A laurel and hardy handshake to the London Review of Books, which turned thirty years old this month with a lavishly overstocked issue of reviews and commentary, including a surprisingly enjoyable review by Colm Toibin of the new John Cheever biography. Not surprising because it deals with Cheever (whose work I mostly dislike), but surprising because it's written by Toibin (whose novels I entirely dislike) - providing yet more evidence of a literary phenomenon I'm tempted to dub the Zadie Smith Syndrome, in which a generally overpraised, talentless novelist shows first-rate skills as a book reviewer. I keep reading Toibin's deplorably lazy novels based entirely on the strength of the non-fiction stuff he's done that pleased me (including the epic, indispensable Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which I'll get to one of these fine days here at Stevereads), so 2009's been the old one-two punch: a wretched novel, and this delightful Cheever piece.
The review is of the book by Blake Bailey, and it's a classic 'fulcrum' work - not well-written or otherwise intrinsically worthwhile, but irresistible to a wide swath of reviewers who don't want to review the book so much as use it to talk about the book's subject (not at all a despicable aim, although the shadow-ground it occupies between essay and review has never been fully charted). The LRB gives Toibin a nice generous amount of space, and his article is never less than fascinating. Here are some of the highlights, like this bit about Cheever's male lovers - and his weird belief that sexual activity sharpened his eyesight:
Since Cheever took the view that sexual stimulation could improve his eyesight, part of Max's function, once their affair began, was to offer the same comfort as a good pair of spectacles might have.
Or, after discussing Cheever's intensely strange novel Falconer ("The sense of violence, hatred, pain and deep alienation is offered raw; beside this, love, or something like love, comes as dark redemption or another form of power. In the middle of somewhere are the grim ordinariness of prison life and some brilliant sex scenes") this great little tossed-off line:
If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.
Or this, culled from Cheever's journals (which Knopf paid a whopping 1.2 million dollars for the right to publish):
In the next entry, he ends with a remark which is one of the few endearing remarks in his journals and should be the motto of every writer alive: "All right, I want something beautiful, and it will be done by June."
Now I'm not saying we've got the Miracle of Lourdes going on here - Toibin's singularly un-Irish tin ear for prose is still occasionally on display (that weak ending "might have," for instance, or those ploddingly repeated "remark"s) - but this is generally excellent stuff, as have been all of Zadie Smith's literary essays in the last year. A piece like this makes me eager to see more of Toibin's work - which is certainly an odd feeling.