TOUTS -- 1999

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



January 1999

Some children I know, having decided that millennium's end was high time for an elderly and mildly retarded acquaintance of theirs to partake of the technological miracles of the 1980s, deposited a large VCR -- a là mode de VHS, as opposed to the old Betamaxims I currently have to hand -- under my tree this past Christmas. Liberated by their unexampled benevolence, I found myself, early in January, able to sit in my living room and watch a VHS tape of a movie directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Das Versprechen. The Promise -- its English-language title -- is a 1994 film about life in a Berlin divided by the Wall -- and I found it very moving.

I noted with interest that a person named Peter Schneider worked on its screenplay. Peter Schneider is, if the same person, also a writer who, I thought, had written books as well as screenplays about the Wall. It didn't take me long to find The German Comedy: Scenes of Life After the Wall, trans. Philip Boehm and Leigh Hafrey (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991 (originally published in German as Extreme Mittelage: Eine Reise durch das deutsche Nationalgefühl, 1990). Outdated journalism might not seem an especially attractive recommendation, to be sure. I can only say that I found his book both funny and interesting enough to be well worth the couple of hours that reading it required. Worth it, that is, even now, almost a decade [!] after the events Schneider commemorates.

I've read a few other books about the collapse of the Wall and related matters. A report written by moonlighting historian and journalist manqué Robert Darnton, Berlin Journal 1989-1989 (New York: Norton, 1991), gave me pleasure and instruction when it appeared. Not much later, I read Slavenka Drakulic's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (New York: Norton, 1992). She dealt with life under, and then the collapse of, the Communist government in what was already, when her book appeared, becoming the wreckage of Yugoslavia (perhaps a bit less of an advertisement for post-Communist felicities than she could have desired?). Another book I read at roughly the same period dealt with a different aspect of recent German life. It did not, as I recall, emphasize greatly Berlin's East-West division. But I remember reading passages aloud from Susan Neiman's Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin (New York: Schocken, 1992) to innocent bystanders. Moments like, for instance, Neiman's disquisition on the association of Jews with that most un-German of foodstuffs -- viz.: garlic -- are simply fall-down funny.

Schneider's book interested me because it tries to come to grips, albeit in some measure through ironic humor rather than confrontation, with the failures of leftist political ideas, and to do so from the perspective of someone apparently sympathetic to such ideas. These failures the disastrous realities of East Berlin and East Germany seemed, in the wake of the collapse of their separate identities, to embody -- an impression the past decade has done little to alter. The questions Schneider asks, whether directly or ironically, are real and important questions. They remain important ten years later, as an exultant, resurgent, and generally triumphalist conservatism, "neo-" or otherwise, continues to assume the complete irrelevance of all leftist or, God forgive me, "socialist" critiques of the current (and aptly-named) new world order. Schneider asks a lot of serious questions in this book. His vivid sense of humor is a strategy not only for certain kinds of avoidance but also for palatability.

The humor begins with the writer, seated at his computer in Hanover on November 9th, 1989, writing an essay for a French newspaper about what would happen if the Wall came tumbling down. A friend bursts into his office to tell him that the Wall has in fact come tumbling down. Unable to believe the news, he calls another friend in Berlin. That friend, on the spot, knows nothing about any collapse of the Wall. However, since Schneider is calling from a great distance -- the Hanover he's calling from is in New Hampshire, not Germany --the friend offers to look out of his window, watch the news, and check for him . . .

The humor continues when, back in Berlin after the Dartmouth fall semester has ended, Schneider tries to reconstruct the responses of people who were actually there for the fall. One couple, spending that evening in bed on a non-political topic (but with the television on), had gathered vaguely -- although inattentively -- that Helmut Kohl had done something stupid yet again. Concentrating, however, on other matters entirely, not till morning, when they could smell omnipresent and distinctive East Berlin petrol fumes from their apartment balcony, did they grasp what had happened. Others recalled the behavior of East Berliners suddenly footloose and fancy free in the West. Someone named Richard Chaim Schneider -- a relation of the author? (hmmm) -- wrote a letter to Die Zeit about a t-shirt that reads "NOV. 9 -- I WAS THERE!": "I was breathless at the sight of this T shirt. . . . What was happening? Were the Germans suddenly admitting they'd been there? On November 9, 1938? On Kristallnacht?" (pp. 32-33).

But Schneider is not simply telling funny stories. In the mode of Julien Benda, he also asks questions about what people knew, and what they should have known, about the lives, and the system under which those lives were lived, of their compatriots in the East. These are really questions, he knows, about what might be considered the responsibility of intellectuals to learn about and report what was happening to other people.

To cite Karl Popper . . . : "We intellectuals have done terrible things, we pose a great threat. Not only are we arrogant, but we can be bought."

This statement is interesting for its use both of the first-person plural and the word "threat." We intellectuals, trained to be defiant, tend to feel flattered when someone classifies us as a "threat." That is why we ought to identify the "threat." The great crimes against society in this century were committed in the name of some "idea." We intellectuals discovered the idea, though usually not its execution, and we writers supported it and sang its praises. And all too often we sang the praises not only of the idea, but also of its execution.

Writers and intellectuals have recently taken to claiming that they should be counted among the endangered species. That may be. But for the sake of accuracy, one should add that they are also among the most dangerous species.

(p. 83)

One has heard this argument before. -- in, e.g., the opening pages of Czeslaw Milocz's magnificent polemic, The Captive Mind, recently re-issued by Vintage for a new generation of readers. (This is a book I was given -- when I was, perhaps, fourteen? -- by an old family friend who was also a Commentary writer from the days when that now thoroughly despicable rag was somewhat more respectably associated with the anti-Stalinist left. He wanted to "inoculate" me against the dreaded foe, Communism. Alas, it worked.) Of course, matters are not this simple. Is Marx "responsible" for Stalin? (Or, in a different, if perhaps analogous, historical conundrum that also interests me, is Oppenheimer to blame for the use of the bomb whose construction he oversaw?) Hard cases make bad law, I've been told; and it may be similarly possible that hard questions make for bad history: bad analogies, badly misconceived or just plain simple -- or simple-minded -- answers. Yet hard cases come along whether or not lawyers and judges want them; and so do hard questions. The effort to deal with them, well or ill, ought to be something we try our hands at now and again. Schneider's German Comedy does. I value its effort perhaps more than I value its answers: at least it asks good, hard questions.

[ADDENDUM, 13 February 2000: An article by Peter Schneider in today's New York Times Magazine is also worth reading: "Saving Konrad Latte" deals with Germans who protected Jews in Germany during the Holocaust. It is exceptionally interesting.]


I'm co-teaching a course this spring semester on the experience of war in the twentieth century (a far cry from the Shakespearian and non-Shakespearian plays I've been teaching for the past couple of semesters). Having just finished it himself, my co-teacher passed on to me a copy of a novel written by David Piper -- writing under the name of "Peter Towry" -- called Trial by Battle (London: Hutchinson, 1959). Piper's subject is the British Indian Army fighting in Malaya in 1942. Not a very good time, unfortunately, for the British in southeast Asia, it was also not a very good time for the characters in Piper's book.

This is a short and remarkably brutal novel, filled with characters most of whom -- with the notable exception of the Indians who serve in the British Indian Army, although this exception may result merely from the author's distance from them -- are beneath contempt. But it is also a very good tale about what the experience of war does -- none of it good, you may be surprised to hear -- to those who take part in it. Piper handles his ugliness with a certain kind of restraint that I found remarkable. I don't know if this book remains in print but it is worth reading, if you can locate a copy and have any interest in the literature of World War II.


Michael C. C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II, The American Moment, ed. Stanley I. Kutler (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), is another book I recently read as background for the course I'm now teaching. Adams wants to demythologize the myth of "the good war" that has grown up around World War II without simultaneously denying that it was a war that needed to be fought and won by the Allies. He looks skeptically at such matters as the failure of appeasement. E.g., we must not appease Saddam Hussein because we learned the lessons of appeasement in Chamberlain's treatment of Hitler, did we not? But, Adams notes, while appeasement was tried (and surely failed) in Europe, America followed a distinctly non-appeasement strategy in the Pacific in its dealings with Japan -- and that strategy surely failed, too, and just as completely. Standing up to the bastards is not an entirely foolproof alternative to appeasement, in short. Other myths fare just as badly.

I could have wished for better and more exciting writing; less repetitiousness of structure from chapter to chapter; and a style calculated for readers able to parse their way through sentences composed at something better than ninth-grade reading levels. Clio did not breathe upon this book, or even in its general direction. On the other hand, it was, even so, a book I am happy to have read. I've done a good deal of reading on this topic over the years. I still learned some things from Adams that repaid my time.


Isabel Colegate's 1980 novel, The Shooting Party is the first book we asked our students to read for this class. (We also asked them to read Theodore Roethke's "The Victorians", a very short poem, and some other works, including an essay in a book by Elmer Davis that I mention below.) Colegate's novel, much praised when it appeared, was later (1984) made into quite a lovely movie (with James Mason, among others). Now it is out of print, at least in the U.S. Too bad: it richly deserves the praise it got when it first appeared, despite what our students felt was a perhaps unhappy tendency to hit them over the head with its point. I found it more complicated than they did when I read it years ago, and I still find it more complicated than they did rereading it now.

Set at a pheasant shoot on a country house in October of 1913, the novel looks at a society that has reached moral and other forms of exhaustion, and, in a vague way, knows this about itself, hoping that, through war, it will somehow be "cleansed" and reinvigorated. I cannot speak warmly enough about Colegate's ability to draw her characters with individuality and affection (ironic affection, maybe, but affection nonetheless). I cannot, on the other hand, speak warmly about what -- when I read it this time -- seemed to me the novel's "Tory morality." Colegate's misfits are ludicrous, marginal, or both -- and, by novel's end, several of them are dead or, we learn in a short coda, will be dead (at Loos, at the Somme, and so on), along with the world in which we have met them.

I enjoyed rereading this book enormously, even as I disliked what I think, this time through it, are its politics. It was, in addition, a pleasure to speak about it even with the surprisingly cynical young. And it is a pleasure to remember it here for anyone who has either never encountered it or forgotten its virtues.


"On the Eve: Reminiscences of 1913" is the essay by Elmer Davis that we asked our students to look at. It appears in a book that had fourteen circulations between 1940 and 1941, does not seem to have been read again until 1960, when one person took it out -- maybe two? -- and was later taken out again in 1978 and 1992: Not to Mention the War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1940). A pity that it gets so little attention: this is not only a book by another of my Indiana writers [!] but also one that offers a great deal of fun and maybe even a greater deal of interest.

"1913 was the peak year of human felicity," Davis's first paragraph tells us (p. 81), and, he continues, "we of 1913 found a better here and now than any generation which will follow us for some decades to come. . . . [I]n our time the assets of the estate had accumulated to a legacy beyond all imagining, and we had not yet discovered that they were offset by some appalling liabilities. In other words, we came up before the war -- just before the war -- in what seems to the retrospective eye an age of incredible innocence and security" (p. 82). Davis rests much of the veracity of his claim on a foundation of recollected male-female relationships and perceptions about female social (but not economic) aspirations. These make for very peculiar reading at a time of post-feminist backlash from the extremely ignorant young and the even more extremely vicious right; yet, if one knows -- now! -- that Davis doesn't really get it, one also senses that his heart and mind are both in the right place. It is fascinating to see him grapple -- here and in other essays in this volume -- with this and related issues.

The volume includes essays on George Bernard Shaw and Richard Wagner. "The Imperfect Wagnerite" is so extraordinary that no summary would be believable, let alone an inducement to find and read this essay, as you should do even if you read nothing else in the book. Davis discusses restricted summer resorts in "On the Gentility of Gentiles" (rather more winningly, in most respects, than the old warhorse, Gentleman's Agreement, which I watched yet again 'tother day). He tries hard to find the "right" tone but -- in part because Davis hasn't the slightest ability to imagine what is just about to happen to Jews in Europe -- the essay can no longer be read as he intended. A mordant little essay, "On Not Being Dead, As Reported" -- once after being sunk in the Channel in 1916, during World War I; once again after the great New England hurricane of 1938 -- looks forward, as it were, to the inevitable third report. That one, Davis is confident, he is unlikely to be able to deny. "On Being Kept by a Cat" deals with a topic on which I also have a certain expertise; I loved it. A final essay on the Roman Emperor Gallienus, clearly written by someone who has been reading Roman history with a weather eye on its contemporary relevance, proved enjoyably to lack the historical objectivity we imagine to be a virtue in such essays. The opening essay on "The 'Logic' of History" is, like the book review of recent works by Hilaire Belloc and Gerald Heard that follows it, an utterly perfect --and utterly hilarious -- introduction to the liberal mind at work.

It would, in short, be difficult to imagine a book of such apparently slight works that offers so good, if so oblique, an introduction to a world now as irretrievably lost to us as 1913 was to the Elmer Davis who wrote "On the Eve" (originally published in 1931). That it also offers us so magnificent an introduction to American liberalism in its period is an added lagniappe.

Unlike most readers in 1999, I suspect, I remember Elmer Davis -- not that he was anyone I ever met, of course. When I was a little boy, he was a radio news commentator (on New York City's radio station WJZ?) whose fifteen-minute news summary and analysis my parents listened to every night. My idea of the "Hoosier twang" has nothing at all to do with any Indianans I have ever met: it has everything to do with Davis, night after night, on New York radio -- a voice I've never heard anyone come close to in intonation or pitch. My parents' admiration became mine. My best friend gave me, for one birthday (my twelfth or thirteenth?), a copy of But We Were Born Free, Davis's anti-McCarthy book (I don't think I still have it, but copies are easy to find). It has taken me till now to discover that he was also a novelist; I intend to dig up some of his novels and read them, and may also go back to his 1950s books, as well. Here is a writer waiting for readers.


Frank McGuinness is the author of a version of Electra I happened to see (at Princeton's McCarter Theater) last fall (it's still running in New York as I write). It presented us with the excellent, if somewhat stagehoggy, Zoë Wanamaker as Electra, Claire Bloom as Clytemnestra, and Pat Carroll (whom I'd once seen as a simply smashing Volpone) as one member of the Chorus: a spendthrift production indeed! And an immensely powerful one.

McGuinness is not only an adapter of other people's plays; he writes his own, as well. I've recently read -- as it were, for more background for my course -- his stunning play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (London: Faber, 1986). But I was wrong: it ain't "background." It is, instead, amazing. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to see performed: very nearly unbearable, I would imagine.

It opens with Pyper, now an old man -- I found it not quite clear whether he is "alive" or "dead," and, the more I think about it, the more I think that my uncertainty is one the character shares -- awakening to confront yet again the ghosts of the day his comrades from the 36th (Ulster) Division (and he with them?) died, July 1, 1916.

I do not understand your insistence on my remembrance. . . . I am angry at your demand that I continue to probe. Were you not there in all your dark glory? Have you no conception of the horror? Did it not touch you at all? A passion for horror disgusts me. I have seen horror. There is nothing to tell you. I am not your military historian. Do not turn me into an example. There are sufficient records, consult them. You are the creator, invent such details as suit your purpose best. Those willing to talk to you of that day, to remember for your sake, to forgive you, they invent as freely as they wish. I am not one of them. I will not talk. I will not listen to you. Invention gives that slaughter shape. That scale of horror has no shape, as you in your darkness have no shape save what you bestow upon those you leave behind. Your actions that day were not, they are not acceptable. You have no right to excuse that suffering, parading it for the benefit of others.
(p. 9)

Whom is he addressing? -- his spectral comrades? the author? the audience? God? all of the above?

Farley Mowat's painfully brilliant memoir of his World War II service (And No Birds Sang (Boston: Atlantic, Little, Brown, 1979)) once taught me a bit about the role played by Canadian service in World War I in creating a sense of Canadian national identity. I had known nothing comparable -- not even known that there was anything comparable to know -- about Northern Ireland and Orange Ulster. McGuinness does the job. That the Somme's first day was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne gave it, I discover, a nearly mystical significance for Paisleyite Orangemen ("Paisleyite," of course, avant la lettre). The sacrifices of 1916 Flanders, coming as they did hard on the heels of the Easter Rebellion at home, came to seem more than sufficient justification for the continued union of North and Britain, for continued resistance to union with the twenty-four counties of the Republic. It is Pyper's growing awareness of the savage falsity underlying this sense of justification, of its rootedness in the sheer waste of that day, that gives this play part of its power to resonate for a contemporary audience. But the events themselves still resonate (or so I think), as does the rage they generate. Although of a much later generation and not at all English, even I can sometimes imagine no more fitting an eternity for General Sir Douglas Haig than to spend it being torn apart by machine-gun fire and blown to pieces by artillery in No Man's Land.

Oh, well. McGuinness' play -- whatever the wrath to which it gives unhappy rise -- is utterly riveting. I gather that it has been included in volumes (also from Faber) of his collected plays; so even if this edition is no longer in print it should be easy to find.

One does tend rather to wish that someone would breathe a hortatory word or two into Faber's corporate ear about the quality of paper the firm chooses for its books. I read this play in a 1990 reprint of the 1986 original edition: it is already yellowing. Faber is obviously a firm, both historically and now, with much more than a merely decent modicum of literary taste. One might have supposed that, by now, it would also have thought it worth adding a dollop of sense and responsibility to its publishing program, as well. Surely someone there knows better?


J[ean] J[acques] Fiechter's A Masterpiece of Revenge (New York: Arcade, 1998) is a slight but enjoyable tale about an art conservator gone bad. Jane Caldwell of the Oxford Institute for Art Research tries -- but, you will be happy to know fails -- to pull the Claude over the eyes of Charles Vermeille of the Collège de France. Burdened by a deeply (if perhaps somewhat schematically described) psychopathic upbringing, Jane tries first to seduce the eminent Claude scholar. Since, when she makes this attempt, she is so drunk that she cannot speak without slurring her words, she is not -- despite her considerable physical attractions -- at her best, and Charles, whose taste seems impeccable, does not bite. Her next efforts to deal with him are somewhat more complex. Suffice it to say that she attempts to seduce him in two different ways, one that regards his professional expertise, Claude, and the other his one personal mania, his son.

It may be only a slight book, but I enjoyed it -- and its quite hilarious resolution - anyway. (I have a passion for Claude myself.) I do wish its publisher had provided some details -- any details -- about the book's original French appearance (in, I gather, 1997) and its translator, who, so far as I can tell, is either Fiechter himself or Anonymous.


Two articles in the 1998 volume of The American Scholar (vol. 67 [1998]) deal with The New Yorker and repay the attention of those who, like me, continue to value what that magazine once produced.

In the Winter (67:1, pp. 27-48) issue, Dan Pinck remembers "A J. Liebling, A Writer at Work: Old Days at The New Yorker." I happen to see Liebling's grave every so often. It lies across the street -- together with those of Pollack, Krasner, Stuart Davis, Jean Stafford, Frank O'Hara, and a host of other notable and lamented dead -- from people I have frequent occasion to visit. I also remember warmly many of his books. (Anyone who has somehow managed to miss Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana has, I feel, seriously misallocated his or her reading time.) It has been years since I read Raymond Sokolov's admiring biography, but Pinck's essay, though a shorter work, nicely supplements it. And reminds me to reread Liebling a.s.a.p.

Frances Kiernan writes about "Fiction at The New Yorker" from the point of view of someone who started work at the magazine right out of college and eventually spent many years there as an editor in its fiction department. Her essay appears in the Autumn issue (67:4, pp. 81-91). Allegedly prompted to do so by the translation of Tina Brown to the yet-to-appear Talk, and her replacement as editor by David Remnick, Kiernan wonders if the fiction for which The New Yorker was once renowned will return, after Brown, to a prominent place in the magazine's publishing plans. Her wonder takes the form of recalling -- and defending -- the fiction (so called "New Yorker fiction") that used to appear in the magazine. She also describes both how fiction was found and edited by her colleagues and herself and their relationships with their authors.

Kiernan's essay is, in fact, a vigorous discussion of why fiction matters. That is, I imagine, one reason why the author of Ex Libris, who is now also the editor of The American Scholar, liked the essay enough to publish it. I am very glad she did, very glad I bumped into and read it.


The same issue of The American Scholar in which Kiernan recalls New Yorker fiction also contains an essay by William Cronon, "'Only Connect . . . ': The Goals of a Liberal Education" (67:4, pp. 73-80). This is a short essay -- too short, perhaps -- and it is also just a leeetle stiff and earnest (and, for my taste, vague, too). Yet it is thoughtful and, at a time when the value of what people like me do in the academies we infest is under question, Cronon's effort to re-think and re-state some fundamental notions about what all this stuff is for can only be welcomed. A colleague and I are using this essay in a program with high school seniors on their way to our own university. While I can think of many other longer, fuller, richer, and -- maybe -- even "better" things they might read, this essay, for its length, is provocative, interesting, and on target enough to give them (we hope!) some things to think about that are worth thinking about. If you also care about what education is supposed to do, it might serve the same purpose for you, too.


I recently wrote very warmly about the nineteen volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. This month I find myself able to write, also warmly, about a sort of "precursor" to that series. In a novel O'Brian originally published in 1959, a young sailor and his friend, a person of scientific and medical bent, go off with Captain Anson to sail the Pacific Ocean. The Unknown Shore (rpt. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) is a lovely tale. It may lack the richness of characters developed over long stretches of time found in the later series, set sixty and more years after Anson, but it offers a sample, in small compass, of delights that O'Brian's later books provide in full plenitude. If, before embarking on a long read, you're interested in a preparatory -- or exploratory -- vorspeis, The Unknown Shore is where you'll find it.


Among the books I am most enthusiastic about recommending this month is Roger Grenier's Another November, trans. Alice Kaplan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998; originally Le Pierrot noir, Paris, 1986). A spare, indeed a bleak, eighty-six pages in length, really a "novelette" rather than a novel, this is a book for which any words of "praise" would seem to me supererogatory in the extreme. Yet its fragility resists summary -- or repels it.

I could say that the book is set in Pau just before, during, and after the Second World War. I could add that Grenier's tale deals with collaboration and corruption. I might also point out that it looks at love and its mis- and abuses; and looks, more scarifyingly still, at its loss and absence. None of these little announcements would give you any sense at all of the feel of this book which, for all its bleakness, is one I found powerful, and, for all its brevity, one I found it necessary to read very slowly indeed. Not that I mean even to imply even indirectly any problems with Kaplan's translation! -- rather, I mean to say that this is a book one quickly realizes must be savored every step of the way. It is a beautiful book, despite the lack of beauty of its subject. I can only urge it upon you with the comment that, even if you find it nasty and brutish (which I don't for a moment believe you will), it is at least short.



February 1999

Most of my reading during the past month turns out to have concerned the course on the literature of war during the twentieth century that I'm teaching, together with a colleague, this spring semester. Most of what I've read is, as a result, so well known that there seems almost no reason even to mention it. On the other hand . . .

Well, on the other hand, for one thing, it's been at least thirty years since I read -- and, but for this course, I would surely never have contemplated anything so low as rereading -- Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. (I read it in the 1929 translation by A. W. Wheen; various Fawcett [New York] paperback editions of this version exist.) In fact, this novel got into the course only because the book originally scheduled for inclusion, Siegfried Sassoon's Sherston's Progress, turned up o.p. (I was therefore particularly pleased to find a decent hardbound copy of Sherston at Albion, a nice used bookstore in Las Vegas, during a March week spent vacationing in Utah and Nevada.) I remembered Remarque's novel as a species of schmaltz mit saltz. Now that I've reread (and taught) it, I find myself wondering why. That recollection cannot be entirely idiosyncratic: my teaching partner had the same low expectations of the book and, evidently, for the same reason, i.e., his remembrances of the book from an adolescent reading of it. Yet his response to reading it this time, like mine, was: "better than expected." Maybe it is precisely because our expectations were so low that the book worked for us. It would need to have been genuinely awful to meet our low expectations -- and, whatever else it may be, that awful it isn't.

The book worked for our students, too, however. Their responses -- genuinely warm -- did surprise us. They may also be better indicators of your likely response, if you don't already know the book, than either of ours.

Even if you've never read the book, I cannot imagine that, in the wake of the Gary Cooper movie version, I need to say anything at all about the novel here. Its plot is as simple as they come. A boy volunteers to fight for Germany immediately following the outbreak of the First World War. Posted to the Western Front, he discovers that war, as William T. Sherman called a different one, is "hell." That's all there is. There ain't no more. And it turns out to be enough.

Shortly after I finished Remarque's book, by the way, I read the catalogue of a library exhibition about Remarque. Thomas Thornton's A Time to Live: The Life and Writings of Erich Maria Remarque. A Centennial Celebration was published last year by the Fales Collection (Bobst Library) at New York University (New York, 1998; information about price and availability are available, I presume, on request). This catalogue did exactly what a good catalogue should do: it made me want to read more by, and learn more about, Remarque. To put no finer a point on matters, in fact, I thought it a terrific piece of work. Since copies are surely easily acquired and cheap, it would be worth writing or e-mailing to Fales for information about how to get a copy -- if, that is, Remarque is someone about whom you are at all curious.


If there is little to say about Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, there can be even less to say about Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (Scribner paperback). Yet curiously enough, that little is almost exactly the same -- for me, anyway -- about both books.

I last taught A Farewell to Arms over thirty years ago, having, I think, read it for the first time when I was still in high school or college. I can just barely grasp the long-ago memory of feeling vaguely surprised that a "great" book should also prove to be so readable (a reaction that allowed me a bit of intellectual preening for having read it, as well). Since then, even more preening if somewhat less intellectual, I have changed my mind about Hemingway, whom I now understand to have been a much less important or good writer than I had thought when I was still very young.

Once again, it turned out, and to our mutual surprise, that my colleague felt essentially the same way. He had had exactly the same experiences with this book as those I recalled. His initial delight in the glories of this master of American literary modernism disappeared in a slow but apparently inexorable erosion of an old (and, once, presumably culturally standard) assumption that Hemingway "mattered" in any way at all.

So it came as a shock to both of us that we loved the book when we reread it for our class. To be sure, it teaches well, always a help when estimating a book's merits if you happen to be in the teaching game. Our students liked it, also a help, and for the same reason. It reads well: the guy could write, legions of parodies or no. True, the book contains all kinds of embarrassments. One finds oneself far too frequently wishing that Hemingway, for whom the earth seems to have moved much too easily when he wrote about sex or love, had avoided writing about them altogether. Catherine's self-effacement in her relationship with Lt. Henry has not aged well. One could go on in this vein all too easily. Yet the point is not the book's flaws but its merits, and they are many. That much-parodied style, the studied imagery, the sense of the war as a scene of enormous loss and uncounted costs: these are achievements that I found as irresistible now as when, in my teens, I encountered them for the first time.

My cynical expectation that the novel would function as a counterpoint to the "good" novels about World War I included in the syllabus proved as wrong-headed as my intention to leave Remarque out of the syllabus altogether. This novel, like his, bore up to rereading very successfully indeed. You might find it worthwhile paying it renewed attention, too.


Frederic Manning's 1929 The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme & Ancre 1916 (which I reread in my trusty old 1977 St. Martin's Press reprint, now -- unaccountably! -- out of print both from St. Martin's and from Penguin) was Hemingway's touchstone World War I novel. Less well known than it ought to be, the novel holds up well. Unrelievedly grim, it gives its readers a nearly entirely satisfying illusion that, having finished the book, they know what "life in the trenches" must have been like. Muddy, drunken, and surrounded by death, the picture is unpleasant in the extreme. And the book, like the two mentioned immediately above, is -- warts (Hemingway's opinion to the contrary notwithstanding) and all -- extraordinary.


Ernst Jünger's In Stahlgewittern: aus dem Tagebuch eines Stosstrupführer (1920) is by no means as well-known among English-speaking readers as it deserves to be. Nor is this book as well-known, for that matter, as Remarque's very different Im Westen nichts Neues. A lot of obvious reasons help explain its relative neglect. Remarque, for one, did not like the War. His experiences made him a pacifist. "We" like pacific Germans, particularly those who stand in welcome contrast to their more bellicose compatriots. Jünger, unfortunately, is one of the "more bellicose" of his compatriots. He loved the War. His experiences sent him, after the Armistice, into one or another of the Freikorps units that made Germany so interesting a place in "de-militarized" defeat, and he would later return to France as a member, that time, of a more victorious army than the Kaiser's. (In Paris, by now a famous writer, he would hobnob with intellectual chummies who didn't mind chumming with representatives of the occupying power.)

Lacking any doubts about the justice of Germany's cause; with a chivalric sense (even in the midst of this first modern, industrialized war) of the nature of combat; proud of his wounds; much (and significantly) be-medalled for his courage, Jünger had "a good war." Its nature is what he recalls in this memoir, not "fictionalized," of the First World War as experienced by a soldier with the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers on the Western Front. Translated in 1929 (and reprinted in 1996 by Howard Fertig [New York; paperback]) as Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front, this is a book I was glad to have available for our students and glad to encounter myself. We speak glibly of the monstrousness of Prussian militarists. It seemed important to remember, as this book reminds its readers very clearly, that the traditions we associate with that cliché are internalized, embodied, and realized by human beings who are not all that different from ourselves: by real people, in short, who are not necessarily "monsters."

I don't think I'd have been enchanted by an opportunity to have been a friend of the noticeably long-lived (1895-1998) Herr Jünger (not an opportunity I can easily imagine coming my way in any circumstances). He may not have been a monster but he seems nonetheless to have skated awfully close to the wind. Nonetheless, I am enchanted by the opportunity to read (and teach) this book. It gives us a voice that needs to be heard at its best, not its worst, if its appeal is to be understood. And its fascination cannot possibly be overstated.


Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier is a short, powerful novel written during the War and published in 1918. Like Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party, it is perhaps better known as a movie than as a book. Too bad: it is a very interesting book. Penguin reprinted it (with a good short introduction by Samuel Hynes) in 1998. Remorselessly clear-sighted in its depiction of those class and gender roles that Colegate, too, noticed as part of the "baggage" with which England went to war in 1914, The Return of the Soldier may strike some readers as too slight, too schematic, and too conventionally critical, to work. For me, those criticisms seem, finally, to miss the point. Paul Fussell once remarked of World War I poets that they eschewed the often-confusing technical devices of literary modernism not because they were literary trogs but rather because they wanted to be understood. I think West may write with the same purpose. This is a book that does not suggest the grip of emotion recollected in tranquility. Its author is very angry.


I read only one book this month that had nothing to do with my course. Since it is merely a comic book, few readers will be interested, I am sure. That would, however, be your mistake.

Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York (New York: Pantheon, 1998), is -- like Art Spiegelmann's very different Maus -- a comic book that lies, quite simply, beyond praise. (Lawrence Weschler wrote well, if too briefly, about Katchor in "A Wanderer in the Perfect City," The New Yorker [August 9, 1993], pp. 58-67.) I cannot begin to describe, let alone to explain, all of the myriad joys of this piece. Katchor looks, inter alia, at Mordecai Noah's attempt, during the 1820s, to establish Israel on Belle Isle (in the Niagara River outside Buffalo). He considers the relationships of Native Americans to the ten lost tribes of Israel; efforts to carbonate Lake Erie and then tap it for seltzer for New York City residential customers; and nineteenth-century linguistic studies. His portrayal of the trapper's life, of nineteenth-century religious and cult behavior, or of popular and theatrical culture in early nineteenth-century New York, cannot be praised highly enough. The view he offers up of nineteenth-century American broadside and pamphlet literature is, if you happen to be in the business of dealing with such stuff -- as I am -- side-splitting.

This is a book that glances in so many different directions that a reader may not be sure that it is going anywhere at all. In fact, however, it is as gloriously comic a view of American life as I have encountered anywhere -- and yes, I do know what its "form" is! The Jew of New York is propelled by its author's sense of the absurdity and pathos of much American ambition. Who can care about comic book characters? You can. Give it a shot.


Leon Wieseltier's "After Memory" -- an essay first published on the occasion of the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. -- originally appeared in The New Republic (May 3, 1993). It was later reprinted in The New Republic Reader: Eighty Years of Opinion and Debate, ed. Dorothy Wickenden (New York: New Republic Books / Basic Books, 1994). I read the essay in Wickenden's anthology on the enthusiastic recommendation of a student currently taking my war class and found it quite moving. Wieseltier considers what it means to "remember" the Holocaust and asks what it means especially for Americans to remember it. Not a particularly pleasant essay, it is a thoughtful piece anyway, well worth the few minutes it will take to find and the additional few minutes that reading it will require.


The New Republic, where Wieseltier's essay first appeared, is not a journal I ordinarily read, although other people than the student who recommended Wieseltier to me (and who has interned there) have also told me that, whatever I may think of the magazine's current political slant (which is marvelously little), its cultural reportage is extremely good. True or not, these arguments have failed to convince me.

Reading Wieseltier's essay and thinking about The New Republic nonetheless reminded me of one of the most interesting books about American politics and American political journalism I've read in several years. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's a book that deals in large part with The New Republic.

It's Charles Forcey's The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (1961; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967 [a Galaxy paperback]). Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann founded The New Republic in 1914. They quickly found themselves, as Roosevelt Progressives, enmeshed -- which is just where they wanted to be -- in the Bull Moose campaign. Internationalist, interventionist (World War I had begun during the summer of 1914), and intellectuals seeking active and influential involvement in the American political process, they and their journal make for an extraordinarily fascinating case study of how "ideas" and "power" engage (and fail to engage) with one another.

I am sure that specialists have by now, and in fact long ago, digested Forcey and moved on to other and newer issues in the history of American progressivism. I'm not a specialist, but I found this book fascinating anyway, and very informative. It's readable, which helps. Anyone with the remotest interest in any of the topics it concerns -- The New Republic and its history; American attitudes towards World War I, intervention, and internatioalism generally; the growth of an assumption that government intervention in the social fabric might be necessary to assure not only equity but also the survival of that fabric; and the role of intellectuals and the intellectual press in American politics -- will, I think, enjoy this book, however dated it may be, as much as I did.



March 1999

The first book I read this month -- like the majority of the books I read last month -- was a book I picked up for my war literature class: Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (translated by Eric Bentley, a Grove paperback). I found it, as always, nearly unbearable -- by which I mean that this play is, for me, so powerful that it is almost as hard to read as it is to watch. I've seen the play on a number of occasions: long ago, in New York, with Anne Bancroft; most recently in London with Diana Rigg. That last production was at the National Theatre on the South Bank. After sitting through a performance so stunning that I couldn't always look at the stage, I walked out, crossed the bridge to the Embankment tube stop, and headed to Victoria for the main line train to Brighton. The tube struck me as eerily silent. Always a fast study, I realized that people were reading their newspapers, and cribbed a look at the headlines. I had wandered out of a play about the wartime deaths of children into news of the massacre at Dunblaine.

Mother Courage simply says it all. There are many wonderful books about this century's wars -- how fortunate we are, to have so many of both wars and books about them to choose from! -- but Brecht, writing about the seventeenth century's Thirty Years War, needs come no closer than that to the present to speak directly to and about it. A great play, Mother Courage is one I am glad, as it were, to see and to read again every few years. Its pleasures are peculiar, indeed painful, but its magnificence is simply amazing.


The March 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (283:3, 51-76) contains a long essay by David M. Kennedy, "Victory at Sea," on the United States Navy in World War II. Rather like the Richard Rodgers score for the old television series from which Kennedy's title comes, this is an essay of interesting bits (it is, in fact, excerpted from Kennedy's new Oxford volume on U.S. history from the Depression through the War: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1923-1945, The Oxford History of the United States, vol. 9 [1999]); and, like that score, it never quite coheres. I read it, of course, with interest anyway -- and I learned things from it; it's by no means a waste of time. But I left it sadly dissatisfied.

Early in April, I happened upon the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine that has been transmogrified into a National Historic Site and is now on permanent display at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco harbor. From this monument, I got a better sense of how gruesome Kennedy's subject was for the people who lived it -- and for the people who died it -- than from the remarkably abstract and bloodless account of it the Atlantic saw fit to print. The site includes a map with marks, many conjectural, showing where drowned American World War II submarines lie. I think I learned more from the map than I learned from Kennedy's article.

That article ultimately suffers, in my mind irremediably, from its failure, while it looks at matters of Grand Strategy and (with respect especially to the Battle of Midway) the Fortunes of War, to recall that individual human beings fought and died, often horribly, in these heroic events. "Five hundred men!" cries Patrick O'Brian's victorious Captain Aubrey, when a shot from his vessel suddenly breaks up a Dutch man-of-war in Antarctic seas and it sinks like a stone. Kennedy never sounds that note, and never notices that its absence is problematical. Those who decry the dearth of narrative history on the great themes might well ponder the price that kind of history paid, and, in works like this one, continues to pay, for its clean, well-lighted bird's eye view. It isn't grubby, and it isn't true.


We also read James Jones' Guadalcanal novel, The Thin Red Line, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Remarkably different from one another, and remarkably good, these are both books that need no words at all from me. But I should quickly add that, if you happen not to know one or the other of them, both are well worth the time you'll spend reading them. (They're both long books.)


Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (London: Methuen Drama, 1998) is a play expected to open in New York during the coming (1999-2000) season. I will run to see it, having now read a copy of it brought back from England by a friend who saw it there and guessed it might interest me. It did.

The play takes place some indeterminate time after the deaths of its three characters. All of them have met, somewhere or other, to try to recall the details of a visit one of them paid the other two (a man and wife) during 1941. This visit, for various reasons, was eventually to attract a great deal of attention from other people, as well. The three dead people examine a variety of possible explanations for -- indeed, some not always similar memories of -- their meeting, trying to reconstruct its causes and progress, which each remembers slightly differently. A meditation, obviously enough, on the vagaries of human memory, Frayn's play also meditates on the difficulties (David M. Kennedy, are you listening?) of human history.

The characters are Niels and Margrethe Bohr (they are the man and wife) and Werner Heisenberg (their visitor). All of them led lives that attracted, even during their own lifetimes, attention from many other people as well as from themselves. Several circumstances of their 1941 meeting were particularly interesting.

Bohr, a Dane, was still living in Copenhagen, a city then occupied by the Nazis, for whose government Heisenberg was running a nuclear weapons program in Germany. Heisenberg made the difficult journey to wartime Denmark in order to visit the half-Jewish Bohr, his old mentor and collaborator in physics (both men were Nobel prize-winners, Bohr in 1922, Heisenberg in 1932). He wanted, quite specifically, to speak with Bohr about the practical usefulness of uranium in constructing a fission bomb. Did he want help? If so, did he think that someone whose own life was threatened by the racist policies of the government for which he worked would supply it? Or was he trying to warn the Allies about the existence of a German nuclear program -- banking, that is, on Bohr's continued ability to communicate with physicists in the west? (Bohr would in fact eventually escape from Denmark through Sweden; he reached the United States while the Manhattan Project was under way; and he did indeed warn the Allies, as others too had done, about German interest in developing nuclear weapons.) Were Heisenberg's efforts to build a German atom bomb serious, or was he trying to scuttle the Nazi project to keep such a weapon out of Hitler's hands? Among many other questions about this history, and these people, and what we (and they) remembered about their pasts, these questions stand out. They go alongside other questions: about, for example, the moral responsibilities of scientists for the work they do (questions Bohr escapes, in Fayn's play, no more than Heisenberg); or about the teacher-student relationship, and the nature of intellectual and other kinds of collaboration.

The play could all too easily have resembled a tract. It does not; it is instead a small miracle. Get it. Read it. And then, if you can, go see it.

At the end of April, the Penn Reading Program chose Copenhagen as the summer reading for incoming members of the Class of 2003. Details of the program, supplementary materials, and whatever else committees gather for such programs, are still in process of development, but it will all be found here as it is chosen and added.


The same person who brought me my copy of Copenhagen also brought me a copy of another play she'd seen in London, this one Conor McPherson's The Weir (1997; rpt. London: Nick Hern, 1998). I read Copenhagen while sitting in an airport awaiting a long-delayed flight to Las Vegas; I read The Weir a few weeks later at 35,000 feet on the way to San Francisco. When I finished it, and pulled out my as-yet-unread copy of that day's New York Times, I found it contained Brantley's review of The Weir -- a rave -- which had just opened in New York. After my return from California, I picked up The New Yorker, read Lahr, and found that he dissed it.

I have yet to see the New York production, but my reading of the play predisposes me to Brantley's point of view. A Dublin woman and four men talk with one another in a rural pub in Ireland, in a part of the countryside to which the woman has just moved for reasons we will discover as their conversation proceeds. I liked "listening" to them (through my inner ear, of course, and despite its inaccurate and badly-accented Irish English) and felt that their conversation worked. Brantley agreed; Lahr did not. I'm not sure that this difference matters a great deal, however. I think the play is less concerned with these conversations -- largely the stories four of these five people tell one another - than with the stories themselves: the fictions by which we live and through which we relate to others and to our own pasts. It's a play worth seeing, if you can, and certainly well worth reading.


J. K. Rowlings's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (New York: Scholastic Books, 1998) -- it was published in the U.K. in 1997 as . . . and the Philosopher's Stone) -- is apparently the first children's book to hit The New York Times bestseller list since E. B. White's Stuart Little. It richly deserves to be there.

Young Potter, orphaned at infancy, has been raised by unsympathetic, indeed quite horrible, relatives. They treat him poorly (à la mode de Cinderella) and keep him away from knowledge of significant aspects of his own history. One day, it comes time for young Harry to enter school. A somewhat surprising set of characters comes by to get and equip him for this transition. Harry, it turns out, is destined for boarding school, but it is not your dreary old Eton or Winchester towards which he is headed. He is going to magic school, for he is the son of two great magicians whose deaths at the hands of a renegade orphaned Harry.

Why say more? This is an enchanting book. The second in the series, already published (1998) in the U.K., is due in June 1999 from Scholastic Books (who would have been better advised to get it into print on this side of the Atlantic more quickly than that; both the Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer have run articles noting how many copies of the U.K. edition of the second book are already flooding the U.S. market). A third is due to be published in the U.K. on July 3rd.


Following my return from Las Vegas, I read and enjoyed Deke Castleman's Las Vegas (Compass American Guides, Fodor's, 5th edition, 1997), an informative little book (and well illustrated, too). Then, on Castleman's recommendation -- he has a little annotated bibliography -- I picked up Bill Branon's Las Vegas novel, Devil's Hole (1995; rpt. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1996). Melodramatic and without redeeming virtues of any other kind, Branon's novel looks at a gambling house employee who falls in love with someone who is making far too much money as a gambler to be entirely honest. Simultaneously, she falls in love with the hit man whom the casinos have hired to rub out the too-successful gambler.

Well, sure . . . this is plausible. Sort of like pigs with wings. Doesn't matter, though. The book is readable; it's a lot of fun; I zipped right through it -- and I have yet to feel even a moment's twinge for my lapse into bad taste. ("Lapse"?) I'm even recommending it to you.


Also dreadful -- and, like Devil's Hole, in a way that makes it enjoyable and easy to recommend -- is Daniel Silva's The Unlikely Spy (New York: Villard Books, 1996). (It's now being remaindered as a hardback; and a paperback is available from Ballantine.) A Nazi agent is placed inside England at the beginning of the War and left in place (as a "sleeper") until it becomes imperative to learn about the Allies' invasion plans. An Oxford don spending the War in M.I.5 is assigned to find and neutralize her; the burden of Silva's book is to show the process as it works itself out, and in some very surprising ways. Le Carré Silva ain't; I enjoyed the book anyway.

In The Mark of the Assassin (which I read in a 1999 Ballantine paperback), the granddaughter of the German official who had placed his agent so successfully into England in Silva's first book shows up in a sort of supporting role for a one-time Soviet assassin. After the end of the Cold War, he has become a free-lancer. She teams up with him to kill a number of people who know too much about how TWA's flight 800 (Silva calls it something else, of course) was brought down over Long Island early one evening. The deed, and these follow-up killings, are the responsibility of a secret cartel that likes to keep wars going for the sake of their own profits. The Unlikely Spy is implausible but serious. The Mark of the Assassin is implausible and not serious at all; and, to the degree that it feeds off paranoia, it isn't even "responsible" entertainment. I finished it; but I felt it had run out of gas long before I had. Silva has a sequel in bookstores now. I'm not running.


I've long read and admired John O'Hara, a writer who has, now, probably been dead almost long enough to have begun to slurk back into some form of critical attention, if not exactly "favor." But by no means have I read all of his work, and so, every so often, I find myself reading something by him I've never encountered before. Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story (New York: Random House, 1969) is my most recent hitherto unknown O'Hara. It's awful.

Lovey is the sort of woman who might be called "universal": her head, like the universe, is largely a vacuum, with little globules of this and that scattered at great and irregular intervals throughout it. Much of the this and almost all of the that concerns her own sexuality (although her mother's sexuality is also explored, and in stunningly stupid fashion). The novel treats lesbian sexuality from a standpoint of vast ignorance. Its characters, representative of a decayed WASP gentility, are far more "generic" in their depictions than the better-drawn characters of many of his other works show us O'Hara was bound to produce. The connection he makes between their lesbian behaviors and their decayed WASPiness and gentility reduces, what is elsewhere in O'Hara a finely observed sense of social and societal nuance, to caricature and cliché.

It is as though, in the late 1960s, O'Hara, realizing that all of the barriers to what could be written about in a book aimed at a broad public have collapsed, has, in excited consequence, decided to use all of the new freedoms at his disposal. Alas, he functioned better under the old-fashioned constraints he had learned and knew how to work with. Here, his new-found ability to describe some of what Lovey (and her mother) do becomes, all too quickly, mawkish, embarrassing, irrelevant, and unbelievable. (Something similar happens to James Jones in the relatively late Whistle and its stunningly dumb scenes of oral sex.)

If you know and like O'Hara anyway, give this book a try: it is interesting, and in a great many ways. But don't let it be your first exposure to him if you've read nothing else. It may succeed all too well in keeping you from trying him ever again.


One other "Philadelphia" story -- like O'Hara's Lovey is "a Philadelphia story"? -- I read this month was the Philadelphia story: i.e., Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. I read the play in States of Grace: Eight Plays by Philip Barry, ed. Brendan Gill (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), and it was, unlike O'Hara's Lovey, a treat from beginning to end. (I liked Gill's biographical introduction in this edition, too.)

If you know the movie, you know the play. Hepburn, who acted in both and owned the film rights, saw to a fairly faithful adaptation from stage to screen. Still and all, it's great fun to sit down and read. I find myself torn by a desire to say much too much about the play and to leave off with the simple adjuration to read it; all things considered, I think the latter is the wisest course. It may be much else, but it is first and foremost fun -- and if reading it convinces you to dust off the movie and watch it again, well, you can't go wrong with that, either.



April 1999

Some time ago, a review I'd bumped into I know not where led me to order (for what sane bookstore would have stocked?) two short books by a long-dead Englishman called Lord Berners. A person otherwise completely unknown to me, he had been a composer and writer of some (small?) reputation early in the century. (Indeed, I have now seen -- but have yet to acquire -- a CD of his music.) Both books had recently been reprinted as paperbacks, very prettily and very inexpensively, in Chappaqua, NY: Turtle Point Press and Helen Marx Books (1998). The earlier of them, First Childhood, originally appeared in 1934; the second, A Distant Prospect: A Sequel to First Childhood, in 1945. Both read like reports from a very distant place. "The past," as L. P. Hartley remarks, "is a different country."

The books are so completely unremarkable that it is difficult to say why I read them with such pleasure. The first deals with the earliest memories of Lord Berners. It opens with his sudden realization, some time around his third year, of his own existence. (Wordsworth, as I recall, retained memories into adulthood of his second year. That is remarkable, but I find three impressive enough as feats of this sort go.) The sequel takes Berners through a schooling that culminates at Eton and seems, on the whole, to have been about as conventionally unsuccessful as all schooling stories conventionally are.

I suppose -- although really I cannot remember -- that I read the books for the Eton connection, which the review must have mentioned. Berners, born in the early 1880s, antedates by a bit more than twenty years -- almost an entire generation -- Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly, and Eric Blair, "old Etonians" born about 1905 whose Eton is much more familiar to me (through their writings) than the earlier Eton that Berners remembers. Passionate as I am about Powell, I must have thought that the information Berners provided would aid my understanding of his milieu, and so, without expecting to enjoy Berners himself, I got his books as "background" to Powell. Now, having read both of Berners' volumes, I'm not entirely sure that they do help me better to understand the world from which Powell emerged. Since they turn out to have been well worth reading for their own sake, I have no regrets. (And, I should add, these books do help me better to understand the worlds which Nick Jenkins encounters when, after Eton and Oxford, he begins to mix in London not only with business and affairs but also with art, music, letters, and "Bohemia.")

The author, terminally eccentric, is someone whose bent is esthetic. His perceptions are acute, if skewed; his interests are always odd. He recounts a life to which almost nothing by way of "incident" happens. Berners' youth takes place entirely within the years of the long peace with which the nineteenth century saw itself as ending, and which, from the perspective of the twentieth, looks even more peaceful than it actually was. His books, as might be expected, are singularly lacking in "event." Not even a distant rumble from the Boer War is yet to be heard. Perhaps, in fact, it is the nostalgic sense these books convey of a long idyll, a pastoral youth interrupted merely by (mildly) georgic Eton, that gives them their seductive quality: for seductive I found them, as I whisked briskly and delightedly through them.

I am by no means certain of what "a minor classic" really is -- but the genre seems to have, if only as sort of thought experiment, a kind of usefulness. My sense, after having read them, is that these books ask to be thought of in connection with it. They are "minor"; but they are also so thoroughly enjoyable that they are worth the modest claim on our attention they make.

Next, the CD . . .


War stories continued to claim my attention this month. I reread Chaim Potok's meditation on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that ended World War II, set in a post-Armistice war-scarred landscape in South Korea in the mid-1950s. The Book of Lights (New York: Knopf, 1981; several paperback reprints exist) is one of Potok's novels that I like a lot.

Potok's stock-in-trade is the bildungsroman. This one, no exception, deals with two boys whose education Potok details. One, an orphaned sad sack, grows up ugly-duckling fashion to become something quite special, a student of Kabbalah whose philological skills are matched by an innate sense of the presence of the mystical in everyday life. The other, a golden-haired child of academic, intellectual, and economic privilege, is nonetheless surprisingly angst-ridden, perhaps because his home background is too golden, as well as too . . . well, goyische. He has assumed an immense burden of guilt from this environment, and guilt of a quite specific sort. Mom teaches Asian art at Harvard. Dad, a Big Wig on the Manhattan Project, chums around with folks like "Uncle Albert," Fermi, Oppie, and President Truman. Mom thus had the ear of those who make the Big Decisions and so passed the word to Stimson to take Kyoto off Enola Gay and Bock's Car's lists of possible targets.

The two boys -- "young men," if you prefer -- meet in a Jewish theological seminary in New York. Their later careers coincide again when they are assigned as U.S. Army chaplains to troops in South Korea. One guess which of them needs to take a little trip to Japan, to see not only Kyoto but also Hiroshima . . .

What can I say? I could criticize the book till the cows come home, and I love it anyway. Together with The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, I think it among the best of Potok's novels; and, though I worried about how it might go over with the young, it seems that students responded warmly to it, too. If you don't already know it, it might be worth a look-see.


We also read Gustav Hasford's novel about the Vietnam War, The Short-Timers, a book that was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's Full-Metal Jacket (which I think betrayed Hasford's book badly). Hasford's novel is no longer in print (it was originally published in New York by Harper and Row in 1979); if you're curious, you'll need to go to a library or search for it. That is unfortunate: I know few books as remorseless as this in their depiction of the worst that war experiences involve. Potok's book is reflective. Hasford simply tosses you into it. Unpleasant, frighteningly so on occasion, it is a book whose astonishing power redeems the agony it asks its reader to endure. This is a book that someone should bring back into print.


Last, I read Peter George's Red Alert, by "Peter Bryant" (New York: Ace, 1958). This is a book that many people know even if they have never read it. Like Hasford's Short-Timers, it too inspired Kubrick to travesty. In this case, however, it inspired Kubrick to inspired travesty: the result was Dr. Strangelove.

Little could be more different than book and movie, although "Bryant's" actual plot is changed, for Kubrick's version, only very slightly. The differences lie, obviously enough, in the twist: where "Bryant" gives his reader the story "straight," that is, seriously, Kubrick takes the same story, sees its essential madness, and tells it "crazy." Its craziness reveals more about "Bryant's" subject than the remarkably earnest "Bryant" himself comes even close to realizing. Yet the novel -- not, I think, especially easy to locate these days -- is worth looking at. It's not a wonderful fiction, of course. But it is a noticeably interesting guide, first, to mid-1950s nuclear anxieties, and, second, to seeing what a toiler does with material, seen here as if in a draft format, that a master, with almost no changes at all, can vivify. Red Alert is good potboiler fiction. Strangelove is genius. It's fun to see genius' source.


Last month, I wrote about my pleasure in a children's book by J. K. Rowlings, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. I also mentioned that her American publisher has expressed some consternation over the fact that American fans, objecting to the wait that Scholastic Press has imposed on them for a book that has been available in the U.K. since last year, have been importing Rowlings's second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), in droves.

I have now joined their ranks. Unable to wait, I asked a friend who was hopping the Atlantic to stuff a copy in his bag for me; he did so. I have two reports.

(1) It's at least as wonderful as the first.

In fact, both a well-turned-out eleven-year-old literary critic of my acquaintance -- my friend actually stuffed two copies into his bag for me -- and I concur that it is better than Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.

I am not going to spoil its plot by saying anything else about it, other than that, while the first book dealt with Harry's first year at magic school, this book deals with his second.

(2) Judging from the appearance of this second book in the series, Rowlings's English publishers publish Harry on the equivalent of toilet paper. They don't proofread her very well, either. I will buy Scholastic's volume two as my own copy two (whenever they finally get around to letting its eager public have access to it) because, if it resembles their volume one and does not resemble Bloomsbury's volume two, then I can at least imagine that, as a physical object, it will outlive me. Since, judging by what I see in the mirror these days, I am not the book's intended youthful audience and am, in fact, more ancient-of-days with every passing day, this comment on Bloomsbury's sense of production values should sound like -- and, in fact, is intended as -- a slur.


Many years ago, I used to watch a geezer named Bill Miller wheeze his way through novels by P. G. Wodehouse. A colleague at Penn, and a walking fountain of knowledge about late Elizabethan literature, he is now dead (and often missed). In life, he sat in the early mornings reading at a desk in the office where I too worked, after having opened up the shop for the day. With unpardonable frequency, he would giggle uncontrollably, then look up, pleased at himself and with the world, and urge me to read whatever Wodehouse novel he happened to be wheezing over at the time.

I knew better.

Another colleague -- but he is a cataloger: who can trust them? -- used to make the same case to me, before, that is, giving up in despair. Another friend -- quite completely insane, as I have on the good authority of his wife -- collects Wodehouse. He regularly tells me, whenever I am in his living room gawking at the colossal display of Wodehouses-en-case he displays there (with a fine disregard for what it may lead people to think of him), to stop gawking and read Wodehouse. More recently still, an English literary scholar whose tastes I had always thought quite advanced remarked to me, on discovering that I'd never read Wodehouse, "very important writer, you know . . . ," this in the sort of plummy tone and accent that would have passed muster with the most rigorous of Central Casting's staff.

Towards the end of April, another colleague, operating, I suppose, on the enough-is-enough theory, stuck two of her own copies of his novels into my hands, urged me to disappear, and to reappear only when I was ready to return them. They were The Code of the Woosters (1938) and The Return of Jeeves (1953). The timing was right; I was nearing the end of a long semester and war, after all -- as William Tecumseh Sherman once remarked, in a different connection -- is hell. In addition, her eleven-year-old having recently demonstrated his acumen as a critic, I supposed it might be possible that she had some of the same in ready supply, too.

Where have I been? What was I thinking? -- or, more to the point, not thinking? I've now read, in addition to the two of her own that my colleague gave me, Carry On, Jeeves (1925), a collection of Jeeves-Wooster short stories, and Right Ho, Jeeves (1922), another of the Jeeves-Wooster novels. I've also read a brief New Yorker profile of Wodehouse by Herbert Warren Wind, The World of P. G. Wodehouse (New York: Praeger, 1972). I have three or four more Wodehouses piled up awaiting their turn. And, mirabile dictu! -- the man wrote ninety or so more.



May 1999

Five years ago, a book by an author, who ought to be better known in the United States than I think he is, was translated into English -- some forty-five years after its first publication in France. Dominic Di Bernardi took Georges Hyvernaud's Le peau et les os (1949) and turned it into Skin and Bones (Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1994). A short book, French Lieutenant Hyvernaud's meditations on his experiences as a German prisoner of war between 1940 and 1945, it is astonishingly powerful. Six years are a long time to live doing nothing, a huge waste of time. Hyvernaud is acute is resisting any palliatives for the loss, irreparable, of the only asset a person has: time.

I write out words, word by word, word by word, words that pull other words out after them, words that come back with things from inside me which I didn't know were there, and that makes more words and still more. To kill time. . . . In order that our life wear away into dust. And when it's over, if it ever will be, so many months, so many hours will all amount to nothing more than an impalpable dust.

Reading, too, is a pretty good means for killing time. There are guys who read all day. [You can see why some of this stuff hit home for me. -- DT] . . . This particular book here, other ones there, what difference does it make? You don't pick your books any more than you do your latrine companions. You read just to read. To numb, obliterate, and lose yourself. To empty yourself of your self. To surrender to the monotonous spell of signs . . . an interminable black drizzle, a black ticking of seconds in the emptiness of time.

(pp. 32-33)

I have long loved Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," composed not after but while Messiaen was a German prisoner of war. It is because of that circumstance that the work uses the odd assortment of instruments then at Messiaen's disposal. Reading Hyvernaud alters my view of the "Quartet." I have usually heard it solely in terms of Messiaen's spirituality. Hyvernaud makes me rethink it in terms now far more emphatically reflective of where Messiaen was when he composed it than of his Catholicism.

Spiritually, Hyvernaud is no Messiaen. Nor, in this book, does he evade what I assume to be his completely different reading of the implications of other things he discovers in the course of this experience:

. . . when you're living through this calamity we've got here everything becomes clear. Everything they've kept hidden from us. They led us to believe in words, in museums, in refrigerators, in the rights of man. And the truth is the humiliating of man, man not mattering one bit.
(p. 34)

An unpleasant realization, it bears -- unsurprisingly -- a close similarity to reports from survivors of other kinds of camps. It also brings in its wake other, only slightly lesser, disillusionments: with, for instance, the professional academic stance (which Hyvernaud treats in "Their Beloved Péguy," especially pages 94-96); or with the common understanding of teachers's relationships to and impacts on their students, or their impact on the rest of the world ("Our Noble Profession"). I found these chapters distressing in a great many ways. And worth recalling.

Hyvernaud's is a bleak vision brilliantly encapsulated in a bleak book. Flinching from none of the implications of his experience, he makes them so clear that it is his reader (if anyone) who flinches instead. One does not often encounter such a vision so lucidly expressed.

To get a full sense of what has befallen us [Hyvernaud writes,] there is nothing to match squatting butt to butt in the latrines. That's what they have turned us into. And we imagined we had a soul, or something close to it. We . . . consider[ed] ourselves superior to monkeys and heads of lettuce. We do not have a soul. We just have intestines. We fill up as best we can, and then we go empty ourselves out. That's the whole of our existence.
(pp. 27-28)

So much, in short, for the notion of human dignity.

Many years ago, I read Herschel Baker's 1947 The Image of Man: A Study of the Idea of Human Dignity in Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance (rpt. New York: Harper Torchbooks -- gad! remember them? -- 1961), a book that remains well worth reading. Baker remarks in his conclusion that "after the sixteenth century the ancient belief in human dignity was subjected to questions so new and so searching that they have not yet been answered" (p. 335). One wonders what mountaintop permitted him (in 1947!) quite so Olympian a view of his question (although that is surely a different question for a different time). I don't know, now, whether, when I read his book, I'd have had much sense either of what Baker meant or what, I now suspect, he did not mean. Surely, then, I'd not have quibbled -- as, in a nitpicking mood, I would quibble now -- with his "after the sixteenth century." No matter: any conceivable sense of the concept of "human dignity" that Baker illuminates has altered irremediably in the modern era. How it has changed is something Hyvernaud witnesses with appalling clarity. His book also shows us much more than we may want to know about why this deterioration has occurred.


A differently-derived view of this deterioration of the sense of human dignity in our times, although it was not published until 1998, was originally written in 1937, before Americans became involved in the Second World War (from which Hyvernaud's book emerged). Its author was an American playwright known primarily for rather different sorts of works, Tennessee Williams, and the play was his Not About Nightingales, ed. Allean Hale (New York: New Directions, 1998) -- a $12.95 paperback and worth every cent of it.

I read the play because I was going to see it performed (directed by Trevor Nunn, it's at Circle in the Square in New York City). It premiered in England in 1997 and, this year, is receiving its first American production, sixty-one years after Williams wrote it, by essentially the same company that performed it in England. The incident on which Williams based his Depression-era venture into radical social realism took place at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison. There several prisoners were scalded to death as punishment for their refusal to eat what they were given.

Most people like me tend to be somewhat insulated from America's prison system. Incidents such as the one at Holmesburg tend still to shock them. I am not quite so insulated as "most people like me," however. I am the nephew of people who were guests of the state at the federal penitentiaries at Atlanta (he) and at Lewisburg (she). Discussion of his "before-" and "after-" prison physical condition remains, for those who care about such matters, a leading indicator of how American prisoners -- political prisoners -- are treated. As an adult, I was thus reminded that something is wrong with our prison system by the Attica revolt, but it was not "new" knowledge that Attica produced for me. (I might also recommend in passing, for those to whom all of this prison stuff is terra incognita, the amazing learning experience that awaits you in the somewhat grim prison novel of Mitchell Smith, Stone City [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990]. My vague recollection is that its author himself served a long sentence in a Maine penitentiary. Whether that recollection is true or false, the book is not some sort of "freakish" accident produced by a "freak" author: it is a finely-crafted, well-written novel by someone who knows throughout exactly what he is doing and where is taking you at every single moment. It's a long book, and an unpleasant; I also thought it a little too "calculated [especially in its climax] for my tastes. On the other hand, I read the book when it was new and I remember that climax with appalling clarity; and the book itself is so striking as to make its difficulties, if that's really what they are, worthwhile.)

All that said -- and the digression over -- Williams' play is shocking. I cannot recommend it strongly enough to do justice to its merits. Its view of its subject is clear-eyed and, one feels certain, deadly accurate. What it may do to your view of Williams is another matter, however. For me, Williams is a long-time dramatic hero. Like William Inge, he is a playwright whose works I have been seeing, reading, and admiring since I was so young that to tell me, now, that they might have problems seems simply beside the point. And fundamentally unbelievable, too. On the other hand, he is a playwright I admire for certain kinds of plays. This happens not to be of that kind. And yet it is admirable -- much more than merely "admirable," in fact -- anyway.

Not About Nightingales proves to be a revelation about its author as well as a superb play about a topic that remains vital today. As vital, in fact, as when Williams set it down. (I write while the Louima trial is under way in New York, where, today, as always, "it's Giuliani time." And don't tell me he fabricated the quote: even if it's a fable, it's of the kind that contains truth.) I urge you to give it a try as a text even if you cannot see it in New York before it closes.


I also read Williams's Orpheus Descending -- this, too, because I was going to see the play. (It was produced in Philadelphia at The Wilma Theater in May and June.) Unlike Nightingales, Orpheus takes place in the old familiar Williams country I know and love. There's a Big Daddy-like character dying of cancer (I saw Burl Ives as I read). Anna Magnani also appears (indeed Anna Magnani played the role of Lady in the movie version, The Fugitive Kind). I am afraid I see Valentine, the mysterious life-giving stranger who turns up on a scene where otherwise death has dominion, as trashy ol' Elvis Presley; in actuality, however, elegant Marlon Brando played the role (in the movie). These few characterological points alone are probably enough to make you see that lots of things happen in this play. Many of them are erotic, all of them are exciting, some of them are unpleasant, and they all usually produce mixed results. There may be few big winners, but there are lots of big losers.

The reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer found the Wilma production filled with Christ allusions (in an Orpheus play? -- get outta here!). He had many other objections, as well, leading me to suspect -- at my most charitable -- that perhaps Williams is not his cup of tea. That doesn't exactly impress me in a would-be theater reviewer, but . . . well, you can't have everything, I guess.

I found the play filled with exactly everything I like about Williams. The production was, like the text, an equally potent reminder of his strengths. Since it's been at least since the '50s that I've had occasion to see or read this play, it was fun for me to find that it all still works. I loved my encounter with the hitherto unknown Nightingales and the surprises it offered me. But Orpheus is an old dear. I loved it, too; and so might you.


I also read and saw Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit (New York: Faber, 1999). I thought it was a powerful enough play merely to read. Not surprisingly, it is even more powerful on stage, particularly when it is as beautifully performed as it is by Kathleen Chalfant in the central role of the dying Donne specialist Professor Vivian Bearing. Bearing's effort to make sense of her life, as it comes unpleasantly to its end, is more compelling than I'd have thought possible. On the whole, Edson's treatment of this death is neither maudlin nor uplifting. She strikes a reasonably tolerable balance in her handling of materials that could all too easily have led her in either direction.

Many other things about this play could be said (among them that, if you have a chance to see it, it is a chance to seize). One of the most remarkable things about it, for me, is the way in which Edson makes Donne a vital part of the action. I have thought for a long time that, as Eliot receded into insignificance (which I say without intending to imply that I think he either should or shouldn't be doing so), he would take Donne down with him. Edson's ability to re-imagine Donne as a poet capable of speaking to a post-Eliot audience makes me wonder whether Donne might not, finally, outlast Eliot and stick around for a while. I hope he does. I'm supposed to be teaching his poetry this coming fall. If I do, I will add Edson's play to the reading for this course: she offers some ways to think about Donne that I hope people will find interesting and provocative.

So, of course, is everything else about this play. Sitting down to read it may not sound like a day at the beach. It isn't. It's still an experience well worth having.


Another play that I recommend with immense pleasure -- I read it this month, but haven't seen it -- is Timberlake Wertenbaker's After Darwin (London: Faber, 1998). Wertenbaker's play is difficult to paraphrase or summarize. She looks at the conflicts between the intellectually adventurous Darwin and religiously conservative FitzRoy about what Darwin's natural history observations led him to while the naturalist was aboard Fitzroy's Beagle. She also looks at the difficulties faced by two English actors, an Eastern European refugee director, and an African-American playwright in staging the latter's play based on these conflicts. Ideas about evolution are in play; so, too, ideas about genetics, freedom, responsibility, human interrelationships, language . . .

This may all sound like very heady stuff; it is. It's also a great deal of fun and brilliantly handled. The play seems to have been performed in London last June (1998); I don't know whether it has been, or ever will be, produced in the United States. If reading it is as close as you're likely to get, then reading it is what you should be doing. This is exciting theater.


The recent opportunity to see a wonderfully funny (and quite explicitly homoerotic) production of Noel Coward's Design for Living at Princeton's McCarter Theater sent me back to Alan Sinfield's extremely smart essay on Coward, "Public Lives / Private Theater: Noel Coward and the Politics of Homosexual Representation" (Representations, no. 36 [Fall 1991], pp. 43-63). In this now no longer new essay, Sinfield writes about how Coward managed both to speak and, simultaneously, not to speak about homosexuality in his plays, about the linguistic and social codes that permitted him to do both things at once, and about why he might have wanted to do both things at once. Not only smart but also supple and suggestive and, as is typical of its author, very well written, as well, the article is interesting and a great deal of fun.

Sinfield illuminated for me, in a flash, why two of the reactions I got to Princeton's production of Design for Living were, in sharp contrast to my own, violently negative. One I overheard as the speaker descended, un-Duchamplike, a staircase from the theater balcony. (In my mind's eye, she comes rather from the land of Helen Hokinson than that of Marcel Duchamp.) Loudly, she bemoaned the presence onstage of themes that, in her day, would never have been permitted. Well, yes. I simply chalked her up as yet one more representative of a species of Princeton audiences whom I have adored deeply ever since, years ago, I experienced them walking out in droves for the first fifteen minutes while Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy performed Samuel Beckett's twenty-minute Not I. Witless, they thus ruined the experience for anyone who happened to want to see that odd play. On this occasion, one swallow did not a spring make. But I was surprised into thinking it might at least be almost spring when, a few days later, I encountered an equally outraged response to the production from the reviewer in The Philadelphia Inquirer. (To be sure, he is the same fellow bemused by Christ allusions in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus play.) In his review, his anger over the gaying of Design for Living reduced him -- or might it in fact have raised him? -- to nearly apoplectic inarticulateness.

Sinfield usefully reminded me of how threatening explicit homosexual themes may seem to audiences prepared to accept them only if they are not required to "attend" to them. This production made that a requirement; it obviously rubbed some people the wrong way as a result.

As a partaker of a different minority perspective from Sinfield's, by the way, I have to add one small carp about his essay. At least in part, I was amused by Sinfield's apparent indifference to, or ignorance of, one of the reasons why the play's Ernest Friedman is depicted so unpleasantly. Friedman is the art dealer who marries the young woman who has lived (serially) with both artists. In the wake of her defection, they wind up as kind of odd couple. Her marriage with Friedman, however, yokes together a young woman who seeks certain kinds of amenities without corresponding responsibilities and a man who, not only not a culture-producer (like the two artists), is rather a cultural parasite (a dealer) and, worse, a closeted homosexual. Sinfield, quite rightly but without any obvious self-consciousness, shows how Coward associates Ernest with every cliché normally associated with cultural parasitism. Every cliché, that is, except "kike." Has Sinfield really not noticed that Friedman is both a homophobic and an antisemitic stereotype?

Still, that's a pretty small carp about an otherwise fine essay.


One other lovely magazine piece I read this month -- and it would have been equally fine any month! -- was Anthony Grafton's "Arendt and Eichmann at the Dinner Table". It appeared in The American Scholar, 68:1 (Winter 1999), 105-119. Grafton writes in the wake of the death of his father, a journalist named Samuel Grafton (and a Philadelphia who attended Central High School and Penn). His essay recounts some correspondence concerning an article, never published, that his father wrote about the controversy over Arendt's 1962 New Yorker articles, and 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. More than this, however, it is also an homage to and defense of his father, a consideration of what has happened in the years since 1963 to journalistic (popular) treatment of intellectual issues, and a rumination on growing up in a particular time and intellectual milieu. I found it moving and thoughtful on all counts.


The Yale Review (87:2 [April 1999], 1-12) published John Keegan's essay, apparently from the opening of his new book, The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999), "European Tragedy, European Mystery." It's quite nicely written and evocative, without necessarily adding anything to what one had already known about the War that got our now-fading century off to its fine beginning.


I picked up Mary F. Corey's The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) with high heart and great expectations: at last, a book that looked at The New Yorker from a learned rather than a gossipy perspective. I finished it with real dismay. Corey has taken a terrific topic and reduced it to a conventional historian's framework that seems so constipated, predictable, and formulaic that one wonders what happened in its execution to the bright idea her imagination had when she lit upon the topic in the first place. In addition, her scholarship is careless.

The book has been hurried into production; the author has not proofread herself. She refers at one later point in the volume to the two cover illustrations her preface discusses (p. 232, n. 12); but that preface, obviously cut, now discusses only one cover. She uncritically repeats clichés (e.g., Katherine White and E. B. White as "the conscience of The New Yorker" [p. 23]). Somewhat startlingly -- one had thought historians checked things like this -- she dates erection of the Berlin Wall to the 1940s (p. 62). She finds it impossible to imagine The Saturday Evening Post, among other mass-market periodicals, "publishing humorous articles about household help, largely because most of their readers did not employ domestic workers" (p. 128). That comment suggests a failure even to look at the Post, a regular weekly feature of which was Ted Key's cartoon "Hazel," a household domestic worker. (Okay, a cartoon is not an "article." Still and all, what, according to Corey's theory, is such a cartoon doing there at all? -- and on a weekly basis at that?) I'm also dubious about the statistics undergirding Corey's assumption that "most" of the readers of such periodicals didn't employ domestic workers. One tends, perhaps willfully, to forget that domestic work was once upon a time something even the middle classes could afford, and (remembering my own middle-class, leftish, and union neighborhood) did.

More troublesome still, Corey doesn't seem to know the literary milieu within which The New Yorker functioned; and she is an unimaginative reader. Two examples of her uncertain handling of literary milieu:

  1. To call Peter Taylor a "New Yorker writer" (p. 142) is to suggest that one hasn't a clue who he was -- unless, that is, one calls everyone who ever published in the magazine "a New Yorker writer." That is possible, although not, it seems to me, fruitful.

  2. Corey discusses the magazine's use of the "stereotype . . . [of] the all-seeing black housekeeper," wise to her bones, a "natural pillar of strength" (p. 139). She may well be right. But her point might have been strengthened had she been able to correlate it with, had she been able to show any apparent awareness of, say, Faulker's use of the same stereotypes. Their cultural currency is far broader than she imagines it to be.

Two examples of unimaginative reading:

  1. Discussing a story by St. Clair McKelway (p. 79), she appears to assume that author and narrator are attitudinally co-extensive. This may be a good reading, but in fact it seems neither necessary nor even particularly likely.

  2. A chapter ("The Romance of the Other") that discusses the magazine's treatment of "ethnic others" seems somewhat vitiated by its neglect of the magazine's treatment as "ethnically other" of (for instance) Jews. I think especially of Arthur Kober's "Bella" stories in this connection; or, for that matter, of Syd Hoff's cartoons. The absence of such a thought suggests either Corey's failure to read the periodical she writes about or a failure to think about what she was reading. Neither possibility is encouraging.

Most troublesome, for me, is the form to which Corey has subscribed: a neat little thesis is stated, exemplary evidence fills out the chapter, and then the thesis is restated. Next chapter: do it again with a new little thesis. As excitement goes, the form rarely permits its user to attain even to the level of the mildly tepid. Since Corey's theses tend to be tiny and cautious anyway, excitement is forever forfeit. The child, she tells us, of people who were blacklisted in the 1950s, she seems so fearful of ever being hauled before a kangaroo court herself that she has, despite imagining herself into a magnificent topic, failed to do it justice. I'm glad (grudgingly) I read it; but, on the whole, this book is a lost opportunity.


In 1987, Princeton University Press published Alvin B. Kernan's Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson, a book that seems to me almost a marvel in its kind. It deals with the transformation of the literary universe wrought by printing as, some three centuries after its introduction to Europe, writers (epitomized here by Johnson) finally learned how to make it work for them. It's a book I've used with great pleasure when I teach classes in the history of books and printing: smart, readable, and exciting. (Of how many academic books can that last word legitimately be used?) It's a book I'll happily use again.

Some years later, Kernan wrote a memoir of his experiences in the United States Navy during World War II. Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's World War II Odyssey (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994) is another beautiful book, one from which I quote, in my own most recent publication, most of its closing passage.

It is, in fact, rather a sad passage. It suggests that, for the person it ostensibly concerns, one of Kernan's ancestors who fought at Gettysburg, nothing in his life after that experience could have matched it. Perhaps because of its position at the conclusion of a recounting of Kernan's own war experiences, the passage seems to imply that, for him, too, the same feeling of anticlimax may characterize the way he thinks about his own life since the War.

The bulk of Kernan's scholarly work has been in fields that concern Renaissance English literature. I know well someone who was his teaching assistant at Yale in the mid-1960s, so he is someone I've met occasionally in person as well as, and much more frequently, through his work. Viewed from the outside, his postwar life doesn't look particularly anticlimactic; it looks, in fact, pretty distinguished. Yet he's already written one very grumpy book about what has happened to literary studies in the years since he entered the field in the 1940s, The Death of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. That book seemed to me to lay most of the blame for what Kernan sees as the death of the field at the door of his own students. When I first read it, I thought he must have forgotten how similarly his own professors must have thought about what his brand of New Criticism was doing to the kinds of literary study they practiced and taught.

Now Kernan has written a second volume of memoirs, In Plato's Cave (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). Another sad and grumpy book, it suggests that I was wrong in that last guess: if many of Kernan's instructors were, in fact, New Critics whom he did not disappoint, others, whose approaches to literary study were "historical," he is aware of disappointing mightily. If there's a lesson in the Janus-like nature of such intergenerational conflict -- a lesson, incidentally, that concerns Walter Jackson Bate and, more prominently, Harold Bloom, once a contemporary and a colleague at Yale -- Kernan seems not to have learned it. Here he is found still berating his own most academically famous pupil, Stephen Jay Greenblatt, as he had done, naming no names, in the earlier polemic on literature's Death. It seems not only a tasteless but also a pointless exercise -- sort of like hearing Frederick Pottle wonder if Maynard Mack had really published enough to warrant tenure at Yale. "Enough"? What might Pottle have meant? and why should anyone have even asked the question?

In short, In Plato's Cave is a book whose tone and point of view are very difficult to agree with. Angry and bitter, it is, in the literal sense of this over-used word, reactionary. It uses words like "postmodernism," "relativism," "radical," and "political," as so many sticks with which to beat over the head those with whose views Kernan disagrees. It finds its friends in people like Gertrude Himmelfarb -- as if she were, in her own scholarly work, somehow not "political." It even makes a number of obvious errors, which Kernan's point about scholarship's decay, or change, should have made him anxious to avoid. On the microscopic level, he misquotes the epigraph from Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (p. 86). A bit more significantly, he gets important elements of chronology wrong when he discusses the tenure decisions that retained Thomas Greene, Richard Sylvester, and himself at Yale, while sending Harry Berger off to the University of California at Santa Cruz (pp. 135-136). He elides important issues about himself in his department. His relationship, for example, with Mack, to whose influence ("my model") he alludes late in the book (p. 286), is badly under-discussed. Perhaps as importantly, he never speaks about what it was like for him to teach, as a combat veteran, in a department at least two of whose leading lights -- Mack and Dwight Culler -- had spent the War as conscientious objectors. Kernan's exposition of a somewhat embarrassing sexual episode (pp. 7-8) seems to permit, if not actually to ask for, interpretation as if it were saying that student-teacher sexual relationships are quite all right. Reversing the "ordinary" terms by presenting a predatory female instructor and a first-year male student, he gives the issue a different resonance than his reader may expect. Since the exemplary first-year male student is the now twenty-five year-old war veteran Alvin Kernan, however, the tale doesn't quite work the way Kernan may want it to. Moreover, his age and experience do not alter the fundamental power disparities this relationship juxtaposes. His comments about Jews in the academy, and at Yale specifically (p. 87), are both brief and specious; they show no awareness of Suzanne Klingenstein's work on this very topic. His attitudes towards women and African-Americans, to say nothing of other "newcomers" to the academic scene, seem half-hearted at best, unwelcoming at worst (passim).

I could pile up additional problems without difficulty. The truth is, however annoying, they don't finally matter much, at least as far as I am concerned. This is one of those books with which I disagree on just about every page. I found it worth reading from beginning to end anyway. I know a little bit about the Yale (and almost nothing about the Princeton) of which Kernan writes. I know a little bit about the course of literary studies during the period about which he writes. Kernan sees these matters from different perspectives from mine; his regrets and disaffections are very far from those that upset me. That does not change my interest in his point of view, whether it is agreeable to me or not; my wholehearted admiration for certain parts of the book (e.g., chapter 12, which I can envisage using in a class on the history of books and printing); or the warmth I feel for anyone who takes books and reading as seriously as Kernan does. It ain't perfect? It isn't even always right? So what. I learned from it anyway -- even, now and again, from my disagreements with it. It's a book about things that are important to me. That turns out to have been a very good reason to read it, and to enjoy it.


Another memoir I read this past month is Michael Pearson's Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999). The book seems to end with a return visit to the author's old Bronx haunts in 1995, which makes me suspect that it took Pearson a while to find a publisher for it. I can't understand why, if I'm right, that might have been the case. This book is so gorgeous that I can imagine no one having a second thought about getting it into print. It appears, appropriately enough, in Syracuse's New York City History and Culture Series but, as a hardcover university press imprint, I fear it will have difficulty finding its audience (I bumped into it by sheer accident and I am its audience). It needs a paperback edition; and it deserves one, too.

Pearson's Bronx is a matter of mere blocks from mine. His was, however, an entirely different world from the one I grew up in (and not only because he is seven years younger than I). The closest we could ever have come to one another was when, between elementary and high school, I spent two years at J.H.S. 80 on Mosholu Parkway, a little bit north of his neighborhood. We also seem to have known the same movie theaters, places like the RKO Fordham and the Ascot. Maybe he used the Bedford Park branch of The New York Public Library; he mentions taking books out of the library but doesn't say which branch he used. If so, then he was using one of my own regular branches, a long walk (or a short bike ride) from my apartment and much better than my neighborhood (Van Cortlandt) branch, if not so good as the Fordham (central Bronx) branch.

But he went to elementary school at St. Philip Neri, located at my IND subway stop at Bedford Park Boulevard on the Grand Concourse. Whatever else it may be, that is not the universe of P.S. 95 ("By the manor of Van Cortlandt") where I went to school, even though my principal, Mary B. Flynn, had she donned a habit, could have doubled as his (if St. Philip had female administrators in those days). I knew the school, of course, from its face on the Concourse. A mysterious place, it was not one into which I ever set foot. On the other hand, the Church of St. Philip Neri, right next door, was, as it happens, the first Christian church I ever entered for a service: as a tourist on a Boy Scout-arranged tour. In fact, I'd gotten it all wrong. We were actually supposed to be attending a Protestant church about two blocks east of Bedford Park, but I didn't yet know that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants and, thus, many churches rather than just the one in the neighborhood to which my troop was detailed for its visit. Other than the Church of the Visitation -- "my own" parish church -- St. Philip Neri was the only uptown church I knew. (There was a chapel at St. Patrick's Home for the Aged, up the street from me, but I knew that a chapel wasn't a church even though I didn't know what it was.) The congregants were very sweet. I remember being so frightened that I found that surprising. They directed me to the right church. Both places looked to me a lot like nothing I'd ever seen before: I remember them both today, probably incorrectly, as paneled in gobs of dark wood and badly lit.

Pearson went on to high school at Mount St. Michael, a place I never knew about at all, and attended college at Fordham, where I set foot only once that I can remember (to attend a lecture for junior high school students about polarized light: why?). Just blocks away from his neighborhood, I might as well have been, as I say, on a different planet. His book shows me how different it was. It shows me also how much of it was not different at all from what I knew. It can be read for "information" about "ethnically other" lives, or growing up Catholic in New York, or what the late fifties and early sixties were like to be young. (In this respect, a particular strength of Pearson's book is his evocation of the impact of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war, and of the civil rights movement, on himself and his friends.) But its information content doesn't seem to me an especially good reason to read this wonderful book.

Pearson has written a book about "New York City's history and culture." But it's also a meditation on time, place, and home. These qualities, which I cannot reduce to short quotations, are what make this book so remarkable. I got it for what I'd learn about a part of my own neighborhood I didn't know enough about while I was still there. I plowed through it because it reminded me that I still am.


Last month, I wrote about two volumes of memoirs written by Lord Berners. I read another of his books this month, thinking, when I ran across it, that Far From the Madding War (1941; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983 -- an edition with a good introduction by Sir Harold Acton) might be a memoir of interest with respect to the course on war literature I have been teaching. It is about the War, all right. But it isn't a memoir, it's a novel. It's also as weird as all getout, and astonishingly funny.

A "home front" tale, Lord Berners's book begins with young Emmeline, the daughter of the Warden of All Saints College, Oxford, thinking about what war work she will embark on. She is rather picky about it. It mustn't involve her too much with other people, it mustn't be too taxing, it must nonetheless involve her in some sort of sacrifice, and so on. The work she eventually decides upon involves a medieval tapestry she has been bequeathed. This Emmeline decides to destroy thread by thread. (Just, say, burning it up wouldn't be work.)

The decision to choose this form of war work; the logic by which Emmeline reaches it; the attitudes towards Oxford, the War, and Emmeline herself of the people who surround her (some of whom engage in what readers will agree is "war work" as that term is usually understood): all this Berners lays out in a tone so ordinary as to make this, finally, as subversive a book as I have read in a very long time. For anyone who thinks Eric Blair or Evelyn Waugh is the last word in twentieth-century English satire, or Joseph Heller in transmogrification of attitudes towards the nobility of the good war, this book is a necessary read.


At a used bookstore in northern Maine, I found a copy of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's Doc. Gordon (New York: Authors and Newspapers Association, 1906). In this fairly melodramatic effort set in rural New Jersey, Freeman writes about a young physician who moves to a tiny town to get experience prior to setting up his practice in a big city. The physician he understudies turns out to have many dark secrets. Every single one is a secret the reader will know before the novel is over. He also has a young woman living with him. No reader can be imagined so dense as not to know what is going to happen to her and the young doctor as soon as she appears on the novel's stage.

If suspense is what you like in a book, then, Doc. Gordon won't be your cup of tea. In many respects, it isn't a very good novel even if suspense is not what you demand of a novel; yet I read it the same day I picked it up -- and am far from sorry I did so. In the first place, I've read a number of other novels about physicians from roughly this same period, including books by William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. It's nice to have yet one more in this kind; they are surprisingly interesting reading. In the second place, Freeman's book deals with an issue -- euthanasia for the terminally ill and suffering -- that Dr. Kevorkian's arrest, conviction, and sentence have not yet gotten off the public agenda. It offers a good view of how charged the issue has long been (as does Williams's Orpheus Descending, incidentally, as well) for those who need to consider it close up.


In the third place, Doc. Gordon prompted me to pick up another one of Freeman's novels, this one Pembroke (1894; rpt. Chicago: Academy Press, 1978). This book, twelve years older than Doc. Gordon, is set in Freeman's native New England. Its characters seem to have been carved from the granite of that region; and they are just about as flexible. A quarrel begins in chapter one. A decade rolls by, lives end, loves are thwarted, before any resolution can be hoped for. All of this may sound as if Freeman is going to treat her incidents here as melodramatically as she treats certain events in Doc. Gordon. She does not do so. There is a potential for melodrama, to be sure, but on the whole the story and its characters carry their own appropriate emotional weight.

In fact, Pembroke is a breathtakingly magnificent book. It has flaws. The end, for instance, strikes me as a bit -- a bit! -- too easy, too pat, too anticlimactic, for all that has preceded it. One knows why she felt she needed to do it this way: a different end might have been less satisfying for a reader, less commercially successful, despite (possibly) being truer to her materials. But its strengths are much more impressive than its flaws: the book's people, locked into their lives and their complicated interrelationships, are portrayed both brilliantly and affectionately, and the reader comes to feel something for even the worst of them.

Only the very richest of literary traditions could manage to forget such a book. We must be very rich.


I wrote last month about discovering P. G. Wodehouse My reading of Wodehouse has continued this month. I have managed to get through The Inimitable Jeeves (1924), Thank You, Jeeves (1934), and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963). They're not all equally good. But so far none has been a bummer, either. In fact, I notice that I seem to keep laughing aloud while reading them. And there are still lots to go for this late discoverer . . .



June 1999

For reasons too complicated to explain, I received uncorrected proofs of a book by Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 1999), which is scheduled to appear in late September (for about $27.00). I sat down and read it instantly. After doing so, I can only urge you to grab it when it finally gets into bookstores. It is a book to be read with avidity as well as admiration.

Academic autobiographies have lately come to seem something of a cottage industry. Cathy Davidson, Alvin Kernan, Frank Lentricchia, and Marianna Torgovnick are a few of the many professors -- many of them, like these four, literature professors -- who have written in this genre in recent times. Said's book, also written by a literature professor, looks as though it belongs in the same category. As it happens, however, Out of Place is not "an academic autobiography"; it merely looks like one. Appearances are deceiving.

In part, this book is a political intellectual's intellectual autobiography. More importantly, Out of Place is an elegy and a lament for a lost time and place: Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, before the 1948 creation of Israel and the subsequent Palestinian diaspora. It is a meditation, and by no means an uncomplicated one, on parents and their relationships with their children: what they do for, as well as what they do to, their children; and the reasons, to the extent that these can be re-imagined, that they do the things they do. Reciprocally, it is also a book about children and their relationships with their parents (and -- Said has four sisters -- with one another). It is a book about mortality, about the fragility of memory, and about the complexity of things. It is a book, finally, about exile, perhaps the oldest of Christian -- perhaps the oldest of human -- literary themes. Written by an author who for most of this decade has suffered from, and been treated for, an incurable form of leukemia, and who presents himself as under a sentence of death, this book offers personal as well as national reasons for thinking very seriously about "exile" in all its many forms.

Thoughtfulness characterizes Out of Place. So does anger. Its anger is multi-directional; Said has a lot to be angry about. Most of all, he is angered by the marginalization, disruption, and dispersal of those peoples -- Arabs, Druse, Palestinians, Christians, Moslems: Levanters all -- whom Europe and America elected to pay the price for the Holocaust, not something they had perpetrated. Evicted and swiftly dispersed in the name of providing Europe's surviving Jews with a national homeland (some two millenia after it had been "theirs"), their lives and livelihoods disprupted, they were removed from the scene in part to give Europe and America a place where, if they were lucky, their own generally unwanted Jews might also go. Said's rage at this thoughtless shattering of the world of his youth -- a world that, it might be suspected, he may recall just a wee bit too lovingly -- underlies everything in this book. Suffering, he reminds us, is not the purview of post-Holocaust Jewry alone.

His politics, in short, will not appeal to everyone. That granted, Said's thoughts about what has happened to Palestinians, and to the Middle East in general, need to be considered very carefully by those who care about Israel and its neighbors in the 1990s. In the wake of the wreckage recently left by Cheltenham (PA) High School's gift to western civilization (Binjamin Netanyahu), I am sympathetic to much of what Said argues. Nonetheless, seeing Zionists and Israelis as working hand in glove with Britain and America to create a Jewish state on the ashes of a Palestinian homeland, Said fails to see how his Zionist and Israeli antagonists have, in this exercise, themselves been marginalized, right alongside his Palestinian protagonists. The powerless clients and fawning apes of the great, regarding Arabs as "wogs" or "niggers" (depending on whether their cultural cues come from London or Washington), they have once again become their homelands' butt-ends. Long ago moneylenders and shylocks, now colonialists and masters, they remain -- either way -- agents, and despised agents at that. Both the newly-diasporized and the newly-reinstalled look, to my eye, equally victimized by a very old colonialist's game, "Let's you and him fight."

Culturally, Out of Place is curiously old-fashioned, or so it seems, at least, to my taste. Its references to literature, like its references to music (as important as literature for the growth of the mind the book relates), are judgmental and hierarchical. For example, a very fast reference to his taste for "Chaminade" -- you either know who she was or you don't; Said never explains the reference and it never recurs -- serves, finally, to characterize as irremediably lowbrow someone whom Said is describing. Well, please! Mozart and Brahms are also used as "cultural markers" in ways that seem, at any rate seem to me, to miss the point. (To my mild surprise, I was more often disturbed by this aspect of Out of Place than I was by the author's objections to Israel and to western interference in the Middle East.) Yet his love for what he thinks about -- in music almost always, in literature occasionally -- comes through Said's prose, obscured though that love may often be by the author's far too faithfully recalled youthful, and perhaps not only "youthful," cultural arrogance. Any child who can get as excited as Said remembers himself getting when Clemens Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic or Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic show up "to play Cairo" has got to be, in some really fundamental way, all right!

Most readers may find even less to like in Said's geopolitics or his cultural politics than I did. It doesn't matter. Powerfully thoughtful, frequently beautiful, and richly observent of its world and of the growth of the mind through which that world is experienced and rendered, Out of Place is a wonderful book, all the better for not going down easily. Get in line now. This is not only a gorgeous book, it is also an important one. It will repay all your attention -- and then some.


I wandered into David Mamet's film version of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy with few expectations one way or the other. When I realized they were in it, I had, to be sure, predispositions in favor of Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow) and Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton). Another somewhat less favorable predisposition, concerning Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), provided an undercurrent of discontent. Otherwise, I had no idea of what to look forward to (which includes my expectations with regard to Gemma Jones, who, as it turns out, did a lovely job as Grace Winslow, and Guy Edwards, who was quite fine in the role of Ronnie, "the Winslow boy"). Well-made plays don't come my way all that frequently. Moreover, the last -- and I think only -- experience I've ever had with a Rattigan play was when I saw Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton in the New York version of the London production of Separate Tables at The Music Box on January 5, 1957. (I can hardly believe it myself. Oh, well. Time flies when you're having fun.)

I was surprised by the movie. I found it rather moving and also beautifully performed -- even by Ms. Pidgeon, not usually one of my faves, especially since I saw her in the theater, not too long ago, mucking up badly in Mamet's mucked-up play The Old Neighborhood. The movie was even, melodramatically (or ideologically) speaking, quite interesting. If the question of any need to redress societal wrongs turns, as Rattigan and Mamet make it turn in both the play and the play-turned-movie, on wrongs inflicted on the upper middle classes, then certainly that question becomes an easy one to answer: us? The bastards have wronged us? Well! -- One wonders what a decision to give the Winslows a different social location might have done to the play . . . but then, of course, neither Rattigan nor Mamet would have chosen to write/rewrite it, would they?

The movie sent me back to read Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (1946). I found it in volume I of his now long out-of-print Collected Plays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), and it's quite a bit of fun. Rattigan's depiction of a turn-of-the-century family, replete with suffragette daughter and her utterly stifling young love -- no audience can fail to be relieved when, at play's end, she is out of that relationship! -- is utterly fascinating. So too is the neocon Mamet's witless extension of the play -- intellectually witless, that is, but, dramatically, flawless and seamless -- which takes the very barest of hints and possibilities in Rattigan's play and turns them into a relationship between Catherine and Sir Robert Morton that will, by absorbing Catherine into the happy folds of masculine protection, save her from the ravages of feminism, suffragism, and male-less unhappiness and loneliness.

I suppose the author of drivel such as Oleanna (1992) might actually believe this claptrap. Conservative though he may also have been, Rattigan needed no such intrusive explicitness at the end of his much cooler play. That said, Mamet's revision works -- and it works brilliantly. I'm sorry I never saw The Winslow Boy on stage (my memories of 1946 are not good, but I'm fairly sure that I did not). Mamet's film is not quite the same thing as Rattigan's play, not by a long shot; but it is wonderful to watch, even if all one can do, other than admire it, is gnash one's teeth at the effectiveness with which Mamet embodies his attitudes as he engrafts them onto Rattigan's original.

It's a well-made film after a well-made play; remorsefully, I recommend both.


I also went back to Separate Tables, which appears in the 1964 volume III of Rattigan's Collected Plays (also out-of-print). I don't think I've ever read it previously, nor have I seen it since 1957. I simply cannot at that time have had a clue what it was about -- or, rather, what its two parts were about; for its two acts are two separate plays, linked by a large number of the same characters but with two different principals in each, who don't appear in the other (though the actors -- Portman and Leighton in the production I saw -- stay the same).

The first deals with the return of a long-divorced wife, now going through a second divorce, into the life of a once-rising Labor minister now living on the edge in a seedy Bournemouth residential hotel. He's never stopped loving her, though he has formed an alliance with the hotelier; but he spends his days in a mildly alcoholic haze and subsists on the paltry proceeds of left-wing political journalism that he writes under a pseudonym. The burden of the play is, obviously, whether these two will get together again. Since Rattigan's audience knows that his mode is "comedy," it must also wonder whether, if they do, what "getting together again" will turn out to mean, for three people, not just two.

In the second play, a man living at the same hotel as if he were a retired army officer is arrested for a minor sexual scandal. This event takes place at some unspecified time after the events of the first play. "The Major" has been caught ogling young women in a movie theater. His pretensions to gentility and to rank both collapse in the wake of newspaper reports of his arrest, which describe his background more accurately than he had done and which he cannot keep his fellow hotel guests from reading. A woman who lives in the hotel with her astonishingly domineering mother has had a kind of affection for him but, after the incident hits the newspapers, her mother tries to organize the hotel's other residents to expel the bounder. References to "Senator McCarthy" -- it's a '50s play, all right -- make some of the issues clear. The sexual peccadillos the Major displays are less obvious (and they zoomed right past me in the mid-'50s). For anyone who knew about Rattigan's sexual orientation, however, they must have been quite clear at the time. And their explicit link with the McCarthyite references is, for me, very interesting.

I found the play(s) much more moving than I'd remembered them being -- of course, as a fourteen year-old, I'd understood none of them. Rattigan was not my parents's normal theatrical cup of tea. Clearly, they knew what the point of the McCarthyite references were, and (perhaps?) they also knew something about the sexual politics at play in this work, as well (although I am inclined to wonder about that last). Its politics -- and perhaps its sexual politics -- must be why they took me to see this play, written by someone in whom they never otherwise showed the slightest interest. Unlike his other work, more or less "drawing room comedy," they'd have known that this piece was "important." They'd be enchanted to learn, I hope, that, some forty-two years later, their doltish child twigged.


I went on, for no particularly good reasons, to read a number of other Rattigan plays while I had the volumes in hand. French Without Tears (1936, in The Collected Plays, volume 1) is a sort of boys-and-girls drawing room comedy of a type my parents would not have thought especially amusing. While it has its moments, it doesn't seem frothy enough to have much of a shelf life ahead of it.


Flare Path (1942 -- in the same volume) is a "war play." Its resemblence to Casablanca is astonishing. Rattigan assigns the "Victor Lazslo" role to a young R.A.F. pilot. He makes his "Rick" an actor, come to a Lincolnshire hotel near the airbase to meet "Ilsa," Lazslo's wife, with whom he had been in love and whom, he now realizes, he still loves. Rattigan's Ilsa is an actress. Stunned by the adolescent and insipid adoration of her flyboy husband, as well as by his tawdry and uninteresting provincial surroundings, she is ready to leave her husband as soon as Rick reappears. But, during a night while he has been called off on an unexpected special mission -- one of the four planes crashes, or is shot down, on take-off, which she is able to watch from the hotel window -- she realizes, in echt Casablanca mode, that her petty concerns, their love, don't matter at all in the context of Britain's war. If her love is what keeps flyboy flying, then that is the ideal towards which her own sacrifice must tend. A kiss is just a kiss, etc. -- "etc." all the way on to "yaddayaddayadda."

I'll bet the Air Marshals whom Rattigan, in a preface, recalls speaking to himself, then a young Flying Officer and playwright, at the opening night performance, must have loved it. (He says they all told him how he should have done it better.) I didn't; but, as you can see, I found it extremely interesting.

The play opened in London in August of 1942, at just about the time shooting on Casablanca was coming to a halt. The stage play and screenplay can therefore owe nothing to one another. Their resemblences really must derive instead from a peculiar wartime zeitgeist which both successfully expressed.


While the Sun Shines (1943, also in volume 1) is, like French Without Tears -- which Rattigan calls its model -- another drawing room comedy with standard love tangles to work through. Its major deviation from so-called comedic "norms" is not very great: Rattigan depict the men who compete, in wartime London, for the Hon. Miss Right-and-a-Duke's-daughter-too, (1) an English seaman (but, though incompetent to become an officer, he is, when all is said and done, an earl, and quite a rich one), (2) a French lieutenant, and (3) an American lieutenant. Derogation of the French and besting of the American lieutenants (did you doubt the English lord's triumph for an instant?) must have made this play a real satisfaction to its contemporary audiences. Those audiences -- as was also true of the audiences for French Without Tears -- gave the play a startlingly incomprehensible run of more than a thousand performances.


Love in Idleness (1944, and also in volume 1) is not simply a drawing room comedy. At the time it was produced, six months after D-Day, it was clear that the War was about to be won, not lost. It was, I take it, equally clear that "we" no longer need to pull together; some pretences could at last be dropped. Among them was any pretence that wartime goals of "social justice" were really of interest to anyone at all. The result of this flash of insight is a profoundly reactionary play.

A physician's widow, her twelve-year-old son evacuated to Canada in 1939, has at last found true love, which her husband had not provided her. True love, it turns out, lives in the arms -- and in the luxurious apartments, clothes, social circle, servants, and so forth, with which her failure of a physician husband had also not provided her -- of Sir Big Industrialist. Sir Big, a member of the wartime Cabinet, serves in the Ministry, it would appear, of Tanks. Enter -- now that it is safe to return -- the widow's evacuated son. He is no longer 12 but almost 18. He is, however, quite vacuous. Failing to comprehend his dead father's faults, he oddly takes on like a young Cromwell when he finds his "old" Mum living in sin with Sir Big. She is so old that he cannot understand in the slightest why she is even interested in such a relationship; surely it cannot be, well, anything like, ahem, ess ee ex, can it? To make matters worse, Sir Big, though separated from his faithless wife, cannot divorce her until he is out of the Cabinet (the scandal, doncha know?). Such goings on leave Young Cromwell amazed, hurt, and angered. And he succeeds in breaking the relationship up. (His old Mum is an idiot; this is the point in the play where I simply part company with Rattigan's premises.)

Well, despite the break-up, you know how this is going to end; and -- although in a manner you won't exactly expect -- it does. What makes this play offensively interesting is not its all-too-predictible (but nicely-told) story, but rather its politics. Little Twerp Cromwell is not only sexually puritanical; his sexual morality is also combined, oddly enough, with "advanced" political thought which, the play avers, no one but such an immature twerp -- a reader and admirer of "Laski"! of The Labour Monthly! feh! -- could endure. Making the distinctly snot-nosed and unadmirable Twerp the play's only spokesperson for anything "leftish" is Rattigan's way of making the ideas for which Twerp stands (and which at play's end he abandons anyway, as you will not be surprised to hear) a topic for laughter rather than for thought. It is unfortunate that they are, however, the only political ideas expressed in the play. Neither Mum nor Sir Big ever "answers" them in any way that requires articulation of thoughts in verbal form.

Curiously, this aspect of Love in Idleness builds upon a very slight element also found in While the Sun Shines. There, the French Lieutenant proclaims himself a "socialiste," adding that he believes the aristocracy to be "doomed" to "extinction." The otherwise booby English lord with whom he is conflict over a girl wonders at this tasteless lapse -- but, after all, Colbert is simply a frog; who could expect anything better from them? Although the English lord alleges, in argument, that he "read[s] the New Statesman myself," clearly no audience can be imagined so ill-advised as to suppose that that rag has had a major impact, any impact, on his, well, "thinking"; and, in any case, a raging beacon of leftist thought that paper was not.

Love in Idleness, a year later, made leftist thought safe to ignore by making it the toy of the blundering young. While the Sun Shines makes it something that the French may take seriously, but no one else -- not even the American lieutenant -- is imagined as silly enough to do so. The politics of these plays, especially the (it would seem now) completely lunatic pairing of sexual puritanism and leftist thinking, is a source of infinite interest, for that pairing, "lunatic" though it may seem now, might not have seemed so lunatic then. There is material here worth investigation. And the plays, though not "great," are fun.


The Browning Version (1949) and Harlequinade: A Farce (1949) -- both appear in Rattigan's Collected Plays, volume 2 -- are two one-act plays performed together. As is not the case with Separate Tables, they are very different from each other. The Browning Version is set in an English public school (a private boarding school, in American terms), and portrays a classics master taking early and unlamented retirement; he has become "the Himmler" of his classroom. His wife is involved with a younger master; we will eventually learn that he has not been the first such liaison she has had, not by a long shot. In many ways, the play seems like an early study for what Edward Albee would, years later, turn into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; but the effect is rather as of a Who's Afraid written in the mode of Tea and Sympathy: Deborah Kerr? sì. Uta Hagen? non. Not even close. Quiet. Genteel. But good theater.

Harlequinade is about the dress rehearsal (of Romeo and Juliet) from hell. Romeo is having trouble demonstrating the nimble leap and agility we expect a young man to display. Another actor leaves in a fit of pique, bare hours before opening. The lights aren't yet right. And into this mess walks even the bastard daughter whom the aging leading man had left behind, completely unwittingly, when, in 1926, he last played the provincial rathole where the theater seems to located (he had thought it was Sheffield; he thought wrong). Alas, since he had in fact married her mother, and has never actually done anything quite so low as to divorce her, it is his current wife (Juliet, of course) and their child who seem, legally speaking, out of the loop; this new and completely unexpected daughter is no bastard at all. At least, not literally. But, since she has brought his first grandchild 'round for her old dad to see, and this while old dad is still working on improving the nimble leap your young Romeo needs, maybe she is a bastard after all. At least metaphorically.

On the other hand, the leading man is decidedly out of his loop, too -- and, for that matter, so is every other theatrical person in the play. A "backstage" glimpse of The Theater, presented in the mode of farce, this is a play almost guaranteed to please an audience that likes theater. Unfortunately, it reads less well by far than it must perform. Or than one hopes it performs. Without a cast capable of the minute sense of timing that Rattigan requires, the staged play will be as fresh as last week's mackerel. On the page, it is something of a pancake.


Adventure Story (1949) (also in volume 2) looks at Alexander the Great. Written in the wake of the recently-deceased Hitler, on the one hand, and the still-quite-active Stalin, on the other, this play represents Rattigan's surprisingly sympathetic look at what goes wrong in the makeup of the person who, by making all power flow from himself, would turn the world into a unified and peaceful place. Things don't end well for Alexander in this play; nor had they, a few short years before, for Mr. Hitler. Mr. Stalin was not looking well, either: Jewish doctors had recently been caught while busily plotting against his continued health, so he alleged, and the man's paranoia count seems to have been on the rise; in four short years, he too would die. It is the sympathy for his Alexander, emerging though it did in this milieu, that I found the strangest aspect of Rattigan's play. Where did it come from?


Also in volume 2 is Who Is Sylvia? (1951). This play looks at a couple of friends and great lovers. It opens in 1917, when one of them is embarking on a diplomatic, the other on a military career, and takes them through 1929 and on into 1950. By then, one is the U.K.'s ambassador in Paris, the other a general officer, but they are both still -- hack, hack; cough cough; bit of a chll in the air, doncha think? -- up to their boys-will-be-boys games in their same old Knightsbridge love-nest. It's Peter Pan in bed: these boys just don't want to grow up.

It turns out that, all along, the diplomat's very grown-up wife has known what the boys are up to. With profound womanly wisdom, she has turned a blind eye on their games and lies -- knowing guiltily that there must be something she fails to provide for her wayward husband, but also knowing that their marriage itself need not be at risk -- until the evening when, in 1950, their actor son is about to make a splash as Antony in a production of Julius Caesar. She wants to go see him do so in the place of the two lads's girlfriends.

Who Is Sylvia? is a deeply fluffy play, and yet . . . in its tolerance of sexual infidelity and lies it is also doing something more than merely hinting at the notion that what people do (or don't do) in bed may not, mirabile dictu, be what defines them. This is not exactly a "new" idea; it is not even exactly any kind of "idea." It does strike me as odd to find it popularly on display in a play of this date.


The Deep Blue Sea (1952) (also in volume 2) is even more suspect in its sexual ideology than Sylvia and, therefore, at least as interesting. The heroine (a role performed by a young Peggy Ashcroft) has, at curtain's rise, just committed suicide -- not, she will shortly be dismayed to learn, with complete effectiveness. The smell of gas leads neighbors to break into her flat and she is quickly revived by a bookie's assistant, also a neighbor in the same decaying apartment building in which she lives. He is actually a de-frocked physician banned from his profession after the commission of some unspecified medical infraction. The audience knows that Mr. Miller is a good guy, however, because he remains deeply committed to the care of children suffering from polio (he volunteers at a local hospital). He is also some sort of "German" -- does this mean "Jewish"? -- refugee, as of 1936, to England.

Revived, Hester (she does tend rather to wear a scarlet letter) goes on to endure confrontations during the rest of the play with, first, the young quondam R.A.F. test pilot whose inability to love her the way she wants to be loved is the proximate cause of her failed suicide attempt; with, second, the quite proper, "Sir"-bearing and Rolls-driving legal beagle, her husband, whom she had abandoned without even a divorce in order to pursue her mad affair with the test pilot; and with, third, herself and the sorry mess that is, now, her life. It is the de-frocked physician from whom she learns how to endure still more of what life has in store for her.

This play reads as if it were one of Tennessee Williams's plays from the later 1950s which depict a peck of people living on the edge -- Night of the Iguana, for instance. It wants both Williams's lyricism and his far more edgy sense of where the edge lies and how deep it is. But it's loitering with intent in exactly the same neighborhood.


Last month -- speaking of Tennessee Williams -- I was able to see and to read both Not About Nightingales and Orpheus Descending. This month, having last seen Camino Real (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1953) on July 15, 1960, in the St. Marks Playhouse production directed by José Quintero, I toddled off to see it again in scenic Wlliamstown, Massachusetts. And read it.

Camino Real is an amazing reading experience -- as odd, amazing, and exciting as it is to see. Atlhough it is set in some vaguely Trujillo-like Latin American dictatorship, the play is a meditation on many of the most unpleasant aspects of life as lived, experienced, imagined, and feared in Eisenhower and Dulles's perfectly nuclear Fortress America: a place and a time about which Williams has stunningly little good to say. But it disappointed an audience taught to look to Williams for a peculiar variety of "realism" by its refusal to deal with that America in terms that might, even remotely, be thought "realistic." Drawing upon elements of expressionist and absurdist drama, and with passages redolent of Williams's signature poetic lyricism, the play looks forward to a theater for which 1953 America was not at all ready. In fact, Camino Real proved an extremely expensive Broadway flop, even in Elia Kazan's clean hands. Ought this fact to surprise anyone? Despite a debt to the theater of Odets and at least an appearance of "social realism," if not exactly of "realism," the much earlier Not About Nightingales not only failed to attain a decent reception, it could not even achieve its own production; and this astonishing lacuna took, curiously, very many more years to be filled than it took Camino Real to begin to be discovered by its audience. Not, by the way, that the "discovery" of Camino Real is now complete: Ben Brantley's generally positive but still somewhat gee-this-is-confusing review in a notably deteriorating newspaper-allegedly-of-record (June 28, 1999), as well as the slow but steady seepage of audience from the Williamstown production Brantley and I both saw, makes the play's capacity still to epater les bourgeois perfectly clear.

Apart from recommending it warmly to anyone who has not yet experienced it either on the page or on the stage, Camino Real is not, as it happens, a play I want to say much else about. I fear that my taste for talk about this play has been spoiled by the experience of reading Jan Balakian's "Camino Real: Williams's Allegory About the Fifties," an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, ed. Matthew C. Roudané, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 67-94.

An essay whose third sentence remarks that Orpheus Descending is "Williams's version of the myth of Sisyphus" (p. 67) is not off to what the unprejudiced reader is likely to consider a very good start. Nonetheless, in all fairness, this is the kind of slip one can understand. I've done something similar myself, printing -- twice! -- a wrong title instead of the one I meant. In fact, the title of a book by the author I was writing about, though not the right one, and with no spelling errors, the error didn't call attention to itself and thus avoided correction. On the other hand, Balakian follows up this more or less venial error -- as, in fairness to myself, I did not -- with at least thirty-five misquotations, misattributions, and mistranscriptions, errors that leave her reader in complete uncertainty about the actual sources she cites. She claims to be using the same 1953 edition of Camino Real I read. I can see no reason at all to trust this claim.

Balakian's is not an entirely stupid essay although, apart from tracing its thick tissue of error, its excitements are, alas, not many. Considered as "scholarship," however, it is sheer travesty. Travesty on such a grand scale calls into question whatever in the essay seems to have even slight value. Simultaneously, it magnifies a reader's dismay about other matters with which his disagreements might otherwise have been allowed to sleep. I think, for instance, of Balakian's reference to "the liberalism of the sixties" (p. 82) as an "explanation" for the warmth with which Quintero's production was received . . . when the year she is writing about is 1960! This is a simply wonderful instance of chronological determinism, its magnificence enhanced by an Alice-in-Wonderland substratum of assumptions . . . that, for example, "the sixties" must have begun on January 1st of the same year that the junior senator from Massachusetts would, that autumn, be elected to the American Presidency, an office into which he would enter on January 20, 1961. This chronological moment is followed almost immediately by a slightly anachronistic reference to Brooks Atkinson's admiration of the play in Quintero's 1960 production, that newly liberal sixties-ish year. Of course, as Balakian herself has already noticed -- and at the top of this very same page 82 -- Atkinson was one of very few theater critics who had already liked Camino Real when he reviewed it in the noticeably illiberal year of 1953. Perhaps Mr. Atkinson was really a sixties flower-child-in-hiding in the early fifties?

Where, one wonders, was her editor? where the readers for a Press that claims some sort of scholarly distinction? None of these very numerous errors -- I haven't bothered to list the misquotations and mis-assigned quotations that litter Balakian's text, but I did find myself wondering why she likes to assign (mythically, as it happens) so many passages to "page 100" in Camino Real -- none of these errors, as I say, should have been difficult to catch. No expert, but a mere reader, even I found them simply too blatant to ignore. Quite clearly, no one knowledgeable bothered to look.


A few months ago, I read and greatly enjoyed The Weir, a new play by Conor McPherson. I saw The Weir in its (quite marvelous) Broadway incarnation at The Walter Kerr Theater (219 West 48th Street) this month. Just a few days before I got there, I'd seen McPherson's somewhat earlier play, This Lime Tree Bower (1996), in a production at Primary Stages (345 West 45th Street, but "off-Broadway" nonetheless). This Lime Tree Bower, The Weir, and three additional plays by McPherson all appear in The Weir and Other Plays (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999, $15.95 in paperback). It is well worth picking up and reading.

To say that This Lime Tree Bower is a wonderful play is at once too much and too little. It is an extremely odd experience in the theater since nothing -- quite literally nothing -- "happens" on stage at all. Three people -- a secondary school student, his older brother, and a friend who teaches philosophy at the local university and is also dating their sister -- pitch monologues at the audience, and, to a much lesser degree, at one another. The storytellers in The Weir are at least located. They are "in a setting," a country bar, responding to one another over a specified course of time: the evening when one of them has just moved into the neighborhood. The three people in This Lime Tree Bower are "set" no place at all -- or, to put this somewhat differently, they exist only on a bare stage. They speak their lines to the audience. While they hear and respond, at least a little bit, to one another, they are not anyplace "real."

And it doesn't matter. Not at all. Not one whit. The experiences these three people relate turn out to intertwine: they make up one long, complicated story with a lot of separate "lines." And although they are "told" to us -- audience; readers -- they are nonetheless pefectly "dramatic." We don't need to watch them in order to see them. As theater, this non-illusionary illusion is a complete tour de force, a sheer revelation about the power of story-telling and narration. Having tried the play both ways, on stage and in print, I can assure you that it works both in the theater and on the page, as a read experience. Try it. You'll like it.


Another play I read this month was David Hare's The Judas Kiss (New York: Grove, 1998). I wish I had seen this play; from reading it, it seems to me far and away the best play by David Hare I know. A play that tries to re-imagine Wilde's decision to stay with Lord Alfred Douglas and face arrest, trial, and imprisonment, and then (in the second act) Lord Alfred Douglas's decision, after Wilde's release, to leave him and return to England, this is a study in cowardice, hypocrisy, and betrayal on a grand scale (vide its title). I found it moving and convincing, a wonderful piece of theater.

On the other hand, by comparison (say) with Conor McPherson, Hare is the Terence Rattigan of the modern theater: a writer of well-made, easily-digestible plays. Even The Judas Kiss is a play that asks very little of its audience, other than a slight adjustment, perhaps, of attitude.


When, this past March, I mentioned reading two novels by Daniel Silva, I added, about The Mark of the Assassin, that "Silva has a sequel in bookstores now. I'm not running." I didn't. But it came to me -- that is, a copy turned up on my library's "just in" shelves -- and . . . oh, what the hell, I read it anyway: The Marching Season (New York: Random House, 1999).

In truth, this book is just as silly, as contrived, and as paranoid as Mark of the Assassin. It follows the careers of Michael Osbourne, CIA agent extraordinaire, his legal-beagle wife, her sometime senatorial and now ambassadorial father, and the once-Soviet now freelance assassin, "October," through some more convolutions. These concern the Troubles in Northern Ireland -- it is a post-Cold War world, isn't it? In Silva's version, it's Prods killing Prods (as a breathless newscaster remarks at one point midway through the book). Tony Blair and Gerry Adams are among the characters, who also include, for whatever this is worth, A Reigning Monarch; in other spheres, however, corruption is rampant; and as an added treat we get to watch Protestant and IRA extremists, in what I imagine is supposed to look like even-handed detestation. I didn't believe any of it, especially the end. Silva seemed to me not only to strive a little too hard to tie up too many knots at once while still leaving room for an inevitable sequel-to-the-sequel but also (once again) to run out of gas before I had. On the other hand . . . well, on the other hand, I did finish it. And I'm trying very hard to feel guilty about it.


In another life, I actually write -- and, mirabile dictu, they get published! -- "real" book reviews. One has recently appeared in a periodical published by the University of Chicago Press and enticingly entitled The Library Quarterly. In LQ's issue for January 1999 (69:1, 130-133) appears my "formal" review of The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). As it happens, my review was not only a wee bit unhappy with the product, it was also a little long. The version in LQ is therefore slightly reduced. The terminally curious might find it amusing to see the fuller, slightly earlier version of what happened to Nunberg's anthology at my reviewing hands.



July 1999

Not only is it about as raucous an "academic" novel as any I have read -- "academic" in the manner of Pale Fire more than of Moo, however -- Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) is also a gas from beginning to end. Professor Leo Roth is an Indologist at Western California University. Ms. Lalita Gupta is an Angeleno who has wandered into his class, since her parents labor under the illusion that she needs to know something about "her culture" (they're wrong; it isn't her culture). Lolita-like sparks (Lalita/Lolita -- is there a difference?) fly. Mrs. Roth -- Mrs. Sophia White-Roth, to be precise -- specializes in Restoration drama and is a dean at WCU. The couple have one surviving child, a son, who writes "mirror" poetry: long poems that need to be held up to a mirror in order to be read. His girlfriend is twice his age and specializes in writing pornography. (A daughter, now dead, was raped and murdered in late childhood.) One of Roth's graduate students -- his only graduate student, in fact -- Anang Saighal "narrates" or "frames" the novel, which takes the form of Roth's posthumously presented translation of and commentary on the Kamasutra as edited by Saighal.

Out of this mélange, Siegel concocts a comedy about American academics; "orientalism" and its strong element of "orient" = "lack of sexual restraint"; the ways in which texts become guides to lives; Hollywood's "India"; the "India" of Americans -- and a host of other matters. The novel is howlingly funny, even though some of it depends on the comedic use of materials that are not comedic at all. Teacher-student sexual relationships, for example, are at present stuff that it is difficult to make jokes about. Siegel also offends sensibilities by using ethnic, religious, or linguistic stereotypes that are also difficult to read with an easy heart. Leo Roth is not "Jewish" -- his movie star father was married to a non-Jewish movie star woman; Anang Saighal is Jewish -- he comes from Indianapolis, where both parents were physicians, and the male one of them, from India, happened to be married to a female one who was Jewish, which makes Anang Jewish, too. Several Indian characters -- in L.A. as well as in India -- seem to have taken speech lessons from Peter Sellers. Lalita's basketball-star boyfriend has stepped out of an African-American fantasy (and their relationship is one Lalita's parents regard as a Mississippi Massala nightmare) . . . Alas, all I can say is that my sensibilities were not offended: I confess that I found it all amusing, and more.

I know nothing about India or about the various disciplines of Indological studies, and I doubt that this book has remedied my intellectual lacunae in these areas. On the other hand, I enjoyed it enormously, even if, in sober truth, Nabokov might have done it all just a tad better. No matter: Siegel is at least playing in the same ballpark. That, I take it, is something of a feat.


I know no rare book librarians who liked (and at least one archivist who actively loathed) Martha Cooley's The Archivist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998 -- and now available in a paperback edition, as well). Anyone who reads this novel for insight into the kind of work people like me do, or into the professional world my colleagues and I live in, is in desperate need of a reality check. None of it is believable. Much of it is positively offensive in both its unnecessary ignorance and the picture it draws of the archivist and his work that lies at its center. I take it that Arlene Schmuland might agree with this view; certainly, the view she provides of the book in "The Archival Image in Fiction: An Analysis and Annotated Bibliography," American Archivist, 62:1 (Spring 1999), 24-73, makes clear her disapproval of Cooley's reliance on professional stereotypes and portrayal of despicably unprofessional behavior.

If this is all you're prepared to notice about the book, then you won't like it much, either. But I did. Cooley gets things wrong? Yup; too bad. She stereotypes? I'm sorry. These points are true; I found them irrelevant when weighed against the novel's other virtues. Set though it is in an "archive" (Cooley means "a rare book and manuscript library"), and drawing a central character who is an "archivist" (Cooley means "a manuscripts librarian"), The Archivist isn't about archives at all. It's about the relationships of men and women, and how these may fail catastrophically. It's about the relationships of Christians and Jews, and how these may fail, also catastrophically. It's about the Holocaust, about as catastrophic an instance of the second failure as one can envision. It's about the ways in which its characters's lives are marked by history -- their own histories, as well as that of the world in which they live. It's about the precarious balance between "sanity" and "insanity"; it's about love and its permutations (most of them disastrous); it's even about poetry and T. S. Eliot. (I found myself thinking again, as I had when I read and saw Margaret Edson's Wit, that the old boy is once again connecting to modern readers, contrary to my glib expectations about his imaginative demise.)

Matt, the curator in question, is approached by graduate student Roberta for access to the sealed correspondence -- Eliot's end of it, anyway -- between the poet and Emily Hale. Roberta reminds Matt of his long-dead wife, Judith, who had killed herself after five years in a mental hospital way back in 1965 (it's now the early 1980s). Like some recent Secretaries of State, Roberta had been raised by refugee parents as a Christian but has recently discovered that her parents had converted to Protestantism from Judaism after their escape to America. This discovery of her "roots" has shaken her profoundly. Judith, a secularized Jew when she married Protestant Matt, had identified increasingly with her Judaism when, in the years following the end of the War, details about the Holocaust became clear to her. She had also identified herself increasingly with the dead, becoming ever less able to distance herself from their suffering and from the emotional carnage that every day's news set before her. The ways in which these three people, one of them long dead, affect one another, their various seductions and betrayals, seem replicated in some sense by Eliot's betrayal of Emily Hale. After Vivienne, his institutionalized wife, died in 1947, Eliot ought to have been free to marry the woman with whom he had carried on for a long time an intimate friendship and correspondence. Instead, he fled the relationship once its consummation became possible for him (and years later married another woman altogether). Hale's sealed collection, preserved despite Eliot's wish that his letters be destroyed, parallels Judith's journal. Written during the years of her hospitalization, the journal has been preserved and sent to Matt, despite Judith's written instructions giving it to the doctor who had treated her and asking that it be read only by him and then destroyed.

All this may sound complicated. It is. It may not sound gripping. But it is that, too. I found The Archivist a hard book to read. People treat one another viciously throughout it, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Too many emotional cripples turn up in its pages. I am not entirely comfortable with a book that veers on essentializing "Jewishness" in the way it relates Judith and Roberta. And Cooley could easily have learned enough about library work to make Matt and his work situation real instead of phoney, and the price of such knowledge would not have required her to change a single plot detail. Even so, she has written a significant meditation on many important themes -- not least among them the hold the past has on us now -- and the tiny redemption that one character tries to attain at the novel's end is one I found, not annoying, but moving.

"Archivists"? No. In most other respects, however, I found Cooley's book to be a gorgeous and an important novel.


I read two "children's books" by Walter D. Edmonds this month. Both repaid my attention. The first is a big, fat novel: Bert Breen's Barn (1975; rpt. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991, paperback). A classic bildungsroman in which a young man discovers how to become the man he wants to be when he grows up, Bert Breen's Barn is also an adventure story filled with local detail about upstate New York farm life, and social relations, and barns and their raising: reading it with the last point in mind is better than watching the Amish barn-raising in Witness.

The second of Edmonds's books is a short, simple story for children, The Matchlock Gun (1941; rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953). Also set, as is usually the case with Edmonds, in upstate New York, the tale concerns a frontier family, Indian raids, and a heroic (and very frightened) young boy, his mother, and his sister. If you were to tell me that it doesn't have a profound bone anywhere in its body I'd cheerfully agree with you, more or less, while adding that it's a sweet little book anyway. I'm glad I've now read it, whether or not Edmonds ever thought of old people like me as its audience.


In a play-reading mood (as was already evident last month), I picked up some volumes by Richard Nelson. I'm really not sure why; I am not even sure how I knew his name, but for the accidents of having seen individual plays here and there in bookshops -- not many! -- that still carry drama by people other than Ibsen, Mamet, Miller, Shakespeare, and Williams, and a thick volume of his collected plays from Faber, and also, I suppose, because I order his plays now and again for the library I work at. Every so often, you should at least read some of these people?

For whatever reason, then, I started with Some Americans Abroad (London: Faber, 1989). It is reprinted in Nelson's Plays One (London: Faber, 1999). Some Americans Abroad is about people completely loathesome -- and they teach English literature! (They come from a small New England college that appears suspiciously like Middlebury.) They are so loathesome that one wonders how the play manages to be so compelling. And compelling it is, despite -- or because of? -- the disgust engendered by almost everything the characters are and do.

How did I loathe them? Let me count the ways:

  1. They posture about their "non-American-ness" while in England; they even sing -- sing! -- "God save the Queen" after reading Wordsworth's sonnet while standing on Westminster Bridge on a rainy morning.

    You want to just plain puke.

  2. Relatedly, they sneer at or condescend to every other American they meet. As if they themselves were not. As if being American were . . . well, "bad."

  3. They treat each other about as badly as . . . well, about as badly as English literature professors. One of them, a poor fellow with a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve (rather than Harvard, which would be, as it were, kosher -- although in this group that is definitely not le mot juste) -- gets screwed for a non-tenure-track position during the group's theater (they'd spell it "theatre") tour of Kulchooral England. No one is honest with him about what's happened; or that anything has happened; or why.

  4. Two of the tenured professors are sleeping with one another. Such goings on are not extraordinary, even though these two are not married to each other and are married to other people. Nelson means us to be disgusted nonetheless, since one of them defends her non-publicly significant other against a student's charge that he has sexually molested her -- without ever indicating her own interest in her colleague's well-being and the situation's outcome.

  5. Their attitudes towards their students are no less than one would expect. Well, not much less than one might expect . . .

  6. They are cheap. They cannot divide meal bills like adults. They get peeved by what they regard as five pound overcharges for rental cars they have booked in haste. They dislike paying 30 p. for postcards. The vulgarity they condemn in the other Americans whom they encounter is something they themselves share when it comes to chump change.

  7. And they are smug about their liberalism and their belief in their own political sanctity, as well as in their politically up-to-date analytical skills. This while (perhaps?) molesting their own students and articulating political thoughts of astonishing vacuity.

One could go on forever. The list of the virtues of Nelson's characters, by contrast, is not simply much shorter; it is non-existent. The play is endlessly fascinating almost in direct proportion to how repellent one finds the creeps who populate it.

. . . And then, one wonders: what's the perspective on his creation of its author? how does Nelson view his characters and their "Americanness"? What's in it for him?

An American writing about witless Americans for a British audience, he plays, in this work commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with his Americans's droolingly reverent attitudes towards "England" generally. Among the specific "English" things about which their exhalations are especially breathless are the plays they see at the Royal Shakespeare Company. About these plays they gush. They expound. They pontificate. They go on to admire English actors -- in a play performed, one assumes, by English actors. In fact, a whole series of amazingly self-satisfied metadramatic moments litters this play. One would love to know: how were these moments played?

If, on the one hand, Nelson's wonderfully advanced American English literature professors, politically moronic, tone-deaf, and corrupt, lack either wit or interest, they are, on the other, so completely wanting in both that one watches them in fascinated horror. Can anyone, let alone any group, really be this abysmally dim? Nelson draws them well enough to convince you that the answer is an unequivocal "Yes."

Some Americans Abroad is, in short, a very troubling play. And I just loved it. Reading it, I felt like a mouse watching a snake. And, by God! it got me.


Although it was written earlier than Some Americans Abroad, I read Nelson's 1986 Principia Scriptoriae (in Principia Scriptoriae, with Between East and West (London: Faber, 1992) after having read the academic play. (Principia Scriptoriae also appears in Plays One.) I simply couldn't put this play down at all (although I read it on a very bad day). It looks at two writers, made friends by unusual (and unpleasant) circumstances, first in 1970, then in 1985.

In 1970, they happen to be in prison, and torture victims, in the Latin American dictatorship that is home for one of them (Ernesto; Bill is a visiting American). In 1985, they meet again in the same country, which has since undergone a leftist revolution. Bill has accompanied a delegation of writers -- one from Germany, another from Italy, a third from the U.S. -- come to seek the release from prison of a well-known right-wing poet who had represented the old regime as its ambassador to Franco's Spain. He had, in fact, been the subject of discussion by the two imprisoned boys of 1970. Then they had admired the work and tried to distinguish between it and the political attitudes of the man who produced it.

Now, however, Ernesto is part of the "negotiating" team for the new leftist government, as the visiting literary dignataries and the locals meet to discuss releasing the eminent poet from his imprisonment. Bill and Ernesto may share intimate memories of almost unspeakable experiences. Their experiences may give them a very precise insight into what the eminent old poet is enduring while discussants continue to discuss. But adulthood, position, "responsibility": all bring new pressures to bear on these men and their compatriots, pressures that neither of the two young man had foreseen when they first met and suffered together.

A lovely and very smart play, Principia Scriptoriae is a thoughtful and important one, as well.


The play bound with it in the edition I read, Between East And West, is not included in Plays One; too bad. I liked this play a lot, too.

It depicts two Czech artistic emigrés to New York -- the play's composition predates the collapse of the Iron Curtain -- and the stifling solitude and astonishing oddity of American life as these two older people experience both. The play hinges on their differing abilities to accommodate themselves to solitude and oddity. The man is a director; the woman, an actress. She is clearly far more tied to her language than he -- and far more hampered by her difficulties with English -- and indeed it is he who lands work. She is terrified even of trying.

Their eminence at home makes their government hope that they can be induced to re-defect and return. They receive several overtures to this effect, filled with promises of things that New York is simply not able to provide them. This odd sense of refuge, or release, is simultaneously accompanied by the couple's paranoia -- although the audience is never certain about just how "paranoid" they are being -- about the long reach (even as far as New York City!) of the apparatus of their police state. This ongoing fear is an aspect of their new lives in the west that poisons those lives in ways neither of them could possibly have anticipated.

A short play, and very much a product of its times, Between East and West is another Nelson play well worth reading.


Nelson's Christopher Columbus and the Discovery of Japan (London: Faber, 1992) is also not in Plays One; it is a stunning play. It deals with Columbus in the manner of a history play; and, like other history plays one has bumped into, it does so in order to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of history. But its history is not necessarily "political"; it is esthetic. Nelson takes the man and emphasizes his critical and admiring relationship with a poet-dramatist schoolmate and his own ("creative"?) lies (or fictions?), so as to show his audience Columbus's essentially artistic drive to create his own reality. The action is occasionally embarrassing, often painful, and always brilliant.


Another of Nelson's plays not in Plays One is Roots in Water (New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1991). Presented on stage at Woodstock, New York, in an earlier version, and then broadcast in this version as a radio play by the BBC, Roots in Water is a frighteningly angry and extremely political play that may be among the most thoroughgoing indictments of recent American political and moral life I have encountered in literary form. It may not be pleasant to watch (or to read, or to hear), but it is worth the encounter. The play is divided into twelve vignettes in two acts. Each vignette presents a small number of characters -- I recall no carryovers from one vignette to another -- and together they move in rough sequence from 1976 to 1988 (two vignettes are set in 1984; 1985 and 1987 are omitted). Characters all recall their involvement in the good old days, that is, the era when, in their various ways, they were engaged by the Vietnam War, most of them as protestors against it. With such testimonials to their own political sanctity tucked safely into their memorial pockets, they all find it easy to ignore what they are doing -- and what they have become -- in the present each vignette depicts. They ignore just as easily what their increasing defection from political consciousness, let alone political action, entails for themselves and the society they represent.

Roots in Water is not an easy play to describe. I fear I have made it sound far more like a tract than the emotionally convincing, and wrenching, experience it is. As I go on reading Nelson's work, he seems more and more important as a contemporary American dramatist . . . and it becomes ever more obvious to me why his reputation seems to be so strictly curtailed.

This is a magnificent play.


Last month, I wrote about the contents of the first two volumes of the Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan. This month, I read a bit more of his work, starting with After the Dance (1939; rpt. London: Nick Hern Books, 1995). This paperback is available both in the U.K. and in the U.S.; it is extremely well-introduced by Dan Rebellato, who provides a quick biographical survey of Rattigan's life and career and then a separate brief essay on this play.

The play was not one of the string of early successes that Rattigan liked to recall himself as having experienced when he entered the theater in the later 1930s. After about sixty performances, it was pulled off the boards in August of 1939, a few short weeks before the Second World War began for his audience. Rebellato speculates that the play was too uncomfortable for an audience that knew war was coming and wanted something far more escapist than this play provided. Escapist it is surely not.

After the Dance is a play about failures: failures of love; failures of social and personal responsibility; failures of empathy and intelligence. Although these failures take place on the small scale of the personal world, they mirror the larger failures that leave that world part of a society careening towards disaster at an ever-increasing clip as the play proceeds. One character has already been conscripted as the play draws to its close; another snorts in disbelief at the thought of his "future." One character has committed suicide by the end of Act II; a second has begun a different kind of suicide at the end of Act III.

This is not a comedy of the sort Rattigan is supposed to be known for. When I finished reading it I was left wondering what he could have been thinking when he left it out of his Collected Plays. I remarked, last month, my impression that, in a play like The Deep Blue Sea (1952), Rattigan had begun to flirt, albeit on his own terms, with a dramatic territory rather more conventionally associated with such Americans as Tennessee Williams. Night thoughts, the soul at the end of its tether, are far from the universe of the English upper middle-class drawing room that is Rattigan Country. But it is the universe of The Deep Blue Sea -- and it is the universe of this play, as well, which is very interesting and very well worth picking up to read.


I returned to Rattigan's Collected Plays, vol. III (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964), and read his 1954 play, The Sleeping Prince. Let it lie.


I may have let The Sleeping Prince lie -- but I did not let volume three of his Collected Plays lie, also. Some time after recovering from The Sleeping Prince, I picked up the volume again and went on to read Rattigan's Variation on a Theme (1958). It seems to me that, reading this play, I found myself once again in a country that lies very close to the borders of Tennessee Williams Land. (As mentioned above, I'd already had this response when I read an earlier play by Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea.)

A consumptive social climbing professional divorcée; her emotionally distant daughter; a Birmingham-born poseur of a ballet dancer and his gay mentor; a German black market profiteer now in the market for a beautiful (and notorious) wife; and a down-at-heels minor aristocrat earning her way as the paid companion to the divorcée: all these characters come together, with a few other minor but equally lost souls as well, at the divorcée's château in Cannes. Perhaps to everyone's surprise, love -- or is it merely need? -- breaks out.

Love, it turns out, at least in this milieu, is A Big Mistake: it doesn't stand a chance. It's not allowed. If it makes an appearance despite its proscription, it cannot be permitted. For those who persist in it anyway, its wages are all too likely to be death.

I simply cannot be the only reader of Rattigan who has heard iguanas singing by night when he encountered this play. It is an extremely noisy cry of despair. I found it completely untenable in the ways Rattigan chooses to exhibit that despair. The emotional world of Williams is very nearly turned into a light and fluffy omelet by its re-location in the social world of Tender Is the Night. I would therefore not recommend it at all -- but for the fact that its theoretical untenability melts away completely before the play's sheer force. In fact, and despite my very few remaining better instincts, I recommend this play quite warmly.


Ross: A Dramatic Portrait (1960) portrays T. E. Lawrence at a time when, playing at being an enlisted man in the RAF ("Ross"), he is trying to escape the consequences of his actions and of the brutalities he had provoked and endured while in the Middle East during World War I. I'm not quite sure what to say about this play. I enjoyed it; I also enjoyed Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia in the movie that appeared more or less at the same time . . . and yet I've never been entirely captivated by the Lawrence mystique. In many ways, this play offers a complicated portrait of a victim, an isolated soul who has wandered more or less inadvertently into "heroism"; and it is therefore more satisfying than the picture of Lawrence I remember the movie as having drawn. It still felt somewhat insubstantial to me, even though I read it quickly and with considerable enjoyment. Is this, then, a mixed review? I think so.


It is a mixed review that I also find myself giving to Rattigan's 1962 Heart to Heart: A Play for Television, the last of the plays found in the third volume of Rattigan's Collected Plays. An academic has wandered into television stardom as the ace interviewer of various public figures of the day. He longs for the married woman who is one of his television colleagues; regrets his lost academic position, in which he was involved, as television does not allow him to remain involved, with the life of the mind; and he comes to admit that his own marriage is a shambles, his wife not only sleeping, now and again, with another man but also staying with him only for the sake of the money and position his television position has obtained for them. It is all a grandly upper-bourgeois mess.

Along comes a profoundly melodramatic moment when, confronted by the prospect of an interview with a rising political figure who seems to be concocted out of New Hampshire's Sherman Adams transferred into the British Parliament, that is, a real crook, and threatened by his time-serving masters and his wife, he has to decide whether to stretch into the principles once his, seek the love of his married colleague, abandon his old wife, and act on principle instead of expediency. Ah, yes, but Principles, doncha know, are all so muddied here . . . and Rattigan allows his protagonist, I am sorry to say, to have his cake and eat it, too. More or less. It's a back-patting but ironic moment the play reaches at its end, and I was not, I fear, convinced by it at all.


Seeing Oliver Parker's movie version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband -- which I last saw in Peter Hall's 1996 production at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket -- left me wondering why anyone would waste such good actors, and his own time and energy, making a movie that travesties the play on which it is allegedly based. I thought perhaps that my memory of the play was bad so I re-read it (in the edition of Wilde's Complete Works introduced by Vyvyan Holland [1966] and published in the U.S. as a Harper Perennial paperback in 1989). My memory of the play was not bad. A lovely play, with a wonderful male lead in Lord Goring and a horrific female lead in Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband is enormously enjoyable reading, and, as a play, enormously enjoyable watching, despite moments when it seems all too easily reduced to a Beatles song ("All You Need Is Love"). The movie is completely skippable but for the work of Julianne Moore (Mrs. Cheveley). The play is not.


Having seen Warren Leight's Side Man in its New York production recently, I thought it might be interesting to see how the play -- a powerful experience in the theater -- read. I picked up the printed text (available in paper: New York: Grove, 1998, for $12.00) and read straight through. It was very nearly as beautiful, although I couldn't hear the miraculous voice of the actress who played Terry, the play's wife and mother, in the text, and realized how very much its director and its actors gave Leight's play.

On the other hand, it gives them room to play. Leight is looking at trumpeters, trombonists, from the big band and be-bop era, people who, not themselves the "names" at the top of the bands, are nonetheless the people who love and know the music and make it work: the "side men" of the play's title. In Leight's dramatic world, they are all white, not black, which I found a little odd, though not entirely incomprehensible. Like the blacks with whom they work, however, they are always a little off the charts of the local police -- the New York police, of course -- and their very livelihoods can be extinguished in a moment of irreparable rage. This happens to one of Leight's characters -- an addict, not a junkie: "it's a subtle distinction" -- when a cop knocks out several of his front teeth: not a career move if blowing horns happens to be your schtick. Neither is the eight years up the river that follow.

The play is told from the point of view of Terry's son, Clifford, whose father, Gene, is a trumpet player. Their marriage is not a happy one, to put it mildly, and Clifford's job is to try to help keep things together until the moment comes when nothing will work any longer. The play ends with Clifford himself about to try something his family has always made seem impossible, a career as an artist. If being "an artist" had meant living the kind of crazy lives his parents had lived, then it was too distressing for Clifford to contemplate doing the same sorts of things all over again to himself. But the play takes us through his memories up to a present when he can at least will himself to try; and it is, in that sense, a dramatization of the triumph of hope over experience.

But the play is triumphant in other respects, too. I had thought, after seeing it, that it would prove to be a play that sees better than it reads, a play in which the actual language doesn't matter all that much. Now that I've read it, I don't think that's true. It helps to "hear" it with a strong set of New York accents in mind (although Terry comes from Boston via Baltimore; her accent, perfect for the play as it was in performance, seems imperfect in view of her own history). But if it helps to hear it with that accent in mind, it's not necessary to do so: the play works anyway, on the page as well as in production. If you grew up with any interest at all in the world of jazz, this is a play you will love.


Words adequate to the peculiar joys of a book filled with rich nuggets such as this one are difficult to come by:

There is a story about a donkey that, led onstage perhaps to represent the rustic cavalry in a production of Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana, defecated on the proscenium. The eminent conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, stopped the performance at this point by tapping on the rostrum; he then turned to the audience and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, a moment's reverent silence, please. We are in the presence of a superior being: a critic."
(pp. 145-146)

Indeed, any words -- ranging from the adequate to those fit to print -- about such a book are hard to come by. Even its publisher has waffled with its title, presenting La Jolla marine biologist Ralph A. Lewin's book as Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Historical, and Sociocultural Coprology (New York: Random House, 1999). (One looks forward expectantly to the title of the French translation.)

The word "science," meaning knowledge, and the word "shit," from the Old English scitan, both apparently derive from the same Indo-European root, as does the Greek word from which scatology is derived.
(p. 3)

-- So Lewin begins, ending a few short paragraphs past Sir Thomas Beecham and the critical donkey, in this book whose joys, however peculiar, are also many. It's short. It's filled with interesting lore. It's dryly humorous. And it taught me a good deal about a subject in which I'd thought I was not especially interested. Food and sex get all the good books, Lewin remarks (p. 149). Attempting to redress the balance, if only a tiny bit, in the direction of excretion, he has performed a real public service.

Some minor problems could easily have been fixed: for example, identifying John Sparrow as "a contemporary British poet" (p. 139) seems not entirely to get the sometime Master of All Souls' quite right; many non-specialists will find the word "urticant" (p. 43) slightly obscure (and Lewin uses numerous other words of similarly deep obscurity). But these minor difficulties are incapable of diminishing in the slightest one's pleasure in Lewin's odd little book. It will give you good cheer; and you might want a copy or two for good friends, as well.


A bit of time in airports and on airplanes gave me a chance to return to Literary Indiana this month -- in my reading, not literally -- and I was able to read Charles Major's Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (New York: Macmillan, 1902). Late, and very faux, Scott, this is a book I should not have liked at all. The book is set in the 1560s, largely in Derbyshire. Its characters include Queen Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, and William Cecil. Its leads are two followers of Mary and the women they love, one of them headstrong, tempestuous, and willful, the other meek, mild, and blind. Elements of the plot come right out of Romeo and Juliet, and, not surprisingly, many elements of Major's language come right out of the author of that play. Its attitudes towards women are fascinating: the general badness of their treatment by men, this viewed in the specific context of their failure to have legal sovereignty over themselves, is one of Major's main concerns in the book. Yet Major's portrayal of the headstrong and willful member of the pair of women at his book's center seems designed to question women's ability to exercise sovereignty over themselves. The language is highfalutin'; the action ludicrous; the romanticism and sentimentality regrettable.

I snapped it right up: it's interesting, it's fun, and it has some moments -- particularly in showing the relationship of the narrator and the blind woman whom he comes to love -- that (I blush to admit it) I found deeply affecting. Great literature? Please. Fun? You betcha. Worth forgetting about altogether -- as has essentially happened to this book? I think not. Copies are probably pretty easy to find on the o.p. market for considerably less than any new novel will cost you; and larger libraries may have it floating around, as well. It's not like Uncle Tom Andy Bill or The Bears of Blue River, Major's children's books about which I wrote some time ago. It isn't a children's book; and, even granting that it's in a different form, it might not be as good as they. I liked it anyway. Sorry.



August 1999

I spent a good deal of time travelling this month. Gadding about, from Virginia back to Pennsylvania, to England, on to the Netherlands and to Belgium, back to England, on to Scotland, and finally back home, did not leave me with a great deal of time for reading. One book I can nonetheless recommend for its entertainment value -- it made, in fact, a quite enjoyable travelling companion -- is Eric Garcia's witty Anonymous Rex: A Detective Story (New York: Villard, 1999).

We are, it seems, all victims of an illusion: dinosaurs are not extinct. They are, in fact, around us even now. Evolved -- or might I mean "devolved"? -- for their own protection to a somewhat smaller size than was once their ordinary wont, they dress most frequently in quite nifty body suits. Wearing these, and, over them, ordinary clothing, they can, with only minor discomforts, frequent the world of mammals and operate in it. And, having learned English, they do. This tale is, in fact, a private eye novel; its star, who has an office in LA, happens to be a velociraptor in Sam Spade drag. The moment when, reading it, I fell out of my uncomfy airplane seat was not due to pilot error but to my passage through his encounter with a big LA mogul named Tannenbaum who, it turns out, is a tyrannosaur. "Big" indeed!

The book is cheerful moronic fun -- interspecies sex is its main issue and (as its dustwrapper reminds us) its long suit -- and yet it is well worth a diversionary read. Unfortunately, it seems Garcia plans to make a series of it. That feels to me -- admittedly in advance of any way in which one could legitimately judge the results -- like a brontosaurus-sized mistake. It's a good joke. Once.


About another series, however -- one that already exists -- I feel very differently indeed.

The third of J. K. Rowlings's Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (London: Bloomsbury, 1999, and now also New York: Scholastic, 1999) was one I picked up on my travels. England's Bloomsbury still prints them on toilet paper; I therefore (spendthrift Moi!) also bought, once I was back home, the more substantial American (Scholastic) edition. So much for the physical book. But about the book as a book, what can I, what need I, say?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in the series, seemed to me better than Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone ( . . . and the Philosopher's Stone in the U.K.), the first. This one seemed to me better than the second. The plots are more or less standard English schoolboy tales; I don't care. We know how they're going to end (Harry will win out); I don't care. I may even suspect (and I do) that I know how the series will end; I don't care -- except insofar as I'd like to be alive to check my intuition when the final volume appears. These are well-written and completely enjoyable books, and their reader is in on the birth of what one feels quite confidently will prove to be a modern classic. Run, don't walk, to the nearest copy -- but if you think it likely you're going to want to live with these books for a while, make it an American copy.


For reasons that, no doubt, reflect the vagaries of tastes, a friend recommended Veronica Stallwood's Oxford Blue (London: Headline, 1998; paperback 1999). Oxford seemed the very place to pick it up when I bumped into there; and so I did. And then I read it.

What a mistake.

Its heroine is one of those politely witty mystery-fictional English women who solves small mysteries of stunning insignificance using nothing but her stunningly uninteresting but all-too-decorous wits. Is it typical of such heroines to find themselves in quaint villages, surrounded by quaint village idiots and quaint village dangers? This heroine does, although, as an added lagniappe, her rustication is encumbered by the unwanted and unexpected arrival of her mother, whose lack of interest or attractiveness parallels her own. In addition, dull quasi-young but all-too-solidly vicarish men appear on her horizon. They do mind-numbingly dull things together, while occasionally conversing wittily with mom or doing battle with a recalcitrant automobile. Whatever insignificant mystery has occupied the book's attention the heroine solves after a moment of heart-stopping terror -- well, I think it was supposed to be "heart-stopping"; and it almost awakened me from my reading slumbers -- during which All Becomes Clear.

It must be possible to care about these people and the events in which they become involved. I did not.

Far from it. In point of simple fact, I loathed this book.


My travel plans did not take me into London. Although I was on airplanes that landed and took off from both Gatwick and Heathrow, I had engagements in Oxford and St. Albans, and -- though tired neither of London nor of life -- I disappointedly expected, this time, to miss the city completely. I was therefore surprised and delighted when friends unexpectedly dragged me into London anyway, on the one evening when it proved possible, although just barely, to do so: I had left Edinburgh by car that morning and they had been confident that, despite the distance, I would arrive in time to make such a trip feasible. Amazingly, they guessed right, although I would not have done so, knowing my inexperience at driving on Scottish and English roads.

As a result, I got to see the long-running play by Yasmina Reza, 'Art' (London: Faber, 1996), at Wyndham's Theatre in Leicester Square. I had wanted to see its New York production, but -- though I saw several other plays in its immediate neighborhood -- I'd missed it. Since the New York production turned out to close while I was away, it's a good thing I got to see it in London for otherwise I'd have missed it altogether.

The very next day, while also gazing seven miles or so down at the Atlantic Ocean and watching other airplanes travelling alongside us on the same highway on which we were all heading west together, I read the play; and a very good read it is. 'Art' is a play, in fact, a funny play. It is not a philosophical discourse. That granted, it is, even so, a very shrewd and interesting look at the nature of modern art and the varied relationships people have with it and with one another about it. It is a play about perception. What do we see when we look at a painting? Do we see what is there? And what might it be that is "there"? or that we think is "there," when we see whatever it is we see? It is also a play about language. How do we speak with one another about what is, or what we think is, there? How do we disagree with one another about what we see? And it is a play about the varied and changing nature of human relationships, what we want, and what we get, from them.

I thought it was a wonderful play to watch. And very nearly as wonderful a play to read.


I had tried and failed to find a copy of Elena Lappin's Foreign Brides in England, where it was first published, and therefore had to wait till I was home before finding and reading the American edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). It was worth the wait. I picked up the book expecting to read a story or two -- it's a book of short stories -- but, in the event, I didn't put it down at all till I had finished all of them. These are tales of varied exiles who find themselves trying to cope with their married lives in a variety of different milieux, none of them anything like the milieux in which they had grown up. They are funny and sad and confused, and I simply loved them -- the exiles and their stories. In the very first of the tales, a wife who feels that she has entered into a marriage with an apparently orthodox Englishman who has misrepresented himself to her starts to buy meat for his dinner not at the kosher butcher she has always used but at a neighborhood butcher instead. Worse, she starts to buy treyf from this butcher. Worse still, she starts to interact with the butcher himself in new and surprising ways. Things work out, although perhaps not in ways anyone would expect. Story after story surprised me; I think they might surprise you, too.


In Edinburgh, I picked up a copy of Christian Miller's A Childhood in Scotland, introduced by Dorothy Porter (1981; rpt. Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1989, 1997). In this very short book, once upon a time an article in The New Yorker, Miller recalls her odd childhood in a highland castle as a member of a family whose history in that place is traceable back through the high middle ages. The book is beautifully told and thoroughly engaging: its evocation of a place in which the past is still very much a living presence is, I felt, remarkable. And indeed, given a rather different setting, almost Faulknerian -- but then, like the American South, Scotland, too, has known defeat and conquest at a near neighbor's hand.

I had known little about Scotland or the Scots before visiting Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders. Miller's little book proved a nice way to begin the process of learning a little more about both.


I followed Miller with another Scottish autobiography, this one by a once well-known literary critic named David Daiches, whose Two Lives: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood and Promised Lands: A Portrait of My Father, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1997), I also enjoyed. A kind of appendix to Two Lives, Promised Lands seems to me a mistaken afterthought. It rehashes, not badly or unpleasantly but, I think, unnecessarily, materials that Daiches had already handled quite well in Two Lives, which originally appeared in 1956. The younger Daiches of that year was perhaps equipped with more writing powers than the very old Daiches of 1997, who wrote the addition. In any event, Two Lives is what made this book worthwhile for me.

My surprise at learning that there was any Jewish life in Edinburgh seems to be a cliché -- and one that Daiches anticipates: he notes that his American colleagues -- he taught at Chicago for several years -- found the very idea humorous. True enough, I was surprised; but its surprise quotient does not, by itself, recommend a book. I found Daiches's evocation of Edinburgh life as much as of Jewish Edinburgh life utterly fascinating. Miller's world is rural, Daiches's is urban; hers exotic, his surprisingly familiar. The elements of exoticism in Daiches's book -- for if it were completely familiar would I have been interested in it at all? -- are dependent for me rather upon his world's distance from me in time (he is writing about growing up in the early 1920s through the years that grind to a halt in World War II) than in geography.

Miller seems finally to have been estranged from the world of her childhood; Daiches, in this book, reclaims the world of his. Read alongside one another, as by chance I read them, both books -- quite incommensurable though they may seem to be -- helped me to see "Scotland" not as a tourist attraction, a theme park (which is the way its government seems intent on presenting the place to its visitors, and with some success), but as a real place with room for complicatedly different ways of living and apprehending lives. I liked them both very much.


I had occasion this month to re-read Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (London: Methuen Drama, 1998), a play I'd read and written about earlier this year. This fall, it was the book entering first-year students at my university were to have read over the summer and be prepared to discuss in sessions held before their classes began for the fall semester. A participant in these sessions, I thought it might be prudent to re-read the play for the occasion.

If I had liked the play when I first read it -- and I had, very much! -- I found it even better this time around. A travelling companion saw it performed in London just before I arrived (a production is allegedly coming to New York in the spring of 2000), and had reported on its strengths in production to me. Although I was somewhat annoyed by the timing that prevented me from catching its London production, I was fortunate enough -- at Penn, early in September, and as part of the project for first-year students -- to see an abridged staged reading performed by colleagues in the theater arts program. (They performed it well, too.) My discussion notes for this play have wound up on the web; suffice it here to say, simply enough, that it is about as good a play as one could hope for, even if you wind up feeling -- as I do -- that Frayn errs mightily on the side of Christian charity in his reading of Werner Heisenberg.



September 1999

For several reasons, none of them very good -- (1) I've been wondering for years about what might have accounted for its author's sometime vast, although now long-lost, "literary" reputation; (2) the book was printed by William Rudge; (3) its types were designed by Bruce Rogers; (4) its title recalls one of my very favorite pieces of work by St. Clair McKelway, "The Presbyterian Captives" -- I picked up a slender, quite self-consciously lovely book by Joseph Hergesheimer, The Presbyterian Child (New York: Knopf, 1923) when I was in Virginia and, early in September, I read it. It is a deeply odd book.

In some ways it might be compared with Christian Miller's Childhood in Scotland, a little autobiographical book I mentioned reading last month. In its sense of a childhood lived, as it were, on the edge, this comparison is not entirely far-fetched. Yet Hergesheimer's book is infinitely more claustrophobic than Miller's ever dreams of being. Perhaps this effect comes in part because its writer is far more intensely enmeshed in what goes on inside his own head than she. Perhaps it also comes, in other part, because, while Miller always firmly locates us in the world, Hergesheimer does not bother to do so. I think the childhood he describes takes place somewhere in or near Philadelphia; but so un-tethered is it, so darkly mysterious the world in which it takes place, that I am not certain of its location at all.

This is a tiny book, but one that, for its size, proves astonishingly dispiriting. I am not quite sure what I make of that impression: am I, in fact, recommending this book? It is mysterious, evocative, and suffused with a sense of unhappy importance. Yet these are attributes not far removed from portentousness and, in sober truth, I cannot quite define clearly what it all portends. It is not a book that will keep me from reading more Hergesheimer; on the other hand, it has not sent me out in a wild rush to satisfy a new craving, either.


Another and even more unpleasant book -- but a remarkably interesting one anyway -- is Peter Ackroyd's 1985 Hawksmoor. I read the novel in a 1993 Penguin reprint acquired in York, but it has also been long available in the U.S. as a Harper Perennial paperback.

The book concerns an architect mamed Dyer who works in Scotland Yard under the direction of Sir John Vanbrugh (known to us as a playwright). He designs churches and then supervises their construction as part of the rebuilding of London in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666. Dyer's work reflects both his now somewhat old-fashioned architectural training and his preoccupation with various occult practices. (In a nice scene, he has a great many objections to a demonstration of "new philosophies" presented under Royal Society auspices: a world of rationality does not, he discovers, appeal or convince.)

In the 1980s, a policeman named Hawksmoor finds himself investigating a series of murders -- children; vagrants -- that take place in the vicinity of these same churches. Dyer and Hawksmoor are both somehow out of synchrony or sympathy with their environments and their colleagues. Both men live in worlds that are dark and lonely. Their sense of isolation from their fellows and of remote distance from the places as well as the people with whom they work is great. Somehow, in ways Ackroyd never needs to make entirely clear, their different eras interact. The horrors that Hawksmoor must come to grips with and, if possible, resolve -- he is a policeman, after all -- clearly derive from those in which Dyer's every moment is spent. They define as well the very air the reader of this novel breathes.

Hawksmoor is a kind of tour de force that compelled my admiration. If I were to add that it compelled far more admiration, far more respect, than pleasure, that might be accurate -- and yet I am glad I read this difficult book. I'm also happy to recommend it to anyone who might, all these years after its first appearance, be as innocent of its peculiarities as I was.


My visit to Scotland prompted me to return to a writer whom I last read while in Oxford in the mid-1970s. I don't remember much about the book by him I then read -- I'm recalling the early nineteenth century Scottish writer John Galt, whose Annals of the Parish I had found at Blackwell's in the Oxford English Novels edition by James Kinsley (1967, paperback) -- except for a moment very early on when, writing about the year 1761, the author remarks, "Before this year the drinking of tea was little known in the parish, . . . but now it became very rife, yet the commoner sort did not like to let it be known that they were taking to the new luxury" (p. 12). I remember being stunned by the insight -- what can I say? to me, then, it was an "insight" -- that "tea" and "England" had not always been synonymous. (I'd not have distinguished "England" from "Scotland" then, either.) Annals of the Parish is an enjoyable novel, and I found it so even at that time. Yet I don't remember picking up another of Galt's books until, late this summer -- prompted by my memory of that book and the pleasure I'd taken in Scotland itself -- I went looking for them.

The first I found was a book called The Spae Wife: A Tale of the Scottish Chronicles (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1823). This triple-decker -- of which I can find no edition still in print -- used to live in my library's open stacks but its most recent circulation, to me, seems likely also to be its last. It has now moved to the more rarefied precincts of the library's rare book collection. A few of the Galt critics, at whom I have taken a brief look, assure me that it's no damned good. This is a judgment that does not conduce to great confidence in the wit of the small number of Galt critics out there. Or, to put it another way, I actually enjoyed the book, although not quite as much as I had enjoyed Annals of the Parish many years ago.

Wee Scott, The Spae Wife is a tale that seems designed to reconcile its northern readers to the actualities of political union with the crowd of rowdies south of the Tweed. Its method is simple. It tells a tale about the Stuarts; and, brother! are they ever a bunch of disasters on the hoof. Civil disorders and domestic broils follow their lumbering and blundering trails as night the day.

With elements drawn from Shakespeare as well as from folklore and, presumably, chronicle histories, Galt recreates a medieval world populated largely by fools and jerks. Each is out for the main chance, wanting any broader interests in the welfare of the Scots than his own accession to their leadership would provide. The plot is set in motion by the prophecies of a "spae wife," a single version, as it were, of the three weird sisters whom Macbeth and Banquo come across at the opening of Shakespeare's play. Local color, in much the same way as the romantic Scottish scenery that Galt's critics seem to dislike, she keeps turning up at various moments in the long course of the novel, and Galt almost always portrays her as energetically in a prophetic mood. Other characters grow old and, if they do not actually die, they at least shut up; but she seems to go on forever, making a gaggle of Stuarts wroth.

Looking once again at Anthony Van Dyck's three views of James VI and I, which I saw when I visited the Van Dyck anniversary exhibition in Antwerp this summer, I was reminded of what utter toads these Stuarts must have been. Van Dyck's James looks not only short but also nasty and brutish. Galt's depiction of these early Stuarts, however, makes the post-Tudor James look positively decent. How fortunate for us, the novel seems to say, that now we have got rid of those Stuarts, bad then and much worse in still living memory (and, by implication, how fortunate too that we find ourselves instead in the hands of these simply marvelous Hanoverians).

A fascinating book, The Spae Wife is worth another look -- if you can find a copy! (Someone ought to reprint it: Canongate, I hope, is looking out for an editor, or perhaps someone is looking at it for a Galt being produced at the University of Edinburgh.) Its politics and its regionalism are both worth study. It's a better-written book than the critics I looked at seemed to think. Most important, it's an enormous amount of fun to read.


Even better, however -- though just as out-of-print -- is Rothelan: A Romance of the English Histories (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1824). This is another triple-decker (although volume three is filled out by three unrelated stories called "The Quarantine; or, Tales of the Lazaretto," stories told, after a fashion drawn from Boccaccio, by a group of people isolated from their fellows by a plague-inspired quarantine). Rothelan's geographical setting is not Scotland -- although some scenes are in fact laid in the Scottish Borders -- but London. Like The Spae Wife, however, its time is the middle ages.

Galt distinguishes this book through two of its central characters. One is an Italian woman, the widow of an English lord. The other is a money-lender of an Hebraic persuasion. In something of the manner of George Walker, about whose Theodore Cyphon; or, The Benevolent Jew (London 1796) I wrote some time ago, Galt makes his nasty Jewish character a better human being than the Christians -- starting with the Italian lady's late husband's quite believably evil brother, whose object it seems to be to treat his sister-in-law as if she were dirt. Scott, of course, had "done" Jews in Ivanhoe. But Galt's (no doubt tributary) decision to include Jews in Rothelan, and in fact his treatment of his Jewish character, does not feel like "wee Scott" in the same way that The Spae Wife, in its entirety, does.

It would be difficult to say enough in praise of this book. Not, I am sure, a "great" book, Rothelan is nonetheless an extremely enjoyable one. If I am right that The Spae Wife deserves another outing in print, then Rothelan practically begs for one. There is a market for books like this one, and rightly so. Someone needs to think seriously about supplying that market.


Two articles in the post-Tina Brown New Yorker drew my attention, both of them in the issue of September 13.

Dava Sobel writes in the first about "The Heretic's Daughter." This article concerns the relationship between Galileo and one of his daughters, a nun, and is based on her surviving letters to him. A short piece, it is excerpted from a larger book which has recently appeared in bookstores but which I doubt I will get to in the near future. Nonetheless, this little bit of it made the book seem worth a good long look. While Sobel draws attention to a fascinating father-daughter relationship -- particularly noteworthy, "fascinating" or not, given this particular father -- she also attends to the life of a bright, energetic woman who merits attention in her own right. Who knows what preconceptions modern readers are likely to bring to consideration of a woman whose life was led in a Renaissance Italian nunnery? I will simply say that, despite the article's short scope, it surprised me; I suspect it capable of surprising you, too.

In the second article that I found interesting in this same issue, Betty Fussell writes about how her relationship with her former husband, Paul Fussell, used travel as a means of forestalling needed confrontations with deeper and more "systemic" issues in their marriage. "Kitchen Wars" also looks at the food consumed during travel -- Fussell is a writer about food -- as an index to the state of psychic health of those whom she and her husband dealt with, and, of course, themselves. The piece is funny enough, and yet . . . and yet the author's distance from these agonies is not quite great enough, even years after the events she describes, for her reader not to feel a bit more ensnared than any reader needs to feel by events not yet fit for public consumption. Was I interested in them? Yes. But, though I did it, I didn't like reading this stuff.


One of the people with whom I collaborated in a series of sessions concerned with Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is a physics professor at my university, Abraham Klein. Among the post-Copenhagen pleasures I encountered as a result of this collaboration, two were derived from his printed works.

In the first piece I read, Klein writes his "Recollections of Julian Schwinger." This very short essay appears in Julian Schwinger: The Physicist, the Teacher, and the Man, ed. Y. Jack Ng (Singapore: World Scientific, 1996), pp. 1-7. Schwinger shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics with Richard Feynman and Sin-ichiro Tomonago for their creation of quantum electrodynamics. Much more than Feynman, he was something of a child prodigy. (Feynman, by contrast, seems to have been an "adult prodigy."). Also much more than Feynman, he seems to have escaped public attention. An earlier brief memoir, written for non-physicists, appeared in The American Scholar (64:2 [Spring 1995], 241-246). Written by Klein's own student, Jeremy Bernstein, "Julian 1918-1994" is a somewhat more formally "literary" production than Klein's, but both have their charms. Given the significance of their subject, both are worth reading.

Klein's own "Autobiographical Notes", though I read it after I read his brief memoir of Schwinger, actually appeared a few years before that memoir. It is the opening chapter in his own festschrift, Symposium on Contemporary Physics: Celebrating the 65th Birthday of Professor Abraham Klein, Drexel University, 31 October - 1 November 1991, ed. Michel Vallières and Da Hsuan Feng (Singapore: World Scientific, 1993), pp. 3-60. Written for physicists, people who will understand fully the nature and import of the projects Klein worked on, this self-appraisal was in many respects beyond me; but I found it highly enjoyable nonetheless. This essay represents a kind of work that most folks I know who work in the historical humanities never encounter, a scientific autobiography by a contemporary. Klein conveyed a good deal of the flavor of a physicist's life in later twentieth-century America, and, for me, that was worth the embarrassment of trying (and generally failing) to work my way through passages I am not equipped to understand. Both of Klein's essays may be directed at people with specialized tastes -- or, in my case, pretentious ones -- but I am inclined to think that, if the intellectual achievements of modern physics excite you, then they may also be worth your attention, too.


In preparation for classes I am teaching this fall, I had occasion this month to read in and about the poetry of John Donne and the plays of William Shakespeare. I like both writers very much indeed, you will be surprised to learn. That enthusiasm to the contrary notwithstanding, however, I continue to labor under the illusion that no one needs to hear my Deep Thoughts about either of them in a venue such as this one.


The most recent book I finished this month was an introductory work of history that I found simply fascinating from beginning to end. Well written, concise, and interesting, Jonathan I. Israel's European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 1550-1750, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) surveys Jewish life in all of Europe beginning (despite its title) with the expulsions from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century. The history of Europe's Jews during this period is intrinsically interesting, and that interest is of course the primary reason to bother with Israel's book at all. In addition, however, he throws a raking light on the religious and intellectual history of all Europeans during the period he writes about; and the benefits of such a history have been made blindingly clear to me this fall, when I have become a desultory attendee at a series of seminars dealing largely with Christian-Jewish interrelationships during the early modern period. Page after page proved provocative. Israel's survey is a very good book.



October, November, December 1999

A surprisingly busy fall semester has, since the end of September, kept me from dutiful (let alone "inspired"!) maintenance of these touts. Staring at my screen, with about three months' worth of desultory reading to speak about, I feel just as blank as the screen looks.

I write these words in early January of "the future," that is, the year 2000, which -- I admit it -- I find it nearly impossible to think of as "now": as inhabited, so to speak, by me. It is "the future"; and, really, I donít live there. (Or here. Wherever.)

But I do. And since there seems to be no time like the future to get caught up with the demands of the past, here goes . . .

But perhaps I should add, before going further, that my teaching continued to have me reading works this fall by Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. I continue to suspect that no one needs to hear me say: "I liked them."

On the other hand, you could do worse.


A bit of quality air time, flying between Philadelphia and Paris over Thanksgiving, gave me a chance to read three mysteries by Charles Todd. He seems to live in Delaware, although he sets his mysteries in post-World War I rural England. His three books came to me highly recommended. Not myself a great reader of mysteries, and still somewhat unconvinced that these books "transcend" their genre, as their recommender alleged, I nonetheless enjoyed them and, in my turn, recommend them warmly.

Todd's hero is a Scotland Yard inspector named Ian Rutledge. His career has been interrupted by long service on the western front. As a residue of that service, Rutledge carries around with him an "inner voice," a literal inner voice: that of a soldier named Hamish who, alas, happened to find a bullet one sad day at the front. The bullet came, deliberately, from military colleagues on his own side. In fact, Rutledge, as commanding officer, had ordered Hamish to receive it as exemplary punishment for his too public unwillingness to go over the top when ordered. Just moments after the firing squad shot Hamish and Rutledge had administered the coup de grace, however, a German shell landed on the scene. It successfully blew almost all of the men to bits: the reluctant (and now dead) soldier, the firing squad, and -- very nearly -- Rutledge himself. But Rutledge survives, if a bit unpleasantly, protected from the continued shelling beneath Hamish's dead body.

Or, more accurately, he has survived so very unpleasantly that the experience has done his mental health very little good. Rutledge exhibits classic symptoms of guilt, not only as a survivor but also as an executioner. His equally classic post-traumatic stress disorder revolves around the incident of Hamish's execution -- an unnecessary execution, it seems, since the shell would have done the job without Rutledgeís intervention. The post-war Rutledge has received an additional hurt, and more cause for anger, from his pre-war fiancée. Finding him in considerable mental disarray on his return from France, she rejected him. These are the major (although not the only) explanations of the stress that Rutledge feels as he returns to police work after the war's end, wondering whether he has kept the skills that marked his work before 1914. He wonders, too, if he can keep fit enough to avoid a return to hospitalization for his mental disorders.

In three novels, A Test of Wills (1996; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1998), Wings of Fire (1997; rpt. New York: St. Martinís Press, 1998), and Search the Dark (New York: St. Martinís Press, 1999), Todd puts Rutledge through various paces. Some of the difficulties he faces in each case derive not only from fear that the war has blunted his skills but also, and worse, from the necessity to confront other people whom the war has damaged nearly as badly as, or more badly than, it damaged him. A dead poet whose war poetry was important to Rutledge while he was at the front; a shell-shocked young man whose pre-war promise will clearly never be realized; a wounded hotel worker: the milieu in which Todd sets his characters is successfully (and grimly) realized. That background infiltrates all aspects of Todd's post-war England. It helps to make the crimes Rutledge investigates far more complicated than they seem at first to be.

These are, in short, good mysteries, firmly located in a well-imagined time and place. They have their flaws. The casually motiveless malignancy of Rutledge's bureaucratic nemesis in the Yard's "home office," for example, goes almost entirely unexplained. The novels do not deal all that well with the good bit of fancy coincidence in the war-related nature of the cases Rutledge is assigned. Hamish is simultaneously insufficiently explained, a bit too shadowy, and too convenient a participant in the action. The angrily remembered fiancée (like Hamish) seems a bit too pat. At the date these books are set, I am unconvinced by Rutledge's reliance on automobile transportation when he travels through southeastern England. Perhaps I should credit Todd with better research on this point than any I have done. Yet I would have been happier with a Scotland Yard inspector who boards a train whenever he leaves 1919 London.

Still and all, if you happen to be flying to Paris -- or anywhere else where youíre going to have an opportunity to read but not much of a chance to read seriously -- these are three enjoyable books. Given how Todd proceeds to develop his milieu and his character, they are, it turns out, worth reading in order.


Last month, I read a few books by a Scottish novelist of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, John Galt. This month, I read, not one of his historical novels, like The Spae Wife or Rothelan, but a realistic (or satirical) tale set just shy of Galt's own time, The Provost (1822).

This is a deliciously nasty book. Its hero, a smugly self-satisfied crook, finds salvation, more or less, in the joys of public service. One feels completely confident about his prospects, were he not both fictional and dead (either fictional or dead might not have been as debilitating a problem), in this yearís upcoming primaries, all of which he would have graced marvelously.

I read the book in Ian A. Gordon's edition for Oxford's Worldís Classics (1982; it was published originally as an Oxford English Novel in 1973). As a primer of politics on the local level, The Provost deserves to be read alongside, perhaps even kept alongside, William L. Riordan's Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, the saga of George Washington Plunkitt (the inventor of "honest graft") and a book whose immortal virtues need (like those of Donne or Shakespeare) no boost from me.


In Elegy for Iris (New York: St. Martinís Press, 1999) and Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000 ["2000" in October of 1999?]), John Bayley has written of the decline into Alzheimer's and, eventually, death, of his wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch is someone whose novels I have long admired -- although "admired" might actually be a more strictly accurate word here than, say, "enjoyed." I've never felt any need to go back and reread them (although many years ago I did actually teach Bruno's Dream, and I also have a soft spot for The Bell). In truth, I've not yet even caught up with the last five or six of them. No doubt I should: Bayley's memoirs remind me of that desideratum. And no doubt I will.

Of his own two volumes, one is wonderful -- Elegy for Iris, the first. But the second, Iris and Her Friends, seemed to me, alas, almost completely unnecessary. Murdoch's personality, still present despite disease, and Bayley's sense of the love that binds each party to the other, are both pervasive in the Elegy. The book gives its readers a feel for the world (Oxford) in which Bayley and Murdoch lived. It recalls that place over a period of decades, from the late forties through the eighties and nineties, and, recalling the place over a fairly long span of time, offers a brief introduction to academic manners and mores during a period of rapid change. It presents a cast of characters whom numbers of readers will know about (or know). A remorseless chronicle of the onset and progress of Murdoch's disease, and at the same time a reminder that disease need not define us or our relationships, the book is also, finally, a testament to -- although these words seem completely inadequate here -- the power of love.

Iris and Her Friends, by sorry contrast, seems a testament to the Non-Power of Sequels. It falls victim to every sin by which sequels are conventionally beset. True, I finished it. But Iíve tried hard to forget everything about it, especially since, having read it far too soon after having read the Elegy, I discovered that its treacly spirit seemed capable of throwing a harsh (and unmerited) retrospective light on the Elegy. One wonders if Bayley was so unsettled by his grief after Murdoch's death that he neither controlled nor realized what he was doing in this bad book.


An article in the July 1999 Atlantic Monthly by Stephen Budiansky, "The Truth About Dogs," deals with several matters that concern dogs: their domestication; the nature of their relationships with human beings; their overbreeding. A confirmed cat person, I ought to have found these matters of no interest whatsoever.

Unfortunately, I suppose, one dog did manage to enter my life. Although he died of metastatic lung cancer on New Year's Eve of 1998, I have not yet been able completely to exorcise his presence. (Even the cats, four natives and two frequent visitors alike, seem still to miss him.) Dogs require high maintenance; I am not sure I can cope with another. But Budiansky's wonderful article made me think again about just how weird it is to have one floating about the house (if one hundred and twenty pounds of dog can be said to "float"!) And how lovely.


Another toothsome morsel from the wonderful world of recent periodicals appeared in the November 4, 1999 issue of The New York Review of Books: "Andrew Delbanco's "The Decline and Fall of Literature." "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?" Delbanco asks; and finds them all melted in the overheated atmosphere of global literary warming.

Delbanco appropriates to himself the air of a commonsensical Appreciator of the Glories of Lit. The stance confers the grace due a beleaguered minority upon him. Far from anything resembling a minority, however, he is in absolute harmony with dominant trends in Kontemporary Kulchooral Authority. His essay offers a deeply conservative, perhaps even paleolithic, view of what has happened to Literature during the past three decades or so. It develops from a "review" of several recent books about the decay of literary study, most especially the impassioned but reactionary views espoused in a series of dyspeptic books by Alvin Kernan, including In Plato's Cave. I have watched with pleasure as The Auld Farts on several listserves I scan respond to Delbanco with warmth (and, now and again, a very nearly human intelligence). Their response is not surprising. He has assumed not only the stance of the beleaguered minority but also the mantle -- it cloaks him in Wisdom -- of the aged critic. Spiritually, he has turned himself not into their heir but rather their peer.

In absolute fairness, his essay is not really . . . well, stupid. It is merely wrong.


1999 turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be my Year of Tennessee Williams. In October I saw, and a few days later reread, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (I read the text in the version that appears in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, vol. 3 (1971; rpt. New York: New Directions, 1991 -- paperback.) Every play by Williams that I've had the pleasure to see and read this year -- Orpheus Descending, Not About Nightingales, Camino Real, and now Cat -- has reminded me of the immense pleasure I felt seeing many of his plays when they were new and I was very young. Too young, in fact, to "understand" them (if I can be said to do anything like understand them now). That pleasure has not diminished a whit. They perform and read very well indeed.


I happened across an interview with a writer in the London Times this past August. The writer was someone I'd never heard of but the interview made him seem worth knowing, so I sent for a copy of Alan Garner's The Stone Book Quartet (1976; 1977; 1978; 1983; rpt. London: Flamingo, 1999 -- paperback) (the book is not in print in the United States).

Thinking now about this magnificent book, I hardly know how to make you run to read it -- as you should! -- while simultaneously saying as little as possible about it so as to stay out of its way. Garner looks at some of the ways rural people lived, and (perhaps) continue to live, in England, specifically Cheshire, over the past century and a half. The book's language may occasionally be odd to American ears. Its issues will not always be clear to modern sensibilities, whether American or English. No matter. Extremely spare, The Stone Book Quartet wastes no words in telling its four separate-yet-joined stories. You will read them with growing conviction as you come to savor this simply gorgeous book. Then you will reread them almost immediately.

And then you will start giving copies away to friends.


I picked up, and almost immediately read, a copy of another English writer's work, this Michael Frayn's very funny play, Balmoral (London: Methuen, 1987). It is a tale of Soviet Britain in the 1930s. The famous castle has been turned over for use as a writer's resort. To it comes a visiting journalist from the capitalist east (Russia), hoping to catch a glimpse of "real life" in the world Marx and the British comrades have made.

He fails, of course.


Somewhat less happily, I also read Frayn's recent novel, Headlong (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1999). This book has been shortlisted for the Booker. Now up for a Whitbread, it has received very nearly universal praise. The arbiter of Literary Taste, The Newspaper of Record, included it, in its December Round-Up of All That Matters, as one of its Hot Picks for 1999, which must mean something. So you will understand that my opinion -- which is that the book is drivel -- is a distinctly minority view.

I remember once hearing someone -- perhaps Tom Stoppard (?) -- explain to a group of students that, when he set out to be a writer, drama was Where It Was At. And so it was to drama, he added, that he turned. Frayn is also a dramatist. As in Copenhagen, he is a very good one on occasion. Yet ours is no longer a time that valorizes theater. Hence -- perhaps looking to make amends -- people have seized upon this novel as if it were a heaven-sent opportunity to honor someone who, alas, writes, yuck, plays, which goodness knows no one could possibly take seriously, but who here has, thank God, written a real book.

Wrong wrong wrong. It isn't a real book. The opportunity wasn't heaven-sent. The honors are misplaced.

A philosopher married to an art historian has begun to write about art himself. But when he stumbles on a missing painting from Bruegel's cycle of The Seasons, he turns out to be a greedy and predacious bastard, just like the rest of us. Presumably this is all very amusing, and, of course, it is also Deeply Insightful about academicians'í hypocrisies to boot. The rustic boobs who own the Bruegel, incidentally, fare no better at Frayn's wittily satirical hand. Better suited, perhaps, to the world of Cold Comfort Farm, they, too, are as perfectly disgusting as the academics. Frayn's Deep Insights cut in many directions. Not a difficult trick if you don't like your characters. Frayn doesn't.

I suppose that people who like this kind of book will like this kind of book. I didn't. I don't know people who behave this way, even though I am not a Pollyanna-ish fan of the genus academicus with whom I live my professional and personal life. I simply didn't believe in either Frayn's characters or their milieu for a single moment. Moreover, the book felt so completely plotted that it sseemed to me utterly lifeless.

By contrast, I like Frayn's plays a lot: they may be written in a disgustingly disreputable form, but they are not "lifeless." -- even when all they are is farce (as in Noises Off). On the other hand, however, I have yet to read a novel by Frayn that works. The high praise Headlong has received is undeserved. It is just one more bad Frayn novel.


Quite a few years ago, I read a "comic-book novel" by an English artist and writer named Raymond Briggs. Called When the Wind Blows (and published in the United States by Schocken, 1982), this is a deeply chilly little book about World War III. (Chilly it may be, but it is also so good that, writing about it here, I paused in midstream to reread it.)

An elderly couple in the English countryside, using the guidance they find from a couple of civil defense booklets obtained from a public library, set about building a shelter and laying in a supply of food. They then set out to survive what looks likely to be -- and, indeed, soon is -- a little nuclear exchange between the Russians (or is it the Germans? they never can quite keep their wars straight) and the West. Trustingly confident of the ability of The Powers That Be to manage the situation, and quite certain that little England will once again pull through (it did the last time, after all), the couple keep their illusions intact all the way through to the end of the book. At its end, however, they themselves are not intact. Briggs does not even bother to kill them off. His reader ought, perhaps, to notice that such an ending might have been more merciful than the ending the book actually reaches.

When the Wind Blows is profoundly painful. Moreover, its comic book form is completely essential to its success. Art Spiegelmann's Maus is the only work I know that is even remotely like it; but, where Spiegelmann remembers horror, Briggs anticipates it.

Now Briggs has published another comic book, this one called Ethel and Ernest (New York: Knopf, 1999). The story of Briggs's parents -- they bear, not surprisingly, a very strong resemblance to the couple who encounter nuclear warfare in England's green and pleasant land in the earlier book -- this is a novel about aspiration, achievement, social change, and its costs. It is, in its way, as good an introduction to twentieth-century English social history as anything I have ever read -- or so, at any rate, I thought, as an admitted foreigner to the world Briggs depicts.

I read the book at a sitting in a bookstore. Now I have been given a copy as a Christmas present. I didnít need it. But it is such a wonderful book that I am, in fact, very happy to have it.


Surely one of the oddest books I've read this fall -- and one of the best -- is Nik Cohn's Yes We Have No: Adventures in the Other England (New York: Knopf, 1999). This is a "travel book," I suppose -- well, that's what The Newspaper of Record told me when it listed the book as one of the Travel Books of 1999, and they must be right, right? But that's not really what I would have called it, although I'm not therefore sure what I would call it, either. "Social criticism," perhaps? (But it can't be that either, or The Newspaper of Record, our Modern Pangloss, would never have deigned to notice it if it were anything quite so subversively dubious.)

Born in Ireland, raised in England, and now resident in the United States, Cohn has written a book that takes him, guided largely by a companion and tour guide from Ireland, through a large chunk of England that tourists like me never get to see. The people he meets, not the scenes he sees, are Cohn's focus: people who have been left behind -- sometimes untouched, more frequently damaged -- by the Thatcher years of blessed memory. Untouched or damaged, they are all located somewhere or other on a mad, or a poverty-stricken, or some other outskirt fringe of the "normal" world that is all the ordinary tourist -- or native -- gets to see. If Allen Ginsberg had been English, not American, and if he had written prose rather than "Howl," he might have written Yes We Have No; Carl Solomon would be at home in this book. But Ginsberg could have done it no better than Cohn has done. So good, and in so many different ways, this is a book that you will read passages of aloud to innocent bystanders. And they will thank you.


My flight to Paris, mentioned earlier as an occasion for reading Charles Todd's mysteries, preceded a train ride to Lyon, the city I was actually visiting. In preparation for my visit, since I had never before been to Lyon, I read another mystery: J. Robert Janes's Salamander (1994; rpt. New York: Soho Press, 1998).

It turns out that this book is one in a series of detective novels that, like Todd's, instructed me in the existence of a genre I'd not known about, although I have encountered it previously without knowing I was doing so: the "historical mystery." Todd uses post-World War I England as his historical setting. Janes sets his series in Occupied France. Philip Kerr, who has written three mysteries I read and enjoyed some years ago, set his books in pre-World War II Berlin: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem are all available from Penguin as Berlin Noir (1994)). He is obviously another practitioner in this genre, though I'd not known that when I read them.

Janes further complicates matters by creating as his "hero" not one but two detectives. One comes from the Sureté, the other from the Gestapo. Their unlikely partnership works, in part, because the man from the Gestapo is not "political": he's just a cop doing a dirty job.

Well, yeah.

In this novel, the job takes them to Lyon. A fairly large crowd of folks has been burned to death in a fire. An arsonist seems to be loose in town. Amongst the candidates for arsonist du jour, several have ties to a slew of unsavory German characters who, unlike the Gestapo dick, are political. Janes allows us to ogle our Nazis from the odd perspective of a criminal investigation that never looks at what really made his folks criminal. It's a good mystery and a decent read. But it is not an endearing book.


In Lyon, I reread an essay by Walter Benjamin that appears in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt (1968; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1969): "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting." I can't recall the last time I read this essay -- perhaps eight or nine years ago? If you have not yet read it, or have left it on the shelf as long as I, this moment (goodness, any moment!) would be just perfect for taking it up and reading it, whether for the first time or merely once again.

It helps if you like books.


Set in the Massif a bit to the west of Lyon, and based on historical events, Robert Daleyís The Innocents Within (New York: Villard, 1999) is popular fiction. That may damn it for some but I liked it a lot. Then again, I've always liked Daley, whose novel about NYPD Officer Robert Leuci, Prince of the City, is not only a good book but also, in Sidney Lumet's hands, the source of one of the best New York movies -- and one of the most underrated -- ever made.

The plot of The Innocents Within involves an American pilot who is shot down by Germans during World War II. He crash lands on the outskirts of a village where the local Protestant pastor has organized his parishioners to take in Jews who have fled the Nazis and their French collaborators. The pilot survives his crash, though he needs care. A young Jewish woman who lives in the pastorís own household cares for him . . . and (what a surprise!) falls in love with him. Hereís another surprise: he falls in love with her, too. A number of events, including the crash of the American's plane but also the need to fill all those waiting cattle cars with Jews, bring Nazis and French policemen nosing around. Bad Things happen.

The love plot is Daley's excuse. The novel is "about" the village and its pastor. Others have written about both, although as "history," not -- so far as I know -- as "fiction." I found Daley's book enjoyable and moving. It is a lovely read; I am bemused by the inattention it has received. It deserves much more, much better, from readers, whatever reviewers may have thought (or not thought) about it.


Milena McGraw's After Dunkirk (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998 -- and now a Mariner Paperback) is another war novel. It is not "popular fiction." It is extremely odd. I think it is wonderful.

Two voices dominate. One is that of an RAF pilot officer. Wounded in Europe before the evacuation from Dunkirk (the novel is set, its title reminds us, after Dunkirk), he had been returned to England and hospitalization following that retreat. Now back on active duty, he trains and then leads into combat a fighter squadron during the early days of the Battle of Britain. He also falls in love with a widowed signals officer at his air base.

The other (secondary) voice is that of a pilot who, not an officer, has the rank of sergeant. He is thus an anomaly in an air force where pilots are supposed to be officers. In fact, his entire unit consists of sergeant pilots, thanks (I assume) to the efficacy of the Luftwaffe in killing British pilots of appropriate rank, and the need for more of them anyway, even more of them who are not "gentle." His squadron is led by the pilot officer who is the novel's main voice.

Both of these voices are far from ordinary. The tales they tell are not told in a straightforward fashion. And the word I used above -- "odd" -- doesn't tell you the half of it. I recommend this book unreservedly. First, how the author uses the voices she creates offers her readers a crash course in technique. Second, the author has done something else that is, quite simply, astonishing. A person to whom I gave a copy of the book remarked that the characters don't feel like RAF pilots. He's absolutely right. They don't. We all probably have more or less similarly clichéd ideas about what "RAF pilots" must have been like. McGraw's pilots don't resemble the clichés at all. They don't because they're children.

And she's right. It's our clichés that are wrong.

This is a book I found painful to read. And compelling. And worth the pain. Where McGraw learned what went into this book is something I would love to know. She is a Czech immigrant. English is not her first language (but you wonít guess that from reading her astonishing prose). In addition, she is simply too young for World War II, which she must have -- how unfashionable! -- imagined. This is her first book. No fair on all counts, you want to say; but she's too good to be upset by. Hold your breath for her next book. It can't come a moment too soon.


In a Battle of Britain frame of mind, I suppose, but also because I have enjoyed every one of his books I've been able to read, I picked up a copy of John Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and whipped right through it. Microhistory? Yes. And with a vengeance. A good history, too.

Lukacs is concerned with the early days of Churchill as wartime Prime Minister. The War is going badly. Germany has not quite overrun the Continent, but it is about to. The Dunkirk evacuation is but a few days in the future. No one imagines the possibilitys that as many troops will be successfully evacuated as eventually were. France has not yet fallen but it is about to. The Soviet Union is allied with Germany and the German invasion is more than a year off in the as-yet-unforeseeable future. The United States is still neutral, Roosevelt and Churchill still strangers to one another. Roosevelt has not yet succeeded in preparing America for the likelihood that it will once more need to enter a European war. Up for re-election, and to an unprecedented third term, he is not anxious to sound any war tocsins. He has no reason to trust Churchill's leadership capabilities.

And yet, during these very dark days, Churchill reaches a decision -- and persuades his own government, which also doesnít yet trust him, to go along with it -- to accept no negotiated peace with Hitler. The burden of Lukacs'í book is to detail how Churchill came to that decision, how he managed to implement it, and what its significance was (and is).

There is an element, not always repressed, of hero worship in this book. For a reader like me, deeply mistrustful of much that he thinks Churchill represents, that hero worship is unwelcome. It is a measure of the success with which Lukacs argues his case that I left the book deeply suspicious that he might be right.


People who have not read Treasure Island are "savages," the mother of a friend of mine is said to have remarked; and I am therefore happy to be able to report that I have read it. Savagely enough nonetheless, however, I have to confess that I read it only during the decade of the 1980s. Robert Louis Stevenson was an author whom, as a child and even through much of my adulthood, I knew I could safely ignore. Ever so slowly, I have been catching up.

Last month, I finally got around to The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888; rpt. London: Cassell, 1919 -- but many editions are in print). Stevenson is no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Donne -- but, even so, no one needs to hear me say "I liked it" about this book any more than about theirs. But I did.

A few peculiarities deserve at least remark. This book illustrates a very curious attitude to gender. That attitude cannot arise simply from Stevenson's use of a pseudo-Shakespearian convention (put your actors into a dress and no one will notice that they are boys or men; put an actor wsearing a dress into male disguise and everyone will continue to see him as a "she"). What does this attitude to gender come from? In addition, the book's cavalier attitude to the death of several of its characters seems jes' a mite severe.

Stevenson continues to grow on me; his books even raise some interesting questions. A very enjoyable book.


The first novel by Madeleine B. Robins is called The Stone War (New York: Tor, 1999). It is very good. Robins establishes her setting in a not-too-distant-in-the-future New York City. In her world, tendencies to violence already visible today have been grotesquely exaggerated. Two examples only: apartment buildings have become armed and defended by multitudes of private police; crossing the street may take you through police checkpoints.

Robins follows her setting of the scene rapidly with a disaster that brings the City down. Much of lower Manhattan lies under water. The World Trade Center buildings topple over at street level. The FDR is twisted and curled in on itself, partly in and partly out of the East River. Bridges into Manhattan are impassable. Of the very few survivors -- many people have died; others have fled -- some have been transformed, literally, into monsters.

One person -- and only one person -- has bucked the outflowing tide of fleeing refugees. He has got himself back into New York after the disaster in hopes of rescuing his divorced wife and two sons, who live with her. He eventually establishes a kind of "fort" where surviving people, a very few of them monstrously deformed physically but not therefore monsters, wage a battle for survival and civility against those whose monstrousness is revealed both by their looks and by their actions. He and the party who have assembled around him are successful in this fight. Nonetheless, they remain cut off from the rest of the world. No one enters New York: not to offer succor; not even to investigate. Gradually, it becomes clear that whatever the cause of the disaster, it remains to be dealt with. But first it must be discovered.

Robins' book elaborates a specific kind of science-fiction tale. It is a tale that was told several times in theĎ40s and Ď50s. (To cite Robins' precedents here, unfortunately, would also be to reveal too much of her plot.) Suffice it to say that the novel quite satisfactorily develops in imaginative ways possibilities in this mini-"genre" that Robins's predecessors (most of whom I know only in short story formats) left unexplored.

I do think that Robins may imagine that The Stone War is somehow a love song to New York. It struck me to the contrary as a book the major flaw of which is that it loathes the City it thinks it likes. (The book is almost a textbook on deconstruction waiting to be written.) That's obviously not my favorite thing about the book; but I read it -- and enjoyed it -- anyway.


A very useful brief introduction to the practices of modern book history is provided in an exceptionally readable new book by Brian Richardson, Printing, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 -- printed in simultaneous hardbound and paperback editions). The impact of the printing press on the practices of bookmaking, writing, and reading is a "hot topic" in various scholarly communities these days. It is also my topic, both as a teacher of courses on the history of books and printing and as a librarian who works with older books.

Richardson concentrates not on the Germanies, where printing in the west originated and over and from which the new technique first spread to the rest of western and southern Europe. He concentrates instead on the various states of the Italian peninsula, which quickly became a major printing locus (especially Venice). This narrow Italian focus does not preclude his raising and treating intelligently many issues relevant to the early days of printing throughout Europe. Nor does it preclude his bringing in evidence from Germany, France, or England whenever information about such non-Italian practices might be helpful to his readers.

This is a book that begs to be used as a text. If you are merely curious about the new book history, course or no course, it is a very good place to look. Richardson's book introduces his specifically Italian subject very well indeed. He has at the same time also produced a book that offers a synthesizing view of the entire field. It is easy to read. It is worth reading.



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