More So-So Books. . .
Leakey, F. W. Baudelaire: Les Fleurs Du Mal (Landmarks of World Literature).
Mr. Leakey's book is a disappointment. It would like to pass itself off as a critical study, but is in fact little more than a very short textbook. Some of its content is introductory material on prosody, French and general, which the reader should have known long before he opened Les Fleurs du Mal for the first time. Other parts of it, such as the biographical information and the very important claims as to the dates of the poems, are presented as revelations without evidence which the reader has to accept on faith. Much of the book is simply advertising for the commentator's other works.
A few of the defects of this book seem to have their source in Mr. Leakey's own shortcomings as a reader of poetry. He discusses the "synaesthetic" correspondences as "imagery"; he apparently does not realize that the feeling of walking through a living, seething, communicating, world is a daily fact of life for many people, and that Baudelaire was one of them. There is little poetic technique here in the normal sense of the term. Baudelaire's great success in this repeated theme consists in his managing to describe it literally without allowing it to be strained during mounting.
Mr. Leakey's rather pedestrian aesthetic causes him to state as fact other opinions which will be false for many readers. He says of "Les Bijoux" that it is "perhaps the most remarkable and beautiful" of the "catalogue[s] of charms". Considering that Baudelaire had everything going for him in the subject, the poem falls flat. A woman is not a diagram of the cuts of beef such as is found in old cookbooks, and these catalog poems rarely work. It's true that some of the greatest love poems are constructed after that pattern, but those poems gain their beauty from their exploitation of the catalog to build their own rhythm. Maybe Baudelaire could have pulled it off in a longer poem, but "Les Bijoux" is just too short for the rhythm to establish itself. In any case, Baudelaire always handled flow better than articulation.
Mr. Leakey does make a few useful points. The most important is probably his emphasis on Les Fleurs du Mal as a single book which has to be read cover to cover with attention paid to the order of the poems.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.
If asked for the name of the most influential, the most important, or the greatest novelist of the Twentieth Century, many people who consider themselves educated would probably answer 'Joyce'. The most influential? Likely as not. But Sir Walter Scott was probably much more influential in his own time and that immediately after him, yet there aren't too many people today who would call him a great artist. And James Macpherson may have been more influential.
The greatest? In what way? The originality of stream of consciousness? Nobody has yet managed to explain to me why originality is a sign of being great. If he thinks up something new and good and important without any help from his predecessors, I guess that he is to be given more credit than someone else who does the same later. But why is stream of consciousness such a great improvement over the usual paragraph structure? Is it so clear that it represents real people's patterns of thought and feeling better?
I read somewhere that nobody wrote dialog more realistically than Joyce. I certainly hope that my conversations are not as filmily superficial as those in Portrait.
I also read that it is not only the slaves of the syllabus, but even naive volunteers who read Portrait in large numbers, probably because of the connection many of them feel between Stephen Dedalus' conflicts and their own. Perhaps. I'm in no position to judge. But I suspect that the very force of the concepts of hellfire and impurity which are so much a part of the intensity of Dedalus' experience, and the background for the all of the most successful parts of the novel, belong only to a few exceptional and exotic cultures.
So is all of Joyceanism sleight of hand? Much, but not quite all. The degree to which the hellfire and impurity sections drag along someone with as little innate feeling for them as I have show to what extent Joyce could control his tools. The problem is not really Joyce. The problem is the reflex Joyceans.
Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.
Jacob Burckhardt is often credited or blamed for having created the modern stereotypes of the humanistic Renaissance and the primitive Middle Ages. The people who do so often cite this book as the main tool which he used, so it's natural for the reader to expect a polemical book, wildly enthusiastic about the Renaissance.
The book itself is more balanced, though. Unlike most scholars, Burckhardt was capable of seeing the many faults in the culture he studied. He realized that the violence and immorality of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries was part and parcel of the age. He realized that the Renaissance emphasis on Man naturally leads to egotism, and egotism to selfishness, cruelty, and emotional shallowness.
He also discusses some subjects which his less educated followers tend to ignore, such as the strength and naivete of renaissance religious feeling, even among the Humanists, and the true literary values of the monotonous fiction of the period, in itself often more Medieval than Renaissance:
These works indeed gain immensely when they are repeated, not as a whole, but piecemeal, and with a slight touch of comedy in voice and gesture.... Their composition is not that of a great historical picture, but rather that of a frieze.... And precisely as in the figures or tendrils of a frieze we do not look for minuteness of execution in the individual forms, or for distant perspectives and different planes, so we must expect as little anything of the kind from these poems.
Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. Modern Library, 2000.
Readers of Paul Johnson's larger books on political and social history will be disappointed in this. It is a history of the Renaissance, mainly the Florentine Renaissance, in literature and the visual arts, with a few side remarks on other fields. It's rather conventional. Each of the standard names is given a paragraph or two, with the usual emphasis on innovation and the usual praises.
What went wrong? It could be that the short format is just not for Mr. Johnson. He is at his best when allowed to discurse on someone he loves or hates, and there's just no room here. It could be that he just doesn't feel strongly enough about the people involved, or even the issues involved, however much he admires the results of the Renaissance. Or it could be that about fifteen years have passed since the A History of the English People was published, and about twelve years since Intellectuals was published, and that Mr. Johnson is getting too old for the venom which suits him so well.
There are a few points here worth noticing. It could be that Johnson is right in his emphasis on the economic side of printing as an intellectual stimulus. He also may be right in pointing out the convenience of easel painting for nudes.
You'll be more entertained by any of the famous books on the Renaissance. Walter Pater covers much of the same material as Mr. Johnson does, but with more originality.
Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbo. Viking (Penguin Classics), 1977.
Some critics represent Salammbo and Madame Bovary as being by two different Flauberts. One is a Realist and an important figure in the history of the novel. The other is a Romantic and a slightly crazy writer of also-ran genres.
Flaubert himself in his letters, and in his behavior toward his novels, seems to have thought differently. So did Henry James in some comments on Flaubert. There is only one Flaubert.
Both novels are stories about strange peoples, not about individual characters. Salammbo seems originally to have been titled Carthage, and Madame Bovary is indeed an essay on Provincial Mores. Writing novels about places, though, seems to suit Flaubert's abilities. His individuals never develop in any case, and he is best at descriptions, descriptions of people, places, or events.
Having agreed that Salammbo is a novel of description, is it a good one or a bad one? Some of the descriptions excite us against our will, such as the battle scenes which Flaubert admits to having added more as set scenes than for the plot. The description of the gradual cannibalism of the mercenaries is revoltingly fascinating. Salammbo herself becomes human only by static descriptions of her emotions and her behavior, but the descriptions work. One even feels for Hamilcar.
The novel's faults are also mostly faults of description. Carthage is coarse and vulgar, but the vulgarity is not that of Carthage; it is Flaubert's own. And Sainte-Beuve is right in seeing Flaubert's own sadism in the work.
There are some major structural faults in the novel, too: Hamilcar's unanswered questions about Salammbo and the Barbarians remind me of those foundations of large buildings one sees during an economic slowdown, abandoned and filled with dirty rainwater.
Most readers of novels will probably like Salammbo, and it serves well to remind all of us that Flaubert is not Madame Bovary.
Patten, Christopher. East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia.
Patten call himself an apparatchik. He's not quite as bad as that, but he is a fine illustration of the British upper-middle-class colonial administrator, the Late-Twentieth-Century version of the pukka sahib. That alone would be sufficient reason to read East and West: It's hard for us to imagine the way that type thinks, and it's even harder to imagine that they still exist, and in such a classical form.
Patten is also right about the book's not being quite a memoir of government. It's mostly the declaration of a political philosophy with Hong Kong used as an illustration. For many people, the most important part of the declaration will be Patten's attack on moral relativism. Patten does not right deeply enough - and probably doesn't think deeply enough - to do the subject justice, but perhaps his words will encourage a few readers to continue their studies in more serious works.
Other readers will find helpful Patten's discussion of the relationships among democracy, liberal government, and the market economy. As one would expect, he mumbles around the difficult parts, but it is here that his personal experience in Hong Kong makes the discussion more vivid.
And perhaps there are a few readers who will gain a better understanding of Victorian furniture design from reading this book.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses.
The gentleman who taught me jewelry-making pointed out the importance of the artist's manifest intention in an artwork: 'If you want to leave the visible part oxidized and dirty-looking, make sure that the back sparkles.' This is especially important in surrealist works, where the line between form and anti-form is a little problematic to begin with.
An excessive lack of form is the source of many of the problems in The Satanic Verses, and it is not always clear to what extent the lack of form is intentional. The form of the novel as a whole is not well-defined. Is it a dream of Gibreel's, or a reality? Gibreel and Salahuddin: who is finally good, and who bad? Is the seemingly borderline-irrelevant sexuality really so, a sop to the bankers and the weeklies, or is there something more here?
I have never read such a powerful novel with produced so few visual images. The young prophetess clothed in butterflies could have been stunning. In the end I had to build her myself, and can't quite manage to finish her. Again, that might have been fine, if it had been clear that Rushdie meant it that way. It isn't.
Who and what is the book about? Emigres? Choice? The Creation?
The Satanic Verses left me confused and very depressed. And I'm not at all sure that Rushdie meant it that way.
Harmon, William, ed. The Classic Hundred Poems. Columbia UP, 1998.
It is curious how consistently the Southern United States produces poisonous pedants in any field connected with poetry, i. e., whether as poets or critics.
Why should I badmouth Mr. Harmon, when he does it himself so much better. This is what he says about Herrick's "Advice to Virgins": "Herrick's little song simply asserts a set of pretty hackneyed propositions." On Lovelace's "To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars": "Here we can see, in a small way, some of the outlandish figures or 'conceits' that seventeenth-century poets were so crazy about." Can't Professor Harmon hear?
His remarks are occasionally useful, though. It adds poignancy to know that when Lovelace had returned from the wars, the real Lucasta had already married somebody else. And comforting to know that the professionals can't make any more sense out of "Nicean" in Poe's "To Helen" than I can. Though their doubts about "Naiad" make me wonder about them. Or worry.
As Harmon points out, the poems in this anthology, simply the most often anthologized in the language, are very good. He attributes this correspondence to the good taste of the modern reader. That's probably a great deal of it. But it is not only the taste of readers which determines the content of anthologies. It is also the bureaucratic taste of school boards, the need to meet certain social demands barely related to poetry, and the quirks of the copyright laws.
The selection is good, the criticism is bearable, and the situation is more complicated than it seems.
Mencken, H. L. The American Language. Knopf, 1999.
H. L. Mencken is the most famous of the writers on the American language, and this is his most famous work. The book is therefore somewhat disappointing. Much of it deals with the question of whether American is or is not a separate language. Like the very similar questions of whether 0 or 1 is the first of the natural numbers or whether 2000 or 2001 is the first year of the new millennium, it is a rather dull question about an arbitrary name.
Mr. Mencken also deals at length with dialects, slang, argot, and their friends. His long and enthusiastic discussions of slang words which became obsolete almost instantly can serve as a warning to others.
As with most books of this kind, there are also problems with individual words and forms. For example, Mr. Mencken's use of "to strip" as an example of early twentieth-century theater argot is mysterious. Did he not own a copy of the OED, or was he just too virtuous to explain what he was getting at?
He does remark, however, that the Black American dialect found in nineteenth and early twentieth-century books was a literary creation, and was created almost exclusively by white writers.
Mr. Mencken's sections on the linguistic correlates of American anglophilia and British americophobia, with occasional reversals, are entertaining. His repeated tirades against the prescriptive but barely literate "schoolmarms", very similar to what we have learned to expect in every book on general linguistics, would be a bore if they weren't still so necessary.
more not-so-good books. . .
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