Monday, November 27, 2006
penny press! The TLS!
With most literary reviews, the reader must take a firm hand. They tend to dawdle and meander, these literary reviews, and they sometimes run the most appalling stuff.
You must be wary, and cagey. You must pick and choose according to a sliding criteria of integers: do you recognize - and like - the reviewer? Are you interested in the subject? Are you in any way likely to actually read the book under review? It's a delicate, see-sawing procedure whose inherent tensions prevent it from yielding much in the way of enjoyment or enlightenment. Try, for instance, remembering the last time you were excited by something you read in the New York Times Book Review.
The TLS is an entirely different matter. It's so uniformly magisterial, so overwhelmingly authoritative so much of the time, that it prompts a very different response. The reader reposes in complete confidence, happy to absorb whatever each issue throws up for consideration. It's an altogether joyful little experience.
Take the November 10 issue, for instance. Heather Glen makes a very strong case for re-examining the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell - strong, but of course unconvincing, since Gaskell will remain obstinately second-tier no matter what anybody writes about her. Still, it was a strong effort, fun to read.
Allen Shawn reviews 'The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland' and sums up in words so clear they ought to be read to every young artist-type in the land:
Yet while these charming and circumspect letters do not dwell on intellectual matters and seldom betray any personal or artistic secrets, this is still a book that artists, in particular, should read. It shows very movingly that it is possible to be committed to what one is doing while being generous to others and a citizen of the world; that it is not necessary to be especially neurotic to be a great artist; that strong convictions need not preclude diplomatic civility; that it is important to produce important work and remain unpretentious.
To which we here at Stevereads say only Amen.
Then there's Alexander Urquhart's review of Jennifer Potter's "Strange Blooms," about that Jacobin gardener to the stars, John Tradescants. The book gets a very positive trot around the block; only one item caught our attention: Urquhart's referring to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, as "James I's favorite and reputed lover."
That 'reputed' is charming enough to be a one-liner. Perhaps Urquhart hasn't felt compelled to ask around, but as it happens, whole boatloads of letters survive between the Villiers in question and the king in question. They file down that Victorian 'reputed' to a very fine 'the only thing lacking is Polaroids.' George Villiers was, like every other member of his family, fiercely ambitious (as one friend of the family remarked, a generation later, the Villiers didn't live who, taking a piss, didn't wish for a shit) - easily enough so to catch the eye of a king who was as queer as a two-headed cat.
Elsewhere, Dan Jacobson reminisces on the sixtieth anniversary of the Hotel Victoria fire, which he survived as a boy. It's a poignant piece, no moreso than at its conclusion, when Jacobson muses on a snapshot taken at the time of the fire - in which our writer appears, as quite a young boy. He writes:
This photograph had waited close on sixty years, virtually at the very site of the conflagration, or my niece to come across it To see myself in it - solitary, preoccupied, wholly unaware that I was being photographed, along with many others - struck me as almost uncanny. Of me as I am now, the young man in the photograph knows nothing. Of him as he was then, immersed in that moment and its random excitements, I have only fragmentary memories. If I could, I would like to tell him that since that morning I have not spent a night in a hotel, however grand or humble it might be, without immediately checking the route from my room to the nearest fire-escape. In return, he might perhaps tell me where I have gone wrong in recollecting the morning's events. Yet when I think of the differences between us in appearance and expectation, I feel it to be a mercy that neither of us will ever be able to exchange a single word with the other.
That has the beauty and the mordant insight vouchsafed to the very old ... I'm not sure the rest of us could resist the urge to say something across that divide.
Just as tempting to speak out about the issue's 'Freelance' piece by Michael Greenberg, all about the bibliophile's patron saint, Alberto Manguel, whose books about reading have the curious tendency to become books about reading first editions.
At one point Greenberg recalls attending a 'Live at the NYPL' with Manguel at which the old book-fan compared the Library of Alexandria to the World Wide Web ... 'one aspired to include everything, the other will include anything, without context, a constant present, which for Medieval scholars was a definition of hell' For readers, he pointed out, the computer is a technological step backwards, since it replaces the codex with the scroll. 'The time has come to refuse to buy from book chains or giant online outlets.'
So sayeth the prophet. Yeesh, what a load of goat crap.
The so-called book-purists who rail against chain bookstores and online outlets have historical precedent, but it's not the one they think it is: it's the monks who chained books to pulpits and condemned any commoner who wanted to read them.
Yes, by all means: let's all buy our books with exquisite care, from tiny local shops. Quirky, idiosyncratic shops, with unlimited inventory and a caring staff who remembers every book you've ever bought.
What's that you say? You live two hundred miles outside Wichita Falls? You love to read more than life itself, but the nearest bookstore is a Methodist Bible shop twenty miles away? Well! I guess that's tough luck for you! Better by far to pay full price for the latest Joel Osteen workbook (the insinuating lecture from the sales lady is on the house) than to take advantage of that enormous chain bookstore with well-lit shelves crammed with Sophocles, Hume, and Tanizaki. Better by far to settle for the latest comic books in the spinner rack of your 'downtown' Costco than to take advantage of ... well, the whole feckin world on offer at the nearest online outlet.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, this kind of book-snobbery. Alberto Manguel, for all that he writes books ostensibly aimed at all book-enthusiasts, has obviously forgotten what true adolescent book-yearning felt like. Instead, he's become (or always was) the nervous beadle from 'A Room of One's Own,' busily shooing the unworthy off the grass.
At least we can turn from such provincial idiocy to that grandest of all literary entertainments, when the TLS reviews a major new novel. The reviews of philosophy and history an all the various arcana of scholarship are always marvellously authoritative, but there's something extra thrilling about watching where that authority comes down on a work nobody needs to be a specialist to read.
When Norman Mailer or Thomas Pynchon (or, sniff, Gil Sorrentino...) comes out with a new book, the event somehow INVOLVES all us general readers. That makes a New York Times Book Review notice extra interesting - and it makes a TLS review something you skip ahead to and read first.
In this case, Stephen Abell reviews The Road, the new Cormac McCarthy novel. We here at Stevereads read the book at the (shrill? No! Say not shrill!) urging of our esteemed colleague The Mama Chan, and we consider it a spare, gorgeous, elegiac masterpiece - a flawed one, certainly, but a masterpiece nevertheless. So we held our collective breath when we saw the review, wondering if the TLS would somehow call us WRONG (talk about a clash of titans!).
Big sigh of relief. Abell turns out to be a fair and rigorous judge of prose - he writes that when McCarthy's "desire for poeticism is profitably channelled and controlled - as it is for the majority of 'The Road' - Cormac McCarthy shows that he is one of the greatest American writers alive."
The book is given the kind of close reading authors dream about receiving (and virtually never get from lesser organs, which tend to spend four-fifths of their allotted space regurgitating plot), and the verdict is almost entirely positive.
We can quibble with some of Abell's close readings. For instance, there's this:
There are moments in 'The Road' where the linear narrative breaks off for this sort of incomprehensible musing: 'he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running ... Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.' We feel that 'intestate' has been used more for its weighty sound than any expansion in meaning, a feeling confirmed by the ponderous borrow/sorrow rhyme that brigns about the end of, but no real conclusion to, the passage.
We here at Stevereads disagree. 'Intestate' DOES expand the meaning, the legal term heightening the sense that the book's few characters are orphans, deprived of the patrimony they previously expected. And the borrow/sorrow rhyme is an artistic gamble, one we judge as successful.
Still, the titans largely agree, and so it was for the whole stretch of this issue. An issue much DELAYED in receiving due notice (another one is already on sale), because of our long, warm, wonderful Thanksgiving weekend spent at the cozy little Montauk hideaway overlooking the sea. With any luck, the frequency of our postings will quickly resume its customary frenetic pace! After all, a week without fresh Stevereads is ... well, it's like a little taste of nuclear winter! You've all endured it very bravely, but it's time your lives regained their sense of direction.
So: another great, thought-provoking issue of the TLS, and: Stevereads is back in business!