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0 - The Neglected Books Page

D. G. Myers recommends Perry Miller’s “The Raven and the Whale”

Regular visitor Texas A&M professor D. G. Myers recently posted a thoughtful and appreciative review of Perry Miller’s 1956 book, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. He compares it to Louis Menand’s Puliter Prize-winning 2002 book on James, Holmes, and Pierce, The Metaphysical Club, writing that, “The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.”

Myers also rightly notes that not all neglected books are ones that fade from the spotlight, like Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Some are, in his words, “books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.” Such books have certainly become more and more my focus as this site matures.

Neglected No More: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road

Although it was a National Book Award finalist when first published in 1961, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road has been a perennial on lists of neglected books, starting with David Madden’s first Rediscoveries compilation in 1971.

As the old joke goes, death was a good career move for Yates. Slowly but steadily, his star has been rising since his passing in 1992, despite the fact that as late as 1999, Stewart O’Nan was writing in the Boston Review of “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” However, it’s safe to say that it’s now reaching its apogee with the impending release of the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio.

In anticipation, two of America’s biggest literary magazines, the Atlantic and the New Yorker published feature reviews of the book by two “first call” critics–Christopher Hitchens for the Atlanticand James Wood for the New Yorker. Of the two, Wood’s is the must read, as his often are–respecting, insightful, but cutting when necessary, as in this comment:

That first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961)—the basis of a new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet— and it could be said to have dissolved its creator’s career even as it founded it, because Yates never published a novel half as good again. To put it brutally, he had about ten good years. His later fiction was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.

Having read all of his novels short of Cold Spring Harbor and most of his short stories, my experience of reading Yates was very much one of chasing the fire.

Thirty years after first reading Revolutionary Road, I can still remember the amazing scene in the hospital, where Yates subtly shifts the point of view to that of Shep Campbell so that he can land the narrative punch with maximum impact. After locking us into April Wheeler’s perspective, we wander off with Shep to grab a cup of coffee only to come back and find that April is dead. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in reading.

After that, I went on to read most of Yates’ work over the next year, and although he often succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of failure, disappointment, and desparate dreams, The Easter Parade aside, he never quite manages to bring the pieces together as well.

In further recognition of Yates’ ascendancy, Everyman’s Library is releasing in January 2009 a one-volume edition collecting his three best books: Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade , and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Reading Hitchens’ and Wood’s reviews reminded me of one aspect of Revolutionary Road‘s story of the disillusioned young couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their dream for escaping the conventional suburban Connecticut life they believe they should abhor is to run off to Paris, where April will get a job working at NATO Headquarters (then still in Paris) and Frank will work in his writing. Ironically, this is very nearly what Fred Holland and Sally White do in George Goodman’s A Time for Paris, recently reviewed on this site. And after Fred and Sally have their European adventure and lived Frank and April’s dream, what do they end up doing?

Getting married and settling down in the suburbs outside New York City.

Mary Astor, Author

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Maltese Falcon'Film and theater director Lindsay Anderson once said, “… when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up.” “She was an actress of special attraction”, he went on, “whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.” Between 1921 and 1965, she appeared in over 100 films, dozens of plays, and plenty of television dramas, but looking through her list of credits, what strikes us today is that we remember Mary Astor despite the fact that most of her films, aside from The Maltese Falcon and a few others, are pretty forgettable.

What almost no one remembers today, however, is that Mary Astor also had a respectable career as a writer. In her 1971 memoir, A Life on Film, Astor implies that it started “as a sort of assignment to help me during a short period of psychotherapy,” but the version that appears in the book that resulted from this assignment, Mary Astor: My Story, is a little more vivid.

Astor repeats an old joke in A Life on Film about the five stages of an actor’s career:

  1. “Who is Mary Astor?”
  2. “Get me Mary Astor.”
  3. “Get me a Mary Astor type.”
  4. “Get me a younger Mary Astor.”
  5. “Who is Mary Astor?”

Somewhere between stages 4 and 5, Astor became depressed over her declining career and ever less-interesting roles, developed a fondness for the bottle, and may have attempted suicide. During her recovery, she was in the care of a Catholic priest and practicing psychologist, Father Peter Ciklic, who encouraged her to write about her life and experiences. According to Astor, the result “was not meant for public eyes, but someone convinced me it should be a book.” She lucked into the support of a fine editor, Lee Barker, at Doubleday, who helped her shape the raw material into finished shape–remarkably, for a celebrity memoir, without the aid of a ghost writer.

Published in 1959, Mary Astor: My Story was one of the first confessional autobiographies to come out of Hollywood. Astor was candid, within the limits of her generation’s standards of discretion, about her affairs, emotional turmoils, and alcoholism. At the time when Donna Reed was still a leading role model, it was a real scorcher and became a best-seller.

For most celebrities, this would have been the end of the story, but Barker then suggested Astor try her hand at fiction, “…and I’ve been hooked ever since.” A year later, Doubleday released her first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe.

Cover of Dell paperback reissue of 'The Incredible Charlie Carewe'Although it suffers some of the typical construction problems of a first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable work that demonstrates “qualities of depth and reality” equal to those Anderson noted in Astor’s acting. Charlie Carewe is the handsome, charming, charismatic son of a wealthy East Coast Establishment family with impeccable bloodlines. On the surface, it seems as if the sky is the limit–no doors are closed to Charlie Carewe.

Unfortunately, something is a bit, well, odd, about Charlie. At first, there is just a sense that his behavior is a bit hard to explain, but given his class and status, his parents, his sister, the help–everyone writes it off to quirks in his character. But then his sister comes across Charlie in the rocks along the shore of their country estate–bashing a playmate’s head into the rocks:

There was absolutely no savagery in the action, no passion or hatred, no viciousness, He looked up briefly as he saw Virginia and Jeff and called out a smiling “Hi!” and then went back to his task. Firmly, purposefully, as though he were occupied in cracking a coconut. In the seconds before movement came back to the paralyzed observers another wave whispered up to the two boys and receded with pink in its foam.

Charlie’s victim is rushed off to the hospital with permanent brain damage and the Carewe’s social finesse is put to the test as they graciously usher out their guests as if nothing more than an unfortunate accident had taken place. The next morning, as he tucks into his breakfast, he asks chattily, “What’s the news on Roger? Did he die?”

The Carewes can recognize that they have something of a ticking time bomb on their hands, but their upbringing and lack of psychological awareness (the incident above takes place in the early 1920s) leaves them helpless when it comes to dealing with it. They shuttle Charlie through a series of elite prep schools, smoothing over matters when he’s quietly asked to leave due to thefts, attacks on other students, or other indiscretions. For a long time, the only person who seems remotely able to accept that Charlie’s actions are more than a little abnormal is his sister Virginia, and even she is at a loss to explain it:

As usual, she thought, she was making a fuss, putting too much importance on Charlie’s behavior. She should be used to it now. Wearily she thought, at least there was one consistency; in any given situation, Charlie could be counted on to do the wrong thing, the inappropriate thing. Nobody, but nobody, could be more charming when he wanted to be. He had, it seemed, a full command of the social graces, and in any gathering, especially of people who were strangers to him, could attract attention with no effort. People would gravitate toward him, toward the sound of his pleasant voice, his contagious laugh; but always he seemed to want to destroy it….

Schools could expel him, friends were quickly made and quickly lost, his contact with any kind of social life was brief, and none of it seemed to matter to him. Nor did it matter that the cumulative effect was destroying a family.

Astor displays a clinical objectivity in leading us through every step along the way as Charlie spreads havoc into the lives of almost everyone he meets. In each situation, the pattern is the same: glittering, showy success followed by abrupt failure due to some or other act of willful brutality. His forms a company, makes a great splash, achieves fame as a tycoon and philanthropist, and within a couple of years is being escorted out by his nearly bankrupted partners. He makes a show of joining the Navy after Pearl Harbor, then weasels his way out by pretending to be a bed-wetter. He drives his wife to divorce and alcoholism, borrows and loses money from friends, seduces wives and ruins friendships.

Not even the incredibly strong defenses of family fortune and status, though, can withstand the destructive force of Charlie’s will, however, and only an unlucky trip on a staircase keeps Charlie from standing alone in a wasteland of his own fallout. What Charlie is, we can now see in a glance with the benefit of much greater awareness, is, of course, a psychopath. The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley recognized this, citing Astor’s book in the 1964 edition of his classic work on psychopathology, The Mask of Sanity:

In many respects the most realistic and successful of all portrayals of the psychopath is that presented by Mary Astor in The Incredible Charlie Carewe. The rendition is so effective that even those unfamiliar with the psychopath in actual experience are likely to sense the reality of what is disclosed. The subject is superbly dealt with, and the book constitutes a faithful and arresting study of a puzzling and infinitely complex subject. Charlie Carewe emerges as an exquisite example of the psychopath – the best, I believe, to be found in any work of fiction.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician. It will hold the attention of all intelligent readers, and I believe it will be of great value in helping the families of psychopaths to gain insight into the nature of the tragic problem with which they are dealing, usually in blindness and confusion.

By this point, anyone reading this review who’s been in a bookstore in the last decade can’t help but think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. If asked to sum up the book in a single catchphrase, I would have to say, “Imagine American Psycho written by Louis Auchincloss (or Edith Wharton).” Where Ellis writes to shock, Astor writes to show how people of refinement and elaborate rules of conduct respond when faced with pure irrational violence.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable novel not just in the detail and accuracy of its portrayal of a psychopath but in the “depth and reality” of its portrayal of the society in which this particular psychopath operates. Astor is very much in the territory of Wharton and Auchincloss, and she’s clearly deeply familiar with it. This is a novel that has more than a few parallels with the story of the 20th century as a whole, which is one reason it’s a genuine shame that it vanished after a single Dell paperback release in 1963.

Astor went on to write four more novels: The O’Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965); The Image of Kate (1966); and A Place Called Saturday (1968). The last opens with a rape and goes on to tell about the victim’s decision to bear and raise the child that results. Clearly, Astor’s imagination ranged beyond the walls of the senior citizen apartment of which a visitor commented, “My, isn’t this nice! You can sit here and watch the cars go by!”

In her last book, A Life on Film, Astor revisited her life, but this time dealing almost exclusively with her experiences as a working actor, starting with a 1921 two-reeler, “The Beggar Maid”. Astor didn’t come to film: she was shoved into with both hands by her parents, particularly her father, Otto Langhanke, who was summed up by the great director D. W. Griffith as “a walking cash register.” Her first agent changed Lucile Langhanke into Mary Astor. Lucile was too young to understand much of the insidious nature of her father’s actions at the time, and by the time she was able to take some control of her life, she was in her early twenties and a veteran of over thirty films. So she writes:

As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor–every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women–she is still not “me.” A year or so ago I flipped on the TV set and then went into another room for a moment. I heard some familiar words and said, “Hey, that’s Mary Astor!” not “Hey, that’s me.”

Astor survived the transition from silents to sound. She recounts in the book all the troubles associated with the early sound recording techniques, which forced actors into behaviors more stilted and artificial than anything seen in the silents. By the start of the 1930s, she was a legitimate star, if not one of the first magnitude. Her life was regularly covered in Photoplay and a dozen other fan magazines, but as likely to be cast in a B-picture like “Red Hot Tires” as in a A-film like “Dodsworth”.

Then, in 1936, her private life became headline news as her husband’s attorneys attempted to introduce her diary as evidence. Although the studio execs managed to get it suppressed, gossip held that its contents were full of lurid sexual details of her affair with the playwright George S. Kauffman and dozens of male film stars. Astor consistently maintained that this was all hogwash, but forever after she was considered as dangerous material: a solid, consistent, and reliable performer but not safe to make a first-rate star of.

Although she gained some of her best parts in the years after the scandal, including her Oscar-winning supporting role in “The Great Lie” (1941), by 1944 she was, at 38, playing the mother of 22 year old Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”. She began to think, she writes,

“What’s so damned important about being an actress?” I saw my little world, insulated, self-absorbed, limited. And all the twenty years of hard work seemed sour and futile. It was a partial acceptance of reality, but it was still a bit like a child saying, “You mean there isn’t any Santa Claus?” I wasn’t aware of, nor ready to accept, the fact that the mere doing, the achieving, was the point. Not what I had achieved. For what I had achieved would in due time be forgotten. The doing was important, it was part of my being–of what and who I am.

Ironically, as Mary Astor got less and less to work with in her roles, she made more and more of them. In his forward to A Life on Film, writer Sumner Locke Elliott recalls working with her on a ridiculous 1950s television play intended to showcase the talents of the latest Miss America. She spoke, he writes, in “the voice of the actress who has been through it all; this is the calm of the veteran who can get you through even if the set falls down.” By her last film, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), her reputation as a professional had reached the point where Bette Davis could turn to director Robert Aldrich and say, “Turn her loose, Robert, you might learn something!”

A Life on Film is a terrific book and it’s entirely due to Mary Astor’s intelligent, ruthlessly honest, and ever ironic voice. This may be the least ego-filled book ever to come out of Hollywood. Astor makes no bones about the creature comforts that one can enjoy as the perks of stardom, but she never confuses film-making as a business of making money by creating distractions. This is a book about craft, about learning to build a character out of two-minute takes and hours and hours and hour of sitting around and waiting, written by a woman who was among the best craftspersons of her era.

If I had to pick just one of Mary Astor’s books for reissue, it would definitely be A Life on Film. As much as I admire and marvel at her accomplishment in The Incredible Charlie Carewe, I have to say I preferred her final memoir. I not only admired it–but I thoroughly enjoyed it and regretted at the end that I was closing the cover on Mary Astor’s last words as a writer.

Tributes to Two Neglected Gay Writers: George Baxt and Irving Rosenthal

George Baxt

Brooks Peters, who writes some of the most interesting and thoughtful pieces on literary, celebrity, and cultural figures of the past, recently posted a a href=”http://www.brookspeters.com/?p=838″>long review of the diverse career and works of George Baxt. Although Baxt worked in theater, film, television, magazines, and just about every other medium requiring written words, he will probably be best remembered as the creator of a pioneering series of mysteries featuring the first openly gay detective, Pharoah Love, starting with A Queer Kind of Death in 1966. Baxt also wrote a popular series of mysteries based on celebrities from the 1930s, including The Dorothy Parker Murder Case and The Mae West Murder Case, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Brooks quotes from Wendy Werris’ memoir, An Alphabetical Life, who recalls Baxt as,

If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you’ll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt.

Irving Rosenthal

Earlier this year, Dennis Cooper reposted an article from a previous blog on Irving Rosenthal, whose 1967 novel/memoir/cut-up assemblage, Sheeper, was one of the most outrageous and unashamed celebrations of gay life to emerge from the Sixties’ wave of sexual liberation. Although Sheeper is currently out of print, its name often pops up in discussions of favorite forgotten books.

Two Recommendations from Kevin Michael Derby

Kevin Michael Derby, about the only person, it seems to have noticed my post about the works of historian Kenneth S. Davis, wrote with two recommendations for books worthy of rediscovery:

• The Age of the French Revolution, by Claude Manceron, consisting of the following five volumes:

        • Volume 1: Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778

        • Volume 2: The Wind from America, 1778-1781

        • Volume 3: Their Gracious Pleasure, 1782-1785

        • Volume 4: Toward the Brink, 1785-1787

        • Volume 5: Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789

“Manceron was a unique historian who decided to chart the French Revolution through a hundred lives of key individuals. This leads to a vivid and often over the top narrative which offers little in the way of analysis and often proved incoherent in the way of descriptions. Manceron is all over the place and his narrative reminds me of Eliot’s “heap of shattered images.” Now he takes us to Rome for a papal election. Next stop is outside Philadelphia where General Washington retreats from Howe’s redcoats. Now to Versailles where Marie Antoinette is dancing. Meanwhile in the country, Robespierre studies law. Manceron makes no secret of his biases. He is a fan of the revolution and even dedicates volumes to modern day leftists like Allende and Mitterrand. Manceron also felt the need to jump out from behind the curtains and interrupt his narration with odd asides and comments, often shaking his fist at the leaders of the Church and other reactionaries. Still other times, he smugly asserts that the lead players of the Revolution were more heroic and had more dynamic adventurers than nomads and explorers. Manceron promised there would be at least ten volumes. He died after writing five, just as the Bastille was captured. While I can not claim to know more about why the Revolution occurred, I know the lead characters and their various motivations better having read the five volumes. These books really deserved better than to be forgotten despite the flaws. They make the French Revolution accessible.”

Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, by Francis J. Huddleston.

“Perhaps the strangest biography that I have ever read. While attempting to offer a life of the losing commander of the battle of Saratoga and a celebrated playwright of his times, Huddleston makes a number of asides including all of the following: there are too many scholars attempting to prove Shakespeare did not write his plays; whether or not actresses should take to the stage in skimpy night attire; what happened to French soldiers after the Great War; why they should not sell snacks on trains despite the declining quality of full meals served on trains; how horses from Spain are overrated by gamblers and equestrians alike; why the Prince of Wales both then and now-both George IV and the future Duke of Windsor-needed to find better mentors; why the British needed to adapt khaki uniforms sometime in the 1870s or 1880s; thoughts on what an Irish military museum should include; speculations on the exact nature of the Gulf stream; advice that if you are going to recite a limerick at the table with old friends and the first line is sexually suggestive, make sure the second line is too otherwise it will be a severe letdown for your companions; yelling “Are we downhearted?” is not a good way to convince your boss that your team does not have low morale; and many more comments, all of which have nothing to do with the life of General Burgoyne.”

Thanks for the recommendations, Kevin–I’ve already sent off for the first of Manceron’s volumes and am looking forward to reading it.

As always, readers are encouraged to provide their own recommendations–especially when they’re as interesting as these.

Khufu’s Wisdom, by Naguib Mahfouz

Cover of hardback edition of 'Khufu's Wisdom'I just got back from a visit to Egypt to see the see the Pyramids and the other major ancient sites, and while there, I was impressed to see in many of the hotel and airport bookstores and gift shops a respectable sample of works of Arab literature, virtually all of them part of a fine series from the American University in Cairo Press. The largest portion of these books, understandably, was the work of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Prize winner for literature. In the spirit of all the tombs and temples we were visiting, I decided to give Khufu’s Wisdom, one of Mahfouz’s few books set in ancient Egypt, a try.

First published as a special supplement to a small Cairo literary journal, al-Majalla al-jadida in 1939, Khufu’s Wisdom is, in fact, Mahfouz’s first novel. Although it received several positive reviews, it quickly vanished until his Nobel win inspired a rediscovery of his complete oeuvre. In truth, completeness is probably the single best reason for bringing Khufu’s Wisdom back to print and for its able translation into English by Raymond Stock in 2003.

The story in Khufu’s Wisdom is like something out of an opera: a switch of infants, mistaken identities, a stalwart young man rising to shining excellence against all odds, and love overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The writing, on the other hand, is a long way from the realism that characterizes Mahfouz’s works in more modern settings. Take this passage, in which cadets at the Pharaoh’s military academy compete in games of skill:

Suddenly there raced out from among them a rider who sped past them all with preternatural power, who moved so quickly that they seemed to be standing still. He was headed for victory right until the end, when the trainer again announced the name of the winner–“Djedef son of Bisharu.” Again, the cheers rose for him, and this time the clapping was even stronger.

Next the crier proclaimed that it was time for the steeplechase. Once more the officers mounted their horses, as wooden benches, whose height gradually increased one after another, were set up in the midst of the long field. With the blast of the horn, the horses bounded forward abruptly, flying over the first obstacle like attacking eagles. They leapt over the second like the waves of a ferocious waterfall, clear victory seeming to crown them as they progressed. But fortune betrayed most of them. … Only one horseman cleared all the hurdles as though he were an inexorable Fate, the embodiment of conquest. The crier called out his name, “Djedef son of Bisharu,” to the crowd’s huge praise and applause.

Our hero, Djedef, goes on to win all the contests and is appointed by the Pharaoh’s crown prince to a trusted post in the palace guards. Soon after, Djedef, Algy, and Ginger fend off a Nazi plot to bomb the … sorry, I got my one-dimensional heroes a little mixed up there.

Mahfouz was 28 when he published Khufu’s Wisdom, so we can’t consider it as juvenilia, but I personally find it hard to consider it literature, either. The narrative, it’s true, has plenty of momentum: it took me about two hours to finish this book, and I’m usually a slow reader. Mahfouz did have to sacrifice characterization and atmosphere for speed, though. Rambo is positively nuanced compared to anyone in this novel. What Khufu’s Wisdom most reminded me of was the Stalinist epic, “The Fall of Berlin”, in which the stalwart Stakhanovite worker, Alexei, beats all steel production records, wins the “All-Soviet Worker” award from gentle, wise Comrade Stalin, then single-handedly defeats the Nazis and wins the hand of his beloved Natasha. Only in Khufu’s Wisdom, our hero winds up Pharaoh in the end. I don’t think Stalin would have let ol’Alexei take over as Party Chairman.

Despite these shortcomings, Khufu’s Wisdom is now readily available in three different editions: in hardback from the American University in Cairo Press; in paperback from Anchor Books; and in a fine compilation with Mahfouz’s two other early novels set in ancient Egypt, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War, from Everyman’s Library.

Khufu’s Wisdom, by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Raymond Stock
Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.

A Time for Paris, by George Goodman

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Time for Paris'Marshmallows have more substance than this book. Stalwart Yale-grad and Korean War vet Fred Holland sails off to serve in the American Embassy in London. He and his chum spot pretty Sally White, also of good WASP stock, boarding their ocean liner. Fred chats up Sally, who turns out to be an old but distant acquaintance from summers on the island in Maine.

They flirt during the voyage and Fred accompanies Sally for a few days’ idyll in Paris before joining his post in London. Thanks to cheap flights and trains, they see each other occasionally over the next few months. Sally amuses herself with an avant-garde lover and then one of Fred’s old Army buddies. Fred establishes himself as a sturdy right-hand man to one of the Foreign Service’s rising stars. Fred and Sally wonder to themselves: is this love? Is this friendship? Is this a mistake?

Despite detours into romances with an English earl (Sally) and a worldly older woman (Fred), true love reigns in the end, with stalwart Fred flying an ailing Sally to a hospital, saving her life and winning her heart.

So why read this book? Isn’t this just a fancy variation on a Harlequin novel?

For me, the attractions of A Time for Paris are nostalgia and good, if ultralight, writing. Author George Goodman would later become much better known as Adam Smith, author of the best-selling The Money Game and host of a long-running PBS show. Goodman spent a year as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and he brings many of his impressions of England and France from that time into A Time for Paris.

In some ways, the world of A Time for Paris is as mannered and archaic as anything in Henry James: the schools one went to, the cut of one’s suit, the slant of one’s politics all still matter and are used like litmus tests by many of the characters. This is world where parties are still for drinking cocktails and smoking is obligatory. On the other hand, this is not quite your grandmother’s world. Both Fred and Sally have sex with several other people before finding their way to bed together.

Sexual liberation aside, though, the line between male and female is drawn in big, bold strokes. Though Sally runs to Europe to escape marriage to a conventional suburb-residing, daily-commuting, WASP male, by the end of the book she is destined to marry Fred, settle down to raise 2.5 children, and drive a station wagon, as we all know is only right and just.

Yes, it’s all out-dated, two-dimensional, and ridiculous. But fun. After all, even marshmallows deserve their spot on our kitchen shelves.

A Time for Paris, by George Goodman
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957

The Age of Reason, by Harold Nicolson

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Review
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


Excerpt

In the early years of his reign the King lived mainly at the Tuilleries in Paris, but in 1722 he moved to Versailles. Officially he occupied the gorgeous rooms which his great-grandfather had tenanted and slept in the monumental bed in which the Great King had died. But in fact these majestic apartments were too grand and cold for a man who, however promiscuous may have been his love-affairs, was essentially of a domestic temperament. He thus, with the help of ingenious architects, constructed a suite of private rooms communicating by a secret staircase with the state apartments. There were in the first place what were called les cabinets, namely, bedroom, bathroom, dining room, library, and study looking out into an interior courtyard. Above them was an even more private suite, known as les petits appartements, situated as a penthouse under the leads and surmounted by a private roof garden containing macaws, parrots, canaries, monkeys, and pleached trees of box, or myrtle or bay in blue and white tubs. It was here that the King would play with his children or exercise his fat angora cat.

The rigor and symbolism of court etiquette can be assessed by the strange fact that, although it was in his private flate that the King flirted and pretended to work, the state apartments below retained their old hierographical significance. Louis XV, like his great-grandfather, would undergo the slow, elaborate, and unbearably pompous parade of going to bed. Still would the dukes and marquises compete with each other to be accorded the honor of holding the candle or helping the King to get out of his shirt. When the last rites had been accomplished, when the carved and gilded barrier that separated the bed from the rest of the room had been ceremoniously closed, when the last courtier, bowing profoundly, had backed out of the bedroom into the adjoining oeil-de-boeuf, then Louis XV would leap out of bed again, put on his dressing gown, and, accompanied by a personal page carrying a light, would skip up the secret staircase and slip into his own comfortable bed in his own comfortable room. Then in the morning the ceremony had again to be performed in reverse. It never seems to have occurred, to either Louis XV, his family, or his courtiers that these cumbrous parades were absurdly unreal. The monarch was King by divine right, and his accustomed actions must be distinguished from those of ordinary mortals, as it were liturgically.


Editor’s Comments

The Age of Reason was the first of a half-dozen or so books in a series published by Doubleday in the early 1960s. Edited by the veteran reporter John Gunther, author of the popular “Inside” books of the 1940s and 1950s, the series had the impressive title of “The Mainstream of the Modern World.” Although works of history, the books were all written by authors better known for fiction (Alec Waugh), reportage (Edmond Taylor), or miscellany (Nicolson), and all focused more on personalities than movements, politics, and larger issues.

Although Nicolson declares his subtitle to be, “A study of the mutability of ideas and the variety of human temperament,” his emphasis is on the latter. As with his classic, The Congress of Vienna, Nicolson is an unapologetic popular historian, in the vein of Andre Maurois, Stefan Zweig, and others of his generation, writers who never felt their amateur status disqualified them from using history as a canvas of characters every bit as intriguing as any they might make up.

Of the twenty-one chapters in the book, nineteen are miniatures of a representative figure from the 18th century. Most are very well known: Peter the Great, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Rousseau. Making no claims to scholarship, Nicolson is unlikely to have uncovered any remarkable new material about them, so one could ask what makes such a book worth a bother forty-plus years after it was written.

The answer is simple: because it’s superbly entertaining. Nicolson gives us the basic facts of each life, but these are just a frame within which he weaves a tapestry of observations and anecdotes. Most of his material comes from the letters and memoirs of contemporaries: other historians are absent from the text. What doesn’t come first-hand sources comes instead from Nicolson’s keen eye for character and decades of experience in politics and diplomacy.

“Reason,” he quotes Herbert Read in his introduction, “is a very difficult word to use without confusion.” Nicolson acknowledges his skeptical view of the aspirations held out for reasoned discourse and rational thinking during the 18th century. We learn relatively little about the philosophical ideas any figure held or propounded, except as theory reveals something of the man who has it.

Instead, we learn of the merits and faults of each man and woman, of their eccentric habits and money problems, of their vanities and miseries. And we find out things more sober history books leave out. Take the opening of the chapter on Peter the Great, for example:

Walking in the royal park at Brussels, the inquiring traveler, if he diverge but a few yards from the graveled alleys of pleached lime, will come across a hollow among the shrubberies which is now used as a midden in which the gathered leaves are rotted down for leaf mold. In this declivity there is a small stone bearing a Latin inscription. It tells the traveler that on this spot the Duke of Muscovy, having drunk heavily, was violently sick. What is interesting about this memorial is that the Belgians at that date should have regarded the public vomiting of a reigning, even if barbarous, prince as so odd as to merit being recorded for posterity.

Considering how exhaustively documented the lives of most of his characters have been, it’s striking how often Nicolson introduces something like this–odd, trivial perhaps, but telling. As another example, take the ending of his chapter on Tom Paine:

William Cobbett … was shocked by the fact that the godfather of the United States should be shunned by all decent Americans. He therefore exhumed Paine’s body from the graveyard at New Rochelle and brought it back with him to Liverpool. For many years Cobbett preserved Paine’s skeleton in his house at Botley in Hampshire and on his death he bequeathed it to his son. The son, shortly afterward, went bankrupt and his possessions were sold by auction. Nobody has discovered who bought the bones of Paine. They have disappeared. And his works, which at the time created so prodigious an effect, are today unread.

This anecdote manages to be bizarre, tragic, and symbolic at the same time, which illustrates how, for all the novelty of the facts that Nicolson digs up, he never chooses them for novelty alone.


His lack of scholarly ambitions also allows Nicolson to inject his opinions where he feels the judgment is deserved. Thus, of Grand Duke Peter, husband of Catherine the Great, he writes, “He possessed a childish character, an incurable taste for low company, marked aversion from any form of study, and a violent temper. If not a certifiable lunatic, he was certainly a clinical specimen of arrested development.” After crediting Joseph Addison with “spreading to many dull and unenlightened homes the blessed habit of reading,” he passes a harsh sentence: “Addison’s complacency and optimism are as insipid as a vanilla puff.”

Such subjectivity is refreshing when dealing with historical figures. In too many works of history, maintaining the illusion of objectivity becomes an excuse for suppressing all sense of the writer’s own character. In Harold Nicolson, the Age of Reason had a chronicler with the erudition to deal with a broad and diverse span of time, ideas, and people with ease and skill, the political experience to make shrewd judgments of men, and the confidence to speak his opinions bluntly. The result is a tremendously enjoyable and satisfying work of history.


Review

· Time magazine, 5 May 1961

The age was often out of character but never out of characters. That is what fascinates Harold Nicolson, who scants history for personality, and arranges his book as a gallery of portraits bathed in the warm glow of idiosyncrasy rather than the cold light of 100% accuracy. The result is an “entertainment” written in the witty and amusing fashion of a male Nancy Mitford.

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The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century, by Harold Nicolson
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961

Jane White

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'Quarry'Brooks Peters wrote with a recommendation of Quarry, a 1967 novel by Jane White. As Brooks describes Quarry,

It’s a British novel from 1960s about three adolescent boys who kidnap a boy and keep him in a cave in a quarry. It’s been compared to Lord of the Flies. It got great reviews when it came out. I’ve just finished it and thought it was extremely well done. But a real enigma. I can’t figure out what it is really about except perhaps the breakdown of society.

Richard Freeman, in the Saturday Review, wrote that Quarry,

… is an allegory with a variety of more or less cosmic overtones. The action takes place not in a normal, pastoral English summer, but in an arid wasteland during a fierce heat wave. Images of darkness and light are strewn about and the cave is philosophically associated with the one in Plato’s Republic. The victim, especially, is given much symbolic weight to bear as a universal scapegoat…. [U]ltimately, the book is about the complex symbiosis between prosecutor and prey. If Quarry is less richly imagined than Lord of the Flies and lacks its verbal distinction, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily assured first novel, and is even superior to Golding’s in its control of allegory, the bare bones of which are less frequently allowed to obtrude.

Other reviewers compared White favorably with Iris Murdoch. Her second novel, Proxy, received mostly positive reviews in the U.K. but was uniformly panned in the U.S.. From what I can determine, White went on to publish four more novels:

She also published a memoir, Norfolk Child, in 1973. Despite the fact that reviewers of her later works offered such praise as “Miss Young writes well of marriages and the forces that mold them”; “a haunting, macabre quality reminiscent of Iris Murdoch”; and “an abundant mixture of lyrical and symbolic”, White seems to have disappeared from the publishing scene entirely after 1976. I haven’t had a chance to sample White’s work, but on the surface at least, she appears to be a worthy candidate for reconsideration.

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Added 22 November 2009

Jane White, autho of QuarryBrooks Peters added the following biographical information, along with a photo of Jane White, from the dust jacket of Quarry:

“Jane White was born in Cambridge in 1934, and her family moved soon afterwards to a remote farmhouse in Norfolk. Her father is an historian and University Lecturer at Downing College, Cambridge. Jane White was educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, then at a Convent boarding school. At eighteen she won a State Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. She read for an honours Degree in English and graduated with an upper second Degree. She worked as an assistant in a large public library for nine months prior to Cambridge and took various vacation jobs as a waitress — also as general help in a Maternity Hospital.

She was employed for five years with the B.B.C. World Service as a News Clerk in the News Information Department. In 1961 she married a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College, London University. She has one small son, and lives at Godalming Surrey.

Jane White has written plays, poetry, verse dramas for as long as she can remember. Her first novel was completed at the age of nine. She is much interested in acting, and took part in various amateur productions at Cambridge, once venturing as far as the Edinburgh ‘Fringe’.

Her interests include theatre-going, films, both good and bad, music of all kinds, and reading.”

Thanks, Brooks!

UW Press to Reissue “Two Kinds of Time”–Forgotten Classic China Travel Book

Cover of UW Press reissue of 'Two Kinds of Time'On the rare occasions when I’m back in the U.S., I always try to take time to stop by a public library and do some browsing through back issues of Book Review Digest. This evening, flipping through the 1950 volume, my eye was caught by the entry for Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time. Here is what Robert Payne had to say about it in the Saturday Review:

The present work, jam-packed with anecdotes, incidents, observations, theories, portraits, drawings, obscene jokes, quiet jokes, terrifying jokes, even ordinary jokes, has everything to commend it. It bursts at the seams, but so does Gargantua and Pantagruel. He has not written the modern Chinese Gargantua and Pantagruel, but he has done the nearest thing to it.

I took down the title, of course, and when I got back to the hotel, quickly googled it. To my surprise and pleasure, I found that this book, cited by numerous writers as one of the best books ever written about China by a Westerner, is about to be reissued in full, unabridged form for the first time in nearly sixty years–and from my alma mater, the University of Washington Press.

Peck, a Yale graduate, artist, and heir to a small hairpin fortune, first arrived in China in January 1936 while on a round-the-world trip. He ended up spending the better part of a year there before returning to Derby, Connecticut, where he then spent two years writing up his notes and collecting dozens of drawings into his first book, Through China’s Wall, which was published by Houghton in 1940. The book’s critical reception was superlative: “… the most important, the most fascinating travel book on China”; “remarkably unadulterated travel writing, transmitting observation and experiences close to the sensations of the moments when they occurred to a man of unusually balanced and sensitive intelligence”; “a better characterization in a paragraph than most venerable sinologists could achieve in a volume.” And, as Time‘s reviewer put it, “It is part exquisite travel book, part exciting history, part exotic philosophy.”

Peck returned to China in 1939 and remained there for the next six and a half years, surviving Japanese air raids, accompanying Mao’s Communist forces, and working for the U.S. Office of Information. He then left China for good and returned to his family home in Derby, Connecticut. Although he wrote several children’s books and collaborated with the veteran “China hand” John K. Fairbanks on China: The Remembered Life, it appears that Peck spent most of the rest of his life after 1946 looking backward, not forward. He died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Two Kinds of Time will be published on 30 October 2008 by the University of Washington Press.

Nobel Committee Salutes Neglected Books

In an indirect tribute to neglected books, the selection committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who has managed to be successfully ignored by most of the English-speaking reading public for the last forty-some years. But this neglect is understandable, at least in the eyes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who told an Associated Press reporter, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

For a quick and admittedly crude assessment of where the US and UK stand with respect to other countries in the recognition of Monsieur Le Clézio’s work, I checked a variety of online bookstores to see how many of his books were currently in print and available for sale. Here are the results:

Overall, this rough survey suggests that U.S. publishers are not doing too bad in keeping up with Le Clézio’s work, at least compared to other countries. And though his novels have never rated very high with any but a small circle of academics and fans of the avant-garde, the fact is that the Atheneum Press was a faithful supporter, issuing fine hardback editions of most of his major novels until the mid-1970s. With the celebrity of a Nobel on his side, Le Clézio is certainly back in demand, and there is a good chance that at least some of these now out-of-print English translations will be coming back. So, in spite of Mr. Engdahl’s assessment, the American publishing industry and reading public tends to be pretty responsive to the Nobel Committee’s championing of a neglected writer–certainly more than they are to this site’s!

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight

G. Wilson Knight, 1936, Photography by Howard CosterG. Wilson Knight subtitled this 1936 book “An Autobiographical Design,” and had he stuck to the autobiography and left the design out, I might have been less resentful about the several hours I devoted to assaulting its slopes. Perhaps I lack the mountaineering skills to attempt such a tower of intellect. But Atlantic Crossing struck me as one of the most grandiose failures I’ve tried to read in a long time.

Knight made his name as a critic and director of Shakespeare and other English dramatists. His lifelong immersion in Renaissance poetry and prose left him with a weakness for an intricacy at times beyond his own dexterity:

It was then I watched in twilight where up-piled clouds in rugged Alpine ranges towered and caught the morning and glowed with it, black rocks and giant crags fire-fringed, stained with a gilden glory. Shafts of burning mist, spear-points of the assaulting dawn, slanted angular upward splendours. Watch those breaking palisades, that rock-pinnacle flaming to its ruin, those tufts of red smoke, that heaving, billowing, crumbling, conglomerated mass–was ever such chaos so musically blended?–while the artillery of advancing day fumes the air with its cordite, rolling attar of roses in wave on wave.

Phew! Imagine 300-plus pages of this hyperventilating.

In Atlantic Crossing, Knight hangs on the slender frame of six days’ voyage on a 1930s ocean liner from Montreal to Southhampton enough ornaments and appendages to sink even the most sea-worthy narrative.

There are some promising bits. A fleeting, glancing romance with a lively American ingenue. Some fine purely autobiographical passages in which Knight recalls his experiences as a dispatch rider with British forces in Iraq and Persia during World War One. And enough tastes of luxury liner travel to leave us envious of the past:

Now what to do after breakfast? A pipe in the lounge; a walk on the promenade deck; watch the people; perhaps get to know some of them; shuffleboard and deck-tennis. This is to be unadulterated leisured aristocracy, free from beggars, telephones, letters, money, and all complex interrelations of modern civilization, yet with its best luxury at hand; in a world beyond richness and poverty, for one week.

Unfortunately for the reader, however, Knight can’t wait to hurl in great shovel-fulls of aduleration and complex interrelations:

It is often hard to day whether man’s passionate unrest is a matter of volcanic flame or turbulent ocean. The opposition of Thales and Heraclitus is profound. Fire must be liquid in us, coursing like quicksilver in our veins: that is, man’s fiery ascent drags ocean up mountains through fields of air. I suppose fire is ultimately the Alpha and Omega, earth-centre and empyrean.

OK, folks–a show of hands. Man’s passionate unrest: volcanic flame or turbulent ocean? I know my mind is often torn between these two choices. On the other hand, I have no second thoughts about what category Atlantic Crossing belong in.

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight
London: J. W. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1936

William Blake in This World, by Harold Bruce

William Blake, a portrait sketch by John Flaxman“In 1757 William Blake was born in London; in 1827 he died there; where he has been since 1827 I do not know.” This wonderful line opens Harold Bruce’s William Blake in This World, and that spirit of cheerful skepticism permeates the whole book.

“I doubt if a soul is to be understood, or a ghost to be saved by whitewashing,” Bruce writes in response to a century’s worth of attempts to fit Blake’s wildly original imagination into a more conventional and Victorian form. Instead of following tradition, laying out the story of Blake’s life in chronological order and drawing lessons from its successes and failures, Bruce takes what was, at the time, a very novel, Modernist approach:

To try to sift fact from romance, to try to erase the details of Blake’s life not backed by competent, material, and relevant evidence, will be to blur a smooth and highly-finished portrait, and to substitute a flawed and imperfect one, with lines sometimes dim, wavering, or blotted out. But this portrait, traced by Blake’s own words and by the memories of those who knew him, however flawed and imperfect it turns out to be, has certain sharply clear lines, and is at least a partial likeness of him as he was.

William Blake in This World is a collage, a view of Blake’s life and work from a variety of perspective, studded with quotations from his poems, letters, and the recollections of his contemporaries. He looks at Blake in terms of his view of religion and revolution, of the early signs of the Industrial Age and the mundane demands on his energy of politics and commerce. Bruce addresses the question of Blake’s mental health: was he locked up in Bedlam as a madman at one point?

Today, the book would probably be classed as criticism, but Bruce’s interest is strictly biographical. If Bruce has any particular message, it is that, however ethereal and visionary Blake’s spirit was, it resided in the breast of a man very much of his own time and place. Although I found the author’s own prose at times too elliptical and tangential to follow, there is no doubt that in William Blake in This World, Harold Bruce is a vigorous defender of his subject’s right to be himself.

William Blake in This World, by Harold Bruce
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925

If Everybody Did, by Jo Ann Stover

I vividly remember a few of the first books I encountered as a child. Though I never knew the names of their authors until I had kids of my own and started taking them to the library, I know I was fascinated by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire’s George Washington and Norse Myths. I don’t know if it was Wotan or Odin, but one of those Norse gods set in my mind as the father in “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and I never could quite accept what they taught us in Sunday School about God being Love. I thought Jesus was the nice, gentle guy who protected the little children from getting smote by God, all wrathful over something we did wrong.

Fortunately, the image that stuck with me the most was something a lot funnier:
Squeezed Cat
My family had one or more cats pretty much the whole time I was growing up, and a few of them endured hours of being picked up by the middle and lugged around by one of us adoring little boys–the way it seems all little kids carry cats:
Squeeze the Cat
After having this book read to me and looking through it over and over, I started to consider if maybe there were gentler ways to pick up the cat. See, the message of the book, as I understood it at least, was that if everybody did something like pick the cat up by the stomach and carry them all around the house, well, then, kitties would end up all pinched up in the middle. Which does look pretty uncomfortable, though funny.

Every once in a while in recent years, the image of that pinched kitty would come to me again and I would rack my brain to try to remember what the name of that book was. But I always drew a blank. I know I never came across it in trips to the library with my own kids, so it struck me recently that whatever it was, it might be a candidate for a mention on this site.

Out of the blue, it occurred to me to do a search on “What If Everybody Did?” It came up blank. So I tried, “If Everybody Did”, and lo and behold, there it was on Amazon:
Squeeze the Cat
And it was in print.

If Everybody Did is nothing more than a collection of illustrations of what might happen if everybody did what kids often tend to do: track in mud, leave toys on the staircase, leave water running in the sink, or wipe dirty hands on the wall or window. Some of the extreme results are pretty comical, but in my view, nothing tops the pinched kitty.

Jo Ann Stover wrote and illustrated a few other children’s books, including They Didn’t Use Their Heads, which, like If Everybody Did, has been brought back in print by Bob Jones University Press. Yes, the fundamentalist Christian college that seems from the outside, at least, a little Stepford Wives-like. Apparently these two books are popular with home schoolers.

Still, I’d highly recommend If Everybody Did for any parent trying to foster some manners in a two-to-five year old. At least one of their bad habits is in here, and I can offer personal testimony that seeing the exaggerated consequences is a good way to turn it around. I know there are a few kitties lounging around Cat Heaven now who owe Jo Ann Stover a bit of gratitude for not having to walk around our house looking like an hourglass.

If Everybody Did, by Jo Ann Stover
New York City: David McKay, 1960
Greenville, South Carolina: Journey Forth Press, 1989

Harper Perennial reissue of “The Moonflower Vine” by Jetta Carleton Confirmed

Cover of new Harper Perennial reissue of 'The Moonflower Vine'Easily the most popular neglected book on this site, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine is now firmly planted in Harper Perennial’s release schedule for the first quarter of 2009. In fact, you can pre-order it on Amazon today–if you’re willing to wait about six months to get the book, that is. A sneak peak at the cover is shown to the left. Jane Smiley, who wrote about the novel in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, will provide the foreword for this new edition.

The Problem of Kenneth S. Davis

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Experience of War'A very long time ago, I checked a book titled The Experience of War out of my high school library. It didn’t look too inviting–the cover is a photo of small black figures–soldiers–walking across a dark gray field, silhouetted against a light gray sky. The pages were filled with long, dense paragraphs of small print. But it was two inches thick, and at the time, I thought size mattered–at least when it came to impressing my classmates with my seriousness.

I only got about 200 pages into the book before I had to return it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t check it out again. But I can remember being profoundly impressed by how … well, I guess I would say, cinematic the book was. It wasn’t like other history books I’d read–setting aside things like The Great Escape as adventure rather than history, that is. It wasn’t a sequence of “this happened and then this happened” facts, with an occasional bit of analysis. It was a series of scenes. Wendell Willkie in the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, listening to the returns from the 1940 Presidential election. General Jonathan Wainwright waiting for the end in a tunnel on Corregidor. Navy pilots spotting and attacking the Japanese carrier Kaga just as they reach the very limit of their range, opening the battle of Midway. Harry Hopkins, already suffering from stomach cancer, flying from Washington to London and then on to Moscow to meet with Stalin in the early days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union–and then back to Scotland to meet up with Churchill and travel to the first Atlantic conference:

For twenty-four hours he is in troubled air, his sick body tossed and buffeted. He has barely strength enough to jump from the plane to the slippery deck of an admiral’s launch, at Scapa Flow, when at last the flying boat comes down. A sailor with a boat hook hauls him sprawling across the deck to the safety of the cabin. But he laughs! He laughs at this undignified arrival of the President’s personal envoy upon a British boat. He laughs at his sickness, his weakness. He waves a cheery farewell to the crew of the PBY, whose captain will later speak in awestruck tones of his passenger’s “unbelievable courage,” his “splendid devotion to duty.”

Almost twenty years later, I pulled down a copy of The Experience of War from a bookstore shelf and began thumbing through it. My first reaction was much the same as before: “Hmm … looks very thick, slow, and dry.” But then I hit that passage about Hopkins again, and I suddenly remembered, and decided right there to buy the book and immediately begin reading it again. At the time, I was flying regularly from Washington to Denver and back, usually in the same day, and a good, thick book I could sink into was something I really needed.

But then, around 300 pages into it, I ran into the following at the start of chapter ten: “Let George do it, the saying goes. So call him George.” George is a Marine, and Davis leads us through his enlistment, his basic training, his transport to Hawaii, his transport to a ship off an island in the Southwest Pacific, to George’s part in the island’s assault and bitter conquest.

George is a fictional character.

I found this quite disconcerting. Was this whole thing just a crock, I wondered? Was Davis just toying with the reader?

But eight pages later, we were back in real history, travelling around the world with Wendell Willkie on his 1942 propaganda tour at FDR’s request, and for the rest of the book, we stayed in what I considered safe territory. Edmund Morris’ Dutch was still ten years in the future and I thought mixing fact and fiction was like adding even and odd numbers–in the end, the result would always be fiction.

In his prefatory note to The Experience of War, Davis wrote,

This is a book about the American experience of World War II. It is not designed to be a formal academic history, though every effort has been made to assure its factual accuracy. Rather, its essential purpose is literary in that it attempts to rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time something of what Webster’s Dictionary, in the definition of “experience,” calls the “actual living through an event or events; actual enjoyment or suffering.”

Looking through the reviews that greeted the publication of The Experience of War, you can see that the majority of reviewers stumbled over exactly the same point I did. Most praise the work’s overall breadth and richness of detail, but caution the buyer to beware that the whole package could be considered tainted by the one detour into creative writing. Almost three decades later, the fine historian David Hackett Fisher could still sniff that the book “promiscuously mixes fiction and fact.” Eric Goldman, writing in the New York Times was one of the very to express unqualified praise, calling it, “…[H]istory in the grand manner, broad and powerful in its themes, eloquent in style …,” and noting its “sharply etched vignettes of people and scenes.”

Soon after publishing The Experience of War, Davis began work on the project that consumed the rest of his life–over thirty years–and ultimately end unfinished: his massive five-volume, nearly 4,000-page biography of Franklin Roosevelt. His first volume, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928 published in 1972, was a critical and commercial success, earning him the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

From there on, however, it was a long downhill slide. Walter Goodman’s Times review of the second volume, FDR: The New York Years 1928-1933 (1985), ended with this litany of faint praises: “He is an assiduous researcher, a creditable psychologist, a fair-minded analyst and, when he isn’t trying too hard, an inviting chronicler of the most fascinating political personality of our age.” Irving Howe was much more enthusiastic about the third volume, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937 (1986), calling it an “admirably rich book – rich in historical substance, political thought and character portraiture.”

He did note, however, that, “Sentence by sentence, Mr. Davis is not a bewitching writer: he has a curious weakness for stiff syntax and cumbersome phrasing.” And it must be said that the significant obstacle for Davis’ readers is less an occasional dalliance with fiction but his almost nineteenth century prose style.

At times, it can be completely over the top, as in this passage from The Experience of War:

High hopes. Bright hopes …

But then, abruptly, deep disappointments. Dark disappointments, and even despairs …

The bright and the dark ran side by side in a rush of contrasting events through the weeks after Yalta; they thrust against one another and tumbled over one another as if struggling for the minds of men …

I can only imagine what Professor Sale would have written if I’d turned in a paper with that tempestuous bit of prose. It’s Bulwer-Lytton grade stuff.

Throughout Davis’ long career, which began with a wartime biography of Eisenhower in 1944 and continued through over a dozen works of biography and history and three novels for over fifty years, reviewers took exception to his stylistic foibles: thousand-word paragraphs composed from sixty-word sentences, topped off with telegraphic exclamation points for dramatic effect: “It made a great stir. Of course it would.” And, yes, those bits of poetic excess no self-respecting dispassionate historian would attempt today:

With decision came liberation. A heavy weight was lifted from Roosevelt’s mind: his long-oppressed spirits could again rise.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940'Despite the fact that Random House gave the fourth volume, FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (1993), the biggest publicity push of the whole series, Davis’ reputation continued to decline. Although Robert Dallek acknowledged that the work would “take its place in the Roosevelt literature,” he found the most distinctive aspect of the book “the mass of detail on all the major and many minor events of Roosevelt’s second term.” Boy, ain’t that the kind of acclaim that sells a book: “‘A Mass of Details’ says the New York Times!”

Davis died in 1999, leaving the fifth and final volume unfinished. Mary Ellen, Ralph Titus, and Robert Loomis collaborated to shape the completed portion of the book and Davis’ notes into FDR: The War President, 1940-1943, which was published in 2000. Even so, the book ends in the middle of the war, with Roosevelt screening Casablanca at the White House.

Davis was spared the indignity of the book’s reception, which reminds one of the old joke, “The food here’s terrible–and the portions are so small.” Here is Michael Lind, again from the Times:

FDR: The War President, 1940-1943 is not history. It is sensationalistic historical fiction of the kind associated with Oliver Stone and the Edmund Morris of Dutch. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reputation as a historical figure will survive this book. Kenneth S. Davis’s reputation as a historian will not.

One pictures Lind spiking his copy of the book into Davis’ grave and dancing a little touchdown jig.

Kenneth S. Davis in 1993So is that the fate of Kenneth S. Davis? To have steadily and diligently written himself into oblivion? At the moment, all but his history of Kansas are out of print. While his FDR books have been referenced by dozens of historians since their publication, as a quick Google Book search reveals, most of the time it’s for their details of color and character than the historical insights. And for readers unprepared for the task, the prospect of lugging a few pounds of a Davis book or sticking with his long, dense paragraphs probably seems like that of reading Proust without the payoff of being able to brag about it at parties.

For a few persistent and diligent readers, though, there are considerable rewards. I said early on that I remembered The Experience of War as a cinematic book. Irving Howe, on the other hand, saw the parallel for Davis’ approach in an earlier century: “… [T]he total effect of his book is strongly dramatic, reminding one of those naturalistic novels that marshal lumbering sentences in behalf of narrative drive.” Yes, there are plenty of lumbering sentences. But there are also such vivid, memorable scenes: Eisenhower pacing up and down the runway in Gibraltar, anxiously wondering how successful (or costly) the American Army’s landing in North Africa would be. John Hersey encountering the realities of combat in Guadalcanal. Oppenheimer torn between hope and dread at the first atomic bomb test. David Lillienthal wresting control of the Tennessee Valley Authority from the powerful electric utilities. An ordinary visitor experiencing the marvels of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Or FDR’s first fireside chat:

There was nothing fake about the hearty, laughing good humor, the optimistic faith (he knew everything would come out right in the end!), the indomitable courage, the incessant, stupendous joie de vivre which he exuded and which others, needful of it, soaked up as parched earth does water.

If what Davis set out to do in his books was, as he wrote in his prefatory note to Experience, to “rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time” experience–“the actual living through an event or events,” I think we can say he succeeded, even if it was counter to critical preferences.

For the past umpteen years, I’ve usually had one or another of Davis’ books in my nightstand. In between books, I’ll pick it up, open a page at random, and dip in. And almost always, I find myself carried away through the next dozen pages by the power of his story-telling. And for that, I am grateful.

Happy Moscow, by Andrey Platonov

Excerpt

A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street on a bleak night in late autumn. The little girl saw him through a window of her home as she woke from a bleak dream. Then she heard a powerful shot from a rifle and a poor, sad cry–the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon afterwards came the sound of distant, repeated shots and of uproar from the nearby prison. The little girl went back to sleep and everything she saw during the following days got forgotten: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood became overgrown for ever in her body by subsequent life. But until her last years the nameless running man would appear unexpectedly and sadly inside her–in the pale light of memory–and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heart of a grown-up child. Amid hunger or sleep at a moment of love or some youthful joy–suddenly, the sad cry of the dead man was there again in the distance, deep in her body, and the young woman would immediately change her life: if she was dancing, she would stop dancing; if she was working, she would work more surely, with more concentration; if she was alone, she would cover her face with her hands. On that rainy night in late autumn the October Revolution had begun–in the city where Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova was living.


Editor’s Comments

Cover of Harvill Press edition of 'Happy Moscow'When I read the above opening passage of Happy Moscow, standing in an Oxford bookstore, I knew I had to buy the book and immediately go find a quiet place to sit and read it through to the end. Although quite different in subject and mood, Happy Moscow reminded me of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things: a dream-like book, where the characters are drawn along by some kind of irresistible force, taking actions that would seem irrational out of this context but that we and they go along with, caught up as if in a trance.

Happy Moscow is an unfinished novel first published in Russian in 1991. From what I could tell, “unfinished” in this case means “without finishing touches” rather than “without an ending.” The title refers to the woman, Moscow Chestnova, so named when tragedy leaves her orphaned and nearly amnesic, but it also refers ironically to the city, in which much of the novel takes place. I gather that this double entendre is typical of Platonov, and one of the reasons that some Russians believe his writing to be untranslatable. That should not be taken, though, to suggest that Platonov’s prose is at all difficult. On the contrary, as you can see from the excerpt above, this is simple, limpid prose–at least on the surface.

There is no real plot to speak of–just as in a dream. Moscow becomes a Soviet heroine as a daring experimental parachutist, but after an injury, turns her back on the state and spends the rest of the book wandering through a series of relationships with people who have also decided to become outcasts and marginal characters. Stalin is said to have written “Scum” in the margins of one of Platonov’s works, and you can see how the writer’s subtle rejection of Soviet idealism must have irritated him. In Happy Moscow, Platonov celebrates not the new and clean and heroic, but the second-hand and cast-off:

And there were people trading things which had lost all reason for their existence–house-coats that had belonged to enormous women, priest’s cassocks, ornamented basins for baptising children, the frock-coats of deceased gentlemen, charms on waistcoat chains, and so on–but which still circulated among people as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality. There were also many items of clothing worn by people who had died recently–there truly was such a thing as death–as well as clothes that had been got ready for children who had been conceived but whose mothers must have changed their minds about giving birth and had abortions instead, and now they were selling the tiny wept-over garments of an unborn child together with a rattle they had bought in advance.

I dog-eared the page on which this passage appears when I first read the book, but now that I type it out I can see how many chinks Platonov points out in the fine facade of the Soviet state in just two sentences: the remnants from the Tsarist days that still circulate “as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality”; the notion of women changing their minds about giving birth–bringing a child into the bright future of Stalinism–and having abortions instead; that fact that even in this best of all possible worlds “there truly was such a thing as death”. It seems hard to believe that publication of Happy Moscow wouldn’t have earned Platonov and his editors a trip to the gulag.

A reviewer once wrote that, “”In Platonov’s prose, it is impossible to find a single inelegant sentence”, and another that, “Rarely does literature come this close to music.” Happy Moscow is rich with examples of such writing. Yet he also embraces the crude, the dirty, the obscene. One character, a surgeon, gets wrapped up in a search for the place in the body where the soul resides and becomes convinced that it lies in the intestines. Grabbing a handful of the excrement from a corpse, he exclaims, “This really is the very best, ordinary soul. There’s no other soul anywhere.”

Platonov’s star is finally on the rise, some fifty-plus years after his death. Harvill, which published Happy Moscow, also has two other Platonov works–Soul and Return–in print. Northwestern University Press released Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of The Foundation Pit in its European Classics series, and New York Review Books has released its own volumes of Soul and The Fierce and Beautiful World. NYRB has also announced the release of a new translation of The Foundation Pit in April 2009.


Find a copy

Happy Moscow, by Andrey Platonov, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Nadya Bourova, and Eric Naiman
London: The Harvill Press, 1999

Neglected Books and Movie Tie-ins

As I read Nicholas Lezard’s review of the new Pushkin Press edition of Stefan Zweig’s novel, The Burning Secret, I thought, “I think I saw this movie.” And sure enough, thanks to IMDB, I quickly confirmed my suspicion: it was filmed in 1988, under the same title, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Faye Dunaway.

About a month, ago, my wife and I watched the DVD of “Separate Lies”, starring Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. It’s a perfect sort of movie for tired married people to watch on a quiet weeknight: human drama, a bit of tension, a murder, good acting, and well-dressed characters. Not great art, but certainly fine craft. But one credit caught my end at the opening: “Based on the novel, ‘A Way through the Woods’, by Nigel Balchin.

I recognized Balchin’s name from this page–his World War Two novel, The Small Back Room, is mentioned a number of times. Its story was also, incidentally, filmed in 1949, a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger production. A Way through the Woods proved, upon a bit of research, to be a 1951 novel motivated, according to Clive James in what is perhaps the most extensive work on Balchin easily acccessible, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin“, in part by the break-up of Balchin’s own marriage due to infidelity.

Just this year, Persephone Classics , a model publisher of neglected books, had the biggest break in its history when Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel by Winifred Watson that Persephone rescued from oblivion, was made into a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, thereby raising the book’s visibility and sales considerably.

I won’t start excavating the many other examples available of film versions of neglected books–but I will recommend paying close attention to the writing credits: you never know when a good (or even bad) movie will lead you to discover an even better book.

What People Said, by William L. White

Editor’s Comments

Hardly anyone outside Emporia, Kansas today remembers William Allen White, but a hundred years ago, this editor of the town’s leading paper, the Emporia Gazette, was a figure of national renown, a major influence within the more liberal wing of the Republican Party, a man consulted by governors, senators, even Presidents. His columns were reprinted in hundreds of papers. He was considered one of American’s wise men. “The Sage of Emporia” some called him. Teddy Roosevelt usually stopped off at White’s home when crossing the country. He wrote Coolidge’s biography, advised Hoover, helped other Republicans do damage control during the Harding years. Writing from a small town at the heart of America, William Allen White was a symbol of much that was right and just.

William Allen and William Lindsay WhiteWhat People Said was written by his son, William L. White–a Harvard graduate, a highly-respected foreign correspondent and, eventually, successor to his father as editor of the the Gazette. It was his first and only novel.

“This book is fiction” states the epigraph. The assurance was necessary because, at the time, it told a story that was still familiar to most of its readers: the Kansas Bond Scandal. In 1933, a Kansas business man, Ronald Finney, was arrested, accused of numerous counts of fraud. That alone would hardly have made it national news, however, had it not been for the circumstances of his frauds. Finney’s schemes involved forging public bonds–for school construction, for sewer work, for country roads and bridges–and using them as security for substantial loans. The paper trail in this case led to some interesting places, including the office of the Kansas State Treasurer, and, just possibly, the governor himself–Alf Landon, that is, FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1936 Presidential election.

It led to the impeachment of the state’s attorney general and auditor and conviction of the Treasurer. It also led to the doorstep of the Emporia bank owned by Warren W. Finney–Ronald’s father … and a close friend and neighbor of William Allen White, the Sage of Emporia. Ronald Finney was convicted and sentenced to a whopping term of 30 to 600 years in the Kansas State Penitentiary. Soon after, bank examiners shut down the bank. Implications about improper loans, check kiting, and, yes, forgery. Warren Finney was tried and convicted, but as the county sheriff waited on the front porch to take him to prison, he went out the back door, drove off into the countryside, and shot himself.

There was never the slightest suggestion or indication that William Allen White was involved in any of this. But the mere fact that for decades he had lived with, supped with, sat in church alongside, and vacationed with Warren Finney without ever inquiring about Finney’s affairs or the recurring rumors of questionable activities led many people to wonder just how sagacious and upright was the Sage of Emporia. And to wonder what that then said about some basic American home town beliefs.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'What People Said'In What People Said, William L. White recounts the intertwined histories of two families–the Carroughs (the Whites) and the Norssexes (the Finneys)–and plays out the trail that led from the Norssexes’ arrival in Athena, Oklarada (Emporia, Kansas) to the frauds of father and son: the downfall of one family and the loss of faith in the other. Charles Aldington Carrough (William Allen White), editor of the Athena Sun is a man of national repute, a leader of the Progressive. Isaac Norssex (Warren Finney) buys the Athena Power and Light Company, moves to town, then sells the company and settles into a life of banking and various business ventures.

The families become friends. They attend the same church, visit each other when sick, spend summers together at the lake. Lee Norssex (Ronald Finney) and Junior Carrough (William L. White) grow up, fishing and hunting, going to parties, playing games. Junior goes to Oxford; Lee to Oklarada State, but they stay in touch, returning to Athena and starting careers and families as their fathers sit together in church, pillars of the town establishment.

Except that Isaac Norssex is never quite as well accepted by the people of Athena as he is by Charles Aldington Carrough. A murmur of suspicion and distrust runs throughout their talk:

The substantial people in Athena accepted the Norssexes slowly. They felt it was a little presumptuous for them to buy on Federal Street as soon as they came to town. Just because you lived on Federal Street didn’t mean you immediately became intimate with Athena’s first families, whose fathers had organized the first stores in the sixties, and had saved their money and invested it in big pastures and ranches in the seventies and eighties.

The older men had a feeling that you Isaac Norssex was tricky in business. They agreed he was smart. But what did he have back of him? He had started as a trader in the equities of small light companies–buying, developing, consolidating, selling only to buy again.

The power business was probably all right. But it was new. Probably it was going to be permanent–maybe it was going to expand. Yet in the early twentieth century it was not so respectable as running a bank or a general store.

The people of Athena represent the third point in What People Said‘s dramatic triangle. Throughout the book, through every twist and turn of the narrative, through the good times of the Twenties and the bad times of the Depression, their commentary reflects upon events and characters. WPS is an apt title, for people serve as the chorus in White’s tragedy, and what they say throughout the book constitutes perhaps the most significant aspect that makes it worth rediscovery.

White’s chorus does not speak in unison. We hear different sides–from the store owners and day-labourers, from the farmers and the city folk, from the Progressives and the Stand-patters:

Oklarada’s Progressives favored child-labor legislation and safety guards over whirring gears in factories and compulsory accident insurance and couches in each women’s rest room so girl workers could lie down, and paper drinking cups. In these objectives they were opposed by the Standpatters, who found the world quite satisfactory as it was, who believed unshakably that man’s function on earth was to acquire as much as possible of its rich surface for himself and his children, and that these ends could best be served by keeping soft-headed cranks out of the Oklarada State House.

But like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the people of Athena also pass moral judgments on the characters in the drama and their actions. Suspicions of Isaac Norssex are fed by rumors, and rumors become more and more explicit about the nature of his misdeeds:

After a few years an occasional disquieting rumor began to drift into Athena from out of town. It seemed that Mr. Norssex had a reputation for kiting checks with other bankers. It was never anything definite–just Sos-and-so said he heard it from Such-and-such, that Norssex was running a lot of checks through the Clearing House to Old Man Perky’s bank in Toluca, that Perky was a notorious old kiter, and they guessed Norssex and Perky between them must have a thirty- or forty-thousand-dollar kite floating most of the time.

When Lee graduates from Oklarada State, his father sets him up with a small bank to run. Lee soon finds it something of a dead end, less a stepping stone than a millstone around his neck. But he also learns his father’s purpose in putting him in charge–to help out with the floating of an occasional big check or two. Purely a matter of convenience, just a matter of avoiding some unpleasantness due to mistiming of intake and outflow. Unfortunately, a bank examiner eventually detects a hint or two of what’s going on in Lee’s bank and confronts Isaac. Purely a matter of inexperience, Norssex assures him. Youth and poor judgment. Lee quietly leaves the bank and goes into the insurance business. There are rumors, of course, more murmurs of suspicion. But nothing’s proved. No charges are filed. Perhaps the rumors are just spiteful.

Soon, Lee’s fortunes begin to turn. From insurance he moves into bonds, and bonds expand into speculation into stocks and commodities. No one quite understands how he manages to make money. He tells people he’s a bond broker, but just what that involves isn’t quite clear to anyone. He seems to get access to some of the top men in the state–the treasurer, legislators, maybe even the governor. But still ….

And the intermittent rumors about his father keep popping up. Charles Aldington Carrough remains far above the hub-bub and whispering, an ivory tower of rectitude. But his son Junior struggles to remain objective. He resists attempts to publish stories about questions from auditors and examiners in the Sun, going to extraordinary lengths to give the Finneys the benefit of the doubt. Even up to the point that a warrant for Lee’s arrest is issued, Junior finds it difficult to see him as anything but a life-long friend:

A guy you had always known–who you knew liked books about travel and adventures and hunting, and liked his hamburgers not rare but medium rare, liked pickled beets with cloves in them, and did not like tapioca pudding very much or dogs at all.

Yet now he was something else. He was headlines in the morning paper, he was a public newsprint figure who had a “whereabouts” which “had not been ascertained” by the morning papers. He was the “daring speculator,” he was a lot of other things besides being a guy who watched to see that they took the hamburger off when it was just medium rare.

The people’s chorus, however, is ready to pass judgment:

All that week everybody in Athena was awfully sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Norssex. People who had never liked them were sorriest of all, could imagine most vividly how awful it must be to have your boy accused of a penitentiary offense, how broken the Norssexes must be under the blow!

People who did not like Lee could now say that they had always thought something like this would happen and that they were sure sorry for Henny and the kids.

Those who liked neither the Norssexes nor the Carroughs were of course sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Norssex, but to Junior they would say, looking cynically off into space: “Oh, he’ll get out of it! You’ll see! Lee Norssex’ll never go to the penitentiary, his friends will get him off!”

In the end, Lee Norssex is convicted and sentenced, and as in the real-life Kansas Bond Scandal, the investigators carry on to indict and try his father for similar frauds. And as Warren Finney did, Isaac Norssex quietly slips out the back door of his house for a last drive, out to the family’s vacation house by the lake. Despite the fact that Isaac seems a pretty wooden figure through most of the novel, White pulls out some of the book’s best descriptive prose for his last moments:

He lifted the oak-framed kitchen mirror from the nail where it hung by a picture wire on its back. He walked out onto the screened porch, his footsteps again echoing on the wooden floor as he went evenly about what was to be done–slipping the shiny cartridges into the black holes of the chamber, which clicked as it revolved.

The springs of the long porch swing creaked familiarly as he sat down on its gaily striped cushion. The surface of the kitchen mirror was wavy, but by holding at arm’s length he could see that the slender black barrel pointed at the proper angle into the neatly trimmed iron-gray hair. When he was sure it did, he met the gaze of the calm and determined eyes that looked at him from the wavy mirror.

Afterward it was very still again except for a breeze which now and then rustled the awning outside the screened-in porch, and the car engine, which ticked away the last of its heat on the hilltop, at the end of the long, straight road.

What People Said betrays some of the weaknesses of many other first novels–a narrative thread or two that wanders off, never again to be seen; characters that exist purely to fill in a gap in the story; and a protagonist (Junior) who manages to see and hear more than anyone else but himself lacks any solid characteristc. It’s a long book, over 600 pages, that could easily lose a hundred without much disadvantage.

But it’s also a remarkable novel with a very strong narrative momentum. I devoured the book in under six days, usually gulping down a hundred or more pages at a sitting. You know from the very beginning that something is going to go very wrong with the Norssexes, but White manages to sustain the reader’s morbid fascination in seeing it all unfold, step by step.

It’s also substantial portrait–in large scale and small–of small town, middle America in the first third of the 20th century. Hardly anyone in town owns a car at the start of the book. Roads peter out a mile or so out of town. Everyone knows in fine grain the stratification of the Protestant churches–Presbyterian on top, Methodists in the middle, Baptists on the other side of the tracks, Lutherans for the Germans and Swedes. Athena sends some of its boys off to France in 1917. After the war, some of them revive the Ku Klux Klan to “protect the working man.” Publicly, the town supports Prohibition. Privately, you know who to call if you want a bottle of “gin” brought round the kitchen door once a month.

As a town built around agriculture, Athena feels the effects of the Depression early and deeply. Farmers default on mortgages. Hoovervilles rise up beside the city dumps. The proud businessmen who were optimistic boosters during the Harding years grow “hopeless, staring out of empty stores with a hopeless little stubble on their chins, hopless bags in the knees of their once natty gray worsted suits.”

And, throughout the book, there is that chorus–wonderfully catty, hypocritical, Puritanical, earthy, cynical, altruistic, bitter, hopeful, but always ready with something to say:

That winter, people were afraid to grumble much about Lee Norssex’s success. You could see plainly he was making a lot of money. And nobody else was. He was into all kinds of things. Probably some of them would not turn out so well.

But if you said this, people would say you were jealous, picking on some little detail, just because your business was bad. Because you hadn’t been smart enough to think up things which would make money, as Lee Norssex had.

People would be right, too, because you were jealous. But you tried not to be. Every time you heard that Lee had made some money on a deal, or heard that he had bought something which you would like to own but probably never could, you would smile and say, “Well, by George, that’s fine. I’m awfully glad to hear that!” You would try to be glad, too. Even though your business was going to pieces before your eyes in spite of everything you could do, you did not want to become a bitter little man.

It would be unfair to label What People Said a “regional” novel. I think it deserves a place on the shelf alongside and perhaps ahead of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Main Street. It’s a rich tapestry of American life well worth rediscovery.


Find a copy


What People Said, by William Lindsay White
New York: Viking, 1938

The Horrors of Love, by Jean Dutuord

Rabbi David Wolpe writes to recommend a favorite title that’s now long out of print and largely forgotten: Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel, Les Horreurs de l’amour, released in English in 1967 as The Horrors of Love. This description of the book and its plot comes from Time magazine’s original review:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Horrors of Love'The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.

The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinary—not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue.

This is not the first mention of The Horrors of Love in these pages. In the Los Angeles Times’ 1999 feature, Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium, John Lukacs called it a “stunning exception” to the overall decline of the novel. Lukacs wrote,

One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb.

And in nosing around the Net, I found a third strong thumbs-up from the fine novelist, Diane Johnson, in an issue of Archipelago from a few years back:

My first choice would be Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors of Love, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force — a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbane, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful — this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos?

Jean DutourdPraise such as this makes me want to hang my head in shame for not having read it yet, even after skipping past used copies in bookstore stacks perhaps a hundred times over the year (I think it was a Literary Guild selection, so there are plenty of cheap used copies out there in the U.S.).

Dutuord, who’s managed to put out nearly a book a year since 1946, is still living and, I assume, writing. His 1950 satirical fantasy, A Dog’s Head, was reissued by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Fiction series in 1998 and is still in print. His other novel of that year, Au bon beurre, scenes de la vie sous lâ Occupation, translated as The Best Butter has been called the best French novel to come out of World War Two.