James Fenimore Cooper emerges from this study as a kind of literary equivalent of his Leatherstocking character: a man who singlehandedly blazed a trail for others to follow across the wilderness of American letters. In fact, this is scarcely an exaggeration. When Cooper began his career, the American novel was still in vestigial form, trying to legitimize itself by imitating European models, while its audience constituted some unidentifiable “out there.” Cooper’s genius was to recognize what the novel could do; how it could both reflect and affect the sociological changes which this turbulent century was experiencing, and by doing so create a specific audience which wanted to see its national character legitimized in print. Wallace does a magnificent job of illuminating both the problems and the triumphs of Cooper’s first steps along this path, particularly in his examination of Cooper’s dealings with the publishing industry. What’s more—and this is becoming increasingly rare—the clarity of Wallace’s prose makes his book a genuine pleasure to read.
By the standards of contemporary criticism, this collection of essays is appallingly deficient: one searches in vain for incomprehensible jargon, arcane subject matter, or a single reference to Derrida, Foucault, or Bakhtin. Worst of all, these essays might actually be of interest to general readers. As such, they will no doubt strike most academics as old-fashioned, but if they are throwbacks, it is to the kind of essay Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling used to write. What Podhoretz has in common with Wilson and Trilling is his refusal to view literature in isolation. By focusing on the political dimension of literature, Podhoretz brings his essays to life and reminds us that great writers are at their greatest when they touch upon subjects which are of central concern to mankind and not just grist for some semiotician’s mill. The essays on Kundera and Solzhenitsyn are the highlights of this volume, but all the essays are worth reading. Most of the essays appeared originally in journals such as Commentary or The New Criterion, but their journalistic nature is precisely their strength. It is a pleasure to be taken back to the time when literary critics as a group felt called upon to speak to the general public and not just to each other.
Though many editions of Jonson are in circulation, not until now has there appeared a reliable one-volume anthology of works spanning the writer’s various generic interests. In addition to both Volpone and The Alchemist, the editor includes complete texts of Jonson’s lyric collections, along with a full selection of the critical prose. The only weakness in the volume is the omission of a sample from the masques. Still, Donaldson’s edition is likely to become a standard teaching edition of the author, and it stands out as one of the best contributions to the series yet.
Proposing that we first read Pope’s poetry “with the grain” (in line with authorial intentions) and then “against” it (looking for conflicting meanings that thus “deconstruct” intended sense), Atkins outlines a reasonable and potentially useful project. But this is a naive book: Atkins’ readings “with the grain” are cursory, while those “against” it press cleverness to the point of incredulity; the whole is conducted in a prose of seeming—but only seeming—lucidity which owes as much to the language of modern advertising as it does to Pope or earlier critical debate.
Jerome McGann has collected these essays with the aim of initiating a “diverse exploratory program in socio-historical theory and method”—a goal both laudable and necessary given the recent disfavor into which literary history has fallen in the current climate of poststructuralism. From a variety of perspectives, these essays consider issues of methodology, ideology and scholarship, biography, and feminist analysis. Terry Eagleton, John Sutherland, and Nina Auerbach have contributed especially insightful discussions on specific topics; McGann’s introduction and Marilyn Butler’s essay provide informative overviews of the predicament of historical studies and pose compelling arguments for reconstituting their theoretical underpinning.
Gregory Orr brings to bear on the poetry of Stanley Kunitz the same clear, resonating thoughtfulness that shines through his own poems. The reader will appreciate his careful organization of themes and chapters, and his outlining of approach at the outset. Orr shows how Kunitz has set a moving example for other poets to work toward forgiveness through understanding of one’s past—”Discovering, within the grim circumstances of a life, possibilities of renewal and transformation.” The dramatic lyric is raised to its highest form in Kunitz’ work, bridging the gap between the self and the world, and converting life into legend. The spiritual quest for the lost father, and the journeying self replacing the spiraling self, stand out as the strongest of the key images that form the core of his experience and work. It would have been interesting, though perhaps not possible, to weave more of the chronology of Kunitz’ life into the text, for instance, his various teaching posts, his marriages, and his Jewish heritage. But this introduction could not have been written by a poet more sensitive and perceptive to Kunitz’ life and work; it conveys thoroughly the place Kunitz has made for himself and the important influence his poetry has had.
It’s not that Rabatés arguments aren’t provoking, but that, by comparison, they make Pound’s Cantos seem the embodiment of simplicity. Rabatés book begins with an ambitious evaluation of the contributions of Heidegger and Lacan, and it is clear that he aims to show that Pound’s poetry offers consonant insights. Yet, one wonders, if that’s what is of interest in the Cantos, why not stick to the explicit theorists—or conversely, why drag them in at all? Perhaps Rabaté felt that by writing on all the relevant topics—”language, sexuality and ideology”—questions of critical purpose need never be raised.
Contemporary literary criticism has increasingly come to recognize religious issues in its secular concern with language and figuration. Attunement to the problematics of representation has particular ties to the Judaeo-Christian suspicion of idolatry; availing himself of that connection, Gross looks at episodes in The Faerie Queene as allegories of a crisis both discursive and moral. The results vary, but the conclusion is suave and cogent—idolatry and iconoclasm are inseparable resources of a common activity—and the section on the Blatant Beast a special burst of light.
Volume IV of McGann’s magnificent edition spans 1816—1820, the years of Manfred, Beppo, and Mazeppa (Don Juan, composed 1818—24, is left for Volume V). As in earlier volumes, McGann—who has also established himself as a theorist in textual criticism—demonstrates that our received texts have been radically incomplete and incorrect; as in earlier volumes, too, his detailed commentaries comprise the best criticism of Byron, both historical and interpretive, to date. McGann’s Byron continues a landmark both for Romantics scholars and for textual studies generally.
Robbins takes off from H. J. Munby, the unusual Victorian whose descriptions of servants included the one to whom he was secretly married for 36 years and who was strong enough to pick him up and carry him around and another, mentioned in his diary in 1860 as “a pretty but coarsemade rustic and redhanded waiting maid . . .whose thick broad hand comes more than once in contact with mine, and does not retreat” and to whom “his real adieus are given, in secret pressure of her working hand.” In turn he considers The Servant in Dialogue, The Servant as Narrator, The Servant as Instrument of the Plot, and The Servant in the Ending. He describes the intention of his book as “precisely to sketch a working relationship between history and a set of literary materials that defy simple historical differentiation.” His bibliography bears out his intention, but how successful he has been in carrying it out is another matter.
In his book, Faas begins by considering the fascinating point of Shakespeare’s reputation over the centuries as the poet, “not of art, but of nature.” Using this notion as the basis for his exploration of the playwright’s outlooks toward language and dramatic presentation, Faas provides many useful insights about the seldom confronted—and daunting—topic of Shakespeare’s “poetic.” However, the author too frequently relies upon ironic readings to circumvent trouble spots in his interpretation, and often labors less controversial points. Thus, despite its value, the book makes for some slightly tedious reading.
Russell provides an interesting description of the actual commercial practices of Victorian England and compares various types of Victorian businessmen to their fictional counterparts. By restoring the social context for Victorian novelistic treatments of capitalism, Russell corrects easy generalizations about the novelists’ subversive perspective on capitalism. Dickens and Trollope, among others, were successful businessmen, and fiction-writing itself was a business. Unfortunately, Russell’s attempt to relate literature to life is not very sophisticated. He tends to see certain works, like those of Catherine Gore, as faithful sociohistorical transcriptions, while he claims other writers, including Dickens, depart from accurate transcriptions for their own thematic purposes. Most writers, of course, perform the second operation, more or less adeptly. Studies like Russell’s will help critics evaluate how writers depict their time in their transformations of it.
This study, which analyzes Victorian novelists’ use of personification and assertions of inexpressibility as polarized means of representing emotional conflict and crisis, is impressive in both range (Hardy begins with a survey of “pre-Victorians” such as Bunyan and Richardson and proceeds to Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, George Eliot, Hardy, and James) and depth, although one wishes the discussion were less compressed.
Smith’s book, part of a series called “Rereading Literature” (edited by Terry Eagleton) seeks to rescue Auden from those ideologues, Christian and Marxist, who feud over his corpus. The rescue is effected by transforming Auden into a conscious deconstructor of language and of the idea of the self. Auden’s political and religious chameleonism becomes, in Smith’s version, a sign of strength and continued commitment to a sort of generalized humanistic radicalism rather than a sign of weakness, confusion, or surrender. Painstaking readings of poems from the whole range of Auden’s career, all tricked out in the latest critical fashions, assure this book currency, but they make one wonder how stable its value will be.
“This anthology,” writes the editor, “is intended to illustrate the wide variety of spiritual teachings and lifestyles recorded by and about women, as well as to suggest what they had in common.” In time they range from the Early Church (St. Perpetua, d. A.D. 203, and St. Macrina, d. A.D. 379) through the Christianizing of Europe (Hugeberc, St. Leoba, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim), the early 12th century, the Beguine Movement, women in medieval Italy, 14th-century France, to women writers of the late 14th century—and here the names are more familiar: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pizan. The works included are remarkable in their range and devotion. Equally remarkable is the quality of all the translations. The long introduction on “The Visionary Tradition in Women’s Writing: Dialogue and Autobiography” is needed for an intelligent reading of the whole book and so are the introductions to each of the chapters.
Anyone familiar with Southern history knows that the region has experienced tremendous economic and cultural change in the 20th century. Sharecropper has given way to agribusinessman. A once-dominant rural society wanes in the face of urbanization. The revolution in black-white relations in the last 25 years has been unprecedented. Most would say that this transformation has been positive, but for Pete Daniel, who writes like a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Populist, the result has been bittersweet. New Deal programs forced poor sharecroppers from the farm to wage-paying jobs in the city, but in the process agrarian culture was destroyed. Mountain people in the Appalachians endured the same fate when mining and timber developers arrived. No doubt the revitalization of the South has caused social disruptions, some regrettable, but much of what we nostalgically mourn as losses was really not worth retaining anyway. The South is emerging from its status as “economic colony of the North,” a condition Southerners have long despised, and that, it seems, is good news indeed.
This collection of essays wrestles with the scholarly problems involved in extending the interests of modern social history back into the study of antiquity. The network of legal and customary obligations by which women and children were bound to their paterfamilias is often not clear or consistent or subject to easy generalization; the contributors work closely with the complicated evidence on such matters as inheritance, adoption, and servitude. The most accessible essay for nonspecialists is a narrative of Cicero’s financial troubles with a restive wife and an unhappily married daughter.
This book purports to be a history of the “Nazi Olympics” held in Berlin in 1936, but only a few chapters depict the competition. Even this scant attention is focused primarily on track and field events, where the feats of Jesse Owens highlighted the performances. Buried in the text is the fact that Germany garnered over 30 medals more than its nearest competitor, the United States. Because the author is an Englishman, page after page is devoted to Great Britain’s mediocre showing, with its 13-medal total. What was really important about the ‘36 Olympics was Hitler’s success in using the setting as a showcase for his “New Germany.” His efforts were rewarded when most foreign visitors went away from the games with a positive impression of the Third Reich. But other authors have already told this story in greater detail and with better documentation. Still books with pictures of Hitler and swastikas on the cover continue to sell, and this one probably will be no exception.
In the midst of a growing number of rather unsatisfactory political histories of the Soviet Union, here is a book with a new and more appropriate orientation: a rare balance of social history and politics. McClellan treats the experience of the Soviet public at the hands of the leviathan state, and he thus gives a good account of the question how the people lived—and suffered. Yet, in spite of the welcome new emphasis on social history, the coverage is relatively comprehensive, considering the scope of the book, on nearly the whole panoply of Soviet subjects. There are brief but reasonable accounts of foreign policy and cultural developments, and there is adequate description of such topics as Babi Yar, the Katyn Forest massacre, and the Warsaw uprising. The style of the book is narrative and descriptive, and this is one of its strengths. On the other hand, the selection of a narrative style of presentation (as of any other) necessarily entails some sacrifices, and what is sacrificed here is sufficient topical analysis to clarify fully the interplay of practical and ideological imperatives in three crucial policy decisions that made the Soviet regime what it is, i.e., War Communism, the New Economic Policy, and the first Five-Year Plan. (For this reason, it would be useful to accompany the book with Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, 1917—1932 , which deals analytically with those three decisions.) One other drawback is that the background of the revolution is treated too briefly to be comprehensible. The book is lucid and lively, engaging without being condescending or elementary.
Refuting both the Gaullist myth of the French Resistance and more recent contentions that the people of Occupied France more often than not collaborated with the Nazis, Sweets depicts a Vichy France in which the public, through passive rather than active resistance, made it impossible for the government of Marshal Pétain to establish itself as a viable member of Hitler’s “New Order” in Europe. Using data from in and around the city of Clermont-Ferrand, the largest town near Pétain’s capital of Vichy, the author pieces together a convincing account of the failure of the domestic fascist campaign to reshape the French nation. Interesting reading on a complex subject.
In the manner of French historians of mentalités, Schalk traces to the end of the 16th century the death of the medieval idea of nobility as military service (faire profession de la noblesse went the phrase), when, under the pressure of the Wars of Religion (which professionalized the military and led to an absolute state), nobility became a matter of birth alone, and the French nobleman’s obsession with sang began. Schalk’s evidence is necessarily scattered and fragmentary, and he has difficulty connecting ideas such as these with actual changes in practice, but this is a useful review of mental habits, if not of their real social effects.
It makes no sense to compare Stalin to any Western political figure of any generation, and to his credit Mr. de Jonge does not try. He concentrates instead on analogies with corporate politics. This approach offers some faint promise, but in the end it too fails as a device for understanding the greatest mass murderer of all time. De Jonge is a good writer but a rather inadequate researcher, and his book adds little to our knowledge.
One of America’s most distinguished historians is honored in this splendid collection of essays by some of his colleagues and former students. A masterful scholar, writer, and teacher, Professor Hale’s immense influence on a generation of scholars is fully revealed in this collective work, one that students of German and general European history will find invaluable.
Even specialists tend to forget that the February and October Revolutions were not limited to Petrograd and Moscow. Professor Raleigh of the University of Hawaii takes us to the Volga city of Saratov to watch the great upheaval at the local level. His meticulous research and his careful, scholarly examination of the data make this an unusually valuable study, the first one of the revolution in the provinces done by a non-Soviet historian.
In this book, the anthropologist’s craft and the historian’s method blend with each other and with readability. It is a history of life and love, from medieval times to modern. Based on a rich variety of contemporary evidence, the author vividly reconstructs the essentials of marriage and family: how and why and at what age people got married, after what courtship, and with what expectations. The reasons for having children and attitudes towards the sexes and generations are examined for different social classes and for different periods of time. Further, the book is an exploration of population stability and change in England, and of why the English experience in this domain differed radically from that of the rest of Europe.
This 1983 series of four Lamar Memorial lectures on Washington takes advantage of the new finds made possible through documentary history projects such as the Papers of George Washington. Higginbotham reveals a Washington whose experience in the militias, the British regular army, and the Virginia civil service resulted in a citizen-soldier with a penchant for submission of the military to civilian control—so necessary for America’s unsteady revolutionary Confederation—that has continued as an American value. Higginbotham adroitly probes Washington’s subsequent influence on the American military experience in a thoughtful essay on that 20th-century figure George Marshall.
The study of jurisprudence and the judiciary in an essentially lawless state is no easy task, and this is the main reason why we have not had a thorough study of the Soviet Bar until Professor Huskey’s book. The Bolsheviks sought to create an entirely new society, most certainly including a new legal system, and the manner in which they set about accomplishing this staggering task is revealed in this important and useful study.
Joan Jensen’s Loosening the Bonds is certain to become a widely-read, highly-valued monograph in historiography on women. By examining primary sources, quantitative charts, and material culture, Jensen argues that the women in rural Pennsylvania extended their domestic roles between 1750 to 1850, Jensen examines how the women increasingly controlled the size of their families, how their butter-making brought the domestic economy into the commercial economy, and the effect their roles as female Quaker ministers, teachers, and reformers had on their lives. Jensen’s book furnishes the first study of women in the mid-Atlantic region, and her sources and techniques make it state-of-the-art.
Cronin’s reappraisal of the negotiations leading up to the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 is a welcome addition to the present literature on the diplomatic history of the Cold War. Departing from the conventional interpretation of the Austrian settlement as the product of cooperation among bitter adversaries, the author stresses the importance of unilateral actions, especially on the part of the Soviet Union, in bringing about the allied evacuation of Austria and its establishment as a neutral state in the middle of a divided Europe.
Marxism continues to be useful as a sort of parlor game for historians long after its demise as a remotely credible socio-economic system. That may be because it was always more philosophy of history than anything else, a fact amply revealed in these stimulating, idiosyncratic essays by the Australian historian, R.S. Neale. Mr., Neale finds room for Marxist concepts in his examination of literature, social mores, living conditions, manners, and much more in British society, and he gives us some good chuckles along with his rather exotic history.
The first volume of Hill’s essays concerned literature and politics in the 17th century; Volume II takes up “Religion and Politics,” most brilliantly in an essay on “The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley” and “Til the Conversion of the Jews.” The earliest essays date from the 1960’s but are revised for this volume, and the whole demonstrates that detailed attention to specific figures and texts which makes Hill the most distinguished, and most useful, Marxist historian of the British Civil War period.
Hugh Swinton Legaré (1797—1843) was a South Carolina lawyer, diplomat, and politician, rising to be attorney general and acting secretary of state under Tyler; more importantly for O’Brien, he was one of the most important American intellectuals of his day, an astute critic of classical works, an admirer and interpreter of recent German writers, and one of the few American masters and advocates of the civil law. Slightly deformed since youth, he was drawn to the works of those who felt similar pains, such as the club-footed Byron. O’Brien gives more detail on Legaré’s critiques of various now-obscure intellectual figures than some readers would like and has a curious aversion to indenting block quotation—a major problem in a dense book heavy with samples of its subject’s work. Otherwise, this is an intelligent, insightful, and very subtle reappraisal of a man usually either ignored or puffed up as one of the greatest “Southern” geniuses. O’Brien’s Legaré is typical of nothing, an eccentric (though respected) figure even in Charleston; even his defense of slavery was unique (and halfhearted). O’Brien calls this a “character” rather than a “life and times”—an effort to understand a man without sacrificing the integrity of a past life to score historiographical points or make unwarranted cultural generalizations; in that aim, this “character” succeeds admirably.
Everyone keeps hoping a decent biography of Henry will emerge. God knows people have tried. They usually start with enthusiasm but wane terribly in the home stretch. Indeed, the paucity of Henry’s papers (of all the top-rung Founding Fathers, he left the fewest) makes the task insuperable. Chalk this latest attempt down as somewhere between a “show” and an “also ran.” Eschewing footnotes, the author appears to have gained most of his knowledge from secondary works and the reader suffers accordingly. Some of the choice material is missing, e.g., the Teachers of Christian Religion bill that was Henry’s pet project in 1784 is ignored, as is the enmity of Jefferson and his wonderful statement to Madison that “we must pray for his death,” after being resigned to Henry’s dominance of the Virginia General Assembly. The intimation that Henry forced the Bill of Rights on the reluctant Federalists is poppycock, but apparently the author does not know much about either George Mason or James Madison. It is never fair to judge a book by what the author did not intend. But here we see a classic case of the author tackling an assignment without full preparation. One need not be a Dumas Malone and take 40 years to do a biography, but it does help to be familiar with the period and all the adversaries of the subject. This is the main failure of A Son of Thunder.
If the publication of letters marks the recognition that an individual has become a public figure, there is perhaps no more certain sign that that individual has ceased to be one of our celebrities, or contemporaries, than the publication of an edition like Kelly and Domville’s. Yeats has now formally become a part of “the tradition.” The number of letters come to light since Wade’s 1954 Letters dwarfs that earlier edition. This first volume alone rivals it in size—and there are to be 12 or more altogether. What with its bountiful notes and photographs, the completed project will enable us to see a Yeats heretofore known only to intimates and biographers.
Of the 12 Hogarth Letters commissioned by Leonard and Virginia Woolf and written and published separately between 1931 and 1933, and as a book in 1933, very few add anything to the reputation of the writer, be he E.M. Forster or Peter Quennell. Even Virginia Woolf’s “Letter to a Young Poet” cannot stack up against many of her other essays. And several of the Letters are, to put it mildly, very dull indeed. This is hardly a necessary book— but then how many among the thousands produced annually are?
It is not surprising that every new generation of historians has rediscovered Benjamin Franklin; he truly cuts a unique figure in American history. Recall that he was already 70 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Though a successful member of the colonial establishment and a confirmed Anglophile, he became international spokesman for the Revolution. Indeed, before and after the war, he served as principal ambassador for his countrymen in the courts of London and Paris. And all the while, he enhanced his reputation as scientist, inventor and writer. Esmond Wright, with characteristic grace and style, shows us many sides of the multifaceted Franklin in an elegant, one-volume biography. Read Franklin of Philadelphia and the Autobiography and you will take a giant step in understanding the significance of this legendary American.
Most of us are familiar with the life and demise of Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who married Tsar Nicholas II, and her infatuation with Rasputin. This is the parallel tale of her older sister Elizabeth, who married the Grand Duke Serge and likewise died violently after a royal but miserable existence. Our lives seem happily dull by comparison.
With all the excitement of genuine and important discovery, Robert Viscusi makes the first sustained case for Max Beerbohm as a writer with epic ambitions and complexity of content. By blending biography and criticism in order to delineate true “dandyism,” Viscusi builds to a fresh reading of Zuleika Dobson which places that book in a wider literary tradition than we had ever suspected—and despite his weakness for Lacanian formulations, Viscusi’s startling readings persuade.
This collection of letters contains Henry Miller’s complete correspondence to Brenda Venus, an aspiring actress, seductive both in her mysterious though striking beauty and in possessing a mind that is quite open to the full range of sexual suggestion, The letters cover Miller’s last years, from 1976 to 1980, and though he is an old man, it is quite obvious that this is the same Henry Miller who wrote The Tropic of Cancer. Miller’s lesson to Venus is that art should dare to be free. For Miller, art is inextricably wound around sex. The letters communicate the fire of Miller’s carnal spirit, and his desire is heightened and teased by the fact that he and Venus never consummate their sexual affair in the flesh. For all Miller’s boldness, it is Brenda Venus’ presence and sometimes not so subtle encouragement that fills Miller with an insatiable lust for life. This is a moving book, and the commentary by Brenda Venus as well as the inclusion of photos of her and Miller, make the volume complete.
Waiting for Nothing is a series of taut, mean vignettes of life on the bum in the United States of 50 years ago. It is written in a nervous, repetitive prose, long on honesty, but short on art, hope, or emotional relief. You can learn from it, if you please, how to make a “stew” out of bologna butts and bread crusts or how (or how not) to survive a ride in a boxcar salted with psychopaths, but you are more likely to learn the taste of a proletarian despair so dark and bitter that it seems almost frivolous to call it nihilistic. In other words, whether it is a novel, as it is commonly called, or autobiography, or some combination of the two, Waiting for Nothing has the ring of a strange sort of masterpiece and classic. It is unmistakably American, but equally unmistakably the only book of its kind. Professors Casciato and West are to be commended for their part in its latest resurfacing (it does resurface periodically, like a bad conscience) and for establishing the rest of the canon of one of our truly fugitive writers—an American Villon, as one might find him, but without recourse to learning or to sensual delights, not even forbidden ones. Kromer’s book demands to be read and known.
This ambitious and overwritten account seeks to inspire “the sympathetic smile of critical understanding,” and Fox does succeed in conveying the extraordinary richness and vitality of Niebuhr’s career. But the depth and profundity of Niebuhr’s thought is more often invoked than explored or analyzed; the reader is frequently left with potted summaries (about four pages are devoted to the substance of The Nature and Destiny of Man), paraphrases of contemporary reviews, and brisk retrospective judgments. Still, the account of the circumstances surrounding each book and phase of Niebuhr’s life is lively and comprehensive—in the “story” aspect of biography Fox excels. His larger conclusion, that Niebuhr lived out “a pattern of paradoxes and a sequence of ironies,” ultimately seems a bit facile: but perhaps a figure as varied and fascinating as Niebuhr defies summary characterization.
Cowper’s remarkable story has been the subject of many a sentimental biography in the past. James King, editor of Cowper’s letters and prose works for the Clarendon Press, neither overlooks the poet’s human frailities nor adopts a condescending attitude: the poet is permitted to speak for himself through generous quotation from a vast correspondence. For those familiar with Cowper’s work this biography will provide a wealth of new information; for the general reader it will tell a compelling story and illuminate a vast domain of neglected English poetry that has given great pleasure in the past and can do so again.
Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz, was the most elusive of the Nazi war criminals who fled Europe after World War II. His diabolical “medical experiments” on concentration camp inmates, especially on children, made him a special target of Nazi hunters who trailed him for over 30 years. Yet they never found him, and many viewed Mengele as superhuman, an expert at evading capture. Reporters and novelists created a Mengele legend, depicting him living in Paraguay with that government’s sanction on an estate surrounded by a bodyguard of storm troopers. This book, based on extensive interviews with those who knew Mengele and on the diaries and letters of the fugitive, tells a different story. Mengele was a lonely, paranoid man who lived in near squalor. While he resided in Paraguay for a few years, he spent most of his exile in Brazil, where he drowned in 1979. The world has only recently learned of his death, a fact that a multinational team of forensic experts has confirmed. While the legend has been debunked, there is no doubt that Mengele was responsible for the crimes he was accused of committing. To the end, he was an unrepentant Nazi who blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and for his own personal suffering.
This biography conveys vividly and with considerable charm and wit a sense of the social world of the distinguished American portrait painter. Stanford White, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Isabella Stewart Gardner are but a few of the fascinating characters who appear here. A critical biography, however, this is not. We get no sense from this book of the psychological complexity and brilliance of Sargent’s mind reflected in his art.
In Bess W. Truman Margaret Truman studies nearly one thousand unpublished letters that document her parents’ lives, marriage, and Bess Truman’s behind-the-scenes influence on Truman’s presidency. Margaret Truman focuses on Bess Truman’s father’s suicide to explain her mother’s attitudes toward the press, politics, and private life. This theme becomes hackneyed throughout the 400-page biography, and the author’s relationship to her subject obscures her journalistic objectivity.
The first story in Lee K. Abbott’s collection of short fiction is about storytelling and love, pursuits that writers always wish to invest with what Abbott calls “sweep and miracle.” The astonishing thing about Abbott’s stories is that, for all their playfulness and humor, they do just that: they grab a reader and take him along for a big ride and a heartfelt lesson, His characters move, act, and speak often “supported only by a wish and a marvel, and a near miss with love,” and they are compelling even in their most foolish posturing. And whether he is writing about soldiers in Vietnam, lovers, rock stars or a gang of outrageously charming bank robbers, Abbott’s linguistic power is impressive. His sentences seem to flower and bloom with sheer exuberance, releasing words and intentions into a rich space above logic, a space wrought by pure, romping imagination. But make no mistake. Abbott is more than a word wizard, more than a fired-up poet exploding phrase and rhythm. One would be wrong to take Mr. Abbott and his fiction as anything less than fresh and innovative.
If the short pieces collected here had been the main part of Virginia Woolf’s work, she would not be numbered among even the minor writers of her time. These stories have a certain interest because of the author, but they do not chronicle her development as a writer half as clearly as her diaries—or even her letters. Even the liveliest of them seems faded and tired.
The dust jacket of this novel set in Mexico from 1911 to 1914 invites comparison to The Jewel in the Crown to suggest its hypnotic power. Veracruz is an expansive, luxuriant book with some arresting images, beautiful descriptions of places, and a rich sense of the “correspondence between people” (mainly of a dyadic kind). But the comparison of these two works rings true mainly because both are about privileged foreigners abroad in a time of political trouble, and neither does especially well with its native characters. Mexico and its principal port of Veracruz are treated as places of improbable stories and exotic decay, well-suited to the author’s fascination with spiritualism, nagualism, and Francisco Madero. Mexico is setting rather than subject.
Reverend Simeon Simcox, left-wing rector, perversely willed his fortune to right-wing Leslie Titmuss, M.P., the working-class boy who once cleared nettles in the rectory garden. The rector’s widow and two sons inherit nothing. As elder son Henry tries to prove his father insane, younger son Fred tries to discover the truth. Mortimer unfolds this mystery, over-populated by Dickensian characters, against a backdrop of historical events, laying bare society’s hypocrisies and self-deceptions. He keeps the reader mystified, if mildly irritated by sudden switches in point-of-view and a trick of waving crucial evidence in front of us without allowing a peek. “Life must be lived forwards,” he quotes Kierkegaard, “but it can only be understood backwards.” Thus, time slides noiselessly back and forth from WW II to the present. Mortimer sustains a tone of detached, arch tolerance, sparked with comic touches. But when he briefly drops his satiric pen to describe a “blood” initiation rite, he writes one of the finest passages in the book.
The beginning (which is the end of this story) and the end of this book do not quite fit together. This is not entirely explained by the fact that most of the story is told from the point of view of a child who has, as children in fiction can have, an extraordinary memory though a limited understanding. But the book as a whole reads well; the settings, especially those in the Isle of Wight, are vivid; and some of the characters, like Granny Belmayne, can be described as unforgettable.
Peter Dickinson never repeats himself. When he uses again a two-tier story, it has nothing in common in concept or working-out or background with any earlier work. Tefuga is laid in Nigeria. Half of the story takes place today and deals with the making of a film about people and actions that took place 60 years ago. The film maker is the son of a woman who came to Africa then with her husband, a colonial administrator, and whose diary is the basis for the film. This does not give you any idea of the color and complexity of Tefuga. It must be read—and perhaps reread—to be appreciated.
A. N. Wilson is fast emerging as one of the most prolific men of letters in England today. And with this, his 12th book, he continues to maintain the high quality of his writing. Gentlemen in England is set in Victorian England, but it is not what we think of as a Victorian novel. Unlike John Fowles, for example, Wilson makes no effort to recreate the conventions of Victorian fiction in order to deal with Victorian life. Thus Gentlemen in England is not another The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But in his own way Wilson demonstrates a profound affinity with the Victorian world he writes about. Wilson is particularly interested in the Victorian crisis of faith, no doubt because he sees the parallels between 19th-century responses to the problem and our own. But as serious as the themes Wilson deals with may be, he has not lost his comic touch in this novel. And with its large and varied cast of characters, Gentlemen in England reveals Wilson to be maturing as a novelist, learning to portray a richer fictional world. On the basis of this performance, we should await Wilson’s next novel with keen anticipation, and judging by past experience, we should not have to wait very long.
Originally published in Argentina in 1974, Yo el Supremo was arguably until the appearance of this volume the most important work of Latin American fiction awaiting translation into English. Now Helen Lane has made this rich and complex work available in an excellent translation, thus filling out our picture of the extraordinary range of achievement in Latin American literature. (This is surely the greatest work of fiction ever to come out of Paraguay.) I have one complaint—the decision to translate the novel’s title literally may have been a mistake. “Yo el Supremo” sounds perfectly idiomatic in Spanish, but “I the Supreme” sounds awkward to English ears, and, besides, might lead the unwary reader to expect this to be the autobiography of Diana Ross. But despite the unfortunate English title, this book is worthy to stand beside such by now accepted classics of Latin American fiction as García Marquez’ The Autumn of the Patriarch or Carpentier’s Reasons of State. The dictator has been the curse of Latin American political life, but as Roa Bastos proves with his story of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia—”elected” Supreme Dictator for Life in Paraguay in 1814—the distinctive Latin American form of tyranny makes a fascinating subject for fiction.
It would seem to make no sense, even for the KGB. The Soviet secret police had already wrung every scrap of information from Caroline Oates and, having done that, they injected her with drugs that reduced her to a catatonic state. But kill her they did, and her former lover, a British MI6 agent, is determined to find out why, and to avenge her death. An extraordinarily convoluted game unfolds in this, one of the very best thrillers in recent memory. Bryan Forbes is a superb storyteller.
Imaginary Lands is an inspired anthology. The unifying idea here is “a strong sense of location” for each fantasy story. And from the West Coast-like setting in James Blaylock’s “Paper Dragons” to the editor’s beautiful Damar in “The Stone Fey,” each story is strikingly placed. If you have never heard of James P. Blaylock, Patricia A. McKillip, Robert Westall, Peter Dickinson, Jane Yolen, P.C. Hodgell, Michael de Larrabeiti, Joan D. Vinge, or Imaginary Lands’ editor, Robin McKinley, reading this anthology makes it apparent that no real fantasy aficionado should be without this work—or, finally, without works by each fantasist. Each and every story is a jewel.
Recipe for success. Take one Watergate defrocked high-ranking government official (John Ehrlichman). Have him create imaginary conversations between fictitious characters (an ambitious lawyer and his two lovers) and real leading figures on the world scene (Richard Nixon; Alexander Haig; John Mitchell; Henry Kissinger; Chou En-lai; Mao Tse-tung) in an historic event (the rapprochement in the sixties between the United States and the People’s Republic of China). Add a liberal dose of sex. Mix well with alleged accurate behind-the-door scenes of how the government bureaucracy really works. And you have an instant best-seller espionage thriller which even includes, for good measure, a mole in the White House. In this, the author’s fourth book, he proves he has really mastered his craft. The legal profession may have lost a lawyer, but we are the fortunate beneficiaries of a new literary lion.
A rich American widow and her maid are found murdered. A slow-witted delivery boy is accused of the murders. But Maigret is not convinced. A brilliant but psychologically warped Czech medical student hints that he knows what really happened. The whole story is a bit of tease—more interesting as a cardboard psychological novel than as a thriller. The conclusion is rather anti-climactic. Simenon did not gain his fame for such confections as this.
Ben Janis, the hero of James Atlas’ novel The Great Pretender, is at once spurred on and weighted down by his father’s highbrow intellectuality. As Atlas vividly details the life of suburban Chicago and Harvard in the late 1960’s, Ben transforms his father’s drive into his own philistinistic ambition for fame and fun, creativity and experience, and, of course, girls. Atlas evokes the ambiance of a youth’s grappling with American and Jewish culture. Enhanced by precise character development and the moral meanderings of its protagonist, The Great Pretender is an honest, witty, and often funny novel.
Argentine author Omar Rivabella has written a novel about political repression in an unnamed South American country, a story so horrible that one suspects it is more fact than fiction. It is not for the faint of heart or for those with weak stomachs. The story is about a priest, an advocate of liberation theology, who is given the diary of a young woman held by right-wing military authorities. The diary was written on scraps of paper, and as the priest pieces it together, he uncovers a tale of unimaginable brutality. While the book is a tribute to the spirit of the thousands of “the missing” in Argentina, the depressing realization that events similar to these actually happened and are probably occurring elsewhere in the world today overrides the book’s uplifting aspects.
Marguerite Duras’s writing reminds one of the late Red Smith’s simple advice on how to write: just sit at your typewriter, open a vein, and let it out, drop by drop. The first part of The War is Duras’ diary written in April 1945, as she awaits her husband’s return from a concentration camp. This brief, personal, harrowing account of her anguish, and finally of his return—stunned, emaciated, unrecognizable, near death—expresses the entire war. The second piece recounts Duras’ cat-and-mouse game with a Gestapo agent as they toy with each other at the edge of death. The third, also true, is an account of her interrogation of an informer, a graphic dramatization of violence and cruelty feeding on each other, eroding humanity and truth, leaving only guilt. The three other pieces in the book, two of which are fiction, are weaker. Duras writes in an unmannered prose, so spare its very stylelessness is itself a style, using cinematic, fragmented technique, and providing brief introductions to each piece, like stage directions. She is the author of The Lover and the filmscript Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
While many of the archival papers from the 1970s will remain closed for another several decades, Yale historian Gaddis Smith has relied on the many documents and personal memoirs already available to produce an excellent overview and analysis of American diplomacy under President Carter. Although Carter was not the first President to face the issues of nuclear disarmament, conflict in the Middle East, Third World revolutions, and energy conservation, his years in office were unique because of the “multiplicity and intensity” of those issues. Well-balanced in his assessment of the choices Carter and his advisors made, Smith nonetheless concludes that Carter fell far short of meeting the challenge they represented. His emphasis on human rights—a measure of Carter’s own integrity as an individual— proved to be an ineffective tool in a world indifferent to matters of morality. But even worse was Carter’s attitude of “repentance and reform,” which when applied to foreign affairs created an image of national weakness. When some Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran and held the American citizens there hostage, this image was soon transformed into one of impotence—thereby ensuring the Reagan landslide of 1980.