I didn’t go for Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherlands last year, but he hits an assignment to review The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1: 1929-1940 on the cover of the New York Times Book Review out of the park this weekend, and I’ll read Joseph O’Neill on Beckett any time. His baroque, fitful language is clearly meant to echo that of the master himself:
Submerged for years in a murk of international literary diplomacy and scrupulous academic exertion, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” has finally surfaced; and an elating cultural moment is upon us. It is also a slightly surprising moment. Beckett, in his published output and authorial persona, was rigorously spare and self-effacing. Who knew that in his private writing he would be so humanly forthcoming? We always knew he was brilliant — but this brilliant? Just as the otherworldliness of tennis pros is most starkly revealed in their casual warm-up drills, so these letters, in which intellectual and linguistic winners are struck at will, offer a humbling, thrilling revelation of the difference between Beckett’s game and the one played by the rest of us. (Beckett played tennis, incidentally.)
O’Neill includes many quotations from the letters, and closes the good piece with a personal note:
Many years ago, while languishing like Murphy in a London flat, I received an airmail envelope on which my name had been scratched with a ballpoint pen. I had no idea who could be writing to me from France, so unthinkingly I tore open the envelope. I wish I’d been more careful. The envelope contained a very short, playful message from Samuel Beckett. It’s still my most precious possession.
There is much to discuss and like in this weekend’s brainy New York Times Book Review. Jim Holt, who seems to get better and better, contributes a wonderful endpaper on what it means to memorize poetry, and how it benefits us to do so. Emma Brockes provides an enjoyable summary of Arthur Laurents’ bitchy/insightful theatre memoir Mainly On Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story and Other Musicals.
Far from the lights of Broadway, Jeffrey Gettleman introduces Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by contrasting the anarchic Congo with its quieter neighbor Rwanda (obvious irony intended). Prunier explains much of the stark genocidal horrors of Congo’s recent history (“More people had died in Congo than in any conflict since World War II”, Gettleman says in summary) as a carryover from Rwanda’s turmoil, and the explanation does ring true.
Suzanne Daley also stokes my interest in Mark Gevisser’s A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. I’m glad the Book Review continues to find space for books on global politics and contemporary history, which are important for some of the same reasons that books of translated fiction are (though I wonder if the Book Review could sometimes combine the two and review translated international books of contemporary history — that’s something I’d like to see).
A few of the articles are less successful. The pugnacious Adam Kirsch’s discussion of Judas: A Biography by Susan Gubar offers no surprising insights. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting a generic treatment.
Speaking of generic treatments: Alan Light’s vapid explication of Bill German’s memoir about the Rolling Stones Under Their Thumb is completely lacking in expression or style. I have absolutely no idea why the NYTBR continues to assign rock music books to this bland, slick writer — a writer who couldn’t even make a biography of the Beastie Boys fun to read — when the likes of Chuck Klosterman, Robert Christgau and Legs McNeil might be available. Light ends his review with a yawning swipe at the blogosphere that couldn’t be more pointless:
It also documents a bygone age, before celebrity Web sites, when a kid could spot Mick Jagger at a club, write a description, type it up in a home-stapled newsletter, mail it out a few weeks later and still break news. Now, such sightings are instantly posted on Gawker — and the alluring quality of mystery that defined rock stars has become almost impossible to retain.
Gawker has removed the alluring quality of mystery from the rock scene? Absolutely ridiculous, especially since younger generations are every bit as excited by music as Light’s or my generation was (I know this because I have kids). In fact, it’s because of milquetoast establishment writers like Alan Light that we need the blogosphere.
Finally … apparently Joyce Carol Oates wrote another book. I still haven’t read the last fourteen hundred.
And also, finally again: New York City opens a beautiful new baseball stadium this week. I wish many blessings upon the place.