Sunday, January 28, 2007
TLS! Opporunists, Favorites, and Scolds in Winter!
The nicest thing about each issue of the TLS (well, apart from the satisfyingly steep levels of erudition always on display) is the unpredictability of it all - you never know what each issue is going to throw at you, you only know it'll almost certainly be worth your attention.
Take last week's issue. It begins with a very entertaining roundup review by John North on a trio of books on environmental history. In the midst of this review, there comes this wonderful tidbit: apparently, once upon a time an Oxford don paleontologist named William Buckland had an idea:
"He imported a hyena, 'Billy,' from Africa, intending to dissect it for its stomach contents and skeleton, after it had done its work. The deed was too much. Billy continued to live a comfortable Oxford life for the next twenty-five years, known to guests as the family pet that chewed guinea pigs while they dined on other fare."
See that? How can you beat a literary review that opens with a guinea pig-chomping half-domesticated Oxford hyena? The most the New York Times Book Review can muster is the occasional housecat.
Of course, one of the benefits of being the TLS is the patina of 'final word' that clings (usually justifiably, only occasionally not, as in their reviews of all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies, where at least an argument could be made that film is not their primary area of expertise) to everything on which they pronounce word.
Take, for instance, Gore Vidal's new memoir "Point to Point Navigation." Like many of our young friends, we have a complicated relationship with Gore Vidal the author, and so we've made it our business to read every notice the book has received. But it wasn't until James Murphy's full-length review in this issue of the TLS that we felt we'd seen the book given its full critical due.
Expectedly, it's a largely negative appraisal. We've read "Point to Point Navigation," and so have others we've known, and the verdicts have all been lukewarm to negative. But we read Murphy's review with avid interest.
In fact, we couldn't help but crack a wry smile at Murphy's characterization of Vidal's socio-political views. Whether or not he's accurate in his estimation, the phrasing reminds us, inevitably, of our angry young colleague the Reichmarshal:
"... homegrown isolationism - a world-view that is more complex than it has sometimes been painted, and is still potent political medicine in what are now called the 'flyover states.' It is an attitude marked by fear of central government and loathing for the elites which control it; suspicion, warring with indifference, about all things foreign and a tendency to believe that the devil walks abroad and belongs to the opposition."
Personally, we don't think Vidal actually still believes much if any of that, but it's fun thinking about those who do. And in the meantime, Murphy makes a serious case:
"Whether it is Gore Vidal's stature as a novelist that established him as a political pundit, or his panache as partisan scourge that won him the following he has as a writer, is something on which both admirers and critics are unlikely ever to agree. Whatever the case, it seems that his widespread fame (or infamy) today rests more on his career as controversialist than as man of letters however much he might argue they amount to the same thing."
Of course, as our whip-smart young friends would tell us, Vidal wouldn't equate those two things (except, perhaps, while drunk, which may end up being the point, although we'll never really know). But it got us thinking about what Gore Vidal's actual literary legacy will be.
We realized immediatetly that we'd always pinned our unthinking hopes for such on his literary productions. After all, this was the firebrand who'd written 'The City and the Pillar.' This was the sure-footed entertainer who wrote 'Julian' and 'Creation' ... hell, for all its imperfections, 'Burr' was written by a profound political questioner. We here at Stevereads feel funny about the prospect of such works simply disappearing. 'I, Claudius' is certainly no more worthy of immortality than 'Julian,' for instance - the mind conjures with the possibilities, if the BBC had mounted an elaborate mini-series based on the latter rather than the former book, with the same stellar cast bringing an entirely different list of historical characters to life (only maybe John Hurt in the main role, rather than Derek Jacobi - just a thought).
Murphy is well-versed in his subject, which makes him impossible to dismiss out of hand (weird to think, however, that some of our regular readers actually know handily more about Vidal than this seasoned professional reviewer, but that's the way it is ... nothing but the best, here at Stevereads). He centers his sights, unfortunately, on Vidal's later, loopier conspiracy-theoried rants and raves (unfortunately, but not unfairly - if you're not sensible enough to retire from the arena of public writing after a certain age and level of coherence, your words are fair game ... it might make Vidal's fans squirm a bit, but until the man stops squirting out op-ed pieces, there it is), with predictable outcomes - especially since 'Point to Point Navigation' is in every sense of the word a late work. Murphy minces no words:
"Stuff does not just happen in Vidal's world: with the focus and perserverance of the autodidact, he will show us how it all fits together, and get in a few swipes at opponants while trying."
Vidal's own writing sets up Murphy's most damning summation:
"Rebutting innuendo, however, is a black hole of discourse; if you ask a rhetorical question, you'll probably get a rhetorical answer. And conspiracy historiography will always have a part to play in populist democratic culture for, without it, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Eventually those searching intelligent design (sic, apparently) in human affairs tend to nudge each other farther out on a limb, and wind up rubbing shoulders with Rosicrucians, racists, and 'Da Vinci Code' cryptographers. Meanwhile, as Harold Macmillan famously pointed out, the rest of us are left to deal with events."
Still, we here at Stevereads wonder if this isn't a bit simplistic. For good or ill, and regardless of future opinionizing, at the very least Gore Vidal is the author of the essay collection 'United States' - an immortal work whether or not 'Julian' or 'Burr' or 'Creation' sink beneath the waves. That alone is cause to treat Vidal's legacy - if not the man himself - slightly more respectfully. Luckily, in the end Murphy senses this and ends his review with an acknowledgement of the book's most touching matter, the death of Vidal's longtime companion Howard Austin and the effect it had on our author:
"Austin's dignity and courage in the last days, and his friend's heartbreak in witnessing them, turn these pages of the memoir into literature, reminding us of the respect we all owe to grief and those who endure it. Whatever the book as a whole may lack in purpose or direction, it finds in these pages a voice that speaks to the heart."
We aren't quite sure how Vidal would feel about this (it sounds a lot like a pat dismissal); the reflex is to wait a year for his next peppy, eloquent collection of essays and rebuttals. It's a very melancholy thought, that we may never see another such book from Gore Vidal.
One more item of interest from our quick survey: Peter Holbrook's review of Curtis Perry's book "Literature and Favoritism in Early Modern England." It's a short and wholly positive review of a fascinating subject: royal favorites, their pros and cons.
Apparently, having read Perry's book, Holbrook can find precious few pros regarding these men he refers to as 'greasy careerists':
"The favourite is a monster, then, a deformation of monarchy. But he is also commonplace: every prince has one. Edward II's Gaveston, Elizabeth's Leicester and Essex, James I's Somerset, and James I's and Charles I's Buckingham all sabotage normal princely rule. But what is normal about a system that keeps throwing up such monsters?"
He goes one step further:
"Royal favourites are inevitable - which may just indicate something wrong with royalty."
We here at Stevereads are quite well-versed on the topic of royal favorites, and we have to disagree: there'd be something wrong with personal monarchy if the monarchs DIDN'T developed favorites. The favorite, for good or ill (only ill cases are listed above, but there were very many good ones), reminds the monarch of their humanity. Kings and queens almost always knew (and usually loved) their favorites long before they gained the throne - the favorite thereby becomes a living reminder of days that were often more perilous and always more carefree. Often, monarchs need that reminder, in order not to become monsters - or worse, weak.
So, let's close things up for now with an impromptu Stevereads quiz! Anybody out there 'up' enough on their British history to name a royal favorite who WASN'T a 'greasy' monster? A monarch who unequivocally BENEFITTED from maintaining a favorite?