Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yearning to Herd Sheep in the Penny Press!

Boy, it’s been quite a week in the good old Penny Press, hasn’t it? My reporting has been so consistent certain less steadfast members of the Silent Majority have expressed concern that I’ve given up on boring old books altogether. I assure you, that’s not the case – I still have plenty of tedium to unload on you all (including our next installment of Penguins on Parade), but I still read lots of periodicals, and this is still where I talk about what I read (swankier OLM-sponsored digs notwithstanding), so bear with me.

And besides, how could I of all people ignore the cover story of the 1 February issue of New York? “A Dog Is Not a Human Being, Right?” blares the cover, but the adorable little critter whose portrait (yet more stunning work by Jill Greenberg, the greatest portrait artist of our age) accompanies those words seems mighty uncomfortable with all the attention.

That critter is lucky not to be able to read, because the article in question, written by John Homans (and I’m accused of using flimsy aliases!), is very often very damn annoying – and as some of you will recall, I consider the ‘annoying’ bar set pretty damn high when it comes to anybody but myself talking about dogs.

I realize Homans can’t be held accountable for the stuff the copy editors attach to his piece, so the article’s subtitle, “Dogs are increasingly rootless souls, country bumpkins in city apartments. But is a vegan pup still an animal?” can’t be held against him, but the actual text of his piece isn’t all that much better.

The problem, as always, is one of focus. Homans’ shifts all over the map. At one point he’s making withering observations about the insane world of high price-tag dog-pampering, and at other points he’s talking about how all dogs are somehow mystically attuned to life in ‘the country’ and are only making compromises by enduring suburb, city, or apartment life:
The apartment is a far from perfect place for the dog. Still, they’re camp followers of our microtribes, the only beings that fully understand the customs. And unlike children, they’ll never reject them.

He’s not sure how to describe the hazy area dogs occupy in human (in his view, this always equates with “American Northeast Caucasian,” which gets a little irritating in its own right), even though that very area is the ostensible subject of his article. So at one point he says “The dog is an honorary human,” and at another he insists “Treating your dog as a person is nothing more or less than an aesthetic error.” Part of the problem stems from a doggie-fact of which Homans seems entirely unaware. See if you can spot it:
As the relationship [between humans and dogs] developed, specific canine qualities – the dog’s gaze, its unending adolescence, its uncanny responsiveness to human clues – evolved … What was created was not, precisely, a human child, but it certainly was able to push some of the same buttons.

Yes, those of you who know anything at all about dogs will have seen it immediately: our modern dogs didn’t evolve any of those qualities Homans is going on about. Those qualities – and plenty of others, intended and otherwise – were eugenically implanted into dogs by humans, who have controlled canine breeding lines (with varying degrees of intentionality, of course) for thousands of years. Dogs have been made to be childlike; they’ve been shaped to gaze upon humans with undivided attention. Once you learn this (or recall it), most of Homans’ talk about dogs yearning to get out to the country and herd things becomes just exactly the same kind of blather that usually irritates me when anybody other than myself talks about dogs. But that’s not what irritates me the most about Homans’ piece, oh no! That would be one single line, the seeming answer to the question on the issue’s cover:
No one believes, in his conscious mind, that the dog is a person.

In an article that takes pains to describe the vast strides various animal rights groups have made over the decades, such a sentence is almost vile, and it instantly begs the question: what is a person? It’s Homans’ persistent conflating of ‘human’ and ‘person’ that rubs salt in a very old wound. And Homans just won’t let up:
The dog’s innocence amplifies empathy, because there’s no ethical static, no human otherness to contend with. It’s less complicated to love a pet than a person.

This, to put it mildly, is just so much sheep-dip. As some of you will know, I’ve had many, many dogs. Some were angels of affability, perfectly happy just to lap up all the ease and comfort I could give them. Others were earnest little misses, always over-eager to please everyone. I’ve had gregarious dogs and the occasional tangled, haunted introvert. I’ve had happy-go-lucky dogs and those who were more remote (including one – my favorite, the best friend I’ve ever had – who behaved like a king and treated everybody but me – canine or human – with sometimes very visible disdain). I’ve had dog who were better at logical solutions to problems than I am, and I’ve had dogs who were (you should pardon the expression) barking insane.

I can tell you two things they all had in common:

First, they were all ‘persons’ – in that they were themselves and nobody else, every bit as individual as any humans I’ve known.

And second, they were all complicated to love. Loving anything living is complicated, and even the dogs who make it simple with their personalities make it more complex with one other canine trait (one humans almost never have to deal with amongst themselves), which Homans gets around to at the close of his essay:
In a footnote to one of his poems about the deaths of his dogs, John Updike wrote, “Sometimes it seems the whole purpose of pets is to bring death into the house,” a sensationally cruel observation because there’s truth in it. The dog’s mortality is never far from an owner’s mind – it’s the central flaw in this best-friend business. No one is ready for their dog to go. And the dog doesn’t know where it’s going – the dog joke turned into a tragedy.

It’s confusing that Homans could be so clear on this point and yet make that preposterous ‘the dog is not a person’ stance. He gets love, individuality, devotion, variety, humor, and now grief – and still he says the being who evoke all those things are somehow less than his fellow humans, even if those fellow humans don’t evoke them. All dog-owners know this contradiction for the shortsighted silliness it is … but Homans is a dog-owner (that's his gorgeous dog at the top), and yet he appears not to see it. I’m hoping he sees it just fine and is merely stirring the soup to make an article chat-worthy. And considering how scatterbrained that article is, I’m really hoping he entirely cleans it up if he ever decides to expand it into a book. We don’t need any more dumbass dog-books out there – especially since we’re already dealing with a flood-tide of dumbass dog- articles.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Frustration, consternation, and irritation in the Penny Press!

When I started this week’s New York Times Book Review, I was certain my main frustrations with it would come from some of the main pieces. The lead piece, by Walter Isaacson, reviews two books on American presidential power – one by the insufferably pompous Garry Wills and the other by the nation’s foremost unindicted co-conspirator, the fascist lapdog John Yoo. A certain recipe for agitation, yes? But no: Isaacson is such a fair reviewer, and here (as in his books) he employs such a calming tone that I ended his review feeling not agitated but only pleasantly informed as to his opinions (although he’s dead wrong to be so even-keeled about Yoo’s book Crisis and Command, as damning and dangerous a book as has ever been produced in America).

(The whole piece was helped considerably by the stark and effective cover illustration by Viktor Koen)

But I was right: after that, the going got distinctly rough. Hilary Mantel, author of the fantastic novel Wolf Hall, reviews Alison Weir’s new book about Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower – and is bafflingly forgiving of Weir’s notorious failings in her chosen profession, as when Mantel allows:
Doubts have already been cast on Weir’s assumptions; the historian John Guy has recently suggested that two sources she took to be mutually corroborating are in fact one and the same person. This doesn’t invalidate her brave effort to lay bare, for the Tudor fan, the bones of the controversy and evaluate the range of opinion about Anne’s fall.

Except that’s exactly what it does: it invalidates her efforts. Guy didn’t just suggest that Weir had ineptly handled her research (a charge I and many others have been laying against her since the start of her career), he proved it, and it wasn’t hard to prove. Certainly it fits with every other history I’ve ever read by Weir; her book on the Princes in the Tower has more angry marginalia by me than it does actual typed words by her. (Of course, Mantel might have mounted a better defense of the book if one-goddam-HALF of her allotted space hadn’t been given to a pointless, juvenile picture of Anne Boleyn, as if the people who don’t know what she looked like care what she looked like, and as if the people who do know what she looked like need reminding of what she looked like)

Things got no better when I read the ridiculously tossed-off half-page review Steve Coates gave of David Malouf’s Trojan War novel Ransom – in fact, they got much worse, since I had some skin in that particular game: not only had Sam Sacks, my colleague at Open Letters, recently reviewed the book with greater length and far, far greater acumen, but I’d reviewed it myself, here at Stevereads. I liked it a lot less than Sam did, but even so, it deserved better than a tired old tag like “the endless power of myth,” which is about the best Coates can give it. When I read an almost-weightless little half-page like this, I always wonder who exactly considers it better than not mentioning the book at all.

The answer to ‘when it almost nothing better than nothing’ is much clearer when the writer of the almost-nothing is famous in his own right, as is the case with Jay McInerney’s blinking, ridiculous piece on Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which gets summarized thusly:
Tim Farnsworth literally walks out of his office one cold winter day, the victim of an uncontrollable locomotive impulse. It has happened before. He can’t stop walking. Really.

In case that ‘literally’ and that ‘really’ weren’t sufficient, it should be pointed out that the protagonist of Ferris’ new book suffers a compulsion that makes him walk until he can’t walk anymore. God is my witness.

I’m starting to wonder if the inordinate fixation virtually all the reviewers of this book have exhibited upon the raw mechanics of its plot (Wyatt Mason being a distinct but lamentable exception!) isn’t a sure sign that Ferris is playing a deeper game than any of them realize. I read The Unnamed and certainly believe this is the case, but readers of the Book Review will amble through McInerney’s summary gathering a vaguely negative impression of the book, so a sad majority of them will never bother to find out for themselves.

But as frustrating as that is (and one can only guess how frustrating it must be for Ferris himself – The Unnamed bears distinct signs of having been a fairly brutal book to conceive and write), none of it held a candle to the issue’s towering inferno of imbecility – located, as it almost always is, in the concluding Essay.

This one is by Jennifer Schuessler, and it’s about boredom in the book world:
If you read a lot of book reviews, there are certain words that tend to crop up with comforting, or maybe it’s dismaying, regularlity. Lyrical. Compelling. Moving. Intriguing. Absorbing. Frustrating. Uneven. Disappointing. But there is one word you seldom encounter: boring. It occurred a mere 19 times in the Book Review in 2009, and rarely as a direct description of the book under review.

“This isn’t because books sent out to reviewers never turn out to be boring (Trust me on this one),” Schuessler informs us. “Rather boredom – unlike its equally bland smiley-faced twin, interest – is something professional  readers, who are expected to keep things lively, would rather not admit to, for fear of being scolded and sent back to the Weekly Reader.”

Schuessler then goes on to play a quick little game with the word ‘bore’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, to haul in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift narrator (who’s writing a book on boredom), and to drop the term thaasophobia (fear of, you guessed it, boredom), all pit-stops on her way to wondering if maybe boredom isn’t actually (thwack palm on forehead) good for us.

In other words, she writes a very boring essay.

And I wouldn’t have minded this so much (the NYTimes Book Review Essay is often, almost contractually, boring), were it not for the fact that the piece is not only derivative but, literarily speaking, dumb. The reason you don't often read the word 'boring' in a book review isn't because 'professional' readers don't want to be psychoanalyzed; it's because they've realized that a boring book usually isn't worth reviewing. Something irritating? Sure. Something sublime? Certainly. But something just plain lifeless? Schuessler might not have the common editorial sense to pass over such things in telling silence, but most of the rest of us 'professional' readers sure as Hell do. And then there's the myopia of the thing! To put it mildly, boredom has been a much-mined subject in literature in the last fifteen hundred years – a writer who can only bestir themselves as far as Saul Bellow deserves to be stripped of their epaulets. And the reason why the piece is so shallow (assuming here that this Schuessler person is, in fact, capable of much deeper work  - always my madcap assumption until proven wrong) – why an essay on boredom in literature in the country’s most influential book review doesn’t even mention, say, the Russians and the rather prominent Russian novel that’s entirely about the subject? Well, that reason is the least-common-denominator mind frame of the Book Review these days. And that’s in a whole ‘nother dimension of frustration.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Little Old Lady from Connecticut in the Penny Press!

I should state up front that I readily admit to the regular high quality of Harper’s. I’ve been a subscriber for years on and off, and I’ve been a front-to-back reader of every issue longer than most of you have been alive. It must be doing something right, to keep me coming back so long after I’ve abandoned so many other periodicals (and once I leave ‘em, they tend to fold – sorry Omni, nothing personal). They do many things right.

My problem with Harper’s is a certain little old lady from Connecticut. I’m sure you know her: she’s outlived her war hero husband and still lives in their dignified home; she always dresses properly and always counts her change. She utterly dominates the rest of her family, and if she were to admit this uncomfortable fact, she’d chalk it up to wisdom and life experience rather than money and the careful way she doles it out and withholds it.

She doesn’t have to be from Connecticut, of course – I’ve met her in dozens of cities in virtually every state in the Union. But wherever she calls home, she exercises an enormous sway over the editorial policy and content of Harper’s, and it gets wearisome.

You know what this lady likes to read. She watches Fox New religiously, not because it reflects her own beliefs but because it forms her own beliefs – Fox tells her not only what to care about but how to care about it, and as some of you will already know, that particular world-view is as rigid, as reflexive, and as hate-filled as the worst fanatical religious sect in the world. In fact, given that the Fox News ideology has spawned two enormous ongoing wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties, it has a fair claim to being the worst fanatical religious sect in the world.

The tenets of that sect are easy to learn. Just think of the schoolyard, and you’ll have it. Conformity is mandated, bullies rule, and the only form of speech is the taunt.

That lady from Connecticut believes in America, but at the same time she believes America is feckless, stupid, and helplessly at the mercy of ‘them.’ ‘They’ want to cut our military funding and fill the ranks with gays (who will be allowed to marry)(base commanders and ship captains will be forced to perform the ceremonies). ‘They’ want to raise our taxes and spend the money on frilly programs designed to help illegal immigrants. ‘They’ want to outlaw guns and mollycoddle criminals. ‘They’ have all sorts of far-out ideas about the world (and about respecting other cultures, for Heaven’s sake), ideas that just aren’t sensible. If America could just get rid of ‘them,’ it could go back to being the great country it was in 1955.

The lady from Connecticut won’t ever tell you who ‘they’ are – she’s never heard it explicitly from Fox News, and besides, she doesn’t need to tell you - you know. We all know. The gays. The Hispanics. The blacks. The intellectuals. The liberals. The J-e-w-s. She just wishes they’d all go back where they came from, instead of ruining everything for everybody else.

For reasons that surpass my understanding, Harper’s tailors a large percentage of its contents toward pleasing that lady from Connecticut, and it bugs the hell out of me every issue.

Take the latest issue, February 2010.

It goes without saying that the lady from Connecticut hates President Obama. After all, he’s black, liberal, and intellectual (and he might be gay – it’s a mess). And Harper’s chose to open this issue with a screed whose only purpose is to fan that hatred.

I don’t know Roger Hodge, but his ‘Notebook’ piece here, “The Mendacity of Hope,” is the most vile piece of I.Q.-lowering crapola I’ve read in a long time. The opening salvo is all I have the stomach to quote, but it gives you all the tone-setting you need:
A year has passed, and yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand.
If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.

This is pure Fox News. This is yelling. And it has the same weird, sick effect all schoolyard taunting does: it makes you want to yell back. No matter how earnest or intelligent you are, it makes you want to yell at Roger Hodge “Shut up! Shut up!” But you know such a response is no more helpful than the original incitement, so you end up saying nothing – but that’s frustrating too, since it gives taunting the field.

As those of you who are old enough to remember Spy magazine will recall, the famous Harper’s Index has always specialized in taunting innuendo. ‘They’ rule here entirely – Harper’s Index is pretty much exclusively an ongoing rap-sheet for ‘them.’ Under the guise of bare-bones factual graphing (which Spy used to gleefully expose as one cooked quasi-statistic after another), the Index pushes the Fox mentality more strongly than any other part of the magazine. And the dark genius of it is that it prompts the reader to join in the math:
Chance that a would-be enlistee in the U.S. military aged 17 to 24 is rejected because of a criminal record: 1 in 20.

Chance that he or she is rejected because of physical unfitness: 1 in 3.

Conclusion: They’re filling our army with criminals! And repeat.

But as maddening as such tactics are, they aren’t as bad as the magazine’s ‘Readings’ feature, because that feature can often contain gems, short pieces that really are worth your attention. But those gems are invariably lodged cheek-to-cheek with xenophobic race-baiting out-of-context snippets designed to make the lady’s Connecticut beach house seem to her like the only sane place left on Earth.

This issue’s ‘Readings’ starts off with an excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s fantastic, heartfelt book You Are Not A Gadget, and that’s good. But such things are always counterbalanced by excerpts that reinforce the lady’s belief that the rest of the world is populated by silly little foreigners.

The piece titled "POTUS Blossom" is a perfect example. It’s setup is allegedly this:
From 3,290 questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack Obama in advance of his November 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai. Translated from the Chinese by Colin Jones.

Of those 3,290 questions, the Harper’s editors chose the ones most likely to please the lady’s preconceptions, with predictable results:
Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?

Can you tell us if UFOs exist? What is really going on at Area 51? I think Americans need to explain this to the rest of the world.

Can I discuss with you China’s purchasing Hawaii with U.S. dollars?

If you had to choose three flowers to describe your wife and daughters, what would they be?

Nowhere does Harper’s come out and say ‘See how funny and odd those little Chinese are?’ But what other purpose can there possibly be in translating one ‘clueless foreign’ question after another, especially if you know your readers will have no access to the remaining 3,240 questions? The purpose couldn’t be clearer: it’s to reassure that lady in Connecticut that she’s right to think foreigners are weird, childlike, and none too bright.

Constantly issuing those coded reassurances is demeaning to Harper’s reputation as one of the greatest magazines in history, and reading them every single month – knowing exactly what they’re for and seeing exactly how effectively they’re made – is demeaning for any reader who’s ever had an honest, non-fearful thought about the world.

The rest of these ‘Readings’ are no better. A long excerpt in which poet Derek Walcott windily muses back and forth over his word-choice in one of his poems isn’t designed to give that lady from Connecticut a glimpse inside the creative process: it’s designed to reinforce her belief that all modern poetry is bunk. The excerpt relaying a Denver ballot-initiative calling for an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission is designed to reinforce her worry that there are loonies out there who not only believe in UFOs but want to force her to believe in them too (the fact that it’s a ballot initiative and not just a pamphlet is crucial here). The deconstructed radical-form short story by Aura Estrada is meant to reinforce her belief that all ‘modern’ fiction makes no sense. This stuff is assembled here to give wry, knowing documentation to that lady’s belief that the world is one crazy, incomprehensible place.

The main meat of the issue starts on page 31, and things immediately improve. For all its shameful pandering, Harper’s has a core of actual literary excellence – there is a reason why readers like me keep coming back. Mark Schapiro’s report on ‘the carbon-trading shell game’ exposes some corporate ‘green’ practices that deserve exposing and only dances to the line of calling all ‘green’ procedures a fraud but doesn’t actually cross that line. Shahan Mufti’s account of an unlikely real estate boom in Pakistan is wonderfully written:
Baluchistan, like the rest of Pakistan, was slowly being chewed away by wars, big and small, internal and international. I had flown to this town on the Persian Gulf with a dream of making my home. There, on top of Koh-e-Batil, it dawned on me that, like Major –General MacGregor before me, I had become tangled in a Great Game. Nothing will induce me to come again.

Rivka Galchen’s short story “Once an Empire” is dumb but not offensively so, and Darryl Pinckney’s piece on becoming addicted to As the World Turns, though cowardly (you have to read the piece to find out that it’s a gay love story plot line that primarily intrigues Pinckney; that fact isn’t mentioned in the table of contents or the piece’s teaser-line), is entertaining. The photo portfolio on the Afghani sport of quail-fighting is beautiful and only mildly fraudulent (it flatly states “the birds do not fight to the death” and this is flatly untrue – it’s only there to calm the nerves of the lady from Connecticut), and there is the oddly comforting presence of that same old two-tone box ad for Walter Karp’s The Politics of War. The ad has been right there, advertising the same book, in every issue of Harper’s for the last ten years. The sheer inexplicable strangeness of that fact has long since passed the point of no return.

There are book reviews in the back, some of them good, some very frustrating – and one that’s both.

You get this dual reaction – thrilled and frustrated at once – when a really talented book reviewer trashes something you liked (this happens to me on an almost monthly basis over at Open Letters). I got that this time around with Wyatt Mason’s fantastic hatchet-job of Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which I thought was terrific. Mason clearly disagrees:
Whatever the underlying cause, the routine inconsistency and incompetence of the novel’s most basic feature – its prose – undermines the reader’s ability to take the book seriously, as seriously as it must be for its premise to take imaginative hold.

It’s brutal, honest, entirely misguided brilliance from start to finish – it made me want to call Josh and make sure he’s holding up OK under the barrage, and it simultaneously made me want to call Wyatt and get him to write something for Open Letters. It’s a thrilling little demonstration that probing, non-cheerleading literary criticism still has its place in the sun.

And every issue of Harper’s can be relied upon to do this one better, to serve up something truly magnificent. In this issue it’s the short essay called “The Company of Drawings” by John Berger. At first it reads like a pompous makeweight phoned in by a giant:
We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

But gradually, in layered vignettes, always returning to that ‘we who draw’ koan, Berger shapes a piece about the valiant indeterminacy of art that is deeply, richly rewarding.

The regularity of that euphoric little moment in Harper’s keeps me coming back – and every time I do, my patience is tested that much further by the magazine’s idiotic final goodbye-wave to that lady in Connecticut.

Of course I refer to the moronic 'Findings' feature on every issue’s last page. Unlike the Harper’s Index, these allegedly scientific little summaries are offered without any verification, even fraudulent verification. Instead, we get one lie after another stacked like cordwood:
NFL quarterbacks play better if they are better looking

In China (them again!)’s Hubei province, a gang of macaques trained in kung fu turned on their human master.

Studies of birds and mammals showed that males have more consistent personalities.

Researchers discovered four new species of king crab, concluded that female leatherback turtles are right-flippered, and revealed that the pitch of blue whale songs was getting lower.

Gerbils in Israel are more cautious than those in Jordan.

Needless to say, all these things are plucked so far out of their original context as to constitute simple falsehoods, as are the rest of this and every issue’s 'Findings' – not only are they designed to make that lady in Connecticut giggle a little (not an unworthy goal in itself – lord knows, it’s good for her), they’re designed to make her distrust not just fringe science but all science. It’s the George W. Bush years, caught in amber, on display every issue.

It’s hard to feel unmixed delight about a magazine that leaves such a rancid taste in your mouth at the end of every issue. No doubt it makes the lady from Connecticut smile her little self-satisfied smile, content for one more month in knowing that as crazy and deplorable as the world might be, at least the right kind of people are taunting the right targets, that there’s nothing so “smart” it can’t be reduced to an excerpt or a statistic.

But I, for one, wish Harper’s would cancel her damn subscription and give the rest of us more attention. Some of the greatest poetry and prose in the world was written by those funny little Chinese, after all, and we already know that only crackpots believe in UFOs. The editorial voices that routinely find brilliance like that John Berger piece should be given free rein over every issue. She’ll find something else to read.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Penguins on Parade! Chaucer's Canterbury Tales!

Some Penguin Classics just feel like home, and Nevill Coghill’s 1951 edition of The Canterbury Tales is one of them. It has all the elements of the quintessential Classics design: the super-flexible binding, the endearingly cheap paper, the sturdy, unpretentious Introduction, the unassumingly great supporting notes, etc.

It’s been a big financial success for Penguin over the decades, probably in large part due to its handiness as a trot for students plowing their way through Chaucer’s Middle English for the first time. It’s been popular for centuries to ‘modernize’ Chaucer’s verse (still popular – Burton Raffel and Peter Ackroyd have both attempted it just in the last couple of years), smooth out the rhymes, replace the dead words with still-living ones, perhaps prune or simplify some of Chaucer’s omnipresent literary allusions. Devotees of Chaucer (in their ever-dwindling numbers, alas) will look upon such efforts with dismay – even a mini-masterpiece like Coghill’s will leave them saying “Why not just READ Chaucer instead?”

I should stress here that I’m not advocating the one over the other. There’s wit and playfulness and sheer skill in Chaucer’s verse that cannot be ‘translated’ into modern English, despite opinions to the contrary from no less a source than Dryden. Coghill gives us the cringe-inducingly pompous comments Dryden makes in a preface to one of his own modernizations:
I have translated some parts of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have altered him anywhere for the better, I must at the same time acknowledge, that I could have done nothing without him …

Coghill’s own preface is far more humble, and its enthusiasms are still fresh, even after all these decades:
In all literature there is nothing that touches or resembles the Prologue. It is the concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country, but without extremes. Apart from that stunning clarity, touched with nuance, of the characters presented, the most noticeable thing about them is their normality. They are the perennial progeny of men and women. Sharply individual, together they make a party.

Chaucer began work in earnest on the Tales around 1386, with the grand plan apparently being that each of his group of pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury would tell two tales on the way there and two tales on the way back. Those tales, plus all the bridging segments (and it’s doubtful the poet could have resisted a showpiece about Canterbury itself, or a bravura leave-taking), would have made a truly enormous work, but Chaucer never came close to finishing it. What we have is a precious handful of tales (still too many, in the opinion of countless high school students forced to plod through them instead of reading what they like) that constitute (Dryden’s quote again) “God’s plenty.” Few things in literature are as diverting as Chaucer’s verse; almost nothing feels so much like an old friend as The Canterbury Tales.

Coghill’s modern English version has helped countless of those unwilling high schoolers to at least know what they’re reading, although with a little effort they could have read the author directly. Like I said, something is inevitably lost in the translation, although Coghill’s version at least trumps most other modernizations in being readable and enjoyable in its own right. Take a little bit from the Merchant’s Tale:
When God created Adam, flesh and bone,
And saw him belly-naked and alone,
He of His endless goodness thus began:
‘Let us now make a help-meet for this man
Like to himself.’ And He created Eve.

That’s friendly, fluid stuff – although who isn’t pleased more by poet himself:
The hye god, whan he hadde Adam maked,
And saugh him al alone, bely-naked,
God in his grete goodness seyde than,
‘Lat us now make an help un-to this man
Lyk to him-self;’ and thanne he made him Eve.

And again in this Penguin – as in so many other Penguins – one of the main draws besides the canonical work being presented is the critical apparatus presented alongside it. As we’ll see over and over in our Parade of Penguins, it’s this critical apparatus – the Introductions and Notes – that often provides the perfect finishing touch to the whole package. Coghill in this case provides ample but not intrusive notes to elaborate some of the near-endless allusions and name-dropping in which Chaucer indulges, and Coghill’s clarifications are often both succinct and tongue-in-cheek, as in this note about the use of images:
The Doctor worked by what Chaucer calls ‘Natural Magic’ (here translated as ‘the powers of favourable planets’). Small images or effigies, moulded, probably in wax, to represent the patient, or other sorts of talisman or text, would be hung on the patient at hours when his horoscope indicated that the planets were favourably placed for him, in relation to the zodiac; at such hours (as if by what we call ‘cosmic rays’) virtue was believed to descend into these images, etc., and thence to the patient, with healing effect. Faith is a great healer.

(Indeed it is, although it can’t cure a closed mind – this particular note has been removed from most later reprints of this volume – perhaps for offending some students, or their parents?)

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read The Canterbury Tales, or in how many countries and weathers and moods, but I know many of those times the Tales I was reading were Coghill’s version of Chaucer rather than Chaucer himself (little Penguin paperbacks being exceedingly easy to pack and remarkably durable against all manner of traveler’s mishap) – it’s a testament to Coghill’s great, humble achievement here that I was almost equally happy in either case.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Penny Press Addendum: The Lying in Winter

[caption id="attachment_629" align="aligncenter" width="180" caption="gore vidal by piotr lesniak"][/caption]

I knew something like this was coming, and I thought I was prepared to control my outrage. A friend alerted me to a one-page squib in the latest Vanity Fair (I intended to wholesale ignore the issue, since it was boring enough to feature a philandering famous athlete the cover) in which Christopher Hitchens – him again! – takes a public potshot at Gore Vidal. I acquired the page in question (a single page! I’m starting to wonder if the brevication bug I spotted over at the Atlantic isn’t as widespread as termites throughout the printed world), and boy, it sure packs a lot of sly vilification and sloppy vituperation into only a few paragraphs.

The tiff – such as it is – arises from the fact that over a decade ago, Vidal apparently began referring to Hitchens as his heir apparent in the realm of literary gadfly-hacks, then 9/11 happened and the Iraq war began, and not only did two writers find themselves on different sides of the issue (Hitchens famously supporting the war, Vidal applying the same ‘Washington must have known’ gambit to 9/11 as he’s done for years to Pearl Harbor), but Vidal began publicly scoffing at the very idea that he ever nominated Hitchens as his successor.

The little squib in Vanity Fair is a decidedly odd production. Hitchens starts off with some tepid praise of the Vidal That Was (I honestly think Hitchens has grown so enamored of his linguistic virtuosity that he thinks he’s the only person who can see when his praise is tepid … like he’s having a good little laugh behind his hand as he fools us all into thinking this is the face of his enthusiasm – it seems impossible, but if it’s true, somebody really needs to remind this guy that you can’t have private little jokes if you’ve published every thought you’ve ever had for the last twenty years) – he’s our Wilde! – then immediately starts in with the pussy-footed knocks:
I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.

This is only the first whiff of the scurrilous cowardice that animates this little jingle (“very, very minor tendency,” in truth? But not so minor you don’t bring it up, right?)(and if any of you imagine for a second that Hitchens himself has ever forgotten even the smallest slight, real or imagined, I’ve got a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you). Things get worse when Hitchens starts talking about a lengthy interview Vidal recently granted to the London Independent, in which Vidal goes into Full Crank mode, gnawing on about the downfall of America, the dominance of China, and whatever other favorite sawhorses he felt like talking about with the interviewer. Hitchens affects to deplore such rhetoric – “What business does this patrician have in gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?” he plaintively asks, a rather ironic inquiry coming from the in-house apologist for The Nation.

It’s only toward the end of the piece (that is, immediately after its beginning) that Hitchens veers close to what is probably his true motivation. He’s talking about Vidal issuing that repudiation of the very idea that he would call Hitchens his successor:
Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted – I have the correspondence – and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character – a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.

How about if we call it assisted suicide? Does that make base betrayal a bit easier to swallow?

The sordidness of this business is very efficiently encapsulated in that horrifying line “I have the correspondence” (the equally loud and only barely unspoken second part, “…and I’m happy to publish it” certainly goes a long way toward explaining Vidal’s towering, disillusioned bitterness with the world in general). Hitchens trots out as much of the Independent interview (I'm not sure they’ll appreciate the gesture, gutter market that they apparently are) as he thinks will serve his purpose of charting a mental decline, including this knee-jerk summary Vidal gives of some of his famous writing coevals:
Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.

Hitchens laments: “One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second.” But long-time readers of Vidal will instantly point out that he’s never shown all that much grace or generosity to those of his contemporaries he considers fools (indeed, several of the top-form enshrined quotes Hitchens alludes to are savage – and savagely funny – toward other writers). And there’s also the fact – apparently weightless to Hitchens but perhaps not to everybody – that those three literary assessments, in addition to being flippant, are entirely accurate.

But Hitchens criticisms miss two bigger points by a mile, and a reader looking to understand this little squib will be hard-pressed to understand how this could be. First, sarcastic flippancy hasn’t replaced wit or profundity on the subject of, say, Vidal’s literary peers – we in fact have the wit and profundity, on all three of those writers and hundreds more, fully preserved in Vidal’s essays. What’s the man supposed to do at age 85? Endless parrot his best lines, or endlessly coin new ones? He’s old and intermittently sick and running out of time – perhaps he’s entitled to a little sarcasm, especially if he’s feeling like his interviewer could come up with better questions.

But the second big point is the more important of the two, and it’s one every other eager young(er) literary gun out there should heed before they launch their own little broadsides against the old lion: Vidal is in what we used to call his dotage. This isn’t to say he’s demented, not at all (or at least not necessarily) – but he is, though it seem impossible for such an erstwhile paragon of youth, granddad. Granddad gets cranky (being old is, as is commonly attested by the old and universally disbelieved by the not-old, no picnic); granddad has pet theories that aren’t always sensible; granddad can be abrupt, and his abruptness can hurt feelings. A year from now, two at the most, and granddad won’t be here anymore – and he knows it, and he hates it. The lesson of the story? Once granddad is in his dotage, you suffer him in silence. Period. You don’t justify yourself. You don’t try to win old arguments. You don’t produce his correspondence. You suffer him in silence, and you thereby hope to be treated so well when it’s your turn.

The vital thing to remember when you finish this little squib of Hitchens’ is the relative scale of what we’re seeing here. Yes, the Vidal That Is continually says unworthy things in unworthy ways. But Hitchens has been writing professionally for what? Thirty years? More? And for that he has what to show the year 2210? So far: nothing. Ephemera, often bashed out hung over ten minutes before deadline. Thirty years ago, Vidal had produced a body of work almost unequalled by any 20th century practitioner of English – and that was before he collected United States or wrote Palimpsest. It entitles him to forbearing silence whenever the tawdriness of his dotage makes an appearance. It obliges Hitchens and his ilk to shut their disrespectful yaps about inscriptions on frontispieces.

And that doesn’t even touch on the obligation shat upon by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, whose typically sanctimonious issue preface revs the readers’ appetite for the squib to come, sarcastically saying, “As you well know, our columnist has never used his soapbox for anything less than a well-turned intellectual inquiry. In this issue, the topic happens to be somewhat personal, but no less intelligent: Gore Vidal. Vidal has written for and appeared in this magazine going back to the first Bush administration …”

Yes he has, and what thanks does he get for it from his editor? The respectful silence I mentioned? No, he gets a squib by an attack-dog greenlighted against him. On the chance that it’ll interest ten people, or better still, draw a response from Vidal himself.

Such a response might come, and no doubt Carter is hoping it’ll be salacious and Hitchens is hoping it’ll be conciliatory (or, lacking that, looney). Me, I’m hoping – though I know it’s impossible – that it’s somehow magically from the Gore Vidal of twenty or so years ago (you know, around Hitchens’ age). Imagining that riposte – and the party-colored carpet-smears that would be all that remained of Hitchens afterwards – is pretty much the only thing that put a smile on my face about this wretched little piece.

We’ll talk about books next time, to cleanse the mental palate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Votaries and Sharecroppers in the Penny Press!

You have to do a little patient skull-duggery to get to the good stuff in this month’s Atlantic. The James Fallows cover article on what America needs to do in order to ‘bounce back’ against the onslaught of underdog India and world-dominating China starts off strong, makes lots of good points, then in the third act veers off into weird we-need-a-new-form-of-government territory (if I had a dime for every time Jefferson’s boneheaded and offhand remark about how the country “needs a little rebellion now and then” was misused, I could buy a subscription to the Atlantic). Amanda Ripley’s piece on what makes a great teacher spends a great deal of time and verbiage arriving at the conclusion that the really great teachers are the ones who work really hard at it and think about it a lot. Timothy Lavin’s profile of a loony-tune late-night radio host went, I’m afraid, right over my head. And Michael Kinsley starts a piece by willfully misunderstanding the difference between a news story and a news bulletin and then flogging an entire article out of that misunderstanding (the article announces that he’ll be heading up a new website created by the Atlantic’s parent company – making me wonder if the domain name is already taken).

But once you get to the rear of the issue, some fun stuff can be found. Not, alas, Benjamin Schwarz (he appears to have the issue off, and I’m betting he’s at home reading), but two other stalwarts of the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan and Christopher Hitchens.

Flanagan, in full snarky-mad fettle, takes on the school-garden craze that’s sweeping her state of California – a craze that’s new to me, in which schoolchildren are assigned time during regular school hours, as schoolwork, to tend to the school’s garden, concoct recipes involving the school’s garden’s produce, harvest that produce, etc. Flanagan’s ire over this movement prompts her to a most excellent high dudgeon, right from the opening salvo:
Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks through the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

It’s rare for an immigrant experience to go the whole 360 in a single generation – one imagines the novel of assimilation, The White Man Calls It Romaine.


Apparently, the mastermind behind school gardens is a woman named Alice Waters, whose restaurant, Chez Panisse, is renowned among foodies as the height of the gourmand experience. Flanagan is not amused:
… an eatery where the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hote menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams – wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included (I’ve had major surgeries in which I was less scrupulously informed about what was about to happen to me, what was happening to me, and what had just happened to me than I’ve been during dinner there).

But her anger over school gardens isn’t born of anti-snobbery (well, mostly) – it’s purely practical:
I have spent many hours pouring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet state standards for English or math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either.

The lack of those results, and the inevitable consequence of that lack, leads her to a ringing finale:
The state, which failed those students as children and adolescents, will have to shoulder them in adulthood, for it will have created not a generation of gentlemen farmers but one of intellectual sharecroppers, whose fortunes depend on the largesse or political whim of their educated peers.

What can I say? Writing that packs that kind of punch is to be welcomed whenever it shows up. Flanagan almost never disappoints, but this is heady stuff, even for her.

Would I could say the same thing about the other interesting piece at the rear of this issue, Christopher Hitchens’ review of W.W. Norton’s The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard!

It’s not a knee-jerk reaction, either. Long-time watchers here at Stevereads will know that I’ve taken issue with Hitchens once or twice before (including once in the letters page of the Atlantic itself), but it’s always at least as much the product of frustration as anything else. The man can be brilliant, after all, whereas the most I myself am ever able to pull off is indefatigable (a word I wanted to work into the title of our favorite literary journal, calling it Indefatigable Letters Monthly – but John Cotter slammed his ale tankard on the table and bellowed “Avast with that talk, Donoghue!”)(actually, he swished his martini glass counter-clockwise and said, “Wellllll, that’s one way we could go – and here’s another” … and “Open” Letters was born). But when he’s insufferable, he’s A-grade insufferable … and he’s A-grade in this piece.

The main problem is that it’s fashionable among New York bookstore workers who read no science fiction to say that Ballard and writers like him (Margaret Atwood’s name invariably comes up in this context) actually wrote it. This particular version of eating your cake and having it too has always bugged me; it’s snobbery trying to disguise itself as open mindedness. “See?” it says, “I read science fiction! I thought The Road was stunning!” If you’re not willing to get down and dirty with the actual tropes of a genre, you’re nothing but a hoity-toit parvenu.

Cue Hitchens:
As one who has always disliked and distrusted so-called science fiction (the votaries of this cult disagreeing pointlessly about whether to refer to it as “SF” or “sci-fi”), I was prepared to be unimpressed even after Kingsley Amis praised Ballard as “the most imaginative of H.G. Wells’s successors.” The natural universe is far too complex and frightening and impressive on its own to require the puerile add-ons of space aliens and super-weapons …

Hitchens just barrels on from here (without seeming to realize that his rationale, if followed past its cramped use in this instance, would annihilate the legitimacy of all fiction – indeed, all representative art except real-time documentary film footage), high-handedly informing us that although he’s always thought this about the “cult” of science fiction (does he apply the word to Impressionist paintings? Romantic poetry? Even murder mysteries? I bet not), this Ballard fellow is alright – then he spends five paragraphs talking about Ballard’s straight-up historical novel Empire of the Sun.

As is perhaps inevitable in a piece with such a rocky start, further frustrations await, including this rather amazing comment:
Ballard wrote his heart out, especially after the random death of his beloved wife left him to raise three children, so I don’t especially like to say that he wrote too much. (This book has almost 1200 pages). But some of the stories are in want of polish and finish.

The hypocrisy of Christopher Hitchens bemoaning the fact that another writer churned out too much prose is so pronounced as to be almost surreal, but the thing that irked me most about this piece was the unprepossessing sight of a talented writer parading the fact that his mind has always been closed on a certain subject, is currently closed, and will likely remain closed forever. That’s hardly how you want to wind up an issue of the Atlantic.

Ah, but then, that’s NOT how we wind up this issue! No, that honor goes to Jeffrey Goldberg’s asinine “What’s Your Problem?” mock-advice column, which still occupies the magazine’s entire back page, even though its appearance every month for this long must surely have convinced even a blind man that the whole thing is a criminal waste of some of the most valuable magazine real estate in the world. If the goal here is to mimic Harper’s almost equally inane “Findings” end-page, the result is failure – “Findings,” although also a disgrace to the reputation of a legendary magazine, still manages to be bizarrely interesting about once every half-year, for a line or two. There’s no danger of that happening with “What’s Your Problem?” The Atlantic Powers That Be should yank this embarrassment – and if they’re looking for a smart, funny, invigorating one-page ‘literary life’ column to take its place, I’d be happy to see if any of my sharp young colleagues at Indefatigable Letters Monthly wants the gig.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers

Our book today is The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer, a 2006 novella released by Counterpoint, and reading it reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with a young novelist friend of mine. We were talking about the skill – and the courage – good writers exhibit not by piling on detail but by steadily whittling it away from their finished product.

Of course what I withheld from my novelist friend was how much I usually loathe such finished products. Novels aren’t verse, after all, and there’s a reason for that – fiction, especially historical fiction, wants to revel in abundance. The extra words aren’t there out of authorial laziness (in the best cases, that is) but rather to present the reader with long hours of research turned into a banquet, a lavished table from which they can pick and choose the delicacies they want. Slim novels are too often slim for the wrong reasons; they can easily be pale, skinny, even boney … and who wants that?

Happily, having read The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, I’m reminded that when novellas are done right, when they’re crafted with the skill and courage my friend and I were talking about, they really can approach the sheer sledgehammer intimacy of poetry. Delia Falconer has written such a book.

The story here centers on Captain Frederick Benteen, who in 1898 Georgia is an old man worn thin by drink and trauma – and who, in 1876, rode with the cavalry of George Armstrong Custer and through his own initiative managed to survive (and help some of his men survive) the Battle of Little Bighorn. That famous, bloody event has pressed a heavy hand on Benteen’s life and mind, and Falconer shows us a man whose memories lurk in the shadows, ready to darken even the most mundane activity, like when Benteen, idling at home while his wife Catharine (“Frabbie”) is away, goes to the icehouse out back:
Inside, he sees nothing at first but blackness and the vapor of his breath. Vegetables and flesh in hibernation in the pit below him. He hears tiny fissures open in the ice like the infinitesimal and random tickings of little pocket watches. Maggots sound similar, he recalls – a more liquidy eagerness about the ticking as they burrow through a corpse.

Into these warped twilight years comes the unexpected: a letter from an earnest young man back East who wishes to correspond with Benteen, to write a definitive account of the great battle and rescue Benteen’s reputation from those naysayers who claim he abandoned Custer at the last crucial moment. The young man has included a photo of himself, and Benteen, that former recruiter of men, reflexively notes ‘the transparent look about the chops of a man who lives on vegetables alone,’  but he can’t help thinking about prospect, however unlikely the vessel:
Like the faint stirrings of sex, he feels old venom sacks filling; the swelling weight of another, second, body within the old made up of bitter organs.

So. This is his avenger.

He pictures him cooking beans in a small room in a boarding house that is overrun with cats.

Like any other reader of historical fiction, I like to get totally caught up in the work. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers took me 37 minutes to read, so that was never going to happen – but I don’t think novellas like this one want to do that. Instead, they want to lodge themselves, like splinters, underneath your imagination; they want to burrow; they want to be remembered. Falconer’s skill – and courage – in writing such a spare book is totally assured: the perception with which she displays, bends, refracts every scene, every character, every memory, guarantees you’ll remember this book. Images and their counterpoints break upon the reader constantly:
This is what you did before a battle, he said to Frabbie last night; you had to fold your life like a jacket you would return to, and leave it with De Rudio and his trumpet, or in among the bushes; important to move weightless and unburdened toward your horse, otherwise your life’s tender weight would trip you up.

And Frabbie asked him, Do you think this is a feeling women never have?

I’m glad that Counterpoint is publishing this little book; I urge all of you to read it.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Plutarch!

Our Penguin Classic this time around is actually four separate volumes, spread out over almost twenty years, which, when assembled, constitute only a portion of the work they translate – a work which is itself incomplete.

That doesn’t sound very auspicious, but in reality the four volumes that comprise the Penguin Classics version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are thoroughly delightful, in that intensely idiosyncratic way that typifies many of the best Penguins in our parade.

The trouble here starts with Plutarch himself. This first-century historian and essayist – a sought-after lecturer and the most famous man of letters of his day (prolific too – his section in any good bookshop would usually cover half a wall) – was born in Greece around A.D. 45 and spent most of his life there, writing and teaching and gaining enough renown so that when he eventually travelled to Rome, his fame preceded him. We’re not certain why he went there or how long he stayed, but he was apparently popular and well-respected by the mucky-mucks of Trajan’s Rome. When he died, around 120, he left behind many fans (including the emperor Hadrian) and a vast body of work.

That body of work is the problem – specifically, the fact that the success of the earliest volumes of his biographies of famous Greeks and Romans prompted him to keep writing such works, until the final tally was gigantic. Plutarch pairs one famous Greek with one famous Roman – often on the most specious grounds – writes a usually vivid, impressionistic account of their lives, and then (again, usually) writes a separate essay comparing the two. There are twenty-three pairs and four stand-alones, and no matter how you slice it, it’s a huge work – and a correspondingly huge undertaking for any translator who wants to do the whole thing.

In the English-speaking realm of scholarship, the translator’s name most often associated with Plutarch is of course Dryden. In 1683, Dryden took on the massive headache of overseeing an entirely new, complete translation of Plutarch from the Greek. Dryden had always been a man who talked much of how over-committed he was, how little time he had to do anything – and scholars throughout the intervening centuries have commented on the evident haste they say mars much of what he wrote (I respectfully disagree – although not always at his most accurate, he was almost always at his best when working at full-gallop, usually with the printer’s boy impatiently waiting in the doorway). In this case he was far more involved in the work than is generally credited, often going over rough pages late into the night (not so much to correct translating errors – nearly all of the poor drudges doing the translating knew their Greek better than he did – as to try to impose a uniformity of sweet English, a subject he knew better than any man alive and few who’ve ever lived).

The result was a great big thumper of a book, one that instantly displaced every previous English version (including the 1579 one – translated from a French translation – by Thomas North, which is something of a shame, since it’s really remarkably good English in its own right … Shakespeare was far from the only one to be mesmerized by it) and for centuries remained, for good or ill, the standard English Plutarch.

Standards can still become dated, however, and that happened to Dryden. In 1859, the fifth-rate English poet Arthur Clough published his epic revision of the work, which is the version of both Dryden and Plutarch that most readers are likely to encounter if they encounter any at all. Clough’s poetry might not be anything to cry from the rooftops, but he turned out to be a damn good reviser – especially considering it was nothing he’d ever intended to do (credit for the idea that a marketable book might be made by fixing the “creakings” of Dryden goes to a Boston bookseller who broke the concept through Clough’s thick skull during the poet’s stay in Cambridge). His revised Dryden comes closer than anything else in English had to being the impassioned one-man-show Plutarch’s original is.

When Penguin Classics (remember them?)(hee) decided to enter this torturous textual history, they made a tried and true editorial decision – to chop the block into more user-friendly pieces. Rex Warner’s 1958 volume The Fall of the Roman Republic contains just six lives – Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar – with no parallel lives, no comparative essays, and none of the slight fustiness of Clough or the remaining “creakings” of Dryden; here was a blast of fresh translation, concentrating on some of the most famous, most pivotal Roman lives in history.  In his Introduction, Warner is indulgent of his great original:
He is a moralist and (as Shakespeare was to recognize) a dramatic artist. He accepts rather uncritically the Roman aristocratic tradition and applauds the intellectual and indeed disastrous moralizing of Cato or of Brutus. Yet in his presentation of the characters themselves he goes some way towards amending some of his more facile judgements. He is a fair man and cannot help showing, for instance, that Sulla was even more of a monster than Marius, that Cato was a bit of a prig, that Caesar, though disreputable in some ways, was, alone of the dynasts of his time, merciful to his enemies.

Warner’s volume was followed in 1960 by the first of Ian Scott-Kilvert’s efforts, The Rise and Fall of Athens, which features nine of the most important of Plutarch’s Greek lives: Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Nicias, Lysander, Alcibiades, and Pericles. Scott-Kilvert’s next volume, The Makers of Rome, came out in 1965 and featured the remainder of the important Roman lives: Fabius Maximus, Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, Sertorius, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Coriolanus, Brutus, and Mark Antony. These two volumes run the same Introduction by Scott-Kilvert, and it contains one of the sweetest tributes to Plutarch I know:
… it is just this boundless interest in the individual character which has given the Lives their enduring popularity from age to age. Plutarch has an unerring sense of the drama of men in great situations. His eye ranges over a wider field of action than any of the classical historians. He surveys men’s conduct in war, in council, in love, in the use of money – always in Greek eyes a vital test of a man’s capacities – in religion, in the family, and he judges as a man of wide tolerance and ripe experience. Believing implicitly in the stature of his heroes, he has a genius for making greatness stand out in small actions. We think of Alexander handing his physician the paper denouncing him as an assassin, and in the same gesture drinking off the physic the man had prepared for him, or of Antony sending Enobarbus’s treasure after him; these and countless other scenes Plutarch has engraved upon the memory of posterity for all time. It was surely this power of his to epitomize the moral grandeur of the ancient world which appealed most strongly to Shakespeare and Montaigne, which inspired the gigantic outlines of such typically Renaissance heroes as Coriolanus and Mark Antony, and which later prompted Mme Roland’s remark that the Lives are the pasturage of great souls.

Scott-Kilvert’s final Plutarch volume for Penguin Classics, The Age of Alexander, also shares a version of this Introduction, although eight of the lives it features, Pelopidas, Agesilaus, Timoleon, Dion, Phocion, Demetrius, Pyrrhus, Demosthenes, are naturally overshadowed by the ninth, that of Alexander the Great.

All four of these volumes (Penguin also did versions of Plutarch’s Moralia and his writings on Sparta) sport sprightly notes, glossaries, maps, chronologies – all the appurtenances it never would have occurred to Dryden to provide in so helpful a manner. The four books – at least in their original mass market paperback format – are handy enough so you can carry the heart and pith of an English Plutarch with you anywhere, be it the train from Boston to New York or a slow packet plying the Indian Ocean. In freeing Plutarch from his own organizing schema, they perform an inestimable service to the many thousands of readers who might not otherwise have known him. And readers should know him. On the front page of my copy of The Rise and Fall of Athens, some previous owner had written, “Plutarch offers hope.” This is very simply true. That alone makes him indispensable.

Now what I wouldn’t give for Penguin Classics to publish a solid black-spined brick of the whole of the Parallel Lives! A new translation (with every last word included), new notes, new maps – new everything, a perfect shelf-companion to some of their very best other massive volumes: The Shorter Pepys, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, the Pope Iliad, or last year’s epic Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Plutarch has deserved such a volume for two thousand years; I dream that someday Penguin will get around to it, while there's still anybody around to enjoy it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Digressions welcome in the Penny Press!

For a bookworm, can there be any more reassuring note of continuity than the year’s first issue of the TLS? The 1 January issue is rich with wonders – it beguiled a portion of my afternoon while the temperatures plummeted and the snow fell.

There’s James Murphy’s long and extremely thoughtful review of D. D. Guttenplan’s new biography of I.F. Stone, one of those instances in review-reading when you come away from a piece absolutely certain the review is better-written than the book it examines (a trend in this issue, as we’ll see). Murphy tosses off quite a few great lines – I’ll content myself with relaying just a handful:
Guttenplan praises [Stone] as a pioneer of confrontational, investigative reporting, but some will question how much there is to be proud of in anticipating the modern newsreaders’ fashionable conceit (in both senses of the word) that everybody in public life is lying to them …

Stone was as much a polemicist as a journalist and one can be moved by his passion and transparent outrage. One can also be numbed by his relentless contumely and snide mockery meant to get a derisive chuckle from like-minded readers.

And this little dig at Guttenplan himself:
His dismissive quip, for example, that Lionel Trilling – surely one of the ornaments of American liberal culture – demonstrated the ‘rebirth of an American Jew as an English gentleman”, strikes an unwelcome note of undergraduate spite.

Elsewhere, Graeme Richardson takes on a batch of books about the transplanted British poet Thom Gunn (“some critics of Gunn’s later work,” he writes, “might have been, not homophobic, but bored”) and the mighty Ruth Morse (the TLS’ version of OLM’s own Irma Heldman) looks into the huge new two-volume British Crime Writing encyclopedia, in the process tossing off a line that stopped me in my tracks:
The book’s design (unjustified typesetting, good-sized print, wide margins) suggests that it is intended for readers as well as for library shelves.

The more I thought about the implications of that dichotomy, the less I wanted to think about them. I’m hoping Morse was just having a little fun.

[caption id="attachment_603" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Alfred in a painting by Daniel Maclise, 1852"][/caption]

But the centerpiece of the issue (at least, and somewhat predictably, for me) was Joanne Parker’s essay on the life of Alfred the Great in fiction – a long and lovingly detailed piece that is ostensibly a review of the latest Bernard Cornwell novel starring Alfred but really just gently uses that book as a platform from which to talk about her subject in general (one wonders if she’s ever been tempted to do the same thing about giant killer shark novels, and if so, whether or not she had to suffer the cynical eye-rolling of her colleagues as a result).  Not that she skirts the novel, mind you – she has some very entertaining things to say about it, as for instance in this aside about the surprisingly appealing way Alfred’s great enemies, the Danes, are consistently portrayed:
Cornwell paints a succession of attractive Danish warriors who roar with delight on the battlefield, swear with mouth-filling oaths, revel in the salt-spray soaking their flaxen locks, and feast with carnivorous joy.

(Parker also makes a reminding mention of John Fitchett’s 1500-page epic poem about Alfred, and now actually owning a copy of that book is my life’s sole purpose)

Parker gives a spirited recounting of the great love the Victorians had for the virtuous Alfred of their fictions (that’s where Fitchett is mentioned, and a good many others who sound equally, deplorably wonderful) – a recounting that nevertheless contains this bizarre line: “After the publication of C. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Alfred waited for almost a century for an author to remodel him for modern tastes.”  At which point Cornwell is brought on stage and discussed at length, which – an act of exclusion that would have greatly surprised, among others, Jean Plaidy, Geogette Heyer, and most of all Alfred Duggan.

Parker ends her essay by wondering if Cornwell’s novels will eventually give us an Alfred of the same fictive stature as King Arthur, and that’s too hopeful by far: Cornwell has fallen into the heinous American trap (Gerald Posner, William Vollmann, and James Patterson come to mind) of instantly publishing every single sentence he writes, on any subject, at any time. There were ten new books by him last year, and this year has already seen six or seven more. Since they were written without thought, they cannot be good – and indeed, they haven’t been (although since they were all written by a smart man, neither can they be truly terrible, nor have they been). In order to achieve greater worth – if that’s his aim and not just Parker’s – Cornwell would need to slow down, drop four or five book contracts, and perhaps draw a cleansing breath.  There’s no likelihood of that, so King Arthur remains secure.

The TLS is a cleansing breath in its own right, either way. Our time together today was too brief, but I went back out into the snow feeling a lot less lonely as a reader.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Comics! Siege begins!

This week sees the first installment of Marvel Comics’ next Big Thing: a four-part series called Siege. The back story will be familiar to those of you who’ve been paying attention here at Stevereads – Norman Osborn, the murderous ersatz Green Goblin, has professed to be a changed man, wormed his way into the President’s good graces, and been placed in charge of the super paramilitary organization known as H.A.M.M.E.R. He’s recruited his own team of ‘dark’ Avengers, and for several months now readers have been treated to a surprisingly entertaining dystopian version of the usual Marvel continuity … the bad guys have been in charge, hunting down, torturing, and even killing the good guys.

It’s yielded some good stories, and one of the things that made those stories good was the background current of tension that’s been building the whole time. Norman Osborn has been written consistently as a smarmy psychopath with only a tenuous hold on his own sanity, and his team of Avengers have for the most part been written as unabashed scumbags. Readers like me have been both fascinated and appalled, and every month the prospect of Osborn’s fall from power – and the face-stomping his team of storm troopers so richly deserves – has grown just a little more delicious in the aniticpating.

Marvel’s in-house ads hint pretty strongly that Siege is the story of that downfall – that the core trio of the real Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, will reunite to bring about the return of the so-called Heroic Age Marvel’s been touting lately. We’ll see if that turns out to be true, but in the meantime, this issue opens with a bang.

Bang as in explosion. Osborn and the evil Norse god Loki conspire to orchestrate an catastrophic incident involving a bunch of energy-wielding bad guys and one Volstagg, a warrior who’s left the fabled city of Asgard (which now floats ten feet above some empty scrubland in Oklahoma, as seen in last year’s new run of Thor’s own comic) in search of adventure. The catastrophic incident involves a crowded football stadium, and Osborn uses its aftermath to justify launching a full-scale invasion of Asgard, spearheaded by his own super-powered shock troops. That invasion is launched in this first issue, which is written by Brian Michael Bendis in his usual spastic way and gloriously illustrated by Olivier Coipel.

Osborn’s surveillance intelligence tells him Thor is not in Asgard at the moment (readers of Thor’s own book will recall that, for the millionth time, he’s been exiled from his hometown), so his hopes of success are high. His ‘dark’ Avengers move in with Air Force fighter jets and catch the Asgardians by surprise, and the fighting is in full fury when Thor does indeed show up – only to get rather unceremoniously knocked around by the bad guys. The issue ends with things looking fairly bleak for Asgard.

The two main problems that usually afflict comic book Big Things are a) inconsistent characterization of the major players, or b) incoherent plotting, and Bendis avoids both those pitfalls in this first issue, and he does quite a bit right besides. The elements are in place here for a tremendously satisfying story – not only the prospect of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man reuniting but also the classic overreaching Osborn has been doing all along, culminating in this issue when he angrily delegates to an assistant the task of telling the President that he’s going to invade Asgard (“I’m done talking to that man,” he snarls, and a later scene in the White House makes it clear the President feels the same about him). And certainly attacking an entire city full of warrior gods can be classified as overreaching.

So: a fine strong premise-issue (marred only by the inclusion of some script-pages for a fairly pivotal scene in which Osborn explains his decision to his Avengers – no explanation is given as to why Coipel didn’t draw these pages, like he did the rest of the issue), and the ball is Bendis’ to fumble. My fingers are crossed that he doesn’t.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ransom by David Malouf

David Malouf
Pantheon, 2009

The main drawback of pastiche-writing is immobility. Writers can tap into all the drama of a story that was often old before they were born, but they risk destroying that drama completely if they alter any of its fundamental ingredients. Some slight movement of the furniture is possible, but the work of pastiche is in essentially trivial elaboration. Tasso can indulge in all the poetic asides he wants, but he must adhere to the punctilio of his virtuous Christians; the various writers of Superman can invent new and fiendish villains, but they can’t make the Man of Steel gay; Shakespeare, that greatest of all pastiche-writers, cannot change the line of succession to the English throne, but he can compress, regress, and digress right up to the edge, in order to sharpen his drama.

That edge – knowing it when you see it, not being afraid to run right up to it – is the key focal point of all successful pastiche; if you fall off that edge, your work is no longer pastiche (and so becomes direct competition with your source – usually a fatally one-sided affair), but if you stay too far away from it, your work becomes a scholar’s parlor game, devoid of drama.

David Malouf’s new novel, Ransom, is a scholar’s parlor game, devoid of drama.

His story is Homer’s: the great city of Troy has been besieged for years by the Greeks, and Troy’s King Priam has lost many of his fifty sons in the defense of his world. The Greeks’ fiercest warrior, Achilles, has quarreled with the leader of the expedition and withdrawn his men from the fighting, which brings about a temporary surge of victory for the Trojans, led by their own best warrior, Hector. Achilles’ lieutenant Patroclus , frustrated with the Trojan victories, dons Achilles’ armor and leads a counter-attack, only to be killed by Hector. This enrages Achilles beyond reason (Malouf talks of the two being “mated,” but one suspects he means the word more in an Australian sense than a literal one), and he goes out and kills Hector, then drags the body around the walls of Troy, then brings the body back to the Greek camp. In one of the Iliad’s most affecting scenes, Priam goes to the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return his son’s body.

Malouf centers his slim (and hence, praised) novel on that trip to the Greek camp – it’s a miniaturist approach that smartly excises virtually all the business of the Iliad and allows an emphasis on one man’s bewildered grief. Unfortunately for Ransom, that man isn’t Priam.

Instead, Malouf has ransacked the lowest cellars of Shakespeare (or Plautus) and produced (“created” being far too heady a word here) a rude theatrical, a muleteer named Somax who’s quickly drafted to convey to the Greek camp both Priam and the vast heap of treasure the king offers as ransom for the body of his son. In order to serve Malouf’s ham-handed purposes, Somax must be three things: honest, innocent, and stupid. He is duly all three. In the course of their buggy-ride, Priam hears stories about the family of Somax, the mule of Somax, the loves and losses of Somax – when they stop to rest at a cool stream along the way (clearly a favorite scene of Malouf’s and tolerably well-done if one ignores everything about it other than how well done it is), the muleteer hardly shuts up for a second. The character betrays no awareness that he shares a long common history with Priam, although as king and subject this is certainly so – instead, Somax acts like he not only just met the guy but only just heard about him. During this journey Priam is almost entirely passive and silent (a less accurate-feeling portrait of a man in the middle of an extravagant act of grief would be hard to imagine), the better for Somax, who gets all the room in the novel for his profundities (“What creatures we are, eh, sir? With so much life and will, and then, pfff, it’s ended”).

Priam’s motivation is a mystery in which Malouf has no interest. The king tells Queen Hecuba that what Hector’s death requires is “something new,” some extraordinary gesture on his part. But what the narrative tells us is a bit different:
The truth was that none of his sons was in that sense particular. Their relationship to him was formal and symbolic, part of that dreamlike play before the gods in the world’s eye that is both the splendour and the ordeal of kingship. He could not even be sure of their actual number. Fifty, they said.

Dramatically speaking, this is nonsense - but it’s the only kind of nonsense that can come from Malouf’s Priam, who is as pre-programmed and axiomatic as the muleteer. In order for the one-dimensional (and, if you pause to think about it, deeply insulting) morality play here to work, Somax must be rich in soma, the unpretentious felt world, and Priam must be austere and removed to the point of oblivious priggishness. If either one is a real person – say, a lower-class worker who might know nothing of life’s deeper verities, or a king who’s known his share of hardship and dispossession – the “Driving Miss Daisy” tableau Malouf has constructed falls apart.

Still, even prosaic and condescending rest-stops must come to an end, and eventually, with the help of Hermes (only a couple of gods actually appear in Ransom, and they are awkwardly, irregularly handled – obviously bedraggled survivors of some very different earlier draft, or else hastily shoved on-stage for this final version), Priam and his chauffeur reach the Greek camp. The scene in which the old king appears, ghostlike, in the crowded headquarters of Achilles, is very effectively stage-managed – until the characters start talking. At which point every single possibility of drama leeches away. Once they’re both set before Achilles, Priam natters on a bit to Somax about what a fine time he’s had crossing No Man’s Land that afternoon (Somax doesn’t, in fact, say “well, sir, it seems to be that our whole lives we be a-crossing something or other” … but it’s nothing short of a miracle that he doesn’t), and Achilles watches:
Achilles is intrigued by this by-play between the two old men, who belong to such different worlds – the humility of the one, the awkward shyness of the other – and all the more because it has proceeded as if it were a matter strictly between the two of them and he has no place here. He might have taken offense at this, but for some reason he does not. The unfamiliarity of it, the unlikeliness, takes him out of himself. It amuses him.

If you can spot either a bereaved father or the butcher of that father’s son anywhere in that passage, you have sharper eyes than I do. And if you can’t spot either of those things – because they aren’t there, even though they have to be, even though Ransom is almost entirely pointless if they’re not – and you still don’t mind their absence, Malouf is clearly writing his book for you. For my part, I kept looking for some hint of the rage or power of Homer, some hint even of the poignant sadness of Virgil – some indication, however slight, that Malouf had come within distant hailing range of that edge I mentioned. For the entire thirty minutes it took me to read Ransom, I was hoping it would care enough about the drama of its subject to perhaps care a little less about that subject’s decorum. But even in the final pages, that hope was being dashed over and over , as in this moment when man-killing Achilles looks one last time on the body of his fallen foe:
What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.

He sits quietly in contemplation of this.

He sits quietly, in contemplation? Achilles? Somewhere in Elysium, Quintus of Smyrna is not happy.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Penguins on Parade!

I took a book down off my shelves the other evening and searched for a particular passage, and in the process, I had a very familiar experience: a layered remembering. There was a paragraph underlined in faded blue ink, with a single question in the margin: “What’s this?” Two paragraphs later there was black-ink marginalia from years later: “That makes no sense at all! You’re a moron.” Covering half another page was a faded discoloration, where concentration on the page had lessened concentration on an incoming ocean wave at a crucial moment, decades ago. Here was a book I’d had for a lifetime, one I’d visited and re-visited at different ages and stages of knowledge, leaving different strata of reactions each time. Here was something far more than an item in a library: here was a permanent piece of my mental furniture.

Of course the book was a Penguin Classic.

It occurred to me then – as it has many times in many settings – that I owe an incalculable debt to those familiar black-spined paperbacks, the humble little line of reprints that constitutes the single greatest publishing venture of the 20th century. The sheer improbability of the Penguin Classics enterprise – at least once it strays outside the familiar parishes of Austen, Dickens, and Trollope – is easy to miss, because these books have been a part of our reading lives for so long. But every time I find myself browsing my own Penguin shelves, I’m struck again by the likelihood that sheer, illogical book-passion is the only workable explanation for the vast array of titles Penguin has published over the last seventy or so years. No overwhelming commercial demand could have been imagined for the vast majority of these books (even in more literate times), and I suspect the scholars who contributed their sometimes maddening, sometimes electrifying, always fascinating introductions and notes weren’t paid princely sums for their labors, especially in the early years.

No, these books were born of bookishness, and that’s probably what makes them so irresistible.

So I thought I’d revisit them periodically here at Stevereads! And I’m starting today with a thin volume called The Earliest English Poems, published in 1966. The translator is Michael Alexander, and here he presents readers with a generous helping of the slim body of Old English works we currently possess. The Wanderer is here, and the Seafarer, and the Battle of Maldon, and the Dream of the Rood – and of course a few stirring bits of Beowulf, like this deceptively wonderful evocation of Grendel’s squalid final resting-place:
The tarn was troubled:  terrible wave-thrash

Brimmed it, bubbling; black-mingled

The warm wound-blood welled upwards.

Here the death-marked dived, here died with no gladness;

In the fen-moor lair he laid aside

His heathen soul. Hell welcomed it.

Tolkien fans will happy to learn there are also riddles, considerably tougher than the ones wretched Gollum poses:
The womb of the wold, wet and cold,

Bore me at first, brought me forth.

I know in my mind my waking was not

Through skill with fells or fleeces of wool;

There was no winding of wefts, there is no woof in me,

No thread thrumming under the thrash of strokes,

No whirring shuttle steered through me,

No weaver’s reed rapped my sides.

The worms that braid the broidered silk

With Weird cunning did not weave me;

Yet anywhere over the earth’s breadth

Men will attest me a trustworthy garment.

Say truly, supple-minded man,

Wise in words, what my name is.

And as with the best Penguin Classics, there’s also Alexander’s Introduction, which is full of learning, opinion, and snarky looniness in equal measures:
I have, then, retained as much of the metre and the traditional vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon poetry as was feasible, and in order to make this effort worth while, I must further strain the sympathy of the reader by asking him to read these translations aloud, and with as much vigour and deliberation as he finds the line warrants. I must also beg him to observe the mid-line pause, without which the metric is incomprehensible, and to pitch into the stresses. Such instructions, I am aware, are more proper to music than to poetry; and the poet cannot expect the reader to do his work for him. But Old English poetry was oral, therefore aural; and if the reader can with the aid of the poems here translated, imagine a scop, a harp, and a hall hushed, he will be more than half-way there.

The end result is an intellectually and aesthetically packed volume that can be endlessly revisited – indeed, that needs to be. We’ll be looking at many such volumes, in the coming weeks and months of 2010, in a woefully partial repayment on the debt.