Books July 2001

New and Noteworthy

The summer game, sharp short fiction, are you U?, Hitchens on Ferdinand Mount
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There couldn't be a better moment for the reissue of Bill Veeck's Veeck—As in Wreck. Originally published in 1962, this greatest of all baseball memoirs returns at a time when player salaries have reached new heights of absurdity and the sport seems headed for yet another labor shutdown—making Veeck's book appear less a throwback than a prophetic screed. The scion of an old baseball family (his father was the president of the Chicago Cubs from 1917 until the early 1930s, and Veeck himself helped to plant the fabled outfield ivy at Wrigley Field), Veeck owned, at various points, the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, and the Chicago White Sox. He ran his teams with creativity and élan. Perhaps best known for signing a midget in 1951 (who walked in his only at bat), Veeck employed postgame fireworks, an exploding scoreboard, and a sense of accountability that baseball executives have generally lacked. His home number was listed to the end, and, unlike owners who demand new stadiums built with public money, he "never operated on the theory that a city owes anything to the owner of a baseball franchise, out of civic pride, patriotic fervor or compelling national interest."

It's easy to lose sight of Veeck's importance in the face of all his gimmicks, but as this book makes clear, he was a baseball visionary. Again and again he took on "the feudal barons of baseball," arguing against their old-boy tactics while pushing them to open up the game. In many ways Veeck helped to alter the dynamic of the ball field: his Indians became the first American League team with a black player when they brought up Larry Doby, in July of 1947. Just as important, though, are his ideas on the business of baseball, which he consistently sought to improve. For Veeck, one of the sport's biggest problems was the divide between wealthy franchises and those on less firm footing, a divide he saw as threatening the stability of the major leagues. As a solution he proposed revenue sharing, a concept so radical that, nearly forty years later, it still has not been implemented in full. Lest this book sound like the stuff of history, just glance at the sports pages to see how little things have changed. But then, as Veeck reminds us, "When they listen to your ravings with indulgence, and, heaven help me, affection, you know you've joined the herd."

—David Uhlin

The Hunters
by Claire Messud
Harcourt, 192 pages, $23.00

This slim volume contains two novellas; the title of the first signals the author's ambition. "A Simple Tale" recalls Flaubert's "A Simple Heart," and Messud's treatment of her protagonist, Maria, a survivor of the Nazi camps who is now a domestic, is equally intimate and pathetic. Maria's employer is going blind and dying; her slow demise (and Maria's fear of being alone) provides Messud a convenient frame within which to recount Maria's life story. After an opening hook that proves a red herring, the piece proceeds haltingly at first, but once under way, Messud moves time brilliantly, taking the reader through Maria's teenage years in German-occupied Ukraine, her young womanhood in a displaced-persons camp in northern Ontario, and the pedestrian humiliations of her work and disappointments of her family life, showing how unkind the years have been (as unmerciful as they were to Flaubert's Félicité). The prose Messud uses to limn even the worst horrors is patient and restrained, almost Victorian at points, and the contrast between the petty domesticity to which Maria has dedicated herself and the nightmare world of her girlhood tinges everything with an odd insignificance. Like Flaubert, Messud is interested in how much people can endure across a lifetime without losing all hope.

The second novella, "The Hunters," showcases Messud's talent for language and wicked sense of humor. Her nameless, genderless first-person narrator is a true fool, a pompous academic on sabbatical, and so self-absorbed as to border on the Nabokovian, which gives the author a chance to unleash an exquisitely tortuous prose, the old high style of Poe. The twit of a hero has taken a fat in a shabby section of London to do research on the subject of death, but he or she drifts into solipsism and paranoia, convinced that something is dreadfully amiss with the downstairs neighbors. It's a bit of a shaggy-dog story—as are some of Poe's—but always assured in the telling. Together the two pieces address the loneliness inherent in the human desire to be known and loved—"A Simple Tale" directly and deeply, "The Hunters" glancingly, by implication, and perhaps less successfully.

—Stewart O'Nan

Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy
by Nancy Mitford
Akadine/A Common Reader, 159 pages, $19.95

From the archives:

"To the Manor Bought" (February 2001)
Aristocratic status is just a mouse click and a bank transfer away. By Francis X. Rocca

"The Penumbra of Pedigree" (February 1999)
A revived reference book offers a fanfare for the common aristo. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Nancy Mitford, who died in 1973, was not only one of the most entertaining novelists of the twentieth century but also a provocatrice of genius with an uncanny instinct for puncturing pretensions and probing sore spots. So when she began writing about her country's venerable and, to many, deeply offensive class system, in "The English Aristocracy," a 1955 article commissioned for Encounter magazine, she knew that she was taking on a sensitive issue. A cruelly accurate observer of the upper class, and upper-class herself (she was the daughter of a baron), Mitford was well qualified for her subject, and the Encounter issue in which her article appeared was an immediate sellout. But its success was largely owing to Mitford's tantalizing references to a scholarly article by one Alan S.C. Ross, titled "Upper Class English Usage." Ross, a professor of linguistics at Birmingham University, claimed that since members of the upper class were no longer "necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer" than anyone else, they were distinguishable solely by their use of the English language. Ross coined the terms "U" and "non-U" to denote upper-class and non-upper-class usage: U people used the words "jam," "house," "rich," and "lavatory paper," for instance, whereas the middle classes exposed their inferior origins by saying "preserve," "home," "wealthy," and "toilet paper." Mitford was quite aware that her article would be annoying as well as amusing. "It's a sort of anthology of teases—something for everybody," she wrote to a friend. "I think it will be safer to be in Greece when it appears." In the event, the furor surpassed her wildest imaginings, with "Are You U?" becoming a sort of national parlor game (though real aristocrats tended to stay aloof, like the perhaps apocryphal dowager who, I'm told, fatly said, "My dear, if it's me, it's U"). In 1956 Mitford's and Ross's essays were published in a slim volume titled Noblesse Oblige, with comic illustrations by Osbert Lancaster, a sublimely non-U poem by John Betjeman, and additional essays by Christopher Sykes, "Strix," and Evelyn Waugh, who commented and expanded on Mitford's ideas: "Impotence and sodomy are socially O.K.," Waugh wrote, "but birth control is flagrantly middle-class."

Noblesse Oblige was published in the United States the same year, with a hilarious introduction by Russell Lynes. It has gone through many editions and has continued, amazingly, to hold its own despite the myriad changes that have overtaken both the language and the culture in the past forty-five years. Now in a handsome new edition, it will continue to give pleasure—even here in America, where, as Lynes remarked, "one man's U is another man's U-all."

—Brooke Allen

Simone Weil
by Francine du Plessix Gray
Lipper/Viking, 256 pages, $19.95

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