Literary critic James Wood makes a strong case for Gustave Flaubert as the first thoroughly modern writer in his cover article for today’s New York Times Book Review. Flaubert, Wood says, was the first writer to put aesthetics above plot, above meaning, above all. Wood pounds this point home, and by the end of the article you are halfway persuaded that the entire world’s orbit turns around Flaubert.
Certainly Flaubert isn’t that great after all (personally, I much prefer the work of his disciple Henry James, who brought this pure literary aestheticism to a greater peak), but I do enjoy Wood’s emphatic delivery of his single point. Oh yeah, he does mention the book he is allegedly reviewing, Flaubert by Frederick Brown once or twice in the piece as well.
Even when I disagree with an article in a publication like this, I am glad when the author manages to have a point, and to express it with style. I found several good pieces in this week’s edition. James Wolcott urges us to re-discover the writings of a cranky and apparently deeply interesting dead intellectual from the past century, Dwight Macdonald, and I think I will take Wolcott up on this suggestion. Wyatt Mason neatly introduces Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman, about a young American trying to “change the world” in Ivory Coast. Taylor Antrim powerfully summarizes a novel about a mentally ill teenager and her family, Halfway House by Katharine Noel:
Where did we get the idea that families are durable? Christmas cards? Prime time TV? Katherine Noel’s sure-footed debut, “Halfway House” tells the darker truth: most families — the ordinary ones, the sturdy-looking ones — are tinderboxes. Spark them and they blow.
Poet/critic William Logan has the choice assignment of reviewing a major anthology of American poetry edited by David Lehman for the Oxford University Press. The assignment calls upon the critic to reach for his own poetic toolbox, and Logan obliges with a metaphor-rich, funny and picturesque evaluation. This is just good reading, and that’s really all I ever hope for (often in vain) when I open up a Sunday Book Review.
Today’s edition has some stumbles, though, like Nell Freudenberger’s review of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which might make sense to Mitchell’s regular readers but which failed to make sense at all to me — the review left me no clear concept of what this book is. The Letters section is somewhat maddening in that Charles Krauthammer offers reasonable evidence that Paul Berman published bizarrely false information in a recent edition of the Book Review, and since Krauthammer’s charges are unanswered we can only assume the Book Review’s fact checkers have been playing video games at work lately. Aren’t we supposed to be entering a new era of responsible journalism lately, or something?
Finally, I have a rare chance to find out if anybody actually reads my LitKicks articles all the way to the end. I would like to send a free book — The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford — to the first person who emails me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thunder’s Mouth Press sent me two review copies by mistake, and since I like the book so far I thought it’d be nice to share it with somebody who would enjoy reading it. Email away, people, and let’s see who gets here first. [UPDATE: okay, it looks like people do read to the end. The book is now spoken for — thanks all!]