More Good Books. . .


Thomson, Belinda. Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception. Thames and Hudson, 2000.

There's little good I can say about what Ms. Thomson does intentionally. As with most professional iconoclasts of the second generation, her iconoclasm is a bore, and only succeeds in making one distrust her facts. The lack of precision with which she uses language is amazing.
Her talent for dancing around the main point without ever quite touching it is also extraordinary: She frequently hints at Renoir's backsliding (her opinion) into Classicism, and at the pitiable misfortune of Degas' academic training, without ever quite managing to arrange for these two equal and opposite Classicisms to face each other on the piste.
Yet Ms. Thomson's book is such a vast collection of circumstance that it has to hold a great deal of value whether she wants it to or not. Just seeing Bazille's Studio in the Rue La Condamine, with its painters, its piano, and its couch, near a Portrait of Victorine Meurent makes something click: Nerval's "A un ami" now has a color illustration. Similarly, seeing Gleyre's Minerva and the Three Graces on the page before Renoir's early Diana makes one suddenly see where Renoir's idealization of womanhood as rounded Classical form and combined with soft atmospheric outlines came from.
One could say the same about the effect of seeing Renoir's Nude in Sunlight near his more Classical nudes and Mary Cassatt's Woman in a Loge.
There's a lot more wisdom by juxtaposition here, and even a good chapter or two. Just eat the pomegranate and ignore the peel.

Paperback




Grosser, Maurice. The Painter's Eye.

This collection of articles on the history of Western painting for the last few hundred years could only have been written by a painter. It should be read by everyone with an interest in the subject, but not as an introduction.

Some of Grosser's subjects, such as the relationship between the nature of the portrait and the physical distance between the painter and the subject, the influence of the industrial chemistry of pigments on style, and the role of university painting departments, seem pretty new. In other cases, such as the Impressionists' colors, the influence of French painting on the English from the Seventeenth Century onward, and the defining characteristics of Modern Art, the subjects are pretty standard but Grosser has ideas which seem to slip by the professional art historians.

You'll enjoy paintings more after reading The Painter's Eye.




Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway.

A teacher of art history once pointed out that there was a certain hypocrisy, or perhaps just a mistake, in the principles of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus eliminated ornament and designed with unbroken lines in the name of efficiency and streamlining, because efficiency and streamlining unify form and function. Well, said the teacher, that would have made sense if they had been designing aircraft, where efficiency and streamlining do unify form with function. But how does streamlining unite the form of a table with its function? And where, then, is the efficiency?
Which may be what we should be asking about the stream of consciousness technique in fiction. I suppose that we don't normally think in well structured paragraphs of well structured sentences. But reading a work of fiction is not our 'normal' thinking. The act itself is highly stylized. So what does the author gain by subjecting us to a differently stylized emotional impression of what some thought processes are like? Which may explain why Virginia Woolf's essays are much more successful than her novels.
Still, the results aren't totally bad. The sages of criticism say that it's bad to put yourself in the place of a novel's protagonists, but very few novels will work if we don't. And to put ourselves in their place in such a non-natural manner seems pretty harmless anyway. So that when as a result of seemingly living their streams of consciousness we feel with Mrs. Dalloway that she is indeed one of the few who knows how to live, or with Septimus that he is one of the few who understands what has gone wrong, we can say that the new technique has helped the novel to scrape by.
"[I]t would be wise for the writers of the present to renounce for themselves the hope of creating masterpieces."

And why is it modern, intelligent, and educational to be depressed? Maybe it isn't. It's just that Mrs. Woolf and many like her have trouble being otherwise.

My apologies to the politicians.

Paperback
Hardcover




Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. Harperperennial, 2001.

Paul Johnson is the mirror image of Eric Hobsbawm. Both men look at history, and the universe in general, through prejudices in which they believe absolutely. Yet in both men remains a trace of honesty, a fidelity to the details of everyday facts, which makes it tolerable even for someone who doesn't share their prejudices to read their books.
Johnson looks at the Twentieth Century as a repetition of great themes. At a second remove from reality, he sees "social engineering" as the underlying theme. At a third remove, moral relativism. He also consciously emphasizes the personal faults of leaders, cultural and political, as forces driving history, and likes to trace the role in history of their own conscious emulation of each other.
At least he proposes some solutions to the old conundrum of high-school history: how did very similar totalitarianisms sprout from very different economic theories, which often bore the same name?
I wonder how each of them feels about the other.

Paperback




Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Quill, 1988.

Margaret Mead has become the Central Europe of the social sciences. Anybody in the social sciences who feels like fighting a war fights it on the territory of Coming of Age in Samoa. Whether you want to fight about feminism in the social sciences, or objectivity in the social sciences, or repression, or Margaret Mead herself, Coming of Age... is a good place to do it.

Of course, very few of the people who have wanted to fight over Central Europe lived there for any length of time, and very few of the people who fight about Coming of Age... have read it seriously. If at all. The importance of the book has little to do with the indiscriminate behavior of teenage girls in Samoa in 1929, real or imaginary. Miss Mead made the subject of her book quite clear: It is about the inevitability of teenage revolution. She also made it clear that the form of her book was intended to be a revolution in itself: A serious and chatty book about people, with no pretense to imitate physics. She was also aware that her remarks about marital status applied only to one transitional social group, which could easily never have existed, if things had been just a little bit different.

It could be that her main point is the one she emphasizes in the preface to New Lives for Old: The more we study strange peoples, the more we come to understand and feel how much they are like us.

Paperback




Watt, Ian P. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. U California Press, 2001.

Ian Watt sets out to explain how the rise of a new literary form, the novel, was permitted and caused by certain social conditions in Eighteenth Century England. Foreseeing your screeches about the seventeenth-century French novel, if nothing else, he then redefines the novel by "a definition sufficiently narrow to exclude previous types of narrative and yet broad enough to apply to whatever is usually put in the novel category". He ends up defining the novel in terms of a certain type of formal realism which he indeed details sufficiently to make its borders clear. When he has finished, we know that there were no novels written in seventeenth-century France. By definition. If you look at the new definition in detail, you will discover that there were never any novels written in Russia, either, and that there have been very few written anywhere since the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Once we have swallowed the fact that novels were written only in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, things go more smoothly. Watt does explain why the circumstantial realistic novel had to arise at that time and place, neither earlier nor later. He does a good job of describing the relevant social developments, and he often succeeds at adding to our appreciation of the early novels themselves. He does, of course, inflict his own prejudices upon us, as when he tells us simply and without reservation that Pamela's defining characteristic was her hypocrisy. (About a hundred pages later, Watt does admit that neither Richardson nor many of his readers would have seen this hypocrisy.) And of course, he has no choice about adding the Freudian formulas which were required by law in 1956.

Within its limitations, The Rise of the Novel is a good book. After you finish it, you will find Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding even more entertaining than you did before. Which could very well be what criticism is about.

Paperback




Renoir, Jean. Renoir, My Father.

This is the other collection of Renoir's opinions by an intelligent person close to him, and one who knew about art. Aside from being larger, in many ways it mirrors Vollard's book, and in some ways amplifies or seems to correct that work.
One of the important differences between the two works is in their presentation of Renoir's anti-intellectualism. In Vollard's book, Auguste Renoir seems to be unintellectual in the manner of the unlearned. In Jean Renoir's, the painter appears as someone who had no patience for word-spinners, but who loved the classics.
Most of Renoir's opinions on the technique of painting come across very similarly in the two books. Jean Renoir's book includes examples of the original critical articles on Renoir and Impressionism. The bitterness of the attacks brings the situation to life better than Vollard's more literary approach. The ferociousness of the attacks seems literally incomprehensible today. Why was color such a sensitive subject?

Renoir and some of the people around him also come off as more real and more interesting in the longer book. Monet seems to have been a character playing at being Monet without knowing it. (Unlike the standard versions, Jean Renoir's book downplays the supposed scandal around the subject of Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe. According to Jean Renoir's version, it was Monet's use of color and form which was an offense against the public morals.) Zola sympathetic and amusing. And Gabrielle turns from a (probably) lovely servant into a person in her own right. In human terms, Jean Renoir's main contribution was probably in adding depth to the picture of his father, and in emphasizing his father's essential goodness, decency, and humanity.

Paperback




Richardson, Samuel. Pamela. Viking Press, 1985.

R. F. Brissenden has said that Pamela is "uneven", and so, of course, it is.

Our identity as human beings is based on there being a certain continuity in our personalities. A person who is lacking this continuity is badly damaged as a person. A fictional character lacking it is either improbable or ridiculous. What are we to make of Pamela's final acceptance of Mr. B. after all she has been through? Is she a sensitive, intelligent person or a fool? And what are we to make of Mr. B.'s sudden attack of compassion in the closet scene? Until now, he was the very picture of coarseness and shallowness. His and Mrs. Jewkes' later, sudden transmutation from total evil to total virtue are not even improbable or ridiculous: they leave us bewildered and disappointed.

There are some technical problems with the book, too. Most of Pamela's fits are a little too convenient. Her final fit in the closet scene is fantastic, at best. (As to the epistolary novel as a form being too easy, that's carping: if you don't like a genre, don't read it.)

And there are social problems with our reading of this novel which Richardson could not have foreseen. Many people will have trouble with the importance given to chastity, and its equation with virtue. Others will be unnerved whenever they remember that Pamela, the desired, the comprehending, is between fifteen and sixteen years old throughout the book.

So why is Pamela a success and a pleasure? Back to Aristotle, and to the way we read in second grade. We like Pamela, and the defense and reward of her virtue are the defense and reward of ours.

Paperback




Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet). Candide.

Voltaire is a pretty good novelist, especially if one takes into consideration that he is one of the symbols of The Enlightenment. He is also a very good philosopher, especially if one considers that he is archetypically one of the "continental philosophers", and that his prejudices are the opposite of mine.

It's probably not that hard to be a good novelist if one has a sense of humor, one lives in a time which values simplicity in language, and one feels that one has an important moral point to make. To explain Voltaire's success as a philosopher, against all odds, is a little harder. Perhaps below the pseudo-wisdom of the French Enlightenment there really was a substratum of wisdom, a wisdom created by applying reason tempered by feeling to the products of observation and common sense.

Compare Candide and Ecclesiastes, and then think of an answer to those who want to call Ecclesiastes existentialist.

Dual-Language Paperback
Hardcover




Merimee, Prosper. Carmen and Other Stories. Oxford UP, 1999.

George Steiner claims that Carmen has "leap[ed] the gulf from momentary substance to lasting shadow", that she has "[gone] to the ends of the earth". He seems to be referring to a cultural type like Faust. Some of his claims about the dark, wild, seductress type are exaggerated, based on a single opera, but the image of the woman with a flower between her teeth is indeed a dead giveaway.

Steiner goes on to claim that when types of this sort catch on, it is because they represent a basic emotional need. Many of us can see ourselves as Carmen. (Or perhaps as Jose.) Very likely, but it's not clear what emotional need she represents. Even in post-Romantic society, Steiner's claim of a love of freedom unto a contempt for death does not seem like a need either strong enough or widespread enough to explain the success of the story. Neither does his claim that Merimee was the last of the what-happened-next storytellers. Nobody really cares who the next employer of the light-headed cigar-girl will be, or whether Jose will kill her in the end. Steiner's question is stronger than his answer.

We may not know why, but Merimee always succeeds. Perhaps what's common to his anti-heroes is not that they represent our desires, but that they have our faults. We worry about them and fear with them. We are even more frightened when they die.

Paperback




Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice seems to be the most popular of Miss Austen's novels by far. This is surprising, because it is artistically uneven, including improbable and sudden changes of character. The popularity of this novel is also surprising because it is the the author's talkiest: In most of her novels, Miss Austen illustrates the philosophical questions which interest her; in Pride and Prejudice, her characters stand around discussing them. Perhaps talk-works appeal to the spirit of our age: Shaw is also popular, even after we have discounted the schoolmarm effect.
Miss Austen's characterizations in P. and P. are not as striking as in her other novels, but they are more subtle. Her heroine is not obviously a pure personification of some moral fault or virtue.
Unusually, Miss Austen has included a man with signs of humanity in this work. In the author's other books, men tend to me either one-dimensional preachers whom the more human heroine is fated in the end to marry, or villains of melodrama included only for the purpose of tying some damsel to the railroad tracks. Mr. Bennett has a heart and a sense of humor. Perhaps even more of one than any other character in Jane Austen.
This book's popularity is a compliment to the good taste of the modern reader.

Some available editions of Pride and Prejudice





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