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How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lane

By (March 1, 2012) 3 Comments

        How pleasant to know Mr. Lane!
         Who writes columns a reader can trust in!
        He knows what to say about Shirley MacLaine
         And is just as astute on John Ruskin.

In a piece on Edward Lear in Nobody’s Perfect (2002), his seven hundred-page collection of essays and reviews from The New Yorker, Anthony Lane calls Lear’s little comic masterpiece “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear” “the greatest poem of its kind since Swift’s ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift’; it convinces you, without stridency or strong-arming, that its title is perfectly true. It would have been pleasant to know him.” Although criticism has no business making ad hominem judgments, the thought does occur that it might indeed be pleasant to know Mr. Lane, if the wit and judiciousness of his criticism  carry over to his person. Most readers know Lane through his regularly appearing movie reviews, but his irregularly appearing literary criticism is no less discerning and offers a field of inquiry more commensurate with his gifts. After all, there’s rather more to be said about Samuel Beckett than Sylvester Stallone.

Lane came to The New Yorker in 1993, after an education at Cambridge and a five-year stint as a columnist and editor for the Independent. If an American reader half expects a Cambridge-educated, precociously successful British critic to be a little snooty, it’s not from reading Anthony Lane. He’s far too well-mannered to show off, so that when he refers to the poetry of Jules Laforgue or Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare, as he does in glancing asides in his essays on T. S. Eliot and André Gide, the intent is to illuminate, not intimidate. For all his pedigree, he’s one of us.  It’s hard to imagine a critic like F. R. Leavis “bowing down before the flawless conceit of [the Bill Murray comedy] Groundhog Day.” Maybe Leavis should have seen a few more movies.

Notwithstanding the 150 transatlantic trips that Lane claims to have taken in his first ten years at The New Yorker, I get the impression that he would be lost outside the island of Manhattan. Apart from his appreciation for Thomas Pynchon and miscellaneous others, he seems to prefer American writers with pronounced European leanings, such as Vladimir Nabokov and T. S. Eliot. Although that preference reflects journalistic contingencies, there’s little doubt that Lane is more at home in the literary context of the Old World. It may be odd that a critic so comfortable with the gaudy vernacular of Billy Wilder’s movies, for example, should have little or nothing to say about such exemplars of American English as William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Rather than force the issue, however, Lane sticks to what he knows best: smoothly cultured European masters given to questioning the grounds and validity of their own culture – writers like Nabokov, Eliot, W. G. Sebald, Cyril Connolly, Samuel Beckett, and Ian Fleming.

Well, maybe not Ian Fleming. Nevertheless, I’m glad that Nobody’s Perfect includes an essay on that particular non-master because, apart from being one of the funniest in the book, it secretly offers, in the guise of humble literary analysis, a criticism of life. Fleming is of course an easy target, but Lane strips away the surface crudeness to discover a subsurface crudeness even more dispiriting and very much a part of the mental universe we still inhabit. After quoting an elaborately fetishistic paragraph on 007’s luxe consumer preferences, Lane comments:

Readers who like to think that brand-name addiction arose with Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho should get a load of this passage from Thunderball. . . . Bond’s need to stabilize his rocky moods with constant shots of luxury (and the notion that he can afford to do so on a midlevel government salary) is part of what you might call the Fleming theory of self-possession: pile up the possessions, and the self will emerge.

Lane admits to the readerly pleasure of “finishing one Bond story and immediately picking up the next,” yet what keeps him going is not delectation but a fascinated glimpse into the desperation of the character and his creator: “Like Fleming, Bond has to pretend that drabness and decline aren’t there – that they will go away if you sip enough champagne, sleep with enough women, keep your Bentley polished, and maintain sufficiently close links with the prince among shampoos.”

Ian Fleming is not the sort of writer F. R. Leavis had in mind when he scrutinized the Great Tradition for its ethical valences, but Lane has spoken admiringly of Leavis’s belief – hopelessly outdated but somehow honorable – that “you were not adequately equipped, not only to pronounce on life but to entangle yourself with life, to take life head on unless you were armed with all literature could teach you.” Leavis was less outdated than Lane in at least one respect – he regarded George Eliot as the embodiment of morally informed artistry. The only woman treated at length in Lane’s seven-hundred page book is Julia Roberts.

Nevertheless, Lane’s work shares something of Leavis’s belief in criticism as ethical inquiry. Certainly it takes a person of considerable moral awareness to add anything to the perennial debate about T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. In his remarks on Anthony Julius’s T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Lane manages to adjudicate between the ugliness of the original offense and the inflexibility of Eliot’s latter-day prosecutors. There will never be a last word on this vexed topic, but Lane comes close to finding a middle ground of nonjudgmental condemnation, if such a thing is possible. The problem, as he sees it, is not that Julius is wrong; Julius is all too urgently and scrupulously right about the larger issue of anti-Semitism in British literary culture. In the case of Eliot, however, Lane argues that Julius’s terminology is disturbingly off:

Every time he uses an apparently unexceptional phrase such as “Eliot’s anti-Semitic poetry,” or when he says that “Gerontion” is “an anti-Semitic poem,” he is making a scary aesthetic assumption. To be blunt, how much loathing of Jews, covert or explicit, does a work of art have to display before we label it anti-Semitic? For that matter, how much love do you need to make a love poem? The word ‘Jew’ appears only once in “Gerontion,” but Julius would argue that the tone is vicious enough to stain the whole poem. This seems to me unworkable: in saying that a poem is anti-Semitic, Julius implies that its drive – its essential purpose – is the denigration of Jews, whereas “Gerontion,” the curtain call of the dramatic monologue, is a poem that splinters with helpless imagery of crackup and dislocation.

Lane offers his opinions on Eliot (“the poetry remains as unquiet as ever, the souls that patrol it allowed only meagre repose”) with due conviction yet without any clamoring certitude. Although his responsibility as a movie reviewer requires the rendering of judgments and even practical advice to consumers (movies are, after all, thirteen dollars a pop in New York theaters right now), he correctly perceives that “of all the duties required of the professional critic, perhaps the least important – certainly the least enduring – is the delivery of a verdict.” In his literary essays, which mostly concern canonical or near-canonical writers, he necessarily takes a longer view, but the principle still obtains: what matters is less this or that opinion than the quality of the conversation or, as Lane sees it, “the recreation of texture.” Is Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon really as good as all that? According to Lane, “Pynchon at full surge, in case anyone needed reminding, writes with quite ridiculous grace and an instinctive refusal to turn pretty.” I believe on the contrary that Pynchon’s prose – especially in Mason & Dixon – is so clotted with mannerism and contrivance that he rarely breaks through to the depth of feeling that is his obvious and honorable goal. What Lane takes to be achievement I take to be intention, but if his argument for Pynchon ultimately fails to persuade me, it engages me in a vigorous debate about Pynchon’s “anatomy of melancholy, his conjuring of a doleful burlesque.” Maybe there’s a simpler way of saying this: Lane makes me want to read Thomas Pynchon again.

I’ve mentioned Lane’s wit, and since his puns and his wordplay at their best lie close to the heart of his arguments, some samples might be in order:

On Evelyn Waugh: “The miracle of Evelyn Waugh is that withering cannot age him.”

On A. E. Housman: “Anyone who views Houseman as gloom in a suit will be surprised to hear of him picnicking on a beach and running in bare feet to rescue a child from high rocks.”

On the disappointing conclusion to the Oxford careers of Arthur Hugh Clough and Matthew Arnold: “Both [Clough] and Arnold ended up with second-class degrees, which, by their standards, was like being caught cross-dressing or feasting on human flesh.”

The quips about movies are even better, especially when the movie under discussion is so inane that there’s nothing but Lane’s verbal ingenuity to keep you reading. Some more samples:

On John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II: “The first step toward saving the world, as always, is to recruit a slinky young thief wearing a tight lace dress and a Bulgari necklace down her cleavage.”

On Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor: “[Bay’s] new picture, Pearl Harbor, maintains the mood, pulsing with fervor as it tells a tale familiar to every child in America: how a great nation was attacked and humbled by the imperious pride of Ben Affleck.”

On Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “I’ve seen pornography more dignified than this.”

I’m afraid that not all of the other quips, puns, comic asides, and jests — and there are a great many of them — are this good. Even the best of us have our hits and misses, but Lane’s disinclination to play it straight is often distracting. In his review of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Lane writes of watching the actress Kate Nelligan as Isabella in Measure for Measure — “a performance that made me seriously contemplate renting a wimple and entering a convent, just in case.” I guess he liked it. The same essay reveals other instances of Lane’s tendency to draw out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. For instance: “the spectacle of Sir John [Falstaff] tucking into the baked head in Titus Andronicus and calling for a dab of Norwich mustard would have been most edifying”; or: Bloom “calls himself ‘a heretical transcendentalist.’ Five hundred pages later, that is helpfully revised to ‘a gnostic sect of one.’ I would very much like to know which of these descriptions is entered on Bloom’s tax returns.” None of these jokes are fatal, but their laborious working out doesn’t do much to illuminate points that could have been made far more simply.

Illuminating points through humor is exactly what Lane does when he uses his wit as a critical tool rather than as window dressing. The essay on Bloom offers a brilliant counter example. There are many ways of saying that Harold Bloom’s claim that Shakespeare “invented the human,” especially in regard to the creations of Falstaff and Hamlet, may be a bit hyperbolic. Lane not only says it better than anyone else, but in the process saves himself and the reader pages of critical huffing and puffing; “what [Bloom] really and most profoundly means by ‘human’ can be summarized as follows: ‘Drinks a lot’ and ‘Refuses to shut up.'” Confronted with such intelligence and wit, I’m willing to overlook a few jests about Matthew Arnold’s sideburns or André Gide’s sex life. Sometimes I get the sense that Lane is embarrassed by his own intelligence; hence the attempts to mask it with insistent stabs at humor. Which is to say that sometimes Lane’s humor serves his critical intelligence, but sometimes it just stands there waiting for laughs. I wouldn’t, however, make too much of this minor annoyance. Nobody’s perfect.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.