What women want, to judge from Fifty Shades of Grey, is not just people doing It. Many pages go by in this book without any of It getting done, although there is a great deal of thinking and talking about It. The thoughts are provided by the narrator and main character, Anastasia Steele, who is a twenty-one-year-old American woman as well as such a clueless, self-absorbed ninny that you, the reader, find yourself wishing that you still smoked so you would have a cigarette lighter handy and thus could set fire to certain pages, especially the ones where Anastasia is telling you about her “inner goddess.” This is a hyperactive imaginary being—I keep picturing Tinker Bell—who reacts in a variety of ways to the many dramatic developments in Anastasia’s life, as we see in these actual quotes:
“My inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm.”
“My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.”
“My inner goddess is doing the Dance of Seven Veils.”
“My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
“My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring, too, mouth open and drooling slightly.”
“My inner goddess jumps up and down, with cheerleading pom-poms, shouting ‘Yes’ at me.”
“My inner goddess is doing backflips in a routine worthy of a Russian Olympic gymnast.”
“My inner goddess pole-vaults over the fifteen-foot bar.”
“My inner goddess fist-pumps the air above her chaise longue.”
That’s right: Her inner goddess, in addition to dancing, cheerleading, pole vaulting, etc., apparently keeps furniture inside Anastasia’s head. Unfortunately, this means there is little room left for Anastasia’s brain, which, to judge from her thought process, is about the size of a walnut.
Often responding to Philip or Sam, the private investigator (PI) may be identified by his coat and hat. His natural habitat: the wet street corner or, unauthorised, another person’s home. He is commonly accused of committing the very crime under his investigation. You will find him lit starkly, from the side. He is good at getting women into bed, but they often turn out to be malevolent villainesses. He is American.
The PI’s bloodlines flow deeply into the tradition of masculine heroes. His characteristics loom so large over Western popular culture that it can be hard to make him out. This is the problem facing any book on the film noir detective: being a chap, in a movie, trying to solve a problem, he is as inscrutably general a cultural trope as the femme fatale. What makes a PI a PI, and not just some other kind of leading man? You can’t even really chalk him up to an era, since he has existed since the early days of film. ...
[The] famous five film noir traits—oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel—were neither clear cut nor all strictly necessary in order for a film to be noir. This genre is yoked together by a general ambience—an aura of darkness—rather than any true collective character. If the film noir is about one particular thing, I’d say it was about bad people. It is therefore about crime, and the investigators of those crimes. Enter the PI.
Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, previously published in Britain, has just been released in the US. It is the biography of Christine Granville, née Maria Krzystina Skarbek, a Polish aristocrat who became one of the most daring and successful British secret agents of WWII. According to Wikipedia, Christine Granville may have been the model for Ian Fleming’s Vesper Lynd.
Emma Garman reviews it with appropriate admiration in the Book Beast:
[While] traveling in South Africa [and she] heard the news that Germany had invaded Poland, Christine harbored not the tiniest qualm about leaving… in a rush to defend her beloved homeland. Presenting herself to British Intelligence in London—“a flaming Polish patriot … expert skier and great adventuress,” according to their records—Christine volunteered to ski into Nazi-occupied Poland armed with British propaganda. Her fervent aim, writes Mulley, was “to bolster the Polish spirit of resistance at a time when many Poles believed they had been abandoned to their fate.”
That mission, carried out with a Polish Olympic skier turned mountain courier, set the tone for Christine’s career in its sheer wildness. Heading out from Czechoslovakia during the coldest winter in living memory, with snow four meters deep, the pair traversed the 2,000-meter-high Tatra Mountains, seeing two dead bodies on their way and later hearing that, on the night they reached the border, more than 30 people had died in the mountains trying to escape Poland. Then, once on a Warsaw-bound train, Christine’s nerve did not desert her: realizing that armed guards were doing spot checks of passengers’ possessions, she directed the beam of her preternaturally bewitching allure onto a uniformed Gestapo officer. Would he mind, she wondered, carrying the package of black-market tea that she was bringing her mother? He happily obliged, and so her sheaf of illicit documents—which, if discovered, would have led to merciless interrogation followed by the firing squad—reached their destination.
Such boldfaced aplomb would be deployed time and time again in dealing with the Nazis. When working for SOE (Special Operations Executive, the secret wartime sabotage unit) in the Alps, where she trekked between the French and Italian sides and transmitted vital information about enemy activity, Christine was stopped by the German frontier patrol. In her hand she held a silk map of the region, given to agents to avoid the giveaway rustle of paper in pockets. With no hope of concealing it, she casually shook the fabric out and used it to replace the headscarf she was wearing, greeting the soldiers in French as if she were simply a local on an errand. Another time she and Andrzej Kowerski, her on-off lover and frequent partner in crime, were arrested and interrogated by Gestapo officers in Budapest. Christine had been suffering from flu, so she exaggerated her hacking cough and bit her tongue so hard that she appeared to be bringing up blood. Presumed to be infected with tuberculosis—potentially fatal and frighteningly infectious—she and Kowerski were released.
Christine’s most jaw-dropping act of heroism would occur in August 1944: with a bounty on her head and her face having graced “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters, she strolled into a Gestapo-controlled French prison and, posing as another woman entirely, secured an interview with a corruptible gendarme. Every iota of her charm and resourcefulness coming into play, Christine successfully arranged to break out three colleagues—including her lover du jour, the 29-year-old Belgian-British agent Francis Cammaerts—who were about to be executed. “Good reading,” an SOE officer wrote on the cover note of Cammaerts’ subsequent report, “I am going to make sure that I keep on Christine’s side in future.” “So am I,” another scribbled in reply. “She frightens me to death.”
Of all the women agents who risked their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe in the second world war, Polish-born Krystyna must surely rate as one of the bravest of the brave. As they used to say in army vernacular, the George Medal (which was about as close to a VC as a foreign national could get), the OBE and the Croix de Guerre did not exactly ‘come up with the rations’.
Churchill is alleged to have rated Skarbek his ‘favourite spy’. The reason? In spring 1941 she passed minute details to London of Hitler’s plans for Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. Churchill forwarded them on to Stalin, who promptly binned them.
Krystyna’s father was from the lesser Polish aristocracy, but her mother was Jewish (she was eventually swallowed up by the Holocaust) — a fact that would have made Krystyna’s repeated journeys under the noses of the Gestapo infinitely more dangerous.
Six times she trekked and skied across the Tatras, ‘exfiltrating’ high-risk Polish refugees into neutral Hungary, accompanied by her one-legged, long-term lover, Andrzej Kowerski (aka Andrew Kennedy). Seldom conducting an operation without a lover (proof of the 007 notion that sex and extreme peril often make for inseparable bed-mates), Krystyna’s reckless exploits smacked more of the age of Baroness d’Orczy than of the vile century of Heinrich Himmler.
Several of the witnesses in Clare Mulley’s scintillating and moving book, such as the late Paddy Leigh Fermor, testify to the fact that Krystyna did indeed thrive, quite irrationally, on danger. With her ‘fierce, almost blind pride,’ she reminded one British officer of the Polish cavalry that had charged Nazi Panzers in 1939. Arrested in Hungary, on one occasion she bit her tongue so hard as to draw blood, persuading the interrogators that she had TB. They released her.
Krystyna’s most legendary exploit came in summer 1944, in southern France, pending the Allied invasion. Her British boss (and also, naturally, lover), Francis Cammaerts (DSO, Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur), one of SOE’s top operatives, had fallen into a trap and was awaiting imminent execution. She located his cell by humming ‘Frankie and Johnny’. Cammaerts responded by singing the refrain. Then Krystyna presented herself boldly to the milice officer holding Cammaerts, as a British agent—and a niece of General Montgomery, no less — sent to obtain the release of the prisoners. The invasion, she persuaded Cammaert’s captors, was but hours away and terrible reprisals would be exacted if the prisoners were killed. Coupled with Krystyna’s devastating charm, the ruse worked. All three agents walked free.
When I came downstairs this morning, I found waiting in my overnight emails an Amazon offering of “Books by Dave Eggers.” I could not think why Amazon thought I wanted any titles by this particular author, but I did peruse the advertisement, and was intrigued by the title A Hologram for the King.
What could that be about, I asked myself, and clicked on the link to Amazon’s web-site.
Happily, my efforts to figure out what the book was all about led me to an utterly devastating review by one zashibis which refreshed my memory completely as to why I do not read books by Dave Eggers.
The Worst Book of 2012
About once a year I end up reading a book so resoundingly terrible, so utterly hackneyed and half-assed, so mysteriously lauded by a featherbrained coterie of newspaper review-writing hacks (here’s looking at you Michiko Katukani!) but so wonderfully devoid of any artistry or insight, that I end up finishing it out of something like the morbid fascination that makes a person rubber-neck at an especially horrific car accident. Congratulations, Mr. Eggers: in 2012 that book was yours. ...
Discounting the fake setting entirely, let’s concentrate instead on Eggers’s four unforgivable failures that should be blindingly apparent to any reasonably sophisticated reader who has never even set foot in the Middle East:
1)Style. For its reliance on simple declarative sentences and its striking lack of figurative language of any sort, some are calling this novel “Hemingway-esque.” This is a terrible calumny on Papa Hemingway. The old master, it’s true, used a pared-down style to tell his stories, but the sum was always larger than the parts—a slowly pieced mosaic that (more often than not) created a striking picture of his life and times. Eggers language, in contrast, is just dumbed-down and drab, utterly lifeless on the page. A single page of Updike or Roth—nay, a single paragraph—has more artistry than you will find in this entire book. At first I thought Eggers might be trying to be “meta” by writing prose that is as sterile and color-starved as the Saudi landscape, but Eggers is too much the boy scout for that. Ever since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius his mantra has been “Irony is bad!” so it seems highly improbable that he should intentionally be writing in a prose style that is deathly boring to mirror the dullness of life in Saudi Arabia. It is, as other reviewers have noted, a “fast read,” but only because it is the sort of prose that requires no thought whatsoever.
2)Plot. Think about it for half a second. This book asks us to believe that a washed-up, superannuated bicycle company executive with absolutely no expertise in IT is being sent to a remote corner of the world as the point-man for a multi-million-dollar IT presentation. Eggers doesn’t even pretend that this makes any sense at all. A modern novelist who gave half a sh*t—let’s say a David Foster Wallace—would have researched holographic presentations and the Middle Eastern IT market and presented us with at least a semi-believable character who had some compelling reason to be in Saudi. Eggers can’t be bothered. Literally, the only work-related thing Clay does during the entire novel is to make one apologetic complaint about the lack of Wi-Fi and food in the tent where the other members of his team are slated, nonsensically, to give their presentation. That’s it. For this valuable service he is supposed to earn a six-figure commission. (Sign me up!)
Along the way Clay meets a young Arab driver named Yousef who instantaneously becomes his BFF (or, even more implausibly, Clay starts thinking of him “like a son” by about their third meeting) and who continues to call him even after Clay does something (I’ll avoid the clear spoiler) that most people would have a great deal of difficulty forgiving of someone they’d known intimately all their lives. Likewise, Clay has two women (one Danish, one mixed-blood Arab) throw themselves at him after acquaintanceships measured in minutes, as though he were Ryan Gosling, and hadn’t previously been described by Eggers as an awkward, balding, dumpy, schlub with an ugly growth on his back . With the desperate European sexpot it’s merely ridiculous; with the Arab woman we’ve firmly entered Harlequin Romance territory, where millennium-old cultural taboos are brushed away as easily and as thoughtlessly as cobwebs…and where a long-haired woman snorkeling topless is somehow supposed to be less conspicuous (and less identifiable as a woman) than she would be in an ordinary swimsuit. (How does that work, exactly?)
3)Characterization. The evidence has become overwhelming. Eggers can’t do it. When he’s describing real people (as in his memoir or his various stabs at non-fiction) he does adequately. But made-up people? Nope. Just awful. The central character, Clay, is believable in no respect, a gasping fish-out-of-water who has none of the self-confidence or worldliness you’d expect of a lifelong sales executive. Instead, he comes across as a seventeen-year-old naïf away from home for the first time in his life. But at least Clay is a “developed” character with a back-story, however improbable. The same cannot be said of any of the other characters in the novel. Clay’s three American coworkers, for instance, aren’t even one-dimensional—they’re just three random names that Eggers tosses out occasionally. He can’t even be bothered to figure out what their respective roles in the presentation for the king are supposed to be or a plausible reason why they would passively sit around a tent doing absolutely nothing day after day after day. Almost all the Arabs in the novel all have walk-on parts—so forgettable that I just finished the novel but I’ve already forgotten their names. The exception is Yousef, who Eggers seems to have thrown in just so that he can’t be accused of being completely anti-Arab. But Yousef is even less believable than Clay—no Saudi who had a) fluent English or b) a rich father—let alone both—would ever, in a million years, be an ordinary chauffeur, one of the least respected jobs in Saudi Arabia, generally performed by Pakistanis earning a pittance. He really exists only as crude plot device to get Clay out of Jeddah for a few days so he can demonstrate his haplessness and insecurity in a different setting.
4)Theme. An anemic, warmed-over Death of a Salesman, missing only the final coup de grace. Enough said? So very many authors have done the late-middle-age middle-manager crisis of conscience so very much better than this: Updike, Roth, Bellow, Ford for starters . Even Ian McEwan’s Solar a few years ago—one of McEwan’s weaker novels—is a masterpiece compared to this. Likewise, Begley’s About Schmidt. So, if you’re going to go down this path yet again you’d better have something fresh to say. Eggers doesn’t. Likewise, several positive reviews make a big deal that novel is a “parable” about outsourcing. But, what, exactly does Eggers have to say about outsourcing that will be news to anybody at all? What fresh or original insight does he offer into America’s self-induced industrial decline? Nothing and none.
Too, in choosing to make the demise of Schwinn bicycles emblematic of America’s decline in manufacturing Eggers has had to simplify the company’s story to the point of absurdity. In reality, Schwinn’s failure was much more one of marketing and not anticipating the shift toward specialized bikes (i.e. racing bikes, mountain bikes, dirt bikes) than it was in moving assembly overseas. Sad-sack Clay has hopeless pipedreams of starting his own high-end custom bicycle company, and is depicted as a ridiculous figure; however, the reality is that several American companies, like Specialized Bicycle Components and Moots, do precisely that. Therefore, besides being boringly banal (“We’ve given our jobs to China!”) Eggers has succeeded in being entirely one-sided as well. The novel amounts to nothing more than a 300-page pity party.
This shallow piece of sophomoric flimflam bears exactly the same relation to literature as Fruity Pebbles bears to fruit. If AHFTK were merely a trashy novel, it wouldn’t be worth complaining about. Trashy novels have their place, and their devotees, if they’re at all self-aware, at least understand that they’re reading disposable, escapist fluff. But Eggers clearly imagines he wrote a serious novel—as do virtually all of the positive reviewers here on Amazon and elsewhere—when nothing could be further from the truth. AHFTK is kitsch: the most pernicious and unnecessary sort of artistic production on the planet. Zero stars.
It is a real commentary on community of fashion pseudo-intellectual elite culture that this book was a National Book Award Finalist, was chosen as one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year, and also selected as One of the Best Books of the Year by The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. The airheads and fraudsters stick together.
Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.
Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”
The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.
I can only sketch here the many other things that trouble me about Gatsby and its place in our culture. There is the convoluted moral logic, simultaneously Romantic and Machiavellian, by which the most epically crooked character in the book is the one we are commanded to admire. There’s the command itself: the controlling need to tell us what to think, both in and about the book. There’s the blanket embrace of that great American delusion by which wealth, poverty, and class itself stem from private virtue and vice. There’s Fitzgerald’s unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characters—single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin.
I always enjoy a good rant, however wrongheaded it is.
In the course of reviewing Aldo Schiavone’s Spartacus (just published in English translation by Harvard), Mary Beard explains just how little we actually know about the gladiator-leader of a servile revolt.
In the entrance hall of a fairly ordinary house in ancient Pompeii, buried beneath layers of later paint, are the faint traces of an intriguing sketch of two men fighting on horseback. They are named in captions above their heads, written in Oscan—one of the early languages of South Italy that was eventually wiped out by the Latin of the Romans. The name of one is scarcely legible, but probably says “Felix the Pompeian” (or “Lucky from Pompeii”). The other reads clearly, in Oscan, “Spartaks,” which in Latin would be “Spartacus”—a name best known to us from the slave and gladiator who in the late 70s BC led a rebellion that, it is said, very nearly managed to defeat the power of Rome itself.
At first sight, the scene painted on the wall looks like a military battle. But the trumpeters on either side of this pair of fighters match those often found next to gladiators in ancient paintings. So this is probably meant to depict mounted gladiatorial combat. The men must be the equites, or “horsemen,” who sometimes appeared in those bloody Roman spectacles, alongside the more familiar, heavily armed characters who fought on foot.
It is, of course, possible that the painting has nothing to do with the famous Spartacus, and that it refers to some other gladiator who just happened to have the same name; that is certainly what some skeptics argue. But there are nevertheless good reasons for linking the painting to the famous rebel: it very likely dates to the lifetime of “our” Spartacus, in the early years of the first century BC (as both the archaeological setting and the use of the Oscan language suggest); and Pompeii was, in any case, less than forty miles from Capua, where Spartacus underwent training for combat and from where he is said to have launched his rebellion—the two towns were presumably on the same gladiatorial circuit. There is a fair chance that this image gives us a glimpse of the future enemy of Rome when he was still just an ordinary gladiator—and to judge from the picture, not a totally successful one. For “Felix the Pompeian” is certainly getting the better of the retreating Spartaks. In fact, we might guess that it was to celebrate the victory of the local man that the Pompeian householder put up this image in his front hall.
It has been more than 30 years since James Salter, whom I consider a quite interesting writer of the second rank, published his last novel. The publication of his new book has provoked frequent observation that Salter is really a much better writer writing more substantive and thematically worthy of attention novels than certain better-known establishment writers of fiction, but his work has, for five decades now, somehow mysteriously escaped wide attention.
The new novel is certainly not a masterpiece, but it is a very satisfactory read. It reminded me of John Marquand. The protagonist, Phillip Bowman, serves as a young naval officer in WWII, attends Harvard, and then becomes an editor in a NY publishing house. He marries a young woman out of the same Virginia equestrian circles I currently frequent, and Salter delivers a quite accurate portrait of the Virginia Hunt Country and its unique ethos. The marriage fails for reasons that are not entirely clear. The problem is apparently simply the fact that Bowman takes her away from Old Virginia and moves her to New York where she is obliged to live without horses and hunting and her family and home society. Bowman goes on without excessive perturbation to have other relationships and affairs. He meets a woman returning on a flight from Europe. They share a taxi, and ultimately live together. But she, too, leaves him, and opportunistically gains ownership of the house he purchased for their use by means of legal chicanery. A good while later, he runs into his former lover’s daughter, whom he had known when she was a child. He is friendly, dismissive of the wrong her mother did him, and he proceeds to take advantage of the opportunities which present themselves to make love to her. He persuades her to let him take her on a trip to Paris, where he shares with her his sophisticated knowledge of the city and its restaurants and Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter, and skillfully makes love to her. When he has finally succeeded in bringing her to the peak of erotic fulfillment, he calculates that she will, before very long, come to her senses about the enormous gap between their ages and the unsuitability of their relationship. He then simply walks out, paying the hotel bill, and leaving her penniless in Paris, knowing full well that she will have to seek the assistance of her mother. The reader is likely to think Phillip Bowman cruel. Like Marquand, Salter writes basically about what he knows, and tends to present fictional versions of himself, portraits of the gentleman of accomplishment, the cynical and astute observer of society and humanity, and the homme moyen sensual, the connoisseur of sexual relationships and the female body.
“All That Is” is a novel about love, but Salter’s view of love is appreciative yet unsentimental. Phillip Bowman is grateful for the female companionship that life brings his way, but he is not wildly optimistic about his own motives and capacity for enduring affection or those of any of his successive string of partners. For Salter, love is always, as the title of an earlier novel put it, A Sport and a Pastime.
There was this count, and his wife said to him one day that their son was growing up and wasn’t it time he learned about the birds and the bees? All right, the count said, so he took him for a walk. They went down to a stream and stood on a bridge looking down at peasant girls washing clothes. The count said, your mother wants me to talk to you about the birds and the bees, what they do. Yes, father, the son said. Well, you see the girls down there? Yes, father. You remember a few days ago when we came here, what we did with them? Yes, father. Well, that’s what the birds and the bees do.”
Matt Kahn is undertaking an interesting challenge. He intends to read his way through a century’s worth of Publishers Weekly’s annual bestsellers, which means that he has to read (and review) 94 individual titles, since a small number of books succeeded in capturing the title for two years running.
This sort of enterprise will doubtless be at times laborious, but it definitely will have its rewards. When he’s done, Mr. Kahn will be a wiser man with a much better understanding of the ways the consciousness of the American reading public has changed and has not changed.
Kahn started off in 1913 with a real forgotten clunker, Winston Churchill (the American novelist, not the British politician)’s The Inside of the Cup, a dated and tendentious screed attempting to prove novelistically that Christianity and Progressive politics are the same thing. (Yes, Virginia, popular culture was rife with bolshevism and anti-business agitprop, even way back then.)
The Publisher Weekly annual bestseller list turns out to be a bit odd. Hardly any canonical classics get into it (though some by Sinclair Lewis do). It seems to rise from the primitive turn-of-the-century stuff to virtuous middle-brow “important books” interspersed with big pulp, and then—with the 1960s—becomes quite erratic.
Oddly enough, it is perfectly evident that even the most purple examples of forgotten teens and twenties tripe will not constitute the roughest patches of Mr. Kahn’s literary road. When he gets to the 1990s (Gawd help him!), it’s going to be John Grisham and Dan Brown all the way, ending with a bang at Fifty Shades of Grey.
Everyone knows that the code-hero career of Ernest Hemingway ended with the great man putting a shotgun to his own forehead, after years of infidelity to a series of wives, disgraceful episodes of bullying, and embarrassing displays of drunkenness and vanity. By the time Hemingway pulled the trigger on his 12-gauge Boss, it was all gone for him: the powerful athletic physique and once superlative health, the unsurpassed ability to produce clear and elegant English prose, even the penetrating insight and cool lucidity underlying his impeccably stoical point of view.
He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. ...What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.
Paul Hendrickson takes Hemingway’s 38-foot Wheeler cabin cruiser, the Pilar, built for him in 1934, as the center and symbol of the final 27-year, 3-month trajectory of the author’s literary career and life, and chronicles Hemingway’s whole sad end game, the struggle of the human being to live up to his own masterfully-designed and brilliantly-marketed personal myth, his failure, crack-up, and decline. Yet, Hendrickson sympathizes and finds in Hemingway’s process of personal self-destruction still ever so much to pity and admire. As he puts it in the title of his prologue: “Amid So Much Ruin, Still the Beauty.”
Few great writers have ever received such an extraordinary tribute. Hemingway’s Boat represents the product of massive and intensely focused research. Hendrickson can lovingly describe the details of the room where Hemingway used to stay in the Ambus Mundos Hotel, as well as tell you exactly which models of Vom Hofe and Hardy salt water reels he fished. Hendrickson even throws in some rather significant and ground-breaking criticism, arguing quite persuasively that it was Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa (1935), who really invented the non-fiction novel, not Capote or Mailer thirty years later). Hemingway’s Boat is, in the final analysis, a passionate and deeply personal eulogy to a great man delivered in finely crafted prose that is worthy of its own subject.
It has been a very long time since anyone has produced a fishing memoir as good as Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots.
Jennings, who I found is, oddly enough, dance critic for the Observer, describes the (exotic to Americans) bildungsroman of an ordinary British angler, who starts off—like the rest of us—with cheap tackle and humble access to low quality, near-home angling opportunities before gradually progressing to more exciting waters and nobler quarry.
In Jennings’ case, we get some astonishingly exciting accounts of how much sporting excitement can be found in pike and carp, barbel, tench and rudd. Luke Jennings can make the encounter with a canal-bred pike lurking off a London tow-path read like Jim Corbett stalking a man-eater in the Himalayan foothills.
But Blood Knots is not only a fishing book. It is an account of the coming of age and moral education, in today’s modern world, of a surprisingly exotic survival: the recusant Catholic gentleman. Jennings’ family, as he puts it, was of “bookish gentry, each beggaring itself to pay for the education of the next… born of windy vicarages and dusty cantonments.”
His first powerful influence was his father, a Hussar officer awarded the Military Cross for pressing home an armored attack at Ijsselstein in September of 1944, despite two tanks being shot out from under him. The second, as the saying goes, “brewed up,” and Jennings’ father only lived because he was thrown out of the tank by the explosion. He was badly burned. The scars on his face remained highly visible, and Mrs. Jennings had to dress his burned fingers every day for the fifty years of their marriage.
Jennings attended the (Benedictine) Ampleforth College, and provides this testimony to its unmodern ethos.
Father Paul Neville, the former headmaster of Ampleforth, was once talking to a fellow principal who informed him expansively that his own establishment’s purpose was ‘to prepare boys for life.’ ‘Ah,’ said Father Paul quietly. ‘Ours is to prepare them for death.’”
At Ampleforth, Jennings met his second major influence, a recent Ampleforth graduate named Robert Nairac, then serving as junior master.
It was important to know whom you were dealing with and so, on the first night of the autumn term, three of us cooked up a excuse to knock on the new master’s door. We trooped in to be greeted by a tough-looking figure with unkempt black hair and a cheerful grin. He was lying on his bed in his shirtsleeves, smoking. Around him, on the sheets, lay the constituent parts of a twelve-bore shotgun and a pair of cleaning rods. On top of the chest of drawers was a falconer’s leather gauntlet, the fingers dark with dried blood, and a battered fishing-bag in which I could see a jumble of wire traces and pike lures. With the small sash-window closed, the air was heavy with gun oil and Balkan tobacco.
Nairac proved a superb sporting mentor immersing Jennings in “the rituals of the field sports” and “the near mystical sense of place and history that, on occasion, can accompany them.”
The same Robert Nairac, a few years later, became part of history. After Oxford, he joined the Grenadier Guards, and worked undercover against the Provisional IRA terrorists in Ireland. In May of 1977, while visiting a pub to gather intelligence, he was abducted, brutally tortured, and finally murdered by the IRA. His body was never found.
Blood Knots is the best kind of fishing memoir, the kind of book that demonstrates the necessary role of active participation in the processes of Nature in fulfilling essential needs in the cultivated human being’s spiritual life.
Suw Charman-Anderson, in Forbes, notes a watershed moment in the world of books and readers. For the first time, a book self-published by its author has broken through traditional barriers and gained the attention of important establishment book reviews.
analyzes a dozen “great millennial dramas” that have forged a new golden age in TV: bold, innovative shows that have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, mixed high and low culture, and demonstrated that the small screen could be an ideal medium for writers and directors eager to create complex, challenging narratives with “moral shades of gray.”
But the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wasn’t the only mainstream book critic to write about Sepinwall’s book. USA Today carried an interview with Sepinwell at the end of November, Time published a review of its own, The Huffington Post carried a review, so did the New Yorker.
Sepinwall got the kind of coverage that most traditionally published authors can only dream of. To some extent, this might just be reviewers reviewing another reviewer, a little bit of moral support from your friends, except Sepinwall’s friends have very big megaphones. But at the same time, it illustrates that the idea of a division between ‘traditionally published’ and ‘self-published’ is becoming a ridiculous construct with no meaning whatsoever. ...
The reasons that self-published books don’t get reviewed boil down, I think, to the lack of infrastructure. A traditional publishing company can get to know different reviewers and send them the books that they think will go down best with that person. And the reviewer works on the assumption that what he or she is sent by the publisher has to be at least half-decent and thus worth opening. This whole process works because it’s mediated and because of the assumption that a third party stamp of approval for a book guarantees minimum levels of quality. ...
[R]eviewers depend on publishers acting as winnowers, sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and at least attempting to make sure that they are sent books they are actually interested in. It’s this weeding out process that’s missing in self-publishing.
This is bound to be only the first instance of what will before very long become normal.
Technology has made self publication and book distribution easy, inexpensive, and available to anyone.
Even successful and well-established popular authors like Barry Eisler as far back as 2011 have found the economics and creative control offered by self publishing to be irresistible. (Eisler was interviewed here about his at-the-time astonishing decision to dump his relatively prestigious print publisher and move off into the new frontier of electronic self publication.)
What have you to recommend? I answer at once, Nothing. The whole current of thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction. The old ways of living, many of which were just as bad in their time as any of our devices are in ours, are breaking down all over Europe, and are floating this way and that like haycocks in a flood. Nor do I see why any wise man should expend much thought or trouble on trying to save their wrecks. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.
—FitzJames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1873.
61 years ago, the young William F. Buckley Jr. launched what would become a splendiferous career as celebrity commentator and public intellectual by publishing not long after his graduation from Yale a scathing critique of his alma mater, titled God and Man at Yale.
God and Man at Yale represented Buckley’s first major effort at “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!,’” and we may now read with a certain poignancy the report of Nathan Harden, Sex and God at Yale, compiled at a posting station considerably farther along the road to Hell in a handbasket, demonstrating just how little either History or Yale was listening.
The youthful naysayer of 1951, Buckley, was a classic version of the privileged insider. Buckley was rich, handsome, and stylish, educated at elite preparatory schools in Britain and the United States. At Yale, he was the kind of celebrity undergraduate BMOC that basically ceased to exist after coeducation: Captain of the Debating Team, Chairman of the Daily News, and—of course—member of Skull and Bones.
The contrast between Buckley and Harden could scarcely be more extreme. Nathan Harden was home-schooled, knows what manual labor is like, and grew up in a family that was short of cash living all over the Southern United States. Harden was turned down by Yale initially, attended one of the Claremont Colleges, then got into a one-term visiting student program at Yale, tried transferring and was turned down again, and finally re-applied and was accepted. He was 22 years old and already married by the time he started college in California, so he must have been 24 (and still married) by the time he finally got to Yale as a degree candidate. Harden did his junior year abroad in Rome and, though he speaks with some familiarity of Political Union debates, he clearly never became any kind of BMOC and obviously did not get into Bones.
Nathan Harden came to Yale with the ability to appreciate the richness of her centuries of history and tradition. He speaks openly of the intense pleasure to be found in exploring Yale’s incomparably rich academic offerings served up by some of the greatest living minds while living in the midst of a community of the most spectacularly talented people of one’s own generation sharing the same Arcadian existence. He also understands exactly why Yale is superior to Harvard.
But… like any representative of ordinary America studying at one of America’s most elite universities today, Nathan Harden was also frequently shocked by the estrangement from, and hostility toward, the America he came from of his alma mater, and appalled by the strange gods of Multiculturalism and Political Correctness who have ousted the Congregationalist Jehovah from that ancient university’s temple.
For Nathan Harden, Sex Week at Yale (which we learn from him recently constituted an eleven-day biennial Saturnalia of Smut in which all of the university’s best known lecture halls (!) were turned over to demonstrators of sex toys, porn stars, and dirty film moguls to dispense technical instruction and even career advice to the Yale undergraduate community) serves as a crucial synecdoche for the moral crisis at the heart of American university education generally and particularly at Yale.
Harden argues that “For God, For Country, and For Yale,” Yale’s motto, has become not so much a series of aspirative ends ranked in hierarchical order but rather an accurate historical description of Yale’s own primary locus of value.
Yale was founded as a college, intended to serve God by educating Congregationalist clergymen to fill the pulpits of the Colony of Connecticut. Over time it evolved into a national institution educating an elite group of leaders in business, the military, politics, the arts, and the sciences for the United States. Today Yale is decidedly a hotbed of infidelity to both Christianity and the United States. Secular Progressivism has thoroughly replaced Congregationalism and Christianity, and loyalty to an international elite community of fashion has supplanted any particularist sentiment in favor of the United States. The Yale Administration operates neither to serve God nor Country, but instead directs its efforts entirely toward forwarding its own goals and enhancing its own prestige.
Armed with an almost-unequaled cash endowment and an equally impressive historical legacy and accumulation of multi-generational glory and therefore a concomitant ability to attract talent and additional funding, the Yale Administration is formidably equipped to mold, educate, and inform in any direction it wishes, but as Nathan Harden explains, the problem that is increasingly evident is the practical inability of the University Administration to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, or up from down in the complex contemporary world of conflicting claims.
Presidents Angell, Seymour, and Griswold would have had no difficulty at all in understanding why the University ought not to lend the principal lecture halls in Linsley-Chittenden, W.L. Harkness, and Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Halls for porn stars to demonstrate sexual techniques or heads of pornography studios to proffer career advice. Richard Levin obviously does not understand why Sex Week at Yale is inappropriate (to say the least), any more than he understands why Yale should not be devoting 10% of its undergraduate places to foreigners, or why Yale should not be renting out its name and reputation to Third World governments.
Harden understands the problem and, though he has very recently graduated, he’d be a lot more qualified to run Yale than the current administration.
Yale… enjoys a strong tradition of educating American political leaders. Over the course of its first two hundred years, as Yale’s spiritual mission faded slowly into the background, a political purpose emerged as a new defining agenda. Serving country became a proxy for serving God. A patriotic purpose replaced a spiritual one. It was assumed for a long time that the interests of America were, by extension, Yale’s interests as well. A large percentage of Yale graduates enrolled in the military immediately following graduation. And, of course, many went on to hold high political office.
The diversity that came to Yale in the sixties was a good thing. Other changes were less positive. In the late 1960s, Yale’s patriotic ethos disintegrated in the face of pressures from the radical new left. The old-guard liberals, who had long governed the university, were replaced by a new, younger set. The old-guard liberals were in the mold of Jack Kennedy—they were New Deal liberals who were sympathetic to religion and proud of their country. They were traditionalists. The new leftists, on the other hand, wanted radical social transformation. They wanted to challenge the old moral assumptions and revolutionize the economic system. Empowered by the backlash against the Vietnam War, and a sanctimonious belief in the justness of their cause, students rose up and violently took over the agenda of the American left. ... About this same time, the patriotic purpose that had defined the university for two hundred years disappeared. The faculty had voted the year before to revoke academic credit for ROTC courses. Later, Yale moved to restrict military recruiters’ access to students. With the destruction of Yale’s patriotic ethos, the last remaining sense of Yale having any higher educational purpose in service of the nation went out the door.
That isn’t to say that Yale ceased being political. But from that point onward, Yale’s political agenda was no longer tied to American interests. In fact, Yale’s political climate came to be defined more and more by anti-Americanism. Economic theories in opposition to free markets became prevalent. Identity politics and interest-group politics began to take over academic life, endangering free speech in the name of cultural sensitivity, and ushering in a new era of suffocating political correctness.
The shift happened quickly. Only a couple of decades before, during World War II, faculty sentiment had been united against America’s enemies in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Now, if the topic of international affairs happened to be raised in the faculty lounge, it had become fashionable to speak of America as the bad guy. Saying nice things about America’s enemies became a mark of intellectual sophistication—of rising above mindless nationalism-Patriotism, like religion, had become a mark of low intelligence, an anachronism. ...
Yale is a place where one can find people expressing almost every imaginable viewpoint and belief system. But here is the unanswerable question: How does a secular university judge between the competing moral claims of its members when those claims breach the private sphere and enter the public realm? ...
Nihilism is, ultimately, where Yale is headed. Yale was built in order to nurture ideas that would elevate the soul and advance human understanding, but it now has no governing moral principle-As a result, the knowledge generated there is divorced from any larger human purpose. Apart from a kind of vague appreciation or certain concepts like tolerance and diversity, Yale is a moral vacuum. Therefore, almost anything goes. Yale is among a dwindling number of institutions that provide a classical liberal education, focusing on the great books of the Western canon—topped off with porn in HD. As I observed, within its walls, images of women being beaten and humiliated for no other reason than the pleasure and profit of others, I became aware that I was witnessing much more than the decline of a great university. I was witnessing nothing less than a prophetic vision of America’s descent into an abyss of moral aimlessness, at the hands of those now charged with educating its future leaders.
Rachel Cooke goes for a walk in the course of interviewing Robert Macfarlane, author of a new book (being released in October in the USA, but already in print in the UK) on Britain’s ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths.
Examine a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the river Crouch and the river Thames, and you’ll see a footpath which departs the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and heads east, straight into – or so it appears – the North Sea. A few hundred yards on, it veers north, heading out across Maplin Sands until, three miles later, it turns back in the direction whence it came, finally making landfall at Fisherman’s Head, on the edge of Foulness Island.
Can this carefully traced line be for real? Certainly. You are not hallucinating. This is the Broomway, a path that is said to date from Roman times, and when Robert Macfarlane agrees to go walking with me, it’s his first idea. Am I excited about this? Yes, and no. I’m thrilled at the idea of heading out with Macfarlane; I feel like a marathon runner who’s been invited to train with Paula Radcliffe. But then I read his book, The Old Ways, and anxiety rolls in, like Essex mist. The Broomway, which can only be crossed when the tide is out, is the deadliest path in Britain; Edwardian newspapers, relishing its rapacious reputation – 66 of its dead lie in Foulness churchyard – rechristened it “the Doomway”. As he notes, even the Ordnance Survey map registers the “gothic” atmosphere of the path: “WARNING,” it reads. “Public rights of way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. Seek local advice.” I admire Macfarlane hugely; I would love to watch him “walking on silver water” in the “mirror-world” that is the Broomway. On the other hand, I would probably prefer not to drown in the service of trying to tell you what a good writer he is.
——————————————— Wikipedia: The Broomway provided the main access to Foulness for centuries. It is an ancient track, which starts at Wakering Stairs, and runs for 6 miles (9.7 km) along the Maplin Sands, some 440 yards (400 m) from the present shoreline. The seaward side of the track is defined by bunches of twigs and sticks, shaped like upside-down besom brooms or fire-brooms, which are buried in the sands. Six headways run from the track to the shore, giving access to local farms. The track was extremely dangerous in misty weather, as the incoming tide floods across the sands at high speed, and the water forms whirlpools because of flows from the River Crouch and River Roach. Under such conditions, the direction of the shore cannot be determined, and the parish registers record the burials of many people who were drowned.
Several weeks ago, returning from shopping, as I proceeded along our driveway, I saw a skunk standing in broad daylight, right outside our fenced house compound. I slowed deliberately, intending to give the skunk a chance to scamper off, away from threatening human beings and cars. The skunk, however, failed to respond appropriately. It stood there, swaying a little from side to side, and then it began to stagger, not away toward the woods, but in the direction of a gate in the fence around the house area.
Not good, I thought. That skunk is sick, and it probably has rabies.
My dogs were outside, and if the skunk went under that gate, he could easily have run into them.
I hurriedly drove around the corner, and ran into the yard. Fortunately, both our dogs came to me immediately, and I was able to lead them into the house and safety. I’d been target-shooting recently with Karen’s 9mm Walther pistol, and it was the nearest available gun, lying ready for use on a handy shelf beneath the kitchen counter. I grabbed up the Walther and went back outside.
I walked down to the corner of the fence, and found that the skunk had not moved very far. It was still swaying. It still looked terribly sick.
Skunks present a pretty impressive hazard even without rabies, and I definitely wanted to be out of range of both deliberate and terminally-reflexive spraying, so I worked the slide and took aim from a good long 20 feet. I shot the skunk in the head with a 9mm bullet, but I had no desire to try disposing of it until it was absolutely certainly dead and completely inert, so I proceeded to empty the magazine into the animal’s head and neck region. The skunk quivered in response to the first shot, and subsequent rounds knocked it over and moved it a bit. After 10 rounds, I finally felt sure that it was dead, dead, dead, and completely past any kind of retaliation.
I walked back and got a shovel. I picked up the skunk on the blade of the shovel, got into my truck, and balancing the shovel on the car window with one hand, managed to carry the dead skunk outside the vehicle, back out our long driveway. I then carefully got out and pitched the skunk far into the uninhabited woods across the road. That placed it almost a quarter of mile from our house and much farther than that from any other homes.
Disposing of the sick skunk actually went very smoothly, but the possibilities were frightening. Our two dogs and two of our cats could have run into that skunk and been infected.
Alice Gregory’s review of a new cultural history of rabies makes it clear that that particular disease is really far more awful than we normally realize.
“Ours is a domesticated age,” writes Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus
. Wasik is an editor at Wired and Murphy, his wife, a veterinarian. Together they have coauthored a sprawling chronicle of rabies, which until you get the numbers, seems like a willfully anachronistic topic. I did not know, for instance, that rabies is the most fatal virus in the world (only six unvaccinated people have survived, the first in 2004.) A fun party trick is forcing people to guess how many rabies fatalities there are each year. Optimists will hazard 100. Skeptics, 1,000. The real answer is 55,000, a figure so large it transforms your audience into a bunch of stoned teenagers marveling at the fact equivalent of a Big Gulp.
Wasik and Murphy’s subject might seem like a deliberately strange one, but they exercise nothing but user-friendly restraint when it comes to historical detail and medical explanation. It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists. They have mined centuries’ worth of primary sources and come bearing only the gems. My favorites were the archaic cures, some of which were reasonable (lancing, cauterization), while others were plain perverted. The Sushruta Samhita recommends pouring clarified butter into the infected wound and then drinking it; Pliny the Elder suggests a linen tourniquet soaked with the menstrual fluid of a dog. The virus comes up surprisingly often in literary history, too. A Baltimore-based cardiologist speculates that Edgar Allan Poe, who died in a gutter wearing somebody’s else’s soiled clothes, perished not of alcoholism, as has long been thought, but of rabies. In the most famous anecdote about Emily Bronte, she is bit by a mad dog while dawdling in a moor. Terrified of infection, she rushes home and secretly cauterizes the lesion with an iron.
UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I live in Virginia these days, where vultures abound, and my property is actually infested by black vultures who try to hang out on the barn roof, nearby trees, and even occasionally the house.
They and I have reached a modus vivendi in which they know that when I say: “Get going!” they had better take off and fly somewhere else, or very soon .22 Long Rifle bullets are going to come whistling rather near them.
They commonly sit at the top of some tall Locust trees at the end of our driveway. They were not there when I disposed of the dead skunk, but they had already completely cleaned up that skunk by late afternoon (when I went out to get the mail).