More Bad Books. . .
de Jonge, Alex. Baudelaire, Prince of Clouds. Paddington Press, 1976.
Oxford University was once a tolerably serious place. So that if the author blurb on the inside flap of a book said that an author was "a Fellow and Tutor of New College, Oxford.... educated at Winchester and New College, where he obtained First-Class Honours in modern languages and was awarded a doctorate", one would have assumed in the absence of other information that the author in question was tolerably competent at getting his basic facts right, and knew how to use a library. Well, times have changed. But still, even Dr. de Jonge deserves a little of our pity with our censure, so we will list corrections for a few of his many pseudo-facts:
Maybe there would be a point in writing a new biography of Baudelaire which would emphasize the man and the poet over the details, but isn't it.
- "Mal du siècle" was not a euphemism for syphilis.
- Speaking of which, although syphilis can be congenital, it is not hereditary. Baudelaire's father could conceivably have transmitted syphilis to his son, though rather indirectly, but it would still have had nothing to do with any kind of "hereditary insanity" passed down from previous ancestors. And while we're on the subject of those insane ancestors, it wouldn't have hurt Dr. de Jonge to have read what Pichois wrote about them in the standard biography of Baudelaire.
- Gérard de Nerval did not hang himself from a lamppost. (I'm pretty sure that Dr. de Jonge found that one on the World Wide Web, which seems to been his source for much of his, uh, information.) He hanged himself from a grating on a street called "rue de la Vieille-Lanterne" or "impasse de la Vieille-Lanterne", (which no longer exists, by the way).
- "Sara", if that was indeed her name, was most definitely not the "red-haired beggar" or guitarist. Sara's hair was black. (OC I, 203). Once again, if Dr. de Jonge had read the standard biography, he would have picked up on this. Or at least anyone else reading Pichois would have, because he would have checked OC and read the poem which is the source of the datum. In any case, Pichois discusses the identity of the mendiante rousse at length.
Du Maurier, George. Trilby. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Trilby is a monument of popular culture which has given two words to the English language, the name of a hat - no great shakes - and a cognomen for a hypnotic, evil sorcerer. It is also a monument to a particularly interesting kind of anti-semitism, a special hatred of the Jew as the steamily dangerous foreigner that was popular in fin-de-siecle Europe. As a historical monument, it is therefore worth reading.
Other than that, there is not much good which can be said about Trilby, and even less which can be said about its author. The book includes every cliche ever written on any subject. The "Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew" is greasy, pushy, vulgar, and lives for money. (I don't know about the rest of it, but George du Maurier certainly seems to have been vulgar enough for all of us.) An artist's model is ipso facto a social outlaw and a slut, from the very fact of her "sitting for the figure". Aside from a few philosophical apostrophes, in themselves Romantic cliches, and one amusing description, Trilby is also a bore.
The Oxford Popular Fiction project of OUP have managed to take a sublimely bad book and to publish it in an edition of appropriately sublime badness. The illustrations by the author show that he was as crude and vulgar as a visual artist as he was as a writer. The introduction by Elaine Showalter rounds up the cliches of Freudianism and feminism with the same mindless efficiency with which Du Maurier collected the cliches of Western European anti-semitism.
By the way, the Svengali of popular parlance is much more interesting than the one in the book.
Cornwell, Patricia. The Last Precinct. Berkley, 2001.
I decided to read The Last Precinct as a second try at the new hard-boiled-hitech-ultra-assertive-American-woman school of mysteries. It's hard to decide whether the book is primarily frightening, depressing, or a waste of time. Not only are the heroine and sub-heroine both incapable of what normal people call feeling - although Mz Cornwell does cook up some weak apologies for that - but their lack of feeling is glorified and idealized. The repeated (and redundant) descriptions of torture and its mental and physical effects can only scare and disgust anyone who might make a claim to being human. The long psychoanalytic cliches are not even passé any more; they are just long blanks filled with letters. And of course all of the characters who could possibly have any significance are women, or at least caricatures of women; men are but stick figures with bits of evil or vulgarity sloppily dabbed on. (It could be said that Jane Austen's female characters are also more interesting and more real than her men, but there's a difference: Miss Austen put more detail and depth into her women because she knew them better, and found them more interesting; Mz Cornwell seems to portray men as scum on the assumption that because it's politically correct to do so, it will also be profitable.
The book has one or two technical virtues (as do most television commercials). If you can see through the dirt, it's well constructed according to the rules of the genre. And the sequence of incidents does create a tension which draws one on.
I still say that the world was a nicer place in the days when men and women were assumed to have a natural tendency to like each other.
Humphries, Patrick. The Boy in the Bubble: A Biography of Paul Simon.
Someone who grew up with Simon and Garfunkel should have been able to find a lot in a biography of Paul Simon. I couldn't find much in this one because there's not much to find. The book is superficial, telling us almost nothing about Simon's feelings on any subject, and nothing about the situations which presumably had some emotional significance for him. We learn nothing about Kathy, who sits in the center of so many of the songs, not even such basic facts as her last name, or where she was from. (We are informed of the curious little fact, though, that it really is her photograph with Simon on the sleeve of The Paul Simon Songbook.) We learn nothing about Simon's two failed marriages except their starting and ending dates; considering how many of Simon's famous songs are about connections which almost worked but were stillborn, or died prematurely, it would have helped to know more.
One of Humphries' few successes, a whole seven letters long, is in the nasticism "rock-crit" (or is it "pop-crit"?). Well, after pointing out the problems with that well-worn tool, Humphries shouldn't have used it to pad out the book. Here's a nice typical sample:
In stereo, ["The Boxer"] reveals innumerable riches; the peerless Simon and Garfunkel harmonies are diamond sharp, while Simon's acoustic guitar drives the song along in the time-honoured folk narrative tradition, but it is emphasized by the thumping saxophone which underpins the song and the lush string arrangement....
Somebody should have explained to Humphries that there is a difference between "disinterested" and 'uninterested' and between "reformed" and 're-formed'; also that vast sprays of exclamation points tend to have the opposite effect of the one intended.
One can pick up a few interesting odds and ends in this book. There are a few lines on the history of "Sound of Silence"/"Sounds of Silence", and we do learn that Simon himself never formed a definite idea of what it was that Mama saw in the schoolyard.
At its best, this is rehashed tabloid journalism whose only possible justification could be that the author wanted an easy buck. Rush out right now to not buy your copy.
Peyrefitte, Roger. The Jews: A Fictional Venture into the Follies of Antisemitism.
The main conceit of the "fictional venture into the follies of antisemitism" is that almost all Europe, and especially European aristocracy, is descended from Jews, so that the concept of the curse of Jewish blood has a lot of problems. That may or may not be true, but Peyrefitte's attempts to prove it have a lot of problems, both scientific and artistic. His innumerable suggestions that the aristocratic So-and-So is Jewish because there was once a Jew with the same last name is unconvincing. Has it occurred to Peyrefitte that there could be people with the same last name, especially if it's a common one, who are not related? If that's impossible or unlikely, I'd like to see the evidence. When the starts working on similar last names, the unconvincing becomes far-fetched. When he decides that having a last name derived from a place name in itself is evidence of being Jewish, the far-fetched becomes ridiculous. In addition to the scientific problem, Mr. Peyrefitte might have considered whether a novel consisting largely of long lists, interspersed with occasional salacious scenes (if largely unconnected with them), would be readable.
Speaking of what one of the publishers calls the book's "sophisticated bawdiness", the sex in this book is even less relevant to the rest of the content than in most pot-boilers, and its purpose to increase sales is even more obvious. On occasion, it is even in the most simple sense disgusting.
The lists and the dirt are interspersed also with essays on Jewish law and custom. In many cases, Mr. Peyrefitte has gotten the law just plain wrong, and sometimes backwards, but considering the amount of detail into which he enters, I'm actually surprised and the number of times he gets the law right. In fact, though annoyed at the gross errors, I'm impressed at the breadth and depth of the research.
This is one of those very rare books which I couldn't force myself to finish. The fact that it is out of print in both English and French is yet another tribute to the "common reader".
Mead, Margaret. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World.
To someone who likes and admires Margaret Mead's 1920s studies of Pacific peoples, this book comes as a shock. Dr. Mead, as a publisher insists on calling her, and as I will call her out of spite, apparently knew that the organization of the book is strange, that its parts hold together only by a great exercise of the reader's intuition. One can agree with her in her organization of the book or not. But the extent to which Freudian orthodoxy overpowers her ability to think in terms of everyday cause-and-effect logic cannot be interpreted for good, unless, perhaps, as a warning to others. She informs us as dogma that a baby's reaction to nursing as an entrance into the body by someone of the same or opposite sex determines all of the person's later feelings, and his or her whole existence. A book on sexual identity in which this assumption is inarguable and holy is hopeless. Dr. Mead's explicit insistence on the homogeneity of American society apparently blinded her to the fact that there are (and probably always have been) heterosexual men in the United States who keep house, who never think about their 'manliness' (if we have any to think about), and whose entire involvement in public culture is through the arts.
Dr. Mead says here quite explicitly that her books for laymen are books of propaganda, because the average laymen, unlike the average anthropologist, is not intelligent enough to be trusted with the truth:
"This particular thing which has happened to the trained anthropologist is not to be confused with what happens to people who have the experience of moving from one culture to another, or marrying a member of another culture, or working with members of another culture closely, or even of speaking several languages.... To the knowledge of other ways, and the ability to put these other ways on or off, the anthropologist adds a continuous knowledge of the differences...."
And many more like that: Anthropologists have an essentially different and better understanding of people.
"[T]he anthropologist who looks at a modern society may see symptoms that are deeply disturbing, and indeed this may be a principal drive towards work. But I believe that such analysis should be reserved for the specialized work of competent professional groups with well developed ethics of responsibility."
And only they can be trusted with the truth. The rest of you have to accept the version which I consider it proper to tell you. Is this the morality and respect for people which Ruth Benedict said she was teaching, or is this the "professional ethics" which Thomas Szasz warned us about?
The cherry on the sundae: Dr. Mead paraphrases a text from the Talmud, directly bearing on her subject, with a meaning exactly opposite to what the text says, a meaning indefensible and simply incorrect. Judging by her reference, she understood what she understood from a translation which those who study the original like to quote as verbal slapstick.
Did Margaret Mead change so much between 1928 and 1948, or have I been making a terrible mistake all along?
This book may be useful reading for those few who still think that it is a priori bad for society to expect different behaviors from the two sexes.
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