Reviewing the Review: March 15 2009

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.

13 Responses

  1. John Cheever was a
    Guy who

    John Cheever was a
    Guy who drank
    All weekend, woke up on Mondays,
    As his neighbors were returning from work

  2. Does it seem that not only is
    Does it seem that not only is the review shrinking in size, but that there is now a much higher percentage of fiction being reviewed? Fiction is my thing (besides poetry), so I’m not complaining – just observing.

    Another consummate Cheever story from his salad days is how he would get dressed every morning in suit and tie and, with briefcase, ride the elevator in his apt. down with all the other suit and tie and briefcase guys, who got off at the first floor. Cheever would continue on to the basement, where he had an office, strip down to his schivies, work all day at the typer, suit up at 5 and ride the elevator back up with all the returning stiffs.

    Such was the ingrained Puritan work ethic …


    PS Wish I could attribute that story, but I heard it many years ago and never forgot it. Perhaps it is apocryphal which, of course, hardly lessens the pop.

  3. I’ve read a couple of
    I’ve read a couple of Cheever’s novels when they came out – Bullet Park and Falconer – and enjoyed them.

    I met Cheever and had a conversation with him and Bernard Malamud at a 1978 National Arts Club dinner honoring Saul Bellow. Cheever had by then stopped drinking, I think, and he seemed quite nice and articulate. I had told him that I’d taught one of his stories the previous term and we had a discussion about Anne Tyler. I liked him and probably will be as depressed by reading the biography as I am now reading Brad Gooch’s “Flannery,” as I like her less and less with each page.

  4. Brad Gooch wrote a pretty
    Brad Gooch wrote a pretty good Frank O’Hara biography. But it was like Oliver Stone’s movie on Jim Morrison and the Doors, much about the mundane craziness, less about the art. (Though I’d say Stone is a huge Morrison/Doors fan.)

  5. I’ve reserved a couple of
    I’ve reserved a couple of O’Hara’s books at the library. Will try to sandwich them in between Henry James research.

  6. Bill, “Appointment in
    Bill, “Appointment in Samarra” is a good place to start for John O’Hara. Or a collection of his killer short stories.

  7. Thanks, Levi. As a matter of
    Thanks, Levi. As a matter of fact, Levi, I did choose “Appointment in Samarra” because Wikipedia quotes Ernest Hemingway as saying, “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.”

    My other choice is “Butterfield 8” because it is based on a true, unsolved crime.

    I know you are a “Pal Joey” fan, but if I’m not mistaken, you’re into the Broadway play moreso than the book, no?

  8. I haven’t read Butterfield 8,
    I haven’t read Butterfield 8, but I did see an Elizabeth Taylor movie based on it (and didn’t think the movie showed much of what I like about O’Hara).

    Yes, you’re correct that I wouldn’t recommend the Pal Joey stories as a starting point. They are very funny and likable, but slight — these were among his early character sketches for the New Yorker, very light reading.

    Let me know what you think of “Samarra” … I think this was his biggest success as a novelist, too.

  9. I completely agree about John
    I completely agree about John O’Hara. He deserves much more attention than he deserves. This is exactly how I feel about Dawn Powell as well. Two writers from the same era that barely register on the literary radar. John O’Hara’s Hollywood stories are fanatastic as well as his novels. Thanks so much for a great post.

  10. Wow, Monica, I just read up
    Wow, Monica, I just read up on Dawn Powell with a keen interest.

    There is something very alluring about those writers born in the late 1800s and wrote during the early part of the 20th Century. For one thing, we see that war and the Great Depression could not kill literature. That’s good to know.

    It might be fun to study of the “lesser know” writers of that time period.

    I appreciate your mention of Powell along with your comment on O’Hara.

  11. Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams
    Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the Track Meet. But Winesberg Ohio’s still the king

  12. I do not understand the focus
    I do not understand the focus and preoccupation with a writer’s sexuality versus a writer’s work. It feels like gossip coated with a literary car wax sheen disguised as X-lube when, in fact, it’s car wax designed to make antique cars seem new and shiny whose parts have worn to the Viagra level of an assisted, implant of exhibitionism. Who cares what sheep writers sleep with or the upholstery of the furniture in the barn. Writers writing about other writers is neither titillating or informative. They’re writers. They sleep with other writers. Who ELSE would sleep with a write. The thought is distasteful. This should fascinate me because…

    Writers on writers. Fiddledeedee. Writers on writers is incestuous. It should just be silly. The reason it’s a problem is because it reflects the even more endemic, committed, fanatical infatuation that publishing has for publishing. The book websites are the worst. They have you coupled with everything from cowboys to cadaverous cubitiére. It is inane. It is farcical. It is beneath contempt. It is a lie. It has nothing to do with the work of anyone. Aller au fait.

    But no. What’s important about a writer’s work is what drugs he was fond of, the trials and tribulations of his poor, dear children, who he knew, who he went to school with, what churches he belonged to, who his great aunt Tilda was, whether or not he was really Herman Melville or Danielle Meal, his abuse of secrecy, his wild friendship with Charlie Rose, his dog’s pedigree, his mother’s alcoholism, the extent to which he drove his editor to baldness, where he went during the exciting year of 1958, what music he listened to, what kind of house he lived in, who he slept with on Sundays, who he cavorted with on Fridays, what bars he fell down in, what evil schemes he cooked up with his companion, the Marquis de Sade, how ridiculous he looked with his pants at his ankles when he bothered to wear pants at all.

    All of this absolute nonsense gives us extraordinary insight into a life’s work no one read when he was alive, and no one reads now that he is now on display in a car wax museum of literary fluff. Strangulation à la carte. Suicide by depreciation.

    The camouflage of dressing down. Picking apart his sad inurbanity. Or her inconsolable despair. The ominous confidence of publishing. A burlesque. Is it any wonder that this is the business so in love with the dark horizons of memoir. You die. And then they examine your bones and entrails like the soothsayers of ancient Greece at the Temple of Caricature.

    The serious writer needs to go build a cabin in the woods and never leave and shoot interviewers on sight with a very big gun. It’s not the writer’s fault who is so curious about another writer. It is the fault of a business that will resurrect a dead chicken if it thinks it might make a buck with an interview of the butcher. It is a business that will put you in a cage and set you on display. It is a business that pretends to bring you culture with books about writers who should have retired to Carthage years ago. It is a pretense of intimacy. It is a pathetic cemetery of a cartoon and all the subsequent rituals of flagellation. It is produced by a carnival of a business that deserves decapitation by satire.

    Tim Barrus, Venice, Italy

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