“After ten years on the stuff you live in this other world where everybody you know is one.” Keith Richards, in the documentary 25 x 5, The Further Adventures of the Rolling Stones.
The "cities of the plain" in the Bible are Sodom and Gomorrah, and Sodome et Gomorrhe is the French title of the fourth book of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. This volume opens with M. as voyeur again, this time eavesdropping on the Baron de Charlus and Jupien the tailor as they have homosexual sex in Jupien’s shop. M. had always been told by Saint-Loup that Charlus was a notorious womanizer, but now M. has first-hand knowledge of the Baron’s true nature. Charlus is a closeted homosexual, or in Proust’s term, an invert, and he prefers to have sex with workmen and men of the lower classes. Jupien, though he has just met the Baron, becomes his procurer and protector. M. now has an explanation for Charlus’ seemingly irrational behavior. It is due to his repressed homosexuality, and his fear of being “found out”.
1. What on earth are these little kids doing on this "Kiddie-A-Go-Go" 1967 TV show? Is it the Pony? The Frug, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator? It's pretty cute and weird, whatever they're doing.
2. Friend of LitKicks (FOL) Tim Barrus at Electric Literature! What a combination.
M.’s infatuation with Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust's Guermantes Way, proves to be short lived. One day his mother tells him “You really must stop hanging about trying to meet Mme de Guermantes. You’re becoming a laughing stock.” And with that, he is cured of the malady of his obsession, much more easily than Swann was cured of his obsession with Odette, but once again Proust makes the comparison between love and disease. At this same time, Saint-Loup breaks with Rachel. He goes to Morocco to forget the affair, but sends M. a letter telling him that Mme Stermaria, a beautiful and desirable young woman recently divorced from her husband, is now available. This offers M. occasion for a new passion. He writes her a note, inviting her to dinner, and then waits in his room for an answer.
1. So the New York Times is going ahead with a payment wall for its website. I still say this is a bad business decision. Newspapers have always made more money on advertising than on sales, and newspapers that force readers to pay for online content will significantly harm their advertising numbers without bringing in a lot of subscription revenue. The New York Times is about to get much smaller.
1. A Gulliver playground in Valencia, Spain.
2. Beat poet Andy Clausen on YouTube.
3. Amazingly, the Velvet Underground will be reuniting at the New York Public Library, though I'm not clear if this will be a talk, a musical performance or both. It's sad that late sweet-toned lead guitarist Sterling Morrison will be missing, but it's a nice surprise to see the reemergence of Doug Yule, who is widely disliked for replacing the great John Cale on bass after Reed kicked Cale out, but who helped them record their best album.
4. Jerome's Niece, a Buddhist poetry blog.
5. Onetime Heeb writer Jason Diamond offers a "Kaddish for Jewish Zines".
6. In the end, after a sluggish start, Electric Literature's much-discussed experiment with Twitter fiction turned up an excellent Rick Moody story about relationship anxiety, thwarted love and people who cling to their phones on dates. An excellent Rick Moody story, that is, but not necessarily an excellent Twitter story. Moody focused on the 140 character limit, but I think Twitter's most distinguishing feature is not its character count but its pacing and easy interpersonal immediacy (note: you can follow me on Twitter here). It became clear why Moody missed this when he revealed in an interview that he'd taken on this project because Electric Literature had asked him to, not because he had any actual interest in Twitter. There are many writers who do get Twitter -- say, Colson Whitehead, who is marvelous at it -- and I hope Electric Lit will turn to one of these writers for their next foray. Overall: great publicity, moving story, well done all around.
7. There will not be a Literary Kicks Best Books of 2009 list. Please excuse my grumpiness, but I mostly find these aggregate lists annoying and unremarkable. I do like to read personal lists of lifelong favorites by smart readers, but I don't care for annual lists or lists put together by groups.
8. Henry Rollins visits Bhopal, site of a chemical plant disaster 25 years ago.
9. For database techies, here's NoSQL. Elsewhere, here's just plain No.
10. I don't agree with this. I'm amazed at how good "The Office" manages to be, season after season. Sure, there are ups and downs, but this is one of those rare shows -- like "Twin Peaks", like "The Honeymooners" -- that represents television's ascent to the realm of literature. I will watch it until Jim and Pam drop dead.
(Note: This article continues our study of the individual volumes that make up Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". "The Guermantes Way" is quite lengthy, consisting of two very large chapters, so we will cover each chapter in a separate piece.)
When he was a child in Combray, the protagonist of Remembrance and his family would take long walks. They would follow one of two "ways". The first was the way toward the town of Meseglise-la-Vineuse. This was known as the Meseglise way, or "Swann's way" because it led past Tansonville, the Combray villa of Charles Swann. The second way was the "Guermantes way", so named because it passed by Guermantes, the mythic estate of the aristocratic Guermantes family. We followed "Swann's way" in the first volume. In volume three we take up the "Guermantes way".
Young M. had long been obsessed with the Guermantes family, aristocrats who dated their origins to the early middle ages. But they remained elusive to him, an image in his imagination: "I pictured them either in tapestry, like the Comtesse de Guermantes in the ‘Coronation of Esther' which hung in our church, or else in iridescent colors, like Gilbert the Bad in the stained glass window ..." (Swann's Way). As the first chapter of the third volume opens, M. and his family have moved into an apartment in a wing of the hotel particulier -- city mansion -- of the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. The Guermantes no longer represent the feudal past of Combray for our hero, but rather the Faubourg Saint-Germain. This is the quarter in Paris that is home to the aristocracy and high society. The Duchesse de Guermantes "has the highest position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain".
M. becomes obsessed with the Duchesse: "it became all the more essential that I should be able to explore [ ... ] the ‘salon' of Mme de Guermantes"; and he begins, literally, to stalk her. (M. relates many of his strange actions, such as spying on Vinteuil's daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann's Way, or obsessively following Mme de Guermantes, in a matter-of-fact, unabashed way. He is, after all, aspiring to be a writer, so the search for knowledge and experience transcends the need for privacy on the part of his subjects. We will encounter more of his undetected observations later in the next volumes.)
At any rate, M. is in love with Mme de Guermantes from afar, and he pursues her in earnest: "Now, every morning, long before the hour at which she left her house, I went by a devious route to post myself at the corner of the street along which she generally came, and when the moment of her arrival seemed imminent, I strolled back with an air of being absorbed in something else, looking the other way, and raised my eyes to her face as I drew level with her, but as though I had not expected to see her."
All of M.'s skulking about trying to catch glimpses of the Duchesse earns him nothing but irritation on the part of Mme de Guermantes, along with rebukes for his behavior from his family servant, Francoise. Ever resourceful when in love, however, M. hits upon the idea of visiting his friend Robert Saint-Loup at his barracks in the town of Doncieres. Ostensibly, the trip is to allow them to spend some time together, as Saint-Loup has had difficulties getting to Paris on a regular basis. But the ulterior motive is that Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes, is Saint-Loup's aunt. M. thinks that he might get an introduction to Oriane, the object of his adoration, through the good graces of her nephew.
M. spends a wonderful time at Doncieres with Robert. He stays at an old hotel, full of charm and character, recommended by his friend, and he dines almost every night with Robert and his fellow soldiers, who get on quiet well with our young protagonist. He observes them performing military exercises, and becomes interested in the military arts. He also secures a promise from Saint-Loup that Robert will arrange a visit for him to the Duchesse of Guermantes, on the pretext of viewing some of her paintings by the artist Elstir, who is a friend of both young men. This military setting also gives Proust the opportunity to introduce the real-life Dreyfus Affair, which began with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, for allegedly passing secret documents to Germany during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The Affair blew up into a huge scandal when it became apparent to many that Dreyfus was innocent. France was divided for years over the Affair, which had distinctly anti-Semitic overtones. The Dreyfus Affair, and whether characters in the novel are Dreyfusard (for Dreyfus), or anti-Dreyfusard (against Dreyfus) is a thread that will weave itself through the next several volumes.
After his sojourn at Doncieres, M. returns to Paris, where his grandmother has become quite ill. Saint-Loup also returns to Paris, for a brief time. He forestalls setting up a meeting with his aunt for M. to view her Elstirs. Instead, the two friends go to meet Saint-Loup's mistress, the woman who has been making his life miserable with deception and infidelity. They travel outside of Paris by train to a suburban village, where his mistress, Rachel, has been living. The village has lost its old luster, comprised now of modest homes, but it has been transformed into a place of beauty by the flowering of the pear and cherry trees. "On our way to her house we passed a row of little gardens, and I was obliged to stop, for they were all dazzlingly aflower with pear and cherry blossoms ..." Saint-Loup leaves M. to admire the gardens, and fetches Rachel, whom our protagonist instantly recognizes as "Rachel when from the Lord", the prostitute whom he could have had in a brothel for twenty francs. She is now an actress, and the three of them go on to lunch and then to the theatre, during which time Robert and Rachel quarrel and make up, only to quarrel again. The image of the low class village made attractive by the flowering fruit trees nicely parallels the character of Rachel, a low class ex-prostitute now made attractive by her wiles as an actress.
After leaving Robert, M. goes to call on Mme de Villeparisis, the old friend of his grandmother with whom they had spent much time with at Balbec. She is giving an afternoon party, and although her salon is not nearly of the same caliber as that of the Duchesse of Guermantes, it is our protagonist's first entry into a Parisian social gathering, and a chance for Proust to do what he does best: skewer the society types and their hanger's-on, expose their snobbery and lack of education, and show us a vast and amusing swath of Parisian life in the confines of a dinner party or soiree.
Mme de Villeparisis' salon is attended by M. de Norpois, the diplomat and friend of M's father, who is also Mme de Villeparisis' long time lover. The salon is also populated by some minor members of the nobility who are required to attend because they are relatives of Mme de Villeparisis, and because they are not received at more the fashionable salons. Also in attendance are an eccentric cast of characters who include M. Pierre, a historian of the Frond (a civil war in 17th century France), Bloch, M.'s old school friend who was now a rising dramatist, and M.'s old neighbor Legrandin, who reveals himself to be an insufferable snob, trying to pretend that he doesn't know M., while taking every chance to flatter Mme de Villeparisis. The Marquise herself (Mme de Villeparisis is a titled Marquise) is sitting at a drawing table in a black bonnet, surrounded by watercolors and paintbrushes, where she has been painting still-life floral pieces, using flowers in various vases as models. The Duke and Duchess of Guermantes arrive, obliged to attend because Mme de Villeparisis is Oriane's aunt. She sits briefly next to M. and remarks on seeing him walking, but in a pleasant way. In the meantime, Bloch (Dreyfusard) has been trying to badger M. de Norpois (anti-Dreyfusard) into revealing his feelings on the Dreyfus case, to no avail. Bloch then, being still rough around the edges, ill at ease in society, and rather obnoxious to boot, commits a horrendous faux-pas. He means to compliment Mme de Villeparisis by making a gesture toward her painting, but he only succeeds in toppling over a glass container containing apple blossoms, spilling all the water on the carpet. At the same moment, the historian of the Frond, with his back to Bloch, complements the Marquise by saying "You really have a fairy's touch." Bloch, thinking this a jibe at him, responds insolently: "It's not of the slightest importance; I'm not wet." The party continues with more bad behavior on the part of the social upstarts, continued snobbery on the part of the aristocrats, and a general expression of anti-Semitism by the society types, centered on the Dreyfus affair.
M. leaves the party in the company of M. Charlus. Charlus offers to take M. in hand, to guide him through the maze of society and life, and offer M. some of the vast wisdom and learning that he has acquired over his life. Charlus then launches into an insane tirade against Bloch and his family, suggesting that the Blochs, being Jewish, should re-enact the David and Goliath story at a salon, with Bloch pere being Goliath, and in which Bloch fils as David would smite him, for the amusement of all, and then top it off by giving his mother a good thrashing. After this startling conversation, Charlus reiterates his offer to guide young M through the world. He then hops into a carriage and is off, vanishing into the night. The chapter finishes in melancholy. M.'s grandmother's illness has continued for some time now. Her doctor orders her to take some exercise, thinking that this will speed a cure. M. thus accompanies her on an outing to the Champs-Elysee. The weather is fine, but his grandmother is not. She has a slight stroke, and M. takes her to see nearby Professor E, who at first has little time to examine her, having a previous appointment to dine with the Minister of Commerce, and is irritated by the thought of interrupting his social affairs to occupy himself with a patient, even an old family friend. But the Professor does have a look at her in his examining room, and the prognosis is not good. "Your grandmother is doomed," he tells M. "It was a stroke brought on by uremia." M. takes her home, and his mother at once realizes that the grandmother will die. And thus, the women who accompanied him to Balbec, the woman who encouraged his reading, his beloved grandmother, becomes rapidly more ill and finally dies. M.s mother is plunged into a deep grief from which she never quite recovers.
(Once again, thanks to David Richardson for the Proustian portraits).
(Here is Michael Norris's follow-up to an earlier post, Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines.)
Reading the beginning of the second volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time is like slipping into a comfortable armchair in front of a blazing fire on a cold, damp November afternoon. As the story begins, we meet the Marquis de Norpois, a diplomat and colleague of the protagonist’s father. Sitting in our cozy chair, we are warmed and amused by Proust's sketch of this worldly, self-important ambassador, who talks in cliched diplomatic language, but nonetheless convinces the protagonist's father that it would be good for the young M. to go to the theatre and see the actress Berma in a production of Racine's Phedre. He also assures M.'s father that a career in letters would not be bad a bad thing for M. to pursue, thus saving our hero from the diplomatic future that his father had in mind for him. Now, our minds wander far above the constraints of a mere armchair. Guided by Proust's words, they drift into his world of dukes, duchesses and barons -- and in this volume particularly -- its young girls. The original English title was Within a Budding Grove, but newer translations carry a more literal and meaningful name: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The hero is now an adolescent, and he experiences his first taste of the obsessive love that will soon engulf him.
And it is adolescence and especially adolescent love that serves as the main focus for this second volume. First, Marcel falls in love with Gilberte Swann, the lovely daughter of Swann and Odette, who is now Madame Swann. Swann has changed. He now cultivates relations with the low-level functionaries and bourgeoisie that populate Mme. Swann's salon with the same avidity he once reserved for the Guermantes and the Prince of Wales. Young M. tries to get an invitation to the Swann’s home through the good graces of M. de Norpois, but Norpois refuses (through malice?) to do what would have "given him so little trouble, and me so much joy". Eventually our young protagonist is invited to Gilberte's home, and becomes an intimate of the Swanns. He loves Gilberte intensely, but the more he loves her, the less interest she seems to have in him. Suddenly, inexplicably, he terminates the relationship, and refuses to see Gilberte anymore, although he still pays visits to Mme. Swann. And he suffers terribly from the end of the relationship, from the end of love. This is a theme that will repeat itself throughout the work. At the end of a love affair, the protagonist, as Swann did before him, envelopes himself in remorse and despair, and only time and habit (Proust’s word) will free him from the grips of the love that has died.
Eventually, external events save M. from his morose brooding over Gilberte. The family decides that it would be good for his health if he were to make a trip to the seaside town of Balbec. The hero, who is very sensitive emotionally, is at first disoriented by the strangeness of his hotel room and by the new people he encounters, but he recovers, and soon begins a summer idyll on the beach, ensconced in the comforts of the Grand Hotel. He is accompanied by his grandmother, an old-fashioned and practical lady, who believes in the benefits of fresh air, and who constantly quotes from the 18th century book of correspondence, The Letters of Madame de Sevigne. . The letters reveal the love of Madame Sevigne for her daughter, and mirrors the same love that M.’s grandmother has for her daughter, his mother. They then encounter the Marquise de Villeparisis, an old friend of his grandmother's, who drives them about the Norman countryside in her carriage and provides the protagonist with his first relationship with an aristocrat, albeit a less brilliant and more eccentric member of the nobility than those he will meet later on.
He also becomes friends with another member of the aristocracy, Robert de Saint-Loup, a soldier and relative of the Guermantes. Robert, despite his upbringing, is a leftist who reads extensively, and admires M. for his intellect. He also has his own Proustian love problem in the person of Rachel, a struggling young actress and former prostitute. M. calls her Rachel quand du seigneur (Rachel when from the lord) because he saw her once in a brothel and she reminded him of the character of Rachel in an opera by Halevy. At the time, M. could have had her for twenty francs, while Saint-Loup is now expending many times that amount to keep her. Their relationship mirrors that of Swann and Odette: Saint-Loup is hopelessly in love despite their difference in social class, while Rachel is constantly unfaithful to him.
Additionally, while mingling with this aristocratic group, Marcel has his first encounter with the strangely-behaved Baron de Charlus, who at certain times and places is a paragon of charm and politeness and at others is insolent and incredibly rude. The Baron will take an increasingly larger role as the tale progresses. He is perhaps the most bizarre and interesting of all Proust’s aristocratic creations.
Saint-Loup takes M. to marvelous dinners at a restaurant called Rivebelle, where they drink and eat, and where M. dreams of possessing the women he sees there. One evening at Rivebelle, they encounter the artist Elstir, who appeared in Swann's Way as the young painter known as Biche, a frequent visitor to the salon of the Verdurin's. He has now gained considerably in fame. Saint-Loup and M. write him a letter from their table, and he invites them to visit him at his studio.
The visit is postponed, however, because M. has again fallen in love. This time it is not one girl, but "a little band" of five or six attractive girls who go about together, and who M. tries to connect with, to no effect. He finally makes good on his visit to Elstir and finds, to his surprise, that Elstir knows the little band, and particularly their leader, Albertine Simonet. M., after an introduction from Elstir and several false starts finally gets to know the little band and becomes a member, walking with them happily on the cliffs above Balbec and picnicking by the sea. He is torn between Andree and Albertine as to which girl he loves the best, but as the novel moves forward, Albertine enters more and more into his life. This volume ends, however, on the discordant note of M. attempting to kiss Albertine while she is alone in a room at his hotel, and she rebuffs him.
Love is the thus the major theme of this volume, but another recurring Proustian theme is well illuminated here also. This is the idea that how we imagine something before we come to know it is often more beautiful or brilliant than its reality. Then when we experience the reality, we are disappointed. And sometimes, we reevaluate and come to a third conclusion. The classic example of this in the whole of In Search of Lost Time comes at the beginning of Young Girls in Flower. M. has wanted to see the actress Berma, and has dreamed of her performances for years. Her classic vehicle is the play Phedre by Racine, and the young protagonist has memorized every line from this play and imagined the brilliance of Berma's performance in each scene. Finally, through the urging of M. de Norpois, his parents allow him to attend the theatre and see Berma. But he is disappointed in her performance, which seems flat to him compared to what he had imagined. He comes home depressed. But in discussing the performance with Norpois, and reading a review in the papers, he realizes that the performance was truly brilliant, and that he has to consider art not only from the perspective of his imagination, but also that of the artist. Likewise, he pays a visit to the Church at Balbec, which he had again given a magnificent build-up in his mind, only to be disappointed with the real thing. But in talking about the Church later, with Elstir, he comes to realize the beauty in its carved figures that he had dismissed as rustic and rude. Through a tempering of his anticipation, and in discussions with artists such as Elstir, he begins to develop a nascent critical sense for art.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower ends with the end of the summer season. The weather is starting to become stormy and cold, and most of the other guest have left the Grand Hotel. The hero and his grandmother pack up their things and head back to Paris. Where more adventure awaits.
(Image of "Gilberte Swann Watching Marcel" from Resemblance: The Portraits by David Richardson.)
The June 21 issue of the New York Times Book Review gets off to an bad start with Katie Roiphe's front-page review of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Cristina Nehring (the review also briefly discusses Against Love by Laura Kipnis).
The problem with Roiphe's review is twofold: lack of specificity and excessive credulity. She continually hints at "riveting stories" and "creative interpretations," yet, as Rolphie presents them, Nehring's ideas sound as cliched as possible:
Elsewhere, Nehring interrogates our steadfast insistence on balanced, healthy relationships, our readiness to condemn doomed, impossible entanglements. She argues that it may in fact be a sign of health to enter into a relationship that is turbulent, demanding or unorthodox. She praises long-distance relationships, arduous relationships, relationships with men who are elusive, relationships the therapeutic culture adamantly opposes. She asks, “Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strength and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”
If Rolphie in fact sees this for the bland attempt to be contrarian that it sounds like, she doesn't let on. Elsewhere, Rolphie quotes Nehring: "We have been pragmatic and pedestrian about our erotic lives for too long," and is content to let this remark stand, despite the masses of "hotter sex" books available in any bookstore, as well as the mainstreaming of various sexual devices and techniques considered the purview of perverts and Penthouse readers only a generation or two ago. The review concludes with that most damning of critical responses, faint praise:
Nehring takes on our complaisance, our received ideas, our sloppy assumptions about our most important connections, and for that she deserves our admiration. Even if one doesn’t take her outlandish romantic arguments literally, this is one of those rare books that could make people think about their intimate lives in a new way.
Dennis Lehane's review of The Secret Speech, the second novel by writer Tom Rob Smith, is purely average. It's your typical "several grafs of plot summary plus a couple grafs of opinion"; none of the writing is particularly good or bad, with the exception that one character is described as "beset by galactic levels of guilt." I only remark on it here since it is one of only two full-length fiction reviews in this issue and therefore seems like a precious thing.
Toni Bentley's review of The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters is a good example of a review that would have been fine if it was better edited. The book is about harems and Western explorers' interaction with them, a topic not difficult to say at least a few interesting things about. Bentley does just that and quotes the book's interesting thesis: “most of the world [pre-20th century] still subscribed to what I have been calling the harem culture, and in only the few countries of the West, the small peninsular domain of Christendom, did a different attitude prevail.”
So far so good, although a little more than halfway through, the review loses focus entirely and just becomes a series of unrelated paragraphs. It probably could have been a fine review, but the length draws attention to the loss of focus; additionally Bentley, a dancer and author of books about dance, is way out of her depth here, and it shows. There are also an alarming number of annoying parentheticals, such as "It is not news that Christianity, with its Virgin Birth (just to start things off right), has had little interest in exploring human sexual desire or potential. Sexual energy is way too out of control even for the most committed Christians (see the Holy Trinity of Bakker, Swaggart and Haggard)." As a final note, none of the book's illustrations are discussed, perhaps forgivable in a review of another book, but not in one of a book about harems.
Ginia Bellafante's review of the novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (our second and last full-length fiction review), starts off annoyingly enough with a paragraph devoted to gossiping about the million dollar advance paid to the author. But after that first graf the review is actually rather good. It seems that author Reif Larsen has written something like a cross between the pomo novel of information and What Maisie Knew. That Bellafante gives a sense of this without dull plot summary or a lapse of critical opinion is fine work. Her negative review feels merited and her observations feel precise: "Roland Barthes made distinctions between those texts so micromanaged that they ensured reader passivity and those texts, active texts, that invited a greater degree of participation. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet merely creates the illusion of choice."
However, I disagree with Bellafante that one of the plagues of MFA programs is that they produce writers who don't "aim to mean much" with their books. I have no idea if MFA programs produce writers of this type or not, but if they do, that's a good thing. I'll take one writer who just cares about the craft of fiction over ten trying to make their novel "meaningful." Good art creates its own meaning, by virtue of being good art.
Ross Douthat's review of Digital Barbarism, a nonfiction work by the novelist Mark Helprin, is interesting, largely because Helprin is one of very few public intellectuals to try and argue that American copyright law doesn't go far enough in protecting intellectual property. However, we cannot count on Douthat to present the other side of this issue; for instance, his statement that "a more latitudinarian copyright regime" as "a cause celebre for a certain class of Internetista" is a ridiculous mischaracterization of a widespread movement backed by far more than a few over-active bloggers and cranky professors.
Unfortunately it's tough to find much of either side of the argument here. In his review, Douthat seems more interested in demeaning bloggers and commenters on websites than actually outlining what Helprin says or explaining exactly which people and ideas Helprin is arguing for or against (other than the obvious boogeyman, Lawrence Lessig). In other words, this is more like one of the op-eds that Douthat has been hired to write than a book review. The closest Douthat gets to giving us a flavor of Helprin's argument is this sentence:
Helprin worries, plausibly, that the spirit of perpetual acceleration threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds.
Douthat is, of course, entitled to his beliefs (and he seems to believe that this sentence is largely accurate), but he does those beliefs no service by not even acknowledging the staleness of what Helprin says or the straw men that have been erected here. Much as I disagree with Douthat's politics, though, at least his writing is far more engaging and professional than a lot of what Sam Tanenhaus seems --judging by this issue -- to permit in his review of books.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's "Fiction Chronicle" (covering four new novels) reads roughly like publisher's copy found on the back of new paperbacks. I understand that 300 words isn't a whole lot of space to write about a book, but there's a right way to do a 300-word review and a wrong way. These are wrong. For an idea of what can be accomplished in 300 words, see this review (among other successes) in the recent Review of Contemporary Fiction. But to return to the Times, the "Fiction Chronicle" does do me the service of presenting absolute worst book title I have read this week: "The Exchange Rate Between Love and Money." And from the same book comes this quote-worthy line: “How do you make love to something that’s not even in the animal kingdom?”
Maurice Isserman's short essay on Michael Harrington and his groundbreaking study of poverty in America, The Other America, is lucid, engaging, and appreciated. It's a nice example of how a review of books can keep important works from the past in the conversation, and Isserman's fine piece is only marred by the sentence that opens its final paragraph: "Today the poor are no longer invisible, thanks to writers like William Julius Wilson, Alex Kotlowitz and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and to a popular culture that has young people in middle-class suburbs emulating the styles of the inner city." I must disagree: of course America's poor are still very much unnoticed today, and if they are more seen now than before that owes more to unmitigated disasters like Hurricane Katrina than the work of journalists or (quite condescendingly) the decision of the children of the well-off to wear overpriced simulacra of the clothes worn in certain inner-city neighborhoods.
Gary Rosen's review of of The Age of the Unthinkable is a quick, clean, and successful deflating of a book that sounds pretentious, self-satisfied, and ultimately not even one-eighth as innovative as the author would hope (think of an aspiring Tom Friedman). It's a lean, taut review, and the editors of the Review should aspire to cut down some of the more bloated pieces in their publication to resemble Rosen's.
Megan Marshall's review of We Two by Gillian Gill is perfectly adequate and more or less bored me. So are, and did, Liz Robbins's review of A Terrible Splendor (which, in addition to having a dreadful title, sounds like a dreadful book) and Marilyn Stasio's roundup of crime novels.
"Inside the List" informs me that something called the The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane debuted in the #2 spot for hardcover fiction, which does nothing to change my impression of the state of fiction in this country. The #1 spot is occupied by some Dean Koontz book about a novelist and a critic fighting to the death over a review. Does anyone honestly care?
"Paperback Row" seems to be mostly obsessed with memoirs with awful conceits ("Gilmour, a film critic, allowed his troubled 15-year-old son to drop out of school on the condition that he watch three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing.") and the kind of petit cultural crit that should have remained a feature article in some glossy magazine. The inclusion at the end of Paul Auster's previous work of fiction reminds me that he's been publishing a lot of books lately.
In the letters section it's nice to see Ezra E. Fitz from Brentwood, Tennessee, sticking up for translators.
I don't have much to say about the "Editors' Choice" list, except to note its lack of diversity.
And rounding out this issue, the less that is said about the "Up Front: Dennis Lehane" by "The Editors," the better.
Not counting the "Fiction Chronicle," this week's issue of the Review covered 2 works of literary fiction, an abysmal performance by virtually any standard. All in all, the fiction coverage in this issue has done nothing to sway me from my belief that the Review is virtually irrelevant for anyone who seriously cares about literature in this country.
Oddly enough, the nonfiction coverage in this issue of the Review gives me a renewed appreciation for Bookforum. True, that publication has seriously downgraded its fiction coverage over the past year, but at least the nonfiction coverage found therein is something that doesn't consistently insult the intelligence of educated adults. And even the fiction coverage, in its weakened state, is infinitely preferable to what I read in this issue of the Review.
I suppose if I were to grade this issue I could give it a "C," in the sense that this is probably not much better and not much worse than the reviews of books still extant in the nation's newspapers. However, if I were to grade the issue based on the standard that the Review sets for itself as the nation's pre-eminent and most important weekly review of books, then I'd have to say that it's failing to meet its expectations.
When I was young, I used to go to the public library and head straight for the "P" aisle in the fiction section. Then I would wander through the stacks until I came to Proust. I would gaze with awe at the seven volumes of the work that was called, at that time, Remembrance of Things Past. I would take a volume off the shelf, leaf through it, and put it back. The strange sounding titles, Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, The Sweet Cheat Gone, seemed to me like the chronicle of some secret world; a world that I could experience if I just read the novel. However, I never checked out any of the books. The thought at the time of reading a novel that long seemed too daunting. I said to myself, someday I will read it. Someday.
1. For your Bloomsday enjoyment: comic strip artist Robert Berry is visualizing James Joyce's Ulysses. This project appears to be off to a great start.
2. More Bloomsday action: Dovegreyreader on a new book called Ulysses and Us by Declan Kibberd.
3. Farewell to poet Harold Norse.
4. It must be a good sign that somewhere inside the giant paradox that is the nation of Iran, they are loving the inventive and hilarious early writings of Woody Allen.
5. I did not know that novelist Roxana Robinson was a member of the Beecher family. But what's this about Lord Warburton being the man Isabel Archer should have married? I was rooting for Ralph Touchett.
6. The word technology is derived from the same root as textile.
7. We need a poetry reality show right here in the USA.
8. A digital Gutenberg would be nice to look at.
9. What could it possibly have been like to be married to Harold Pinter? Fortunately claims Antonia Fraser, it was not a Pinteresque experience.
10. "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" (Or, I'd like to add, one man).
11. Eric Rosenfeld appreciates Thomas Pynchon's use of description.
12. Kafka Tribute in New York
13. Michelle Obama reads Zadie Smith, a better choice (in my opinion) than her husband's Joseph O'Neill. (Barack is also cited as reading What is the What?, a good choice though not exactly fiction).
14. The Who's Quadrophenia GS Scooter has been sold at an auction. (Though it's from the movie, not the record album photo shoot).
15. Via Bookninja, what the book you're reading really says about you.