Friday, March 02, 2007
dark days at the TLS
It isn't often that we here at Stevereads find ourselves at odds with the mighty TLS, but it happened quite a bit in a recent issue. The 16 February issue, to be exact, the one with John Brown's yelling, canting face on the cover - in which there was a plethora of pieces that stirred the exact opposite of the reactions the TLS usually inspires. Usually, the appearance of a new issue inspires us here at Stevereads with hope and joy - but this particular issue had ... well, let's just call them major snags. Most of the big showpiece reviews seemed slightly crabbed, needlessly argumentative, even, dare we say it, wrong.
Some of the problems are small. For instance, Caroline Moorhead spends a long and very favorable review of 'Decca,' Peter Sussman's collection of the letters of Jessica Mitford. It's a warm and enticing review, enlivened by frequent stunning quotes from Mitford's utterly infectious letters. And then right at the end, you get THIS slapped across your face like mackerel: 'This collection of letters, edited by Peter Y. Sussman, is much too long." Um, OK. Yeesh. Buzz-killer.
Or Jon Barnes' review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Murder of Mary Rogers' by Daniel Stashower ... Barnes reviews the book's central facts, the murder of the lovely cigar girl, the miraculous powers of ratiocination displayed by Edgar Allan Poe in putting forward a possible solution to her murder. All well and good, but Barnes also retails Stashower's derring-do conclusions:
'John Anderson was the man who had first employed Mary in his cigar store, the man responsible for her fame, and after her murder he grew rich, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest men in the city. After his own death, in the course of a protracted court battle over his fortune, two pieces of highly suggestive rumour came to light. First, that Anderson himself had once got Mary Rogers pregnant and that he paid for an abortion. Second, and most singularly of all, that Anderson had supposedly paid a certain writer to compose a fiction which would avert suspicion away from him and on to some other, nameless suspect. The records are vague but there can be no doubt about the identity of the writer accused of the deception. His name I shall leave to your own powers of ratiocination.'
Great. Edgar Allan Poe, accomplice to murder. Just great.
Then there's Alex Burghart's review of two books of medieval history, Veronica Ortenberg's 'In Search of the Holy Grail' and Paul Hill's 'The Anglo-Saxons.' Burghart does both books justice and writes very well in the process, so the reader is happy. Then the second shoe falls:
'Both Ortenberg and Hill have important things to say about J.R.R. Tolkien's contribution to the repackaging of the Middle Ages in the present day. What they both miss is that Tolkien is actually the villain of the piece. In creating a fascinating, heavily resourced, wildly dramatic narrative he succeeded in undermining the very period he was trying to promote. Those who bought and buy into his stories rarely go on to read about medieval history but rather become obsessed with the fantasyland. The remainder lump in those who like medieval history with the elf-fetishists and stay well away.'
Elf-fetishists. Lovely. Tolkien as the villain of the piece. Yeah, THAT makes for sunny reading.
And it gets worse. It gets darker. David Wootton reviews a new re-issue of 'Europe's Physician' by the late great Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper's book is a biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, who Erasmus considered a first-class booby.
Trevor-Roper was one of the 20th centuries very best historians, and Wootton entirely agrees with this - and eventually reveals that the reason he agrees is because WE'RE ALL GOIN' TO HELL:
"It is because common culture is gone for ever that Trevor-Roper's 'Europe's Physician' will have no successors. The texts it is based on are in Latin and French, with a smattering of Greek. The secondary sources are in Italian, German and Dutch. The manuscripts are in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. No young scholar would want to write this book, and perhaps no young scholar could. But if you want to understand the age of religious wars, or if you want to be reminded that the purpose of a great history book, as of a great play or a great novel, is to transform how you see the world around you, then you should read this last relic of a lost age. Great history books are few and far between. This is one.'
At the risk of repeating ourselves, Yeesh.
Let's not cue the Great Darkness just yet, shall we? Lord knows, we here at Stevereads spend a great deal of our free time bemoaning the future. 20-year-olds in 2007 America are almost universally ignorant of a broad range of essential subjects. The only things they actually know, basically, are a) the events of their own personal lives in the last five years, and b) the price and availability of all the drugs and alcohol within 200 blocks of where they happen to live. We here at Stevereads often seem to gleefully revel in these horrifying facts.
But geez, enough's enough. Wootton's doom-and-gloom scenario, in which the next generation of historians won't even be able to READ the works of the previous generation - much less match their travel-vouchers - is just too damn depressing. AND it's contradicted by some of the books appearing on bookstore shelves even now, some of which have even been mentioned here at Stevereads.
No, however tempting apocalyptic doom-saying might be, it's lazy. Real, serious history is still being written (doomedly, quixotically, since the AUDIENCE for it thins with every passing year) - some of its products dating well after Trevor-Roper cited his last op cit. We here at Stevereads are the first to decry the present generation, but we keep our ear to the ground. There are fifteen-year-olds currently attending Boston Latin who are every bit as smart as Hugh Trevor-Roper ever was, and HUNGRIER than he ever knew to be, because unlike him they can FEEL how much more the questing world needs them. The good Muse Clio is safe in their hands, no matter what David Wootton might think. He, perhaps, hasn't actually met any of these bespectacled youngers ... but we here at Stevereads have, and we're not so pessimistic.
But NONE of this holds a candle to the biggest offense the issue has to offer. Stephen Abell finally gets around to offering the TLS' review of Norman Mailer's 'The Castle in the Forest.' The review is intensely intelligent and, it must be said, largely negative - but that matters very little in the shadow of, of all things, the review's ILLUSTRATION. Right there, while the review is making its stately case and holding Mailer accountable for every one of his sentences and ideas, the accompanying illustration has Mailer dressed in a Nazi uniform, saluting with one hand and waving a Nazi flag with the other.
Because Norman Mailer wrote a novel about the boyhood of Adolf Hitler, the TLS editorial board thought it appropriate to publish a picture of him as a Nazi.
The mind boggles. Literally no explanation could possibly hold water. The TLS owes Mailer a prominent, abject apology - and twenty years ago, he'd have squeezed it from them in a court of law. These present editors had better hope he's lost a step or two since his litigious heyday.
So it was a dark week at the TLS, but everybody's entitled to be off their game once or twice. We'll check in next week and hope for the best.