More Good Books. . .


Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe.

George Steiner decries the decline of the story line, of the storyteller in serious literature. Some of his examples may seem odd, but there seems to be little question that there were novelists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, maybe most of the novelists of those centuries, who wrote books with exciting or otherwise strong story lines which were beloved by the intelligentsia and the soap-opera crowd alike. Some of these novelists have been mummified as Greats, some have been mummified as Influences or Examples, some enjoy occasional political revivals, and some have merely disappeared. If anyone reads them for pleasure at all, it is after they have been precipitated into a television series.
Sir Walter Scott falls mainly into the forgotten category, although he occasionally manages to be an Influence or an Example, and his influence on us through televised Robin Hood will never be properly respected. This is a pity. He really does know how to write a story, and he manages to popularize history without using the cheapest of techniques to do so, and without introducing major distortions into the time and place as a whole (although his take on certain individuals, such as Robin Hood himself and Richard the Lion Heart, can be, uh, idiosyncratic).
He also manages to take on amazingly difficult subjects without oversimplifying or simply telling people what they want to hear. Ivanhoe could be read, if anyone wanted to do so, as an essay on the history of the Jews in Europe in which the anti-semites come out looking as stupid as they are (at least in their anti-semitism), and the Jews, without being blamed, come out looking as degraded as we sometimes are.
But still, the main point is the story.

Paperback
Hardcover




Lapierre, Dominique. A Thousand Suns.

As the readers of his other books know, Dominique Lapierre has the virtues of a journalist. He knows how to use words to make almost anything seem immediate and exciting. He also has some virtues which journalists often lack, such as the ability to realize that the people he writes about are complicated, and are rarely completely good or completely evil, completely intelligent or completely stupid.

Lapierre also has the faults of a journalist. He often assumes that anything which he believes is so obviously correct that one needn't even think of other possibilities. In discussing the death penalty in the United States, Lapierre calls it a "lottery", since different states allow (or don't allow) the death penalty for different crimes, and makes a big deal out of the point. Apparently, since there is no concept of partial sovereignty within France, he assumes a priori that there could not possibly be one anyplace else; he therefore cannot understand that it might make as little sense to mock the different states of the United States for having laws which vary capriciously as it would to mock the countries of Europe for having laws which vary capriciously. No doubt Mr. Lapierre would be very insulted if one were to suspect him of not having read Tocqueville's classic on the United States, but he seems not to have understood much of what he read. Similarly, he states by the way, as a subject needing no further comment, that the Indians "abuse condiments". In context, this means that they eat their food spicier than the French do, and are therefore wrong. Whether they are morally wrong or merely mistaken as to fact in choosing their spices is not clear to me.

Mr. Lapierre is also willing on occasion to use cheap rhetorical tricks to try to persuade his readers. He uses the fact that California law called a certain sex act "unnatural", a description which would annoy many of his readers today, to prejudice his readers against the law by which Caryl Chessman was sentenced to death. This has absolutely nothing to do with his two main points, both of which are relevant to the Chessman affair. One is that Lapierre had doubts as to whether Chessman committed the acts attributed to him at all. The second is Lapierre's claim, once again presented as an obvious fact because he himself has never thought of another possibility, that even if the death penalty is justified for some crimes it is never justified for any sex crime. In fact, his incidental reference to the language of the California law serves no purpose except to prejudice his readers in favor of Chessman and against California law.

Looking at Dominique Lapierre's own life through this largely autobiographical collection, one can say, as he seems usually to say about the people of whom he writes, that he is neither all good nor all bad. But he seems to be mainly good.

Paperback




Nerval, Gerard de. Aurelia and Other Writings. Exact Change, 1996.

If there's a prize for choosing the correct works for an anthology, this collection should get it. It includes the final version of "Aurelia", which is probably Nerval's most famous work, though undeservedly so. It includes "Sylvie", probably the author's most successful work artistically. It includes The Chimeras, both his most famous and most artistically successful collection of poetry, and it includes "Walks and Memories", which contains some of the keys for understanding some of Nerval's larger works.
"Aurelia" rambles. Maybe it contains the keys to Nerval's type of the actress, and to his attitude towards her, which are worth understanding. Unfortunately, I've never understood them, either before "Aurelia" or after reading it in its various versions. My feeling is that "Aurelia" will more important to students of psychopathology and the history of psychiatry than to lovers of art and women.
"Sylvie" is a masterpiece. I've never managed to understand it to its depths, but anyone who does will know all that there is to know about women and men's feelings towards them. The writing is the writing of a lyric poet, and the handling of time is the most perfect example of the technique which Proust and his hangers-on were later to turn into a philosophy.
Most of The Chimeras are good poems, but not great ones. They seem not to be obscure in the sense of demanding a lot of general knowledge, or a lot of concentration; they seem to be obscure because they are incomplete hints to a private world. As one editor wrote, "Explaining and commenting on The Chimeras would demand an entire volume.".

Paperback




Staël, Germaine de (Madame de Staël). On Germany.

There would probably be enough to gain by reading Madame de Staël's De l'Allemagne as a key to Germany. One of the French editors warns against reading a book on such a subject with hindsight, but it's difficult to resist doing so. Her analyses of the German people as being intellectually divided into two groups, with the unintellectual not having the slightest ambition to think, and the more intellectual one having great imagination and no interest in applying it, probably explains the horrible events of the Twentieth Century as well as any other attempt.
Most of Madame de Staël's readers today, however, probably have more interest in women intellectuals than in Germany. I will give those political readers as short shrift as Madame de Staël would have; she was far too busy being a woman and a human being to have any time left over for feminism. (By the way, when did you last see someone given long shrift?)
Another group of the modern readers of Madame de Staël are looking for the original document by one of the early theoreticians of Romanticism, if not one of its founders. They will find here many of the same ideas which they can see in later French Romantic manifestoes, with many of the same mistakes. The mistakes may be the most interesting part of all of these documents: they show the Romantics (and Romanticism) not as they were, but as they saw themselves.
De l'Allemagne is even more an important book for one group of people who will rarely read it: people interested in the philosophy of life, and especially people interested in living a philosophy. Madame de Staël's discussions of the importance of a liberal education are impressive, though they will persuade nobody. Her defenses of enthusiasm are both pretty in themselves and useful as explanations of her own personality. If we've gotten to that, with one incidental word she explains how she reconciles her own high moral standards with her real-world behavior, which is not easy. (The moral value of her own justification is another question.)
As reading-for-pleasure, De l'Allemagne is uneven. The book often flows, but can turn into a soporific when she quotes her German Romantic sources at great length. You may never have suffered boredom to be compared with a paraphrase of Novalis' religious opinions.

Some books by and about Madame de Staël




Sévigné, Marie de (Madame de Sévigné). Selected Letters.

There are few collections of nonfiction bits and pieces which are famous as real literature, and the ones I can think of are all French. This is not surprising. Bits and pieces, when they are good, read something like conversation, and it was the French, a few hundred years ago, who excelled at conversation; it was also the French who turned esprit into an ideal.

There are few collections of nonfiction bits and pieces which are famous as real literature, and there is only one I can think of which is usually considered fine literature; that is Madame de Sévigné's collected letters. (Montaigne's essays should probably be considered in the same category, but The People Who Know insist on classifying him as a Philosopher.)
Madame de Sévigné indeed knows how to play all of the changes on her medium. Her narratives can be exciting, piteous, girlish, or lyrical, at her pleasure. she is the also the best single source I know for the cultural history of the world of Louis XIV.

It is good that good selections of Madame de Sévigné's letters are easily obtained. About the only objection I have to the edition I read is that even it occasionally dragged, and if I had tried to go through all of the letters, of course I would have been bored a good part of the time. The fact is, I am not one of the hangers-on of the court of Louis XIV, and not everything which was important to them is important to me.

I can think of only two complaints even distantly related to Madame de Sévigné: The first is that, as was to be expected, some of her self-appointed fellow-females have chosen to improve history at her expense, on the subject of her relationship with Madame de Lafayette, for example. The other is that Roger Duchêne's clear-headed biography of Madame de Sévigné is not available in English.

Paperback




Ward, Laura. Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever. Barrons, 2002.

I bought this little book as a gift for my wife never expecting that either she or I would read it. When I held it in my hand, I discovered that I was almost right in thinking that it was never intended to be read, but I also discovered that one can enjoy it without reading it. It is printed on lovely thick white paper in an elegant sans serif font. Books which are physically pleasant to the eye and hand aren't all that rare even today, but it's rare that I should feel that way about paper and printing as modern as these. Even the shape is pleasant (s. v. "Mondrian"), which is very rare for a shape which does not belong to the conventional quarto-octavo-256mo series.
As to the content - I know that there are killjoys who insist that a book should have a content - it's more readable and more serious than I expected. Although Bad Press is a collection of mauvais mots, it does have enough unity and consistency really to be read. It's also a convenient format in which to notice that the great critics (who were also usually the great authors) usually only need about a line or so to be both clear and vicious, while lesser critics need a lot more. One also notes a clear correspondence between the 'cultural' level of the medium or genre and the pleasure quotient of the venom: literature reviews seem to be nastier than play reviews, which are nastier than television reviews. As to the restaurant reviews, this book provides sufficient support for my policy of only eating in restaurants where I know in advance that the food will be execrable. And of course it's always pleasant to find out that Evelyn Waugh had the same high opinion of Proust's importance in literature as I do.
Indeed, the whole book is a pleasure to read, but how could such a collection of snide snappiness avoid being so?

Hardcover




O Henry. O Henry's New York.

Trying to introduce children to literature is a terrible thing to do. Or at least it has its disadvantages. Most of us remember O. Henry mostly from "The Gift of the Magi." A few of us remember him from "The Last Leaf" also. Not too many of us think of him as the social agitator who knew the darker side of the big city from personal experience. (I'm much too polite to mention the time he served for embezzlement.)

This volume should solve the problem. They show him as an author at least as strong as the one we know from stories we read as children, at least as interested in all aspects of human life and feeling, and as one who hates hypocrisy, in addition. They also remind us of seamy sides of our history we have gradually been forgetting, or which we have never thought about because they are not quite seamy enough:

The hero of most of these stories is the "shopgirl". Only a small minority of her sisters would actually die of hunger, and her moral corruption was limited to letting casual dates kiss her, but O. Henry makes it quite clear whom he holds guilty.

"The Trimmed Lamp" is particularly interesting for a technical reason: it's a twelve-page story in which the character of the protagonist gradually develops into its opposite. So why should it bother us if the good guys (but not too good) win?

Hardcover




Salmon, Andre. Modigliani.

Like Fifield's biography of Modigliani, Salmon's sets out to be irreverent, and even to shock, since both authors belonged to Modiglianesque worlds where shocking the 'respectable' was a virtue in itself. Both books interpret the border between fiction and non-fiction rather loosely, as far as details go. But Fifield provides little relevant information in addition, and seems to have done little research. Salmon also seems not to have done much book-based research, but he didn't have to: He was a good friend of Modigliani's, know most of the other people involved, and was present at some important events in Modigliani's life. He also quotes extensively from several of the well known artists and dealers who knew Modigliani, often from interviews which Salmon arranged for the purpose of writing this book.
An incident between Modigliani as a painter and the powers that be exemplifies the difference in goals of Fifield and Salmon. Fifield describes it in vague terms, interspersed with exclamation points and phrases aimed at a sexual interest. Salmon gives the facts of the incident in which police interference caused a minor change in the first Modigliani exhibition, and by the way makes a comparison interesting to students of painting and literature.

As can be imagined, some of the remarks made by Salmon himself and by the people he interviewed are useful in understanding Modigliani's art. Although the dissenting opinion is also quoted, Salmon and some of his friends claim that African art was not a significant influence on the Italian; Etruscan and Far Eastern art were much more so. And the circumstances under which Modigliani created his drawings and sketches and the relationship between them and his more finished works helps to explain their apparently different style.
Salmon creates a very different picture of Jeanne Hebuterne than what one is likely to get from other books. Considering the position she had in the painter's life, her importance as the model of many of his most significant works, and the influence of the viewer's perception of the model for his feelings about the whole painting, this is no small point.
As one would expect, Modigliani contains useful remarks about several other painters of his time and place, especially Utrillo. The description of the meeting between Modigliani and Renoir and a follow-up remark about 'bottoms' are much more significant than one might think at first glance.

The editions I have seen have some useful and pretty black and white illustrations.



Ferre, Rosario. Eccentric Neighborhoods.

This is the second good book I have read lately written by women, about women, and apparently for women. (Good books by and about women are very common; great books by and about women are probably more common than other great books.) The expression "self respect" occurs several times in this book; although the characters themselves realize that there are different kinds of self respect involved, they all seem to revolve around autonomy, and the autonomy being pursued often seems to be the autonomy of a woman as a woman in a man's world.
Which brings us to the bigger question: can a parochial book (or other artwork) be great? I've quoted The People Who Know several times around here on the function of art, and there are many other People Who Know whom I haven't quoted. But what if the book only serves that function for a few people who live in small towns on the Snake River, or people who speak a certain minority language in Eastern Europe, or people who have two X chromosomes, and leaves everyone else cold? (This book didn't leave me cold, and probably isn't a candidate for greatness, but the question needs to be asked that way.)
Rosario Ferre mixes her social research and her flowery red lyricism with four letter words which seem to express very little. Somebody should have told her that such words in novels no longer even shock; all they seem to accomplish is to create a dissonance with the general tone of the book.

Paperback
Hardcover





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