Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bound to Please: Michael Dirda

Did you know Susan Sontag considered Beckett the sexiest man she'd ever met (in case you have never seen Beckett's remarkable visage, click here)? Or that, when Natalya Goncharova finally accepted his offer of Marriage, Pushkin confided in a letter to a friend that she would be his 113th love? Amusing facts and trivia like this abound in Bound to Please, a collection of book reviews and columns by the Washington Post book critic, and a winner of Pulitzer prize no less, Michael Dirda. These book reviews are not literary criticism and he says it frankly in the introduction:

By only the loosest definition then can the contents of Bound to Please be regarded as criticism. Instead, think of these articles as old-fashioned appreciations, a fan's notes, good talk. My primary goal is to describe the work accurately, to quote frequently when sentences are clever or memorable, and to convey something of each book's particular magic, strength or excitement.

Which is exactly what a book review in a daily newspaper is meant to be, unlike say, in TLS or New York Review of Books which are not meant to be read casually. So this volume may not be of interest to serious students of literature but for amateur readers who are bored of their current reading lists and want to find out some unexplored areas, this book has plenty to offer. Also as the title indicates this is entirely a collection of positive and enthusiastic reviews. The reviews are all about facts and anecdotes, written in a lively tone and voice with infectious enthusiasm. The anecdotes and trivia are often very funny, like this review of Pushkin's biography (whole review here):
Almost universally acknowledged as the supreme Russian poet, the author of Eugene Onegin and "The Bronze Horseman" also displayed, with equal mastery, nearly every youthful failing. He drank like a frat boy, treated and spoke of women as whores, alternately rebelled against and toadied to the tsar, reduced his family to penury by addictive gambling, and typically allowed his usually dirty fingernails to grow long and claw-like. Once he arrived at a formal dinner "wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear." He could be utterly thoughtless of others' feelings but was himself "morbidly sensitive to . . . appearing comic" and quickly roused to anger, jealousy and spite. Though he could be courageous and witty, and though he valued honor above all, it's no exaggeration to say that Pushkin all too often conducted himself like a lout and a vulgarian.
Or this rather scandalous life of Rilke (you can read the entire review here, well worth a read):
A tricky question.Yet Life of a Poet makes clear that this hollow-eyed communer with angels, Greek torsos and death was not merely a selfish snob; he was also an anti-Semite, a coward, a psychic vampire, a crybaby. He was a son who refused to go to his dying father's bedside, a husband who exploited and abandoned his wife, a father who almost never saw his daughter and who even stole from a special fund for her education to pay for his first-class hotel rooms. He was a seducer of other men's wives, a pampered intellectual gigolo, and a virtual parody of the soulful artiste who deems himself superior to ordinary people because he is so tenderly sensitive, a delicate blossom easily punished by a passing breeze or sudden frost.
Not all poets get the short shrift though. After recounting the tragic events from the life of German poet Paul Celan, Dirda wonders (again the entire review here):
Surprisingly little of this personal matter is reflected in Celan's poetry, yet I would have welcomed more information about his day-to-day life. Did he ever laugh? What did his students think of him? Is it true that his only son, Eric, became a magician? Such details would have humanized a saintly figure who seems almost too anguished to be quite real.
Perhaps the best essay in the book is in the introduction itself titled, Reading beyond the bestseller list: A polemic and a plea, although I think the title should have been a lament and a plea. His style is not really suited to a polemic. He rightly says that the problem is not that people don't spend time reading but rather they spend too much time on worthless books, books propelled to bestseller-dom by media spin, books of the passing moment. And then he makes this plea:
Corny as it sounds, I believe that unless we try to familiarize ourselves with the best that human beings have thought and accomplished, we doom ourselves to be little more that mindless consumer-wraiths, docile sheep waiting to be shorn by corporation or government, sad and confused dwellers on the threshold of a palace we never enter.

Long ago, Thoreau said we should read the best books first, or we might simply never get the chance to read them. Life's days go by very quickly. Thoreau himself died at fourty-four. Carpe diem is thus good advice for readers as well as hedonists (not, by the way, mutually exclusive categories).
My favourite section was the section devoted to comparatively obscure Europeans (that's what I want to read more of). Introducing few books set in the last days of Austro-Hungarian empire he says (and this made me laugh):
To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era where you could still find yourself on the field of honour with a raised pistol, or attending a masked ball where the mistress of the
emperor, her eyes wide, her breasts heaving, might squeeze your hand and whisper "tonight."
After reading this section my reading list now contains Joseph Roth (Austria), Sandor Marai (Hungary), Lempedusa (Italy), Thomas Bernhard (Austria) and Isaac Babel (Russia) ("here is a
book that will last, that you will reread all your life and then pass on to your grandchildren. Or ask to be buried with.") And yes, Paul Celan too. None of these writers I have read before. There is also a section on writers who write in a genre. Dirda calls them "serious entertainers." Except for Terry Pratchett, I hadn't heard of any other name (Algernon Blackwood, Vernon Lee...).

And yes this quote from the Proust review:
Reading the 3000 pages of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is always a surprisingly personal adventure. Even now, the memory of autumn more than thirty years ago, during which I first lost and found myself in Proust, can still overwhelm me with an unassuaged yearning. For what? For an impossible love, for happiness and success, for something out of life that has always passed, unseen. Back then, I discovered in this most seductive of great novels an image of my own interior self.[...]Did I not daydream, like the Narrator, of awakening some morning a real writer? Was I not burdened, even at twenty, with an inescapable feeling of disillusionment, never quite satisfied with the present, always nostalgic for a rosy past or eager for an even rosier future?
Actually I have omitted a sentence where he compares himself to Swann and his first crush to Odette. It sounded corny to me. I mean I like personal touch in a review, but only to an extent :)

Link to publisher's page.


bhupinder said...

Just curious to know what he says about Sandor Marai...

Alok said...

He is very enthusiastic in his review of Embers. He calls it "perfect".

There is a subcategory of mainly European fiction to which one might also give this name [wisdom literature]. These are often short novels, marked by an autmnal forlorn air, purveying the knowledge of the world which comes only from heartbreak, disillusionment, and long experience, written in measured prose of high polish and urbanity.

He then comapres him to Flaubert, Turgenev, Mann and Joseph Roth. I have seen a mention of Embers on your blog. I am intrigued!

Alok said...

link to more reviews of the book.

washington post link doesn't work.

bhupinder said...

Thanks a lot. Embers has been one of my favourites in recent years (outside the Latinos, even at par with some of them) and I agree with the quote in your comment. The term "wisdom literature" is very apt for Sandor Marai.

His Conversations in Bolzano is quite good too, but dwells too long hair- splitting a single sentence.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to his next work to be translated into English- The Rebels

Alok said...

I just checked. My local library has got both. Will take it up soon.

Cheshire Cat said...

If there's one writer on that list you absolutely have to read, it's Bernhard. The great thing about him is that a book can be finished in one sitting, and indeed it ought to be, there being no opportunity to pause. "Wittgenstein's Nephew" is my favorite.

Alok said...

thanks cat! I hope it doen't get too deep into wittgenstein because I don't have a clue about his philosophy.

I know, I think he doesn't believe in paragraph breaks too!