January 2000

Just out this month is a sadly (and, I suspect, needlessly) flawed book by Renata Adler. Only people who can tolerate reading an ordinarily good writer in a book where she is, not at all ordinarily, committing many unexpected lapses will want to bother with Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). Unless, that is, they are as die-hard on the subject of The New Yorker as I am . . .

What went wrong here? The writing is frequently abysmally bad. Too often, Adler's sentences fail to make sense, fail, indeed, even to parse. Her facts are frequently inaccurate. I had begun making a list of those that struck me as of doubtful likelihood; Robert Gottlieb's review, in The New York Observer, includes many of the same examples, so I omit them now.

One is reminded, reading this book, of how necessary good editors are even for writers who are professionals. The New Yorker once practiced good editing. Adler looked better in that environment -- much better! -- than she looks here.

Of course, that is part of her point. The magazine formerly known as The New Yorker has flown the coop. It's somewhere else. It's not here. It's gone. Some kind of slaughtered chicken, headless, still flaps wildly about on the newstand floor looking like a well-remembered and much-loved magazine called "The New Yorker." But that's precisely what it ain't.

And its absence, its loss, its unnecessary death, its murder -- however one chooses to describe or explain its "gone-ness" -- is the cause of this prolonged, out-of-control lament for The New Yorker of the great Shawn days.

Too bad that Adler's book is so uncontrolled. Too bad that no friend told her that she had let her anger, her rage, and her sorrow run away with her. Too bad that no one pointed out that the book she has produced is so self-serving and unintentionally self-revealing (Gottlieb is good at noticing these flaws in it, and at noticing, too, how unpleasant they are) that its point is vitiated. For all that, I thought the book worth reading.

I've met no other reader who agrees with me, I should add.

Despite having so many things wrong -- badly wrong -- with it, Adler, right off the bat, repays the attention of anyone concerned with such aspects of book history as the different ways in which books and magazines (or journals) define, indeed create, their audiences and their audiences's sense of "community." In addition, her discussion of the American intellectual community and its vehicles of non-specialized expression is important. Finally, anyone who cared about The New Yorker will find that her book is necessary, warts and all.

That magazine is now as dead as a doornail. Even if David Remnick, its current editor, succeeds in making it once again a magazine to which someone might feel more or less . . . well, "respectable"? . . . while giving it attention (a trick his predecessor never learned), whatever that magazine turns out to be won't be anything like what it once was.

Anticipating a "Tout" for next month, I must add that I am presently about three-quarters of the way through Ben Yagoda's About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (New York: Scribner, 2000, $30.00). Yagoda's seems, so far, to be the book that Mary F. Corey may have thought she was writing but which I thought she didn't write. My initial impression is that it is the best book I have read about The New Yorker. By far. More, of course, next month.

David Lodge's Home Truths (London: Secker and Warburg, 1999 -- paperback), a novella, is a fun fast read. Lodge's characters are a writer who is prolific and successful in the mass media; his old friend, a writer who has stopped writing and now anthologizes instead; the anthologist's wife who, once upon a time, was part of a threesome when they were all young and at university together; and a newspaper reporter whose specialty is evisceration of her interviewees.

This is not a book that will live in memory in the manner of Changing Places or Small World (one looks forward, in hope and expectation, to seeing Lodge, some day, revisit Morris Zapp in Chicago). Much slighter fare -- and, of course, a much slighter book -- it is nonetheless an extremely enjoyable meditation on the meandering "progress" of the lives people lead and of the ways in which our modern media society may impinge on those lives with unblinking and unthinking effects.

The "Great English Novel"? No. Not even the "Great English Novelette." But I picked the book up off a new arrivals shelf and did not put it down till I had finished reading every word. I recommend it with great warmth.

A friend recommended the very short work by Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, trans. Carol Brown Janeway, from the edition by Paul Badde, afterwords by Emmanuel Lévinas and Leon Wieseltier (New York: Pantheon, 1999). The entire book doesn't hit a hundred pages. Kolitz's part of it ends on page 25.

Rakover is writing things down as his building -- located in Warsaw -- is about to fall. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto is about to be successfully suppressed by the Nazis; things look bad for Yosl. Indeed, they are bad: he will be dead within minutes of finishing his manuscript, if he is even able to finish it. In these last few minutes of his life, Yosl, whose wife and six children have, as the undertakers nowadays so sweetly put it, "preceded him in death" -- unpleasant death, you will be unsurprised to hear -- remonstrates with God. All these things you have done to us, Yosl writes, none of them good, all of them reflective of the "hastoras ponim -- God has hidden His face" (p. 10): all of them cannot keep me from honoring your name.

You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You.
p. 24

It's all very impressive, I suppose. Alas, I didn't believe a word of it.

On the other hand, some of its readers have found it so convincing that the revelation that this document is a fiction, not an autobiographical fragment really found amidst the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (as it claims, in a manner traditional to fictions, to be), has come as an unbelievable thunderbolt. The book thus resembles Wilkomirski's Fragments (also translated by Carol Brown Janeway), a fiction published by its author as if it were autobiography, "fact." Kolitz has written a fiction that its readers assumed was fact (although he himself seems not to have anticipated or sought this fate for his story). The discovery of their origins as fictions has distressed readers of both books.

Paul Badde writes about the discovery of the author, Zvi Kolitz (still alive in New York), and the effort to trace an accurate version of his original text (written in Yiddish? German? English?). Lévinas and Wieseltier react to the book in their afterwords ("Loving the Torah More Than God"; "A Privation of Providence"). Their essays are interesting; I was (to my surprise) particularly taken by Wieseltier's skeptical response to the book.

Kolitz's fiction is naive in the extreme. Moreover, his are assumptions (whether adopted for the sake of the fiction or not how can I tell?) I find little short of astonishing. Still and all, I'm glad I read the entire little book. It's interesting, it's troublesome, and it's worth thinking about. A bissel.

Another short book I read this month -- is there a pattern here? -- is Henry A. Grunwald's Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight (New York: Knopf, 1999). A child concerned that I eat more carrots gave me the book for Christmas, and I guess I'm glad I read it: it's not bad.

Grunwald writes from the perspective of a person slowly losing all sight to progressive macular degeneration. I've not read much in this area; the only comparable book I know is the reverse story, that is, of a man who regains his sight after many years of blindness. (Western American historian Robert V. Hine tells that story in Second Sight (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) -- and a lovely story it is, both as it describes what the sightless Hine was able to learn to do as a historian, and as it describes his responses to seeing for the first time people he has lived his entire life with.)

Grunwald's book is a lot less cheerful than Hine's, especially for someone who depends on his sight as much as I. Yet it does not drown in self-pity, looking instead at questions such as the way in which a print-culture person (Grunwald) manages to stay afloat in a world where print is no longer able to buoy him.

Curiously, in the same way that Renata Adler almost inadvertently reflects on magazine culture in her book about The New Yorker, TIME's former editor Grunwald also raises matter worth attention and thought by people for whom print culture is a way of life or a subject of scholarly investigation -- or both. And it does so in a way that will not depress you.

A long book, not a short one, is Philip Ziegler's London at War 1939-1945 (New York: Knopf, 1995); but I read it anyway, in part as a pendent to John Lukacs's Five Days in London, which I'd read last month.

Not a book without its longueurs, London at War has the virtues of a good story to tell that is also an important one. But its problems are severe. On the basic level of simple vocabulary, I wish his American publishers had provided a glossary, especially of abbreviations. Perhaps for people for whom, like Ziegler, the Blitz is a living memory, terms like "ARP," et al., need no elucidation -- but, even in Britain, their numbers must perforce be growing fewer every year. Here, not only are they very small but also they always were.

In addition, Ziegler mentions, but never really explores, the underside of the generally triumphal tale he tells. The Black Market; the impact on neighborhoods, and on London generally, of the physical destruction the city endured under reiterated bombing raids and rocket attacks; the impact on individual people of the deaths they experienced (children, parents, siblings); the experiences of Londoners in exile (children sent to the countryside, or Canada, or the United States); the experiences of soldiers -- from Europe, from the Commonwealth, from the United States -- or of refugees "exiled" in London; the utter failure of the post-war rebuilding effort: Ziegler mentions such issues, and others, but he scants every single one of them.

The result is a book that manages, oddly, to elicit a sense that it is, in part, merely propaganda. It also simply reeks of an aren't-you-glad-we-went-through-this-together-and-became-heroes attitude characteristic of feel-good history. I learned things from this book. But not enough.

I read the paperback edition of John Grisham's The Testament (1999; rpt. New York: Island Books, 2000) this month. It's a really bad book. And I really read it all the way through. And I really enjoyed it. Sorry.

Owen Wister's Lady Baltimore (New York: Macmillan, 1906) will not be everybody's cup of tea. I enjoyed reading it less as "literature" -- a satisfied reader of The Testament would lack credibility in this line anyway, of course -- than as history.

The novel's narrator is a youngish man who represents the aristocracy of the post-Civil War triumphant North. He finds himself, for ridiculous reasons, in what I assume has to be Charleston, South Carolina, doing research in his family's genealogy. He has been sent there by a formidable (pre-Wodehousian) aunt to demonstrate his fitness for membership in an organization that depends on descent from royalty.

He soon encounters a woman in whom he takes an interest. She works at the place where he eats lunch. While he is there, she takes an order for a wedding cake (a "Lady Baltimore") from a young man about to be married to another woman. The other woman represents "new" standards appropriate to the Gilded Age: that is, no standards but avarice and money, no family background (a father "conspicuous for personal prudence" at the Battle of Chattanooga [p. 35] -- i.e., he turned and ran), and a passion for the 1906 equivalent of lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Given what Wister makes us see right from the start of her husband-to-be's nature and breeding, their marriage is obviously inappropriate. How to prevent it, for people too constipated to speak for themselves honestly, and how to sort out the various other entanglements that bedevil our heroine, our villainess, and our two heroes, is Wister's main business in the novel.

Our Northern and Southern heroes find themselves in an Eve Kosofky Sedgwick-like relationship that takes place through and over the woman (or women) with whom they are also involved. I found this fascinating in and of itself. In addition, however, a lot of other business gets transacted in the novel. Much of it has to do with the ways in which, as Wister reveals, American society has been hypocritical in its assumptions about African-Americans in the wake of the Civil War. It is clear, as the novel goes on, that that War did little but divide two aristocracies, Northern and Southern, who ought by nature to have been conjoined to oppose the degradations each now experiences from the "new" people whom Ms. Wrong and her cowardly father represent. It divided them, it turns out, over the issue of people who are, really, a pretty bad crowd and ought not still to divide North from South any longer. True, they ought not to have been slaves, or, well, not exactly . . . But the only ones that are worthwhile are those who know their place: a place, of course, of deference.

Lady Baltimore is not, as may by now be clear, an especially attractive book. It's racist as well as sexist. Moreover, its class attitudes will also bear remarkably little thought. It is, however, an astonishingly interesting book, both in the way it is written and in the seriousness and assumption of intellectual and moral honesty with which Wister approaches his subject. (Wister is not an entirely negligible figure, after all: he was a chummy of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to host Mr. Booker T. Washington at The White House comes in for considerable reproach in the novel.) Perhaps the book is, after all, only a curiosity. I still think it's one well worth pondering, if such matters interest you at all.

Wister might not have liked it or its author, but I found it very hard to put down Michael Awkward's Scenes of Instruction: A Memoir (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999). The book is, in a word, brilliant.

Organized around academic ritual events, graduations -- from elementary school, junior high school, a New England boarding school, a New England small college, and graduate school -- Awkward's memoir takes the author on a very long journey in order, as it were, to move him a distance of about three miles. He begins in a childhood spent largely in a housing project (coincidentally imploded by the City of Philadelphia on the day after I finished reading Awkward's book) to a position, now, as a Professor of English at the University I work for. (For readers wary of a conflict of interest, never fear: I've not met the author and, given his evident warmth of feeling for Penn and the Department of English, am unlikely ever to do so.)

His journey is, as you might already have begun to suspect, a bit longer than it could easily have seemed. As he describes himself in the book, Awkward began life black, poor, illegitimate, and physically scarred (the result of a childhood accident with a heated suacepan), the youngest child of a severely alcoholic mother who had herself been both physically abused and battered by his father. The mere recitation of such background factors must function as a set of "leading economic indicators"; yet they turn out to have indicated nothing at all -- well, I suppose the author must still be black -- about a person whose ability to remember that literature may be Literature but is also "a criticism of life" receives wonderful expression in this memoir.

This is one of those books I hesitate to say much about for fear of spoiling it. Nothing I can say about it is anything that it doesn't say better for itself. Run, don't walk: this is one you should not let get away. A book about Philadelphia; a book about emerging from the African-American underclass; a book about academia (at many levels); a book about literature; a book about family, strengths as well as weaknesses; a book about love: at this point, the copywriter would say something like, "It's got it all!" -- and the copywriter would be right.

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