Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Echoes in the Penny Press!

It’s become entirely natural to bump into correspondences between Open Letters and the rest of the book-review world. After all, publicists want every critic to read their pet books and rave about them (they want it so badly they’re willing to risk the alternative, when a book hits a critic on the wrong day and gets savaged about the head and neck for 700 words). They send advance copies of those pet works to as many critical journals as possible, hoping for a bite – or, if Santa’s been very good to them this year, a cascade-effect.

Consequently, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t see a long review in The American Scholar or The New Republic or the London Review of Books and think, “Hey, I know that book! Almost had a reviewer for it, but …” and then, usually, one of the following conclusions: a) the freelancer talked the talk but ended up declining to walk the walk, b) the ‘review’ turned out to be written by the book’s author’s pining (or furious) ex-lover – or worse, by one of those ever-hopeful publicists, or c) the editor in question reads the book first and decides against running a review of it before it ever gets considered for a freelancer (if, say, the book is the tenth in a murder-mystery series, or about post-Industrial Revolution finial design, or just plain bad).

If Option C ever applied to the author Andre Aciman, it certainly doesn’t anymore: he proved himself to be noticeably, memorably talented with his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name, and his new novel, Eight White Nights, is a stylistic tour de force plopped right onto the same bookshelves as Vince Flynn and Nora Roberts. It was just barely possible to think of Call Me By Your Name as something of a ‘hidden’ classic, a slim, unhyped novel flying below the radar and yet accomplishing things fiction critics wish a lot more writers would try. That’s not possible with Eight White Nights – this novel clearly marks Aciman’s entrance into the Big Leagues.

I thought it was poetic, irritating, almost disturbingly insightful, and wildly, extravagantly good. Naturally, I kept an eye out for what kind of critical reception it got.

So my proverbial heart was in my proverbial throat when Open Letters’ own Sam Sacks decided to review it. There’s a reason Sacks’ fiction reviews are starting to appear everywhere: he misses nothing that an author does on the page – which is good news because he’s sure to see all the work the author put in, all the subtlety perhaps missed by other critics, but it’s also bad news, because their failures and shortcomings and deceptions will likewise come under that same level of invasive scrutiny. And to make things even worse (or better?), Sacks virtually never simply eviscerates a bad author – instead, he wraps the anvil in layer upon layer of gorgeous, velvety prose before he drops it on their head. They still end up crushed, but they almost feel like thanking him.

So when I read the latest New York Review of Books and saw that Michael Dirda, their foremost critic of contemporary fiction, had a review of Eight White Nights, I was doubly curious. Not only was Dirda reviewing the same book Sacks reviewed back in April, but Dirda himself had been reviewed by Sacks way back in 2007, and not entirely favorably (“Far too often, Dirda writes with propitiating caution, as though he thinks that a single lapse into complexity and his entire audience will start playing cell-phone Tetris,” etc.).

But Dirda’s piece is as safely anodyne as everything else the man writes – and for what it’s worth (at least something, to me: it’s a frustrating thing to like a book nobody else likes), he likes Eight White Nights a great deal. In fact, much of what he wrote about it struck familiar chords. In his initial notes of praise, he of course catches the requisite Russian echoes:
Eight White Nights is a bravura recreation of all the feints and counter-feints, yearnings and frustrations, of modern courtship. It possesses the psychological acuity and intensity one associates not just with Proust but also with Dostoevsky (its title and serial structure pay homage to “White Nights,” his story of overly tentative love).

Back in April, Sacks caught those same notes, in just a slightly different register:
the narrator leaves the Christmas Eve party in the small hours and sits in a nearby park experiencing a euphoria so strong it could melt the snow around him. The novel’s title and premise is evidently borrowed from an early Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights”; but here I thought of Tolstoy. After Levin learns in Anna Karenina that Kitty loves him, he wanders Moscow in dizzy ecstasy, transfiguring all the mundane, even grubby, sights with supernatural radiance: “Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth.”

(In fairness to Aciman’s literary acumen, it should be pointed out that almost no effort is required to prompt Sacks to say, “I thought of Tolstoy” … an average trip through the supermarket aisles will elicit it at least once)(writers and their go-to favorite writers! Feh! Glad I don't do that!)

Dirda paints a picture of a critic trying to resist the intoxicating, saturating enchantment Aciman is trying to weave from his novel’s first paragraph:
By the second or third of the white nights, I could still see all the things that bothered me about Aciman’s writing, but they began to seem increasingly unimportant. I was caught up by the unfolding story.

Back in April, Sacks also found himself falling under that spell:
It seems a bit much. And in truth, in the cold light of day about 95 percent of Eight White Nights seems a bit much. But Aciman’s refusal to allow in any of the emotional ambivalence that is the modern-day hallmark of realism is crucial to the spell he’s trying to cast.

I couldn’t agree more, with both of these critics (although as usual, Sacks’ piece is itself beautifully written, whereas most of Dirda’s reads like deadline prose), and I was hugely relieved at that. No feeling quite as rotten as loving a book and then having heavyweight critics cudgel it into the mud.

On a much lesser note of coincidence, this same issue of the NYRB has an ad for the latest title in their stellar reprint series – none other than The Murderess, byAlexandros Papadiamantis! So for once, when I praise an obscure title here at Stevereads, you’ll have easy, push-button access to it!

1 comment:

Sam said...

I sense strong Tolstoyan echoes throughout this post.