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Brief Reviews

The Peacock Room by Linda Merrill.
The Peacock Room

The Peacock Room, a masterpiece of interior decoration, explosively ended James Whistler's association with his previously generous and patient patron, Frederick Leyland. The row was noisy at the time and has given rise to speculation, interpretation, legend, anecdote, and publications ever since. Ms. Merrill's publication proposes to sort myth from fact and also to describe the development of Whistler's aesthetic theories and working techniques, relating both to the progress of art in late-nineteenth-century Britain and France. The text is serious and full of information, but it takes a long time to get to the peacock fight. When one does, the affair has a curiously modern ring. Whistler had been given an unspecific commission and left to carry it out with no direct observation by Leyland. The result was far more elaborate than Leyland had expected; he did not appreciate the magical gold and blue birds, and the cost overrun was worthy of the Pentagon -- if the Pentagon had been available for comparison. Leyland refused to pay full price. Whistler went broke but in a way had the last word in the dispute, for Leyland is remembered as the man who did not recognize a masterpiece in his own dining room. The masterpiece now resides in the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, where it is steadily admired by visitors. The book is illustrated generously if not always effectively -- a three-dimensional room cannot be reduced to a flat page.

The Return of Little Big Man

Jack Crabb, alias Little Big Man, the protagonist of an earlier novel by Mr. Berger, reappears to continue his memoirs, which broke off with the battle of the Little Big Horn. Jack is now aged 112, with mind and memory as clear as ever. His recollections start with the murder of Wild Bill Hickok and end at the Chicago World's Fair. Along the way Jack meets every great figure of western lore, with a few unavoidable nonentities thrown in. Mr. Berger's knowledge of frontier history is formidable. His ability to convert it into intriguing fiction derives from the narrator he has invented. Jack is a relative of Huckleberry Finn -- an intelligent observer whose lack of formal education leaves his mind unhampered by sentimental clichés and conventional assumptions. Jack sees events from unexpected angles, making old tales look new.

Mr. Dimock Explores the Mysteries of the East

The author is a distinguished authority on Indian religions and a translator of Bengali literature. He has spent much time in India. In this collection of essays he recalls only the comic or pleasant experiences, and there were many of both in that vast and varied country. The episodes are reported with unpretentious charm, while the author's occasional excursions into linguistic or philosophical questions add to the interest of his text -- an unusual accomplishment in scholarly writing.

An Elegant Madness

Ms. Murray's study of "High Society in Regency England" is not revisionist history. The period she covers (1788-1830) was one of hedonism, extravagant display, sexual irresponsibility, vulgar ostentation, and gluttony (the menu for one royal dinner covers three pages). There were numerous fads, from the folly of Cossack pants to the worthy enthusiasm for clean cravats. Ms. Murray provides specific details on the doings of dandies, prostitutes, influential hostesses, and tearful politicians. Weeping was a habit of the time. So were letter writing and the keeping of journals, often by people who took pains to write well and wittily. Spelling and punctuation might have been a bit ad-lib, but what does that matter when the material is fascinating? Ms. Murray has clearly enjoyed collecting this mass of gaudy trivialities, and anyone with a taste for informal history will enjoy reading it. The period produced splendidly mischievous cartoonists, whose work adds to the pleasure of the text.

The Dragon Hunt

The author left Vietnam at the age of sixteen for life in France. The first story in this collection is realistic and autobiographical -- a chilling account of the miseries endured by refugees aboard an overcrowded boat aground on a coral reef. The other stories have to do with refugees isolated in a strange country and with war survivors in Vietnam, where the author has visited more than once. He describes a formerly prosperous town where buildings survive but most of the people have left as looking "like a corpse someone had laid out to bury." The title story is a savage summary of Vietnam's long and bloody history. It drifts in and out of fantasy and legend, old enmities resurface, and brutality is wildly misdirected. The stories are not pleasant but they are well written and impressive for the author's ability to compress large-scale realities into concisely imagined metaphorical situations.

Winston and Clementine

Throughout their life together Sir Winston and Lady Churchill exchanged letters whenever they were separated. These private letters, expertly edited by their youngest daughter, evoke times and places and people, the characters of both correspondents, and above all a warm and lasting love. In the midst of wartime conferences Winston managed to get off lively reports to Clementine, who responded with messages of affection and support to whatever alias the military telegraph required. There are notable bits scattered throughout. In 1925 Winston observed, "It is now a convention that foreign affairs are only to be treated in unctuous platitudes wh [sic] bear no relation to what is really going on. This is called 'Open diplomacy'." The notes and connecting passages provided by Ms. Soames do effective service and are often sharp and funny. They should not be skipped.


The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Brief Reviews; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 112-114.


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