Saturday, February 23, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Surprises aplenty in this week’s Penny Press, and almost all of them the good kind!

For instance, it’s always nice when a writer you like, while writing about something else entirely, makes an aside you enthusiastically agree with; Stephen Jay Gould used to do it with comforting regularity, and in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books Edmund White does the same thing. While writing about that prize-winning 19th century Boston nelly Howard Sturgis (writing specifically about his novel Belchamber, although Sturgis’ novel Tim is a genuinely touching evocation of what it is to have a schoolboy crush), he invokes Sturgis’ expat milieu and makes a winning digression:

Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time).

We here at Stevereads can’t help but cheer a little cheer: Sargent’s painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, is indeed one of the greatest paintings of all time. On many occasions, we here at Stevereads have lost ourselves staring at it, plumbing the depths of its mystery and beauty, and it’s gratifying to hear somebody else so casually give it the credit it deserves.

And that’s not a patch on the carpet of wonders to be found in the latest New Yorker, starting with Adrian Tomine’s sublime cover illustration ‘Shelf Life,’ showing the pitiless life-cycle of a book, from creation to publication to purchase to discard and oblivion.

But the cover’s not the only thing, not by a longshot! Ordinarily, your average issue of the New Yorker has only one or at most two things to recommend it, but this one is full of good and interesting things, starting with Hendrik Hertzberg’s short piece beginning the issue, writing about the imbecilities of the United States’ drug policies, specifically those involving marijuana:

Nearly a hundred million of us – forty percent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media elites – have smoked (and therefore possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession.

On this Hertzberg is entirely right: though we here at Stevereads are partial to a stiff shot of whiskey (preferably before the fire at our estate at Montauk, with Leni and Blondi sitting alertly at our feet), we agree whole-heartedly with our young friend Mister Allison and many, many others that marijuana use should of course be legalized in America – the drug is far less socially destructive than alcohol (as is every other drug known to man), and although it’s equally physically destructive as its close cousin tobacco (though its most fervid adherents will strenuously deny this – well, as strenuously as they do anything, the poor things – it’s nonetheless true: you take heavy, corrosive particulate matter into your lungs, and you try your hardest to keep it there as long as possible), it doesn’t have any of that drug’s devastating effects on people nearby. Oh, it’s every bit as tenaciously addictive (another assertion that would stir its addicts, if they could be stirred) as any of the other substances, but when the sun sets on the issue, it’s a minor stimulant, like coffee – it isn’t in any way near the same weight-class as either tobacco or alcohol in terms of being a danger to the public, and yet both those substances are perfectly legal (indeed, im-perfectly so: we personally know nine individuals under the legal buying age of 21 who regularly smoke and drink – and hence, who regularly buy beer and cigarettes from vendors who are legally forbidden to sell them to minors). It should be legal – the sheer silliness of it being otherwise is, we suppose, some sort of moral issue, as sad and weird as that sort of thing always strikes us. What else could it be, so long after the ‘60s? Unless there’s some truth to the paranoid rumors that the government actually wants to hopelessly target the peddlers and users of marijuana, as a sop to the much-touted ‘war on drugs’ that its enemies say can never be won. If so, and even if no, it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

But good as Hertzberg’s little squib is, it’s the least thing in the issue. Take for instance Larissa MacFarquhar’s long and very good profile/obituary of serial novelist Louis Auchincloss.

The piece is noteworthy not only because nobody’s bothered to do one in a few decades (and why would they, Auchincloss being the single most boring novelist in the history of the world?) but because MacFarquhar manages to unearth a couple of really good quotes, as when Auchincloss (with unintentional irony) ruminates about his time during the war: “I had all my life a curious sense of immunity, that nothing would happen to me. And nothing ever did.”

Or his response to Norman Mailer when Mailer said the two of them had nothing in common, a response that’s so witty and lively that it was actually made by Gore Vidal:

Nothing in common! We live in the same silly island, publish our wet dreams, and go to the same silly parties – and have for years! It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference between us. Of course, it is true I don’t marry quite so much.

And MacFarquhar does more than find great quotes; she makes some too, in writing so good it begs to be quoted:

A novelist of manners must balance satire with nostalgia. If he is too indulgent, his story will collapse into sentiment; if too contemptuous, it dries up and becomes sociology. Auchincloss is the least gushy of writers: in his fiction he has virtually no interest in romantic love (though he is fascinated by male friendship), and of the human race as a whole he has a very low opinion. He can’t abide writers like Whitman, who slosh about and ‘yearn,’ as he puts it. He is never maudlin about the nonsense of the past … and yet The Rector of Justin is his best novel, because it is one of the few times he permits his elegaic moralism to dominate a book. He loves his mad Puritans, and believes they are no more.

That’s better critical analysis than Auchincloss deserves, since MacFarquhar is right: The Rector of Justin is his best novel – and it was written during the Crimean War. That an author who’s written so dully and indifferently for so many decades should still be alive when so many better, sharper voices are silenced is a kind of sustained mockery on the world of letters. We can take some small consolation from the fact that Gore Vidal, thought leeched of most of his talent, is still alive as well.

Comfort also comes in the middle of the Auchincloss piece, in the form of an inserted poem, a lovely thing by J. D. McClatchy called “Chinese Poem”:

Whatever change you were considering,

Do not plant another tree in the garden.

One tree means four seasons of sadness:

What is going,

What is coming,

What will not come,

What cannot go.

Here in bed, through the south window

I can see the moon watching us both,

Someone’s hand around its clump of light.

Yours? I know you are sitting out there,

Looking at silver bloom against black.

That drop from your cup in the night sky’s

Lacquer you wipe away with your sleeve

As if its pleated thickets were the wide space

Between us, though you know as well as I do

This autumn is no different from the last.

We here at Stevereads have been accused of having a tin ear when it comes to poetry, but we find that charming. We think we like this J.D. McClatchy person.

And then there’s the issue’s shocker: not only did we like the short story (this virtually never happens), but we liked it even though it was written by … Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie! An author for whom we’ve had so far nothing but contempt! An author who has shown hardly a spark of genuine talent in his entire career! But his latest story, “The Shelter of the World,” represents something – an elevation of tone, a maturing of humor – we’ve never seen from him before. The story revolves around the Emperor Akbar the Great in the city of Sikri, and it’s threaded throughout with this wonderful new tone:

‘Your time has come,’ the Emperor assented [to a fallen foe]. ‘So tell us truthfully before you go, what sort of paradise do you expect to discover when you have passed through the veil?’ The Rana raised his mutilated face and looked the Emperor in the eye. ‘In Paradise, the words ‘worship’ and ‘argument’ mean the same thing,’ he declared. ‘The Almighty is not a tyrant. In the house of God, all voices are free to speak as they chose, and that is the form of their devotion.’ He was an irritating, holier-than-thou type of youth, that was beyond question, but in spite of his arrogance Akbar was moved. ‘We promise you that we will build that house of adoration here on earth,’ the Emperor said. Then, with a cry – Allah Akbar, ‘God is great,’ or, just possibly, ‘Akbar is God’ – he chopped off the pompous little twerp’s cheeky, didactic, and therefore suddenly unnecessary head.

The puckish humor and light touch on display here are worlds away from the crass and idiotically self-serving stuff with which he gained his fame as a writer. We here at Stevereads can’t help but hope it lasts. We’ve always wanted to like this author; it would be nice to finally be able to.

Speaking of authors we want to like (but aren’t always able to), the latest issue of the Atlantic features a piece by Christopher Hitchens that reminds us of why we liked him in the first place. It’s a review of the New York Review of Books’ recent re-issue of Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and it’s not blowsy or arrogant or sloppy or ignorant – instead, it bristles with learning and clear prose, not to mention great insights, as when he mentions the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion:

Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as a ‘forgery.’ A forgery is counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.

And there are trademark Hitchens flashes of humor, too, here happily presented without rant:

It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Again, here’s hoping this Christopher Hitchens sticks around – we’ve missed him.

But the issue’s main attraction is a consciously provocative article called "Marry Him" by Lori Gottlieb, which makes a heretical argument in favor of Settling, of marrying Mister (or Miss) Good Enough instead of waiting for Mister (or Miss) Right.

It’s a punchy little subject, amply served by Gottlieb’s lively prose style:

Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American.

Her article is forthright and funny but also serious, centering on the folly of expecting to meet a sex partner who’s also a personal equal. We here at Stevereads have done battle with this particular folly for long centuries, so we were grateful for every word of Gottlieb’s piece, whose only flaw is that it’s too much aimed at women, when we can assure you, men need the same advice in the same measure:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

To which we here at Stevereads would add a further note: Pay for sex, for Pete’s sake. Take it out of the equation of personal interaction entirely. That way, you’ll use one yardstick, one set of standards, in forming all your personal relationships. Sex will no longer be a factor, prompting you to lavish your personal time on a simpleton, or a monster – instead, since you’re satisfying your needs the old-fashioned American way, by paying, you’ll be able to shape your personal attachments with your brain and your heart, instead of your naughty bits. Just a thought.

And there you have it! An uncommonly fruitful foray into the Penny Press! Glad to have you all along for the ride, and don’t forget to tune in a little later, when Stevereads will take its second – and definitive – look at the Oscars!


Kevin Caron said...

That is a fantastic painting... Best piece in the MFA?

JEaton said...

The coolest part of seeing that painting in the MFA is the fact that the two blue vases depicted are on each side of it. If memory serves, the family used to take the vases with them when they would go to Europe. They survived the trans-Atlantic sea voyage something like 17 times.

Kevin Caron said...


steve said...

My vote for the best piece in the MFA wouldn't be this picture, great as it is ... I'm partial to Gerome. Gawd help me.

Kevin Caron said...

Which Gerome? L'Eminence Grise?

steve said...

Oooooh, that's a good one!