penguin Modern Classics I just recently wrote about: the line is a kinda-sorta updating of Penguin’s old “Twentieth-Century Classics” line, a little shorter on the heft that tended to characterize the titles of the older version and little longer on the optimism needed in order to hope that anybody is going to be reading Carson McCullers in another 100 years, to say nothing of John Updike in another 10.
The old Twentieth-Century Classics line had some standbys, of course – writers like Edith Wharton and James Joyce and Willa Cather show up reliably on such lists (indeed, the field-of-flowers cover for the Twentieth-Century Classics O Pioneers! is quite the best cover the book has ever had), and of course there’s a selection of E. M. Forster novels, including his lovely little 1905 novella Where Angels Fear to Tread, here introduced by somebody named Oliver Stallybrass, who lays out the basic facts of Forster’s life and then promptly goes stark raving bonkers:
Unlike the more ambitious Howards End, I find it flawless – in the perfection of its structure, it’s subtle use of leitmotifs, its sureness of touch and tone, the deftness of its comedy, and the skill with which the comedy modulates via scenes of nightmare into a poignancy and pathos unsurpassed in Forster’s work.
But despite what could be considered a core of such canonical writers, the Twentieth-Century Classics line’s row of distinctive light-green spines contained some surprises too. I never expect to see Marguerite Yourcenar’s famous 1951 critical and commercial success Memoirs of Hadrian given the ‘classics’ treatment, even though I love it – and yet there it was, with an Introduction by Paul Bailey in which he somewhat tartly observes, “In Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar rigorously eschews the piling-on of historical detail to be encountered, and endured, in the majority of historical novels” – which had a little extra sting in the tail this week, since the queen of all detail-piling-on, Colleen McCullough, just recently died.
Equally unusual and equally welcome is the Twentieth-Century Classics reprint of Lytton Strachey’s revolutionary 1921 biography Queen Victoria, a kind of follow-up to the enormous success of his 1918 Eminent Victorians. This particular volume comes with no annotations of any kind but does have both a typically insightful blurb from Virginia Woolf: “In time Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell’s Johnson is now Dr. Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear” … and a typically disastrous blurb from Forster himself: “He [Strachey] did what no biographer had done before; he managed to get inside his subject …”
And if you need some help shaking off that mental image, you can always turn to an odd and very enjoyable unannounced editorial drift in this run of reprints: there’s quite a bit of great literature from Jewish authors, including some gems that simply don’t get any kind of wide popular distribution anymore (if ever). One of the comparatively best-known of these is I. J. Singer’s 1936 novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, with an Introduction by the great Irving Howe, who’s also in a fairly tart mood and offhandedly comments, “There are two Singers in Yiddish literature, and while both are very good, they sing in different keys” – noting that both Singers were “not very successfully” at “full-scale social or family novel.” This is not only a swipe at the very book Howe’s introducing but also at I. B. Singer’s 1950 novel The Family Moskat - and it’s wrong on both counts, since both books are just about as successful as full-scale social or family novels” can get.
Far less well-known, but equally deserving of classic status, is Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky from 1917, originally serialized to enthusiastic acclaim in The Jewish Daily Forward and here succinctly summed up by Jules Chametsky: “Cahan put everything he had learned into this novel, and it is done with great relish.” Years ago, when I first saw this volume in the series, I actually allowed myself to hope Cahan would finally gain a wider readership – but alas, no.
And even less so for Jakob Wasserman, whose gripping 1908 novel Caspar Hauser was also part of this lineup, although in this case the lapse back into obscurity might be easier to understand. The book is heavily based on very improbable real-life events (a young man who’s been imprisoned for most of his life is released and wanders the streets utterly befuddled, leading to a great many conspiracy theories about his identity), and presenters always feel they need to reel off all those real-life events before they let Wasserman himself do any talking, and the combined effect incorrectly makes the book itself seem, well, too provincial for canonization – although the Introduction to this volume at least keeps things lively:
Wasserman’s portrayal of [Philip Henry, 4th Earl] Stanhope is a rich exercise in psychological realism couple with gothic cloak and dagger. How much of it is true will very probably never be known, and in a sense it does not matter, in so far as Wasserman was writing a novel and not a historical study. The same applies to Wasserman’s belief, shared by many historians, that Kaspar Hauser was in fact a prince of the royal house of Baden
Eventually, Penguin’s Twentieth-Century Classics shape-shifted from the pale-green spines to the more standard black-spines-with-white-letters look, and of course eventually the 20th century ended – which hasn’t stopped Penguin from inducting new titles into the line nor should it. But looking at the whole thing as a somewhat closed-set exercise, I naturally start thinking about what a Twenty-First Century Classics line would include. I’ve actually been pondering that question for the last few years with the kind of irrational persistence bookworms will recognize quite well. Expect a Penguins on Parade – or two, or three – on the subject before the year is out!
February 6th, 2015
One item in the book news today is something you might have seen in the Wall Street Journal, a story with a dispiritedly wayward lede:
Publishers have faced a vexing question in recent years: As newspapers’ book coverage shrinks and fewer people shop in brick-and-mortar bookstores, how might publishers open a conversation with readers online, without getting lost in the digital sea?
The story revolves around Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, whose decided to throw his influence and money into a new venture designed to open that reader conversation: in April he’s launching a bookish website called Literary Hub, which will feature book excerpts, book reviews, author interviews, and miscellaneous essays. It’s a website Entrekin (and presumably his financing partners) hopes will be attractive as a kind of one-stop clearinghouse for all things literary – a single stop he claims is necessitated by the simple volume of all things literary in the world today: “There’s a gigantic amount of literary content being produced each day but unless you have 10 people looking for it, you won’t find it,” he says. “We’re going to hopefully bring it to you.”
I think there are four important things to notice about this little bit of news:
First: It’s an online-only venture. One of Entrekin’s partners expresses a little trepidation about that, but of course it made me smile. I am, after all, the Managing Editor of one online-only literary venture and the US & Worldwide Editor of another, which betokens a certain amount of belief in the venue! Despite the rather large number of paper-paged printed books I get in the mail every day, I do a great deal of my daily reading on my iPad or my sturdy little Nook, and I feel certain lots of other readers do too. The fact that Entrekin and his partners could easily have opted to raise the money for a magazine and instead chose to go online-only is an encouraging step toward erasing the widespread prejudice among book-snobs for onscreen reading.
Second: It’s a foolish venture. Not only could Entrekin’s 10 busy-beavers not gather more than a fraction of the “gigantic amount of literary content being produced every day” (I myself am more capable, I assure you, than 10 or even 20 such busy beavers, and I can’t do it), but even if they could, they couldn’t then convey it all – even the Internet isn’t big enough for that. No, what Entrekin means is actually the opposite of what he’s saying: those 10 beavers will be busy deciding what parts of the tiny daily fraction of what they find they won’t censor – they’re gatekeepers, not gatherers. Nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s the function of every literary journal, in print or online. But those journals should have the humility to admit it – or the common sense not to bring it up.
Third: It’s a lazy venture. Who said book people need a “one-stop shop of bookish aggregation”? Who would want such a thing? You’re all readers – can you picture yourself ever saying, “Well, now that I’ve finally got this one place to go for all my book news, essays, and reviews, I need not go anywhere else ever again – thank God!”? The very idea caters to the worst kind of click-baiters in the depths, no matter how many hotlinks it has.
Fourth: It’s a hopeful venture. It aims to add another high-profile literary venue to a mental landscape that can never have enough of them, and that’s always a good thing. True, that opening lede seems bizarrely ignorant of an obscure little community known as Goodreads, where 25 million active, passionate readers share quirky stories, exhaustive lists, personal ratings, and thousands and thousands of reviews, and where publishers very much go in order to have online conversations with readers. But lede-writers are by nature fairly oblivious creatures – the more important point is that those reader-conversations are wonderful things, and it would be great to have more of them. I think in this rare instance I can safely speak for all my bookish colleagues at Open Letters in wishing Literary Hub a long and healthy life!
February 3rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics just look so nice! This has surely been noticed by the younger generation of printed-book buyers, whose Book Depository-roving eyes have been caught time and again by the recent redesign of the Penguin Modern Classics run. In a canny inversion of the now-venerable black-spined design of the main Penguin Classics line, these snazzy new Modern Classics volumes are bright white; in a canny inversion of the monumental visual stateliness of the Penguin Classics line (I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve bored while walking around the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Portrait Gallery happily matching the Old Masters painting with its Penguin cover), the covers of these Modern Classics are bright and new and evocative (indeed, some of the gray-spined UK editions, like the one for L. P. Hartley’s weird and utterly heartbreaking book The Go-Between, sporting cover art specifically commissioned for the occasion); in a canny inversion of the canonical choices of the old Penguin Classics lineup, some of these new Modern Classics are a bit on the unpredictable side.
Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, certainly, and for better or worse, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (which at least provides its soon-to-be stultified readers with a wonderful Introduction by Seamus Deane). The Great Gatsby with a great cover; a whole series of utterly arresting covers for the Modern Classics run of Kafka; some elegant editions of Virginia Woolf’s books .. these are expected things in any ‘modern classics’ lineup.
But The Collected Stories of Rumpole? You can imagine my surprise and delight in finding such a volume on the list! I wrote up the progenitor of this book for my reviewing home on the other side of the world years ago, and I had a great time doing it. And what about Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels? I might be practically alone in my opinion that they’re utter garbage, but even so, their appearance here bespeaks a very pleasingly broad editorial outlook just the same. And speaking of garbage: there’s John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, something that shouldn’t have seen the light of day, let alone achieve any kind of ‘classic’ status, but the mere fact that some editor stood up for it says good things about this series regardless of its lapses.
There’s Fair Stood the Wind for France by the criminally neglected H. E. Bates; there’s Ernesto Sabato’s bewildering The Tunnel; there’s a “selected poems” of Patrick Kavanagh, of all people, and a nice sturdy edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces; there are strange gems like Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial and Paul Bowles’s Up Above the World – things you’d never expect to see in any kind of ‘classics’ line but are nonetheless glad to find here. There’s even Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, which I’ve pressed on many a reader in my day! And for the faint of heart (and the wimps, an ever-present sub-category of the reading world, the Silent Majority, as it were, in the Republic of Letters), there’s even a big boxed set of “Mini Modern Classics,” filled with some of the very worst books ever written, here gathered in one landfill-convenient set.
There’s E. L. Doctorow – not just the understandable Ragtime but the more idiosyncratic Book of Daniel; there’s the bizarre choice of Eric Ambler (you can trust me on this: not only does The Mask of Dimitrios have no redeeming rhetorical qualities, but its author didn’t even remember writing it), but there’s also Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, so often oddly neglected in roll calls of this kind; yes, there’s the dreariness of Saul Bellow’s inclusion, but there’s also John Dos Passos.
I’ve gone through phases where I scorned reprint lines like this new Penguin Modern Classics as crass and obvious marketing ploys designed to snag lazy readers who might buy a new paperback of The Bell Jar but would be much too intimidated to pick up Middlemarch regardless of how well-designed it was. After all, we can’t be elevating everything to the status of a classic, now can we? And if you make a gesture in that account – especially one that includes the C-list novels or Jack Kerouac, or the twin monstrosities of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead – aren’t you adulterating beyond recall the very definition of the term?
And I still scorn excessive inclusivity (especially the kind prompted by holier-than-thou political correctness) – but if there’s evidence of discriminating taste, if there are signs of a taste involved, even if it’s a woefully misinformed taste, well, I increasingly can live with that. I snatch up these Penguin Modern Classics every time I find one.
February 2nd, 2015
Our book today is Cyril Connolly’s 1938 masterpiece of snark and summation, Enemies of Promise, which largely baffled its critics when it first appeared and has survived them all, as Connolly himself sometimes predicted it would in his tipsier moments. The book is split into three long sections, the first, “The Predicament,” being a tour de horizon of the current reading-world and its trends, almost all of which Connolly very politely deplores, the second, “The Charlock’s Shade,” being a protracted analysis of all the various ways writers wander into thistles and come to ruin, and the third, “A Georgian Boyhood,” being wonderfully acidic account of the author’s own boyhood and youth.
It was the last section that really irritated the critics who were inclined to irritation; they protested, rightly, that it just sat there, utterly out of place. Connolly rather lamely defended it by saying it provided the personal background for all the pronouncements made in the first two sections, but no amount of rationalizing can hide the fact that the third section, though wonderfully written, is an entirely different book than the first two sections and a less entertaining one. It can be summed up fairly accurately in one line: “Edwardian English boys’ schools were a very good rough approximation of Hell itself.”
The first two sections can’t be summed up easily at all, although they can be characterized: Connolly is hugely intelligent and has a great knack for pith. His one-liners are so tart and opinionated that they can still spark argumentative reactions even now. Any reading of Enemies of Promise will have a reader underlining gems like “One can fool the public about a book but the public will store up resentment in proportion to its folly,” or “Children dissipate the longing for immortality which is the compensation of the childless writer’s work.”
And apart from the catcalls, underneath the easy sneering, Connolly is a wonderfully discriminating and even moralistic reader, one who treasures the glories of his day’s literature (it’s uncanny how many of the books he lists as great in the 1930s are books we still consider great – there’s virtually none of the typical “Hamlin Garland is a giant of our time” pronouncements you so often find in old collections of criticism) and scorns the oceans of trash that were as deep in his own day as they are in our own. And since he approaches the subject as a writer as well as a critic, he reserves a special contempt for fellow writers who’ve sufficiently sold their souls to make those oceans just a bit deeper. He wants them to cure themselves:
The one way by which a cure can be undertaken is to persuade such writers to re-read their own books or those contemporary books which, up to a year ago, they most admired. Then, however jauntily they may protest – ‘Well, it was what the public wanted at the time – it was in me and it had to come out; it means no more to me now than my old toe-nails – and hell, who wants to read the same book twice, anyway,’ a doubt will have arisen.
The second section, being mostly a roadmap of ruin, is my favorite of the three, especially the hilarious essay called “The Blue Bugloss,” which deals with writers who fall, by steady stages, to the wretched craft of book-reviewing. The essay is very nearly as much fun as Connolly’s masterpiece of spite, “Ninety Years of Novel Reviewing” (a very difficult essay for any reviewer to read – a laughing-while-wincing type of thing) and deals with the those poor saps who fall into the broad category between “a Hazlitt or a wise old literary stager.” Both those extremes can handle the daily book-review grind happily, without experiencing either burnout or delusion. For all those wretched creatures who fall in between those two extremes, Connolly has some stern words of warning:
Reviewing is a whole-time job with a half-time salary, a job in which the best in him is generally expended on the mediocre in others. A good review is only remembered for a fortnight; a reviewer has always to make his reputation afresh nor will he find time for private reading or writing, for he is too busy reading other people’s books and this will disincline him to read when he is not working. The sight of his friends’ books accumulating depresses him and he knows that, besides losing the time to write books of his own, he is also losing the energy and the application, frittering it away on tripe and discovering that it is his flashiest efforts which receive most praise.
I just recently re-read Enemies of Promise (I have a somewhat shabby trade paperback, which is serving its duty until a Penguin Classic of the book comes along) and found myself smiling and underlining with exactly the same enjoyment I experienced the first time I read it (and the second, and the third). Aspiring to write book-talk that can inspire such enjoyment almost a century after it was written is enough to fire the hopes of pretty much any old literary stager.
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 30th, 2015
Our book today is a squat, brick-red little triple-decker, the three-volume life of Henry VIII that Everyman editor W. Llweleyn Williams carved out of 12-volume history of England written from 1856 to 1870 by the great J. A. Froude. Williams knew what he was about; Froude’s book – the unabridged edition of which is out of print, will always be out of print, and was fairly panting to be out of print even when it was in print – is from front to back a staggering literary performance, but John Q. Reading Public no more wanted to be staggered a century ago than he does in our post-literate age, whereas no publisher ever balked at the idea of lobbing another biography of “England’s Bluebeard” onto the pile.
The allure is so ready-made, in fact, that in his Introduction to this three-volume set (bought at dear, departed, and much-missed W. B. Clarke & Co. on Tremont Street in Boston, a long, long time ago), Williams feels confident enough to indulge in a little hedge-trimming of our august author himself, done without fear of hindering sales:
Froude has been accused, and not without justice, of not feeling a proper aversion to acts of cruelty. The horrible Boiling Act of Henry VIII excites neither disgust nor hatred in him; and he makes smooth excuses for the illegal tortures of the rack and the screw which were inflicted on prisoners by Elizabeth and her ministers. He had himself been reared in a hardy school; he had been trained to be indifferent to pain. It may well be that his callousness in speaking of Tudor cruelties is to be traced to the influences that surrounded his loveless childhood and youth.
And it goes on! After enumerating some of Froude’s more famous factual slip-ups, Williams gives some of the man’s firmest critics the floor, as in this example:
But Froude was sometimes guilty of something worse than these trivial “howlers.” Lecky exposed, with calm ruthlessness, some of Froude’s exaggerations – to call them by no worse name – in his Story of the English in Ireland. When his Erasmus was translated into Dutch, the countrymen of Erasmus accused him of constant, if not deliberate, inaccuracy.
Lord Carnarvon once sent Froude to South Africa as an informal special commissioner. When he returned to this country he wrote an article on the South African problem in the Quarterly Review. Sir Bartle Frere, who knew South Africa as few men did, said of it that it was an “essay in which for whole pages a truth expressed in brilliant epigrams alternates with mistakes or misstatements which would scarcely be pardoned in a special war correspondent hurriedly writing against time.” So dangerous is the quality of imagination in a writer!
Strangely enough, none of this does anything to shake the strong impression that Williams venerates Froude, and the proof, as they say in Yorkshire, is in the pudding: the man’s rolling, luminously mandarin prose will almost unfailingly generate that veneration in any reader – then or now – who allows himself to sink slowly into its Victorian velvet cushions. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Froude never condescends to his readers (one of the fringe benefits of his striving always to be a popular rather than an academic historian, and also perhaps a byproduct of having tried his hand at writing fiction); the relationship is rather like that of a knowing, slightly world-weary cicerone with his gaggle of eager but uninformed sightseers. He himself knows all, but he won’t pretend to approve all:
Leaving for the present these disorders to mature themselves, I must now return to the weary chapter of European diplomacy, to trace the torturous course of popes and princes, duping one another with false hopes; saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. It is a very Slough of Despond, through which we must plunge desperately as we may; and we can cheer ourselves in this dismal region only by the knowledge that, although we are now approaching the spot where the mire is deepest, the hard ground is immediately beyond.
He enters with unabashed relish into the centuries-old controversies of his subject, hating, for instance, Anne Boleyn with a calculated fervor born – we won’t say of loveless childhood – of a strident reading of the sources. Not for him the later fad of considering her just another victim:
Thus she too died without denying the crime for which she suffered. Smeton confessed from the first. Brereton, Weston, Rochfort, virtually confessed on the scaffold. Norris said nothing. Of all the sufferers not one ventured to declare that he or she was innocent – and that six human beings should leave the world with the undeserved stain of so odious a charge on them, without attempting to clear themselves, is credible only to those who form opinions by their wills, and believe or disbelieve as they choose.
And oh, can he perorate! When the mood is on him, his expostulations exceed in both their force and their beauty the best parallel passages of all his contemporaries, as when he swerves from a discussion of Reformation religious upheavals to praise the Christian humanists under Henry:
Hunted like wild beasts from hiding-place to hiding-place, decimated by the stake, with the certainty that however many years they might be reprieved, their own lives would close at last in the same fiery trial; beset by informers, imprisoned, racked, and scourged; worst of all, haunted by their own infirmities, the flesh shrinking before the dread of a death of agony – thus it was that they struggled on; earning for themselves martyrdom – and for us, the free England in which we live and breathe.
And what of Henry himself, the object of this utterly fantastic treasure of a three-volume set? Froude’s conclusion isn’t anything original but instead a relativism that tries to walk a path between the growling contempt of a biographer like Francis Hackett and the nearly-unconcealed locker room admiration of later writers:
Henry had many faults. They have been exhibited in the progress of the narrative: I need not return to them. But his position was one of unexampled difficulty; and by the work which he accomplished, and the conditions , internal and external, under which his task was allotted to him, he, like every other man, ought to be judged. He was inconsistent; he can bear the reproach of it.
Froude can be inconsistent too, of course – those ‘howlers’ are very real things, after all, and they exist in their fair number in these three volumes – but it’s not given to many biographies to be so moving and readable after so long a time and so much intervening research on such a well-known subject. Other chunks were carved out of that 12-volume quarry, I know, and re-reading these volumes made me want to hunt down all the others.
January 26th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are updates or revisions of things that were themselves already classics, and that can be nerve-racking for a long-time fan of the Penguin line such as myself. I love the ongoing march of new editions, don’t get me wrong – I’m always the first person telling my bookish friends that some new version of X, Y, or Z is coming down the pike. But they worry me, too (the new editions, that is, not the bookish friends, most of whom are past helping); it can be a very tricky business, updating or even re-assessing an old landmark.
New from Penguin Classics is a case-in-point: The Portable Emerson, edited by Jeffrey Cramer, who gave us a truly exceptional edition of Thoreau’s essays a couple of years ago. His Portable Emerson is a typically pretty thing all decked out in its Penguin Classics black spine with an eye-catching cover design showing the rings of an old tree with a famous Emerson quote superimposed over them. But it appears in the lengthy shadow of its seventy-year-old predecessor, the great Viking Portable Emerson edited by Mark Van Doren in 1946. That book has been a staple in thousands of libraries – mine very much included – for a very long time; any revision can’t help but feel like an act of daring, maybe even sacrilege.
Part of that feeling comes from how personal a writer Emerson always feels, to each new generation of readers. He very much had that effect in his own lifetime – among other things, it’s what made him such an unprecedented hit on the secular lecture circuit – and it’s threaded its way steadily through three generations of scholars. Back in 1946, Van Doren could write:
He was always somehow personal, generous and candid, but his nature was ventilated to the core. His modesty was equal to his pride. He was an aristocrat who thought all could be aristocrats. When he said there was no common people he meant that he was not common and that he had never met a man who was.
And in this new edition, Cramer is just as heartfelt adding his own variation on the same theme:
The “fairest fortune that can befall a man,” Emerson realized, “is to be guided … to that which is truly his own.” Emerson is such a guide. “To believe your own thought,” he wrote, “that is Genius,” but he never lost sight of the fact that “the moral discipline of life is built” on the “perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the wishes and interests of the individual.” It is the essence of a person’s character that he or she can be true and responsive to the pull of both understanding and reason, of the individual and the universal, of the me and the not-me.
And it’s surely this same intimate prodding that worked in the opposite direction with Houston Baptist University literature professor Micah Mattix, who wrote a quick screed about Emerson in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard deriding his prominence in American literature:
But now that his Collected Works is complete, I’d like to suggest that we close the book on the Emerson Revival. Earlier scholars got Emerson right: He may serve “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but he is not American Hamlet, and his work is not great matter.
Mattix is hardly the first to call for such a retirement – Emerson’s fellow New Englander John Updike regularly called for the relegation of the Bard of Concord to the footnotes of history. Those footnotes have claimed Updike instead, and Emerson’s scattered subsequent critics face a similar fate; this writer is more alive than they are, and he’ll go right on impressing that life on readers long after his last carper has fallen silent.
The breadth of that literary life is on abundant, energizing display in Cramer’s new Portable Emerson. As gasping as it is to report, this is in every way an improvement on Van Doren’s sturdy hardcover from the wonderful Viking Portable line. Cramer not only includes far more than any comparable “collected” Emerson (there are very generous helpings of letters, poems, lectures, and essays), but he’s also a very attentive host, introducing each of his sections in turn. Penguin Classics has featured collections of Emerson’s essays in the past, but this volume includes all the famous essays like “The Over-Soul” and “Self-Reliance” but also huge amounts of everything else the man wrote, all of it full of boundless happiness and the exact kind of systematic brilliance he himself was sometimes wary of in other world-class thinkers:
Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his bother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it proves a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! A new system.
In short, this new Portable Emerson is a great success, the perfect one-volume Emerson whether you’re a student or a scholar. And for Emerson’s own New England, currently bracing itself for a gigantic snowstorm, the book makes a perfect storm-day companion because, as I noted here at Stevereads on the eve of an earlier storm, the key to such books is that they be good company, and Emerson is always that – even when he’s having the bad grace to like snowstorms:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the white air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overstops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.