Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Peter Gay, _Modernism: The Lure of Heresy_

I DOUBT anyone but Peter Gay could have written this book -- a survey of the modernist impulse in several different arts as practiced on both sides of the Atlantic, from the 1840s to about the 1960s.

Part Two, "Classics," is the largest part of the book, 300 of its 500 pages, but not the most interesting.  Lucid, knowledgeable, gracefully written accounts of major figures in painting and sculpture, music and dance, literature, architecture, drama and film -- very nice, but if you know anything about the history of these arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this is the stuff you already know.

Parts One ("Founders") and Three ("Endings") made the book memorable for me, precisely because these sections on the historical circumstances and cultural connections of modernism have to do with matters Gay, an historian of staggering erudition in the arts and culture, is uniquely qualified to describe.  Patronage gets a lot more attention here than in other accounts of modernism, as does the role of certain crucial critics as official exegetes/publicists for art that was doing its damnedest to be unassimilable to any known canons of taste.  This is a much more situated & contextualized account of modernism than we usually get.  Gay also says some very apt things about modernism and the rise of totalitarianism.

I was a bit let down, however, by the final chapter, "Life After Death?".  Gay argues that modernism was basically finished by 1960 or so -- fair enough -- but seems to think that means there was little art of interest after this date.  He likes Garcia Marquez and Grass and Gehry -- again, fair enough -- but finds little else to admire in the art of the last 40 or 50 years.  Consider this, from p. 499: "But it is true that nowadays there are virtually no novelists whose announcement of a new work of fiction would make lovers of high literature rush out to a bookstore and buy it."

Maybe I'm not a "lover of high literature" -- though I read and love Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka,  Woolf, Proust, Mann, and the other modernist novelists Gay gives particular attention to -- but there are actually quite a few novelists whose new novels I acquire as soon as they appear and read as promptly as I can manage.  

In no particular order:  Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ben Marcus, Don DeLillo, Edmund White, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Shirley Hazzard, Mary Gaitskill, John Banville, Salman Rushdie...

It does not seem to me that we are in a slack time for literature at all, either in fiction or in poetry.  Or in music (Steve Reich) or dance (Mark Morris) or painting (Anselm Kiefer) either, for that matter.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Katha Pollitt, _Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories_

I have loved Katha Pollitt's writing ever since her bi-weekly column in The Nation began running, however many years ago that was -- back in the Clinton Administration, I think -- and I loved this book even more than I love her columns.  Like her columns, the essays in Learning to Drive are smart, funny, original, and obviously written by someone who loves words, loves the possibilities of syntax, and knows what she is about with both.

The title essay, "Learning to Drive," and a companion piece, "Webstalking," are set during what seems a fairly awful and protracted recovery period after breaking up with a partner who was spectacularly unfaithful and then abandoned her.  I gather from some reviews that there has been some controversy over whether it is OK or not-really-OK that Pollitt is as revealing of her weaknesses as she is in these pieces.  What I gathered from no review, but wish someone had pointed out, is that both essays, especially "Learning to Drive," are masterpieces.  

"In the Study Group" is another masterpiece, almost a novel in miniature: a group of radicals has so completely refined their critique of the historical dialectic that they find themselves with no need to organize, proselytize, or hit the streets at all.  They need only keep reading, write occasionally, and above all, continue to talk.  Anyone could have satirized this group, and Pollitt can make visible their folly as well as Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Hardwick could have, but she can make you ache for their idealism as well.

The essays about her father ("Good-Bye, Lenin"), her mother ("Mrs. Razzmatazz"), and her daughter ("Beautiful Screamer")... masterpieces all.  The essay on her daughter brought back the days of my own daughters' infancies more vividly than our photo albums do.

I'm not at all surprised that Pollitt is as effective in the mile-runs of her longer essays as she is in the sprints of her columns, but what a delight that she turns out to be even better.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nicholson Baker, _Human Smoke_

I've been a fan of Nicholson Baker since The Mezzanine, have read each of his books soon after publication, and have admired and enjoyed them all (in the spirit of full disclosure pioneered by Baker's U & I, however, I should confess to not finishing Double Fold).  The title of this very blog, in fact, was inspired by the final essay in Baker's The Size of Thoughts. I admired and enjoyed Human Smoke, too, departure though it is.
There is the heft of the volume, for one thing.  Balancing the tome in my hand after locating in the book store -- which took a few minutes, as I had begun by vainly searching in "fiction" before being directed to "history" -- I wondered, how does a miniaturist write a 500-page book?  The answer turned out to be, by writing about a thousand miniatures.  

Human Smoke is a gathering of about that many news items, diary excerpts, and quick anecdotes from about 1917 to the end of 1941, focusing most intently on the approach of World War II and that war's first two years.  It ends with Pearl Harbor and the Wannsee Conference, with Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, and the holocaust plainly foreshadowed -- and fittingly, because the book's main subjects are the destruction of the European Jews and the aerial bombardment of cities.  Human smoke is what is produced by the burning of human bodies.

There is no consecutive narrative in the book, no consecutive argument.  The effect, though, is of some narrative of the approach, outbreak, and early stages of the war, with all the connecting transitions between the vivid stories and striking quotations removed, or of some argument about the sheer inhumanity of the war, with all abstract discussion and generalization removed...an effect emphasized by the book's design, with an inch of white space around each brief item, creating the impression that the dull filler of conventional history has been omitted.
There is a narrative, though, and an argument, as every reviewer has noted.  The narrative is about the Allies' at first tentative, then eager embrace of the strategy of bombing cities, with the inevitable civilian casualties.  As for the argument, Baker comes clean in the last paragraph of the acknowledgements at the book's close, dedicating his work to the "British and American pacifists" who tried to "stop the war from happening": "They failed, but they were right."
Hmm.  I don't think so.  But Baker has nonetheless done something amazing.  Through selection and juxtaposition of small details from a staggering number of sources (all published, though -- no secret hitherto-unknown archives, just things available to anyone who could get to a good library), in a prose style so scrupulously neutral he seems to be making no judgements at all, he had me equating the aerial bombardment of cities with Auschwitz.  Not because he insisted I equate them -- I'm not sure even he equates them -- but that conclusion loomed up with every turned page, without his ever drawing it.
I don't think the two are equivalent any more than I think the pacifists were ultimately right.  But the idea I lazily had, probably from a boyhood of reading about the bomber and  fighter pilots of WW II, and even after an adolescent reading of Catch-22, that the Allied bombing of cities was a grim necessity forced on the reluctant Roosevelt and Churchill by the desperate exigencies of a just war -- well -- that's gone.  The strategy had been contemplated and prepared for even before the war started, and was deliberately chosen even though no one had any illusions that more than a few of the bombs dropped would hit their intended "military" targets.  Meanwhile, the whole grim-necessity-forced-on-reluctant-leaders-by-desperate-exigencies-of-a-just-war rhetoric was also being used by the Nazis as they started on the Final Solution.
Baker even quotes some Nazi propaganda to the effect that what they were doing to the Jews was necessary because of the bombing.  I had to balk here.  Surely Baker is not so na├»ve as to think the Nazis would have left the Jews alone had German cities not been bombed.  But did the bombing hasten the creation of the death camps?  Provide a pretext that otherwise would have been longer in coming, the delay perhaps allowing more to survive?
So -- Nicholson Baker has always been smart, funny, observant, and honest, and I would guess a really fun dad, and I'm now going to add "a serious writer of conscience," some folks' huffiness about Checkpoint notwithstanding.