I grew up thinking of John Cheever as a beautiful writer perfectly encapsulated by one book (his long, thorny career notwithstanding) of short stories with a bright red cover. I don’t know anybody who’s ever attempted to read one of his novels, and I also don’t know anybody who tried The Stories of John Cheever and didn’t immediately understand what these stories were and why they were so important. Blake Bailey’s new biography reveals Cheever as a self-hating homosexual, bitter and deeply unhappy. John Updike’s last published book review for the New Yorker was a review of this biography, a hard act to follow, but Geoffrey Woolf’s piece on the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review is probably even better, not necessarily for the insights (for both Updike and Woolf, the insights come mainly from Bailey) but for the sharp, captivating writing:
Because Bailey’s “Cheever” is so wise and serious, so human an account, it may be churlish to wish that he had managed to use a bit less material to stand for the events and sensations of a life shaped by its repetitive duration. After all, the hamster’s situation is striking not because it spins the exercise once or twice.
I’m not sure if it will surprise any readers, though, that John Cheever turned out to be a mean bastard. Doesn’t that seem to often be the way? In this spirit, I hope the next mean bastard from last century’s “Country Club Suburban” era to receive a blast of new attention will be John O’Hara, whose cutting stories hold up so well today, and about whom so little is currently said.
Dean Bakopoulos raves convincingly about Patrick Somerville’s The Cradle in today’s Book Review. A couple of paragraphs in, I not only feel engaged with Bakopoulos’s article but also with Somerville’s family drama. The book is now on my list.
I’m very interested in Mike Rapport’s history book 1848: Year of Revolution, reviewed today by Gary J. Bass. I’ve done a bunch of reading on the European upheavals of 1848, certainly a crucial missing link between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. I’ve even wondered if our popular American tendency to celebrate the spirit of the French Revolution while denigrating the spirit of the Russian Revolution has caused our historians to subconsciously bury the evidence of 1848, since we don’t like to view these revolutions as belonging to the same historical spectrum when in fact they clearly do. Given the fact that I’ve already studied this subject in detail, I can’t read Gary Bass’s review of Mike Rapport’s book without preconceptions, and maybe that’s why I’m disappointed to find Bass searching for parallels here — he comes up with the American Revolution of 1776, modern China, the fall of the Soviet Union but not (tellingly) its birth — and not coming up with anything worth saving. An underwhelming review, but I am glad this book has been published, and I urge any general reader shopping for a new history book to help break our publishing industry’s addiction to Iwo Jima and Gettysburg by buying books that, like this one, manage to cover unfamiliar territory.
Back to our favorite wars, Helen Humphrey’s World War II novel Coventry takes place in a British city being bombed to oblivion, but Adam Haslett wishes the novel were more elemental and less elegaic.
That’s a familiar feeling. The most confusing review here is Ammon Shea on John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English. Shea doesn’t say so directly but he clearly dislikes the book (the fact that he presents a couple of other “more comprehensive” books about the English language in his closing paragraph makes this perfectly clear). Yet he fails to help us understand what’s in the book, and also fails to explain his beef with McWhorter in a way readers can understand — it sounds like a lot of linguist inside baseball, capped by the revelation that McWhorter begins sentences with “Yeah” and “But check this out”. If that’s the sum total of Shea’s case against McWhorter’s book, McWhorter wins.
I should enjoy Lee Siegel’s endpaper essay on George Steiner, since it is a brainy piece that name-drops Nietzsche and Arthur Koestler. Siegel adopts a plaintive, searching tone here:
To put it bluntly: Was it a pleasure or a punishment to read Steiner? Did he present art and ideas as the entertaining urgencies that they are, or did culture become for him — as it does for certain people — simply an extension of ego, a one-man kingdom, the keys to which he flaunted and jingled under the reader’s nose while he solemnly pranced back and forth, reciting names of the distinguished dead as though they were aliases for himself?
But I feel the smug presence of Siegel’s own problematic personality too strongly for me to able to enjoy this piece. I don’t know if it’s a pleasure or a punishment to read George Steiner, but I definitely feel that the New York Times Book Review has been punishing us with Lee Siegel for too long, and I really don’t know what we ever did to deserve it.