Commentary Magazine


Topic: Evelyn Waugh

Giraldi’s “Busy Monsters”

I have rarely enjoyed a first novel as much as I enjoyed William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton, 282 pp., $24.95). I would have liked to say more about the book in the November fiction chronicle, but space limitations prevented me.

The novel’s action is in the style. To write in the voice of a man willing “to be berserk in service of the heart,” Giraldi says that he had to unshakle himself from “the safe influences of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and to embrace a more thrilling, disobedient mode of narration.” Or, as his narrator Charles Homar puts it rather less politely, he renounces sane and Presbyterian English. One character — a reader of his “fanatical” memoir, which is published in installments in a national magazine that sounds suspiciously like the New Yorker — complains that the style makes him dizzy.

Giraldi insists that style is subordinated to character, plot, and theme in Busy Monsters. “A novel’s language must be the organic outcrop of its storytelling sensibility, its creative vision,” he says. But I don’t entirely believe him. This sounds like the kind of thing that is said for public consumption. After all, how many readers are likely to be attracted to a novel upon being told that the most important thing about it is its dizzying prose:

Gather ’round, now. We go forth hexed, a little crestfallen but well intentioned toward an ending always in progress, or maybe just a coninuation from that to this, from there to hereabouts, defying the reaper by courting constant motion, shunning seclusion, inventing love, and then needing to see that invention light up, spin, sparkle.

So begins the tenth and final chapter. A certain kind of reader, weary of contemporary fiction’s polished “craft” being mistaken for distinctive style, will not be able to stop reading when teased with such sentences. Although Giraldi admires (and has been obviously influenced by) the late Barry Hannah — an affecting memorial tribute to Hannah, originally published in Agni, can be downloaded from Giraldi’s website — he is the bastard literary son of Evelyn Waugh.

The title of Busy Monsters is not the only way in which Giraldi’s novel resembles Vile Bodies, Waugh’s second novel. Both are hilarious; both satirize the unruliness and overindulgence of their characters’ lives and yet revel in every minute of it; both are terrified of boredom. The main difference is that Waugh’s Christianity came later. Although Giraldi swears he is no longer “Jesus-happy,” as he was when a boy, his narrator is a “lapsed Catholic,” the “most devout Catholic of all.” And beneath the facetiousness and verbal hijinks, there is a seriousness of Christian purpose to Busy Monsters. As I noted in my COMMENTARY review, Giraldi’s model is the “antithetical fusion” of high and low, superb and uncouth, which Erich Auerbach describes in Mimesis as the “mixed style” of Christian rhetoric. Giraldi resorts to it to suggest the need for something that is missing in most postmodern lives:

All this emptiness, within and without, and we here with a shovel between two nothings, trying to fill, and fill. Our silent Savior’s broken body: in that believe? How? Which way? Is it each way? But we can’t hold it. So in the lifetime of our discontent we worship one another and then wither when left. The paralytic on the corner will tell you: he longs for his legs. He used to feel such comfort when he shouted insults at the Lord, and the Lord, as patient as the grave (is the grave), said back: Oh, child, you just don’t understand. Meaning he one day might. Which he won’t.

This is an ideal language for what William James calls “the sick soul.” Giraldi’s narrator gets his girl back in the end, but she wasn’t really what he was searching for. Happy readers of Busy Monsters have every reason to be excited about the sequel.

I have rarely enjoyed a first novel as much as I enjoyed William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton, 282 pp., $24.95). I would have liked to say more about the book in the November fiction chronicle, but space limitations prevented me.

The novel’s action is in the style. To write in the voice of a man willing “to be berserk in service of the heart,” Giraldi says that he had to unshakle himself from “the safe influences of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and to embrace a more thrilling, disobedient mode of narration.” Or, as his narrator Charles Homar puts it rather less politely, he renounces sane and Presbyterian English. One character — a reader of his “fanatical” memoir, which is published in installments in a national magazine that sounds suspiciously like the New Yorker — complains that the style makes him dizzy.

Giraldi insists that style is subordinated to character, plot, and theme in Busy Monsters. “A novel’s language must be the organic outcrop of its storytelling sensibility, its creative vision,” he says. But I don’t entirely believe him. This sounds like the kind of thing that is said for public consumption. After all, how many readers are likely to be attracted to a novel upon being told that the most important thing about it is its dizzying prose:

Gather ’round, now. We go forth hexed, a little crestfallen but well intentioned toward an ending always in progress, or maybe just a coninuation from that to this, from there to hereabouts, defying the reaper by courting constant motion, shunning seclusion, inventing love, and then needing to see that invention light up, spin, sparkle.

So begins the tenth and final chapter. A certain kind of reader, weary of contemporary fiction’s polished “craft” being mistaken for distinctive style, will not be able to stop reading when teased with such sentences. Although Giraldi admires (and has been obviously influenced by) the late Barry Hannah — an affecting memorial tribute to Hannah, originally published in Agni, can be downloaded from Giraldi’s website — he is the bastard literary son of Evelyn Waugh.

The title of Busy Monsters is not the only way in which Giraldi’s novel resembles Vile Bodies, Waugh’s second novel. Both are hilarious; both satirize the unruliness and overindulgence of their characters’ lives and yet revel in every minute of it; both are terrified of boredom. The main difference is that Waugh’s Christianity came later. Although Giraldi swears he is no longer “Jesus-happy,” as he was when a boy, his narrator is a “lapsed Catholic,” the “most devout Catholic of all.” And beneath the facetiousness and verbal hijinks, there is a seriousness of Christian purpose to Busy Monsters. As I noted in my COMMENTARY review, Giraldi’s model is the “antithetical fusion” of high and low, superb and uncouth, which Erich Auerbach describes in Mimesis as the “mixed style” of Christian rhetoric. Giraldi resorts to it to suggest the need for something that is missing in most postmodern lives:

All this emptiness, within and without, and we here with a shovel between two nothings, trying to fill, and fill. Our silent Savior’s broken body: in that believe? How? Which way? Is it each way? But we can’t hold it. So in the lifetime of our discontent we worship one another and then wither when left. The paralytic on the corner will tell you: he longs for his legs. He used to feel such comfort when he shouted insults at the Lord, and the Lord, as patient as the grave (is the grave), said back: Oh, child, you just don’t understand. Meaning he one day might. Which he won’t.

This is an ideal language for what William James calls “the sick soul.” Giraldi’s narrator gets his girl back in the end, but she wasn’t really what he was searching for. Happy readers of Busy Monsters have every reason to be excited about the sequel.

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Hang on a Minute, Scrooge

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

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I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

As Sam Schulman, reviewing Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in the June 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, notes:

[Hitchens’s] stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metrosexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

But there’s something even more troubling about Hitchens’s reading of Hanukkah:

To celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of rabbinic Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. . . . And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

Umberto Eco once observed that counterfactual conditionals are always true, because their premises are always false. Hitchens’s thumbnail sketch is too deterministic a reading to bear much scrutiny. Let me see if I have this right: because an obscure sect of Jewish guerrillas defeated an occupying Syrian army in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., we got . . . the Christian Church astride the globe like a colossus, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, all the depredations of the monotheistic religions against each other and against secularists ever since, up to and including 9/11? So, if the Maccabees had lost in Jerusalem, absolutely none of this would have happened? That contention, at least, seems ridiculous on its face.

Hitchens complains that Hanukkah has become a Jewish analogue for Christmas. Sociologically that is trivially true; theologically and historically it’s nonsense. Yet Hitchens can now say that:

Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back.

Coming from him, this is a remarkable statement. Strange, isn’t it, how much Hitchens the secularist can sound like a militant Jewish purist? Even (dare I say it) a Maccabee?

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The Seventh-Best World War II Novel

Roger Kimball, one of our finest critics, has delivered a devastating dissection of Norman Mailer’s overrated career, which consisted of political posturing and juvenile behavior interspersed with the production of mediocre novels—at best. (Kimball’s critique may be found here.)

I have very little to add beyond a few thoughts on the book that launched Mailer’s career—The Naked and the Dead, written in 1948 when its author was a 25-year-old unknown. Kimball is dead right when he describes this work as “pretentious,” not particularly “well-crafted,” and lacking in narrative “momentum.” Kimball writes, “Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.” That was certainly my reaction upon reading The Naked and the Dead years ago. What was all the fuss about, I wondered? (I recently had a similar feeling on reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

Yet The Naked and the Dead continues to win gushing praise. David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times writes that it “ is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written.”

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Roger Kimball, one of our finest critics, has delivered a devastating dissection of Norman Mailer’s overrated career, which consisted of political posturing and juvenile behavior interspersed with the production of mediocre novels—at best. (Kimball’s critique may be found here.)

I have very little to add beyond a few thoughts on the book that launched Mailer’s career—The Naked and the Dead, written in 1948 when its author was a 25-year-old unknown. Kimball is dead right when he describes this work as “pretentious,” not particularly “well-crafted,” and lacking in narrative “momentum.” Kimball writes, “Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.” That was certainly my reaction upon reading The Naked and the Dead years ago. What was all the fuss about, I wondered? (I recently had a similar feeling on reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

Yet The Naked and the Dead continues to win gushing praise. David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times writes that it “ is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written.”

Really? It’s better than Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (the greatest novel of the Civil War), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (the greatest American novel of World War I), or James Webb’s Fields of Fire (the greatest novel of the Vietnam War)? I think not.

It’s not even the best American novel of World War II. Not by a long shot. A number of books are actually much better, starting with, in no particular order, James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. I even prefer John Hersey’s slight work, A Bell for Adano, which is more like a long short story than a full-blown novel.

Let’s see. By my count that would make The Naked and the Dead at most the seventh-best novel written by an American about World War II, to say nothing of all American war novels. Of course the best novel about WWII wasn’t penned by an American. It was the three-volume Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, whose biting wit, compelling plotting, vivid irony, and sparkling writing puts the puerile efforts of Norman Mailer to shame.

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Nazi Mitfords

On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.

Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.

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On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.

Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.

Although Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is being marketed by its publisher as a glamorous item penned by the “great wits and beauties of their age,” there is nothing either witty or beautiful about Diana’s and Unity’s ardent crushes on Hitler, with whom they socialized regularly in the 1930’s. In 1937 Unity tells Diana, “Nazism is my life,” while Diana replies, “I thirst for only a glimpse of” Hitler, and in 1938 informs Unity: “The Fuehrer is the kindest man in the world, isn’t he?”

Readers who dissent from this view will find astonishingly adamant defenses here of Diana by the editor Charlotte Mosley, her daughter-in-law. Charlotte is the wife of Diana’s son Oswald Alexander Mosley (born 1938), and as editor of previous collections of Nancy’s letters, Ms. Mosley repeatedly defended her mother-in-law, despite Diana’s being an unrepentant Nazi to her dying day. Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters amps up this unapologetic stance, accusing Nancy of “disloyalty” and “betrayal” because during World War II, she sensibly told friends in the British government of her concern that Diana was an “extremely dangerous person.” Moreover, Nancy pointed out that another sister, Pamela, was “anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and defeatist.” Rather than applauding Nancy’s good sense and courage, Ms. Mosley equates Nancy’s passion for a French Gaullist officer to Diana’s and Unity’s doting on Hitler, writing that Nancy “became as indiscriminately pro-French as Unity had been pro-German.”

Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters mashes the sisters into a conglomerate, describing them as knowing “Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Hitler; [they] were friends of Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh, and Maya Angelou.” This conjures up confused images of Hitler socializing with Maya Angelou. Historical mish-mash is a bad approach for a book dealing with six sisters of whom only one, Nancy, produced work that is as fresh today as when she wrote it.

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Bookshelf

• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

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• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

Fortunately, these two volumes mostly give us the critic to whose infectious gusto I and so many other readers of my generation owe an all but endless debt. Even when he was most spectacularly wrong, he rarely failed to stimulate, and the plain-spoken prose and hard-headed common sense of his best criticism still has a tonic effect:

John O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knotted social web of a large Pennsylvania town, the potpourri of New York night-life in the twenties, the nondescript fringes of Hollywood. In all this he has explored for the first time from his peculiar semi-snobbish point of view a good deal of interesting territory: the relations between Catholics and Protestants, the relations between college men and non-college men, the relations between the underworld and “legitimate” business, the ratings of café society; and to read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.

Has there ever been a critic who was better at charging such summary passages as these with the force and selectivity that makes them so perennially readable? Or who had a surer grasp of the indispensable critical skill of making his readers want to go out and buy the books he praised? It was The Shores of Light, The Wound and the Bow and Classics and Commercials, all contained in the Library of America’s first two Wilson volumes, that first inspired me to read O’Hara, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, Dr. Johnson, the later Kipling, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Thornton Wilder, and it is still possible to read Wilson on these and many other writers with pleasure and profit.

Those already closely familiar with Wilson’s work will be pleased to see that Lewis Dabney, the editor of this series, also plans to include a selection of reviews that didn’t make it into any of his books. These two volumes, for instance, contain Wilson’s hitherto uncollected thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Dawn Powell’s My Home Is Far Away, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, plus the best essay Wilson ever wrote on H.L. Mencken. All these pieces are worth reading, and it is a puzzlement why he didn’t think them worth collecting.

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Bookshelf

• I know a not-inconsiderable number of people—most of them well on the far side of fifty—who sincerely believe that nothing good has happened to American popular music since Elvis Presley first swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Such frustrated folk will find much solace in The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, 230 pp., $24.95), a collection of the essays about American popular song and its makers that Stefan Kanfer has been publishing in City Journal for the past few years.

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• I know a not-inconsiderable number of people—most of them well on the far side of fifty—who sincerely believe that nothing good has happened to American popular music since Elvis Presley first swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Such frustrated folk will find much solace in The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, 230 pp., $24.95), a collection of the essays about American popular song and its makers that Stefan Kanfer has been publishing in City Journal for the past few years.

In addition to fervent appreciations of Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim, The Voodoo That They Did So Well contains a profile of Lorenzo da Ponte (about whom I recently wrote in this space) and a pair of affectionate essays about vaudeville and Yiddish theater. All eight pieces proceed from the dolorous assumptions that (1) things ain’t what they used to be and (2) we shall never be again as we were:

Professional mourners constantly bemoan the unintelligence of the young. As a guest professor at various universities in and around the city I have not found this lament valid: the current generation of college students is as bright as my own or any other. But I have found a surprising incuriosity about popular history—just the sort of subject youth ought to find compelling. The reasons are manifest. The internet, video games, DVD’s, iPods, and all the rest have pushed literature from center stage; the cacophony of rock, hip-hop, and grunge has obscured, and sometimes buried, some of the greatest popular melodies and lyrics ever written.

I yield to no one in my disdain for the spoiled fruits of modernity, but I’ve been listening to rock for 40 years without any obvious ill effects—and with no diminishment of my appreciation for what Alec Wilder referred to as “the professional tradition” in American songwriting. As I explained in COMMENTARY a couple of years ago, the fact that they no longer write ’em like they used to doesn’t necessarily mean that what they write now isn’t worth hearing.

Stefan Kanfer isn’t having any of it. So far as I can tell from the pages of The Voodoo That They Did So Well, rock is a closed book to him. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to like most of Sondheim’s work, though he clearly respects it and has warm words for A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd:

Save for a handful of numbers, it is unlikely that fifty years from now popular entertainers will sing his songs and that the general public—those uncelebrated people who finally determine what Broadway and Tin Pan Alley figures enter the pantheon—will cherish them.

As for what Kanfer likes . . . well, the table of contents will tell you that, and I’m not so sure that there’s much point in reading further. If you already know and like the songs of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, I doubt you’ll find that The Voodoo That They Did So Well sheds very much light on what makes them tick. Kanfer is an asserter, not an explainer, and unless you agree with him up front about the greatness of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, you’re not likely to come away persuaded that they’re better than the music with which you grew up, or that you need to run right out and buy a stack of original-cast albums.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the great pre-rock songwriters with all my heart, and I’ve never had much use for hip-hop or grunge, either. But their work, wonderful though it was, is neither the beginning nor the end of American popular music, and to suppose otherwise is to sentence yourself to the same aesthetic prison that Evelyn Waugh inhabited. “His strongest tastes were negative,” Waugh wrote of himself (more or less) in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. “He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.” To be disgusted and bored with the world as it is may be an appropriate response to things as they are, but it isn’t much fun, nor is it a good way to get anything done.

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Bookshelf

• In a perfect world, we would all read nothing but great books and never become exhausted or bloated. Alas, I spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms and on planes and trains, and I find myself frequently in need of intelligent but undemanding literary entertainment that stretches my mental muscles without causing me to break a sweat. If you can read Proust on a plane, more power to you: the feat is beyond me. Twenty years ago I read The Bonfire of the Vanities from cover to cover in the course of a holiday plane trip that was made considerably longer by a blizzard. More often than not, though, I resort instead to crime novels, a portmanteau phrase that takes in everything from Ronald Knox to John Grisham.

Neither of those authors, as it happens, is a favorite of mine. On the other hand, I’ve never been a mystery addict, and most of the sanguinary literature leaves me as cold as a week-old stiff. I never could figure out what Evelyn Waugh saw in Erle Stanley Gardner, nor am I capable of reading a single page of Agatha Christie without nodding off. For me, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout were the quintessential purveyors of mystery-type diversion, and I find their best books to be infinitely rereadable. Most of Chandler’s work can be found in a pair of Library of America volumes that are compact enough to slip into the smallest of bags, as are Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930′s and 40′s (990 pp., $35) and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950′s (892 pp., $35), which between them contain a representative sample of the best non-Chandler hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers of the Golden Age of pulp fiction. As for Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, they’ve all been published in paperback at one time or another, and if you aren’t familiar with the adventures of the orchid-growing savant of West 35th Street and Archie Goodwin, his dapper, wisecracking assistant-amanuensis, you’re missing a treat. I recommend Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, and Too Many Clients for starters.

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• In a perfect world, we would all read nothing but great books and never become exhausted or bloated. Alas, I spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms and on planes and trains, and I find myself frequently in need of intelligent but undemanding literary entertainment that stretches my mental muscles without causing me to break a sweat. If you can read Proust on a plane, more power to you: the feat is beyond me. Twenty years ago I read The Bonfire of the Vanities from cover to cover in the course of a holiday plane trip that was made considerably longer by a blizzard. More often than not, though, I resort instead to crime novels, a portmanteau phrase that takes in everything from Ronald Knox to John Grisham.

Neither of those authors, as it happens, is a favorite of mine. On the other hand, I’ve never been a mystery addict, and most of the sanguinary literature leaves me as cold as a week-old stiff. I never could figure out what Evelyn Waugh saw in Erle Stanley Gardner, nor am I capable of reading a single page of Agatha Christie without nodding off. For me, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout were the quintessential purveyors of mystery-type diversion, and I find their best books to be infinitely rereadable. Most of Chandler’s work can be found in a pair of Library of America volumes that are compact enough to slip into the smallest of bags, as are Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930′s and 40′s (990 pp., $35) and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950′s (892 pp., $35), which between them contain a representative sample of the best non-Chandler hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers of the Golden Age of pulp fiction. As for Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, they’ve all been published in paperback at one time or another, and if you aren’t familiar with the adventures of the orchid-growing savant of West 35th Street and Archie Goodwin, his dapper, wisecracking assistant-amanuensis, you’re missing a treat. I recommend Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, and Too Many Clients for starters.

What’s new? I’ve previously sung the praises of Donald E. Westlake (and Richard Stark, his sociopathic alter ego) in this space, and I get similar pleasure out of Elmore Leonard, though his work is an altogether different bag of bones. Indeed, Leonard is something of a bait-and-switch artist, for while most people think of him as a chronicler of the low life of Detroit and Miami, his real subject matter is what George Meredith called “modern love.” Virtually all of his crime novels hinge on a romantic relationship of a very particular kind, one in which a no-longer-youngster who’s been around the track a few times has a cute meeting with a smart, no-nonsense woman who teaches him that there’s more to life than his ex-wife. To be sure, this relationship takes place within the context of a crime-driven plot, but usually it’s the relationship, not the crime, to which you pay the most attention.

No writer as prolific as Leonard can avoid repetition. Some of his books (and fictional relationships) are more formulaic than others. But even when he’s not quite on form, his spare, cracker-crisp style sweeps you over the rough spots, and I’ve never started a Leonard novel that I didn’t finish. My favorites are LaBrava, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, and Out of Sight, each of which is readily available in paperback and any of which will give you a clear idea of what Leonard is up to. If you like one, you’ll like them all.

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