Monday, September 12, 2011

A Return to Form in the Penny Press!

Well, having felt like I'd been suckled in a creed outworn, it certainly came as a relief - and didn't take long - to have glimpses that would make me less forlorn in the Penny Press, and that relief came from the same source it so often does: The New York Review of Books.

It didn't immediately feel so, as I opened the latest issue over a steaming platter of food this afternoon. There were many stumbles out of the gate, from Claire Tomalin's astonishing declaration "[H. G.] Wells's name is probably less well known among readers today than Henry James's" (more people read The War of the Worlds in one year than have read all of James' works combined in the last hundred years) to the pissy-contentious tone Eric Segall takes in his interview with Judge Richard Posner to the groan-inducing typo that kicks off the very first paragraph of Colin Thubron's appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor, in which we're told that "he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney" (as long as we're in the land down under, maybe Fermor's paintings should be compared to those of William Hobart?).

But the consolations, when they came, came aplenty. There was Frederick Crews' wonderful piece on the great American doctor (and utterly lamentable dog-torturer) William Stewart Halsted and his pioneering use of  - and ensnarement by - powerful drugs like cocaine and morphine. As is true in the best reviewers, Crews writes as well (or, the reader suspects, better) as his authors about their own subjects, as in the drugs at hand here:
... when cocaine lies within reach of its daily users, no drug produces more reckless craving or more irrational behavior. Occasional recreational users, however, can get by without it when it is unavailable. Moreover, its withdrawal symptoms are much less severe than those of morphine. Thus we see why the partially reformed Halsted, while capable of postponing his cocaine holidays until he was away from Baltimore, needed to inject morphine every single day.

And Crews displays another trait of a really good reviewer - he's willing to call out the experts on their own oversights:
Oddly, however, both Imber and Markel grant only slight attention to an intriguing and possibly important topic: Halsted's sexuality. On the evidence they supply in isolated passages, there can be little doubt that the great surgeon was homosexual.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Cole's piece on the political aftermaths of 9-11 is equally sharp, although mighty damn depressing. But the standout joy of this issue comes toward the end: it's Daniel Mendelsohn's review of two new books on his current definitive subject, the great Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, in this case a collection of the correspondence between Cavafy and E. M. Forster and a selection of Cavafy's prose works - both volumes made by Peter Jeffreys.

To say that Mendelsohn demolishes both the volumes and Jeffreys' professional reputation is to considerably understate the air-raid devastation the piece wreaks. But although that savaging certainly made me smile from ear to ear (so few mainstream critics really let rip anymore), the real pleasure came from Mendelsohn's prose itself. He's one of our most insightful working critical reviewers, and he's our most elegant. The steadfast Michael Dirda plops down across the dining hall table from you, piles his notes and source-books in front of him, and proceeds with an utterly unpretentious and winningly earnest discussion - he is our perpetual undergraduate, always searching for connections, always underestimating how much he can teach us. Reading the literary journalism of Clive James is completely different: he brushes aside the books and notes (no need for them now that he's here!), pours a tall pint for you and a couple for himself, and proceeds to hold forth - he's as wide-ranging as a bespectacled polymath and as erudite as an Oxford don, but what you remember most is his beefy arm around your shoulder and his hearty laugh in your ear. And there are many others - perhaps a dozen more of these titans working among us, this snickering, bawling, jobbing crowd of pilgrims accompanying us to that literary Canterbury that's always just around the next bend in the road. In this company Mendelsohn has always presented his own tone - sharp and bright with learning, but somehow still nerve-open to both disappointment and wonder. There are only a couple of working critics who'd be confident enough to let an opening paragraph carefully descend like this one, octave by octave, from facts to speculation to questions even the critic himself can't answer:
When E.M. Forster sailed to Alexandria in the autumn of 1915 to take up a post as something called a "searcher" - a Red Cross functionary whose job it was to interview wounded soldiers about those still missing - he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of what he ended up finding. It certainly wasn't what he was looking for officially; nor was it quite what he may have been seeking privately, even subconsciously.

I read something like that, and I'm completely restored to my poor estranged Penny Press. A piece like this is utterly faith-rejuvenating - unless you're Peter Jeffreys.


Sam said...

Or maybe Herman Melville!

Steve Donoghue said...

Are you implying something about the happily-married family man who wrote "Billy Budd"?