The Stranger’s Child: A Novel

By Alan Hollinghurst. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 448 pp. $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-27276-8.

Alan Hollinghurst’s ambitious century-spanning saga, The Stranger’s Child, explores the artistic legacy of Cecil Valance, a middling English poet. Opening with Cecil’s 1913 visit to Two Acres, the modest home of his fellow Cantabrigian lover, George Sawle, the novel traces the aftershocks of Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle family, especially George’s spry, enamored teenage sister, Daphne. Through the years, the poem Cecil writes in honor of the “two blessèd acres of English ground” ripples through the imagination of schoolboys and statesmen alike. The premise and title, drawn from “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s threnody for a friend, connote nostalgia and admiration for the biographers who strive to commemorate Cecil, a victim of a World War I sniper. Yet the novel repeatedly obscures their vision and pits their efforts against the persistent and deliberate degradation of physical exteriors (characters’ bodies, architectural façades), suggesting that Hollinghurst’s objective is actually a wry, subversive critique of memorialization. When we look too closely at the past, trying to preserve its beauty or breach its secrets, we find it elusive, and witness instead the dissolution of memory and the irrevocable transition to modernity.

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Enter Cecil and George’s love affair, “a mad vertiginous adventure” set against the pastoral idyll of late-Edwardian England. The concupiscent George revels in the sheer sensual joy and comedy of sex. When Cecil quips that he’s nymph-like, “some shy sylvan creature, unused to the prying eyes of men. Perhaps you’re a hamadryad,” George retorts, “Hamadryads are female…which I think you can see I’m not.” “I still can’t really see,” Cecil returns, before “pranc[ing] down the leafy slope like a satyr, sun-burnt and sinewy calves and forearms darkly hairy.” Witty though this little ingot of lovers’ banter is, the imagery and phrasing set the pace for the shading of their interaction in the novel writ large. They’ll only ever know each other’s bodies in the partial obscurity of the forest, their features shrouded by leaves and shadows, their emotions cloaked in shyness. George, mystified by “the unseen jostling of different magics,” feels “he would never stop taking [Cecil] in. He loved the beautiful rightness of his bearing, that everyone saw, and he loved all the things that fell short of beauty, or redefined it, things generally hidden.”

This gentle shadowing of raw sexual energy, its modesty and prudery evocative of its historical moment, may surprise readers of Hollinghurst’s previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Set in Thatcherite London, it chronicles in luminous, torrid prose the love affairs of Nick Guest, a young arriviste using a wealthy Tory politician’s home as a pied-à-terre. Stylistic differences aside, though, these novels have similar messages. The Line of Beauty takes its title from the ogee curve, formed by the convergence of two S-shaped arcs; for Nick, the undulation of a lover’s hips mirrors this architectural motif. On the surface, it’s an arresting figure. But it’s also a dangerous one; those who come too close to its ideal face the growing menace of AIDS, first named and pathologized during these years.

The Stranger’s Child adapts this vision, but leavens and tempers it. Views of the male body are mediated and distorted. Where George sees little, Daphne sees less: she’s aware of the “hint of a mystery” and “secret throb of color” of her natural surroundings, but only partially witness to an evening “far too dark for spying” in which George’s “face was hidden. Was it just the lamplight that made his ears burn red?” Daphne’s more innocent than, say, Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement; she’s perennially confused about her sibling’s sexual exploits, and equally unsure of her own place with the sibling’s lover. Cecil’s mild flirtation becomes an “extraordinary unwholesome thing, her mind chasing and confirming and losing the story in vivid fragments of memory…with each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less.” His hermetic poem is no better a key to his feelings, for “the harder she looked at it, the less she knew.”

The Sawles’ frustrated sight, and the lack of understanding that follows from it, could speak alone for the experience of biographers and artisans over the course of the novel. But the irony of peering into the life of a man named Cecil Valance, whose names, taken together, literally denote blindness and curtains—doubly resonant in their opacity—is evidently lost on them.

Hollinghurst wittily shows this through his depictions of Corley Court, the Valances’ sprawling country estate. Like one of its antecedents, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, Corley is a grand architectural masterpiece to newcomers like Daphne, who loves its Gothic molding and “functionless, unwieldy” décor. Meanwhile, her husband, Cecil’s brute brother Dudley, calls Corley “a Victorian monstrosity…of exorbitant ugliness and inconvenience” and hires a “thoroughly modern” interior designer to redecorate it. Disdain toward the Victorian—and the forceful erasure of it—are recursive features of The Stranger’s Child, whether it’s Carraveen, the home of Daphne’s daughter Corinna, “some now completely forgotten home or holiday place that someone had loved long ago,” Corley itself when it’s requisitioned as a World War II military hospital, then converted to a boys’ school, its “jumble of Victorian furniture…roughly stacked and locked away…at some unknown date,” or Two Acres, “decrepit,” “disheveled,” and wearing “its own mild frown of self-regard,” given to developers to rename “Old Acres,” and ultimately, to raze. Daphne herself is one of many women labeled “shabby” and “a Victorian” late in the novel.

This intentional, carefully wrought destruction counterpoises Cecil’s biographers’ efforts to commemorate him and reconstruct his narrative. Neither the crumbling homes nor their inhabitants yield insight into the gnomic poet, for memory is an impenetrable cloister. A sculptor commissioned to build a marble effigy for Cecil’s tomb misses his mark: George contends that he “had never set eyes on Cecil—he must have worked from photographs…which only told their own truth…All these depictions were in a sense failures, just as this resplendent effigy was.” The sculptor gets the hands wrong, while George’s own memories are more vivid, if “vague as well with touching and retouching…magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands.” Likewise, George dismisses the characterization of Cecil by an early biographer, Sebastian Stokes, as “sweeping talk.” Stokes is denied even George’s tempered vision of Cecil, for “the English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes.” And his successors, increasingly intrusive in their investigations, are held at an even further remove. One, Paul Bryant, later labeled a “fantasist,” meets with Dudley’s categorical refusal of additional detail about Cecil; Daphne’s directing him to her own memoir, a work of “poetical reconstruction” in which “she had made up all the conversations” rather than answering his questions at length, and her maddeningly elliptical replies (“well, quite…” and “hmm…”). Paul’s visits to Corley are equally fruitless, like “finding a mined palace or burial chamber long since pillaged.” Cecil’s effigy itself is relegated to a mere “nuisance.” Only a conversation with a senile George offers glimpses of the questionable paternity of Daphne’s children, information “almost unusable” given George’s lack of inhibition. Watching the succession of biographers in their varied, vain efforts to retell the tale recalls reading modern and postmodern classics like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler. Repeated attempts to open and reconstruct the story bring us no closer to its truth.

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What does the accretion of all this damage signify? What are the implications of writing a novel that maps halcyon memories and literary and architectural heritage, but undermining it all with an epigraph to a closing section warning “no one remembers you at all”? Hollinghurst’s objective pivots on that warning. That his characters—biographers who turn out to be liars and charlatans—spend ninety years trying to unmask a mere poetaster whose crowning achievements were but “a goodly few” poems worth remembering is irony enough. The mediation of their vision, coupled with the family’s guardianship of its secrets, and the resounding failure of their collective efforts to preserve show Hollinghurst’s artful mockery of the elegiac act itself. For as the narrator reminds us, stories are ephemeral: even a book can become an amorphous, forgettable form, “a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle.”

This piece was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan. Verso Books, 2011. 400 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-844-67705-4.

“There’s no city like this in the world. There never was…Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form,” says Gil Pender, the hapless, time-traveling romantic in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. “Nowhere else in Europe has a great capital developed in the same way as Paris, with such discontinuity and in so irregular a rhythm. What gave the city this rhythm was the centrifugal succession of its walled precincts,” echoes Eric Hazan in The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. The storied vicinity of Montmartre, for one, is open to historical dispute. Some argue that it “starts when you cross the route of the no. 2 Métro line, whose stations…mark the curve of the former wall of the Farmers-General,” while others contend that the boundary is “much lower, on the Grands Boulevards.” The boundaries depend more on a wanderer’s sense of a quarter’s historical and literary resonance and topography than on clear demarcation. “Like the background of certain Dadaist photomontages, composed out of jostling fragments of city photographs, the most commonplace transitions sometimes have the most surprising shocks in store,” Hazan muses.

So begins a discursive tale of “discontinuous” time, moveable feasts, and literary meanderings, told by the founder of the French publisher La Fabrique. Published in French in 2002, newly translated into English, and reprinted, The Invention of Paris bespeaks a warm affection for the peripatetic poets, novelists, and philosophers—Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin, in particular—who witnessed Paris’s transformation from medieval to modern metropolis under the aegis of Louis XIV, Baron Haussmann, and engineers who developed gas lighting in the mid-1800s.

The book is divided into sections on Old Paris, New Paris, flânerie, or “wandering,” and the invention of photography, the latter two being key to our understanding of the modernization of Paris in the 19th century. Dividing the narrative at all is a strange choice, given the opening comparison of Parisian development to “the growth rings of a tree,” and the lengthy disclaimer that histories of this city defy either boundaries or linearity.

Within “Old Paris,” sections devoted to Paris’s twenty arrondissements, each of which contain four quartiers, denote changes in character, commerce, and charm. On the affluent Right Bank of the Seine, for example, is the Palais-Royal, once “the agora or forum of Paris, its fame spreading right across Europe.” Royalists gathered there during the Revolution; printers and publishers like Stock, Garnier, and Le Dontu staffed a book bazaar, and restaurants like those described in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine thrived until the 1830s. The Bourse quarter, with its beautiful neo-Grecian architecture, housed the Bibliothèque Nationale and the original Opéra Garnier, and was a locus of financial activity. Though some banks have relocated, coins are still changed and gold sold there. Poulet-Malassis, publisher of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, had offices in the Arcades, while Les Halles was a bustling marketplace. Sentier was the Parisian Fleet Street, but “the crisis of the written press, the merger of titles, and the migration of printing works to the suburbs, have left behind only pale vestiges of this glorious age,” the Figaro and Tribune buildings. The Left Bank, by contrast, developed gradually, and still has a reputation for “maternally welcoming students, writers, publishers and bookshops, art and experimental cinemas” and exiled or expatriate writers from England, Ireland, and America.

Hazan inflects his detailed descriptions with nostalgia for these quarters, which, like Baudelaire and Atget, he believes faced “brutal intervention,” “cuttings,” and “destruction” in the hands of urban planners and developers. He heralds the “unbroken rhythmic scansion” of the old Parisian Boulevards, lamenting, “from Haussmann through to Poincaré this urban intimacy was hollowed out.” The veritable beauty of this golden age thinking can be found in the tempered wistfulness of Baudelaire’s prose poems and Atget’s stippled, romantic, if unfocused photographs, but Hazan’s weighty prose makes it mawkish.

Hazan’s erudition resonates through the verse and citations he grafts onto his story, yet his tale is beleaguered by block quotations and pleonastic footnotes. Readers who embrace concision should to turn to Norman Davies or Graham Robb’s magisterial European histories, or, for a little wit and mirth, to publishing rainmaker Richard Seaver’s memoir, The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ‘50s, New York in the ‘60s, rather than to Hazan’s prolix book.

This piece was published in PopMatters here.

The Map and the Territory: A Novel

By Michel Houellebecq. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 288 pp. $26.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-70155-8

Decorate a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee, and you have a humorous take on classical painting, thought Marcel Duchamp. Paint a pipe, and beneath it, the wry caption, “this is not a pipe.” Witty, to René Magritte. There’s fearful symmetry between the curvature of a woman’s back and a violin, so paint f-holes on a model, photograph her, and call it “Le Violon d’Ingres.” Woman as painter’s violin, and, idiomatically, woman as hobby, to Man Ray. Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, writing a few years later, aphorized, “the map is not the territory,” which illustrates precisely the tensions between representation and abstraction, object and ontology, in these canonical modernist works.

Fabled French misanthrope Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, an affectively taut, tempered narrative awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt for “best and most imaginative prose work of the year,” draws its title and message from Korzybski’s bon mot. Dramatis personæ: contemporary artist Jed Martin, who photographs Michelin maps, then becomes renowned for his “Series of Simple Professions” and celebrity portraiture; his father Jean-Pierre, a Corbusier-hating architect and “finished man” whose quixotic blueprints languish in storage while he executes practical works of draftsmanship, and, in a stroke of sardonic self-awareness and gallows humor, the “old turtle” Michel Houellebecq, who makes a cameo when hired to write catalog copy for one of Jed’s solo exhibitions. The neurasthenic, solitary Jed fosters a caring yet tense relationship with Jean-Pierre, falls in love with Olga, a striking Michelin PR rep, and befriends Houellebecq, a “tired old decadent” and “tortured wreck” whose idiosyncrasies (like the idea of purchasing a sheep, rather than a lawnmower, to tend his front yard) he appreciates in a measured if detached manner. Jed’s accession to the heights of success is rendered painful by the loss of his father to rectal cancer and physician-assisted suicide, and by the murder of Houellebecq by a thief who robs him of a portrait Jed painted of him, then brutally beheads him and his dog, decorating the writer’s living room with the remains.

The novel’s spare beauty pivots on mood rather than action, abstraction rather than representation, territory rather than map. It’s an anatomy of male melancholy, an exposition of the refrain “it doesn’t amount to much, a human life.” Characters who try to understand life or art—critics, whose formal terminology is italicized, and Houellebecq, who writes the catalog essay—are satirized or killed. Even Jed, whose career is “devoted…to the production of representations of the world, in which people were never meant to live,” moves away from maps as artistic inspiration. Initially seeing them as “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world…combined with the essence of animal life…the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls,” he later realizes they’re attempts to impose a fixative on mutable territory.

Abstractions remain beautiful, but representations are distorted. Houellebecq’s repurchased childhood home, an “absolutely miraculous” place in his mind’s eye, becomes the scene of his grisly murder. The semblance of a Jackson Pollock painting is actually the trailing pattern of blood from Houellebecq’s severed head. Jean-Pierre’s unrealized blueprints are merely the stirrings of derivative, impracticable thought. Wealth, even when earned, doesn’t redress pain or decay, but makes artists disdainful of others, whereas “to be an artist, in [Jed’s] view, was above all to be someone submissive.” Jed bitterly quips that Damien Hirst’s attitude is, “I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash,” and in an enraged Dorian Gray moment, plunges a knife into his portrait of Hirst and Jeff Koons.

The Map and the Territory’s message is best captured by Leonard Cohen in “The Darkness,” featured on his newly released album, “Old Ideas.” “I got the darkness/ From your little ruby cup…There’s nothing but the darkness/ Makes any sense to me at all,” he sings. The novel sets up a tension between Jed’s purist, functionalist view of art, his lack of artistic ethos, and his objection to criticism, and Jean-Pierre’s visionary but ultimately dyspeptic outlook. That tension is unresolved, obscured in “mortal sadness,” “gentle resignation,” and “sad and reciprocal pity.” There’s no redemption here, nothing but the darkness, the fractured beauty of the effort to chart the territory, the gravity of having lived.

This piece was published in Bookslut here.

The Sense of an Ending: A Novel

By Julian Barnes. Knopf, 2011. 176 pp. $23.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-95712-2.

What kind of novel is The Sense of an Ending? In tenor, it sutures the characteristics of its Booker Prize-winning antecedents–Kazuo Ishiguro’s measured, elegiac The Remains of the Day; Ian McEwan’s cryptic, macabre Amsterdam. Its equable narrator, Tony Webster, weaves the self-assurance of one who has lived all he could, together with his regret and yearning, into a swan song of imperturbable, distinctly English grace. He limns a theory of memory: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” His soliloquies, like those of Axler, the failed actor in Philip Roth’s The Humbling, are acts of complicity with the reader, too–invitations to judge, to condemn, or to forgive.

Tony, a retired arts administrator, settles into a solitude peopled only by his cordial, tactful ex-wife, Margaret, and their reserved daughter, Susie. A solicitor’s letter announces the death of Sarah Ford, the mother of his neurotic college girlfriend, Veronica, and Sarah’s bequest to Tony, £500 and the diary of his childhood friend, Adrian, who had committed suicide in his twenties. Tony’s bemusement over the provenance of this legacy, the letter being the first he has received from Sarah since Adrian’s death, is heightened when Veronica retains the diary. She remains tacit and taciturn, so aggrieved by her family’s past, her own, and Tony’s role in it, that she offers him only a page of the diary, on which Adrian, ever the gifted philosopher, wrote out syllogisms and the equations “how might you express an accumulation containing the integers b, a1, a2, s, v? b = s – vx + a1 or a2 + v + a1 x s = b?” With it is the vituperative letter that Tony wrote Adrian when he learned that the latter was dating Veronica.

While Veronica incinerates the rest of the diary, these two arcane documents hold the key to the Ford family’s secrets, and to Adrian’s rationale for suicide. Most importantly, they cause Tony to revisit and reframe the very foundations of his character, and, in turn, the reader’s grasp of where the story pivots–on the moment when Sarah warns Tony, on his first visit to their family home, not to let Veronica manipulate him, perhaps, or when Tony writes the letter without giving the reader so much as a hint of its sheer malice. These reconsiderations are part of a literary tradition that spans the ages from Aristotle, who first used the term “anagnoresis” to connote a protagonist’s sudden discovery of his own nature, or of a deuteragonist’s, to storied British literary critic Sir Frank Kermode, who argued in his 1967 The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction that twists in a novel’s plot cause such reworkings of our perception.

At such pivotal moments, what Barnes, borrowing Kermode’s title, does brilliantly in this, his eleventh novel, is to pit the serrated edge of present emotions against the taut, carefully appraised retrospective of what a youthful self imagined those emotions would be. Tony, in turn, wrests theories of time and history from them. “What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering…less certainty…as to what you have been,” he sagely observes.

The turning points clarify the novel’s vatic meditations on what historicizing, storytelling, and the nature of responsibility signify. Adrian, for example, tells their history teacher early on, “my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history…the question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” He then quotes a French historian as saying, “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” We do not learn till late in the novel, by which time these lines have acquired an incantatory quality, that they’re characterizations of Tony’s own storytelling.

Adrian’s lines unveil the lacunae of Tony’s memory, on which “time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent,” and a darker, more introspective bent to Tony than he himself wants to reveal. The reader must separate this from Tony’s artful “history of the historian”, which strains for understanding or empathy. “I don’t want to give the impression that all I did at Bristol was work and see Veronica,” he deflects the reader’s mockery. “I know. I expect you’re thinking: the poor sap, how did he not see that coming?” he muses, anticipating the reader’s pity. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time,” he temporizes. Yet there are grave, remorseful moments as well: “What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” These prophetic lines, by now a refrain of an innocent, underread schoolmate of Tony’s evading their history teacher’s question about the character of Henry VIII’s reign, bring us to the heart of the novel’s theory of history and storytelling—that there is no solace in teasing out and prizing apart causes and the motives of actors. There is only disquiet in the act of knowing, and in the apportioning of remorse.

What are we to make of Tony, then? “Peaceable,” complacent, yet wry raconteur? Sly sadist with a deftly manipulative touch, who warns us, “there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, the ones to be careful of,” but later avows his own “instinct for survival, for self-preservation”? Sage, penitent memoirist with a flair for self-pity? As with Barnes’s Prix-Médicis-winning Flaubert’s Parrot, for example, where we’re caught between ridiculing the protagonist who searches for the taxidermified bird who inspired a Flaubertian character, and immersing ourselves in his enchanting if deluded revelry, these competing visions vie for our empathy, wrath, or pity. We tease out the tendrils of “the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated,” assessing character, or forgiving it, accordingly. The sense of an ending is ours to create.

This piece was published in PopMatters here.

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism

By John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 528 pp. $40. ISBN: 978-0-307-95715-3.

John Updike drew the title of his 1983 essay collection, Hugging the Shore, from his analogy that “writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing on the open sea.” To assess aesthetic and stylistic merit was, in other words, a guarded, temperate activity, not exacting the skill, audacity, and celerity of judgment that creative writing did of novelists and poets. Sailing on the open sea cemented Updike’s literary reputation, for readers and critics admired the local color, minimalist aesthetic, and tonal immediacy with which he wrought wry, empathic portraits of middle America, middle age and its crises, and the middlebrow, most famously in the “Rabbit” tetralogy, which traces the lives, loves, and losses of hapless former high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over four decades. Rabbit and his fellow literary characters—the coy Witches (later Widows) of Eastwick, for example—were fabled and fallible, their creator ever casting a more sensitive than censorious eye upon their foibles. Yet Updike took reviewing just as seriously, as his sheer output of ten essay collections shows, and he did it incomparably well. Hewing to strict principles of ethics, understanding, and citation of texts, which he detailed in Picked-Up Pieces (1975), he contributed more reviews to The New Yorker than any other critic in his lifetime, garnering the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

The sensibilities he developed as a novelist and poet, perspicacity and a genial appreciation for the creative process (“the first flush of inspiration, the patient months of research and plotting,” “creation’s giddy bliss,”) meet with stylistic temerity in his criticism, countering what he wrote about hugging the shore. His gentle, measured voice and daring opinions inform his sixty-first book, Higher Gossip, a posthumous compendium of literary tributes, essays, gallery reviews, poems, and speeches that Updike’s widow and literary executor, Martha, and Library of America editor Christopher Carduff culled from meticulously revised printouts that the author sorted into shirt boxes and deposited in a Harvard University archive. Drawn mostly from reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, and forewords to classics or fine editions of his own work, the collection focalizes Updike’s mid-to-late career as a man of letters. It also foregrounds his secondary reputation as a consummate art critic.

The hieratic art critiques in the “Gallery Tours” section of Higher Gossip resonate long after their initial reading both for the shrewd formal analyses of line, color, and direction, and for the able mining and interweaving of curatorial notes into each piece. By turns coruscating and charming, Updike weighs the ideal perspective from which to gaze at Tilman Riemenschneider’s limewood statue of the Virgin and Child (best “to place her feet level with my eyes, so closely that, looking upward, I create steep perspectives wherein hands, drapery, and the two holy heads achieved a dramatic, foreshortened conjunction”); reads the sculptor’s male statues as “an attempt to express spirituality while acknowledging the heightened awareness of human individuality that came with the Renaissance,” and considers whether color amplifies “the seductive persuasiveness of statuary.” He contrasts Egon Schiele’s etiolated male nudes with his healthier, more seductive females. He traces the novelty of El Greco’s craft (“religious images designed to be seen in a church’s dim candlelight; flattened space, [and] visionary mode of attenuated anatomy,”) and its influence on Delacroix, Sargent, Cézanne, and Matisse. The essays will inspire vicarious thrills in readers who have not seen the shows under review, while illuminating those readers have seen. To my mind, the meditations on Seurat’s figure studies for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in Fall 2007, were especially apt in characterization and analysis. While Updike graciously overlooks the chilling emptiness that Seurat’s streamlined, faceless figures exude, he unveils the artist’s material craft, the Conté crayons and handmade French Michallet paper that shaped his shading and Pointillist techniques.

This isn’t to say that the occasional personal bias doesn’t peer at readers from between the judicious shades of these commentaries. Among Dutch Baroque painters, Vermeer categorically trumps Pieter de Hooch in Updike’s view, and a Hartford exhibit can’t upend that conviction. De Hooch’s “brushstrokes are scratchy, his colors brownish and murky, and his compositions haphazard when viewed with Vermeer’s pellucid and exquisitely rigorous canvases in mind. Compared with Vermeer, de Hooch does not draw well, let alone paint with the younger man’s serene rapture of weightless touch and opalescent color.” What about taking de Hooch on his own terms rather than comparing him to another Dutch master, or considering the trajectory of his artistic enterprise, as Updike does with Van Gogh, a reader might ask? Why not celebrate the elegant linearity of “Couple With Parrot,” or the warm tonality of “Woman and Girl in the Yard”? That these pieces invite such polemicism, however, is precisely their appeal. Like the reviews New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl pens for his column, “The Art World,” these essays are learned, sagely voiced, and gracious, even when Updike’s personal taste is clearly at odds with an artistic technique or a curatorial layout. Writer and translator Wyatt Mason, in a Harper’s essay on Updike’s 2007 collection, Due Considerations, and on his critical practice writ large, posed the question of whether “the true critic, like a unicorn or a yeti, must reside in the imagination.” “Gallery Tours” affirms their terrestrial existence in Updikean form, as true criticism here navigates the open sea in its graceful marriage of candor, reason, and research.

By contrast, if there’s an adherence to the shore in Higher Gossip, it’s woefully on view in the literary tributes section, “Lives and Laurels.” Updike has professed admiration for Søren Kierkegaard in interviews, but here the philosopher becomes almost fey, living “in the toy metropolis of Copenhagen, a little man with a dandy’s face” and an “extraordinary, insinuant voice, imperious and tender, rabid and witty.” Kierkegaard is lionized for his “heroism in facing down the imperious tradition of German idealistic philosophy,” too. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway (“a bearish celebrity” whose “work remains a touchstone of artistic ardor and luminously clean prose”), Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver (“produced stories of exquisite directness, polish, and calm that sit in the mind like perfect porcelain teacups”), and others receive equally encomiastic tributes. Taken together, these unequivocal pabula approach an idolization rather out of keeping with Updike’s well-tempered critical style. Had he lived to select the essays, this section may have been more representative of the balance and plasticity of his critical faculties, both exacting and encouraging.

Similarly, the essay “Humor in Fiction” is a curiosity. It mines the most tired passages from classics like Don Quixote and Candide, only to blur the sight lines between irony and humor, which is described, varyingly, as “the misapplication of momentum,” “states of mind that appear not merely various but even opposite,” “mock penalties,” and “rubbery” characters who suffer no lasting damage, all considered against the backdrop of veritable danger. Where Updike reads comic brio, in Huckleberry Finn’s unwillingness to characterize Jim, a former slave, as a human being, for example, others may read either gallows humor or satire carefully masking deeply engrained pain. Given that subtle jocularity is one of Updike’s novelistic strengths, it’s strange to see this essay miss its mark.

Given how diligent a reader and writer Updike remained throughout his life, annotating with extensive marginalia the text and footnotes of galleys he received for review, revising his published pieces for new collections until his death, he might have excised some of these less lively pieces, keeping one if it had “carefree bounce, snap, [an] exuberant air of slight excess,” and “the forward momentum of a certain energized weight” he ardently sought and achieved in his prose. The choice may have concerned him as it did Charles Baudelaire, who laid out anthologies specifically for the continuity between poems, or Paul Simon, who carefully considers the juxtaposition of songs when determining track listings for his recordings. We readers cannot know, but we’ll be privileged to see more of the criticism that charts the open sea, as Carduff’s introduction notes that additional art essays will be compiled, coupled with full-color illustrations, and published. Together with the “Gallery Tours” here and the literary criticism collected in earlier volumes, these will be evidence enough of Updike’s veritable departures from the haven he once envisioned criticism to be.

This piece was published in The Millions here. It was featured in the NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, on January 16, 2012, too.

Arguably: Essays

By Christopher Hitchens. Twelve Books, 2011. 816 pp. $30. ISBN: 978-1-455-50277-6.

Pugnacious political pundit. Unequivocal New Atheist. Churlish critic of Pope John Paul II’s beatification of Mother Theresa. Champion of freedom of expression. Christopher Hitchens was lionized and reviled for his multiform legacy as an essayist, literary critic, editor, and mandarin. His wrote with record celerity, at once tippling and typing masterful pieces under the aegis of The New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, Slate, and Vanity Fair. A sterling prose stylist, he was assertive and unapologetic to the point of braggadocio, yet convoluted and contrived in his thinking. He was urbane and erudite, yet at times so steeped in intellectual history that its mantle obscured his own ideas.

Arguably, the last compendium of his essays to be published in his lifetime (Mortality, a memoir culled from his Vanity Fair pieces chronicling his battle with esophageal cancer, will appear this spring), draws on this checkered history immeasurably well. Its sheer 816-page heft attests to its author’s productivity, while its six parts avow his scholarly breadth. “All-American” is a survey of the founding fathers and iconic American novelists like Twain, Bellow, and Updike, and an affirmation of Hitchens’s self-styled patriotism upon adopting American citizenship. “Eclectic Affinities” is primarily chosen from literary pieces on Flaubert, Dickens, Pound, Waugh, and Wodehouse, many of which first saw print in The Atlantic. “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments,” features, among others, his maddeningly misogynistic Vanity Fair piece on women’s lack of humor (“that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep throated mirth” apparently eludes women, who are “slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny”). “Offshore Accounts” comprises polemics focused mainly on the Middle East, while “Legacies of Totalitarianism” centers on Chile, Germany, and Iran. “Words’ Worth” is self-explanatory.

“Eclectic Affinities” sparkles, so skilled is the research, so sage and prescient the tone. The coruscating attack on Dickensian biographers from John Forster, Dickens’s best friend and literary executor, to Dickensian editor Michael Slater is an apposite sounding of a hagiographic trend that George Orwell, Hitchens’s literary forebear, first articulated in Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Even if it’s dated due to the release of Claire Tomalin’s magisterial, measured new biography, which finally takes Dickens to task on his inveterate mistreatment of his wife, it’s still an eloquent, cautionary philippic. “Rebecca West: Things Worth Fighting For,” first published as an introduction to West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is a trenchant look at a “superbly intelligent woman whose feminism was above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity.” Barely known to my generation, West was formidably and memorably avant-garde to her own, distinguishing herself through coverage of interwar politics and the Balkans, and amusing herself with a romantic liaison with Lord Beaverbrook, the model for Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. She considered coverage of Yugoslavia “her destiny,” she cleverly linked the assassinations of King Alexander of Serbia and his wife, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the regime of Benito Mussolini, and the spread of Italian fascism and Nazism to Croatia. Hitchens writes admiringly, “her ability to appraise historical and global figures as if she had recently been personally oppressed or insulted by them was a great assistance in driving her narrative forward.” Then there’s a witty anatomization of Evelyn Waugh’s greatness, predicated on his “toying with his innocents,” characters like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, and on his “camp social conservatism: his commitment to stuffy clubs, “home” rather than “abroad,” old clothes, traditional manners, ear trumpets, rural hierarchy, ancient liturgy, and the rest of it.” Hitchens is decidedly well placed to appraise this, having studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he led a sybaritic lifestyle not unlike Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte’s. There are byzantine literary musings elsewhere in Arguably (one on Nabokov’s Lolita that is nearly unreadable in its confused straits), but the stellar pieces in “Eclectic Affinities,” outweigh them.

Hitchens’s political assertions were at times unabashedly infuriating, causing altercations with former friends. Most often, though, these statements drew on his fervent belief in the freedoms of speech and expression, as Arguably shows. “Afghanistan’s Dangerous Bet” features hauntingly beautiful meditations on the burgeoning freedom of Afghani women in their dress and in suffrage, even paired with Hitchens’s characteristic insouciance. “Iran’s Waiting Game” focalizes a conversation with Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, who, to his interlocutor’s surprise, “stand[s] for the complete separation of religion and the state.” The essay adopts a humorous tone when Hitchens expresses awe at a call for democracy being uttered “from the lips of a turbaned Khomeini.” On meeting the deposed Shah Pahlavi’s son later on, he hears the same, “so, even if they remain at arm’s length, it can be said at last that a Khomeini and a Pahlavi agree.” Humor aside, he recognizes “a state of dual power and split personality,” where “people live as if they were free,” actually in patent anomie. There are appalling comments, too, such as these on Iraq’s Kurds:

Saddam [Hussein] actually was the real father of Kurdish nationhood. By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before, and compelled them to create a fierce and stubborn resistance, with its own discipline and army. By laying waste to their ancient villages and farms…they became more integrated, close-knit, and socialized…If the country implodes, they can withdraw to their oil-rich enclave and muster under their own flag.

Good grief.

For all his ire, Hitchens intrigued his readers and critics to the last. He invited the artful analyses of contemporaries like Terry Eagleton, whose animated Harper’s review of Arguably earlier this month celebrated the author’s “scabrous wit,” “the verve and panache of [his] prose, its tonal range and opulent texture,” and his able interweaving of “the unstanchable eloquence of a stylist with the barfly loquaciousness of a hack.” He won the ardor of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, whose tribute to “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” graces the magazine’s web archive of the “exquisitely crafted” columns for which Hitchens would “subject himself to any manner of humiliation and discomfort.” For those less intimately acquainted with his work, Arguably is a fine opportunity to take lessons (or umbrage, as it were) from the greatest contrarian since Dwight Macdonald, and one whose crackling wit, intellectual brio, and bracing candor will be missed.

This piece was published in PopMatters here.

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 208 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-307-26767-2.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote the sybilline cultural critic Joan Didion in her opening to The White Album, her chronicle of the revolutionary politics of the 1960s and ’70s. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Yet grief renders our mythologies and fears a fractured reality. “Disparate images” and “phantasmagoria” are immiscible, defying contours or frames. How do we give form to the bare ruin’d choirs of memory? This spectral question forms a refrain in Blue Nights, a threnody for Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, Didion’s daughter, whose passing from complications from pneumonia and a cerebral hematoma followed the precipitate death of John Dunne, Didion’s husband of four decades, by a mere two years.

The untidy vestiges of sorrow—memories of the white stephanotis flowers in Quintana’s hair, of her feet as she kneels at the altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on her wedding day, months before her death; of the hospital calling when newborn Quintana was ready for adoption; of Quintana’s loving scrawl on the back of a photograph she took, gracing Didion’s desk; Quintana’s words, phrases, poems—unmask the greatest resilience and stoicism, in the face of frailty and neurasthenia, that we’ve seen from Didion yet.

It’s precisely the geomancy of these non-Cartesian landscapes, first charted in The Year of Magical Thinking, that makes Blue Nights so hauntingly memorable, evocative of our foremost chroniclers of grief, the French moderns. The pacing and cadences recall Marguerite Duras’s requiem for her family, and for the fragility of a fly, in Écrire; Simone de Beauvoir’s mourning her mother in Une mort très douce, and Roland Barthes, touched and seared by pictorial representations of death in Camera Lucida.

What we know and revere in Didion, though—the sage skeptic, whose trenchant, spare prose, stripped clean of its cortices by her able editorial hand, leaving what John Leonard aphorized as “gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves”—remains her own, resonating through Blue Nights, written in the interstitial twilight of the summer solstice that the French call “l’heure bleue,” the English, “the gloaming,” when the dying of the light is a memento mori, prefiguring “the end of promise.”

A short version of this piece was published in Ploughshares here.