Reviewing the Review: November 23 2008

British Fiction History Jazz Age
Please correct me if I'm missing something, but I've always considered V. S. Naipaul more of a monument than a writer. I make it a habit to ask friends and acquaintances what books they are excited about or which they consider lifelong favorites and I have never heard Naipaul's name come up. The several times I've tried to read him I got quickly mired down in pools of self-satisfied dullness and quickly concluded that I must have picked the wrong title among his many, many books to try. Yet George Packer calls V. S. Naipaul "the greatest English novelist of the past half century" on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review. Admittedly, I have a hard time finding an obvious counter-suggestion -- Doris Lessing? Salman Rushdie? Ian McEwan? John Fowles? Barnes and Amis pere and fils don't make the cut and Osborne and Pinter wrote plays -- but V. S. Naipaul just can't be the right answer, because that would be too depressing for England.

Packer's reverent review of Patrick French's biography The World Is What It Is focuses entirely on Naipaul's love life, and that's pretty depressing for England too. Still, when I turn to Geoffrey Wheatcroft's fascinating review of Piers Brandon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 I have to pause at the title's suggested comparison to Edward Gibbon's Rome. Rome fell because it was besieged, starved and invaded. The British Empire has dissolved in the age of national self-determination, but London has not been besieged, starved or invaded. Still, if V. S. Naipaul is the greatest English novelist of the past half century, they may be doing worse than I thought.

Today's Book Review serves up some good fiction coverage, including lively praise for Antonio Lobo Antunes's What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? by Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever. Is everybody creating titles like Miranda July now? This is the only foreign novel under review today, but Stacey D'Erasmo treats Carolyn Chute's militia-strewn deep Maine as a foreign country in her review of The School of Heart's Content Road, which seems to match Chute's intent in this story about an alternative communal settlement in the Maine woods, "decidedly suspicious of the United States government, Nafta and public schooling ... very prepared for a global emergency". D'Erasmo is quite pleased by this book, and her excitement is absolutely infectious. The article is accompanied by what must be one of the best author photos ever taken, though clearly this gun-wielding couple is posing for the camera. I'm going to read this book.

Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation doesn't fare as well in the hands of Madison Smartt Bell ("Unferth's characters are so abstract that no one would weep over their fates. This makes plausibility almost beside the point, and the sense of contrivance perhaps even an asset.").

I like Matt Weiland's endpaper about "The Chicagoan", a midwestern New Yorker wannabe magazine now remembered in a book called The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age. The book costs $65, so I won't be buying it, but I will certainly sit down and have a good time with it in a Barnes and Noble or Borders aisle shortly.

I don't have much background in science books, but I also like Steve Jones's review of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, a book with an arresting thesis:

Holldobler and Wilson's central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that sting me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony's rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of co-operation give the impression of planning.

This captures my interest,and in fact reminds me of some observations I came up with myself after reading Carl Jung during our past election season. I'm just not sure that human societies are completely different from insect societies in this regard, though of course we like to believe that we are.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: November 30 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: November 16 2008.
16 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: November 23 2008"

by Dan on

Re Naipaul - never been able to read him. Sure, Nobel Prize, but, the greatest of the past 50 years? That puts us back to 1958, when Beckett, Nabokov, and others of that caliber were going full tilt. I guess he means living novelists - in that case the current crop is pretty thin - the titans of 1958 being replaced by Roth, Updike, Oates, and other literary hamsters, so maybe Naipaul is indeed the man.

by steve on

Counter-suggestions: how about William Golding and Muriel Spark? Their absence in a list which includes McEwan, Rushdie and Fowles makes me wince.

Post-war British English literature isn't very interesting really. As Naipaul's reputation confirms, it's mitigated by outsiders: Irishmen, South Africans, Australians, even Sebald the German.

by Archie on

I've not tried Naipaul yet either but I love this opening sentence from A Bend in the River :
"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

Ballard is my favourite English writer, Burgess a close second. Amis is up there with London Fields and Money, Rushdie is annoying, McEwan strangely boring.

I believe it was Hegel (a couple of centuries prior to Jung) who suggested that all humans are each a part of the larger entity. Some being meant to feel the extremes of great or terrible so that others would know of it through them. And not surprisingly we’ve now reached the collective soul via internet. Each of us a part of this infinite cyber creature.

As for UK, my recollection is that after the incredible devastation of WWII, the weltgeist of Europe and England was that mere survival was quite a good thing. As so much and so many did not survive. Among other things, empires were lost. (Considering the condition of Africa and the Arab world, that was a huge US foreign policy failure - we demanded the dissolution of empires, and it’s pretty fucked up.)

As for England’s greatest writer, there’s PG Wodehouse of course, whose basic themes were - affairs of the heart supercede the concerns of a decimated aristocracy, and it’s all quite hilarious anyway. But my favorite Brit writer is Brooklyn’s own Tony O’Neill, currently touring the US with his latest release, while working on the next one. (http://tonyoneill.net).

by Levi Asher on

Yes, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark -- all good suggestions. Steve, I never pretended to be an expert in contemporary British fiction -- that's why I'm asking for help!

Agreed about South Africans and Australians. As I pondered this question, the names of J. M. Coetzee and Peter Carey kept popping into my head, over and over, despite the fact that neither are English.

by Jim Stavola on

Chute's photo was great. The review mentioned some of her past books which I have read but a long time ago. That there still are such micro-cultures that the Chutes live in excites me. Granted I am not a huge fan of guns (but against banning) nor do I belong to a militia, but I worry about America becoming a one culture, wearing Wal-Mart or Sears (if they survive the economy)latest fashions and eating at a McDs on every corner nightly. NYC was never like rural Misissippi. One produced Charlie Parker and Miles Davis music, the other B.B. King and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Not so bad.

I do, indeed, love that photo of Carolyn and Michael Chute! It's like a mix of New England eccentricity, Nirvanna grunge edginess, and rural Americana.

by dan s on

No, you’re right. Naipul is unreadable in the sense that his books make no impression on the reader. He’s unable to make his character’s concerns our own, thus the stories become meaningless and his books are quickly set aside. I’m tempted to dismantle Unferth’s Vacation, but I’ll just say the reviewer nailed it in your quoted snippet and continue to some joy--

Best English novelist of the last 50 years in unquestionably Lessing. She is in possession of an enormous mind. Her oft cited ‘The Fifth Child’ is a pitiless punch in the gut, and you can read it in two days. She paints the family so well their destruction at the hands of this child, who is not evil but merely acts according to his nature, is livid and leaves one shaking. ‘Shikasta’ while futuristic is possibly the finest description of human society and anthropology I’ve read. So many of her books have everything you’d want in a novel. ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour,’ ‘In Pursuit of English,’ ‘Love Again,’ terrific works all and that’s leaving off the seminal ‘Notebook.’ For prose style, characterization, intelligence, heart, and a piercing eye aimed always at that elusive sweet spot, it’s Lessing. I don’t mean to go overboard but I discovered her with the Nobel and she has enriched my life.

by Daniel on

Being the greatest novelist is different from writing the greatest novel; I think part of VSN's charm is his constancy (a quality that the Nobel people, come to think of it, are recently fond of as well) although I have never been overly engaged by his work. One might also point out that he is not English, in fact, but the Brits love to collect nice things that aren't properly theirs and I think VSN loves the label too much.

Add me to the list of people who will buy Carolyn Chute's new novel based on the picture!

by Pete on

Levi, I know you usually take publishers to task here, but allow me a shot at booksellers: when selling an expensive title that is loaded with illustrations and is shrinkwrapped, please unwrap one copy for customers to examine. Our local B&N (Chicago area, even!) has a big stack of copies of The Chicagoan, every one of them shrinkwrapped. I've already seen enough online images of the book's contents to make me really want to own it, but the average customer probably hasn't. B&N would sell a lot more copies of this $65 tome if customers could see the amazing images inside. (Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends was shrinkwrapped, too, probably to protect the intricate book jacket, but our nearest Borders was smart enough to unwrap one copy. If I hadn't been able to read passages of Chabon's chapter on Conan Doyle I never would have bought the book, but I loved what I read and ended up buying the book.)

by Warren Weappa on

I had a copy of his history of Trinidad and lacked the patience at the time to read it but I like him but would prefer Cormac McCarthy or Don DeLillo but I have only tried the book I just mnentioned. Doesn't V.S. fit into the post-colonial canon?

by Archie on

Americans, too, like to collect things not strictly their own - Bellow, Nabokov...a few more I'm sure...and I can't think either of any South Africans or Ozzies we've accrued in Britain...Steve?

Also, I am going to have to investigate Doris Lessing after Dan S's convincing appraisal.

by Duncan Brown on

Do Scottish writers like James Kelman or Alisdair Gray get a look in. Or, are they just to be considered British and politely non-English-the same applies to Welsh writers, the 'Celtic Fringe' as everyone charmingly refers to all things and persons non-English in these parts has more going for it than English literature at the moment.
Irish literature is one of the great artistic acheivments of the century just passed, just as well, or it may be referred to as subtext of post war English literature.
The Scottish literary tradition is as different from the English tradition as Irish literature.
Then again; if any one thinks the Amis's or P.G Wodehouse- nice as it does- is great literature,I'll toast 'War and Peace' for breakfast.

by dan s on

Duncan, I was thinking only of those writers who fall under that red cross-looking flag. Expanding it I think would also get the wistful Seamus in there for a look. I lol'd your last sentence. Archie, cheers and I agree with you re Rushdie. Daniel, I'd like to hear your take on Naipul's constancy if you're up for it.

by Levi Asher on

Well, I love PG Wodehouse's work a whole lot, but he belongs to the earlier half century. Lot of competition there, especially if we include Irish writers as English (and I really don't know if Scottish or Irish writers would want to be included in this category or not).

Pete, I've experienced the same problem. Easily solved with a quick swipe of the thumbnail.

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