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.


Anonymous said...

Congrats to you Steve at your lovely new home! Us old stevereads fans are very happy to share you with the larger audience you so deserve. They have no idea how much fun they will have reading you! And thanks also to Dustin for letting us mainatin our privacy of old.

JC said...

A fantastic post, Steve! I used to read Cornwell's nautical mysteries when I was a kid. They weren't all that bad -- he was only publishing one or two of them a year and at that point I think that was all he was doing. Then Sharpe returned and things got pretty dull pretty fast.

Sam said...

Great run-down. I always love to see the TLS get its due.
And the eye-rolling wasn't cynical! It may have been shortsighted, but it came straight from the heart.