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Ink Chorus: Terrorists & Novelists!

By (July 1, 2016) No Comment

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Our book today is Terrorists & Novelists, a 1982 collection of great New York terrorists&novelistsReview 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 lucy reads djohnsonanachronisms 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.

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Ink Chorus: Terrorists & Novelists!

By (July 1, 2016) No Comment