Posts from April 2011

April 26th, 2011

Super-Exposure in the Penny Press!

Readers who might once have been irritated by the sight of a topless Rob Lowe on the cover of Vanity Fair (the top item in a strong Penny Press week) will, like all right-thinking individuals in the world, instantly recall his fantastic stint as Sam Seaborn on the still-intensely-missed The West Wing and crack a grudging smile instead. Lowe, it appears, has written some kind of book about his various adventures in Hollywood. I haven’t checked yet to see if it includes any wistful anecdotes about his tenure on one of the best TV shows of all time; the excerpt in this month’s VF is about his much younger days, when he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” with a whole team of fellow Hollywood he-boys, all under the watchful gaze of their passionate (and self-evidently insane) director. While it’s fun to watch Lowe contort himself to be nice-guy diplomatic rather than outright calling the young Tom Cruise a robotic authority-douche, neither the grossly overpraised book nor the soppy, ham-handed movie has ever interested me, so I quickly roamed away in search of greener pastures.

Luckily, this month’s issue had plenty. There was a bitterly, sinus-clearingly angry shout-piece by Joseph Stiglitz about the gigantic gap between the top wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everybody else. This is by a wide margin the angriest piece I’ve read in Vanity Fair in many, many years. Stiglitz rehearses the starkest inequities in America’s financial landscape:

Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century – inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years – whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative – went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards “performance bonuses” that they felt compelled to change the name to “retention bonuses” (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared to those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.

He ends up sounding a warning to the super-rich that their days might end in a public uprising of a kind not seen in America since Shays’ Rebellion – the warning is the only major flaw in the piece. It forgets that sage line from “1776”: Most people with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Comparatively few Libyans or Egyptians want to be military despots (I hope, anyway), so they have no ideological restraint in rising up against military despots. But virtually everybody in America – especially every young person – wants to be a plutocratic bastard who can buy a jet but can’t quickly recall his kids’ names. As long as that’s true, the super-rich in the United States have nothing to fear from the common folk they’re disinheriting.

After the fire and brimstone of Stiglitz, it was curiously peaceful to wade into Christopher Hitchens’ piece on the debt Western society owes to the stately cadences of the King James Bible. It’s a piece without surprises (we’ve read many similar things done on this, the anniversary of the publication of that epochal work), unless its own existence counts – these new long pieces from Hitchens can’t help but be viewed as extremely literary progress reports on the state of Hitchens’ illness. Encouraging progress reports, since for a while there last year it looked as if he wouldn’t be doing much of this kind of work again. I hadn’t realized until I saw this piece and his last one just how much I’d miss them if they were gone forever. And it’s interesting that he’s keeping up with his reading, although I imagine that would be the last thing to go in any case:

The rack and the rope were not stinted for dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned. (Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece historical novel, Wolf Hall, tells this exciting and gruesome store in such a way as to revise the shining image of “Saint” Thomas More, the “man for all seasons,” almost out of existence. High time, in my view. The martyrdoms he inflicted on others were more cruel and irrational than the one he sought and found for himself).

Much less satisfying was James Wolcott’s tired screed against superhero movies, which consists of him whining about how loud and confusing they all are, for all the world as if he were a crotchety 90-year-old who just wants the grandkids to settle down:

For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.

This quintessential complaint of the elderly – wanting things to be different from the dictates of their own natures – is unlikely to yield a Bergman superhero movie any time soon; I’ll just have to hope that instead Wolcott regains his sense of fun in time for the onslaught he’s so correct in predicting.

The New York Review of Books, as always, provides a corrective to that kind of complaining. There’s nothing quite as restorative as literary journalism done really, really well, and since I myself gravitate toward all things historical, The NYRB can often get my tail wagging – as in this latest issue, where the indomitable Gordon Wood reviews two books on John and Abigail Adams and Sean Wilentz reviews Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt. Both pieces are thoughtful, detailed, and wonderfully assured, which is tough enough to do when reviewing a contemporary novel that any schmoe off the street might pick up and enjoy (“what’s it about” will usually cover 99 % of their readerly needs) and is bloody murder to pull off when writing about history, about which the average reader neither knows nor knows to care. Reviewing works of history is doubly tricky: you’ve not only got to give your review-readers enough background on the book so they’ll appreciate your observations about it, you’ve also got to give them enough background on all of human history so they’ll know what the Hell you’re going on about. Both Wood and Wilentz do a great job at this every time they turn out a review – it’s an inspiration.

Of course, since nobody reads history it’s those fiction-reviews that keep the show on the road, and they, too, very often elicit inspiring performances. Over in the London Review of Books, for instance, Adam Mars-Jones (easily the coolest reviewer-name we’ll see today) out-does every other writer in the issue by turning in a fantastic piece on Philip Hensher’s new novel King of the Badgers. This is a classic case of the review being every bit as interesting, fun, and well-written as the book it’s reviewing, a contemporary novel about a crime that might have been committed in a benighted seaside town. Mars-Jones concentrates a chunk of his review on the novel’s gay characters, a discussion he opens in the most inviting way, by highly literary rambling:
For a straight writer to have a gay hero is highly unusual …The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during the war that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T. E. Lawrence and Alexander the Great.
Mars-Jones returns to this subject of ‘writing gay’ all through his long and fantastic review, including a great little bit on the imagined popular reception of the 1950s novels of Angus Wilson:
Wilson was running the risk of having his novels labelled sordid and unwholesome. Awkward breakfast-table conversations were on the cards, with the brigadier’s wife saying brightly, ‘Doesn’t he do all those spivs and pouffs well?’ and her husband muttering: ‘Damn sight too well, if you ask me.’ If he had put more homosexual reality into the book [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes], it would either have been rejected by publishers or else approached by reviewers with gas masks, pomanders and tongs.
And it’s entirely fitting that right there in the midst of the best review in this issue of the LRB there’s a big, beautiful ad for … none other than Open Letters Monthly! Where readers will find many excellent reviews every single month! The ad was superbly designed by Greg Waldmann and features a generous quote from the always-discerning Scott Esposito … and best of all, it’s sitting right there, in the middle of another great review journal. The air of confraternity is salubrious, to say the least – and if the appearance of such an ad should move writers like Adam Mars-Jones and his most talented peers to peruse Open Letters, well, so much the better.

December 6th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: the King James Bible!

Some Penguin Classics seem like parts of an exceedingly natural progression, and what could feel more natural than to conclude our little mini-tour of great ancient texts with the King James Bible? And equally natural that Penguin Classics should publish a King James Bible, and yet they took their sweet time doing so, only finally producing one in 2006, this enormous hefty trade paperback edition edited by David Norton.

Before this volume, Penguin’s dabblings in Biblical literature had been sporadic and incomplete: segments had been reproduced with no critical apparatus in the mighty Viking Portable World Bible, and the four Gospels of the New Testament had been given four intensely interesting volumes of commentary in the Pelican line, and a volume of Paul’s letters had appeared, also laden with commentary, but while publisher after publisher produced a critically annotated Bible, Penguin held back. Until the appearance of this volume, the best such Bibles in the general market were the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 and the Oxford World’s Classics Bible of 1997. And that’s an apt echo as well, since until the appearance of the King James Bible in 1611, there were also two main contenders for the top spot, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 and the Geneva Bible of 1560. When King James I gave his command that “a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek,” forty-four scholars set to work on separate sections and labored both under their own rather remarkable sense of literary perfectionism and also under the goad of the king, who clearly didn’t want the whole project mired forever in academic hair-splitting.

The result, of course, was an unparalleled thing, a mightier achievement than a dozen Taj Mahals. The blood and grandeur of the Old Testament comes alive as in no previous English rendition:

Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa. And the Philistines followed hard after Saul, and after his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him, and he was wounded by the archers. Then said Saul to his armour-bearer, ‘Draw thy sword and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumscribed come and abuse me.’ But his armour-bearer would not, for he was sore afraid. So Saul took a sword, and fell upon it. And when he armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise on the sword, and died. So Saul died, and his three sons, and all his house died together. And when all the men of Israel that were in the valley saw that they fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead. Then they forsook their cities, and fled, and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.

And likewise most of the much thinner, nervier beauty of the New Testament is made clear to the common reader:

And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, ‘Answerest thou nothing? What is it which these witnesses against thee?’ But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, ‘Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, ‘What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye?’ And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.

And this Penguin Classic volume itself is also an amazing success, starting with Norton’s simple, lucid Introduction, which makes a stirring case for the sheer worth of those forty-four scholars’ work:

The King James Bible offers the reader both the meaning of the Bible and a religious or aesthetic experience of language that no modern translation can match. For instance, after Adam and Eve have eaten fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the King James Bible has Adam give this simple reply to God: ‘And the man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:12). The meaning is clear except perhaps for ‘she gave me of the tree,’ but in context it is obvious that he is saying she gave him fruit from the tree. The language is simple, almost entirely monosyllabic English, without a trace of pretence to grandeur. Only the archaic form, ‘thou gavest’ markes it out as biblical English.

Modern versions usually stay close to the King James in this verse. Here is the New International Version: ‘The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” It is still powerful, but not as powerful. There are no uncertainties of meaning, nor any archaism, but the rhythm has almost vanished, and there are several touches, all of them associated with a move from literal translation towards paraphrase, which make it less effective. The dash before ‘she gave me’ underlines the effect of having the subject stated twice¬† (as it is in the Hebrew), but it goes along with the changes that make Adam close to vindictive in his attitude to Eve. ‘The woman you put here with me’ is a bitter statement, as if Eve were inflicted on him. The sense of Eve as a gift is lost – ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me'; lost too is the parallel between Eve being given and Eve giving – ‘she gave’ (the Hebrew uses the same verb in both places). The change at the end of the verse, ‘and I ate it’, comes about not just because the New International Version, paraphrasing for clarity, has added ‘some fruit’ (not in the Hebrew), and so must finish with ‘it’ (again not in the Hebrew).

There’s something refreshingly nuts-and-bolts about such a line of defense, and it’s just the beginning of this volume’s charms. There are plenty of excellent maps, and the end notes are a triumph, fully the complement of those Pelican commentary volumes of long ago. The stark elegance of the end product is reminiscent of the original appearance of the King James Bible, which was made to be both beautiful and useful, worth every penny of its cover price, as it were, loaded with extras that always take the breath away from museum-goers who view a copy on display.