Friday, November 14, 2008

In the Penny Press - the TLS!

I get looks whenever I buy the TLS, and not just because I'm a stone-cold super-hottie. No, I get cautionary looks from bookstore cashiers (never the brightest bulbs in any bookstore's chandelier - some of the older ones don't even know how to operate their own registers!), as though I might be unaware of just how staid and boring the periodical I'm trying to purchase is.

In a way, it's understandable. After all, the TLS isn't flashy, and one glance inside is enough to clue in just about anybody that what few pictures there are exist only as marginalia for what is a very large amount of prose. Page after page of multi-columned reviews in tight type, with no pie-charts and precious little in the way of multi-color graphics.

And partially, this appearance is accurate: the TLS is the world's most serious book-review organ. It's intellectually coruscating, temperamentally abstruse, and often Olympianly unanswerable. Most of its reviewers are distinguished academics and writers (this particular issue is in large part devoted to music, and the lead-off article is by none other than the brilliant, electric Charles Rosen)(as with most of the lead-off articles of the TLS, this one is worth the price of the periodical all by itself), and although they're usually chatty and helpful, they don't slow down for their audience. The tiny handful of people I know who claim to read the TLS universally skim it (and most not even that - back issues, dutifully bought, pile up on nightstands like autumn leaves), and that, too, is partially understandable: so much depth and detail, week after week, can feel oppressive to the perpetually over-leveraged.

I read the TLS from cover to cover (in an average issue, I entirely skip perhaps two pieces, on topics that hold no interest whatsoever, but even here I'm a bit ahead of the game as far as those skimmers go, since I don't subsequently try to pretend I read those pieces); I consume it. When you read as many books as I do, when you're as often frustrated with the book-reviews you read (and of course lately there's the fact that I write book reviews, not only here on a regular - if entirely un-commented-upon - basis, but also over at Open Letters) as I am, the TLS comes appears every week like a banquet from the gods.

But even so, it's easy to see how somebody unfamiliar with it could mistake it for being dry and dull. It looks dry and dull, but oh! It isn't. Intellectual and aesthetic probity of this magnitude is always exciting, but it's not only that - very often, the TLS is genuinely funny. Not slapstick humor, mind you, and sometimes rather droll, but still possessing a definite twinkle in the eye. The uninitiated find this impossible to believe, but it's true.

Take the 7 November issue, for instance. Yes, it starts off with the aforementioned long and stunningly good Rosen article on various styles of piano-playing, but very soon after that, the issue gets down to some serious one-liners and extended guffaws.

Well, maybe not very soon after that - there's a great but somber piece on the British in WWI, for instance, and there's a review of the new Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading that, while not specifically funny, does have a wonderful line about how, like and The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? "the new film is boastful rather than apologetic about its own inconsequentiality."

But what about Tom Shippey's long, openly baffled review of the new monstrously unedited bagatelle from Neal Stephenson, Anathem? Shippey pretty clearly goes back and forth between being utterly nonplussed by the book and being vaguely disappointed both with it and with its intended audience:

Stephenson says there's no reason to read the chronology at the front of the book, "If you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own." (note that there are two requirements here).

If you give it a minute to settle in on you, that closing parenthetical is pretty damn funny, in an utterly composed, even cold way.

And then there's Nicholas Vincent, whose brief review of the new Bernard Cornwell historical fiction Azincourt (about the Battle of Agincourt - I must have been absent when everybody agreed to change the spelling) is so chock-full of malicious fun that I'm going to break with Stevereads precedent and quote it in its entirety. Enjoy:

Bernard Cornwell's cast of foul-mouthed military boors are here transported to the fifteenth century, with all the consequences of setting down Andy McNab, Jake "Raging Bull" La Motta, and Dr. Tourette in the midst of Little Arthur's History of England. There are so many intestines spilled "like wet eels sliding from a slit sack", so many pukings and involuntary voidings of the bowel, so many meticulously prepared cliches, that the reader is left wading in ordure, longing for a sentence of more than thirty words, for a word of more than two syllables, and for any reflective or descriptive passages not concerned with bodily fluids.

The plot of Azincourt is thin and cinematic. It involves Nick Hook, an archer whose one claim to fame is his ability to dispatch an incredible number of victims. Even before the battle proper, Nick has stabbed or bludgeoned to death nearly a dozen men, and this before counting the occasions when he strings his murderous bow. Within the first seventy pages, there are two gang rapes, from the second of which our hero clears his mind, somewhat implausibly, with "thought[s] of the badgers on Beggar's Hill". Thereafter, Hook (note the stabbing masculine monosyllable) makes off with the fair Melisande (remark the yielding and feminine anapest), and together they and their dysfunctional families bring various, not particularly interesting problems to bear on a story best summarized as "psychopath goes to war". The introduction to this plot of the lecher-priest, Father Martin, certainly increases the pornographic element, although Martin's claim to have met the Bishop of Oxford in a brothel staffed by nuns is either mendaciously boastful or miraculously prophetic: the bishopric of Oxford was not created until 1542, more than a century after Agincourt.

Cornwell's account of events is advertised as "supremely well-researched". Certainly it has involved him in reading at least three and possibly four works of serious history. Through their cool assessment of the battlefield and the campaign's rich documentation, the experts - among them John Keegan, Anne Curry, Juliet Barker and (not mentioned in Cornwell's acknowledgements) Christopher Allmand - have recaptured the horrid history of Agincourt with its slaughter in the sucking mud of Picardy. Cornwell, by contrast, so revels in the filth that one is left wondering whether, like several of his characters, not least the disgusting Father Martin, he is secretly celebrating what he seems to deplore. Fortunately, it is at this stage of that the events of October 1415 begin to gather pace. As French hubris thunders towards nemesis unleashed from English (and Welsh) bowstrings, and as we are once again told the old story, the reader can sit back, enjoy the show, and forget about the talentless actors who Cornwell has thrust, gurning and cursing, onto his blood-spattered stage. Grand-Guignol combined with didactic display of historical knowledge is, as ever, a formula difficult to resist. Homer knew this. Bernard Cornwell not only knows it, but has used it to sell a stack of books that would stretch from Troy to Agincourt and back.


Mr. Vincent, there's a job waiting for you at Open Letters, should you be interested.

And in this issue of the TLS, as in any issue, the reader looking for chuckles will come to the last page with high expectations. That last page, in a relatively new and eminently sensible layout decision, now belongs to J.C.'s "NB" column, always an odds-on favorite for making you laugh out loud over your lunch of spicey Indian food. It's with mounting dismay, then, that the reader gets through three of J.C.'s four little items without cracking more than a smile. Even the last item, a brief, sarcastic review of a new book of apparently nonsensical statements called Oxymoronica, seems set to be well-behaved, although the book's compiler, Dr. Mardy Grothe, comes in for some apparently well-deserved ragging for over-explaining the items he's chosen:

... just as you are delighting in Emerson's claim "All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients", Dr Grothe pops up to prick your pleasure: "How can people from centuries ago steal ideas from modern thinkers? Of course they can't. This is Emerson's way of describing a fairly common experience." You don't say. But he does: in chapter after chapter.

We get a choice selection of oxymorons, from the likes of Thomas Mann ("A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people"), Samuel Goldwyn ("We pay him too much, but he's worth it"), and Josephine Baker ("I wasn't really naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on"), but by that point we're only lines from the end of the issue, and still there's been no capping zinger from J.C.

But then it comes, in the issue's very last line - a tart, memorably witty oxymoron to take home:

If you ignore the parts written by the author, this is a good book


So you see, appearances can be deceiving. The TLS might look frumpy and humorless, but in reality, it's seriousness and learning need the regular release of zingers, kind and unkind. I quote a great philosopher: "The more advanced the civilization, the greater the need for the simplicity of play."

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