Brief Reviews

William Styron

Mr. West's "Life" originates in conversations with his subject, or with Mr. Styron's friends and associates, which may account for the dutiful but spiritless tone of the book's opening pages. When Styron was thirteen, his mother died horribly of cancer, and his eventual stepmother was fiercely unsympathetic. A certain vagueness of reminiscence on those points is understandable. In other respects, Styron was lucky. His father gave encouragement and support. His abilities were recognized early. His first novel -- Lie Down in Darkness -- was a critical and commercial success. His service with the Marines gave him insight into the military but never took him out of the country. He found a wife of congenial tastes and literary accomplishments, whose inherited money kept the couple in comfort while Styron wrote at the slow pace required for the creation of his intricately patterned, carefully researched fictions. When Mr. West gets to Styron's professional career, the people he knew, the founding of The Paris Review, and the controversies engendered by his books, the text becomes immediate and energetic, well supplied with letters, quotations, rivalries, testy reviewers, and international publishing complications. The reader can enjoy both an intelligent survey of Styron's work and a practical report on what a successful author does -- or puts up with -- besides writing his books.

Between Heaven
and Hell

Professor Lincoln proposes to explain what has made Russian art so unmistakably Russian. He attributes that character to "the ongoing conflict between foreign influence and native experience, and a firm belief that rulers have a duty to shape the arts of their people" -- leading to "an inner anguish that is uniquely and perversely Russian." His text covers a thousand years of all forms of art, its practitioners, and their problems. It is very thick indeed with information, and is therefore worth reading, but it never satisfactorily explains what makes Russian art Russian. Whatever that was, it must have happened more than a thousand years ago.

Selected Letters of
Robert Louis Stevenson

There is a complete collection of Stevenson's letters, in eight volumes. This well-annotated selection occupies a mere 600 pages -- a great kindness to admirers of a superb letter writer who are not prepared to devote their lives to his correspondence.

An Instance
of the Fingerpost

Mr. Pears's novel is set in Oxford in the year 1663, although the events are related much later, by four men connected in some way with the murder of an unpleasant professor. It was a lively time, with the tensions and hostilities of the late war still seething under the surface of Restoration society, and the scientific and philosophical speculations suppressed under Cromwell exploding into action. The author has a sound grip on the period and an imagination worthy of Dickens. His narrators are variously uninformed, misinformed, and lying. They also occasionally tell the truth. The reader encounters medical experiment, theological argument, bibliophilia, and code-cracking, on the way to a thoroughly surprising conclusion. He also encounters some sly comedy, for a Venetian visitor -- a dilettante medical man -- has much to say about English weather, food, and table manners, while his hosts have much to say about Venetian dress and courtesies. The characters are differentiated by their ideas and the actions they report, and these contain both honest clues and artful red herrings. The underlying pattern, when it is at last revealed, may well have historical warrant, for the author is unquestionably a learned scholar as well as a nervy and ingenious plot-master.

The Brontës

Books about the Brontë family must be almost as prevalent as those about the Civil War, but this is a good one. Ms. Barker has created "A Life in Letters" out of surviving papers and testimony by Brontë contemporaries. The letters are principally by Charlotte, because Anne seldom wrote anything but innocuous social notes, and Emily, who never made a friend outside the family, cannot be said to have written letters at all. Few of Branwell's letters survive, and those that do present a weird contrast between kowtows to superiors and hail-fellow informality with friends. Charlotte made up for all of them, and her correspondence, plus Ms. Barker's discreet connecting narrative, provides a real sense of what those strange, brilliant people were like -- simultaneously withdrawn from life and passionately interested in it.

Riddle of the Ice

The author is a yachtsman with serious concerns about ecology and climate change. When a voyage to northern Labrador was blocked by "a massive area of sea ice that should not have been there,"he did not dismiss the problem as a hazard of his sport. He set about studying all that is known, suggested, or assumed about the behavior of ice between Labrador and Greenland. There proved to be much to study, including the possibility that the area is the source of an ocean current with global climatic impact. Mr. Arms's book combines the log of a subsequent voyage through that water with scientific facts and theories about the place. Both are reinforced by descriptions of the fierce and beautiful area through which his cutter Brendan's Isle sailed. Sailed, that is, when possible -- one idealistic crew member sulked bitterly about air pollution whenever the diesel went into action. The book is excellent as log, ice study, and landscape portrayal.

Asleep in the Sun

Mr. Silvester provides another photographic report on the Greek island cats -- this time as examples of how to enjoy a proper siesta. Useless advice. We poor human beings can consider sun, shade, breeze, and good company, but we cannot defy gravity on top of a potted plant, nor can we ever look as elegantly flexible as cats. We can only admire them.

A History of
Power in Europe

The author is a distinguished specialist in European history with a long list of scholarly positions. His book examines, at high speed, the operations of power in Europe during the past thousand years, focusing on the activities of the states (political), the nations (cultural), and the marketplace (economic). Because these forces have developed at different speeds and with different effects in different areas, the text tends to whirl rapidly around the Continent and to resort to a good deal of generalization. It is nonetheless a rewarding overall view, while the handsome illustrations are a delightful medley of the great and the familiar, the little known, the maliciously subversive, and the truly surprising.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 116-118.

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