If you strain your eyes for a moment and look beyond the smokescreen of hyperbole, mawkishness, and more or less euphonious drivel to be found in the pages of the publishers’ catalogs, it is plain to see that in the oversaturated and underfed marketplace of literature, business is going on very much as usual: Philip Roth has written another novel about what it’s like to be a novelist in American; John Updike has decided that the time has once again come to garner the fruits of his journalistic endeavors into a stout block of prose; J.M. Coetzee continues his attempts to wrestle the materially comfortable portion of mankind out of its complacency; and so on.
Beneath it all, however, one senses a dark current tugging at the contemporary imagination. Indeed, as unregulated American capitalism continues to rape the earth and infantilize the minds of millions, and the doltish brinkmanship of the administration inches the world ever closer to the end of days, it is no surprise to find that rage, disgust, and terror should register not infrequently on the sensitivity radars of our foremost authors. From Roth’s The Ghost Writer we can expect such fulminations as: “The despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene—and so I began to annihilate the abiding wish to find out.”
Or again, here is Coetzee, in a remarkable sentence-long epic, summarizing the career of Tony Blair, and providing a needful antidote to the fawning valedictions that have marked the end of his premiership: “An ordinary little middle-class boy with all the correct attitudes (the rich should subsidize the poor, the military should be kept on a tight rein, civil rights should be defended against the inroads of the state), but with no philosophical grounding and little capacity for introspection, and with no inner compass save personal ambition, embarks on the voyage of politics, with all its warping forces, and ends up an enthusiast for entrepreneurial greed and the sedulous monkey of masters in Washington, turning a dutifully blind eye (see no evil, hear no evil) while their shadowy agents assassinate, torture and ‘disappear’ opponents at will.”
But things cannot be as bleak as they seem so long as there are books and a little leisure time in which to read them. Emerson put it rather well: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.”
By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pp., $40
It seems almost impolite not to include Updike’s new collection, since this grand old man of American letters would appear to have written 3,000-word reviews of just about every book published in the last 10 years with the sole exception of those authored by himself. Scattering his stylistic seed with unstinted generosity, even the most occasional of pieces is wrought with a care, nuance, and scruple one would be hard-pressed to find in a whole year of Sunday book reviews. His praise for the English critic Frank Kermode serves equally well as a description of the current volume: “Decent devotion to literary merit and a humble and tenacious will to understand and explicate the best examples of it would not seem to be unattainable virtues, but this babbling, dumbed-down age makes them harder to attain than formerly, and their exponents rarer, with a touch now of the embattled heroic.”
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp., $26
Whether committing the sin of Onan to the mental image of a woman who may or may not be Anne Frank, or immolating his libido on the altar of art, Philip Roth’s most tenacious invention, Nathan Zuckerman, has enlivened American literature since his debut 28 years ago in The Ghost Writer. Now in his seventies, galvanized by the possibility of “exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant,” the aged and physically decaying novelist returns to New York, theater of erstwhile debasements, in order to receive the latest in urological treatment, which Roth naturally takes great pleasure in limning for our benefit: “By going in through a catheter inserted in the urethra to inject a gelatinous form of collagen where the neck of the bladder meets the urethra, [the Mount Sinai doctor in question] was getting significant improvement in about fifty percent of his patients.” Before he can return to his aerie in the Berkshires, however, some old friends make an appearance, with alternately hilarious and unedifying consequences.
Diary of a Bad Year
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 231 pp., $24.95
Coetzee is up to his old tricks in this brief, furious novel of ideas—or perhaps, more accurately, novelistic essay—the majority of which is taken up by the discursive musings of one “Senor C.,” whose publisher has asked him to write down his thoughts on the current state of world affairs. These include the suggestion that someone should write a ballet entitled Guantanamo, Guantanamo: “A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mufflers on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive-green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms.”
Literary Essays of the 1920s & 30s
Literary Essays of the 1930s & 40s
By Edmund Wilson
Library of America, $40
At once densely arrayed and invitingly spacious, authoritatively general and exactingly precise, the sentences of Edmund Wilson patiently unfurl themselves in quiet, loving tribute to the values of lucidity and conci- sion. This one on In Search of Lost Time, for instance, is rightly famous: “Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intel- ligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician’s mind, the Saracean’s beak, the ill-fitting dress- shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.” Thanks to the Library of America (which Wilson began shortly before his death) we now have 30 years worth of Wilsonian sentences gathered together in two indispen-sable volumes.
Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
By Peter Gay
W.W. Norton, 640 pp., $35
Freud once gave an admirable one-line definition of modernity. It was, he said, about “not putting all your eggs in one basket.” Peter Gay, cultural historian extraordinaire, has allowed himself 600 pages in which to take a crack at this pageant of iconoclasm and obliquity, and the net gain is considerable. Among other virtues, its epigraph (from Baudelaire) is unlikely to be bettered by any book this fall: “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
The Israel Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy
By John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $26
Some people say it dictates U.S. foreign policy. Others dismiss this as the latest brand of anti-semitism. When two academics wrote an article on the subject that appeared last year in The London Review of Books, the response was ferocious, to say the least. This book-length follow-up was published last week, and the pundits are already tearing each other to rhetorical shreds.
By Victor Serge
NYRB, 376 pp., $15.95
Reassuringly described on the back cover as “the bleakest” of Victor Serge’s seven epic novels, Unforgiving Years takes as its theme the collapse of European civilization in the middle of the 20th century. A Bolshevik whose criticism of Stalin lead to exile first in France, then in Mexico, Serge was around to witness events firsthand and had something of an anti-talent for comfort and security. As he puts it in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary: “I have undergone 10 years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing. On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizzi-ness. And to think it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression. Those were the only roads open to us. I have more confidence in humankind and in the future than ever before.”
The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days
By Mark Edmundson
Bloomsbury USA, 288 pp., $29.95
Although the story is almost certainly apocryphal, it is hard to resist quoting Freud’s alleged impromptu addendum to a form he was made to sign by Hitler’s thugs before leaving Vienna stating that he had been treated decently: “I can honestly recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” One can expect to find many more such gems in Edmundson’s account of Freud’s final days in London, where, by all accounts, he would have seemed to ful- fill his own injunction about the need to “make friends with the idea of dying.”
In Praise of the Unfinished: Selected Poems
By Julia Hartwig
Alfred A. Knopf, 144 pp., $25
Czselaw Milosz called her “the grande dame of Polish poetry”; according to Ryszard Kapuscinski, she is “one of the foremost Polish poets of the twentieth century.” At 85, Julia Hartwig is seeing the first book of her poems translated into English. About time.
Unruly Americans & the Origins of the Constitution
By Woody Holton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 359 pp., $30
It has been said that there are two superpowers in the world today: the United States and mass public opinion. Holton’s book tells the story of how the framers of the U.S. Constitution did all that they could to reverse the slide into democracy after the Revolutionary War but were thwarted by the efforts of ordinary Americans, whom we have to thank for our freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, the right to vote, and just about all of the other good things in the Constitution.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2007