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Notes on Current Books, Autumn 1988


ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

The Great Depression remains one of the great unexplained mysteries of our economic past. What were its origins? Why did it reach such depths and continue so long? Was it really so bad? Was it preventable? This book offers a new interpretation of one part of this problem. Michael Bernstein rejects standard (political and economic) explanations for the persistence of the Depression after 1933. It was not the New Deal, nor the Federal Reserve, nor secular stagnation that enervated the American economy of the 1930’s. The crisis originated instead in the need for a radical transformation in American capitalism to meet the burgeoning needs of a mature affluent consumer society. The bank and stock market failures of 1929—1931 had undermined the ability of the financial sector to respond to these new needs. The result, continued depression. This is a bold and novel reinterpretation of an important phase in American economic history. It should stimulate considerable debate among both economic and political historians.

A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution, by Marc Egnal. Cornell $36.95

This new interpretation of the American Revolution locates the dynamics of the movement for independence in factional disputes in 18th-century colonial politics. Tracing the history of the five largest colonies after 1690, Egnal finds a theme of consistent conflict within the colonial elite between groups he designates as “expansionists” and “nonexpansionists.” The former were optimistic about America’s future and were to lead the colonies into independence; the latter were more conservative and thus displaced as Loyalists. The case is argued vigorously, but it includes some significant exceptions. Some will wonder, too, if Egnal’s conception of politics is not too narrow to do justice to the subject.

The Course of French History, by Pierre Goubert. Franklin Watts $26.95

This masterful narrative of French history combines political history with the insights into social and cultural history which have been the hallmark of French historiography since the Second World War. For Goubert, political and diplomatic history are conditioned by economic and social realities. It is his clear-eyed recognition of these realities that gives a hard edge to his discussion of the French Empire and DeGaulle’s France. This book is a pleasure to read.

Rhetoric and History in Revolutionary New England, by Donald Weber. Oxford $22.50

Weber has spent countless hours reading handwritten sermons delivered by 18th-century Puritan ministers. What he discovered is that the “New Light” ministers— followers of Jonathan Edwards—were actively involved in fanning the flames of their parishioners’ revolutionary fervor. That’s where he diverges from two centuries of received opinion. But the book is most exciting when Weber demonstrates the actual rhetorical changes these sermons undergo as society’s primary spokesmen tried to exhort their audience to act, at the same time as they tried to contain the rebellion and the uncertain future propagated by it. Weber’s portrait is of a ministry befuddled and, eventually, deprived of social power—but, nonetheless, sincere in their desire to achieve a sacred nation. This book is an important contribution to the study of revolutionary rhetoric.

Later Victorian Britain, 1867—1900, edited by T.R. Gourvish and Alan O’Day. St. Martin’s $39.95

This is no work of synthesis but a balanced collection of interpretive essays. Topics range from science and the professions to political parties and foreign policy to women, the Irish, and the Salvation Army. The book reflects the growing attentiveness to the role of the state in social and economic history.

American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876—1980, by Lawrence A. Cremin. Harper & Row $35

The third and final volume of Lawrence Cremin’s history of American education brings to a close one of those rare projects that is both successful and yet seems far beyond the scope of a single individual. The bibliographical essay alone could represent a decade’s worth of work for the average scholar. Cremin’s subject is the effect of urbanization on American schools, but his book is actually a history of modern America, focused on education in all its manifestations: schools, literacy, mass media, family life, religious life, and occupational life. As such, Cremin’s work should be useful to scholars in any area of the humanities and the social sciences. American Education is comprehensive, authoritative, and a pleasure to read.

Myths about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572—1576, by Robert M. Kingdon. Harvard $30

The savage massacre of French Protestants in 1572 may not seem to be of much immediacy in the late 20th-century. Yet parallels to Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and South Asia are obvious. Kingdon shows how the event and myths about it helped to separate and define social and political groups during the French Wars of Religion. Victims became martyrs and symbols around which the resistance could be organized; Catholics became untrustworthy villains. At a more profound level, the massacre and its aftermath forced political thinkers to confront the nature of political authority, individual rights of resistance, and the rights of minorities. At this level Kingdon’s narrative instructs and challenges thoughtful readers.

United States Expansionism and British North America, 1775—1871, by Reginald C. Stuart. North Carolina $37.95

In this broad-ranging study, Stuart divides a century of Canadian-American relations into three periods. The first was the pre-1815 era of “defensive expansionism” when Americans were concerned with the threats posed by Canada as a British base. The second was the mid-century phase of “Manifest Destiny,” during which shared values and interests, reinforced by American power, were perceived as leading to the union of the British provinces and the American states. The third period, culminating in the Reciprocity Treaty of 1871, saw an acceptance of the fact that two nations would share North America. The profusion of opinions in the book often defeats its thesis, and American visions of their northern neighbor always reflected their own aspirations as much as they did any Canadian realities.

A Society Organized for War: The Iberian Municipal Militias in the Central Middle Ages, 1000—1284, by James F. Powers. California $45

Unlike most of the rest of feudal Europe, the Spanish kingdoms created a war machine based largely on urban militias which were essential factors in the reconquest of Spain. Service in a militia offered young Spaniards the same sort of opportunities for advancement that commerce provided in other parts of medieval Europe. In fascinating chapters on organization, equipment, and tactics, Powers tells the story of this unusual institution.

Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935—1941, by Lewis H. Siegelbaum. Cambridge $34.50

Gorbachev wonders how to get his people to work harder, produce more, and endure still worse shortages for the sake of a better life over the horizon. Stalin had the answers: terrorize the population, then concoct a few model workers and give them enormous rewards in the hope of inspiring the rest. Gorbachev so far seems disinclined to follow either course, although he leans toward the second. In this fine study, Professor Siegelbaum tells the story of Stalin’s ultimately successful attempt to raise productivity sufficiently to enable the country to defend itself. Warmly recommended.

A History of Their Own, by Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser. Harper & Row $27.50

This is a large volume in what is now the overwritten history of women in the Western Middle Ages. The attempt by the authors to put women into focus by redefining the chronology and traditional concepts of European history may have some interest as a novel approach, but it leaves the reader frustrated and confused. The peasant woman, the noble woman, the woman in religious orders, and the woman in the town are dealt with from the period of the invasions to the 17th century through a long string of facts and figures by which the reader is invited to compare their lives. The basic forces which shaped the social outlook and legal structure are lost sight of in the superabundance of illustrative incidents. The discussion of childbearing, for instance, which remained virtually the same for all classes over a long period is padded with references, while important aspects of female status, such as women’s rights in land, are neglected. The number of errors suggests some haste in compilation; Benton on the courts of love, and Cohn on witchcraft are absent from the bibliography. To be sure, there are a great many points of interest in the course of this long narrative, but it falls disappointingly short of the scholarly analysis which would be of great value. The concern of the authors is to show how the lives of women were related to and shaped by the lives of men. But there is little that is new, except that the title of the book is, therefore, made to belie its contents.

German Resistance to Hitler, by Peter Hoffmann. Harvard $25 cloth, $9.95 paper

Ask a reasonably well-informed American to name one incident of resistance to the Nazis, and he or she will most likely mention the 1944 attempt to blow the Führer to kingdom come. Ask Germans under the age of 60 the same question and they may not even know that. Rarely has a people so solidly united behind a madman as in Germany 1933—1945, but a resistance did in fact exist, and in this scholarly but simultaneously popularized account, Professor Hoffmann of Canada’s McGill University tells its story sympathetically, even movingly.

The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray, by Abraham Ascher. Stanford $39.50

What would be a monumental upheaval in most countries is in Russia usually a rehearsal for something still worse. Thus it was with the events of 1905, which delivered a savage blow to the bent, creaking back of tsarism but unfortunately did not break it. Nicholas II and his advisors patched here, shored up there, and staved off disaster for another dozen years. This story has often been told but rarely so incisively and definitely as in Mr. Ascher’s new study.

The Politics of Terror: The Macedonian Revolutionary Movements, 1893—1903, by Duncan M. Perry. Duke $29.75

If today’s headlines and television pictures out of Israel look pretty grim, consider Macedonia at the turn of the century. Beheadings were the norm, disemboweling of pregnant women a mere variation on a theme, and flaying alive not unknown. All the passions of East and West were briefly concentrated in that little-known land shared today by Yugoslavia, Greece, and Bulgaria but dominated by Ottoman Turk social codes. No wonder the French call a hopelessly mixed salad a macédoine. Professor Perry of Maryland has written a superb study.

Tartars of the Crimea: Their Struggle for Survival, edited by Edward Allworth. Duke $52.50

It is best not to call them “Tartars.” They are a fiercely proud people who are descended from Genghis Khan, and even though Stalin uprooted all half-million of them from their homeland and shipped them off to inhospitable regions, they have retained their national identity and determination to return to the Crimea. In this book, a number of academic experts examine the “Tartar question” that is just one of the many nationality problems bedevilling the Gorbachev regime. An excellent study.

LITERARY STUDIESAmerican Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel. Louisiana $27.50

Festschrift volumes are normally greeted with politely muffled yawns, which is perhaps what they usually deserve. But here is a rare exception, a collection of superb essays on American culture offered by a panel of contributors who are virtually a Who’s Who of masters in the field. It is a tribute to the brilliance of Lewis Simpson’s own thought that he can claim such diverse admirers as the New Critic Cleanth Brooks, the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, the poet Daniel Hoffman, and Sacvan Bercovitch, the student of American Puritanism—all of whom contribute fine essays here. And it is a reflection of the importance of Simpson’s great subject—the relation between American history and the American republic of letters—that all the contributors to the collection are able to explore it fruitfully in essays which cover Cotton Mather’s Magnolia Christi Americana, Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and much of the territory in between. As rarely occurs in such collections, the virtues of this book really do reflect those of the man it honors.

Shakespeare and the Denial of Death, by James L. Calderwood. Massachusetts $12.95

This ambitious but somewhat rambling study shows how Shakespeare presents man attempting to deny death through “immortality projects” involving such diverse human inventions as clothing and ritual. The generality of Calderwood’s theme forces him to find examples of it throughout the plays, and his book often feels like an unconnected catalog of the memento morí in the Shakespearean corpus. But when the diffuseness of Mr. Calderwood’s deadly rubric fades to the background, he turns in some fine interpretations of individual plays, such as his powerful demonstration of the procreative function of metaphor in The Merchant of Venice.

Christina Rossetti in Context, by Antony H. Harrison. North Carolina $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper

Antony Harrison takes Christina Rossetti seriously and uses a good deal of her poetry to show her worth and artistry. It is too bad that he did not clarify and refine his own style to match hers. Example of his: “Such contextualization also enables enhanced perceptions of the “meaning,” relative canonical value, and reception history of her work” (p.23). Granted that this sentence is taken out of context and that his whole aim and purpose is to place her and her work in context, his pedantic, heavy, laborious, and dull style and way of thought counteract his intention and leave Christina Rossetti stranded in her place as a minor Victorian.

The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties, by Paul Breslin. Chicago $27.50

This important book subjects the leading American poets of recent decades to a scrutiny as lucidly expounded and as patiently critical as they have yet received. Breslin traces from the conformity critics of 50’s culture a conflation of private with public motives that is common to the work of three schools—Confessional (Ginsberg, Lowell, Plath), Deep Image (Bly, Merwin, Wright), and Black Mountain (Olson, Levertov, Duncan)—and concludes with an assessment of Ashbery and the current climate. In all these figures Breslin decries the impoverishment of moral intelligence that results when subjective and objective categories are merged; and he praises where he can those strands in recent poetry that make room for narrative understanding and detailed reference to the world. The chapters on the Deep Image and Black Mountain schools are provocatively, infectiously unsympathetic. If these group analyses are more compelling than Breslin’s chapters on individual poets, that may be because the latter betray a certain preference for the “psycho” over the “political.” Marx no less than Freud offers a “contextual, secular, and historical” alternative to the confusions that have passed current for poetic radicalism; yet Breslin’s largely uncritical adoption of a Freudian apparatus constrains his vision of politically engaged writing. Still, his discriminating advocacy of a psychopolitical poetics that relates personal to societal life—rather than just identifying the two—remains exemplary.

Recognitions: A Study in Poetics, by Terence Cave. Oxford $79

To borrow a word from the author’s last book, this work is a sort of “cornucopia.” As a study of the Aristotelian concept of an “agnorisis” or recognition, it ranges over texts from antiquity through the modern, from Homer to Sherlock Holmes. Compendious and infinitely various, it is a book to be consulted, not to be read through cover to cover.

Fictions of the Feminine: Puritan Doctrine and the Representation of Women, by Margaret Olofson Thickstun. Cornell $19.95

Thickstun intends a dispassionate appraisal and critique of the Puritan portrait of women: “Only by approaching [Puritan literature] from within the Pauline context can criticism effectively expose the true shape of both their oppression and fascination.” Unfortunately her interpretation of Paul’s theology reveals groundless biases that distort her argument and persistently undercut her persuasiveness. Still, Thickstun attempts an argument that is decidedly more intelligent and less raucous than those of the radical feminists. After creating her own “hermeneutics of suspicion” in her examination of Paul, she considers the fictional representations of women in The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, and continues her study into the post-Puritan period by studying Clarissa and The Scarlet Letter. This is a study that could be done, and should be done, but with a more even hand and a less constricting agenda.

The Southern Review and Modern Literature, 1935—1985, edited by Lewis P. Simpson, James Olney, and Jo Gulledge. Louisiana $30

This gathering of essays, talks, and symposium transcripts stems from a conference held at Louisiana State University in 1985 to celebrate The Southern Review. More than the proceedings of a conference, it is less than a coherent volume. It is a miscellany, a medley, a hodgepodge of reflections by Lewis Simpson, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, among others, on Southern culture, on T. S. Eliot and the South, on publishing in the South, on the Afro-American writer in the South, and more.

Scott, Chaucer and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott’s Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages, by Jerome Mitchell. Kentucky $27

Scott’s achievement in the Waverley novels was to invent a medieval fantasy world in which the virtues of chivalry and right order could be set against the vices of modern materialism in a carefully crafted story. His appeal to the reader lies largely in the shared longing for the primitivism of a civilization long dead in which all that was honorable, loyal, dutiful, and heroic was retrieved and offered as a moral lesson. The question of what medieval texts Scott knew and how he used them is central to a study of his works, and it has been dealt with by many scholars over the years. Mitchell’s contribution is basically a catalogue of the romance and Chaucerian sources for Scott’s narrative poems and the novels. Plot summaries are provided, and his debt, whether real or imagined, to earlier authors, through imagery, versification, and description, is discussed. It is often difficult, however, to make a convincing case for conscious use. Similarities, analogues, and parallels are not the same as derivations. Medieval motifs, as well as pseudomedieval motifs, are so richly woven into Scott’s writing that it would require a far more meticulous analysis to elucidate them. Even then, it is doubtful if we would be in a better position to judge the value of the oeuvre. Nevertheless (an infelicitous prose style aside), this is a book which will be of use to students in need of a reliable guide to Scott’s vast knowledge of the late medieval texts.

Coleridge and Wordsworth, by Paul Magnuson. Princeton $35

Here is a study of Coleridge and Wordsworth that will set the terms for further debate and criticism. By approaching the poetry of both authors as the product of an ongoing dialogue, Professor Magnuson challenges our assumptions about what constitutes a poem. For behind any published poem exists a complex web of filiations that link it to other poems, both published and in manuscript. Magnuson traces the silent genealogies that unite the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge, bringing to bear a considerable familiarity with their neglected beginnings in manuscript. The result is an unusually dynamic analysis of the development of two seminal bodies of work—important and rewarding reading for all interested in Coleridge, Wordsworth, and their dialogue of texts.

Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann: A Study in the Sociology of Literature, by Judith Marcus. Massachusetts $20

Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann are two of the greatest figures of 20th-century intellectual and cultural life; moreover, their involvement in the great historical and political currents of our age makes them profoundly representative figures as well. Thus the fact that the careers of these two men were curiously intertwined makes a study of their relationship a fascinating subject. They were so different in temperament and outlook that it would be wrong to describe them as close friends; nevertheless, they respected and admired each other, they corresponded, and it is doubtful that cither’s career would have taken quite the course it did without the other’s influence. In specific terms, Lukács wrote some of the most penetrating criticism of Mann and was one of his great champions; by the same token Lukács provided the model for the character of Leo Naphta in The Magic Mountain, one of Mann’s most complex creations. Drawing upon archival material and interviews with Lukács, Katya Mann, Ernst Bloch, and others, Marcus has done an excellent job of illuminating her subject. The book includes as appendices several interesting brief texts by Lukács and Mann which contribute to our understanding of their relationship.

T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism, by Richard Shusterman. Columbia $35

The overwhelming majority of books on T.S. Eliot are, understandably, those of literary scholars. These ignore a fundamental fact—that Eliot’s early training and interest were in philosophy. This philosophically rigorous account of Eliot’s work traces his development within a philosophic framework and defends his critical theory against Marxist and post-structuralist critics. It is, as well, a commentary on contemporary literary theory and philosophy.

From the New Criticism to Deconstruction, by Art Berman. Illinois $32.50 cloth, $12.95 paper

This book is about the various attempts to absorb, integrate, and transform structuralism and post-structuralism in the Anglo-American literary scene. Each of these attempts is viewed as reflecting a basic need in Anglo-American theory to legitimate criticism as a form of knowledge, to understand the relationship between literary language and all language, and to maintain the creative entity of self.

Coleridge’s “Dejection”: The Earliest Manuscripts and the Earliest Printings, edited by Stephen Maxfield Parrish. Cornell $29.95

Devoting a whole book of some 142 pages to the text of a lyric poem which in its most familiar version runs to 139 lines may seem like a publishing extravagance, but readers may rest assured that this volume does not consist of slightly less than one line of Coleridge’s Dejection per page. Dejection is a poem with an unusually complex history of composition and publication, and by reproducing every known version of the work, together with facsimiles of the manuscripts, this volume will help students of Coleridge to understand the mysteries of one of his supreme poetic achievements. Originally cast as a verse letter to Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Dejection in its later forms was revised to conceal its intensely personal significance. The earlier versions offer unique insights into the nature of Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth, giving vent to his ambivalent feelings about their creative partnership, a relation in which Coleridge obviously felt inspired but also unfortunately overshadowed. Scholarly editions of this nature may often seem designed purely for specialists, but this is one case where any reader interested in Coleridge will have much to gain from having Dejection available in all the stages of its composition and publication.

LIVES & LETTERSPortrait of a Father, by Robert Penn Warren. Kentucky $12

Robert Penn Warren has long been obsessed by Time and History (concepts more often capitalized than not), aware always of the past’s burdens on us. His father, though, presented himself to his children as a man without a past. He was, as his son discovered by accident, something of a poet; but, when his work was discovered, he hid it. Years later he sent his son a poem, only to demand that there be no response. Warren’s prose memoir (published last year in The Southern Review) is loving, but frustrated by a father’s reticence. The title of the book contains an important ambiguity in this respect: he writes not of “my father” but “a father.” The prose is followed by a sequence of poems about his father, Mortmain, published first in 1960. These are not, by far, Warren’s best poems, but in the context of the memoir, they are quite affecting. His father’s old Greek primer, which was to become his granddaughter’s, is at once the emblem of “a dead language” and of language’s power to link generations.

George Grosz: A Biography, by M. Kay Flavell. Yale $39.95

In this revisionist biography the author explodes the received idea of Grosz as a left-wing believer who lost faith, ending in nihilism. Grosz, she insists, was a critical realist who expressed his skepticism through satire. Although he remains a relatively minor figure in the history of 20th-century art, his life—its political and intellectual context—is fascinating, and this contextual biography is worthy of its subject.

Katherine Mansfield, by Claire Tomalin. Knopf $22.95

Confronted with a feast of available material: journals, letters, memoirs by John Middleton Murry and Ida Baker, previous biographies as well as personal interviews, Tomalin had served only the bones. Her biography of this interesting writer remains exasperatingly vague and fails to bring the insights that she, as a woman biographer, professes. Was her reluctance to be specific a matter of delicacy or lack of information? What is meant by Murry and Mansfield, two experienced adults who flitted from lover to lover, defining their relationship as childlike? The account of the couples’ friendship with D.H. Lawrence and Frieda is sketchy. Ida Baker, a key figure in Mansfield’s life, remains a shadow. The friendship with Virginia Woolfe is not explored. And how did Mansfield, who was often ill and in pain, often short of funds, manage to move from house to house, , country to country, and continue to write? The portraits of Mansfield and Murry are, however, vivid. Mansfield was imperious, demanding, dishonest, but a good writer who, Tomalin speculates, might have grown into a better one under other circumstances. Her dependence on Murry, who was weak, egotistical, immature, and thoughtless, resulted in a self-destructive relationship that fared best when they were apart, idealizing each other and their love into something it never was.

Family Memories: An Autobiographical Journey, by Rebecca West; edited by Faith Evans. Viking $19.95

Composed of a great number of manuscripts written at various times in the last two decades of Rebecca West’s long life, this unfinished work is very uneven in quality. The parts of which Rebecca West had the least factual and firsthand information, her mother’s journey to Australia and marriage there, are the most vivid and interesting, perhaps because the author’s imagination had freer range. The first section, dealing with her mother’s family, the Campbell Mackenzies, is almost as good and as fictional, though based on more actual facts, told her by her mother. The much briefer account of her husband’s family is the least interesting, perhaps because she did not turn her novelist’s imagination loose on it. Unfinished as it is, Family Memories is or should be an important part of any assessment of Rebecca West.

George Balanchine, Ballet Master, by Richard Buckle, in collaboration with John Taras. Random House $29.95

George Balanchine casts the longest shadow over ballet in this century, and this biography by Richard Buckle and John Taras gives an indication of why his influence endures. Undeniably, his talent was massive, as was his talent for self-promotion. Balanchine also had the opportunity to work with the most desirable instrument in the most prominent setting: the New York City Ballet. As monumental as were Balanchine’s gifts, it was through the good offices and collaboration of Lincoln Kirstein that Balanchine not only came to this country but prospered. This volume is quite accessible to the general reader whose acquaintance with ballet is limited to viewing a handful of old chestnuts each year. In addition to describing Balanchine’s role in the evolution of dance in this century, Buckle and Taras also do a commendable job of setting his work in the general cultural context. It is to their credit that, after reading this volume, one has a sense not only of Balanchine’s talent but also of his charm and his immense foibles.

Alexander Kerensky. The First Love of the Revolution, by Richard Abraham. Columbia $29.95

Kerensky (1881—1970) became premier of the Russian Provisional Government in July 1917 and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in October. The rest of his long life was spent in exile, first in Paris and after 1940 in the United States, agitating against the Soviet regime. The first seven chapters of Abraham’s book are devoted to Kerensky’s activities as a Socialist Revolutionary before the February 1917 revolution. The next seven are concerned with his role in the Provisional Government; the last three deal with his exile. The role of Kerensky and the SR’s in the crucial period from February to October 1917 gives the reader valuable insight into why parliamentary-style government failed in Russia.

Jane Austen: Her Life, by Park Honan. St. Martin’s $24.95

The great value of this new Austen biography is that it incorporates into the work a wealth of information from new Austen family manuscripts. The intention of the biographer is to use these data to generate a more comprehensive depiction of Austen’s family circumstances. This Honan certainly accomplishes. What may jar on some readers, however, is that the mode of presentation is far from a chronicle: those who enjoy attempts at imaginative reconstructions of social situations based upon documentary evidence will get their money’s worth. We see, for instance, Portsmouth in 1787 through the eyes of Frank Austen, Jane’s seaman brother, and London in 1811 through the eyes of a Frenchman, Louis Simond, who had a close-up look at the enemy. Many i’eaders will simply find this technique immensely irritating, an unfortunate impulse on the author’s part that should have been expended in some yet-to-be written historical novel.

Secret Agent: My Life with the KGB and the Soviet Elite, by Ilya Dzhirkvelov. Harper & Row $22.50

The West’s masochism has no limits. This purported memoir of a KGB agent contains so many errors of fact, outright lies, and distortions that one must conclude the author and his handlers—both new and old, for he now lives in Great Britain—hold the public in total contempt. “Dzhirkvelov” (does British intelligence recognize the sneer in this Georgian-Russian “name”) reports having participated in events that did not occur and knowing people after their deaths. It would all be amusing except for the fact that there are people who swallow every word in the book and pronounce each one nutrious and tasty.

Unsent Letters: Irreverent Notes from a Literary Life, by Malcolm Bradbury. Viking $16.95

Bradbury writes as other people breathe. Is this not his third book of the literary season? Who can count? In any case, it is hilarious and outrageous—the last word on current academic and literary pretensions. A mockery of all those books about writing by well-known writers, it is sublime self-parody.

Evelyn Waugh, by Katharyn W. Crabbe. Continuum $16.95

As part of the “Literature and Life” series, this study briefly surveys the life and writing of Waugh. Crabbe’s biography is slim, perhaps too slim in failing to even note Waugh’s failed suicide attempt. Her reflection on his writings uncovers some simple, intelligent, if common, thematic observations in prose that is particularly unillustrious and full of plot summary and repetition.

A Mexican Elite Family, 1820—1980, by Larissa Adler Lomnitz and Marisol Perez-Lizaur. Princeton $45 cloth, $15 paper

This book is not as historical as the title suggests; nor is it a Children of Sánchez for the rich and powerful. It is a rather distant sociological description of the nine branches of a mercantile family whose principal men became industrialists after 1940. The authors do especially well with kinship patterns and the rituals and ideology that connect members within the main branches of the family in Mexico City. Their description affirms the primacy of the three-generation extended family while casting doubt on patriarchal absolutism (by showing the importance of “centralizing women”).

Samuel Johnson and Three Infidels: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, by Mark Temmer. Georgia $25

Johnsonians and scholars of the French Enlightenment have generally been very disjunct groups. Mark Temmer is therefore unusual in discovering a remarkable amount of common ground in what amounts to a succinct and readable introduction to 18th-century letters. If these three essays are largely summary in nature, the comparatist approach does have the virtue of casting old information in a new and pleasing light.

1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H. C. Robbins Landon. Schirmer Books $19.95

Using contemporary letters, memoirs, and Mozart’s own musical diaries, Landon has managed to set right myths about Mozart’s finances, his place in Vienese society, his method of work, and, of course, his mysterious death. Landon combines a profound knowledge of the musical life of 18th-century Europe with a crisp literary style. The result is a fascinating series of essays free from technical musical terms.

So Close to Greatness: A Biography of William C. Bullitt, by Will Brownell and Richard N. Billings. Macmillan $24.95

It is said that people on the Philadelphia “Main Line” consider Boston’s Lodges and Cabots upstarts, the rest of us the dregs of helotry. Maybe that is why William C. Bullitt never quite made it to the top: a “Mainliner” to the core, he had the orneriness of the democrat about him, the fatal— in the political context—awareness that his clay was as common as ours. He served in many top posts at home and abroad, collaborated with Freud, married Louise Bryant (John Reed’s widow), and never lived up to what the Mainliners expected of him. Their disappointment was his triumph.

The Hereditary Bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, by Oliver MacDonagh. St. Martin’s $29.95

The biography of the Irish politician who led the fight for Catholic Emancipation in 1829 is the first of a projected two volumes, this one assessing O’Connell’s life until 1829. Based partly on earlier biographies, but also on extensive work in a new collection of O’Connell correspondence, it is a nicely written and worthwhile addition to the field. MacDonagh examines O’Connell’s role in the formation of the then new field of mass politics and as an influential force in the beginning of modern Irish culture and politics. O’Connell sought not only political rights but a sense of social and political self-esteem for Irish Catholics. That struggle is well evoked by MacDonagh.

Seven Thousand Days in Siberia, by Karlo Štajner. Farrar, Straits & Giroux $30

Tito was the smartest of them all: when he received an invitation to Moscow, he carefully examined its teeth and decided against the journey. Karlo Štajner was less cautious, and his indiscretion cost him the 7,000 days of the title. A Communist activist in Austria and Yugoslavia, he won what he thought was first prize, a trip to the motherland of socialism. Accused of collaborating with the Nazis, of whose existence he was hardly even aware, he disappeared into the Gulag but fortunately survived to write this horrifying but instructive memoir.

FICTIONThe Hat of My Mother, by Max Steele. Algonquin Books $13.95

In Where She Brushed Her Hair, one of 14 excursions into the past by this veteran short-story writer, novelist, and teacher, a mother’s first precept “is that a lady or gentleman must have at least one hour to himself each day.” For those wise enough and lucky enough to find such a quotidian quiet time might, should they wish to spend the hour reading, consider taking along Max Steele’s superior, satisfying collection. They won’t escape a little sadness here and there, madness, old age, death, love lost as well as found, the failure of constancy, but they will be spared cynicism, decadence, and despair. The delight and charm to be found in the title story alone is worth the purchase price; its overtones and undercurrents, beyond the comic situation of attending a funeral by mistake, linger in the memory. Readers looking for characters they can like, identify with, care about, even admire, need look no further.

On Our Own Behalf: Women’s Tales from Catalonia, edited by Kathleen McNerney. Nebraska $24.95

For the first time these short stories and selections from novels written in Catalán by contemporary women writers are available in English translation. The introduction and short biographical sketches of the five authors by Kathleen McNerney emphasize the feminist voices of her anthology, and the writings themselves reveal powerful and original views of a doubly repressed condition—that of being an intellectual woman and that of living in the silence of Franco’s Spain (where the study and publication of Catalán was banned). Each author portrays, in a different light, the difficulties of being a woman writing in a minority culture. Carme Riera’s sensual, erotic prose, like Helena Valenti’s assessment of male-female relations, is honest, lyrical, and moving. Antónia Oliver confronts the struggle for identity and the violence suffered by women. Isabel-Clara Simó’s memories of childhood reveal tragic domestic violence, and Monserrat Roig’s joy in her female sexuality masks the scars of child molestation. This is a valuable collection of contemporary Catalán feminist prose.

Good Hearts, by Reynolds Price. Atheneum $18.95

Twenty-eight years have gone by since Rosacoke Mustian succeeded in marrying Wesley Beavers in A Long and Happy Life. Their one son has married and gone, a disappointment to both of them. They both work, Wesley as a skilled mechanic, Rosa as a secretary for English professors at N.C. State. Then, one day just before Christmas, Wesley drives away from everything in Raleigh and holes up in a motel in Nashville, where he meets and stays with a small young blonde radiology technician. After three months Wesley goes back, with his doubt and unhappiness still unresolved. In A Long and Happy Life Rosa and Wesley were young. In Good Hearts they are middle aged in mind and body. In both books Reynolds Price made Rosa and Wesley real, no mean achievement. Good Hearts is more thoughtful, more serious than the earlier book and explores more human options and needs. His way of writing, too, is the same yet deeper and richer.

The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing. Knopf $16.95

Doris Lessing has returned from her explorations to write a conventional novel. More precisely, it’s a morality tale, a puffed-up short story of a happy couple, Harriet and David, who come face-to-face with brutality. Halfway through this 133-page book, the reader is groggy from happy Harriet’s repeated pregnancies and the repeated jolly family parties when a flock of faceless people gather for holidays at Harriet and David’s. By the time pregnancy five comes along we know something has gone wrong with this happy picture because the fetus starts early to try to kick its way out of Harriet’s womb. Lessing’s description of Harriet’s agonizing pregnancy is hard to take, not only because it is so drawn out, but one cannot believe a doctor would permit this to happen to any woman. By the time the baby arrives the reader, if not Harriet, is too worn out to care what the abnormal, destructive baby Ben is supposed to symbolize, or what Lessing, a gifted, prolific writer, is trying to say about self-satisfied people and society in the barbarous 80’s. Or maybe what she’s really writing about is birth control.

An Alibi Too Soon, by Roger Ormerod. Scribner’s $15.95

Roger Ormerod weaves here a complicated tale of murders past and present. The chief novelty in this book is a grim, determined, black-hearted chief inspector who cannot brook interference on his turf. He seems to be cast as the villain but turns out to be only an obstruction to justice. The white knight, Richard Patton, produces the truth in the end but does not enjoy it. You are left to wonder whether Patton and his wife Amelia will in the end buy the old mill they are attracted by.

Spence+Lila, by Bobbie Ann Mason. Harper & Row $12.95

Mason has built a solid reputation on the strength of Shiloh, a collection of short stories that won the PEN/Hemingway award for best first fiction, the novel In Country, and frequent publication in The New Yorker. The superior quality of Spence+Lila, the latest addition to the Harper short novel series, should secure her a firm place in the first rank of American fiction writers. The setting is Mason country—western Kentucky. Spence and Lila Culpepper are a moderately successful small farm couple. Amazingly perhaps, this is a story of a successful marriage. It has lasted more than 40 years and the strength of it, the love that fuels it, carries Lila Culpepper, with Spence standing, he feels, helplessly by, through the crisis of a mastectomy and other surgery that threatens Lila’s life. Bobbie Ann Mason celebrates their life together out of a deep knowledge of Kentucky folkways in the modern world, with wit, compassion, perfect control over her material, absolute respect for the values of her characters and their intelligence and fidelity, and not a trace of sentimentality. An outstanding performance.

Silent Retreats, by Philip F. Deaver. Georgia $15.95

Like all good fiction, the stories in this first collection are true. The characters, mostly men on the verge of a pre-midlife crisis, are caught in the muddle of marriage, the frailness of tentative friendships, and the ordinariness of life. Often they try to work out their own redemption, with predictably comic results. In the title story, a systems analyst—overcome with existential doubt and longing for a time when interventions were possible and solutions existed—finds out from his parish priest that silence is now considered self-indulgent. The language, especially the dialogue, is clean and well-lit; the narration is seemly. This is a fine debut.

A Worm of Doubt, by M. R. D. Meek. Scribner’s $14.95

It is always a pleasure when a writer whose first book you have admired does not let you down in later books. M.R.D. Meek began to write fairly late in life, but this fourth book shows no signs of decline of skill in plotting and writing. And she always has a neat twist in store at the end— nothing to change the outcome but rather to explain it.

Hearing from Wayne, and Other Stories, by Bill Franzen. Knopf $15.95

These short stories carry a considerable weight, given the ease with which they can be enjoyed. A droll but never flippant narrative voice moves lightly across the surface of family, place, and intention. Unlikely or whimsical circumstances provide the frame for rather incisive offerings of human nature and always through ingenious but not clever plotting. What could almost be called a K-Mart surrealism is being developed here, which is (after all) only appropriate for a culture where one changes the subject to acknowledge the utter import of what was just said. This tone is graceful not grim, and escapist more in the sense of a postcard than of a dream. These stories offer a masterful demonstration of the ongoing struggle in American letters between technique and attention span.

Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey. Harper & Row $18.95

A young Australian heiress in bloomers; a gangling youth directed by mischance into the Church of England; both brought together by accident and a mutual obsession with gambling. The history of Oscar Hopkins in the beginning bears a resemblance to that of Edmund Gosse; the story of Lucinda Leplastrier has no such counterpart; nor has the tortured account of the inception and building of the glass church and its journey down the Australian river to its final destination. No other novel has ever depicted 19th-century England and Australia in quite such a grotesque and melodramatic fashion.

Strange Bedfellows, by Herbert Burkholtz. Atheneum $18.95

Soviet and American rogue intelligence agents independently attempt to assassinate Premier Gorbachev who is en route to the United Nations to sign a definitive nuclear treaty with President Reagan. In this mundane but believable plot, Soviet and American undercover operators thereafter join forces to prevent this world calamity, resulting in a suspense spy thriller that is one of the best such novels of the current season.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon. Morrow $16.95

Generally, first novels appear and disappear unnoticed; however, when one does draw attention, too often it takes the form of extravagant praise. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is very good, a first novel I expect many people will read with pleasure this year but which I think other readers will discover and enjoy many years from now. Chabon never writes with boring predictability or flat language: his tale of a young man’s summer is fresh and engaging even though we’ve already read so many other tales of young men coming of age. But my praise will not be extravagant: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not of grand scope nor its investigations of great depth. One can enjoy this novel but still anticipate with pleasure a future work of greater import from Michael Chabon.

Frozen Music, by Francis King. Harper & Row $10.95

An illustrated novel is a novelty these days, especially when the illustrations are by a modern painter—and these illustrations, black-and-white though they are, do color and complement the narrative. The tide, Frozen Music, is an apt one for several reasons. One relates to the story. Another is that, though the setting is India in its full blast of summer heat, this is a cold, a frozen narrative, even though several loves entwine in it.

Green City in the Sun, by Barbara Wood. Random House $19.95

This may well be the best novel out of Africa in the past decade. A powerful British family collides with a proud native family in the struggle over the destiny of a land they love equally. The latter, of course, prevails, but the well-crafted story leaves one with a warm feeling of pure enjoyment. Built on the solid framework of an accurate picture of the colonization and independence of Kenya (with its highest birth rate in the world), the authoress brings to life the spirit and soul of the Dark Continent. She has an uncanny ability to give the reader a sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Africa as though you were really there.

Fruit of the Month, by Abby Frucht. Iowa $15.95

It has been said, and I agree, that this prize-winning storybook (the author’s first, but published almost simultaneously with her second, a novel) is uneven; but it is also true that the unevenness reveals a seed peculiar to each story which has ripened more or less, and which is a genius and an opportunity. Frucht’s images have a preternatural fecundity that often works to comic effect with her matter-of-fact narrative. (The only thing I found annoying was a few inaccuracies having to do with Tidewater Virginia.) This is a very absorbing book. It just might change your life. Nowadays I find myself asking, “What would the intrepid [Abby] do (for the protagonist of each of these stories is quite uniquely conceived and determined) in this particular situation?

Garbage, by Stephen Dixon. Cane Hill $8.95

Shaney Fleet, city dweller, is a second generation bar and grill owner who wants only to make a living and live an ordinary life. But one Wednesday night he is warned there will be trouble if he doesn’t hire Stovin Carting Service to haul his garbage. Shaney says no, and the trouble begins: his apartment is burned, his parrot is killed, and no one will pick up his trash. The fight against the garbage service becomes an almost epic struggle, and Shaney, like an ancient hero, stands firm and undaunted as trash threatens to take over his life. Stephen Dixon writes rapid-fire fiction; the action is fast and unceasing. This is a successful comic meditation on the craziness of contemporary urban life.

Dreams of the Kalahari, by Carolyn Slaughter. Scribner’s $19.95

This is a tender autobiographical novel of a young girl, born of British parents in India and raised in Africa, coming of age in confusion since her sympathies rest with the natives rather then their colonial masters. The horror of apartheid in all its inhumanity is vividly portrayed bringing to painful life the indecencies half a world away.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSAmerica Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars, by James Chace and Caleb Carr. Summit Books $19.95

The founder of Interplay and a young researcher have written a popular work that retraces the course of American diplomatic history from Jefferson to the Strategic Defense Initiative. The bold thesis on which the study rests presupposes that Americans abandoned Jefferson’s idea of self-sufficiency as we became an industrial power. From economic invulnerability the notion moved to Wilson’s idea of political invulnerability and subsequent interventions in Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific whenever we feared democracy was threatened. We no longer live as Jefferson counseled “within the safe measures of power.”

The Yellow Wind, by David Grossman. Translated by Haim Watzman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $17.95

Israeli-born novelist Grossman wrote this account of the Arab-Israeli conflict for a local newsweekly. With the eye of a skilled journalist, and the sensitivity of a poet, he recorded what he saw and learned in seven weeks on the West Bank. It is an anguished picture of “two nations which still don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy.” In Palestinian camps and Jewish settlements, he interviewed people, looked into their eyes and hearts; he depicts the criminal treatment of Palestinians by Israelis, and the senseless murders of innocent Jews by Arab terrorists. The book, which became a best seller in Israel and was excerpted in The New Yorker, marks the 20th anniversary of the Six-Day War of June 1967. To Grossman, then age 13, it was a time of triumph. Now, he wonders, “Into what reality are children to be educated?” The title, from an Arabic tale of the terrible yellow wind that engulfs those who commit cruel deeds, symbolizes the cloud of occupation that threatens Israel. An Arab writer, summing up the dilemma, quoted a learned Israeli: “It is impossible to be occupiers and remain moral.” Toward the end of this indictment of Israeli policies Grossman asks “What happened to us?”

Shaping Political Consciousness, by David Green. Cornell $29.95

The author maintains with Dilthey that philology is the “basic historical science” and “basic political science” as well. A Canadian and a disciple of Walter La Feber of Cornell, he has written a book on political discourse that is rooted in history and politics, not sterile abstractions. He has a keen eye for the tr

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