Monday, June 30, 2008

Knole & The Sackvilles

Our book today is Knole & The Sackvilles by Vita Sackville-West, first published in its present form in 1922, and it is a slim little treasure-trove of biographies. Dozens of Sackvilles, many Earls of Dorset and Lords Buckhurst stride across its pages, along with their attendant wives, children, servants, and hangers-on (and shadowed always by their various monarchs, from Elizabeth I to
George VI, when in 1947 Knole was turned over to the National Trust for safekeeping (and tourism). It is the great good fortune of this huge and remarkable crowd that out of their midst should come a writer as thrillingly talented as Sackville-West, Bloomsbury member, object of scandal, and venerated in her lifetime for virtually all of her writings except this, her odd, idiosyncratic masterpiece.

But that crowd of Sackvilles and Dorsets and Buckhursts was not the only beneficiary of Sackville-West's genius as a writer, nor even the main such. No, the best, most strongly-drawn and most sympathetic character in Knole & The Sackvilles is the great house of Knole itself, as big as four city blocks, as old as the Romans, and more steeped in story than any single mortal life could possibly be. Thousands of tourists visit it each year, chaperoned around carefully-managed segments of the house and grounds, and all but the most cynical are awestruck by tour's end, but to the shy, hyper-sensitive little Vita Sackville, it was home. Indeed, since she was the one who signed the National Trust papers in 1947, she may well have been the last person to call the place home.

The sheer elegaic beauty of her prose when she's describing the place is as strong and as wistful as anything Evelyn Waugh ever wrote about his fictional Brideshead, only the admixture of actual autobiography here gives the added punch of memory. As Sackville-West tells us, she was never frightened at Knole. "I loved it; and I took it for granted that Knole loved me."

This autobiographical note runs throughout the book and is an almost mystical thing; the author is the last voice of an era that could very naturally, very organically feel itself linked with all the preceding eras Knole had seen - eras of horse-powered travel and candlelit writing tables and tapestries and bed-hangings meant for warmth, not decoration. Her book glitters all over with tiny vignettes no later writer encamped at Knole would ever see:

A stone lobby under the oriel window divides the Green Court from the Stone Court. In summer the great oak doors of this second gate-house are left open, and it has sometimes happened that I have found a stag in the banqueting hall, puzzled but still dignified, strayed in from the park since no barrier checked him.

Such vignettes are priceless, but they do not make up the bulk of the book. Instead, Sackville-West spends most of her allotted space taking her readers on a biographical tour of the house's various great lords and royal advisers. In the process, she creates a series of portraits not just of people but of ages - in addition to everything else, this odd, gorgeously-written volume is an excellent, engaging history of England (albeit from a distinctly Kentish point of view) from the late Elizabethan to the late Georgian era.

This history includes some indelible accounts of figures the main movements of most such narratives might overlook, such as the 18th century Lady Betty Germain, frequent house guest at Knole, whose shock at receiving a scornful letter from Jonathan Swift about her host's self-serving nature is gently, sardonically mocked:

One wonders whether such suggestions troubled Lady Betty. Was it possible that her great-souled friend would not be Lord Steward and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Lord Warden and Lord Lieutenant of Kent, did he not also happen to be Duke of Dorset? Was it possible that such people as the Sackvilles occasionally occupied positions due to their birth rather than to their intellect?

Another figure obscured by time, Lady Anne Clifford (mistress of Knole during the time of James I), is invoked with genuine sympathy and a trace of awe, no doubt provoked by this lady's unbending determination to fight off all legal claimants to the property that was rightfully hers:

In the end she got the better of them all, and the last picture of her left by the "Lives" is that of a triumphant and imperious old lady, retired to the stronghold of her northern castles, where her authority could stand "against sectaries, almost against Parliaments and armies themselves"; refusing to go to court "unless she might wear blinkers"; moving with feudal, with almost royal state between her many castles, from Appleby to Pendragon, from Pendragon to Brougham, from Brougham to Brough, from Brough to Skipton; building brew-houses, wash-houses, bake-houses; kitchens; stables; sending word to Cromwell that as fast as he should knock her castles about her ears she would surely put them up again; endowing almshouses; ruling over her almswomen and her tenants; receiving, like the patriarchal old despot she was, the generations of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.

But in the end, it's always Knole itself that brings out her most glowing prose. Just as two generations of television viewers will forever hear Jeremy Irons' resonant voice when they read the descriptions of Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited, so too does this prose deserve its great embodier, to fully convey its beauties to the listening ear. Imagine the mighty Eileen Atkins reading this as a voice-over to some mini-series as yet unborn:

It [Knole House] has a deep inward gaiety of some very old woman who has always been beautiful, who has had many lovers and seen many generations come and go, smiled wisely over their sorrows and their joys, and learnt an imperishable secret of tolerance and humour. It is, above all, an English house. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky; it settles down into its hollow amongst the cushioned tops of the trees; the brown-red of those roofs is the brown-red of humble farms and pointed oast-houses, such as stain over a wide landscape of England the quilt-like pattern of the fields.

Those of you who should find yourself in the beautiful country of Kent are urged to make time (during its open season, that is - 15 March to 2 November) to see at least that portion of Knole's beauty that is ever open to the public. Those of you who should find yourself in the good city of Boston are urged to make time to visit the great Museum of Fine Arts to see two of the tapestries that once hung at Knole. And those of you who can't easily get to either can still find their way to Powell's website and revel in this wonderful book.

Friday, June 27, 2008

comics in july!

Five different comics this time around, and the thrilling breath of rejuvenation running through each one of them! And the incredible thing is, four out of five of those comics were published by Marvel, a company whose recent creative decisions have been, shall we say, questionable (fascism rules? check! Spider-Man off in la-la land? check! Captain America effing dead? check!). We here at Stevereads once thought that, given the state of affairs at Marvel, the only way they could field a rejuvenatingly good issue would be to very consciously set it outside the pig's breakfast that is the company's current continuity. Put Spider-Man in some sort of mystical backwater where you can turn back the clock; put the Hulk on an alien world and follow his adventures there; put Thor (and Asgard) out in the American badlands as a declared neutral, etc.

So imagine our surprise to find that two out of these four Marvel titles take place smack-dab in the middle of the current muddled continuity! One of these is Marvel's flagship title, The Fantastic Four, now under the creative control of writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch; issue #558 is the start of a new storyline (not, curiously, the one trumpeted on the cover, "Starting This Issue: The Death of the Invisible Woman" - no hint of which is present in the issue itself), one which sees the villainous Doctor Doom falling prey to a group of mercenaries called the New Defenders (who, in the tiresome Millar fashion, are made to seem bad-ass by easily defeating our heroes in the initial set-to), forcing the FF to come to his defense. Hitch's pencils still seem a little rough (Andrew Currie is not his ideal inker), but Millar's got a good grasp of the non-stop action and underlying humanity that are the hallmarks of this particular team. We predict that if Millar stays with the title, this Doctor Doom storyline will turn out to be really, really good, and the eventual Galactus storyline will be epic. We shall see.

The other of these two issues is the latest She-Hulk, written by fanboy-favorite hack Peter David and drawn with interesting linear simplicity by Val Semeiks. The plot is fairly simple stuff - a giant on a rampage in a city, She-Hulk and guest star Hercules teaming up to beat the giant and save the day, etc. The rejuvenation here is something happening in more than one place in the Marvel universe these days: the revived and fantastic use of Hercules as a character. He's got his own comic, and he's appearing everywhere else, and this is a very welcome development - in Marvel comics, Hercules has always stood in the shadow of Thor, but in many ways he's more interesting and logical character to moonlight as a super-hero: after all, he's part human, whereas Thor is not. When you think about it, it's an inherently silly idea that a god of thunder would spend time having adventures alongside the Wasp and Hawkeye. But Hercules has a history of adventuring alongside superpowered mortals, so it's refreshing to see him showing up i so many places lately.

One of which, in this issue of She-Hulk, is her bed! After their adventure together, these two heroes decide to make merry in her RV, and one thing leads to another. Oddly, when it's time for him to write the inevitable morning-after scene, David doesn't screw it up. As she looks at the sleeping Hercules, She-Hulk thinks, "When all is said and done, he was one of the few who stood beside Bruce when it all went down. That meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to me. And well ... he's immortal. For all I've got going for me, that's something I'll never be. Except ... I was, for one brief moment in time, the lover of Hercules. So maybe that's a little bit of immortality for me. There's dumber reasons to have sex with a guy. I should know: I've used them all."

Far more typical is the aforementioned manuever of setting your story outside of the current Marvel continuity, which is what our next two Marvel issues do. Matt Fraction's new issue of his ongoing Thor mini-series is firmly mythological in its setting; here there is no hint of Thor the super-hero, just high epic fantasy - for which Fraction shows a surprisingly adept hand. The dialog of his gods, demons, and monsters bears no similarity to the 'thee's and 'thou's of Stan Lee's era, but it's extremely distinctive just the same.

The issue features two parts, the first drawn by Khari Evans in a competent enough manner reminiscent of Ron Frenz, and the second drawn to bring the walls down by Patrick Zircher. The first segment is entertaining enough - again, a loose adaptation of a story out of Norse mythology - but the second story! Hoo-boy! Here is everything a real Thor story should be (except that Thor, true to Norse mythology if not to Marvel continuity, is still a bit of a jerk): it's sweeping, epic, and full of fantastic stuff. The best part of it happens when the poor mortals of Earth, beset by legions of the undead, create the husk of a "blood colossus" to combat their enemies. They pray and pray to summon Thor, hoping his lightning will bring their blood colossus to life: "Mortals prayed and prepared as best they could. Shattered by the unending cruelty of an unjust punishment, they began to look toward the miraculous. Until finally the miraculous began to look back." Thor shows up, animates the colossus, and saves the day, but this all feels much more like some alternate title Marvel would have published in the mid-'70s.

Our plea here at Stevereads: Marvel should create a new title, call it "Tales of Asgard," and make Patrick Zircher illustrate it until Ragnarok, if not longer.

The other offset Marvel issue this time around takes a much surer path: a retold origin story. In this case, it's an installment in the ongoing, spottily-executed 'Mythos' title aimed at revisiting the origins of Marvel's characters. In this case, touchingly, it's Captain America's turn, here getting a splendid, moving treatment by writer Paul Jenkins and artist/painter Paolo Rivera. This is an origin story that's been told many times - skinny WWII army reject Steve Rogers is chosen to undergo experimental procedures and become America's "super-soldier," Captain America. The one difference in this retelling (inspired, no doubt, by the "Ultimate" version of Captain America featured in "The Ultimates") is that we're specifically told that the experiments give Captain America super-human abilities. But that's beside the point of the story, which is a wonderful story of a man out of time. That, plus the issue having the greatest cover of any Marvel comic published in 2008, makes this issue a large-lunged call to bring back their signature character, for Pete's sake.

And then there's the ongoing rejuvenation of The Legion of Super-Heroes over at DC Comics, all thanks to legendary writer Jim Shooter, who has kept his new run on this, his old stomping-grounds, positively sizzling with activity on many fronts, all the while packing in a disarming amount of characterization. Bit by bit, piece by piece, he's editing out the ridiculousness of the current Legion incarnation and weaving back in his own sure-footed grounding in character and action. His Legion is beset on all sides - physically by monsters continually adapting to their powers, politically from a suspicious United Planets eager to control the Legion. Each issue happens at breakneck speed, which is great (and something not one writer in ten can manage successfully), and we here at Stevereads confidently expect that the upcoming issues will feature some of the Legion basics Shooter hasn't got to yet - a possible Brainiac 5 meltdown, for instance, or the arrival on the scene of a genuine villain or two (the monsters in these issues are a good start, since there's got to be somebody pulling their strings). In the meantime, this is great stuff, especially for Legion fans.

All of the issue this time around were great stuff - something we doubt we'd be saying if we'd allowed the clerk at the Android's Dungeon to talk us into the latest issue of Trinity, or Final Crisis, or some such. A fate narrowly avoided, and as it is, we put aside our batch of comics smiling a contented smile.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Rise of the Roman Empire

Our book today is The Rise of the Roman Empire (for want of a better title) by the first century b.c. historian Polybius, a Greek living among the best and brightest of his Roman conquerors.

Polybius was born sometime toward the end of the third century b. c. at Megalopolis, in primitive, untamed Arcadia, which belonged to the venerable Achaean League of states. His family was prominent, and he received an excellent though old-fashioned education in the old Arcadian way: hunting and drinking and boy-chasing, with very little emphasis placed on the pallid disciplines of the library and the lamp. We don't know at what point those disciplines began to exert their own pull of young Polybius' mind; it may have been around 182 b.c., when the young man was given the singular honor of bearing the ashes of Philopoemon (one of the greatest of all Achaeans) in funeral procession. Certainly at some point, probably shortly afterwards, Polybius wrote a massive biography of Philopoemon, now lost to us but very well known to ancient writers.

Epic composition wasn't his only accomplishment in those murky early years, however; by 170 b. c. Polybius had become prominent enough in the Achaean League to achieve the rank of commander of cavalry, and this was a problematic thing to have on your resume at the time, since the Romans had been at war with Macedon for a couple of years. When Macedon was defeated, in 168, the Romans swept through the whole of the Peloponnese with political retributions, including summoning about a thousand Achaeans into custody in Italy, including Polybius.

Most of these detainees - none of whom was ever given a trial or even much of a reason for their detainment, other than their nationality and being on the losing side - were given quarters of varying degrees of comfort in southern Etruria, but Polybius was luckier: for sixteen years, he was under the most genteel of house-arrests in custody of the family of Aemilius Paulus, the commander of the forces that had finally defeated Macedon. The great man's young son was Publius Scipio, with whom Polybius developed a friendship and working relationship, a mentorship of remarkable depth and flexibility. Scipio and brother Fabius suddenly found in their midst this man of immense experience and hard-won wisdom, and perhaps it's only natural they felt a bit of rivalry for his attention. In fact, Polybius could date his friendship with young Scipio to some surprising comments Scipio made to him after dinner one day, comments dealing directly with that rivalry, all of which Polybius himself relates to us:

One day when the three of them were leaving Fabius' house, Fabius happened to turn off toward the Forum, while Polybius and Scipio walked off in a different direction. As they were walking along, Scipio, blushing a little, asked Polybius in a hesitant voice, "Sir, why is it that when you're at a meal with my brother and me, you address all your comments to him, all your questions and conversation to him, not noticing me at all? It's starting to look as though you have the same opinion of me as everybody else: that I'm withdrawn and lazy, that I'm not a proper gung-ho Roman just because I don't plead cases in the law courts. 'His family doesn't need that kind of representative, people say, and it really irritates me."

Polybius was shocked by the young man's comments, for the boy was only eighteen years old. "By Jove, young Scipio," he replied, "what are you saying? You mustn't think such things - I don't do the things you say because I have a poor opinion of you, far from it. It's just that your brother is the older, and I assumed you shared the same thoughts and reactions. I'm amazed to hear different, and I'm delighted to learn that you're bothered by the possibility people might think you unworthy of your family - it shows you have spirit. I would be very, very happy to devote myself to helping you change that impression, helping you act and think in ways worthy of your ancestors."

Scipio might have been young, but he was no fool: he accepted gladly and used Polybius as a close advisor for the rest of the man's life, although always allowing him the freedom to travel, explore, and write on his own. Though thus deeply enmeshed in Roman affairs, Polybius never stopped caring about Greece and his beloved Achaean League - although their fractiousness and frequent lack of judgement predictably exasperated him. The great ancient travel-writer Pausanius records an inscription he saw in Lycosura: "Greece would never have suffered if she' listened to Polybius, and it was only through him that her suffering was relieved."

Polybius' subject is the rise of Rome to unparalleled power in the Mediterranean and beyond, a rise he follows through the epic events of the First Punic War and the Second Punic War, with liberal and lengthy digressions along the way for a wide variety of subjects (perhaps the most famous - and certainly the most excerpted - of which is his treatise on the Roman constitution, a treatise that cast a long shadow on the events of ensuing centuries, up to and most certainly including the American Revolution). His style is less fluid than that of Roman historian Livy (whose surviving works cover a great deal of the same subject matter), but his historical method - pursued at a time when the idea was still in its comparative infancy - is much more satisfyingly rigid.

There is no popular edition currently in print of all that survives in the single manuscript of Polybius, but the Penguin Classic (as is so often the case), translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, will serve nicely as an introduction to the man and his work. That has been the bedrock task of the Penguin Classic series for lo, these many decades, and here as always they do their work admirably. Oxford World's Classics, so far as we know, never got around to Polybius, but you should!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Well, it goes without saying - certainly here at Stevereads - that the most interesting, arresting thing in the Penny Press this time around is our very own letter, printed in the current issue of The Atlantic. As some of you will know, we issued a slight correction to the great literary critic B.R. Myers on the subject of the parables of Jesus. Myers, to his credit, has spunk enough to attempt a rebuttal, but his resorting to Mark is a surefire sign of desperation, as is his unconvincingly narrow construction of the passage he quotes. But still, we give him marks for determination and wish him well in his future endeavors!

Coming down from that height, we have Sam Anderson's fantastic piece in New York, "Raise High the Rafters," in which he maintains that the biggest challenge facing Barack Obama in the upcoming election will be curtailing his personal elegance to conform to the more lowbrow comfort zone of the general voting public, who, according to Anderson, dislike sophistication in any form. We here at Stevereads don't quite believe this, but we love how Anderson writes, as when he says "Style tells us, in a second, what substance couldn't do in a year," or when he describes the moment when his belief in Obama overcame his natural cynicism:

The speech that finally tipped my inner scale decisively toward belief was his least decorative: no refrain, little alliteration, no audience exploding at shouted catchphrases - just the man himself, standing there solemnly, neutralizing the hysteria of a potentially career-killing scandal with the naked power of grown-up thought. With his race speech, Obama chose the riskiest path in American politics: to be conspicuously thoughtful.

Of course, with high points must come low points, and over in The New Yorker, in a short story ironically titled "Deep-Holes," our low point this week is provided by a writer guaranteed to provide nothing else: yes, the issue features yet another endless damp lump of a short story by Alice Munro. This one is about some people doing some things, and it time and again offers up paragraphs like this:

While this was going on, Kent manages to slip behind her and finish up her champagne. Peter must have seen him do this, but for some peculiar reason he does not tell on him. Sally discovers what has happened some time later and Alex never knows about it at all, because he soon forgets there was anything in her glass and packs it neatly away with his own, while telling the boys about dolostone.

So one character does something, and none of the other characters see it or care, and the something never comes up again because nobody cares about it or knows about it (although Alex should, since he "soon" forgets there was anything in her glass, not immediately does, meaning there was an interval of indeterminate length in which somebody noticed and should have cared at least enough to mention it), and the purpose of the wooden, lifeless paragraph describing it is what, exactly? Or was the paragraph really describing anything? Might it not have been simple aimless typing? Let's pick another:

On the steps of the old bank building just beyond the subway entrance, several men were sitting or lounging or sleeping. It was no longer a bank, of course, though the bank's name was cut into the stone. She looked at the name rather than at the men, whose slouching or reclining postures were such a contrast to the old purpose of the building and the rush of the crowd coming out of the subway.

So these men were sitting on the steps of the old bank building, only it wasn't a bank anymore, and they weren't sitting but lounging, only they weren't lounging but sleeping (Munro probably means that some of the men were sitting, some were lounging, and others were sleeping, but her horrid sentence doesn't say that), and they were either slouching or reclining, but it doesn't matter anyway because the main character is paying attention to the building not the men, even though the men are all she describes or talks about?


Fortunately, the same issue also provides a poem we here at Stevereads kinda-sorta like. It's by Charles Wright, and it's called, for reasons we can't make out at all, "Return of the Prodigal":

Now comes the summer, water clear, clouds heavy with weeping.
Tall grasses are silver-veined.
Little puddles of sunlight collect
in low places deep in the woods.
Lupine and paintbrush stoic in ditch weed,
larch rust a smear on the mountainside.
No light on the ridge line.
Zodiac pinwheels across the heavens,
bat-feint under Gemini.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Johh Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture

Our book today is John Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture by Judah Stampfer, and we found it - and loved it - solely due to the serendipitous magic that is the bargain lot of the Brattle Bookshop in Boston, Massachusetts.

We were in Boston checking on several pending real estate deals we've got going on scenic Beacon Hill (some guy named Tom Brady? Apparently some sort of disgraced local sports figure?), and whenever we're in Boston, we make a point of going to the Brattle, Boston's best used bookstore, with a good-sized selection of used books on all subjects and, more to the point, an entire adjacent lot full of bargain-carts - books of all descriptions for $1, $3, and $5 - a great majority of them titles you'd be asked to pay $8 (and up) for at any other used bookstore. Even confining yourself to just the $1 tables (as, to amuse ourselves, we almost always do), it's easy to accumulate an armload of great books - only to go inside and pay a pittance for the whole bunch.

The Brattle is always buying books and book collections, with the result that the bargain carts are always changing - and you can never tell what you'll find (i.e. it won't always be old textbooks, outdated electrical code books, and fourth-generation tattered paperbacks, like you'll almost exclusively find on the bargain-carts of other used bookstores). It was, for instance, on one of the $1 carts recently that we found our present book, which was written by Judah Stampfer in 1970, has scarcely ever been reprinted, and is currently out of print.

And which is fantastic! Stampfer writes so fluidly, so passionately about Donne and metaphysical poetry that the reader is completely hooked from the very first paragraph:

Metaphysical poetry eludes definition; yet many a group has oddly assorted characteristics. Quick speech, a bent for politics, and large blue eyes may characterize one family, starchy desserts and a need to be self-employed another. Not every designation requires a genus and a species. So we associate the truculent learnedness of the metaphysical poets, their sinewy music, strong lines, impassioned confrontations with large issues, distant conceits, colloquial speech, and a bent for religious experience.

John Donne wrote some of the most terrifyingly complex poetry in the English language, and he has baffled many a reader over the centuries. Stampfer reads him like he's never heard of the man before, eyes totally fresh for the wonder and the challenge of the verse, and he's such a good writer that he conveys that wonder straight to his readers. This is exactly what all literary criticism should do and what so little of it actually does. Stampfer's curiosity is as infectious as his reading is wide. Just listen to how good this stuff is:

An interest in words is necessarily paradoxical. Signs, not substantial things, they signal to the mind, the memory, the will. Who arranges nonsense syllables in iambic pentameter, or serves a menu as the main course for dinner? We do not trust them. Indeed, a man dwelling on words makes us uneasy. He is playing a game; a hurt is oozing out. Yet a child's language is its playground. We like the smack of talk, its knolls and fissures. Not every prattle calls for a diagnosis.

A poet is even more of a puzzle. Do his dense verbal textures, freighted with feeling, indicate more than a maladjustment? When does his fret of dissatisfaction become a hunger for the truth? Blake and Wordsworth regarded themselves as inspired craftsmen; but Tennyson and Browning hung between social engagement and withdrawal into words. Indeed, Browning dramatized a series of verbal eccentrics. And Arnold established so firm an equilibrium, we suspect he was doing penance. But for what? For writing poetry? Wasn't that activity innocent?

Stampfer knows perfectly well the perilous task he's undertaking in trying to plumb the depths of Donne's gorgeous, twisted poetry. He's likewise both aware and doubtful of the strictly biographical approach, as he beautifully states:

The personal drama of a reticent craftsman is not easily ferreted out. A lawyer develops his cases, a doctor his world of medicine; we catch an aura of subject matter, the pace of a career. But of a creative writer, whose words crackle in our intestines, we demand more. Grasping his endless smash-ups, abandoned children, a tearing of city air - all so cool, easy, and casual - we want some control of the mysterious stranger, before we allow a laying on of hands.

John Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture goes on and on like that, page after glorious page, and serves to underscore two things dramatically: first, the pitiless caprice of chance, that an intoxicating masterpiece like this should be long out of print when things like The Last Lecture ride the bestseller list for months on end, and second, the upliftingly egalitarian wonder of the Brattle bargain carts, which serve up such gemstones daily, for a dollar apiece, to the patient bookworm.

So then: when next in Boston, by all means make time for the Brattle Bookshop. And in the meantime, and thrill to that particular crackle in your intestines!

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Floating Book

Our book today is Michelle Lovric's lush and utterly confident first novel The Floating Book, which takes its readers to the very beginnings of print culture by taking them to 1468 Venice, where Wendelin von Speyer and his assistants Bruno Uguccione and Felice Feliciano have just set up the city's first printing press - which is revolutionary enough, but their choice of printing matter only increases the tension between themselves and the city's ruling councils: they've chosen a first edition of Catullus, whose Lesbia poems, some of you may recall from school, are raw and scandalous. As the inevitable controversy erupts, so too does an intense love triangle between Bruno, Felice, and a mysterious woman named Sosia.

Lovric interweaves this story with the story of Catullus himself (printed in a different font; as befits a book about the birth of Venetian printing, The Floating Book is gorgeously and variedly assembled), and it's impossible to judge which portions of the book are better: both 15th century Venice and 1st century b.c. Rome come marvelously alive through Lovric's talent. In the case of the former, tossed-off descriptions are brought home with one or two perfectly chosen adjectives:

The clouds had parted in front of them all the way back to Venice. By the time Lussietta and Wendelin set foot in Mestre, the warm rain had evaporated, leaving the streets shining with puddles dizzy as shaken mirrors.

And in the case of the latter, Catullus' tortured love for Clodia, his 'Lesbia,' is followed through all its painful stages, as is his terror that all the poems into which he's poured his heartache, all the work he's created in his short life, might one day amount to nothing:

I know all too well the way these things go. Ignominious destinies meet some of the best books ... after languishing overlong in the storerooms of the booksellers they're sold off by weight to the grocers and bakers to wrap pastries and spices or to line barrels in which cereals are stored, or theyre sent to the butchers where they're wadded around sanguineous cuts of veal and the lolling heads of tiny songbirds impaled on sticks. There are so many ways for a poet and his poems to lose their immortality - even while he's still alive! I walk past the butchers and bakers, whistling, but in my heart I dread to see my own work embrace their wares one day. Yesterday I saw one of Caelius's poems flapping like a tunic round a fine mackerel, and smiled for the first time in weeks.

Of course, to those modern-day readers familiar with Catullus' textual history, his worry in this passage is only the more ironic, for we have him today through the survival of only one manuscript - he came that close to being fish-wrapping and only fish-wrapping.

Lovric's book has everything in it for the reader tired of thin, jaded prose and flimsy plots. The old Venice and much older Rome it evokes are each perfectly rendered, and the storylines in each are very satisfyingly intertwined and counterbalanced. And as an added little bonus, each chapter is headed by an English rendering from Catullus. Since the book nowhere attributes them, we have to assume they're Lovric's own, and some of them are quite good:

You have forgotten.
But the Gods remember
and so does the Truth.
It's the truth that will make you sorry
one day
for everything you did, and everything you do.

We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly endorse The Floating Book; it's an extravagant example of historical fiction done right.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Looking for God in the Penny Press!

The New Yorker's current double-length extravaganza is being billed as its "Summer Fiction Issue, so naturally there's barely a word in it about fiction (unless you count a "new" short story by Nabokov, but surely "dentistry" would be a better term, as far as actually reading it goes?). Instead, a large chunk of the issue seems dedicated to matters of faith and doubt (the issue's highlight is a two-page piece by George Saunders called "Hypocrites" that's worth the cost of the whole damn thing).

The piece that caught our attention was "Holiday in Hellmouth" by the redoubtable James Wood, an omnibus review of various books that deal with the iniquities of the world and the problems faith has confronting them. Wood stays in book-reviewer mode for nine-tenths of his very deep, very thoughtful essay, but near its end a more passionate, personal note starts sounding more prominently:

Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all the tears from our faces. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson adds, in a line just as tender, if a little sterner, "It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required." Robinson, herself a devout Protestant, means that the immense surge of human suffering in the world will need, and deserves, a great deal of heavenly love and repair; it is as close as her novel comes to righteous complaint. But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world's suffering - that, theologically speaking, Heaven is "exactly what will be required." In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God's mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything we went through on earth will suddenly seem "worth it."

This personal note of doubt achieves almost anguished undertones at the close of the piece, when Wood chooses to end with a series of implored open-ended questions that will sound familiar to anybody out there who's struggled with personal religious beliefs:

If God supposedly wipes away all tears from our faces in Heaven, why does he not do it now? Why does God not now establish paradise on earth, as the Jehovah's Witnesses believe he will do? And what is the purpose of these eighty years of not having the tears wiped from our faces?

As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads detest the Church. We hate its hypocrisy, we deplore its smugness, and we've fought our whole life to pry open the whalebone corsets it puts around any of its faithful who dare to think for themselves, to create, or to question. And you all know how we'd answer Wood's questions, since they all have the same answer: there's nobody out there, no magical Neverland where phantom selves get transported at the moment of death, no mystical father-figure carefully measuring everything we do.

But we're nothing if not fair here at Stevereads, and so we showed Wood's article to Father Terry O'Brien of Boston for a different viewpoint, and we'll now turn the podium over to him. As always, your thoughts are welcome:

God is all-powerful, and for that reason alone He tends to get blamed for everything. I read the article our host showed me, and there's implied blame on every page of it. The problem with blame, I think, is that it assumes a greater degree of involvement with the world than God exercises - or rather, I should say a greater degree of interactivity, for God is very involved in our lives; He may not be "carefully measuring" as our host says, but He believes in each and every one of us, and if we clear our heart of clutter, we can feel that belief and take strength from it. I believe this is what praying is: quieting our inner chaos long enough to feel God's loving presence and maybe even lean on it a little. That presence is what awakened my own faith, it's what drew me to my service, and it's been my rock during all the very worst times of my life.

But God's support isn't interactive. He doesn't make earthquakes happen; plate tectonics do. He doesn't cause floods; tidal currents and earthquakes at sea do. He doesn't cause cancer; rogue cells do. It's true He created the superstructure of the world in which those things happen, and of the universe in which that world exists (something more and more physicists are declining to debate, I think), but He no more continues to prompt each manifestation of those things than you or I individually decide to grow our hair or toenails. He created the world and everything in it, but He hasn't directly interacted with His creation since the Flood. He saved one family (and representatives of all his wild creatures) and then destroyed all the rest of His creation; but after He did that, He decided never to do it again. In other words, He changed.

That's essential, I think: God changed, and it's in that very aspect that we all were made in His image, for in all of creation, only mankind can change. I know our host will disagree with this, but this is one case where his activist zeal has got the better of his insight (to say nothing of his theology). I shouldn't say animals can't change - obviously, they can be traumatized, they can grow stronger or faster, and they can mourn. But those experiences don't change their selves, unless to break them. If a horse develops bone cancer and goes through operations and chemotherapy for months, that horse may recover, but whether he does or not, he'll still be the same horse. His 'personality' will not have changed, nor will his emotional makeup. But if a man goes through the same experience, his self may change drastically. He may become more giving, more honest, more loving - I've seen it happen. A young child stricken with some disease or burned badly often changes in like manner: the bravery and grace that may lie dormant in most of his playmates becomes so clear as to be blinding.

Take the example of a young woman I know. Some years ago, she fell into debt and drug addiction. She did nothing to help herself, and her friends and family turned away from her. She reached rock bottom, and there she found strengths within herself she hadn't guessed she had. With a lot of hard work (and yes, with prayer, but she did the work all on her own), she reclaimed her life, and her friends and loved ones, astounded at the finding of this lost lamb, in turn examined their own hearts. That young woman is now a source of strength to others, and her friends and loved ones will never be so quick to turn away from helping someone in need.

I'm not saying God gave that man cancer to make him more loving. Rogue cells (or other factors, but you take my point) caused the cancer. I'm not saying that child was stricken by God in order to make him shine with light. Tragedies happen in the world, even to the very young. And I'm not saying God caused that young woman's drug problem or hardened the hearts of her family (although I know He has a rep for that!). People make bad choices every day, and sometimes they correct them, with or without their family's help.

What I'm saying is, none of those things could happen in Heaven. Heaven is our relief from all of that, and for all I know God really is ready to wipe the tears from our eyes when we get there. But James Wood (and Marilynne Robinson) is wrong when he implies we're all somehow owed that gesture by God. God didn't create the suffering and evil of the world - much of it is the accidental by-product of the world being the world, and much more of it is the product of mankind itself. God wants mankind to be perfect, as He is perfect. He believes in that potential, for everybody. Whether or not we achieve it is entirely up to us. And I feel one thing very strongly: when the tear-wiping is over, the questions will begin: when tragedy happened to you, did you rise to meet it? Did you make sure it changed you for the better? When tragedy struck someone you love, did you go to their aid, or count yourself lucky that it wasn't you? When you looked upon the evils of the world, did you fight them, ignore them, or worsen them? How did you let your one and only stay on this world change you, and how did you change the world while you were in it?

I've always believed the central question about Heaven is this: will God be happy to see you?

We are here in this harsh world to make it better, to make as much of it better as we can, and to make ourselves better in the process. None of that would matter if God just reached in and helped us every time it was hard, or even impossible, to do. I'm sorry James Wood seems not to see that, but he should trust me that it's true. After all, I wear the collar: it's my job to help explain God to those who are having a hard time seeing Him. If I'm ever having trouble writing a magazine article, I'll hope Wood returns the favor!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

June at Open Letters Monthly!

Let the celebrations commence - June heralds yet another issue of Open Letters Monthly, and this one is just exploding with juicy content!

The issue kicks off with a long poem by Jesse Ball, author of the critically-acclaimed novel Samedi the Deafness, but that's just a sample of the wonders that await you! Greg Waldmann writes on Israel's problematic anniversary; Sam Sacks does thorough - and thoroughly absorbing - roundup of critical reactions to controversial memoirist James Frey's debut novel; John Cotter muses on the book-length werewolf novel Sharp Teeth; our talent stable of freelancers share their thoughts and insights on subject as varied as Muhammed Ali, Etgar Keret, animal cognition, Goth werewolves, scientific experiments, and the prose of Margot Livesey. I'm also on hand, nattering on in the background about one damn thing after another.

And the Open Letters Quiz goes down swinging!

All that and much more is just a mouse-click away - so pop on over to that link and have yourself a fun hour reading!