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opinionated commentary on literary matters - from the complete review
1 - 10 November 2002
Siegfried Unseld (1928-2002) | November crQuarterly
go to weblog
Popular Proof | More reviews of the new Proust translations | More Popper v. Wittgenstein | Figes payback ?
And once more 'round with Natashas's Dance | Everybody loves The Lunar Men
Power's "Problem from Hell" | Maslin on Franzen
Gabe Hudson's epistolary clarification | Kathy Acker symposium
Geoffrey Hill notes | M John who ?
Tartt in Oxford | Gray's Prefaces in paperback
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10 November 2002
Tartt in Oxford | Gray's Prefaces in paperback
Donna Tartt in Oxford
Donna Tartt's The Little Friend remains much discussed and reviewed (see also our earlier comments, as well as our review (where you can find other relevant links).)
Prominent on her book-promotion tour was a visit to Oxford -- the British original, not the closer-to-home Mississippi town.
On 30 October she appeared at the Oxford Union -- an impressive gig.
The Oxford Student reported on the event (and the book).
Usually we'll hold our tongues (and pens) when we come across this sort of stuff -- they're just kids, after all, even if they are attending a university that (we thought) had certain standards -- but this time we just can't hold back.
In part that's because these two pieces exemplify the fawning gush that Donna Tartt's mere appearance occasions, and of which we have gotten very, very tired.
(We're tempted to think these two pieces were meant as parody, but can't convince ourselves of that.)
It is the quality of expression in these pieces that worries us.
A student newspaper should, of course, be a place for experimentation, allowing budding journalists to try out styles (and words) and explore what can be done in print.
But this ... this is just poor imitation of magazine effusions, devoid of (indeed, it appears: afraid of) any attempt at critical perception, empty except for fancy (but largely inappropriate) verbiage.
First on the page is the claim that Tartt "chats to Natalie Toms" -- though Ms.Toms' "interview" (that's what it is billed as) seems nothing more than a report of Tartt's Union-appearance, and not a one-on-one exchange (which is what we normally associate with the concept of an "interview").
It includes gems such as:
Whilst the author emerges from the small frame to submerge the room, the woman remains entirely unknown.
While we always admire the use of the word "whilst" (and wouldn't think of complaining about it), we aren't quite as thrilled by -- among other things -- the submerging going on here.
Unfortunately, overall (read it for yourself) far too little of the article was submerged.
Of course, if the quotes are even half-accurate ("She tells us that it was sheer discipline which allowed the book to be written" -- ahh ! generous (though sheer !) discipline !) then one might say Tartt deserves to be reported on in exactly this way.
(No, we can't say that: no one deserves this.)
Along with Toms' "interview" there is also (scroll down) a review of the book, by Claire Pelly, which proceeds along much the same lines.
We were pleased to learn there that: "Tartt has enlarged her palate".
(No, we weren't.
What would please us would be to learn that somebody could afford a copy-editor, or a dictionary, or that a would-be book-reviewer might be aware of the existence of homonyms.)
Alasdair Gray's Book of Prefaces in paperback
Alasdair Gray's wonderful Book of Prefaces is now available in paperback (in the UK -- the US edition is due in two months).
See our review (with links to others) -- and note that the book has still gone essentially unacknowledged by the American mainstream press.
We still don't understand that .....
The September 2001 issue of the Bloomsbury magazine has several nice (and very short) Gray-related pieces -- by Ali Smith, Angus Calder, Bernard MacLaverty, A.L. Kennedy, Frank Kuppner and Bill Duncan.
(Links to these can also be found on their Alasdair Gray page.)
Worth a look.
8 November 2002
Geoffrey Hill notes | M John who ?
Geoffrey Hill notes
We're looking forward, on Monday 11 November, to a rare Geoffrey Hill appearance, at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
He is apparently not that big on readings and the like, so local fans shouldn't miss this opportunity.
(We'll report on how it went afterwards.)
Meanwhile, you can find additional Hill information on our Geoffrey Hill page -- or read our review of his latest, The Orchards of Syon (from which, no doubt, he'll be reading on Monday).
Two new Geoffrey Hill sites have now also come to our attention -- the Geoffrey Hill Study Centre and the Geoffrey Hill Server (offering information in both English and French !)
We're pleased to have found them: it's about time that more information about the poet was available on the Internet, and the Geoffrey Hill Study Centre in particular looks very useful -- but we do note that our rather hard to miss Hill-pages don't appear to be acknowledged (with links or otherwise) on either site.
M John who ?
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life.
We were entirely unfamiliar with the works of Mr. Harrison, but a reader with some sense of our sensibilities suggested -- convincingly enough -- that we have a look.
We did, and were quite impressed.
The reason we reviewed Signs of Life was ... simply that it was the only book of his we could get our hands on.
M. John Harrison is, occasionally, published in the US, but not easy to find (even Signs of Life is now out of print here).
We should, of course, be reviewing Light, which just came out in the UK -- and we will, if publisher Orion/Gollancz is kind enough to send us a copy.
And we hope to get to the forthcoming story-collection, Things That Never Happen, to be published in a month or two by Night Shade Books here in the US.
For those also not familiar with Harrison's work, consider what some Times Literary Supplement reviewers have said:
Liam McIlvanney, for example, thought (30 May 1997):
When you write with the uncommon brilliance of M. John Harrison you can be forgiven almost anything.
And in his review of Light (25 October 2002), Henry Hitchings believes:
Harrison writes with fearsome, dextrous certainty about pretty much everything. (...)
His work deserves a wider audience
We'll certainly be on the lookout for whatever Harrison-volumes we can find.
7 November 2002
Gabe Hudson's epistolary clarification | Kathy Acker symposium
Gabe Hudson's epistolary clarification: President no write letter HA HA
On 30 October there was an article by Kevin Canfield in the Hartford Courant about young author Gabe Hudson -- famously featured in the début fiction section of the 18-25 June 2001 summer fiction issue of The New Yorker (along with, among others, Nell Freudenberger ...) with his story "Dear Mr. President" (along with a picture of him with a gas mask on the table in front of him and, eerily, the World Trade Center buildings rising in the background behind him).
Now Hudson has published a book of the same title (much as Nell Freudenberger is soon to publish a book with the same title as her story from that issue, "Lucky Girls"), and he is out promoting it (and himself).
Hence puff-pieces in the Hartford Courant and the like.
The story, "Dear Mr. President", is in the form of a letter addressed to President George Bush.
In the story the letter is dated 1991 and addressed to the senior Bush, not the junior who now occupies that office -- but the premise apparently gave Hudson an idea: as Kevin Canfield describes it, Hudson sent Bush a copy of the book and:
If Hudson is telling the truth -- and there's no reason to think he isn't -- Bush recently sent the young author a two-paragraph note, complete with his own review of Dear Mr. President.
And what nice sound-bites Canfield got, Hudson explaining:
he called the book unpatriotic and ridiculous and just plain bad writing.
Beyond that, I've been instructed not to talk about the contents of the letter for the time being
What a great story !
And just what we expect from this President !
Even The Washington Post (scroll down) gleefully reported on the article.
Poor Kev, such a dupe.
As he explains, very displeased, in his follow-up article from 2 November: Bush never wrote to Hudson.
A clarifying Hudson statement is quoted:
My claims that I received a letter from the president were meant as satire, and were intended to be perceived as such.
(We apparently have a different conception of "satire" than Mr. Hudson, but then we don't publish in McSweeney's (or, come to think of it, The New Yorker).)
Canfield wasn't the first to whom Hudson had spun his satirical tale -- in fact, he's been living off of it for a while.
But this was the first time the White House responded (denying the claims), and that was apparently enough to get publisher Knopf to get Hudson to admit to his fabrications.
Not that he has been very upfront about admitting to them.
Indeed, one of the places one can still read the wild claim is in an interview at Bold Type (billed as an "online literary magazine", but in fact a Random House publicity vehicle),where one finds this exchange:
BT: Have you had any meetings with or responses from people in politics or government since writing this book ?
Admittedly this sounds a bit more like "satire", but still .....
GH: Well, I did send a copy of the book to the President and I received a sort of weird letter from him that I will be reading from when I go on tour.
BT: Had the pages been colored?
GH: We sent him the Braille version. When I signed the book I wrote "there's no anthrax in here so not to worry."
Moreover, Hudson is still using the letter-writing idea as a publicity stunt, inviting visitors to his website to Write a Letter to the President.
The explanation there:
About a month ago now, Gabe mailed a copy of his book, Dear Mr. President, to President Bush Jr. at the White House.
Several weeks later, much to his surprise, Gabe received a brief letter from the President, in which the President stated, among other things, that his book was "unpatriotic" and "ridiculous."
(This material was still posted yesterday, despite his earlier acknowledgement that it was a (satirical) lie.)
At least he has his story down pat -- and repeats it over and over.
Occasionally he embellishes: see this interview with Camille Dodero in the 31 October-7 November Boston Phoenix and this exchange:
Q: Your Web site says that you received a letter from President Bush regarding Dear Mr. President. How was the message delivered and what did it say ?
Elsewhere, he has sounded even more serious -- as in this "interview" conducted by new New Yorker-fiction editor Deborah Treisman, published at McSweeney's.
Treisman pushes him a bit more than other "interviewers" -- but here Hudson also spins his story out a bit more:
A: The letter came in regular US mail. There was a sticker on it that I gathered was for tracking. Very regal White House stationery. The letter began by thanking me for sending the book.
Also, Iím from Austin, Texas, and the president touched on the fact I was a fellow Texan.
But he was setting me up for the one-two punch: he called the book "unpatriotic" and "ridiculous" and "just plain bad writing."
He clearly wasnít crazy about the book or what the book addressed.
Q: "Unpatriotic" and "ridiculous" ó how did this response strike you ?
A: It seems strategic, if nothing else. In this day and age, the current administration would have us believe that patriotism is the same as conformity, and that to question Americaís role in the world is unpatriotic.
Hudson: At first I thought it was a joke. But, one thing I can say for sure, when you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President. The stationery alone is intimidating. It's a weirdly terrifying letter to have in your hands.
There's a lot more too -- check out the whole interview.
(See also part one of the conversation.)
Q: Are you telling the truth about this?
I have to say, you haven't always been completely honest with the reading public.
Hudson: It's true, I have done some strange stuff in the past, but I will say on my behalf, there was always a point to that stuff. I was always trying to make people think about something. This one is true, though, and I honestly wish it wasn't.
Hudson: (...) And there are issues of freedom of speech at stake here, especially regarding what's patriotic and what's not. Like I said, in my opinion, to voice one's opinion and to question the status quo, that's what I call patriotic. So the last thing I need is the President coming down hard on my book.
If this is satire ... well, we completely missed that boat, apparently.
So how big of an issue are Hudson's falsehoods ?
Novelists (and storytellers) are, by definition, liars -- that's what they do: they write big fat lies, which people eagerly buy.
But there's generally a tacit agreement: the product -- the book -- is the lie.
The rest shouldn't be -- or not as much, at least.
There's room enough for satire here (of the real sort).
The premise, after all, is hilarious -- who would ever believe that this particular chief executive would read any book ?
There are few more a-literary types walking around nowadays than him, his librarian-wife notwithstanding.
So Hudson has a point: how could Hudson's claims not be seen as "satire" (or at least a feeble joke) ?
Surely only the most gullible fool could believe that the junior Bush would take time out of his busy schedule (he's running a country, for crying out loud) to read anything beyond the comics, much less read a book by someone he never heard of -- and then even pen some literary criticism.
As to Hudson putting a few words in Bush's mouth -- well, arguably the junior Bush needs words put in his mouth in order to be able to express anything, so that seems almost only fair.
Few he utters are presumably his own, with practically every last off-the-cuff remark penned by a stable of writers.
But again: surely everybody realizes that in these days of media-scrutiny the President's handlers would hardly allow him to make literary judgements, especially of this sort (not that he is likely to be capable of -- or interested in -- doing so in any case).
The problem is, of course, that this attribution of words is grossly unfair -- and highly dangerous.
Surely Hudson would not want false statements ascribed to him either.
And here he plays a very dangerous game, because, unfortunately, even this President's opinions and actions count for a great deal and by clouding truth with falsehood by ascribing these actions and words to him Hudson muddies many waters.
Hudson's wishful thinking -- that the man in the White House consider his writing unpatriotic -- is just that: wishful thinking.
In a time when patriotism is much-discussed (and as the President is getting ready to send Americans to get killed (and to go out and slaughter)) the President's opinion and his administration's position on what is and isn't patriotic is not without significance or consequences.
But it's for him to say and tell the nation (or for his speech-writers to say, and him to tell the nation).
Hudson's irresponsible presumption goes way beyond the pale -- and there is nothing satirical about it.
Also damaged here, of course, is Hudson's credibility.
What does a fiction-writer's credibility matter ?
All that should matter, surely, is the work .....
That's a line we like to support, but in these publicity-driven times image matters more than actual accomplishment.
Hudson admits as much, telling this stupid story that the President wrote to him about his book.
What is that ?
Political commentary ?
Of course not: it's a publicity stunt, pure and simple -- just as the letter-writing campaign at McSweeney's is.
Look how much press attention it's gotten him !
(We kick ourselves even as we write this for giving the bum even more free publicity -- thank god there are so few visitors to this site !)
Now, of course, Hudson will just be seen as that reckless, publicity-mad young author, willing to tell any lie for attention.
First to go will be any belief in his other claims.
He's gotten a lot of mileage out of a claim to having been in the Marine reserves too (it apparently lends his story more ... ha, ha: credibility).
In The New Yorker issue where the story "Dear Mr. President" was first published it is prominently noted that he: "was a rifleman in the Marine reserves".
In the Bold Type puff piece for his book there is talk of his: "Combining his experience as a Marine reservist during the Bush, Sr. administration with an Ivy League education".
Apparently this is relevant.
But we wonder: did anybody check those credentials ?
Does anyone still believe them ?
We know we don't.
This claim is probably fairly easily verifiable (and it may even be true), but what reader has the time to do so ?
We know we don't -- and given what Hudson looks like to us on the basis of the non-Bush-letter, we wouldn't believe him if he claimed to have been a Boy Scout.
Hudson's actions show what we have often lamented: image trumps everything in literary matters -- and does so to an ever more obscene level.
The writing should be what counts, but all Hudson is pushing is an image of himself (an image in the eye of the President, no less).
Once again we wonder: why can't author's just stick to writing and otherwise just shut up ?
The answer, of course, is because readers lap this crap up.
Readers -- or book-buyers -- often don't seem to be buying something to read, they are buying an image.
The reasoning becomes: a book Bush hates -- and written by someone who was a Marine-reserve-rifleman (if there even is such a thing) -- has got to be good !
One more note: it's interesting to note the point at which Hudson was apparently perceived as having gone too far.
Apparently it's okay to lie to an editor from The New Yorker, to the in-house magazine of your publisher, and to diverse news publications (as well as the entire reading public that comes across these articles and interviews) -- but when the White House issues a denial, then it's time to back down with your tail between your legs.
Publisher Knopf no doubt exerted some pressure on Hudson to slink away, but since Hudson showed no interest in being truthful at any point -- indeed made a point of being untruthful (remember: this was "satire") -- it isn't clear why he finally fessed up.
It seems to us that if you're going to make a point (or be "satirical") you're probably better off following through.
It's a stupid prank, but why not go all the way with it ?
Produce a letter ostensibly from the President -- just as described in the interviews (except maybe written in crayon ?) and take the joke as far as it can be taken.
At some point his satirical intent might have actually become apparent.
Funny how Hudson finally thought his only obligation to being truthful was to the man he was actually attacking -- the President -- and not to his readers and fans.
(The President hardly needed Hudson to kowtow and back off: he was among the few people who knew for a fact that Hudson was lying.)
The poor sap Kevin Canfield wrote: "If Hudson is telling the truth -- and there's no reason to think he isn't".
No good reason -- except all the publicity.
And the publicity was all Hudson was after.
It translates nicely into book sales, after all.
(Hey, we'd claim the President wrote to us and said we were unpatriotic and ridiculous and just plain bad writers (as many less eminent people do all the time) if that would put a few dollars in our bank accounts.
We'd claim a lot more far-fetched things too for a couple of dollars .....)
Other links of interest:
- If you want to buy Hudson's book (hey, maybe some of you approve of Hudson's doings and want to support him ...) you can get it:
- If you want to write a letter to the President you can do it at the McSweeney site, but it might be easier to send it directly to the junior Bush.
The e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
And for other contact information, consult this White House page.
Kathy Acker symposium
Kathy Acker is pretty high up on our list of authors we want to cover in depth on our site -- and, alas, one of many we still haven't gotten to.
At least New Yorkers can get a good dose of information about her today and tomorrow, at the NYU symposium, Lust for Life: The Writings of Kathy Acker.
There's a C.Carr article in this week's issue of The Village Voice, offering some background.
For additional information, check out:
6 November 2002
Power's "Problem from Hell" | Maslin on Franzen
Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell"
Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell", describing America and the Age of Genocide, which we reviewed back when it came out in the spring, continues to attract attention (and praise).
Among the latest reviews: Charles Peña's, in this month's issue of Reason.
Peña, a defense policy analyst for the Cato Institute (see his homepage there) treads carefully, making sure to recite the (Cato Institute) party line ("Genocide is a moral issue, but U.S. intervention using military force should be reserved for protecting vital American national security interests"), but even he agrees with what Power so convincingly shows, that: "Genocide is the one instance -- a rare exception -- where U.S. action is warranted, even if U.S. vital interests are not directly threatened."
Of course, there is a caveat:
The problem is that advocates of humanitarian intervention often equate any killings of innocents with genocide and sometimes overinflate the numbers to make their case
And it's neat to see how he can find a path that brings him right back to the party line:
Rather than asking the United States to intervene to fix the problems it exacerbated by intervening in the first place, it would be better to break this vicious circle and adopt a less interventionist American foreign policy.
Amusing stuff -- well, almost -- in these ultra-interventionist times in the United States (or rather: outside of the U.S.).
The foreign policy focus of the American government is, understandably, currently elsewhere (and fortunately there don't appear to be any genocidal outrages (as Power and the UN Convention would define them) being perpetrated at the moment), but the book remains an important and instructive one.
And, as America cozies up to some truly reprehensible and anti-democratic regimes in seeking to achieve specific ends, it offers grim reminders of what the consequences of such a course can be.
Note that we've added some links and additional review-summaries to our review of the book -- including links to reviews from everywhere from The American Prospect to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
The book has gotten pretty good review coverage -- mainly in the serious, low-circulation journals (Reason and the like), but also in a number of the major dailies.
Still, we're a bit surprised there hasn't been more wide-spread notice, and more discussion of it.
Maslin on Franzen
Janet Maslin has been a book-reviewing regular in The New York Times for a while now -- a year or thereabouts, it seems.
She generally fills the Monday-spot (and occasionally others) -- and usually writes about ... how shall one put it ? perhaps: the lower literary end.
Pop fiction (the stuff that dominates the paperback bestseller lists), entertainment biographies, and the like -- often in twofer reviews, offering two reviews in one (how much, after all, can be said about some of these titles ?).
It was something of a surprise then to find, this Monday, that Maslin was the one to review Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection, How to Be Alone (see also our review).
Franzen, who apparently likes to be seen as oh-so literary can't have been pleased that he wasn't getting the Kakutani-treatment (as, for example, another contemporary pop-literary icon, Salman Rushdie, did with his new essay collection -- though note that in an interview in The Seattle Times (26 September) Rushdie is described as responding to that review: " 'Oh yes, the vile Michiko,' Rushdie says. 'I don't give a damn what Michiko thinks.' ").
Maslin does a decent enough job (she usually does -- it's the books she wastes her (and our) time on that usually bother us), though we found ourselves in disagreement with what she found best (and worst) about Franzen's collection.
We also don't find -- as Maslin did, apropos of Franzen's Oprah-experiences -- that:
How to Be Alone successfully clarifies anything about Mr.Franzen that may have been misunderstood at that time.
Ms. Maslin apparently has a different conception of clarification (and misunderstanding) than we do ....
More How to Be Alone news: The Guardian has, over the past year, published several of the pieces that are included in the collection -- some shortly after they first appeared in The New Yorker (Ducking out for example, published in The New Yorker as Meet me in St.Louis), others to coincide with publication of the book.
Two of these -- Voices in the wilderness (published in the book as Why bother ? -- and, in fact, a revised version of the 1996 Harper's essay, Perchance to dream) and The Styrofoam years (published in the book as Erika Imports) -- have now disappeared from the site.
This is unusual -- stuff they post (unlike at most newspaper sites) generally remains readily available.
But, we guess, the publishers probably felt too much was being given away for free here.
5 November 2002
And once more 'round with Natashas's Dance
Everybody loves The Lunar Men
And once more 'round with Natashas's Dance
Okay -- one more time about the whole to-do surrounding Orlando Figes' new book, Natashas's Dance, Rachel Polonsky's review in the TLS, and sundry reactions thereto (and there-fro, and so on).
We have made mention of many of the events and reactions before -- most recently just yesterday, more extensively previously (and previously, and so on).
A weblog doesn't lend itself ideally to tracing and tracking all the back and forth -- especially in a case like this, where there are many bit-players centre stage (notably D.J.Taylor and Jason Cowley, putting their spin on things in The Guardian) and where some of the documentation isn't readily accessible to readers (notably Polonsky's original TLS review, as well as various letters to the editors and responses in those pages) -- but we try to keep you apprised as best we can.
We mentioned several of the other reviews -- and the terrific blurbs employed in the full-page advert in the 25 October TLS (where there's lots of one-word praise to be found too -- 'Magnificent' Robert Service, Guardian; 'Remarkable' Robin Buss, Independent on Sunday; 'Masterly' John Bayley New York Review of Books -- judgements that are rendered entirely too succinctly for our taste (but then we're not big blurb fans under the best of conditions)).
Also of interest, a more circumspect review by John Drummond from the 5 October Daily Telegraph.
The really interesting review, however, (which we completely missed before) is T.J.Binyon's in the 23 September Evening Standard -- appearing right about the same time as Rachel Polonsky's now pretty much notorious 27 September TLS-review.
There hasn't been too much mention or discussion of Binyon's review, which is curious.
It turns out that it, too, takes Orlando Figes quite to task -- and makes similar points to Polonsky's.
Binyon writes, for example:
However one chooses to read the book, it is necessary to proceed with caution, for factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa.
The suspicion that research has been less than academically rigorous begins to creep in at an early stage.
Poor Pushkin receives the scurviest of treatments. Barely a statement about the poet is without error
Which is as harsh as anything Polonsky says in her review.
Binyon is perhaps willing to be a bit more understanding ("That, in the end, no overall coherent vision should have emerged is, perhaps, more the fault of the subject than of the writer"), but it too is a fairly devastating review.
Why then -- especially in The Guardian pages -- the focus almost entirely on what Polonsky wrote ?
We wish we knew.
Possibly, Binyon's review is much-discussed somewhere too -- just not anywhere we've come across.
(The review itself is, unfortunately, not freely accessible on the Internet -- but then neither is Polonsky's.)
One recent mention of both reviews can be found in Horace Bent's column in The Bookseller (note that this link will only lead to the relevant column for a few more days -- after which you'll find Bent's next column there ...).
Bent makes another amusing point -- reminding readers of Orlando Figes' own rather critical review of Martin Amis' Koba the Dread (Sunday Telegraph, 1 September).
Check it out -- and find gems like: "there are basic factual errors on almost every other page."
Amis makes a very little stretch extremely far, using long quotations and unacknowledged anecdotes to pad out his own work; but without any Russian sources (or so it would seem) there are inevitably gaps and distortions.
The blurb claims that "Amis gives us perhaps the best one hundred pages ever written about Stalin".
In fact, as a piece of history-writing, they are unoriginal and even second-rate.
They remind me of a lot of undergraduate essays I have read: magpie-like with other people's work, sharp and clever (especially with words), over-quick to judgment, and full of muddled facts.
A lot of which sounds a lot like criticism of another book ... oh, right, something called Natasha's Dance, by Orlando Figes.
One more (dare we pray final ?) update: we mentioned (scroll down) Roger Scruton's letter to the TLS (which was -- vaguely -- occasioned by the whole Figes-Polonsky discussion) in the 18 October issue.
Swiping more broadly, Scruton complained of the London Review of Books and its editor commissioning a review of one of his books only then to take "a principled stand against publishing it, when she discovered the review to be favourable".
Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB (and presumably the commissioning "Editor" Scruton means) responds in the 25 October TLS, noting: "As far as we can remember, we never commissioned a review" of that particular book.
(Note, however, that we haven't heard reactions from that "self-promoting clique of Establishment liberals" at The New York Review of Books Scruton also complained about .....)
Oh, what fun in the literary world (and how easily digressions multiply).
Readers, certainly, should decide the Figes-book-related issues -- read the book ! read the reviews ! weigh the evidence !
They are not insignificant issues, a fact which seems sometimes lost in all this shuffle.
But how hard to keep track of the positions and arguments !
We would have enjoyed (and found it useful) to hear more of the principals' positions, but a dialogue (or much of any back-and-forth) doesn't seem in the cards at this time: a carefully worded response -- which, upon closer consideration, isn't quite as responsive as we had initially thought -- by Figes to Polonsky's review seems to be the extent of it.
(And we don't even know if Figes addressed Binyon's review in the pages of the Evening Standard.)
Everybody loves The Lunar Men
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Jenny Uglow's much-lauded The Lunar Men.
Few books we've come across in recent times have received such accolades -- with, as far as we've seen, only the smallest reservations.
Indeed, our review of it seems the most tepid of all the ones we've come across (though we liked it too -- though between this and the discussions around Natasha's Dance (see above) our heads are still spinning).
At least the American publishers didn't change the title -- though they couldn't quite leave things be, re-sub-titling it:
- UK subtitle: The Friends who Made the Future
- US subtitle: Five Friends whose Curiosity Changed the World
4 November 2002
Popular Proof | More reviews of the new Proust translations
More Popper v. Wittgenstein | Figes payback ?
David Auburn's Tony Award-winning play, Proof, continues to be running strong -- and a lot: an article in the Houston Chronicle describes an American Theatre-tally of what are expected to be the most produced plays of the 2002-2003 season in the United States (excluding Shakespeare, who would apparently dominate the list).
The top three:
Our review of Proof continues also to attract great interest: it has been on our list of most popular reviews consistently for over a year, and reached its highest position (sixth most popular) last month.
- Proof - with 29 U.S. productions
- Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde - 15 productions
- Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (see our review) - 14 productions
We only just got around to adding some of the British notices of Gwyneth Paltrow's star-turn in the London production a few months ago (as well as generally updating the links on the page).
The critics there were impressed by Miss Paltrow -- but seemed less so by the play.....
More reviews of the new Proust translations
They keep coming -- which, we suppose, is a good thing -- : reviews of the new Proust translations, in the edition edited by Christopher Prendergast.
We rounded up many of them for you previously -- now here notice of two more.
There's Paul Davis' review in The Guardian (2 November) -- another nice long look at the book(s).
He generally approves of what's been done -- and even believes: "Proust would have approved of Prendergast's iconoclastic inclinations" -- but does wonder who will read this thing.
And he does say the last thing the folks at Penguin want to hear:
(T)he Moncrieff/ Kilmartin/Enright translation, remains, in my view, the best available reading text.
(Though since, likely, reading is something any Proust-edition is rarely subjected to that isn't really of such a great significance -- and perhaps the Penguin edition looks as nice (or nicer) on the shelf, which just might be good enough for most of the book-purchasing public.)
The other recent review of note is Robert Alter's in the Times Literary Supplement (25 October) -- again, a very good overview (and comparison with the previous editions).
He too is impressed -- readers in English can now have "a stylistic experience that is a far better equivalent of the original than what they have had till now."
Still, he also finds faults.
For one: it's "regrettable that a whole series of correctable lapses was left untouched."
And he finds James Grieve's contribution quite disappointing.
(Grieve's was Alain de Botton's favourite volume (see his review in The Times (16 October)) -- you decide who you want to trust.)
More Popper v. Wittgenstein
We were pleased when we opened the new issue of The New York Review of Books (21 November) and looked at the table of contents to see that four books by and about Karl Popper were being reviewed, together, by Colin McGinn -- among them Malachi Haim Hacohen's Karl Popper: The Formative Years (see our review) and David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Wittegenstein's Poker (see our review)
We were especially pleased that the Hacohen-biography was getting some review coverage.
Other than The New York Times Book Review (and us) the non-specialist media seems to have pretty much ignored the book -- which is a shame, because it is, in fact, a very good biography (and an interesting piece of intellectual history).
McGinn's review-piece extends over five pages in the The New York Review of Books -- some with a lot of space taken up by ads, but still .....
McGinn's comments regarding Hacohen's book read, in their entirety:
(Popper's early years are comprehensively covered in Malchi Haim Hacohen's The Formative Years.)
Yes, the entire discussion of this important book is a parenthetical remark -- which doesn't even give the full title of the book.
Admittedly, it turns out that McGinn doesn't really have any book-reviewing intentions in his piece, offering instead a Popper round-up and consideration, of sorts, with only minimal efforts at considering the relevant new literature -- fair enough: it's something (and the piece is good, considered merely as that).
But it ain't a book review.
Interestingly, though hardly surprisingly, the popular Wittgenstein's Poker is the one book he goes on about at some greater length (he finds it a "lively, well-written work").
Even in a discussion of Popper, it's easy to get sidetracked by the much sexier Wittgenstein .....
Leafing through the 25 October issue of the Times Literary Supplement we came across something we can't recall having seen in these pages before: a full-page colour advert for a book.
Maybe there have been some, but this was the first one to really catch our eyes, all lush gold and dark brown.
But even more surprising than the mere appearance of such a page in these pages was the book being advertised: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance.
As we have reported repeatedly, there's been some to-do about the review of this book that appeared in the TLS (see our previous discussion and associated links).
So one might have thought the TLS would be the last place that Penguin would spend their marketing dollars (uhhh .... pounds) for this particular book.
An odd (and expensive) form of payback .....
One wonders what kind of statement Penguin is making -- is it a defiant gesture (advertising pounds thrown out the window, since TLS readers will have trusted the reviewer's opinion and can't be swayed by gaudy adverts ?) ?
Or are they trying to prove that TLS readers don't care what TLS-reviewers say and will instead be convinced by the (very impressive) blurbs -- trumpeting, for example: "One of the PUBLISHING EVENTS of the year" (so the large-letter blurb from the Sunday Times that heads the advert -- we wonder whether they printed 'PUBLISHING EVENTS' all in caps too ?) ?
Or is this some odd British-literary way of defending an author's honour ?
(We daren't suggest the TLS gave them a good price on the ad as a different form of payback, apologising for Rachel Polonsky's review .....
No, that seems very unlikely.)
1 November 2002
Siegfried Unseld (1928-2002) | November crQuarterly
Siegfried Unseld (1928-2002)
Siegfried Unseld, one of the leading personalities in contemporary publishing, died on 26 October.
He headed the German Suhrkamp Verlag, one of the most impressive publishing houses around; see, for example, this profile from Die Zeit.
Cash-rich from the very tidy income that continues to flow thanks to the spectacular backlist (which includes, most notably, the still bestselling works of both Hermann Hesse and Bertolt Brecht), the publishing house founded by Peter Suhrkamp remains a leading literary publisher.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offers a modestly informative obituary in yesterday's issue of The New York Times, and there's one by Philipp Blom in today's issue of The Guardian.
Other obituaries and appreciations can be found in Die Zeit (by Ulrich Greiner), Die Welt (by Ulrich Weinzierl), and the F.A.Z. (by Frank Schirrmacher -- see also now the English version) -- as well as in Le Monde (by Josyane Savigneau).
The Suhrkamp-homepage has also temporarily replaced their usual cover with a death-notice.
The funeral is Saturday 2 November at 15:00, at the Hauptfriedhof Frankfurt am Main, Eckenheimer Landstraße
A trust, headed by the young Unseld-widow (and Suhrkamp author) Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz, insures that Suhrkamp will remain in private hands for now.
See this article from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (7 June 2002) for some of the details about what went into the making of the Siegfried- und-Ulla-Unseld-Familienstiftung.
Here's hoping that Suhrkamp continues much as it long has despite the loss of it's longtime leader.
They did pretty well after losing the legendary Peter Suhrkamp himself -- thanks largely to Unseld (and that backlist) -- so there certainly is reason for hope.
The new cr Quarterly
The November issue of the complete review Quarterly is now available -- you can find it here.
We hope all the pieces are of interest.
There's a survey of The Year in Reviews, an investigation into How Sexist are We ? (you probably won't like the answer -- we certainly didn't), and a rant, of sorts, about Literary Legacies.
previous entries (21 - 31 October 2002)
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© 2002 the complete review
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