Reviewing the Review: March 4 2007

One might say a book critic’s function is to help readers decide which books to read. Often, though, a critic’s most important function is to tell us about books there is no way we’re ever going to read, like, in my case, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. I respect Kundera, but this is in critic Russell Banks’ words “his third book-length meditation on the novel”, and since I haven’t read either of Kundera’s first two book-length meditations on the novel, I believe Russell Banks’ cover article in this week’s New York Times Book Review is as close to The Curtain as I am ever likely to get. In this case, what I mainly need from Banks is a good executive summary.

Fortunately, that’s what Banks provides. He capsulizes Kundera’s key points, and I find some of them quite compelling:

In Kundera’s somewhat Eurocentric view, the novel is uniquely able to express a highly ironic “antimodern modernism,” a mode of disillusioned thinking that was fathered by Cervantes, who with Rabelais, Fielding, Sterne and Diderot established a lineage that is “suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life.”

Antimodern modernism — I like that. This is a good essay, though Banks should avoid jostling his readers with questionable digressions like this:

[Kundera] is perhaps the best, certainly the best-known Czech fiction writer since Kafka (who was arguably more German than Czech anyway).

Maybe Banks believes that language is destiny, but I’ll argue till the end of time that the author of The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis was more Jewish than either German or Czech, except that this has nothing to do with Kundera anyway. Then, later:

Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer exemplied the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion.

Again with the “perhaps”! A critic should either jump in or not. In this case Banks shouldn’t, because I can list four thick wonderful volumes to prove that John Updike, not Milan Kundera, holds this distinction.

A book reviewer’s other function comes into play, for me, when A. O. Scott considers Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills, which is a perfect example of a book I’m just exactly on the edge of reading or not reading. I enjoyed (somewhat) Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, and I appreciate her vigorous Bush-bashing at The Huffington Post. I only need A. O. Scott to wave me forward and I’ll check out this book, but A. O. Scott isn’t waving. He reports that Smiley is attempting to recreate the bawdy good times of Boccaccio’s Decameron in modern-day Los Angeles with this storytelling bonanza, and that sounds a bit too affected for my taste. Scott says the book fails, and by the end of the review my decision is made. I’ve got too many other books to read anyway.

Dennis Bock’s The Communist Daughter, reviewed by Nisid Haraji, sounds like a better choice, as does Hisham Matar’s In The Country of Men, which Lorraine Adams describes as “a timeless portrait of the infantilism of evil” set in 1970’s Libya. Adams makes the book sound fascinating, though like Russell Banks she undermines her authority with careless quality control. Am I the only one who stumbled on this?

It also helps produce the book’s poetic prose. On the very first page, the boy describes a tree outside his mother’s bedroom window, “its green shy in the early light.” The sunglasses worn by his father are “two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes.” The boy’s mother’s voice is “like a small nervous fish alone in the deep.” The beggar’s “toenails were like bird beaks.”

I’m counting three animal similes (all employing the standard “like”) and one case of personification. This hardly earns “poetic”, but Adams makes a strong case for the book’s message and its relevance, and I’ll put this book on my read-soon list (in the spot recently vacated by Jane Smiley).

There’s still more in this week’s undeniably substantial issue. Ben Yagoda quotes Nas in his interesting review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Parker and Yuval Taylor, and Gregory Cowles aptly references the Charlie Daniels Band in explaining Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood, a horror novel about a suspicious Irish fiddler. Susann Cokal evaluates The Mathematics of Love by a first novelist named Emma Darwin (though, in the end, the only thing that lingers from this review is that Emma’s great-great-grandfather discovered the theory of evolution).

Then there’s Edmund White on a new volume of Tennessee Williams’ notebooks, which turn up a surprising amount of the playwright’s bitter sexual self-disgust as a young man. It’s an interesting summary, though I wish White’s reading of the notebooks didn’t focus so singly on his own favorite theme of gay identity (didn’t Williams write anything about, say, literature in these notebooks?).

Ben Schott’s endpaper Confessions of a Book Abuser is better than nine out of ten NYTBR endpapers, mainly because it eschews dumb jokes for strident seriousness regarding a reader’s right to treat the books he loves as carelessly as he wants. “The businessman who tears off and discards the chunk of John Grisham he has already read before boarding a plane may lack finesse, but he is not a Nazi.”

What is the New York Times trying to do to me?! This review of the Review is already way too long, and I haven’t even mentioned some can’t-miss stuff in today’s Arts and Leisure section, including an intriguing and heartfelt (though, to my non-Didion-adoring mind, annoyingly typical) Joan Didion article about the progress of the new dramatization of The Year of Magical Thinking, which will feature Vanessa Redgrave. There’s also a report on an upcoming major Hollywood film based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and a theater ad informing me that a new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear is opening this week at the Public Theater with Kevin Kline as our beloved bewildered King. Which means I’d better be running off to the box office.

12 Responses

  1. Ten DaysMaybe you ought to
    Ten Days

    Maybe you ought to give Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills a second chance. I haven’t read it, but a review by Marion Winik that appeared in last Sunday’s Newsday made it sound pretty interesting.

  2. Jeez, I just got a book *off*
    Jeez, I just got a book *off* my next-to-red list — let’s leave it at that! This pile is too big for second chances.

    I will keep reading Smiley at Huff Post, though.

  3. The Art of the NovelKundera’s
    The Art of the Novel

    Kundera’s first collection of essays on the novel (I detest the word ‘meditation’) is one of a handful of books that changed my life. It is that good. It’s a slim volume; Someone recommended it to me, so I’ll pass it along.

    If you like it you’ll also want to read Testaments Betrayed. I have number three on order (in hardback, because I can’t wait).

  4. Good to know, Dan,
    Good to know, Dan, thanks!

    Maybe I’ll have to throw this one onto my next-to-read pile.

  5. You won’t be sorry, Levi.
    You won’t be sorry, Levi. Please let me know your reaction.

  6. Yes, I agree. I heartily
    Yes, I agree. I heartily recommend The Art of the Novel.

    By the way, just for fun, after reading it, you can take my Kundera quiz.

  7. HENRY JAMES!!There is room at

    There is room at Henry James’s table for John Updike and Milan Kundera, even though I think Henry James is a tool.


    Furthermore, just because Daniel Day-Lewis was in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being doesn’t mean that Kundera isn’t totally awesome.

  8. Okay, once I finish my last
    Okay, once I finish my last two classics, I will accept your challenge. I can make you read a Milan Kundera book and you can make me read a Henry James book and then, I dunno… we’ll arm-wrestle or something.

  9. You both have to eat a
    You both have to eat a mushroom … but not our meeting table toadstool, ok?

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