TOUTS -- 1998

January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.



January 1998

I read a lot of really mindless books--books that are just plain bad. Some of them are also just plain fun, their "badness" to the contrary notwithstanding. A recent exemple of this kind is Jeffery Deaver's The Bone Collector (New York: Viking, 1997. Five minutes after you've finished the book, you think to yourself about all the reasons why it doesn't work. The plotting is arbitrary; lots of Mack trucks could drive sideways through its profusion of many more-than-Mack-truck-size holes. The main characters, not merely unbelievable, don't even seem to come from any planet you've ever visited. Coincidences are vastly overstretched. The time-scheme is too sharply curtailed. And on and on: blah blah blah.

So if books like this are so bad, how come I enjoy them so much? Bad taste, I imagine, is its own reward: and the truth is, I loved this one while I was reading it. The sad and shocking story of a serial killer, his victims, and, most of all, the New York City police officers who try to stop him from killing his victims, to say nothing about finding him and putting him out of business, The Bone Collector is yet another demonizing New York City novel . . . and I couldn't put it down.

The title character himself is quite a lad. Immersed in the history of New York crime, he has blundered upon a role model in one James Schneider, a nineteenth-century serial killer, and sets out to revivify Schneider's somewhat esoteric and extremely varied m.o. Schneider had sought to "free" his victims by reducing them to bone, a state in which they could no longer be hurt, changed, or altered. His methods might have met with some disfavor from his victims, but on the whole those folks seem to have been unsuccessful in dissuading him from putting those methods into practice.

His modern counterpart proves to have motives a bit less noble, though no less nutty, than Schneider's. He is, however, no slouch when it comes to making it difficult for the police to follow his trail, or to find his victims before their (usually quite horrible) demise. In fact, he seems intimately aware of how forensic techniques can be used on a microscopic level to establish identities, locations, and a host of other bits of information that can ultimately produce a portrait of a suspect. One of the peculiar joys of the book is watching the gradual filling-in of a chart describing the killer, an "unsub" (unidentified suspect) assigned the nonce name "823," by the police who are tracking him. Forensic analyses can also be used (and so the killer uses them) simultaneously to alert police to the locations where the next victim awaits death: if the police are alert enough, then the victim need not endure the quite nasty demise that the killer has carefully planned. For all his skills, however, the killer is not entirely a model of murderous rationality. He has, for example, an unhappy tendency to slip back and forth between the present reality he himself inhabits and that of the late, unlamented Mr. Schneider.

The police are also interesting. Lincoln Rhyme is the forensic specialist for NYPD. Technically a civilian when the novel begins--Rhyme had been invalided off the force, almost completely paralyzed from the neck down after an accident during a forensic examination at a scene in a case involving murdered cops--he is the author of the textbooks on forensic analysis others use in this field; and, for this case, he seems to be irreplaceable. Despairing of his own physical condition, which leaves him in a state of almost complete physical dependence on caretakers, and trying hard to find a physician willing to assist him to commit suicide, as his own recently chosen physician will not do, he nonetheless allows himself to be brought into play in this investigation. By a sort of accident, he is teamed with Patrolman Amelia Sachs, a stunning redhead whose own sense of loss derives from the arrest, conviction, and long-term imprisonment of her lover, another police officer, for corruption.

How these two people--both "crips," as Rhyme calls himself, although he is a physical, she an emotional crip--learn to work with, indeed to enjoy, one another, is one of the burdens of the book. Their relationship, together with real work that needs him, prove to be factors that help Rhyme back into life--and they help Sachs at the same time. It turns out that there is a price to be paid for this return, and not only in the physical incapacities that will affect, seriously and negatively, any relationship Rhyme wants to have with Officer Sachs.

This is not a great New York novel; it is not a great mystery; it is not a particularly well-plotted book with well-drawn characters. It is nonetheless grippingly interesting and enjoyable. Some novels are content just to entertain you. Jeffery Deaver's The Bone Collector does that job quite well.


Deaver's book also got me right in the mood to read a wonderful book, this one not a novel, about two other murders, one in 1836, one in 1841, that marred the experience of living in New York for its then denizens even as it enhanced the pleasures of contemplating the city's viciousness from afar for those lucky enough to live elsewhere. Andie Tucher's Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994; available in paperback) is really about the birth of modern journalism. Tucher uses the various ways in which the New York press handled two horrific murder stories to examine the nascent mass press, its functions, and the ways in which it grew to understand its obligations to "facts" and "objectivity"; and her book concludes with reflections on the ways in which current readers of the press need a better understanding of what "facts" and "objectivity" can and cannot do. All this is important, and I enjoyed (and, I hope, even learned something from) it. I was also grateful for Tucher's prose: she writes with exceptional clarity and wit. (And--maybe it needs explicit statement--"exceptional" even without reference to the fact that she is writing "academic prose": this is good writing by anybody's standards.)

But it's the murders that are the heart of her book. The first is that of Helen Jewett, a prostitute from Maine, murdered in the brothel that employed her on April 9, 1836, by one Richard P. Robinson, a.k.a. "Frank Rivers." Robinson, a respectable fellow from a well-connected Connecticut family, was employed by Joseph Hoxie, a grocer in Maiden Lane. Although he seems without doubt to have done the deed, at least as Tucher tells the tale, he was nonetheless acquitted, in part because his conviction would have required the court to accept the testimony of Rosina Townsend, the madam of Jewett's brothel, and in part because, in general, respectable young men don't normally get convicted for the murder of female low-lives.

The second murder is that of a printer named Samuel Adams who, trying to collect a debt from a teacher of bookkeeping named John C. Colt, wound up crated and on the boat Kalamazoo bound for New Orleans. Stevedores, alerted by someone who had overheard a scuffle whose meaning he did not understand until Mrs. Adams placed newspaper ads seeking information about her missing husband, investigated the now putrid crate, lying in the hold of a boat whose sailing had been fortuitously delayed. Inside it they discovered a body, almost entirely nude, its head battered, but wearing a ring that identified the body as Adams. Mr. Colt attracted a good deal of attention. Apparently a ne'er-do-well, he had lied to get into the Marines and then again to get out of them, become a professional riverboat gambler, consorted with "the octoroon mistress of a rich planter," been arrested for burglary, and was now living with a pregnant woman to whom he was not married. Nonetheless, dramatist John Howard Payne and man-of-letters Lewis Gaylord Clark were among many who leapt to his defence, as did his brother, Samuel Colt (remembered today for his revolver). Alas, in this instance, stellar connections failed and John Colt was sentenced to be hanged. In the end, he did manage to cheat the hangman, but only by resorting to suicide in the few hours between his marriage to his pregnant companion and his scheduled execution.

It would steal too much from Tucher's many surprises to say much more about how both of these cases look when she has finished with them. And she deserves to be heard in her own voice, also, as she explains how each attracted a press--or rival presses--that explained them to readers in ways that simply failed to do justice, literally as well as figuratively, to victims and defendants both, in their efforts to do something altogether different, namely, to construct versions (or visions) of reality that would conform to that of, and hence comfort, their readers. Tucher does not see the press doing anything different today.

Almost everything about this book is enjoyable, if you don't object to reading about murders that are not imagined but were, once upon a time anyway, real. Its cast of characters includes, in addition to victims, defendants, their families, employers, and co-workers, people such as James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley, as well as the odd mayor or two, several prostitutes, abortionists, and reporters, numerous literati, and a bevy of lookers-on from such places as Virginia, Indiana, and Arkansas, all of whom are shocked--shocked!--by what they learn of life in New York from the reports of murders such as these. What a lovely book to have written. And, now, to have read.


Paul Auster's Why Write? is a chapbook available for $10 from Burning Deck (Providence, RI, 1996). It is tiny, and the essay from which the title comes--a set of tiny stories, all different, all claiming autobiographical authority--is so astonishing that to attempt summary or paraphrase would be to crush it. Auster is better known for his New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, In the Country of Last Things, and a host of other books, poems, essays, and translations, as well as for Smoke and Blue in the Face, two movies made with Wayne Wang (and available in paperback from Hyperion, 1997). But this tiny work is as lovely as anything he has done in larger forms--and, by the way, I like his work in those forms. I've been reading him with pleasure for years. I was, in fact, reminded by a sometimes surly and opinionated friend, in conversation in mid-December, that I've been recommending him for years, too. My friend did not like my recommendation in this case: "I've eaten at Moon Palace," he said--did anyone ever go to Columbia during the Moon Palace years who did not?--"and I still didn't like the book." (Sorry, friend: wrong memory. It was In the Country of Last Things you read on my recommendation and disliked. Another critic with an opinion.) My opinion is: find this book(let) and read it. It is terrific. And you will finish the book knowing more than before you read it about the question the title asks.


I have complained often enough about The New Yorker so that anyone who reads this monthly soapbox knows that my opinion of what Condé Naste has done to what used to be a good magazine is not warm. This month, however, I happened upon another Condé Naste product. Droppeth jaw. The Tatler is so unrelievedly disgusting that it makes The New Yorker seem a model of literate, polite discourse.

A friend referred me to the October issue (292:10), and--having not looked at this magazine, I suspect, for the better part of a quarter of a century--I picked it up to read David Thomas's piece, "Play Misty for Me" (pp. 28-38). Thomas cannot be blamed for the title, I am sure, although that it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything his article is about goes without saying. What his article is about is the television adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's twelve-volume work of genius, surely one of the great works of postwar English fiction. The Tatler addresses a primarily UK readership (I cannot imagine knowing any American who would "read" the thing), so it remains unclear to me whether or when American television will pick up this series. One tends to expect it, however, on Masterpiece Theatre (spelling for the Americanistically-challenged [Noah Webster, thou shouldst be living at this hour!]). Let us hope.

Meanwhile, however, this is an opportunity to remind anyone who has managed to postpone doing so that now is the time to read A Dance, that is, before the medianudniks have mucked up your mind with their televised vision of Powell's work. Chicago recently reprinted all twelve volumes (in four volumes, each containing three of Powell's books in the series). Dauntingly long, this is one of the few works I know that makes a book like Harry Mulisch's seven hundred and thirty-page The Discovery of Heaven look like a gambol in the parquette . . . but it repays the investment of the reader's time beautifully.


I read three science-fiction novels recently. One is an extremely peculiar post-nuclear holocaust novel, John Brunner's 1965 Ace paperback, The Day of the Star Cities. The oddity of this book is that the nuclear doomsday that changes the shape of life on earth forever is not the work of a maddened mankind led astray by the seductive call of its own technology, but rather a deliberate tactic used by an invading alien race to distract and destroy mankind by simultaneously blowing up all nuclear weaponry and other nuclear sites while at the same time setting up five "cities"--or whatever they are--on earth. The tactic has worked: the cities are now established and represent a kind of power that no human being, not even survivors of the surprise nuclear nightmare, can understand, let alone fight.

The book allows its reader no conventionally happy ending: the invading race, at its and our very different current levels of technology, is something that mankind simply cannot fight. But the book offers (are you surprised?) a way out anyway, and a way out that seems to be, from at least one point of view, a kind of "progress."

I read the book for the same reason I read other nuclear holocaust books. Without some special kind of interest like mine, however, I am not sure that this is a book anyone but a diehard Brunner fan needs to read.


I felt much more warmly about Connie Willis's To Say Nothing About the Dog; or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last (New York: Bantam, 1998). Here Willis returns to the time travel themes she established in Doomsday Book. But whereas that book was a grim depiction of late medieval English life, this one is an anything-but-grim depiction of English life in the mid- to late-Victorian era. To be sure, there are bad moments here. One of the central concerns of the novel's historians--the Oxford historians who use time travel to investigate the past in a more "primary" way than documents alone permit--is the 1940 bombing and destruction of Coventry Cathedral: not a pretty sight. But the bulk of the time spent in the book is spent either in 2058 Oxford or on and around the Thames in the 1880s. (At one point, "three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog)" pass our heroes; the relationship between Willis's and Jerome K. Jerome's novels is extremely close.)

Perhaps when all is said and done, this is a slight book, maybe a mere step or two above (in its low s-f genre) the level attained by Deaver's The Bone Collector in its, that is, in the land of mysteries. Even considered alongside Willis's own Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog seems a slighter work. As with Deaver's novel, however, I found this one immensely enjoyable, even though--and in this respect very unlike Deaver's--it is also a very sunny (and a very funny!) book.


So is Willis's Bellwether (1996; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1997), although (perhaps) slightly less sunny and slightly more funny than To Say Nothing of the Dog. Bellwether deals with the research process--but to tell you this is to say remarkably little that will give you a sense of what the book is like. It does deal with the research process, however--and manages to take research into (gasp!) sociology as seriously as if it were a "real science." Perhaps, teamed here as it is with a biological research project, it is. The query under investigation is the origin and diffusion of fads. The currency of Willis's examples--angels; fairies--is noteworthy. Her book also deals with a the host of little nuisances and illiteracies of modern American life in a way that may make the book seem less like "science fiction" (yuck!) and more like just-plain-vanilla fiction to some of its readers. I found the book short and sweet.


Also short, but not at all sweet, is Marie Darrieussecq's Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: New Press, 1997; originally Truismes, Paris, 1996). A combination, so to speak, of The Metamorphosis and Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, this is a book that will make it impossible for you to think benignly of Miss Piggy ever again. Its heroine, a leading revenue producer in a Parisian massage parlor, slowly metamorphoses during the course of this short novel into a pig. You will be surprised, perhaps, by what this change does not do to her sex appeal, even--especially?--during a period of immense social and political upheaval and disorder. This is an extremely nasty book. It is also an extremely smart one. It sounds unattractive, I suspect; but take a chance.



February 1998

This was a month in which almost all of my reading involved either Shakespeare or his contemporaries. Ergo, what's to "recommend"?

For the course I've been teaching this semester, I poddled my aging bod through 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, using The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et alii (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), and, alas, marred by its nearly slavish dependency on the exceptionally idiosyncratic Oxford Shakespeare of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor . . . and, even more, by Norton's decision to print the thing on a noxious substance that Norton seems to think a suitable surrogate for what we in the book trades used to call "paper." My students, stuck with the first printing, have almost uniformly complained about this stuff to me; they are right to do so--and politer than I would have been in their shoes. In fact, I had put off reading anything in the volume in the copy that one of the editors had sent me when the book was published, simply because I found the prospect of touching the damned thing again physically repulsive. Norton sent me as a teaching copy the second printing, on "improved" paper. In this improved version, I still cannot pick up leaves to turn them, and as for doing anything quite so outré as writing one's teaching notes on this goop--well, forget it. That one needs, in reading the three Henry VI plays, to accommodate oneself to the order 2, 3, 1 (or, as I did, to read them in the old-fashioned order 1, 2, 3 despite the efforts of the Oxford-cum-Norton editors to mystify this once-simple task, is not a boon for which I found myself grateful.

Nonetheless, Greenblatt's general introduction is smart and useful, and I have, so far, been uniformly impressed with the non-textual parts of the introductions to each of the plays I've thus far read in this volume. These include, in addition to the (not only re-ordered but also re-named) Henry VI plays, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and--because I went (twice!) to the elegant 609 area code to see Princeton's McCarter Theater production of it (mounted in cooperation with the Hartford Stage)--Cymbeline. Does anyone care about my opinions of these plays? Suffice it to say that I'd not be teaching them if I didn't like them. (I'm not teaching Cymbeline, which--before this production--I didn't like; the production was so good, however, that it has forced me to rethink my objections to the play.)

I also read the related play The Taming of a Shrew, an anonymous work. Often reprinted and perhaps most easily accessible in Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources (volume 1, 1957), it is very different from its analogue, the Shrew, whether or not the Oxford/Norton crowd are right about Shakespeare's role in a Shrew. Another followup to the Shrew that I reread this month was John Fletcher's wonderfully loopy The Woman's Prize; or, The Tamer Tamed. I again used the wretched edition created for no one at all by Fredson Bowers. I've commented elsewhere on the virtues of this Cambridge edition of Beaumont and Fletcher. I also read Plautus's Menaechmi in Frank O. Copley's 1949 translation (Indianapolis 1956), which, together with Ariosto's I Suppositi (in The Comedies of Ariosto, trans. Edmond M. Beame and Leonard G. Sbrocchi, University of Chicago Press, 1975) and George Gascoigne's Supposes (in Bullough), provides not only pleasure in itself but also "background" for The Comedy of Errors and the Shrew.

For fun, I went on to read a number of non-Shakespearian history plays, including Woodstock: A Moral History in the 1946 edition by A. P. Rossiter; The Reign of King Edward III which, although it does not appear in the Norton edition, is included in the 2nd ed. (1997) of G. Blakemore Evans's Riverside Shakespeare; and Thomas Heywood's The First and Second Parts of King Edward the Fourth in an anonymous edition of Heywood printed in London in 1874. Each of these plays is "fun," unbelievable though that may sound, and in different ways. The Jane Shore episodes in Heywood, for example, are simply astonishingly interesting and, since it has been too many years since I read them, I found myself delighted by this two-part play all over again.


I read a good deal of criticism concerning these plays as well. None of it, I regret having to report, moves me to say anything even faintly recommendatory.


As "background," and following up my rereading a few weeks ago of E. M. W. Tillyard and C. S. Lewis, I read Julia Briggs, This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1997, paperback). This book is, as I told my students in my syllabus, "much longer, more thorough, more modern, more cautious, and (perhaps as an unhappy consequence of these, its real and significant virtues) somewhat duller book" than Tillyard's and Lewis's. It is also very useful, and--to my surprise--I enjoyed reading it.


My recreational reading has been curtailed by all the stuff just mentioned or alluded to. I can speak cheerfully about Hugh Kennedy's Original Color (New York: Doubleday, 1996), a novel about a young person who enters the rare maps, prints, and book trade by signing on, straight out of Princeton, with a dealer so resolutely NOT W. Graham Arader that one wonders who else the model could possibly have been. The book is, on the side, about a young man coming out to himself as well as to others as gay; it depicts a quite lovely older collector; and suggests something about the color of ostrich excrements I had never previously considered. And never will again. I liked it.


Werner Gundersheimer, Dirctor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, published a short autobiographical piece--part of a projected longer work--in The Longing For Home, ed. Leroy S. Rouner, Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion, vol. 17 (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1996), pp. 47-62. A friend put me on to "The Only Henniker on Earth"; for such friends, one needs a great deal of gratitude. This is a memoir that, despite its emergence from the pain of a child's Holocaust-induced exile, is so achingly beautiful that one can only urge readers to run, not walk, to the nearest copy.


I've also been reading--in the wake of attending a memorial service for him early in January--James Laughlin. His Pound as Wuz (St. Paul: Graywolf, 1987) is marvelously readable--which, since I loathe Pound, surprises me--and I must confess to having liked his Love Poems (New York: New Directions, 1997), as well.


Altogether different as poetry is what I find in Ted Hughes's recent Birthday Letters (London: Faber, 1998; the American edition is published by Farrar). Poems written to the dead Sylvia Plath, once his wife and later--briefly--his relict, these works and this book have been eliciting an amazing amount of attention for a book of, yuck, poetry, most of it, unhappily, less than Christian in its charity towards Hughes, whose resemblences to Tarquin I had not myself noticed before now. I am not unaware of the issues that critics raise, although if they are surprised by the degree to which Hughes "constructs" a Plath whose doom is foreordained, then, I suspect, they have not considered quite seriously enough what it is that many people--most people?--do when they contemplate those others with whom they live and work. I myself find these poems quite moving, quite powerful, and almost unbearable. The book is not one that's easy to read straight through; I didn't. But it's worth reading, and then trying to digest.



March 1998

My reading has continued this month to be directed first and foremost at the demands of the course on Shakespeare's histories and comedies I've been teaching this semester. That means that I've read such unusual works as Richard III (again), Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V, all by the same guy--a guy about whom the world is not awaiting my opinion. I also read Edward II by his compatriot, Christopher Marlowe--another writer, I strongly suspect, about whom the less I say the better. These plays have been fun to read, think about, and teach--fun in a great many ways!--and I've found myself enjoying this course much more than I had expected. The excuse it presents to reread such plays has been very welcome.


Last month, I remarked--negatively--that the critical reading I'd done alongside the primary texts I was concentrating on had not done much for me. This month, one book leaves me unable to say the same. It has been a while since I'd worked with Phyllis Rackin's 1990 Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). Reading it at the same time as I was teaching the plays proved to be a wonderful way of confirming just how useful this book is. It's well-written and readable; it's intelligent; it cuts through a lot of the crap I learned about these plays when I was a student--"crap," that is, notions about how the histories work that simply have not "worn" very well at all; and it also manages to summarize, in thoroughly digested and reconsidered ways, enormous amounts of earlier criticism and scholarship about them. If, once upon a time, Tillyard was the starting point for study of the histories, clearly Rackin has now supplanted him. It is a superb achievement, a book one can confidently recommend not only to students--as I have done with my students--but also to anyone who, reading the histories, is curious to learn more about them from a great teacher.


In February, a writer died whom I'd not read since the very early 1970s--and, then, I'd not liked what I'd read of him very much at all. Perhaps for no better reason than that I was astonished by his lifespan--he now has dates that are not ordinary for most people, let alone most writers, viz.: 1895-1998 (had he managed to hang on a mere three more years, he could have lived in three centuries and two millenia!)--I dusted off the book I'd not liked in 1972 and tried it again.

The world is full of surprises. One of us has changed over the past twenty-six years. If for no other reason than that I reread his book in the same copy I had read it in long ago, my impression is that, whatever else may have changed, it was not Ernst Jünger's Glaserne Bienen (Stuttgart 1957). I read the English-language translation by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer, The Glass Bees (New York: Noonday, 1960), and, this time, I was bowled over by it.

Jünger--to put it bluntly--is not my kind of guy. During World War I, he was a soldier with the 73rd Fusiliers and won the Pour le mérite, a sort of equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the CMOH). During World War II, he served with the Wehrmacht, participating as a Captain in the invasion of France and the subsequent occupation of Paris, where he seems to have spent at least some time visiting his literary buddies. He seems not to have been a Nazi, and even chummed around with several of the laddies who tried--fairly late in the game, one would have thought--to blow Hitler into little pieces. He suffered grievously in the wake of the failed July bombing by being forced to resign from the Wehrmacht. (On the other hand, his hanging was not filmed for Hitler's viewing pleasure, a fate other conspirators were in fact to enjoy.)

Perhaps it's clear that we're not talking about your average liberal democrat here.

So it is with some real astonishment that I record my changed opinion about The Glass Bees . . . but, in 1998, if not before, I thought it simply a terrific book. Short, it's about as good an introduction to Jünger as I can imagine--I've been reading through some of his war memoirs and On the Marble Cliffs slowly, but am not yet far enough in any of them to offer an opinion--and deals with themes that may simply be far more resonant for me in the late 1990s than they seemed in the early 1970s. In bare-bones fashion, the story retails the encounter between Captain Richard, an out-of-work military officer, and Zapparoni, a prototypical Bill Gates-like mega-industrialist whose specialty (prototypically Bill Gates-like) is miniature automata and robots. The novel's meditation on the role of technology--and of evil--in modern life interested me (this time!) from start to finish, and it has pushed me to try to find time (while reading first and foremost for my class) for other books by a writer in whom I should have thought myself completely uninterested and with whom I should as readily have thought myself compeletly out of sympathy. Wrong, wrong, again.


Five years after first reading Jünger, on a 1977 trip--my only trip--to Cambridge, I bought and read a copy of F. M. Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician. It cost me 50p. (for a new Bowes & Bowes hardbound copy!) at Heffer. Buying my copy in Cambridge must have struck me as an especially "Cambridge" thing to do--although, now, I'd be hard-pressed to imagine, first, how I ever heard of the book (did I simply run into it while browsing?), and, second, what, when I read it--as I did almost immediately--I made of it. I must have made something of it, for I've been recommending it to people, albeit somewhat infrequently, ever since. And (having just reread it) I continue to do so, although, now, I would recommend it in a slightly different package than that in which I first met the book.

That package is a book published not by Bowes and Bowes but by Cambridge University Press. LC catalogs it s.v. Cornford, F. M., and gives Microcosmographia, &c. as the title; but whatever variety of AACR2 was used to arrive at that decision, the "package"--let's simply call it a book--is a different book, written by one Gordon Johnson and entitled University Politics: F. M. Cornford's Cambridge and his Advice to the Young Academic Politician (CUP, 1994, available in both hard- and paper-covered versions). Johnson's book reprints Cornford's on its last twenty-five or so pages, and in fact was originally conceived as an "Introduction" to that book. But Johnson's results dwarf Cornford's (in size, anyway) and his book stands quite nicely on its own.

What Johnson has done is write a background to Cornford's satire that explains the academic context and controversies out of which it arose. Fascinating in their own right, these controversies are perhaps even more fascinating for the ways in which they illuminate the staying power, in Academe, of the old dictum, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. They concern such issues as, e.g., the admission of (bleh!) women to full status within the University; curricular innovation; the growth of the physical sciences; and--of special interest to me--the problems of Cambridge University Library.

Johnson's book seems almost consciously designed to offer specific examples that function as a supplemental guide to the general principles enunciated by Albert O. Hirschman in his marvelous book, The Rhetoric of Reaction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991). In fact, Johnson knows Hirschman's book. But what he finally reveals is a great deal about the ways in which universities and faculty behaved at the end of the nineteenth century, and he does so in ways that resonate very strongly at the end of the twentieth.

I loved this book, and was moreover delighted by the chance it provided me to reread Cornford, as well. This time, having made my way through Johnson's brief and elegant "introduction," I actually knew something about what had got Cornford's goat. It is a tribute to the vitality of Cornford's tiny book, however, that even with none of the knowledge Johnson has now provided me about Cornford's milieu, I found Microcosmographia Academica a hoot right from the get-go.


Early in March, an editor at Houghton Mifflin sent me some correctional information about a book I had written about last November, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. Generous fellow, he also sent along some copies of others of her books that Houghton Mifflin is publishing in its paperback Mariner series. One of them, The Gate of Angels (1998; $12.00), is set in--of all places and times--Cambridge in 1912. Yes, it's Cornford time!

The coincidence of the book's arrival while I was also reading Johnson and Cornford seemed uncanny. Because, in addition, the novel deals not only with Academia Nuts and love but also, in large part, with the world of early twentieth-century Cambridge physics, which impinges in many ways upon a subject I am both interested in and, occasionally, teach, it was also irresistible. I picked the book up and zoomed through it. I am happy to recommend it without reservations.

Without reservations, in fact, even about its proofreading.


Another book I can recommend unreservedly is the new novel by Alice McDermott, Charming Billy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). "Without reservations," that is, if you don't mind a novel that begins in a bar in the Bronx for a sit-down luncheon following the burial of an alcoholic, and a tale that takes us through years of false starts, missed opportunities, and unhappy alcoholic hazes in the lives of some people who work out on the Island for Con Ed ("Consolidated Edison," New York City's electric utility company). This is the world of the Daily News-reading New York Irish middle class rendered with clarity and a meticulously beautiful prose that is never overdone. What is, I thought, even more remarkable, McDermott renders this world without condescending superiority but with genuine love, sadness, and respect.

I have a few of her earlier books awaiting the end of the semester; I look forward to them with immense eagerness.


The March 1998 issue of Harper's contains an essay by pianist and scholar Charles Rosen called "Classical Music in Twilight" (pp. 50-58). Here Rosen reviews such recent diatribes as Norman Lebrecht's Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics (Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane Press, 1997; originally published in England in 1996 as When the Music Stops), a book I have dipped into but am far from completing. Living in a city that--despite its size, its musical life, and its cultural pretensions--has just lost its only (and, really, perfectly wretched) classical music radio station, I was sympathetic to Lebrecht's point of view, although his tone is slightly manic . . . and Rosen's sanity is far less exciting. It may nonetheless be not only sane but also smart; and I notice that, since I have read Rosen's article, it is not only lack of time that has kept me from leaping ahead with Lebrecht.


For no very good reason--it is not about any subject I "do"--I picked up and plowed right into the new six hundred or so-page book by David Landes, The Poverty and Wealth of Nations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998). Consistently irritating, his tendentious and self-righteous refrain ("you're ideologically blinkered; I'm just looking at the facts") vastly overused, and smugly self-satisfied in the by now conventional mode of the born-again neocon, Landes has written a book I would love to loathe. While, as it happens, I do loathe it, I have also enjoyed it and--perhaps--even learned something from it; so my response is (irritatingly!) more complicated than I thought it would be. This readable and informed study of the history that helps to explain, Landes thinks, why some places (the "first world"; the "north") have become rich while others (the "third world"; the "south") have not is irritating. It oversimplifies, overdramatizes, and overmoralizes. It is also propaeduetic to thought, if for no other reasons than that one's instinctively negative response forces one to think through what is wrong with it. In fact, or so it seems to me, Landes has written a book that is worth arguing against; I regard that as an achievement, and look forward to seeing how people who know more than I know about the fields he works in do argue against him.



April-May 1998

Some days you eat the bear.

Some days the bear eats you.

These past few months have not been conducive to reading or writing--at least, not other than with respect to the plays and criticism I've been reading by and about Mr. W. S., and the student papers about his plays that I've also been reading, for the same--busy!--class I've been teaching this spring. A few things I have managed to get through that were not course-related . . . but not all that much; and writing about any of it has been delayed till now, when, the class over and some at least of my grades turned in (but for the "incompletes"), I have at last a chance to catch up. Not that there's all that much to catch up with! These "monthly" Touts have been late before now, but this is the first time since August of 1995 that I have been unable to crank one out before the end of the month in which it was due. I've felt compelled to combine April and May this time around: with regrets. I hope this doesn't happen again too soon.

About Shakespeare it seems, as always, ridiculous to write. I read some plays; I thought they were pretty good . . . and, now that you know that, so what? These are not recommendations anyone needs.


Among the few recent things I've managed to read was the sequel to a book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (New York: Villard, 1996). I had read (and very much enjoyed) The Sparrow some time ago (1996). In that book, set early in the twenty-first century, the Jesuits had sent a mission to a nearby planet from which radio broadcasts of music have been received. Although the expedition established contacts with the planet's sentient beings, the mission proved unsuccessful, and, of the eight members of the expedition--four Jesuits, four civilians (two of them women, one of the women Jewish)--only one had returned alive. A severely injured Jesuit--injured both in body and in spirit--he was also, it seems, a murderer on the planet from which he had been rescued for his return to Earth. The Sparrow relates the full history of this failed mission.

Russell has now published Children of God (New York: Villard, 1998), a book that opens only a brief while after the end of her previous book. Having discovered what had "really" happened to the mission's survivor, and having also made it possible for him to live with his injuries, both the Father-General of the Jesuit Order and the Pope now seek his return to the planet from which he has been rescued, and--although Emilio Sandoz, no longer a Jesuit, is in fact engaged to be married and wants never to see the planet of Rakhat again--he winds up going off into space once more.

Emilio returns to Rakhat many years after his first departure--time flows more slowly for those travelling at speeds close to that of light, after all, than it flows for those either on Earth or on Rakhat--to find that strife has broken out between the planet's two different intelligent species, one predatory, the other not. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the predators, always far less numerous, in any event, than their non-predatory intelligent peers, are losing badly, so badly that they may be headed for extinction. Emilio also finds them changed in certain essential aspects of their "nature," for the surviving few seem no longer to be the same straightforward predators he had come to know during his first visit to the planet. He is somewhat surprised to learn that they no longer eat members of the other species because that species has now been defined as not "kosher." Thus it turns out that one other member of his first expedition has also survived, although she was unable to return to Earth, and has been teaching the predators some new tricks. (And some very old reasons for these new tricks.) Her son, born on Rakhat after the death of all other members of the first expedition, including her husband, except for Emilio, has also survived, but he is an autistic savant, interested in such things as genetic codes and DNA sequences.

I raced through Children of God and enjoyed it immensely. But by comparison with The Sparrow, it is, I must admit, a more confused and far less successful book. Its complications are less carefully worked out than those of the first book; its parallels between Jewish and Christian distinctions on old Earth and the inter-species relationships on new Rakhat are at once too cute, on the one hand, and too disconcerting, on the other (why, one wonders, are the Reuben Bercovitch hares and the Art Spiegleman mice transformed, here, into the predators?); and its treatment of Emilio is (for my taste) simply much too gratuitously cruel. If you just adored The Sparrow, as I did, you will probably want to read Children of God anyway--and you won't regret doing so. But, alas, there are few other reasons to do so. If you have not read the first book, there are lots of good reasons to do so. But, unless you too adore it, don't even try the sequel at all. Too much of the second book depends on a reader's familiarity with events in the first; the payoff is too small.


Another early twenty-first century book is James M. Halperin's 1996 The Truth Machine, which I read in the 1997 Ballantine paperback. A boy genius invents a lie detector that is 100% accurate. Peace and prosperity break out: the world is transformed, and, you will be pleased to know, so are people. Could I put the book down? No. Is it idiotic? Yes. Does it envision what is really a neocon paradise? Uh-huh. Will I read his next? You betcha.


In more or less the same league, and in more or less the same way a book I couldn't put down, is Richard Preston's The Cobra Event (New York: Random House, 1997), a biological thriller in novelistic form. I had enjoyed his Hot Zone, a work of journalism on related themes, very much when I read it at the end of 1996; and this novel, though not the beneficiary of warm reviews, seemed worth a gander, as well. I'm glad I read it. A typical Doctor Demento takes his little bioengineered viruses for rides on the New York City subway, infecting odd victims here and there with a cold-like disease that, within a few days, attacks their brains. The disease is, of course, incurable, and his victims's deaths evoke classical emotions--mostly pity and terror. Doctor D tests bigger and bigger doses of his dream virus, not only in New York's subways but also in Washington's Metro. His successes are quite amazing, and he is finally ready to act. Brilliant epidemiological and forensic researchers are working to stop him in his evil tracks. They find some of his backers easily--mere renegade post-Evil Empire Russians and traitorous Americans, working out of a New Jersey storefront, they pose no detection problems at all. But the loner, demented though he is, poses altogether more tricky detection issues. Will his trackers succeed in halting him before he wipes out 90% of the world's population? and why are you asking such a stupid question anyway? That is not the novel's point, which is to Warn Us of Impending Doom. I feel warned.


Two recent plays by Tom Stoppard--Indian Ink (Faber 1995) and The Invention of Love (Faber 1997)--have yet to be performed in New York. Since I could not see them performed, I found myself reduced to reading them. Happily (I suppose), they both read quite nicely.

The earlier of the two plays presents us with a writer visiting colonial India, and, in a time much closer to "now," we also meet her biographer trying to understand the writer's life and her encounters with that colonial society during the months shortly before her death. Some of the issues that Stoppard considered in Arcadia get revisited here, especially those that concern the effort to make sense of an earlier life. Stoppard is not sanguine about the prospects for biographical understanding; and he is quite convincing on this subject.

The second play deals with another writer, A. E. Housman, together with such issues as textual criticism, the value of poetry, homosexuality, and life at Oxford as the nineteenth century slithered towards its close. The impact of Oscar Wilde on this world is illuminated; so is the impact on it of Latin love poetry. I liked Indian Ink immensely. And The Invention of Love even more.


I saw Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane performed in New York. The text is on its way from England, but I have not got it yet, and therefore I have not yet read it. Beautifully performed in the version I saw, the play has been well received; if I remember correctly, Newsweek's reviewer spoke of its "postmodernism," a word he used, or so it seemed to me, in praise. If social realism laced with black comedy really is "postmodern," then his word is correct. Whatever the aptness of his word choice, however, his praise is certainly deserved, for this is a play--and McDonagh a playwright--well worth attention. The play's depiction of the blighted relationship between a vicious seventy year-old mother and her forty year-old--and, in her way, equally vicious--daughter, makes for fine theater. It has been a long time (if ever!) since I have heard an audience so deeply engaged with a play that it gasped in warning, shock, or disbelief so frequently, so loudly, and so much in unison, as the sophisticated, big-city audience at the Walter Kerr Theater on 48th Street (where The Beauty Queen had just moved, when I saw it, from a smaller venue). In the next few weeks, I expect to see McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, another of his plays currently being performed in New York. Perhaps the four of McDonagh's plays currently in print in England will have reached me by then!

I also saw a play that was savaged by the Young Genius currently holding forth as a theater reviewer in a nearby Newspaper of Record--savaged, as it happens, so severely that it closed less than two weeks after opening. Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed is also in print in England, where a stupid and lethargic press seems to have permitted its performance to last a tad bit longer than here in the good old U.S.; once again, however, this text has not yet reached me. Whelan's play concerns the daughter of William Shakespeare. It puts imaginative flesh on an incident reported in the surviving historical record as bare bones only--her slander suit against someone who had accused her of an improper sexual relationship with a man not her husband. Susanna Shakespeare Hall actually is, in Whelan's play, involved with another man; but for many reasons--some having to do with chance (or mischance), others with the roles permitted women in the period, and others with the influence of the Church on people's behavior--this relationship is never consummated. John Hall, her husband, is a physician; Whelan brilliantly re-imagines his work, and also makes his motivations in coping with his wife and her "lover" convincing. I saw this play the night before its last two performances and loved it. It is another play I now look forward to reading, and perhaps even to teaching.


If I do teach Whelan's play, it will be in a class on Shakespearian spinoffs. That class will surely also include a play that I have not seen but only recently read, A. R. Gurney's Overtime (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1996), a hilarious WASPification of The Merchant of Venice transmogrified to late twentieth-century America. By the end of the play, Bassanio has abandoned Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa are parted, Lorenzo and Jessica also have uncoupled . . . and Portia has somehow joined up with an abandoned old man, one Shylock by name. This is clearly a world in which things have become remarkably topsy-turvy.

Gurney's play is surprisingly sprightly for one that plays with race and gender stereotypes so gleefully. Perhaps it is his glee--impossible to achieve without great self-consciousness--that gives the play its sparkle. I've read better Shakespearian spinoffs: Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for one, leaps to mind. I can think of few that are funnier.


Two books by John Lukacs round off my wee little reading recommendations for these two months. One, The Hitler of History (New York: Knopf, 1997), is extremely depressing, although very much worth reading anyway. Lukacs goes to some lengths to remind his readers that he is not writing a biography of Hitler in this book; he is instead writing about the ways in which other scholars, biographers, and writers have treated Hitler in their biographies. His points are many, complicated, and often exceptionally interesting. Lukacs is a conservative scholar; in this book, however, he shows how slippery such often-judgmental words have become by espousing positions that would, during the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, have been associated more frequently with combatants on the "left" than with those on the "right."

Lukacs's loathing for Hitler and his works is clear, even while he insists that Hitler must be viewed within and not apart from "history" and that he ought also to be seen as a man of astonishing (although astonishingly misused) accomplishments and skills. But what makes his book so interesting, and such an odd experience to read, is the feeling that it is, finally, not about Hitler at all but concerns, rather, "the horrors of the modern," which--for Lukacs--Hitler emblematizes, and the deficiencies of which his career exhibits. Lukacs sees Hitler as a "modern revolutionary" (not as a reactionary) and as perhaps most significant of other evils that modernism has loosed upon the world today. This is a peculiar point of view--so peculiar that one must quickly add that it is neither heartless nor thoughtless (far from it: The Hitler of History is both engaged and brilliant, even when--and, in my case, it was often--a reader finds it difficult to agree with). I gobbled this book up and found it worth thinking about--and worth disagreeing with--just about everywhere. There are lapses, to be sure. I would not have dismissed Arendt on Eichmann with quite the careless abandon that Lukacs displays on this point; I might have made some different calculations about the sheer number of those whom the Nazis saw fit to turn from living into dead Jews. Still and all, this is a book I was very pleased to have read.

The Hitler of History appeared last fall; this spring, Lukacs published an even longer--and a much stranger--book, A Thread of Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Formally, this is like no other book I know: Lukacs has written tiny vignettes for every year between 1901 and 1969 (with two exceptions), each of them followed by a "discussion" of the vignette's significance, power, and veracity between John Lukacs and "John Lukacs." Very few characters unite the vignettes (the one "major" linking character shows up in fewer than half of the vignettes, perhaps even in fewer than a third of them). None takes place anywhere other than Europe and North America; Lukacs is concerned with "a" world, not with "the" world. The perspective is, once again, remorselessly conservative: Lukacs's concern is with the triumph, as it were, of "culture," borne to victory on currents of modernism, and the concomitant decay of, what he finds much more valuable, "civilization."

I had many problems with The Hitler of History; yet I think, on balance, that I agreed with more of it than I found agreeable in A Thread of Years, a far dicier book (for me). I have no doubt, however, my disagreements with it to the contrary notwithstanding, that A Thread is by far the better and more important of Lukacs's two newest books (and I hope it is clear that I thought The Hitler of History both good and important!). Formally, it is as striking a work of "history" as Simon Schma's Dead Certainties (New York: Knopf, 1991). Its passions are occasionally unexpected. Its interest in immigration to the United States is brilliant. Its compassion for and insight into the situation of the Irish and the Catholic Church in an America where neither is entirely at ease and where, in addition, the Irish are persistently marginalized in a church that has grown far beyond their one-time ability to control it, are both striking. I have read and recommended other books I disagreed with; but I cannot recall being this impressed by a book I also disagreed with so thoroughly.

Lukacs has in fact written a book whose major characteristic is its beauty. It is a form of history; but it is, even more than that, a form of elegy. I cannot tell a reader clearly or insistently enough how very odd this book is; or how beautiful. But it is both, and it is well worth reading straight through. This gorgeous book made me angry and pensive and pleased on almost every page. There may be more that readers can ask of a book--maybe we really do want to read only those books we can also agree with. If not, however, then A Thread of Years would repay the attentive reader in a wild profusion of exciting and unexpected ways. Of course you don't want to read a book that says the nice things about Mussolini--Mussolini!--that this book says. Read it anyway.



June 1998

In the May 28th issue of The New York Review of Books is an essay on Anthony Powell written by Christopher Hitchens, "Powell's Way" (the link takes you to Hitchens's article, which goes on for twelve screens). Hitchens lengthily reconsiders Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, commenting also on some of Powell's other works as a lagniappe. A dear friend--the very friend on whose recommendation I first sat down to read A Dance more than twenty years ago (and all the dearer is he for that suggestion!)--called this a "crabby" essay when we spoke about it almost immediately after its appearance. He is right, of course . . . but that's not all it is. If Hitchens eventually underestimates Powell's achievement (as I think he does), he is nonetheless extremely interesting about those parts of the achievement he does know how to value. And, perhaps even more important, he is illuminating even when he is at his most crotchety.

For one example only (I cite it because an essay that tells me something important that I, too stupid for words, had never noticed, is no waste of time for me), Hitchens shines a bright light on the absence, in Powell's otherwise brilliant treatment of the coming of World War II, of reference to England's upper-class fascists and Nazi sympathizers who ought to have cut several very large figures in the particular milieu that is Powell's primary locus as a novelist. Writing after the War, however, Powell cannot readily face such an issue without questioning, far more seriously than he is prepared to question, the nature of the milieu that is not only his novelistic territory but also his own territory. Thus he occludes the issue by omitting it from consideration entirely.

I disagree with Hitchens's conclusion about the merits of A Dance, too tepid by far for my taste (and, or so it seemed to me, actually not quite in synchrony with what Hitchens himself writes about the book before he reaches his conclusion); but no matter. He's written an essay I'm delighted to have read. If it helps to bring other readers to Powell, so much the better.


When I told her that I was reading Walter D. Edmonds, recently deceased at the age of 94, another friend asked why it had taken me so long to find him. Well, it's always chastening to live around a lot of well-read people; I'm not. For me, finding Rome Haul a year or so ago was easy--during a tour of scenic Buffalo and environs, anything is easy--but deciding actually to buy it hard. I thought about it for several months ("thought about it?" someone must surely be asking) and only relented when I found a used copy for about five bucks. The next decision, which was whether to do anything quite so low as to read the book, proved almost impossible. Foolish me.

Having noted the author's recent death, however, I at last pulled his book off the shelf where it had been awaiting my attention; and I'm very glad I did. Originally published in 1929, a few years after Edmonds got out of Harvard and Copey's tutelage, Rome Haul has been reprinted in paperback from Syracuse University Press (1987; it's in print as part of Syracuse's New Yorkian analogue to Indiana's Library of Indiana Classics--"New York Classics," what else?--and it costs $14.95 new). It turns out to be a beautiful book. Oh, it's perfectly loopy, to be sure: its plot is long on coincidence and short on conviction, but that doesn't finally make much difference, at least, not to this reader's response.

Rome Haul evokes a period of American history just before the newly-developing railroads sent the Erie Canal crashing into purely local relevance. It tells the story of a young farmer who, orphaned at eighteen, sets off to make his fortune on the Erie Canal. Eventually, he finds himself the master of his own boat, and his "cook"--well, she does cook, too--is someone he feels very warmly about, even though she knows (and we know) that, because of the way she earns her living, she is not "the right girl" for such a fine upstanding lad. Finally, she leaves him (in what is a fairly typical variant on the theme of "the whore with a heart of gold"; from the same sort of "Saturday Evening Post" style of fiction, see, for another example of this trope, Conrad Richter's Tacey Cromwell [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942]) and he leaves the Canal for a job managing a large dairy farm, the life he is really cut out to lead. He is, by now, nineteen, and far wiser than the little slip of a thing we met on the opening page of Edmonds's book.

I could speak of many other matters that give the book an interest quite apart from whatever "literary" merits it may have. The ways in which Edmonds deals with such people as the Irish, Jews, and African-Americans, are frequently astonishing. Better still are the ways in which, now and again, he chooses not to deal with them, even though he provides his readers with all sorts of signals that this or that character is one of these sorts of things or another. The peddler our hero encounters as he leaves the farm to find his first job on the Canal is clearly Jewish, but nothing is made of this "fact," although other Jewish characters in the novel find their noses, as it were, rubbed in it. For me, what was best about the book was none of the above. I simply liked its people, despite the rather creaky mechanism of the story in which their author has located them. I was also quite taken with Edmonds's depiction of the shipping life of the Erie Canal, and of the commercial towns and villages between Albany and Buffalo that that shipping supported, during the mid-nineteenth century.


I felt much the same way about the next of Edmonds's books I read--and just how warmly this was is indicated by the fact that I sat down immediately upon completing Rome Haul to read this one, and then went on to two more in a matter of days. Young Ames (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1942), the next book I read, simply happened to be ready to hand. Although it is a much longer book than Rome Haul, I whizzed through it, and I finished it liking it just as much as Rome Haul. It's sheer fantasy, of course--in fact, had its author been named Horatio Alger, rather than Walter D. Edmonds, the story might not have been a single jot or tittle different (although it might have been a wee bit briefer).

Young Ames moves down to New York, joins a counting house in the shipping business as a young clerk, and (a) makes a fortune and (b) marries the boss's daughter. Not a surprise in sight (well, it does all go up in flames at the end of the book, except, of course, for the boss's daughter) . . . and I couldn't have cared less. Once again, in his evocation of a particular milieu (here the world of early nineteenth-century New York shipping businesses), Edmonds succeeds in creating an illusion of plausibility even though his reader knows very well indeed that his picture is as accurate as Alger's. This sort of stuff doesn't happen now; it didn't happen then. It's merely a vivification of the ideologically dysfunctional mythologies by which we think to conquer the capitalist world in which we live, breathe, and work. I do know that! It's just that I also found this book, like Edmonds's first, simply a lot of fun to read.


Five years later, Edmonds published The Wedding Journey (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1947), a slighter work than either Rome Haul or Young Ames, and really best considered as a long short story or a novelette. It follows a young woman making her honeymoon voyage west on the Canal with the husband to whom she finds herself allied, learning, as the voyage progresses, more than she had bargained for about the world in which she now lives and the man with whom she has allied herself. Its slightness is not a mark against this book, which is very acutely observed. In fact its brevity might make it as good an introduction to Edmonds's work as anyone who is now curious about him can find.


Edmonds published a very different book the same year, In the Hands of the Senecas (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1947). My quick comparison between Rome Haul and Conrad Richter's Tacey Cromwell above is, perhaps, what reminds me that In the Hands of the Senecas also begs for comparison to Richter's works. In two of that writer's books now thought to be--or treated as if they were--children's books, The Light in the Forest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953) and A Country of Strangers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), Richter (like Edmonds in this book) looks at what happens to early settlers captured by Indian raiding parties who wind up living with their captors. Richter's books are characterized by his deep sympathy for the Native American captors about whom he writes. This sympathy is borne out of his perception that, historically, there must have been some awfully good reasons why many of their captives, pace Mary Rowlandson, did not want to return to their "white" communities if that option suddenly became a real one for them. Edmonds, in contrast, seems to view captivity in a much harsher light, perhaps because the bulk of his captives are not children but adults, many of whom see their spouses or children killed and scalped during the raid that led to their own capture. Yet part of what makes Edmond's book so remarkable is the way in which its tone modulates over its course, turning what at first seems simply a horrible and degrading experience into something rather more than that for the people who survive it.

Set in upstate New York during the Revolution, and divided into chapters that focus on one captive at a time, carrying them through the period of the raid during which they are taken, their flight, their later lives in Indian country, and, for some, their eventual (and far from uncomplicated) return to the community from which they had been seized, this is a book of many surprises and virtues, and I find myself recommending it, as I recommend what else of Edmonds's I have written about above, with real warmth.


Simon Conway Morris is one of the heroic investigators of the fossil fauna of the Burgess Shale on whose work Stephen Jay Gould based his study of that fauna, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989--simply stated, one of the best and most exciting books on any subject I have ever read). Alas, Gould's book did not amuse Conway Morris, as it turns out. Not only did he think that Gould got it wrong, but also (or so at least an outside observer might imagine) he may not really have found himself entirely and unambiguously overjoyed that Gould got there first, at least in print, and with a large public, on a topic about which Conway Morris, not Gould, had done a significant part of the basic scientific work.

Here now, therefore, springeth forth Conway Morris, armed with his lengthily gestated riposte, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, $30.00). Gould, we learn in Conway Morris's first chapter, is a popularizer, a denigrator of pure Darwinism, a Marxist, and a libertarian, his book skewed by his ideological viewpoint, "creeping relativism" (p. 15, n. 3). (In this same note, Conway Morris demonstrates why it is a bad idea for a geologist to assume universal competence to criticize, say, "the poisonous ideas of such individuals as Derrida," without providing any indication that he has read Derrida or has anything better to propose in place of these poisonous ideas than his own wishy-washy notion of the "numinous" [p. 11] or the equally wishy-washy "connections between the arts and science" [p. 15, n.3].) I ran some of these critical notions by a neoconservatively Neandertal colleague who nonetheless adored Gould's book. He looked at me blankly, thought about the list of pejoratives he had just heard, said, "It's hard to say which is worst," and turned and walked away.

For all the froth and bother of his polemical framework, when Conway Morris's book turns to discuss the history of the discovery of the Burgess Shale, as well as of a few other, similar faunal repositories, and describes the results of study of the animals and of the environment in which they existed, he is very interesting. He is not a natural writer. In fact, he is frequently a very bad writer. (This is, incidentally, another reason why it was a serious rhetorical mistake for him to mount horse and aim lance in Gould's direction: when it comes to writing convincingly, this is not a contest Conway Morris has a prayer of winning, even though, at least insofar as this armchair non-scientist/reader is concerned, he manages to convince me that Gould's view of the significance of the fauna is probably over-enthusiastic.) Despite such deficiencies and excesses, he gave this non-expert reader a rich view of the arena of Cambrian life which I enjoyed enormously. Gould describes and then moves quickly to generalize; Conway Morris lingers to provide a reader a much more thickly detailed vision of the world of early Cambrian animals. In consequence, I was delighted to get hold of his book and read it. If paleontological studies give you joy, you will be just as delighted as I with Simon Conway Morris's prickly little book.


Not too long ago, I read a book by George Trow that spoke kindly about a writer named John P. Marquand, and specifically about a novel he'd written called Point of No Return (Boston: Little, Brown, 1949). No thoughts about Marquand had crossed my frontals for many decades; the reference--its seriousness; its respect--caught me by surprise. Perhaps by chance (although, swayed by Trow--whose book I liked a lot--I might have been actively looking for it), I very soon afterwards came upon a copy of Point of No Return in its original hardcover edition for $4.00. This price seemed just about right to me for what was, essentially, little more than a pig in a poke--and, on the at-this-price-what-can-I-lose? theory, I bought it. But not till this May did I at last happen to pick it up to read.

The only work by Marquand I'd ever read previously was a book he'd written twelve years earlier than Point of No Return called The Late George Apley: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (Boston: Little, Brown, 1937). I was still in high school when I read Apley forty years ago--in 1958, literally forty years ago--in a 1956 Pocket Books reprint which, it turned out, I still had, and which, when I set about to reread it, was, it also turned out, completely unusable. Neither the paper nor the glue in the spine had aged in a manner entirely commensurate with the good, if apparently pointless, care I have given the little twenty-five cent volume for the past forty years. As a result, I wound up rereading Apley in a copy of the first edition instead of my own carefully-preserved Pocket Book edition, and thus discovered something I should already have known about the claims of cheap reprints to be exact. The book I'd originally read had omitted the book's subtitle. In addition, it had printed an immense amount of the book's contents in an italic typeface. I can't gauge the impact of the missing subtitle; but the heavy use of italic did indeed have an impact both on my young perception of the book's "difficulty" and on my sense of the "difference" between what the story told me in roman versus what it told me in italic. Typography conditions: readers too rarely remember this odd point (and I am no exception to such forgetfulness). It takes an unexpected encounter, such as this one, to bring it to mind.

In any event, Apley is a novel about a "proper Bostonian" (as I once learned to call that breed from Cleveland Amory's now very old and extremely delicious book of that title) who finds himself trapped within the roles, fully inhabiting the behaviors, appropriate to his elite segment of society, and who, in consequence of his obedience to other people's expectations for him, winds up having lived a life that was, from most perspectives, no life at all. Most frequently treated as a satire, Apley surely has many satirical moments (and the novel does bear a striking resemblence in many ways to Auden's wonderful poem, "The Unknown Citizen"). Yet I am not at all certain that George Apley bears the brunt of the novel's satire in anything like the same way its thick-pated narrator serves this function; Apley seems to me, in fact, to push the novel in a direction that is not "satire" at all (or, at least, not completely). Apley, unlike the narrator, lacks a figure forceful enough to demand the kind of fear and loathing that are the pompously impercipient but manipulative narrator's very nearly instant due; what he evokes instead is, rather, pity and horror.

Point of No Return, although a very different and in most ways a far better book than Apley, deals with many of the same themes as the earlier novel. Most particularly, Marquand examines the ways in which people conspire in their own entrapment by adhering to "the rules" governing the milieu in which they live. Such themes seem to have been important to Marquand, a novelist of manners, in many of his works. Combined as their representation is here with a moral dilemma (which is what attracts Trow's attention, skeptical though he is that any modern American would even see that there is a moral dilemma facing Marquand's central character), these themes make Point of No Return very difficult to put down, very difficult to forget. It concerns a banker's work-related anxieties about success or failure at work, combined with his long meditation on the very different world in which, before World War II, he had come of age. The first issue, his anxieties about "success," reaches its climax when he is made to realize that his worries have no foundation, nor could they ever have had any foundation. The second reaches its climax when he returns, for the first time since his departure from it before the War, to his own home town. The long central section of the book in which Marquand depicts this return visit is, technically, a tour de force that merges past and present with hardly a seam showing. Here Marquand exhibits the conflict between an older "New England" ethos and a newer "New York" ethos (the latter the ethos that Trow might say characterizes the world in which the moral conflict the novel depicts can no longer be understood). Here he also has his banker meet himself--the "self" he might have become had only he stayed in his small New England town--in a section strikingly reminiscent of James's "The Jolly Corner." Marquand is not James, to be sure. Nonetheless, Trow was right: this is an extremely interesting book. It sheds a raking light on the sensitivities not only of the era in which it was written but also on the era in which it is now being read.


Philip Hamburger published a long profile of Marquand in The New Yorker that, shortly after its magazine appearance, turned up as a book. J. P. Marquand Esquire: A Portrait in the Form of a Novel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952) is a little arch for my tastes (but, then again, so was The New Yorker, as often as not). Even so, Hamburger's is a lovely piece to read far more often than not. Covering a day in Marquand's life when he travels from New York to Newburyport, Massachusetts ("Yankee City" and the small New England town that is often his subject), he has kept it short and full of information.


Another Harvard writer of the earlier part of this century (Marquand was a member of Harvard's Class of 1915), Robert Nathan is perhaps best-remembered nowadays for The Bishop's Wife; but he wrote novels, many novels, through four or five decades during this century, and some of the others are worth reading, too. I recently reread (reread!) Winter in April (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938), a rather oozly-goozly and very sentimental tale about a young woman's introduction to the larger world around her. An orphan living with her professorial grandfather in the mid-1930s, the world to which she is introduced as a teenager is far from salubrious; her main point of connection is with a young refugee from Germany who, without resources in New York, comes to work as a research assistant for her grandfather. Naturally, she falls in crush with him; equally naturally, his response to her crush is too honorable to permit him to take advantage of a young woman. Simultaneously, he is slowly coming to realize that he needs to fight back against the forces he detests. Before anything untoward in the relationship can happen, he leaves New York to return to Europe, where he will fight with the Republic (the Loyalists) against Franco's Nationalists (the fascistic Falange) in the Spanish Civil War.

Although I find it difficult to imagine anyone whose interests don't overlap mine pretty heavily reading Winter in April for sheer pleasure--and rereading it was something I did only because of an exhibition I am now involved with--I must confess that this is a book I enjoyed enough to recommend (if a little charily!). Nathan used to be a pretty well-collected writer; I don't think I've met anyone who still reads him, however, nor anyone who still collects him. I think he's worth another look-see or two.


Thomas Perry's The Face-Changers (New York: Random House, 1998), another volume in the author's recent mystery-thriller series involving Jane Whitefield, a Seneca (Indian) "guide," is a fast read. Some years ago, the author announced that he had cranked out a considerable backlog of books in this series that would be published year after year; this is a book from what must by now be the middle of that series. It is an enjoyable read without at all being anywhere nearly as much fun as, say, the author's first book, The Butcher's Boy, in which Jane has a bit part. I continue to feel (as I have said here on other occasions) that Perry's formula is wearing a trifle thin; on the other hand, I do continue to read them. Jane "guides" people who need to lose an old identity to safety and new identities. Somehow, she is always caught at the end and must fight a sort of duel with an evil antagonist, which, alas for the consequences of built-in generic (and series!) expectations, a reader never doubts that she will win. In this book, she discovers someone muscling in on her turf, and doing so with quite ugly consequences--"ugly," that is, for lots of people. How she discovers the schnorrers, and who they turn out to be, is very exciting, I'm sure. Yet the only real "variation" in this book from Perry's ordinary formula is that, at the book's end, the climactic battle in which Jane is the target, is directed instead at her husband. A mere physician, and additionally lacking the benefits of a Native American heritage, he cannot defend himself, so Jane must watch out not only for her own back but also for her husband's.

Well, yeah. I enjoyed it, I admit it. But I repeat: Perry did better before he started to can them.



July 1998

Last year, I wrote very warmly about Michael Hulse's English translation of The Emigrants, a book by a German-born resident of England, W. G. Sebald. Hulse has now translated Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1995), now available in the U.S. as The Rings of Saturn (New York: New Directions, 1998, $23.95). I was bowled over by this book, even though, having read The Emigrants, I thought I already knew how good Sebald is.

The Rings of Saturn simply strings together, in a number of chapters, thoughts and experiences raised by or encountered during the writer's walking tour of England's North Sea Coast. "Simply"! Some years ago, a professor of English at nearby Temple University, Robert Stevick, wrote an essay defining a literary form that had recently got renewed by Northrop Frye, the "anatomy"; Stevick pointed out that other practitioners of this genre included not only Frye and, more obviously, Robert Burton, but also Swift, Sterne, Carlyle, Melville, and others. Formally, it seems to me quite certain that Sebald has written a book that belongs in their company. But "formally" is not the only respect in which he seems to me to belong in such company. I had known this book was coming, waited for it with bated breath, and read it within twenty-four hours. The dustwrapper tells me another is due in English next year; my countdown has already begun. Of course it is premature to say any such thing, but so what: W. G. Sebald is a great writer. This is a book to read in a hurry and then go back and savor. Run, don't walk.


Two recent books about The New Yorker and its second editor, William Shawn, have been noticeably unpopular with their early reviewers. One is Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1998, $29.95; published as volume 8 of Mehta's long-running autobiographical series, "Continents of Exile").

Reviewing it in the famous Book Review published by our newspaper of record, Lewis Lapham treated it as an embarrassment, self-centered and boring (June 14, 1998). No doubt this objective opinion has nothing whatever to do with his judgment, as editor of Harper's Magazine, about the tastelessness shown by The Atlantic in publishing an excerpt from Mehta's book earlier this year; such low speculations can serve only to lower the esteem in which we ought rightly to hold members of the press. If, then, we assume as we must Lapham's complete honesty, his critique is not venal. I did find it, however, fatuous and stupid. Since the book proclaims itself an autobiography, it would seem likely that one focus of it might well prove, on mature examination, to be its author. So much for "self-centered. "Boring" is another criterion, of course; if Lapham found it so, I can only say that I disagree. Mehta portrays one of the fabled editors of the century by showing how he worked with the writer Mehta knows best, himself. I read these sections of the book--by far its larger part--with real pleasure. That they were made fuller by excurses into Mehta's personal life and the institutional life of The New Yorker was, for me, part of what gave the book richness and texture.

I do think that Mehta's last chapters tended to lose their grip. Mehta still cannot understand what went wrong, what kept the magazine from surviving in the form in which he'd first come to know it, and, burdened by his worship of Shawn (he himself calls it "veneration"), he seems completely unable to grasp the degree to which Shawn shares responsibility for its gutting with Peter Fleischmann and S. I. Newhouse. So he's not written a perfect book. But it's fun, it's instructive, and it fills out some of the history of the premier mid-century American literary magazine. In addition, it adds to our sense of what we've lost in the ongoing process of homogenizing The New Yorker so that it is just like, only not as good as, every other "highbrow" magazine--like, duh, Harper's--on the racks today.


A former sous-editor of The New Yorker, and once upon a time marked to be Shawn's successor, Charles McGrath now edits the newspaper of record's famous Book Review. Not content, in this instance, to let some Lewis Lapham-type demonstrate the godawfulness of Lilian Ross's memoir of her long love affair with, not Mehta's "Mr. Shawn" but "Bill," he assigned to himself the review dooming it to the remainder shelf in the issue of June 7th (Here But Not Here: A Love Story [New York: Random House, 1998], $25.00). Too bad.

Like Mehta's, Ross's also is not a perfect book, not by a damn sight. But it's also not a perfectly bad one. McGrath's review, by someone lacking even the most elementary appearance of "objectivity"--which used to be considered a value at the newspaper of record before its neoconservative reincarnation--somehow fails to make any of the book's virtues clear. Has it none? Is it so reprehensible, in an era when the newspaper of record's own "news" columns speculate on presidential semen stains on adolescent underwear and the relative slickness of the lad's willie, that a seventy-year-old woman's retailing of the story of her love for William Shawn can elicit no admiration, let alone defense? She has breached the "privacy" of the nonagenarian Cecille Shawn, Shawn's widow, as well as Shawn's own notoriously private demeanor, and the privacy of the magazine itself (a point on which the common-sensical and hard-headed comments by Gigi Mahon in her "Acknowledgments" to The Last Days of The New Yorker [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988] are worth noting). True enough. (In fairness, a friend who read Here But Not Here agrees that such criticisms, along with what he sees as its deficiencies of style, make this an immoral and a bad book.) But, for me, anyway, so what?

Shawn was an important and brilliant editor of a staggeringly influential magazine. He lived in (even if he did not cooperate with) the demanding public eye. And if, at last, this story is to be told--well, better it be told sympathetically by the person who loved him and who, in this book, celebrates him. (I found it disappointing that Mehta, who knew about the "intimate" Shawn-Ross relationship, as he terms it, makes no more explicit reference than that one word to their relationship. This omission seems to me to violate not some vague and unarticulated sense of "privacy"--a privacy that he knew Ross was about to breach and which Mahon, a decade ago, had at least damaged severely by revealing that even Newhouse seems to have noticed the "affair"--but, and much more damningly, his own clear responsibilities to truth and history.)

Ross, it seems to me, has produced a very courageous book, unembarrassed by its own raw emotion, by its author's still deeply-felt love for the now more than a decade dead Shawn. My suspicion is that this failure to be embarrassed by her love, her flaunting of it, is, more than her "breach of privacy," something that at least some current readers find unendurable. This is a book by someone to whom Shawn mattered. People for whom very little matters will not enjoy it.

I am, in addition, deeply suspicious that people who deem women as fit first and foremost for submission (thank you, Southern Baptist Convention!) and unwise distributors of their own vaginal favors, especially outside the institutions ordained by secular or sacred authorities to regulate that distribution, are likely to look with unmixed and hostile emotions on a book by a woman who seems to have labored under the delusion that her sexuality was hers to do with as she pleased. How extraordinary! In fact, how loathesome. And, once again in fairness, even another friend, this one someone who generally liked the book, remarked to me that Ross's treatment of Cecille seems a little harsh. Like The New York Review of Books recent parody of Ross's memoir, he too concentrated on a vignette involving the lovers in Central Park coming upon Cecille schlepping the groceries home. Well, please. Cecille was a saint? Ross some sort of evil sexual enchantress? Shawn (and with him Cecille) her victims? I'm not buying. No heroes, no saints, just people emerge from Ross's book, interesting people who will be studied, now and, perhaps, in future for their influence on literature and letters in the middle of America's twentieth century. They may also be studied, one may speculate, for their obviously premature ideas about their rights with respect to their own sexuality.

I, for one, am glad Ross wrote and glad I read this book. You might be, too.


I had read other of Ross's works, by the way, before reading this one (and, like many other people, I particularly admire Picture). But I had missed her 1950 New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway (my apologies, but after all I was merely eight at the time it appeared), reprinted after his suicide as a book and called Portrait of Hemingway (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961). The book is really the magazine article plus a brief preface; it's very short. It's also very good.

Ross protests in the new (1961) preface against the ways in which her intentions had been misunderstood by those who saw the original article as critical of Hemingway. I wondered, as I read this demurrer, whether she feels that, with respect to the reception now being accorded Here But Not Here, she is simply re-living part of her own previous history, this time with another book. Nonetheless, I could not read the profile as if it were the work of a simple fan. No one can write this well and not know that she is portraying somone who, whatever virtues he undoubtedly possesses, is also a monster. (Although the new book is not as well-written as her earlier books--it lacks her usual editor, to begin with, and, in addition, she was not, in this one, "a fly on the wall," either!--I didn't think she was "insensitive" to what she was saying about Cecille; I thought she wanted to speak about Cecille as she did, to get back at her for keeping Shawn from Ross to the degree that Cecille succeeded in doing so, particularly at the time of his death.) Short and not-so-sweet, Portrait is worth the little bit of time it will take you to read it.


Led to it by a reference in Mehta, I read a book I've had kicking around for about four years, Joseph Wechsberg's Homecoming (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). This book originally appeared as an essay in (of all places) The New Yorker. Technical Sergeant Wechsberg, assigned to psychological warfare as part of the Army of the United States, finds himself, right after the end of the Second World War, permitted to travel back to his home town, which happens to be in the Soviet-occupied area of Czechoslovakia. (That is the name of a country that used to exist in central Europe; from it, Wechsberg and his wife had fled in 1938 when Mr. Chamberlain sold it to Germany for peace in his time.) What the writer finds en route and back home is the burden of this short and intensely moving little book.

Of his town's pre-War 8,000 Jews, 80 are known, by the time of Wechsberg's return, to have survived. Wechsberg, who on arrival has not yet learned these figures, is astonished to see no one he knows as he walks through his town, where once he had known, he writes, seven hundred, perhaps even as many as twelve hundred, people. His wife's parents, not Jews, are still there, but they have become old and fearful. An Auschwitz survivor speaks disparagingly to Wechsberg of a Dachau survivor ("a country club," he calls Dachau); Wechsberg tries to imagine what either man would have made of him, in California while they were in their respective camps, facing food of kinds and quantities neither can imagine and which, now free, they still cannot imagine. The slow way in which Wechsberg begins to grasp, yet does not grasp, the sheer enormity of the Holocaust, is instructive. In other ways, so is his portrait of the Russian soldiers he meets: not only do they actually sing the "Volga Boatman," just as Hollywood says they do, they are also exotic, courageous, hard drinking, regulation-bound, helpful, occasionally female, and occasionally corrupt. (In one memorable scene, he shows us the local Black Market in operation, Russian soldiers its backbone.) Most of all, they are allies who have not yet been demonized by a Cold War. I thought Homecoming a beautiful little book.


I happen to have bumped into a library copy of Jim Tully, Shadows of Men (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1930), an early Depression-era proletarian and prison novel written by a person whom the only writer I've found who considers him at all (Gerald Green, "Back to Bigger," in Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, ed. David Madden [Carbondale, IL, 1968]) calls a "ham-fisted primnitive" (p. 30) and a "Neanderthal" (p. 36). I don't really know what possessed me, but I took it home, read it, and find myself here suggesting that those who are curious about this period in American literary history might also find it, as I did, a surprisingly moving book. Crude? Sure enough. And yet . . . In his portraits of hoboes and the railroad detectives who are their enemies, and his depiction of the brutalities and deaths each inflicts on the other, Tully writes a book that makes for very grim reading. It is touched by moments that nonetheless defy summary. I think, for instance, of an encounter between a hobo and two gentle people who feed him. He makes some assumptions about them on the basis of their generosity and so feels free to speak honestly about his joy at the recent murder of the local railroad detective, who, it turns out, had been their son. That's a summary, all right--but nothing of the tone of this episode emerges from summary, and that tone is where its heart (not so crude, I thought, as Green would have us believe) lies. Tully's picture of prison life at the level of the county jail is also very grim. Shadows of Men is not a pretty book. For the most part, it may even be just as primitive as Green thinks it. But it is powerful.


I wrote last month about Walter D. Edmonds. This month I read his very late novel, The South African Quirt (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), the unhappy story of a boy and his brutal father, alone together in the country of upstate New York over the summer and early autumn of 1915. Here Edmonds considers various forms of loss, some of the failures of parenting, love, and courage, and the near--and perhaps more than near--destruction of a boy's self-esteem. Although the boy finds some surrogates for what his own father fails to provide him, it is by no means a certainty that these surrogates will be enough for his psychological survival. When I spoke last month about Edmonds's 1942 novel Young Ames, I referred it back to Horatio Alger myths. The South African Quirt has not the slightest whiff of Alger. Its relentless portrait of a paternal monster has complicated my view of Edmonds in a way I cannot yet digest. But I recommend the book without reservation. It may not be pretty. It is, however, very, very good.


Another father-son relationship figures prominently--and equally unhappily, albeit in different ways from those that constitute the tale Edmonds's novel tells--in a first novel by Frank Manley, The Cockfighter (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1998, $19.95). Manley, best-known, perhaps, as the editor of a fine edition of Donne's Anniversaries, tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy who is allowed to handle the prized fighting cock his father has given him. The story concerns cockfighting, to be sure (and some readers may not find the long scene of the cockfight altogether pleasing); but Manley is also interested in the boy's love for the cock and in his search to define himself in a household where the patterns of adulthood he is offered by his mother and his father do not always jibe. This is a very short book. It manages to be quite scarifying, despite its brevity, in ways that, the more one thinks about the book, are quite complicated. Manley has packed a great deal of thought about some of the unstated assumptions of American family life and childrearing into these few pages. His thoughts are not pretty ones.


When I was ten or twelve or so, and spending a summer at Fair Harbor, a village on Fire Island, I read--and have just recently reread--a very different "New York novel" from those that Edmonds wrote, René Prud'hommeaux's The Sunken Forest (New York: Junior Literary Guild and Viking Press, 1949). The book is set in Fair Harbor. One of the illustrations at the start of a chapter is of the Fair Harbor dock, off which I caught baby bluefish when I was ten and twelve or so, and which is drawn with an accuracy that reminded me of where the village's two markets were located. Another important setting is the Sunken Forest of the book's title, a below-sea-level forest of odd vegetation, deer, and other surprising wildlife, located several miles east of Fair Harbor that I used to find fascinating.

I remembered more of the book than I'd expected when I found myself rereading it. A boy and girl, with their widowed father, intend to spend the winter in Fair Harbor for no discernible reason. They normally live in Wyoming; their father has never before evinced much interest in the sea. The two children meet and become friendly with a local boy who is also one of the very few winter residents of this sandbar that separates Long Island's Great South Bay from the Atlantic. As time goes by, the three children begin to look suspiciously at a couple of unpleasant adults who have taken up with the local boy's always unpleasant grandfather and, as more time goes by, they begin to realize that the unpleasant strangers are, in fact, the magnet that has brought their widowed father, a military intelligence officer during the Second World War, and his old college professor to winter in Fair Harbor.

Well, this is a children's book, so you know the rest of the plot, like who catches the criminals out and all that. (Hint: is it the adults? No way.) I enjoyed it anyway--and was shocked to realize that the criminals, whom I remembered as Nazis (Nazi submarines were supposed to have landed spies on Fire Island during the War), are probably dirty Reds. Prud'hommeaux identifies them only as agents of "a foreign power"; but World War II is clearly in the past, and this is, after all, 1949. In the early '50s, however, Nazis were still what I worried about, and so Nazis were how I assimilated the book. About Reds, who could worry? (and, really, who would?)

So much for memory. They say it is the first to go.


For years, a friend has urged me to read George Washington Cable. This month I finally got to Old Creole Days (1879; 1885; rpt. New York: Signet Classics, 1964 [and rpt. in 1989 with an introduction by Shirley Anne Grau, also a Louisiana writer]). What can I say? It's a lovely book. Grau apologizes for Cable's melodramatic excesses; I didn't find them especially troublesome. The book is of its period; in addition, however, and much more interesting to me, it is characterized by a wholly surprising and unexpected point of view, coming as it does from a native of New Orleans and a veteran of the Confederate Army, about the humanity of people of African descent. The ways in which issues of "race"--always, and very clearly, a completely "constructed" category in Cable's hands--interfere with the ways people love one another is a constant theme; the price these issues exact from the lovers and those around them is another. Cable evokes an old New Orleans at a time when its old French, Spanish, Creole, and African populations confront both one another and the newly arriving Americans; his landscapes are in constant shift, sometimes on a scale positively Poe-like in the literalness with which that metaphor is realized. This is a fascinating book, and I urge it warmly on those for whom Cable is just another dead nineteenth-century name.


Wilson Tucker's Ice and Iron (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), a science-fiction novel, looks at North America about three hundred years from now. Canada has ceased to exist in several senses: the provinces have become states; the new states are, however, under hundreds of feet of advancing glaciers, and we are invited to watch scientists at work in southern Canada looking at various phenomena that cannot easily be explained even as cities like Billings, Montana, are about to be abandoned before the onrushing ice. No "interglacial" age, this: we're back in a period of worldwide glaciation, and is it ever chilly.

Perhaps it is only because I read this book in Washington (the capital in Tucker's book is a new city called "Washington South"), during a week when the temperatures and humidities both touched 100 (degrees and per cent), that I found myself deeply unconvinced by this book. It may be fun, but it's no damned good.


Also no damned good is John Grisham's The Partner (New York: Doubleday, 1997, and now available in paperback). How can one describe this book without giving away its plot? Plot, after all, is all it's got.

Ninety million bucks get stolen from a bank account. The thief, a person who had arranged his own death some weeks before this theft, is a surprisingly well-known corpse and quickly becomes the obvious target of investigation. He has got away with so much money that he is worth tracking, and the novel opens with his capture. Complicating matters is the fact that, despite his theft and his abandonment both of a legal career and of a wife and little daughter, he is also the "hero" of Grisham's novel, and thus we suspect that he cannot be all bad. Indeed, as it turns out, he isn't all bad. A man more sinned against than sinning, he has committed a theft that is a form of revenge against people and a style of life that have offended him at every turn, and, Grisham's reader quickly learns, rightly. (The sheer magnitude of his revenge--ninety million dollars!--also engenders a certain admiration for him in Grisham's reader.)

Grisham's trick of perspective here is to make his thief's perspective agree with his reader's. We agree, as readers, with the chain of reasoning tortuously expounded to us that took our lad from being a pillar of his local legal community to an outlaw's existence somewhere in Brazil. We also identify with him because of his brilliance (which, of course, we share). In the legal maneouvres that precede his trial, he successfully outwits and manipulates all of his opponents and, as the novel draws to its close, it looks as if he will not only go free but also manage to retain a large chunk of the moola for his pains. And he will get to keep the pretty girl, always an important ingedient in a Grisham novel, clean-cut though they may otherwise be.

Grisham has done better than this. The book's severest lapse comes in its treatment of the hero's girlfriend. This character has no existence apart from her plot function but nonetheless manages so successfully to have a major impact on the novel's plot that a reader wonders how Grisham thought he was making her plot function believable. The answer is: "He wasn't." These are not books that sell, I imagine, on the basis of their believability. This novel is, like other Grisham novels, compellingly readable, written in colorless prose that fails utterly to be either distinguished or distracting. It is instead relentlessly plot-driven. By the time you realize the idiotic way in which Grisham is going to end it, it's too late. You're almost there yourself.



August-September 1998

Late once again, and, for the second time this year, combining two months worth of touts in one . . . well, what can I say after I say I'm sorry?

Perhaps because I spent some time teaching and then travelling south of the Mason and Dixon line in July, I've been reading a bit of southern literature. I began with a children's book by Thomas Nelson Page, Two Little Confederates, an 1888 book that I read in a 1931 Scribner reprint, of which a Page collector of my acquaintance for whom this copy represented a variant desired to relieve me. Page is not someone I'd ever read; this book, a children's book, has a plot that is not something to make one yearn for more Page instantly. The tale of two charmingly mischievous brothers whose youth debars them from service in the Glorious Cause, it nonetheless retails the story of their adventures and boyish mistakes seeking for deserters and annoying Yankee interlopers. When, however, they find themselves surrounded by a real shooting war, and, in fact, have to face a dying Yankee soldier with whom they have had prior contact, they behave with (perhaps) surprising decency. (Well, of course, they are well brought up young southern gentlemen.) When, after the Glorious Cause has managed somehow to get lost, the Yankee soldier's mother comes seeking for his remains, the boys take her to them, and thus take themselves to a rewarding relationship with his family. (It comes from Delaware, as it happens, which geographical aficionados will recall is not really north of the border, up Yankee way; no wonder the novel's tale of north-south post-War rapprochement proves so successful!).

I suppose this is a recommendation. The book won't take much time, and it's interesting. It is a little treacly . . .


Infinitely more interesting, and better in just about every way--although, in bend-over-backward fairness, its superiority may be due in large measure to the fact that it is an "adult" novel--is Opie Read's My Young Master. This is an 1896 novel that I read in a paperback reprint edited by Wayne Mixon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, in a series called the Library of Southern Civilization). It should still be relatively easy to find, despite the reluctance of many bookstores to stock books cursed with the imprimatur of a university press.

Like Page, Read tells of two young men raised together, one the son and heir of a Kentucky plantation owner, the other his slave, presented to the son and heir on his sixth birthday by his father. The two boys are of an age and--oddly--as the master receives his education, so too does his slave. Even more oddly, the slave proves quite good at school--so good that he helps his master with the subjects they both study together. The two young men grow up to become extremely close. When the master goes off to the War as a Confederate soldier, his slave voluntarily accompanies him as a body servant. He does so despite the fact that--because, in their household, the Civil War truly is "civil," the young master's father being a confirmed Union man--he doesn't have to go. Clearly, Read makes assumptions about black people that are not always shared by his contemporaries: among them, that they are "people"; and, in addition, that they might prove, if educated, to be smart.

If Read's "racial politics" are essentially decent, his literary skills, though real, exercise themselves in out-of-fashion ways. That a strong strain of melodrama runs through this story will probably not endear it to a modern sensibility. On the other hand, such a strain doesn't distinguish it much from what I am slowly learning is standard fare in nineteenth-century American fiction, and it is handled smoothly. This is a book where, even if one can see the train rolling down the track when it is still miles away, I'd still not be happy about describing the station to which it arrives. Let me then bypass all that to say instead that, if my recommendation of Page was reluctant, my recommendation of Read is very warm indeed. This is a book that deserves renewed attention.


Is Washington a "southern" place? In the hands of Harriet Prescott Spofford, whose Old Washington (Boston: Little, Brown, 1906) enchanted me, there is no doubt at all: it is. Partially interlinked long stories, this book, too, I found simply gorgeous. The first story tells of two aging spinster sisters suddenly awakened to the changed, manner-less, and threateningly materialistic post-bellum world in which they now find themselves. These women are brought, by an accidental encounter with denizens of that world--most particularly a woman who is a journalist! but also another who (gasp!) is a stage actress (pass the smelling salts, please) and yet another who works as a government secretary--into a completely new relationship to their world, their times, and themselves. A story of conversion, or of re-birth, Spofford's is in fact a story about the transforming possibilities of friendship and human contact; I loved it. In another story, a mother and daughter who reside in a down-and-out boarding house are saved from poverty and degradation only through the intervention of one of their former slaves. In that character, Spofford appears almost to be writing a study for the character who, when she grows up to become important to male fiction writers, will be transformed into Faulkner's Dilsey ("she endured"). Already, in 1906, Spofford has sketched a world in which energy is supplied by the black characters and the white exhibit only languor and helplessness. Like Read's My Young Master, this is a book I recommend warmly. You might need a library in order to find a copy, however.


Historians already know them, but I had never happened upon or read the trilogy of novels about the Civil War and Reconstruction written by Carolinian Thomas Dixon, Jr. They are the most racist books I have ever read.

It must have been a strain of masochism that kept me plowing through all of them--The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden (1902), The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907)--for not only are they racist but they are also abysmally written and plotted. On me, however, they acted in a manner very close to that allegedly experienced by birds watching a snake: it may be dangerous, it may even be horrifying, but one cannot move away or stop.

Of the three of them, the last--if anyone is tempted to follow me down this unpleasant street--is the most easily dispensed with, even though it contains my own personal favorite of all the incidents in all three books. Its responsible leadership has just disbanded the Klan, but disreputable members take matters into their own hands and keep it alive, although transformed to encourage pursuit of personal vendettas rather than to protect the South and its ideals against the onslaught of Negro government directed by white carpetbaggers and scalawags. Our hero, the leader of the responsible Klan in his community, has disbanded it, as ordered. But a new leader has emerged, not only not responsible but also--can you believe it?--our hero's rival in love. (He is in addition playing footsie with the Republican leadership in his state, espousing ideals of Negro "equality" out of one side of his mouth while clandestinely leading the new Klan out of the other, seeking to become the state's next Republican governor. He's not a nice man.) When our hero learns that the "new" Klan has ordered an attack on a local Jewish merchant, he is immediately appalled--this is not the Klan he knows and loves--and rides off to his rescue, arriving not in time to prevent the attack completely but soon enough to reprehend its perpetrators in medias res and to care for their victim (the bearer of a "Jewish name" so funny that I leave it for the curious to enjoy discovering it for themselves). When, but a paltry few pages later, we find our hero back once again at the Jew's, what is he doing there? Only one guess!

Didja get it?

Right: borrowing money . . .

The Negro as happy slave; the Negro's animal stupidity and incompetence and laziness; the taint even of "one drop of Negro blood"; the propensity of Negro men to rape white women; the sexual wiles of Negro women; the brutal ignorance of the South and its mores displayed by radical Reconstructionists (particularly Thaddeus Stevens, corrupted by his liaison, in Dixon's portrait, with a mulatto woman); the myriad ways in which the Ku Klux Klan saved the South: these and more racist and regional myths, although I have heard them for years, suddenly came alive in Dixon's pages in ways they never have before. There is even a certain kind of ham-fisted skill in the way in which Dixon skewers Uncle Tom's Cabin--is this what we mean when we speak about "intertextuality"? about hommage?--by translating characters from that great novel into The Leopard's Spots in order to make vivid just how much Stowe got wrong about the people whose wrongs she exposed. Cleverly, Dixon makes Simon Legree one of his own villains, too, exposing him as non-"southern" not only in his pre-War mistreatment of his slaves but also in his post-War conversion to Republican ideology. Legree, he shows, is (and always was) atypical of the slaveholding south. His only interests were, and are, in lining his own pockets with other people's wealth. He is really a Yankee.

Well, why mention this garbage at all? The Clansman was, as is well known, the basis for D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation; it retains a certain currency as a result (and I read the book in a University of Kentucky Press paperback reprint of 1970; the trilogy is in print in one volume from a racist publishing house, but if you're going to read these books then use a library rather than giving them your money). But Birth of a Nation is no reason to read Dixon unless you're a Griffith scholar.

In truth, I'm glad I read all three of them, although I wouldn't want to do so again. The melodramatic strain throughout is (for me) worth encountering; as was true of the same strain in Opie Read's book, it reminds me that what some readers still tend to dismiss as characteristic of "women's fiction" in the last century is not quite so gender-bound as is often thought. The evidence of Dixon still responding to Stowe four decades after her book's appearance is indicative of that book's enduring power, worth pondering at a time when many scholars and readers are again recovering her book as a fit object for serious attention. Most of all, I welcomed exposure to the explicit racism the books are all bathed in, and to the first-hand sense of the sheer power of the fear, hatred, and rage in which that racism is rooted. I've never encountered anything like it before (certainly not in literature, and, I think, not in life, either). I'm by no means sure that I needed this exposure; and I can guarantee its unpleasantness. Still and all, it's worth encountering something this appalling if, as I am inclined to suspect, it helps to understand its motives even just a little.


My tour of southern writers ended, this month, with James Lane Allen's The Choir Invisible (New York: Macmillan, 1897). (A Kentuckian, Allen--like the Tennessean Read--is perhaps better thought of as hailing from a border state.) Here, too, melodrama rears its attractive head.

Allen's novel is set in Lexington, Kentucky, just after the Revolution, and concerns the relationship between a young schoolmaster who knows he is destined for better things, the girl he courts, and her mother. A set of practical jokes practically throw the young woman into the hands of another man, but because we have heard the mother warn our hero that her daughter, whatever her virtues, is not really for him, we are not as disturbed by this turn as the young man himself. We know that he will win her back, both of them strengthened by adversity, before the novel ends.

In this belief, we are, as it happens, quite wrong. What happens instead is the entry into the young man's now bereft heart of (I wasn't entirely ready for this) the young woman's mother. Married mother, I should have added; unwidowed married mother, to be even clearer. Unabandoned, too.

Say wha'? In an 1897 genteel fiction? Golly.

Need I add that an enormous dose of mature reflection and Protestant renunciation follow the unwelcome revelations of these two beating-as-one hearts, and thus our young teacher, recognizing that no good can come of this relationship, heads back east to Philadelphia, first as an agent to buy books for Lexington's Transylvania University, and second, as it turns out, to make his career, eventually to find a wife, and finally to raise his family.

It is extremely easy to have fun with such a tale. I blush to confess that, instead, I read it with interest and enjoyment, and wish that, like A Kentucky Cardinal, about which I wrote some months ago, it were easily available for classroom use.


Two post-holocaust novels caught my eye this summer, the first a recently reissued paperback of Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976; now reprinted by Tom Doherty Associates [New York 1998]). An extended family located somewhere in or near the Shenandoah, realizing that the world is quickly going to eco-hell, isolates itself and starts practicing cloning technologies (one of the symptoms of eco-hell is that birthrates are plummeting, not only for animals but for human beings as well). Some generations later, the "clone colony" having survived into the new, relatively Rachel Carsonesquely silent world--it lacks not only other people but also the animals who used to haunt places like the eastern mountains--its leadership sends a scouting party down the Shenandoah River into the Potomac to scope out the ruins of Washington. A bit later, a particularly enterprising young man skirts the still radioactive outskirts of what had once been Philadelphia. Times are not good. In addition, problems always known to have been latent in the cloning process have not yet been solved, and the human race may die out completely. You'll be happy to know--but, hey! did you ever doubt?--that it doesn't.


Eight years earlier, Michael Frayn had exercised himself in a tour of futuristic low points: the book is A Very Private Life (1968; rpt. New York: Dell, 1969). Frayn's catastrophes are social; they have resulted in a society where the decision-makers live isolated lives underground while the plebs run around on the dirty old surface of the planet--the very dirty old surface of the planet--doing whatever plebs do. His tale concerns a rebellious teenage girl. She escapes. Or does she? Books by, inter alia, Huxley and Silverberg have had us in this land- or cityscape before. If Frayn's handling of it results in a tale well told, his ending is, unhappily, not well done at all, and, as a result, the book sort of stops, sulkily, without any real conclusion at all.


Last month, I wrote negatively about The Partner; now I write more positively about John Grisham's The Street Lawyer (New York: Doubleday, 1998). The book opens with a young associate at a high-powered Washington law firm held hostage, along with a group of his colleagues, by an enraged street person. They are rescued; for his pains, the street person gets his head blown off by a police sharpshooter. The other hostages immediately forget the experience. Our hero cannot. Not only does he begin to do work for a neighborhood legal service in a part of Washington where shiny white faces like his own looming above nifty suits and stepping out of nifty automobiles are a dubious asset, but also he begins to see, more dimly, links between some unsavory legal practices at his very own firm and the chain of events that tossed the now-headless hostage taker out on the streets. Fighting unsavory with unsavory, he engages in a little unethical behavior of his own to find out the truth of what his firm had been up to and winds up opening a can full of still wriggling worms, none of which, of course, he can use as evidence, given the circumstances of its recovery.

Well, you know, more or less, the rest of the story. Does our hero right wrong? Yes. Does he triumph in the end? Of course. He may shed a wife and a high-paying job en route, but, on the other hand, since he finds his own soul once again, what matter such prices?

I continue to find it surprising that Grisham is able to tackle such subject matter and treat sympathetically, with what is a liberal (if ultimately merely ameliorative) bias, issues of race and difranchisement, and find such a huge readership. Is it simply "entertainment"? Does it all rub off the moment the book is set aside? I wish I knew.

Meanwhile, this one may be predictable, but it's still worth a look-see.


Jane Harvard's The Student Body (New York: Villard, 1998) may be a book you'd read only if you were (1) terminally Harvardian; (2) into mildly titillating sexual descriptions involving multitudes of genders, races, and positions; or (3) involved with higher education. "Jane Harvard" is, in fact, a kind of wacko parody of the Harvard Corporation--Faith Adiele, Michael Francisco Melcher, Bennett Singer, and Julia Sullivan constitute the corporate authorship behind the authorial nom de plume--and Harvard is where the book is set (although it is partially based, it tells us, on events that "really" occurred at another Ivy League institution, not, I am happy to say, my own, but Brown). Student sex (lots). Male as well as female student prostition (lots). Female as well as male johns. Personal greed. Institutional greed. Harvard angst. The values of a free press. Courageous journalism. Veritas. The mind reels.


The college I attended published a library journal when I was a student there. Among the authors to whom it particularly attended was Ben Ames Williams. Never having heard of him, I always wondered why. Now I've read Time of Peace: September 26, 1930-December 7, 1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942), a copy of which I found in a small used bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. ("Columbus, Ohio?" I went there for the art. I was not misinformed.) I find that, having done so, I still wonder why.

Time of Peace purports to be a record of every foreign policy cliché uttered by Americans between the two dates mentioned in its subtitle. These clichés reveal, as Williams piously hopes, the processes by which Americans accustomed themselves to going back to war yet again, despite their great aversion to a renewal of hostilities that would take American lives, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The viewpoint is that of a Boston attorney whose wife dies the day the book opens, leaving him with a son to raise as a single father. The lawyer is someone whose family heritage includes not only the New England where he lives and works but also settlers of Mississippi and Ohio; he is, as he repeatedly realizes for his son's and our benefits throughout the novel, a person who unites in himself almost all that it means to be "an American." He travels constantly with the boy, so we get to hear, and at some length, the opinions of a lot of other Americans as the low, dishonest decade progresses to its inevitable conclusion. A subplot--it's a very long novel: something's got to happen in it--involves a love affair, chastely carried out with a woman who, like James Lane Allen's mother in The Choir Invisible, is encumbered by her marriage to another man. He is, alas, a vegetable, having been injured beyond recovery or repair by Japanese bombs during an ill-advised tour of China. Our lady love has a sense of honor strict enough so that she must await his death before embarking on a new relationship. The son grows up, graduates from Dartmouth, goes to flight school, and is shipped off to Hickam Field late in 1941, where he is beautifully located to die an American death on the morning of December 7th. He does, which we know because his spirit is detected in the Boston household where his father, no longer a lawyer but a judge, has married his now-widowed lady love, and is at home with their new baby.

I read this book for a reason, looking for material related to the American response to the Spanish Civil War, in conjunction with an exhibition I was working on for my job. That reason kept me going through the book, and, since I found a lot of material, I can tell you that I'm glad it did. Since I used almost none of it, I'm not sure why I'm glad. I can say that, unless you have a reason, too, Time of Peace might not be the best way to spend your leisure reading hours.


For the past months, I've mentioned some of the books I've been reading by Walter D. Edmonds. Recently, I've read two more of his books, both of them short, both of them children's books. Hound Dog Moses and the Promised Land (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954), with illustrations by William Gropper [sic!], is a lovely little fable about what would be wrong with a Heaven that excluded animals, especially dogs, most especially fine hunting dogs, from its grounds. Cadmus Henry (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949) was a pleasant enough book but, apart from that dimwitted aperçu, I discover that it left no other aftertaste of any kind whatever.


Published in The New Yorker, John Bayley's "Personal History: Elegy for Iris" (July 27, 1998), pp. 45-61, is an extraordinary piece of work. Oxford literary critic John Bayley speaks here about the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, now silenced by Alzheimer's disease. Faced with similar circumstances, I doubt I could face them as calmly as Bayley seems to; I am sure I could not write about them in the same way. This is a piece that seems to be full of love. I recommend it warmly.

An issue or two later, I found myself reading Alex Ross, "The Unforgiven" (August 10, 1998), pp. 64-72, a short but illuminating essay about Richard Wagner. This, too, is an essay well worth reading.


Another quondam New Yorker writer, Calvin Trillin, has another new book out, Family Man (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998). I laughed out loud on many occasions while reading this book, a real breach of my normal sense--familiar to any reader of these Touts, I am sure--of the fundamental privacy of the reading experience. I don't know other writers around these days who give me such sheer pleasure as Calvin Trillin. Run, don't walk, to the nearest copy.


Available for $12.00 from Kansas City's Linda Hall Library is William B. Ashworth, Jr., Paper Dinosaurs 1824-1969: An Exhibition of Original Publications from the Collections of the Linda Hall Library (Kansas City, Missouri: Linda Hall Library, 1996). Ashworth looks at the ways in which dinosaurs particularly have been depicted since, in the 1820s, it began to be obvious that the large bone-like objects turning up might actually be bones connected with animal structures of animals that no longer existed. His catalogue is a short supplement to Martin J. S. Rudwick's Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and I found it worth every penny.


John Burnham Schwartz, Reservation Road (New York: Knopf, 1998), is a novel about a college English teacher, his landscape gardener wife, and their eight-year-old daughter, in the days, weeks, and months immediately following the hit-and-run death of their ten-year-old son one evening as they return home to northwest Connecticut from a concert at Tanglewood. Husband and wife both tell the tale; so, too, does the driver of the car that struck and killed the boy, while he and his own son, of the same age, sleeping in the seat beside him, are hurrying home from a sixteen-inning Sox game at Fenway.

This is a powerful book and a powerful story. Yet, while I was certainly impelled to read it, once I'd picked it up, I left it without much confidence in my own reaction to it. It feels "overwritten" to me, as if Schwartz is throwing all he's got at it, and at his reader, and the result left me feeling a wee bit manipulated. The novel made me recall a scene--in a book I read so long ago that I can only guess that its author was Dan Curley--in which a bunch of academics, off in the country on a summer day, all sit around reading or talking about "the" book of that season. We don't have many "the" books any more; this one, I thought, was trying to be it. And, maybe, trying too hard. For all my uncertainty and unease, I do think this is a book with considerable appeal, although its subject matter does not make it a cheery reading experience in the slightest. It is certainly worth a shot if you don't mind the book's premise.


One final recommendation, this one without reservation of any sort. My goodness, the book is even a lovely physical object, beautifully designed and printed by the press at good ol' Jane Harvard's alma mater. Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996 (I read a 1998 paperback reprint) is endlessly fascinating. Fritzche's book looks at how the mass newspaper press of turn-of-the-century Berlin shaped, and was in turn shaped by, the modernistic metropolis that Berlin was in process of becoming. Fritzsche has a lot to say about readers and reading, about news and newspapers, and about the modern city and what makes it "modern." I cannot praise the book highly enough; as with Trillin's very different Family Man, I feel that all I should do is point you at it and then get out of the way. It's a book that gave me a lot to think about (and a hell of a lot more to read!).



October-November-December 1998

Teaching certainly has its rewards . . . but one of them is not the ability to be punctual with self-imposed deadlines when one is also reading and marking papers -- which have to be done on a fairly rigorous schedule. So here I am, late with these touts yet again, and, this time, cramming three months of touts into one. Talk about feeling guilty! Fortunately -- I suppose -- I don't actually have three months' worth of touts to talk about. For much of the period under discussion, I managed to read only one book.

Well, it was -- to tell the truth -- rather a long book. In fact, it was nineteen volumes (to date) of a very long book: Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series.

Early in November, I got a cold. At home, feeling sort of crummy, unable to read much, and not entirely sure I wanted to read anything -- it was a really unpleasant cold for me to have felt like that! -- I picked up a book I didn't want to read: O'Brian's Master and Commander (1970; rpt. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990, $12.95 in paperback), the first book in his series. Several people had been telling me to read O'Brian for several years and -- I admit it -- though I love recommending books to others, I am not invariably Mr. Gracious when someone recommends a book to me. This seemed, therefore, the best of all possible moments to pretend to be gracious. I was sick. I certainly couldn't read anything serious. I wasn't going to like whatever I read anyway. So why not pick the damned thing up? I would read forty pages, put it down, and crawl back into bed ("for this relief, much thanks"). Then, whenever one or another of my O'Brianistic friends happened to ask if I'd tried (and how I'd liked) the book, I could tell him or her truthfully that I'd actually begun the first O'Brian, but it just hadn't worked for me. As I knew it wouldn't.

That was Sunday, November 8th. By nightfall -- not yet in bed, which, it turned out, was a mistake, unless you like having a cold -- I'd finished the book. By January 1st, 1999, I'd finished the nineteenth, and most recent, book in the series, The Hundred Days (New York: Norton, 1998, not yet out as a paperback in the US).

So much for bad intentions.

I haven't counted pages, but nineteen volumes of O'Brian must run, I suspect, to something in the neighborhood of about 4500 of them. It -- they? -- did keep me busy. Why? I've never read C. S. Forester -- although I intend to try him any decade now -- or Nordhoff and Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty is sitting on my grotesquely overgrown "current" pile as I write). I know nothing about the Napoleonic Wars and would not have thought myself capable of caring about them in the slightest. Naval life interests me less even than my own navel, not something I habitually stare at very intently, not, at least, since leaving adolescence behind, which -- evidently -- I did only a few weeks ago. O'Brian's are not, in short, the sorts of books I read.

And yet they are the sorts of books I've now read. I'm far from alone in this predicament, obviously enough -- indeed, most of my imagined readers may need no recommendation for this series at all, having already discovered, long before I, its pleasures. Those pleasures are incremental. The first volume is all right -- and obviously "all right" enough to convince a reader (this reader, anyway) to pick up volume two. But the pleasures of watching characters whom we like get on with the business of living with one another -- changing, growing, learning more about one another's strengths and weaknesses as the years go by -- are engaging in ways I'd have found hard to imagine before experiencing these books. I say that even with the prior experience of my love affair with Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (a mere twelve-volume bagatelle) behind me. O'Brian's are not stories I'd have expected to provide even remotely comparable pleasures. Yet they do.

The musical relationship between the naval Captain Jack Aubrey and the surgeon-spy, Stephen Maturin, is one source of the books' surprise and delight. I think, for one example, of a moment when, back from leave, Aubrey is in his cabin practicing music that Stephen has never heard. Stephen enters the cabin to hear it and Aubrey excitedly tells him that "London Bach had a father!" Some of that father's manuscripts had turned up in a London music shop Jack had visited; he had bought them. Now he is slowly picking out, and learning to play, what -- I think -- must be one of J. S. Bach's unaccompanied cello sonatas. He finds the music crabbed and in the old style, yet he knows there is "something" in it. Or, for another example, many volumes later, Stephen -- visiting Jack at home -- cannot sleep. He steps outside for a walk in the garden at night and hears music coming unexpectedly from a distant bower. Jack, it turns out, is also awake, and playing for himself. He has moved away from the house so as not to disturb the sleepers. Listening to him in the night, Stephen suddenly realizes how very good a musician Jack is. He realizes, too, how much Jack has, for many years, deliberately lowered the quality of his own playing when, aboard ship, he and Stephen play music together. His motive is the same one that removes him from the house when he plays at night: basic politeness. He doesn't want to embarrass Stephen any more than he wants to disturb his family, friends, and dependants.

Other moments of astonishing power abound. Jack, a naval officer, is a sea captain during wartime. He deals in death professionally: it is his job, his service (a "hard service," as we are often reminded). Yet, in a battle with a Dutch man-of-war -- it concludes a long sea chase that has taken both ships into the high southern latitudes, and thus into very cold and extremely rough seas -- he watches, himself wounded, as a shot from his ship suddenly breaks up the enemy vessel. In a matter of seconds, the Dutchman disappears beneath the waves. In such a sea, there can be no rescue of any enemy survivors, even if his own ship were not, by this point, keeping afloat by the skin of its teeth. The waters are too rough, too cold, and the men who disappear into it are dead men: there are no survivors. Jack, the victor, watches his sudden victory in a kind of horror. "My God," he says, "five hundred men!"

Maturin, a naturalist, is left on a rocky island whose only supply of water is also distinguished by plentiful amounts of bird droppings. How he contrives to survive will cheer your day. Watching him and Aubrey float in the Pacific as their ship leaves them behind, when -- on another day -- Stephen, always a clumsy sailor, has contrived to depart it via Aubrey's cabin window, out of which he has fallen, is another source of real pleasure.

We experience Jack and Stephen's encounters with Americans, many of them during the War of 1812; with Australians; with the French -- enemies as well as friends; and with women, including the women who become wives to Jack and Stephen. Stephen, hopelessly in love with Diana, is a source of constant anguish. Jack meets a somewhat surprising young man, the product of a liaison from a time long prior to his meeting with the woman who would later become his wife. Like his friend Stephen, this person bears a decidedly "un-English" religious pedigree: he too is a Papist -- and, worse still, is going to become -- and eventually does become -- a priest. We experience Jack and Stephen's imprisonment. We watch them escape, one of them in odd costume, from enemy France. We see Stephen as an intelligence agent; we see him as a scholar; we see him as a surgeon. We see Jack as a rising naval officer, a musician, a navigator and an astronomer good enough and serious enough to become a member of the Royal Society -- like Stephen -- and as a complete horse's ass when it comes to money and to women. We watch non-verbal Jack get every conceivable idiomatic commonplace wrong, and slowly -- painfully slowly -- get Stephen's jokes. We watch him reflexively and invariably insult Stephen's religion before he remembers -- as he always remembers, though rarely in time -- that it really doesn't matter. We watch Stephen learn Jack's very few but persistent jokes: in the Royal Navy, we who have finished these books know at least as well as Stephen does, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils.

Does this sound as wonderful as I hope it does? I doubt it can do so. I believed no one who told me how good these books are. They don't seem the kind of books that can be this good. Maybe they can't be. I prefer my illusion, however, and recommend that you try to imitate it if you possibly can. The novels in the series are all available both in hard and in paper covers from Norton in the U.S. and from William Collins in the U.K. They include Master and Commander, Post Captain, H.M.S. Surprise, The Mauritius Command, Desolation Island, The Fortune of War, The Surgeon's Mate, The Ionian Mission, Treason's Harbour, The Far Side of the World, The Reverse of the Medal, The Letter of Marque, The Thirteen Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation, The Truelove [U.S. title] or Clarissa Oakes [UK title], The Wine Dark Sea, The Commodore, The Yellow Admiral, and The Hundred Days.


For those who know nothing of the Royal Navy during the period about which he writes, O'Brian has written a tiny little introductory trot: Man-of-War (1974; rpt. New York: Norton, 1995). I found it helpful. It is reasonably well illustrated and reasonably clear. (If you read O'Brian's series, eventually you, too, will want to know what an orlop is -- unless, as is not true of me, you already know.) I did not, however, find it sufficient -- to my genuine surprise. I therefore hope to be able to read a bit more about the Royal Navy (as well as about the Napoleonic Wars) so that I can understand more about those things I don't care about that underlie O'Brian's multi-part novel on topics I also don't care about.


While I was reading my way through O'Brian's series, New York ran an article by Dean King, "Naval Fiction" (November 16, 1998), pp. 36-39. King, who has written a number of helpful aids for O'Brian's readers, has now apparently embarked on a biography of the man. Among its first fruits is the discovery that O'Brian is a completely self-made man -- or, rather, a self re-made man, having been born with another name, published books under that name as early as his fifteenth year, married, and fathered children. Apparently that life all went to pieces during World War II, when -- while he was serving as an intelligence agent for the British -- his brother was killed in combat, his young daughter died, and he and his wife divorced. After the War, he legally changed his name to Patrick O'Brian, married anew, started another family, and resumed writing. Apparently no one until King has ever connected the pre-war and the post-war writers (even though, says King, O'Brian continued to develop some of the same characters about whom he had written under his first name). King also speculates about the amount of British intelligence officer O'Brian one might find reflected in Admiralty spy Stephen Maturin. It is an interesting speculation. But I find that it adds nothing to the already immense enjoyment the books provide. Read King's article, if interested, for its own sake: the story it tells is fascinating -- whatever light it may also shed on the Aubrey-Maturin books.


I read Theodor Fontane's Jenny Treibel immediately after having read, last month, Peter Fritzsche's Reading Berlin 1900. I read Fontane's book in Ulf Zimmermann's translation (New York: Ungar, 1976); the book was originally published in German in 1892. Zimmermann contributes a good introduction to this translation, as well.

I have read some of Fontane's novels in the past -- Effi Briest most notable among them -- and enjoyed them. This novel, too, I liked very much indeed. Bourgeois life in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century, and various means -- some more appropriate than others -- of demarcating intellectual from economic élites, occupy Fontane's attentions in Jenny Treibel. He is a wickedly close observer. Indeed, it might almost be said that reading this book is like reading a John O'Hara novel of mid-century American social life -- but an O'Hara novel that is taut, economical, in a way that O'Hara rarely is. The socially mobile Jenny, who, having risen, sees no special virtue in leaving the ladder she has climbed still standing behind her, is a character we will not find surprising; but we will rarely have seen her more thoroughly to advantage dressed. Her "academic" friends, at least from my own mildly academic perch, also look quite engaging, as do the industrialists, even the visiting English industrialists, who form part of her circle. The book's plot offers Fontane an excuse to look very closely at the milieu he writes about; he never blinks. I loved the book.


For reasons that almost passeth understanding, I found myself reading Sir Walter Scott's Waverley and his Ivanhoe recently. In fact, my reasons are perfectly understandable: I know exactly why I read them, despite a long-held conviction that Scott is worthless. More than fifteen years ago, I had picked up Edgar Scott's edition of Waverley -- then a Signet paperback costing 75 -- and tried to read it. I found it dreadful -- and knew I hated Scott. Resisting recommendations to read O'Brian was a mere prejudice. Hating Scott was, by way of contrast, rooted in knowledge.

In September, however, I went to see "Delacroix: The Late Work," a quite wonderful exhibition, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taken as I was by Delacroix's work, I could not help noticing how often he painted subjects drawn from Scott's novels. To be sure, the French have never convinced me about either Poe or Jerry Lewis. Yet my tastes have changed over the past fifteen years or so and, in the wake of this exhibition, it seemed to me as if it might be worthwhile, since Delacroix had obviously liked Scott, for me to consider him once again. I might have been wrong.

I was, it turned out, pleased with myself when I passed my bookmark -- still in my old copy of Waverley -- on page 138, the very spot where I'd chucked the book as a bad job a decade and a half ago. Nor have I entirely stopped patting myself on the back for having, this time, finished the book. But the reason for this self-admiration is, I fear, entirely the result of hanging around too much with Protestants: a sort of rubbed-off Puritanism leaves me cheered by the accomplishment of something unpleasant but "good" for me. Alas, I did not like Waverley very much. It is readable. In something of the same way that broccoli is "edible."

On the other hand, I could hardly bring myself to put Ivanhoe down. It seems to me a book with hardly a mistake in it. Not only an adventure story, nor a relatively early English depiction of a sympathetic Jew or two, the book has enormously complicated political resonances for its era that remain fascinating to think about in ours. Often read conservatively, Scott is -- at least in Ivanhoe -- by no means a simple conservative writer.

Indeed, it was curiosity about his obviously complicated politics that sent me to read a few essays about his book: I particularly recommend an extremely interesting - and extremely lucid! - article by Michael Ragussis, "Writing Nationalist History: England, the Conversion of the Jews, and Ivanhoe," ELH, 60:1 (Spring 1993), 181-215.

You need not care about English politics in the early nineteenth century to enjoy Ivanhoe, however. It is, simply, a hell of a story. Who'da guessed?


James L. Halperin's The First Immortal (New York: Ballantine, 1998) is a second novel by the writer whose earlier book, The Truth Machine, I read some time ago. A "novelist of ideas," Halperin asked, in his first novel, what might happen to society if truth could be effectively distinguished -- always, without question, and in every human relationship -- from falsehood. He tries in this book (now available in a mass-market paperback edition) to deal with the question of what might happen to human beings if the certainty of our eventual death were removed.

It's not a great book. But it is powerful. It contains, for instance, one passage that made me physically ill to read. (It concerns what happened to men captured by the Japanese during World War II -- and, I am afraid, Halperin downplays the physical horrors he describes, if I may rely on sources I went to, after finishing his book, to check up on what seemed to me simply unbelievable. Alas, it wasn't unbelievable enough.) The book is also interesting, and this I find a virtue. Is Halperin's book agreeable? Not always. Is it well-written? Not especially. Are the characters fascinating? Rarely. But the world he creates has a genuine fascination, and the issue is treated with a kind of wild plausibility that I would have expected to be much more difficult to bring off than Halperin makes it seem. I found The First Immortal an entertainment worth reading.


For more than thirty years, I've had kicking around the house a copy of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland; or, The Transformation: An American Tale. First published in 1798, the book was reprinted in 1926, edited by Fred Norris Pattee. It was in his edition (itself reprinted [New York: Hafner, 1958]) that I finally read this very odd -- and quite wonderful -- novel. (Late in 1998, the Library of America published a volume containing three of Brockden Brown's novels, Wieland among them. It would be worth getting. Several of his novels are also available, less expensively, in Penguin editions. The Penguin Wieland has an introduction by Jay Fliegelman.)

I picked up Wieland at long last because my university sponsored a conference, this past fall, on Charles Brockden Brown. It seemed the appropriate time to take the book off the shelf, if ever I was going to, and read it. I loved it. It is a three-dollar bill of a novel: "weird" doesn't begin to describe its oddity. It feels odd all the way through it. Strange things happen to people. They get carbonized on the spot. They hear voices. They commit murder. They attempt other murders. They speak with God. They go starkers. They fall in love -- or in something -- with people who clearly ought to frighten them out of their wits. (They may not be "in" their wits, of course.) A real live "biloquist" wanders through the novel: a not-entirely-benign Edgar Bergen, he can throw his voice great distances while also managing to make it sound like anyone else's voice he has ever heard. Confusion reigns. For some of the characters, indeed, ultimate confusion reigns. God's not in his heaven; all's not right with the world.

Get the picture? Good. I'm not entirely sure I do. All I know is that the novel is compulsive. It pulled me along, gritty grain by gritty grain, into a world I do not understand at all. My guess is that it might do the same for you - and that, if you let it pull you along, you too will experience a book that is unlike nearly anything else you will ever have read. It is worth a try.


NO is a new novel by Carl Djerassi (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). Those of us who have read and enjoyed others of Djerassi's "science fictions" will meet several old friends from earlier novels in this, the newest of them, while also making the acquaintance of a new scientific friend. An American-educated woman of Indian origin who leaves the academy for the world of scientific entrepreneurship, she is going to have quite a time of it, and all of it is going to be interesting. We're still in Djerassi's world of reproductive technology, by the way -- and it's as sexy here as it is elsewhere in Djerassi's novels.

Penguin has been republishing Djerassi's novels in paperback. While no one has been noticing, he's been writing some of the best fictions about science of the past couple of decades. His characters are engaging, his issues understandable, and his world ours. I recommend this novel along with the rest, with the single caveat that, if you've not read any of his other books, don't start with this one. It will reveal too many of the secrets of people whose secrets you will not want to know in advance when, having enjoyed this book as much as I did, you then go back to the earlier novels.

"NO," by the way? Well, there's always "no," the opposite of "yes" -- to say nothing of the odd chemical compound, as well . . .


Most normal people will not feel the immediate compulsion I felt, when I bumped into Frank W. Chinnock, Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb (New York: World, 1969), to pick it up and read it at a gulp. A more or less literal gulp, as it happens: this is, as you might not be terribly surprised to hear, a seriously unpleasant book to read.

Chinnock has obviously learned a thing or two from John Hersey, but he is no mere mimic. His book is much longer and, because he does not choose to concentrate only on a chosen few "representative" victims of the Nagasaki bombing, he also seems to cover much more ground than Hersey covered in Hiroshima. Things are not good on the ground he covers, however, and this is probably a book only for those with some specialized interest in the topic Chinnock deals so well with -- and a reasonably strong capacity for plowing through stuff most of us simply don't want to know about.


Travel took me to Cleveland this fall, and, while there, I bumped into a writer of Cleveland mysteries, Les Roberts. The Cleveland Local (New York: St. Martin's, 1997) touches tangentially on Cleveland's club for book collectors, the Rowfant, but it is not really a "bibliomystery"; I enjoyed it, as well as its successor, A Shoot in Cleveland (1998). Long on local color and ethnic life, and enhanced by a pleasant leading man, Roberts' mystery series makes for enjoyable leisure reading.


Eric Sanvoisin's The Ink Drinker (New York: Delacorte, 1998) is a tale, allegedly for children, illustrated by Martin Matje and translated from the original French (Le buveur d'encre, 1996) by Georges Moroz. I imagine that there are some children who would love this book; but I can imagine few who would enjoy it more than I do.

The Ink Drinker is the story of a young boy who, doing what he regards as most unpleasant duty in his father's bookshop -- he hates books -- encounters a person who drinks ink, and the words ink embodies, off the pages of a book. Realizing what he is watching, and making a surprised noise, the boy then follows the stranger back to his . . . well, to his crypt: it turns out that the stranger is a species of diseased vampire, one who late in his non-life has developed an allergic reaction to blood. Bitten by the vampire, the boy returns home, and, to his astonishment, begins drinking ink himself. Every time he does so, he discovers the beauty of the book from which the ink and the words it embodies come.

Sanvoisin has written a kind of "just so story" about learning to love reading, and I cannot praise it highly enough.


I would like to think that Sanvoisin's book about reading might attract some warmth of interest from Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar. To be sure, my only reason for thinking that it might attract her comes from reading her own recent book of tiny essays about books and reading. These appeared originally in The Library of Congress's pretentiously glossy magazine (pretentiously called Civilization), where -- unaccountably, I guess? -- I had failed to see them when they first appeared. Too bad for me: they were worth it. Fortunately for me -- and for you, too -- in her new book, they remain worth it.

The book -- Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -- has one major flaw. It is too short. Even so, it is as thoroughly enjoyable a book about various experiences of reading as I have encountered in a long, long time. Fadiman is, I think, a more voracious reader than I; and a more catholic, as well. She's a lot funnier, with a prose style far more relaxed than mine. Oh, I could have done without some of the "confessional" stuff here and there -- but so what? Her book's not perfect? Oh, dear. It's still a damn sight better than the common run of "books about books" -- quite definitely including books in that category (about which she herself writes, incidentally) from professional Literary Critics. Too many LCs wouldn't recognize a simple declarative if it walked up to them on the street. In any case, LCs I have known seem far too rarely, if ever, to read -- let alone to write about -- a book they have encountered for anything other than professional reasons.

If you fancy a box full of bite-sized bits of sheer pleasure in your future, then Anne Fadiman's wonderful book is an enticing set of tiny little treats awaiting you.



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