Friday, March 25, 2011

Aunts, Taunts, and Old Haunts in the Penny Press!

The 17 March London Review of Books (fully enjoyable, like green eggs and ham, on a train or in the rain) is a typically diverse and involving issue of that typically wonderful publication. I've praised the LRB often enough here - In the Penny Press would be a poorer place indeed without it - as being a kind of necessary adjunct to the mighty Times Literary Supplement; I go to the TLS to breathe the pure mountain air of erudition, and to be blasted by that air, article after article, three times the number of articles in any given issue of the LRB.

In the London Review, the reviews are longer, fewer, and in some measures designed to be more accessible - no less intelligent and probing, but with a broader issue-base in mind, and no 4000-word discourses on the latest annotated historiography of late 17th century conversos memoranda. Don't get me wrong: the sheer, bristling brilliance of the TLS' bookishness is one of the wonders of the modern world, gloriously anachronistic in our age of mini-tweets (they'll have my subscription, paid faithfully every year, until the sun goes cold in the sky). But one also likes a slightly more street-level intellectual stimulation, and for that, nothing currently being published (with one possible exception!) beats the LRB.

This 17 March issue is a perfect case-in-point: 15 pieces (plus juicy extra bits, like poetry or short columns) covering as wide a spectrum of subjects as any reading public could want. Even the political stuff is so well-written I very often actually read it, when corresponding piece in The New Yorker get skipped so I can watch David Denby mud-sling semiotics all over the new Angelina Jolie car-chase. But the literary matter is what really shines. The TLS regularly prints the Introductions various authors have written to forthcoming new editions of classics, but those are finished things just showing up in print early - when something similar happens in the LRB, you get the impression more of a workshop than a shop window, and it's nice.

Take the fantastic "The Importance of Aunts" in this issue, by the great Colm Toibin (I'm sitting here trying to remember the last thing he wrote that I didn't like - needless to say, this is not a process that takes a long time, with most authors - and I'm stumped; perhaps I'll consult my own archives): I'm sure

[caption id="attachment_2535" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="the mighty elizabeth spriggs as aunt agatha"][/caption]

this piece was conceived, written, and commissioned elsewhere and for other purposes (is there an Oxford Book of Aunts coming out? If there isn't, there should be - I'd buy a copy), but it still has a convivial air about it that makes it invigorating reading. Toibin looks at the function of aunts in the 19th century novel - his readings don't take him as far as the 20th century and Bertie Wooster, so he doesn't deal with those twin titans of menace, Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha - and he throws off idea after fascinating idea about the pseudo-maternal role aunts play in the fiction of the time. As you'd expect from Toibin, there's a great deal here about Henry James, as when we're told that he "followed the serialisation of Daniel Deronda. He read the book carefully, disapproved of it, and then took what he needed from it." Hee.

His essay wanders around quite a bit, which is what should happen in a piece by an extremely well-read Irishman, and it says lots of really interesting things about the various ways aunts are employed to make things happen, as opposed to the rarer mothers in the period's fiction, whose function is (or would be, if they were around to exercise it) to stop things from happening. Some wag once summarized all British fiction with the single word "aunts," and reading Toibin's essay here almost makes you believe it - I wanted more from him on the subject, which is, curiously, just what you want your readers to be feeling when they finish a piece like this.

Of course, leaving the reader wanting more isn't always - or even usually - a good thing in other kinds of pieces. In straight-up book reviews, for instance, if your reader ends the review by saying "but what about THIS? Or THAT?" then you've done an incomplete job, allowed your personal fixations to block or cramp your review. If you yourself are a high-profile professional book reviewer reading these words right now (I know quite a few of you are regular readers of Stevereads - although unaccountably bashful!), you'll know the many and powerful temptations to let your review be blocked and cramped, to give your personal hobby-horses a little gambol in print. We've all done it, and in essence there's no shame in it (provided you're interesting, the sine qua non of all writing) - the key is to do justice to the book under review, regardless of whatever else you decide to spool on about.

Naturally, in the case of this LRB issue, I'm talking about David Haglund's piece on James Franco's Palo Alto. Because it isn't a piece on Palo Alto, Franco's debut short story collection, even though it's billed as that. Instead, it's a piece on Franco's fraught public persona, with a couple of distracted paragraphs on Palo Alto tacked on. Unless you've allowed your subscription to USWeekly to lapse and are thus Franco-starved, this piece will certainly leave you wanting more, since in the place of Haglund devoting any kind of serious attention to the collection of short stories, we get Haglund drizzling baffled condescension all over Franco's non-writing career. What little there is about Palo Alto is more sizzle than steak, with pat little bits of plate-spinning like this:
But Franco's irony regarding his fame shouldn't lead anyone to underestimate the remarkable earnestness of his artistic ambitions, whether he's able to realise them or not. Indeed, that earnestness may be an obstacle to their achievement, if Palo Alto is any indication.

It's not that I'm expecting reviewers to ignore the fact of Franco's celebrity when discussing his book; authorship is a legitimate component of writership, after all. And I'm not equating Palo Alto with Franco's beloved Turgenev, not by a long shot. But it's a serious book nonetheless, some of its stories written in innumerable drafts to get them just so, and many of its effects genuinely heartfelt. It deserves more than a couple of dismissive paragraphs; Haglund should have resisted his urge to digress at such length about Franco's acting antics, especially since under different circumstances I'd have loved to read his take on those antics. Reading this piece, all I kept thinking was how disappointing Franco himself would find it - not disappointed that the critic didn't like his book (any writer has to be ready for that), but disappointed at how badly distracted the critic let himself be.

Fortunately, focus was in ample supply elsewhere in the issue, including my favorite piece, the redoubtable Tom Shippey's magnificent review of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome, her great, endlessly entertaining, and beautifully written entry in Penguin's ongoing History of Britain. Shippy wasn't as taken with the book as I was, but he certainly does it justice with a thorough reading - and in the process he crafts an essay that's enjoyable to read all by itself, the true mark of first-rate literary journalism. It's no easy thing to write a knowledgeable 2000-word piece on a historical subject and keep things interesting the whole time - most professional historians, for example, would be helplessly stymied by such an assignment (even though they regularly give such assignments to their students), but Shippey never disappoints (well, until he eventually does, at which point Stevereads will dutifully whack him for it). Here he is on the wealth of pre-Conquest England:
No wonder William the Conqueror thought that England was worth a serious gamble. The country, with its rich estates, centralised bureaucracy, effeciently run coinage and - something at last that Roman Britain didn't have - its hundreds of watermills (a new technology), looked as if it were going to skip the Middle Ages altogether and move on to a new level of prosperity. But it took a long time to get there...

He somewhat snidely mentions how "In every TV programme about Anglo-Saxon England someone is always wheeled on to say, in effect: 'Dark Ages? How can anyone call these the Dark Ages? Just look at the amazing jewellery/magnificent artwork/superb illumination' and then offers a sparklingly pithy correction:
Nails, pots, tiles, bronze and copper coins: it's the absence of useful low-cost items in bulk that make a Dark Age, and their loss is not compensated by the ability to manufacture elite bling.

Marvellous. Couldn't have put it better myself.

There was lots else in this issue of the LRB, as there is in virtually every issue - 'something for everybody' as the useful old tag-line goes. At the risk of sounding boosterish, I'll go ahead and urge you all: take the plunge for a year's subscription, and see if you don't cheerfully renew when that time is up.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I agree with all the sentiments in this post! I also loved Jenny Diski's grinning, indulgent write up of Stanley Fish's book on the TV show "The Fugitive" (which strikes me as the least promising book subject ever, but the review of it was fun). And even the little personal essay, this one about an online charity site that the author had become hooked on, is pithy and fascinating. Endlessly glad I'm getting this now.