Books January 2003

New & Noteworthy

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The Argentina Reader
edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo
Duke

Rrgentina was once almost a great nation. In 1929 it was one of the ten richest countries in the world. Thanks largely to universal public schooling, it was populated by a highly educated middle class (by far the largest in Latin America), and was democratically governed. Its capital, Buenos Aires, boasted the greatest opera house and probably the finest publishing firms, newspapers, and universities in the Hispanic world. In fact, the only city in the Western Hemisphere that rivaled it for sophistication was New York—and Buenos Aires, with its broad boulevards and its Beaux Arts architecture, was grander by far. But in retrospect this isolated, European society, built on the extermination of the country's Indians (Argentina's frontier was finally subdued only in the late nineteenth century), and this affluent economy, built on the slaughter of millions of cows, were artificial and tenuous. Since the Great Depression, of course, Argentina has suffered consistent and remarkable economic, political, and societal dysfunction (with the largest number of psychoanalysts per capita, its population is perhaps the world's most neurotic). It has also suffered a period of horrific state violence. A number of recent and creative academic studies in English (most notably those of James Scobie and Daniel James) have probed aspects of this country's tortured and paradoxical past, but this anthology—along with the translated writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and V. S. Naipaul's bleak, hostile, and brilliant essay-portraits of Buenos Aires under the febrile terror of the dirty war (reprinted last year in his The Writer and the World)—is the best introduction in English to its history, culture, and society. The editors' lucid introductions and imaginative assemblage of sources, ranging from poems to official reports to comic strips, cover Argentina from the sixteenth century to its current economic crisis. Although the editors—in their predictable efforts to ensure that the voices of the oppressed and the neglected are well represented—are a bit too ready to neglect Argentina's canonical writers and powerful groups (the enormously influential Anglo-Argentine community is ignored), this collection subtly conveys the admirable and loathsome qualities of a complicated and in many ways unfathomable society.

Literary Studies

The Collection
by Peter Ackroyd
Vintage UK/Trafalgar Square

No book can be more wearisome than a collection of old reviews, but this one is an exception, and Ackroyd's volume should be put on the shelf with V. S. Pritchett's and Cyril Connolly's critical works. A novelist, a historian, a biographer, and a critic, Ackroyd has an intelligence at once astringent and subtle, and there seems to be no English writer that he has not only read but also assimilated. This gives his criticism a rare historical authority. Sure, read him on such European and American writers as Baudelaire, Calvino, Walter Benjamin, and Edward Dorn—and read him for his biting asides ("[Susan] Sontag refers on occasions to 'strategies of discourse', by which she means 'the way people write'"). But above all read him on Spenser and Philip Larkin, on Shakespeare and Auden, on Samuel Johnson and Blake, on Macaulay and Milton and Woolf and Coleridge and Dickens. Exquisitely sensitive to the complex dialogue among writers across the centuries, and to the history embedded in the English language, Ackroyd conveys more naturally, and therefore more effectively, than any other critic a sense of English literature as an organic whole—as "an everlasting animal" (to quote Orwell on English culture) "stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same."

Yesterday Morning
by Diana Athill
Granta Books

Athill, now eighty-five, was once regarded as the best editor of literary fiction in London. This memoir of her "very English childhood"—an upper-middle-class country upbringing, with ponies, books (and a grandmother to read them aloud), kind servants, and impromptu plays in the drawing room—is idyllic without nostalgia or sentiment, owing largely to Athill's nearly pathological honesty. As a child she wondered, "Am I ever going to get away from this awful self-awareness?," and she spares herself no unpleasant truths about her character, conduct, or (the memoir is framed in the present) physical decline. Especially sharp yet sympathetic is her depiction of her parents' sad and eventually sexless marriage, their endless bickering, and the emotional effects this had on her and her brother. Athill recognizes the limitations of her parents and of the milieu in which she was raised, but from her decent, stiff-upper-lipped elders, who detested lying and who made her accept "without question" certain responsibilities to animals, spring her fearless—heedless—candor and her grit and sense of duty (which, she recounts in a memorable passage, she summoned as a girl to put a suffering hedgehog out of its misery—an act she recalls with residual horror and justifiable pride). I read this book when a pre-publication copy arrived a few months ago, and had decided not to review it (how many English writers can we cover?). But I've found myself unable to forget this gracefully written, clear-eyed, and beguiling reminiscence.

Aldous Huxley
by Sybille Bedford
Ivan R. Dee

Although the acerbic wit of Huxley's early novels—Antic Hay, Crome Yellow, and Point Counter Pointrivals Waugh's, and although his range and depth as an essayist are breathtaking, his artistic stature doesn't merit a nearly 800-page biography. Which makes Bedford's achievement all the more astonishing. Her book, first published in 1973 and recently reissued, is one of the great literary portraits of the past fifty years—and next to it the forthcoming and perfectly adequate Huxley biography by Nicholas Murray seems superfluous. Rarely can a doorstop biography be described as elegant; an accumulation of quotidian detail almost inevitably bloats and clogs the work. But Bedford (now ninety-one), a cosmopolitan and stylish novelist, maintains a sophisticated and coolly ironic tone (aided by her decision to divide her very long study into many very short chapters) throughout her chronicle. Not only did Huxley—whom Bedford nicely characterizes as "an evolved Victorian Englishman at home in the second part of the twentieth century, at home in Southern California"—know everything, he knew everybody, from Orwell (who as a fellow schoolboy at Eton was entranced by Huxley's diction) to Charlie Chaplin. Certainly Bedford deftly captures Huxley's multi-faceted mind and world (the two writers were close friends), but what makes her work so singularly absorbing is the complete sympathy she somehow pairs with her characteristic detachment.

History

The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
edited by Gary E. Moulton,
University of Nebraska Press

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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