Other Reviews

Concrete Expressionism

Seek My Face
by John Updike
Knopf

Few writers could get away with a novel in which the bulk of the story—a fictionalized version of America's postwar art scene, distilled through the memory of a seventy-eight-year-old woman—is reported rather than dramatized, but Updike pulls it off beautifully. The action, such as it is, consists of a day-long interview in Vermont of Hope Chafetz, a painter twice married to famous artists (the first of whom distinctly resembles Jackson Pollock) and finally to a man "in money." The interviewer, a young woman from New York, checks occasionally to be sure her tape recorder is running, pages through her notes, and uses the bathroom. Hope makes sandwiches. They tour the yard and look into Hope's studio. From such banalities Updike, with his immense talent for making details tell, milks a rich life for Hope and a nuanced, unwaveringly realistic relationship between the two women. Mostly, however, this is a novel of ideas. Hope muses about her distant, Protestant God and ruminates about the role of the wife of a genius. (Although the latter bits are gracefully written, their focus on events and feelings long past renders them somewhat bloodless.) Surprisingly, most immediate and convincing are the discussions about abstract expressionism (which I would think would be most difficult to translate into precise and compelling sentences): the effect of particular paintings and styles, the purpose behind specific techniques, the artists' ambitions, and Hope's provocative theories about women's and men's artistic capabilities. —Christina Schwarz

Sociopath on a String

The Adventures of Pinocchio: Story of a Puppet
by Carlo Collodi
translated by Nancy Canepa
Steerforth Italia

The Adventures of Pinocchio, which Carlo Collodi first published, in serialized form, in 1881, has spawned hundreds of translations—many of them in appropriately wooden prose—and countless versions for the theater and the screen. In America, at least, most of these have long since been eclipsed by Walt Disney's song-and-dance extravaganza. And indeed, with its hummable score and ominous underpinnings, that 1940 production does stand head and shoulders above much of the Disney canon, in comparison with which it resembles Crime and Punishment. Still, what about the original? Steerforth has now published an excellent new translation of Collodi's text by Nancy Canepa, and readers who know only the Disney version will find that although the moral of the story is the same, the atmosphere is darker and more dangerous. This is no sermon but a bad, sad, tantalizing dream, albeit one with a happy ending.

Some of the differences are merely cosmetic. In the Disney film, for example, Geppetto's cottage is so crammed with toys, clocks, and figurines that it looks like an outpost of FAO Schwarz. Here the old wood-carver lives in a rural hovel, with "a battered chair, a dilapidated bed, and a broken-down little table." More to the point, the puppet himself is something of a sociopath. Encountering the Talking Cricket for the first time, he responds rudely to his little companion's philosophizing: "Shut up, you nasty, bad-luck Cricket!" Then he seizes a wooden hammer from his father's workbench and squashes his interlocutor like, well, a bug. Nor does the mayhem end there. As the translator points out in her introduction, the original serialization concluded with Pinocchio's being hanged from an oak tree. Only a storm of protest from Collodi's readers, most of them still in short pants, prompted the author to write the second, more uplifting half of his tale.

All of this may suggest a collision of Mother Goose with Quentin Tarantino. But the text boasts a good many other, nonviolent charms. Like the very best fabulists, Collodi is slightly skeptical about human goodness even as he's promoting it, which explains his satirical take on the marionette theater: "The very attentive audience was nearly dying of laughter as it listened to the squabbling between the two puppets, who were gesticulating and insulting each other in every way possible and so realistically that they might have been two rational creatures, two people of this world." And from time to time his high-stepping narrative is marked by moments of real poetry. (When the seemingly dead puppet bursts into tears, the melancholic Owl can only declare, "In my opinion, when the dead cry, it is a sign that they are sorry to be dying.") Luckily there's no need to choose between Disney's version of the tale and Collodi's: we can have both. But if such a choice were necessary, I suppose I'd opt for the original—by, as it were, a nose. —James Marcus

Panhandle

That Old Ace in the Hole
by Annie Proulx
Scribner

From the archives:

"The Half-Skinned Steer" (November 1997)
A short story by E. Annie Proulx.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Imagination Is Everything" (November 12, 1997)
A Conversation with E. Annie Proulx.

Immense, saucer-flat, and saturated with heat, the Texas Panhandle takes some getting used to, and the same might be said of Annie Proulx's paean to this obdurate corner of the country. We're first introduced to the territory by Bob Dollar, himself a newcomer from Denver. A classic naif, determined to compensate for his parents' abandoning him to a slightly cracked but loving uncle, Bob has taken the unlikely job of persuading cattle ranchers to sell their worn-out land to Global Pork Rind for conversion into hog farms. Never mind that the ranchers are tough old coots with no desire to sell—or that hog farms stink to high heaven, truly outraging anyone who happens to live nearby. Bob rents a bunkhouse in backwater Woolybucket from the garrulous LaVon Fronk and launches a campaign to ingratiate himself with the locals. Instead they captivate him. As Bob bumbles along, we encounter a host of one-of-a-kind characters, past and present, including one Francis Scott Keister, whose roiling contempt for hog farms doesn't keep him from having an affair with a Global agent that ends bloodily, propelling the denouement. Through these interlocked histories we get an awful lot of detail about windmills, barbed wire, fences, oil, the consequences of being passed up by the railroad, and how much smarter bison are than cows. What we don't get, until well into the book, is a sense of forward movement. Too much of the text feels like only partly digested research, without much happening despite the pileup of stories, and the reader feels the urge to reach out and shake the slightly unreal Bob. But Proulx's luscious, somewhat wacky way with words remains intact (who else would talk about "bronze Polaroid light" or "a weasel-headed horse"?), and by the final pages she has worked her old magic. The novel's slow, eventual unwinding seems to go with the territory, and if Bob's comeuppance arises as no surprise, it is gratifying to see how touched he is by the locals' belief that progress can be stayed. He's even thinking of joining in their efforts. And that, for the often bleak Proulx, is a shiningly upbeat ending. —Barbara Hoffert

Walking Tour of The Vanished

What I Saw: Reports From Berlin, 1920-1933
by Joseph Roth
introduced and translated by Michael Hofmann
W. W. Norton

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