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

Flannery O'Connor once said that she didn't envy anyone inclined to write about Simone Weil. Revered by activists, feminists, and the followers of various religions, castigated for repudiating Judaism during the Holocaust, Weil remains a paradox, legendarily altruistic but also combative and fanatically stubborn. She was born in Paris, in 1909, to doting Jewish parents; wrote philosophical essays while driving herself to the brink of exhaustion laboring alongside factory workers; and even fought briefly in the Spanish civil war. Toward the end of her life Weil's thinking was transformed by a mystical experience, and at thirty-four she died of tuberculosis exacerbated by years of starving herself in solidarity with the world's hungry. Albert Camus adored Weil's work, Pope Paul VI considered her one of the three most important influences on his intellectual development, and T. S. Eliot said she possessed "a kind of genius akin to that of the saints."

Weil's ablest biographers, including her close friend Simone Pétrement and the psychiatrist Robert Coles, whose 1987 portrait was reissued in March, often seem cowed by her virtuousness, too tentative in exploring the irrational elements of her character. Francine du Plessix Gray, approaching Weil afresh in the Penguin Lives Series, errs in the opposite direction, needling her subject with great relish and sometimes expertly hitting the mark. When recounting Weil's refusal to heat her apartment out of sympathy with the unemployed, she suggests Weil's naiveté with an eloquent parenthetical aside: "(She would be surprised to learn that most of them lived in well-heated spaces.)" And by lavishing so much space on Weil's overprotective mother, who followed her daughter around (even to the Spanish civil war), cajoling Weil to eat, Du Plessix Gray profitably hints that the parental safety net allowed Weil to cultivate a distinctly adolescent rebelliousness throughout her short existence.

Unfortunately, Du Plessix Gray's dutifully researched but otherwise perfunctory chronicle too readily veers toward caricature. Her repeated emphasis on Weil's clumsiness, thick glasses, and "hideous clothes with which she habitually disfigured herself" is sadly ironic given Weil's principled abstention from the physical (Weil never had a lover or indulged her lifelong romance with food). At times one senses that Weil has aggrieved Du Plessix Gray on some deeply personal level. She laments Weil's "extraordinarily self-centered vocation for self-effacement," confessing a desire "to shake Simone by the shoulders and say, 'Come off it, you spoiled brat—get off your high horse!'" A smart, irreverent critique of Weil would have been fascinating, but Du Plessix Gray comes off as lightweight and weirdly seething.

—Elizabeth Judd

The Geometry of Love
by Margaret Visser
North Point Press, 325 pages, $27.00

In this book Margaret Visser takes us on an anthropologist's tour of an "ordinary church" (not very ordinary, because it is Saint Agnes Outside the Walls, in Rome, a fourth-century basilica constructed in an excavated catacomb). She shows us not just the notable mosaics and classical columns but also lurid paintings of bloody hearts in a nineteenth-century chapel and a simulated Lourdes grotto in the piazza. This is the reverse of postmodernism: here myriad disparate images cohere intelligibly—in fact, miraculously. Visser, whose authority as a classicist is augmented by her Catholic faith and her sense of irony, leads us through the anterooms of mystery until we come to the church's very heart—the altar, and the tomb of the saint. The Geometry of Love is not a long book, but it is remarkably full of detail—etymologies, saints' lives, papal politics, ecclesiastical architecture, legends, folk practices, art history, all arranged to show how an "ordinary church" embodies the spirituality and history of its people. At times the reader longs to get on with the tour, like a visitor to a fine but exhausting museum. But Visser's charm is considerable, and she often stirs the heart. She quotes ancient burial inscriptions on the walls of the stairway leading down to the church floor: "sweetest Epaphroditus"; "Susanna," remembered by "her husband Exuperantius"; the priest Celerinus and his sister Hemiliane; Assia Felicissima Sucessa—"all of whose sibilant names survived." We find ourselves, as Saint Paul said, "compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses." Reading on, becoming initiated into their "ordinary church," we seem to join them.

—Alan Buster

The Flight of the Maidens
by Jane Gardam
Carroll & Graf, 288 pages, $25.00

Set in a Yorkshire seaside town during the last few weeks of the summer of 1946, this novel about a friendship among three seventeen-year-old girls—Hetty, Una, and Lieselotte—powerfully evokes the people and the period at the end of World War II. Jane Gardam's characters are acutely and compassionately observed, but she is resolutely unsentimental in depicting either their flaws or their virtues. Hetty's mother, for instance, in her desperation to raise a little extra money, continually wastes the family's precious food rations to bake cakes that she cannot screw up the courage to sell to friends. The Lonsdale Café, where the ladies of the town meet to gossip and dissect their neighbors, is a showcase for mordantly funny dialogue. "I've no belief in women with careers," one of its habitués pronounces. "It shrinks the womb." No wonder the three friends are ecstatic when they win university scholarships, which will allow them to fly from the suffocation of small-town life. But will they be able to escape?

Their lives have been shaped by "the hollow of the two wars." The trenches of World War I have damaged the psyches of Hetty's and Una's fathers beyond repair. Hetty's—clever, handsome, upper-class—has become a humble gravedigger. "The grave-diggers in Hamlet have no names," he tells his daughter. "They are the only people of character and dalliance in Shakespeare who do not merit names." Una's father committed suicide. The two girls are naturally drawn together. Lieselotte is an outsider in every sense: German, Jewish, bookish, she escaped Germany, but her family perished in Auschwitz. "They never had enough fun, any of these girls," Hetty's father remarks. The reader will have much fun, however, despite the darkness of the subject. Historical detail is never obtrusive but is deftly woven into the background: marrow jam, gray recycled soap, a carefully hoarded "tin of something from America." Gardam's lean, fast-paced prose is at turns hugely funny and deeply moving. We care about her characters and want to know what happens to them.

—Juliet Barker

Babe in Paradise
by Marisa Silver
Norton, 224 pages, $23.95

Marisa Silver's first collection of short fiction evokes a Los Angeles that outsiders often overlook. Its characters exist along the fringes—of their city, of their families, and, in many cases, of their own lives. These pieces share an unsentimental vision of reality, in which, although they eschew false promises, people do their best to persevere. Not all the stories are successful. But when it comes to small moments—the frustrations and regrets of daily living—Silver's work is powerful and heartfelt, and nowhere more than in the relationships she depicts between parents and children, which she traces with a savage grace. "It occurs to me," she writes, "that a child is something that gets stolen bit by bit. A two-year-old dissolves into a five-year-old, and no picture can adequately bring back the feel of him, the sound of his voice, and all the intangible qualities that made him himself at that moment. A ten-year-old becomes fifteen, then seventeen. Then he slips out of your life altogether and the baby who once required your endless gaze now covers his eyes." That, it seems, might describe every character in this collection, for whom the art of living is elusive at best.

—David Uhlin

A Theory of Relativity
by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Harper Collins, 368 pages, $26.00

This third novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose first was the multimillion-copy best seller The Deep End of the Ocean, contains something for everyone: golf, death, babies, crusading state legislators, sex, chemotherapy. Its tale of in-laws fighting over what is best for an orphaned child could be compelling—could keep parents, in particular, reading in horrified fascination long into the night. But Mitchard repeatedly gets distracted, which is a shame, because the book starts sinking—tanking!—whenever it isn't moving briskly forward. The author frequently trails off into musings or moping or hopelessly hokey details (at the end of five hours spent watching her minor-pro-golfer husband hit practice balls, the young wife has tears rolling down her cheeks because her dearest has "the hands of a Michelangelo"). Mitchard's very earnestness works against her. For example, she signals her dislike of her golf-happy southern characters so insistently that the reader unwillingly begins to side with them against the author. So it's a miscalculation when, eventually, Mitchard tries to make an intriguing twist out of the idea that maybe those people aren't subhuman after all—even if they do come from Florida.

—Barbara Wallraff

The Dog Who Spoke With Gods
by Diane Jessup
St. Martin's Press, 362 pages, $22.95

Diane Jessup's debut novel has a message: dogs think and feel, and should not be treated as if they did not. Its initially ambivalent heroine, Elizabeth Fletcher, comes to defy the values of her beloved father, a medical researcher, and grandfather, a surgeon, and even to risk her life, once she learns this lesson through her attachment to an extraordinary pit bull. The pit bull, based on Jessup's own dogs, is clearly her primary interest. Her most intriguing passages insightfully explore his view of the world and his motivations, which, Jessup deftly shows, are usually misunderstood by the human beings who observe him. Exploiting dogs for painful research, Elizabeth argues to her father, is "using them cruelly because you can, because they suffer in silence." Often too pat, this is not a work of great literary merit, but it's a riveting story that gives eloquent voice to the dogs.

—Christina Schwarz

The Constant Nymph
by Margaret Kennedy
Virago/Trafalgar Square, 326 pages, $13.95

First published in England in 1924 and recently reissued, this is a romance free of stickiness and sentimentality. It's a novel about ideas—what's more important, art or civilized society?—as well as the sort of delicious and merciless emotions that can make people exuberant or desperate. Lewis Dodd, a brilliant composer, is loved by two women. Warmhearted, uncorrupted, fourteen-year-old Tessa, the "constant nymph," has grown up wild in various squalid European retreats, amid the loose morals of her genius father's unruly household. She learned "no conception of the word 'ought,'" as her uncle observes. "She has only her instincts, her affections, and her quick wits to guide her." Her pretty twenty-eight-year-old cousin, Florence, is nearly her opposite, the epitome of English propriety. Wonderfully polished, cultured, well-connected, popular by virtue of her tranquil good humor and general competency, Florence, unlike Dodd, puts "decency" and the "business of living beautifully" before art.

After Dodd marries the wrong woman, Margaret Kennedy relentlessly probes the ramifications of this triangle in high-toned, graceful prose. She is more knowing than her characters—of which the major ones are intensely believable and satisfyingly frustrating in their trueness to their natures—but she sympathizes with them as well. The compelling world she creates manages to be delightful while also proving that "unhappiness is, to a certain extent, the sure lot of every one of us."

—Christina Schwarz

Fairness
by Ferdinand Mount
Carrol & Graf, 320 pages, $26.00

When we quote L. P. Hartley in saying "The past is another country. They do things differently there," we utter a sort of tautology. Of course the past is another country; of course its inhabitants have a tendency to behave oddly. This is no more than to say that the past is past, or is not the present. Certain novelists have the ability to challenge this remorselessly obvious verdict—to narrow the divide between youth and maturity and to make both states, if not countries, real and immediate. On the evidence of this novel Ferdinand Mount is one of them.

I'll take a wild guess and say that for most people trying to recollect adolescence in tranquillity, the madeleine surrogate is likely to be early sexual awakening. It is so for the English and asthmatic Gus Cotton (the "Gus," counterintuitively, is short for Aldous). In the 1960s the teenage Gus is tutoring the sickly children of a rich American family in Normandy. Out of the sun-dispersed mist on the sands appears to him the compact blonde figure of Helen Hardress, an English nanny working for some shady Iranians. The refulgence of the first sighting is not designed to deceive anybody; this girl with the forbidding name might be described as trouble with a capital H. From the first I was able to see her as one of those blondes who is entirely female but not in the least bit feminine; a recipe for misery among boys down the ages.

They used to say that none but the brave deserve the fair; Gus isn't particularly brave in any case, and he soon discovers that fairness has nothing to do with it. The Normandy episode ends badly: he is seduced (at least into heavy petting) by the lady of the house, who then becomes convinced that he is carrying on with another girl. He falls into the company of a huge, boisterous, and slightly sinister American tycoon. In fact, most of his emotional future is to be conditioned by this one calamitous summer at the seaside.

Of Gus's background we learn little, but some English racetrack chancers, described as cronies of his father's, put one in mind of the cheats and swindlers in John Le Carré's A Perfect Spy. And Gus himself, as he gradually discloses, is as an adult a minor functionary in the constipated little world of British intelligence. Part of his professional life, that is to say, consists of attaching himself like a barnacle to other people. His private life is the same: he picks up lukewarm friendships in any milieu where Helen can be found. The young men with whom she associates are anything but impressive, and Gus's self-esteem deflates as he slowly comes to understand that she will sleep with anyone—has slept with everyone—but him.

This crushing realization comes by way of a splendid roster of minor English characters, created by Mount for our amusement and Gus's torment. The scrofulous, self-pitying travel agent and racing-car enthusiast; the saloon-bar boaster and minor crook; the cynical, near sadistic gossip writer; the smooth, ruthless, arriviste civil servant—Helen beds them all and marries at least two of them, but she won't give the man who truly loves her the time of day, unless she needs a shoulder to cry on or a crisis dealt with. And he makes himself abjectly, eternally available. The measure of his almost canine subservience is the bliss he experiences when, as if on a whim, the little minx gives him a brisk, unsolicited, alfresco manual caress. But this offhand consolation (if I may be allowed the phrase) is poor recompense for what Gus has just been through. Visiting Helen in Africa, where she has gone to work for a dubious mining company, he discovers that the boss of the mine is the ghastly American tycoon and that she and the tycoon have been ...

This loosely plotted action is held together by a couple of recurring gags (Gus can't shake the contacts he made in his past, and he can't finish any of the classic novels he tries to read) and by the author's deftness with period. In a few sentences Mount can evoke the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s, the Thatcher years, and the onset of the present. In other words, Gus carries this torch for the yellow-haired girl for decades. If he has had any other love life, we don't get to hear about it; a joyless later encounter with his former seaside employer leads to impotence on his part and—as if to underline the point that life is unfair—a series of Corsican revenges on hers.

The Englishness of it all is extraordinary; even when Gus goes to America in Her Majesty's service, he encounters only grotesques and caricatures of the sort one might encounter in a William Boyd pastiche. (And he gets drunk and makes a fool of himself like an Evelyn Waugh "innocent" abroad.) By the close Gus is middle-aged and used up and afflicted chiefly by feelings of pointlessness and waste. He has, though he never thinks of it this way, lost his life back there on the beaches of Normandy. Yeats was a great sucker for yellow hair, as Mount reminds us, and this book is at one level a literary reworking of Anita Loos's dictum that gentlemen prefer blondes. "She ties men up in knots," one character says of Helen to Gus, "just because her hair looks like a bunch of hay. If her follicles had a different juice in them, you wouldn't think twice about her." There are plenty of words for dark hair, of course, but once you've run through "raven" and "midnight black," you are pretty much finished for poetic purposes. Perhaps there just seem to be more synonyms for blonde—"honey," "flaxen," "golden," and so forth. Above all, though, the word "fair" is an ancient word for "beautiful." In our day it has acquired a second relationship, with the banal, as in "fairly good," "fair enough." The abyss between these meanings is the one that swallows up poor Aldous.

—Christopher Hitchens
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