Books May 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

James is among the very small number of great critics writing today—a group that includes Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Hitchens. All write with verve and recklessness, which they combine with extraordinary erudition. All are imbued with what James calls "the spirit of Grub Street"—all, that is, write in "the tradition of supplying a supplement and a corrective to ... the dust contractors of the universities." The authors and subjects he examines in this collection of "essays"—really review essays—range from Nabokov to Judith Krantz, from Richard Nixon's memoirs to the Final Solution; from Stevie Smith to Peter Bogdanovich, from Philip Larkin to Marilyn Monroe. (Among and within his pieces James artfully juxtaposes the high and the low—a tendency he shares with Ackroyd. Both men have been regular television critics.) He is penetrating on all these (especially Larkin), but I find him most astute and heartfelt in his assessments of his fellow literary journalists. His celebrated 1972 essay on Edmund Wilson remains the most trenchant appreciation of both the critic's writing ("Wilson's style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence—throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent men to agree") and his peculiar point of view as a "patrician individualist," revolted by the fact that "the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by the Democracy he had never been sure about." He hits the mark in his evaluation of Vidal, whom he rightly regards as Wilson's "natural heir," who "just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose"—but whose critical honesty is hobbled by his "thirst for glamour." And James is equally incisive on Susan Sontag, who, he writes, "conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea." His piece on Orwell, however (who not only made political writing an art but, James correctly avers, "is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing"), is the best here, and among the best considerations of that author ever written. Sure, James praises Orwell's style and its "irresistible force of assertion," but far more valuably, he takes apart Orwell's sentences to show us how he created conversational prose like a windowpane. And James succinctly tells us why to read Orwell, why to be wary of him, and why to revere him: "Not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts—a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made everything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue."

Awe for the Tiger, Love for the Lamb
edited by Rod Preece

This intelligently edited, deeply researched anthology presents a wealth of writing, from antiquity to the beginning of the twentieth century, on compassion toward animals. Despite the expressions of pity it contains, it is largely a history of obduracy, casual cruelty, and sadism. Although in the 1600s the rational and scientific René Descartes performed experiments on dogs that could only be described as psychopathological, a seemingly modern sympathy for animals, and a revulsion for humanity's brutality toward them, goes back to Plutarch and Lucretius. But Preece's compilation clearly shows that an ethical revolution took place in nineteenth-century Britain—a society that explored with rigor, moral imagination, and (of course) earnestness both the fact of human beings' viciousness toward other creatures and the idea of humanity's obligation to animal welfare. It is an intellectual feat that remains impressive today. (Certain progressives who cultivate a cheap toughness say they can't muster any sympathy for cute furry creatures so long as human beings anywhere are oppressed. Lest they sneer at Victorian sentimentalism and hypocrisy, they should be reminded that many of those who championed animal protection also led the fights against the slave trade and child labor and abuse.) Preece's anthology—half of which is devoted to nineteenth-century (mostly British) writers—can be approached equally as a literary anthology and a historical one, because it contains selections not only from Bentham, Mill, and Darwin, but also from Sheridan, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Christina Rossetti, the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy, Stevenson, John Henry Newman, Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Shaw, Twain, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Readers may want to pair it with James Turner's insightful history Reckoning With the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind, recently reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press.


The Course of German History
by A.J.P. Taylor

Taylor was, to appropriate the title of his favorite among his books, a troublemaker. Provocative and showy, his arguments annoyed complacent historians and angered readers wedded to the conventional wisdom. No twentieth-century historian wrote with more brio or precision. None so thoroughly cut through cant and qualifications to render truly brilliant and usually unsettling—and often highly debatable—judgments. This book, first published in 1945 and recently brought back into print, was his first best seller. A lucid survey of German history from 1792 to the outbreak of the Second World War, it's really an elegant, interpretive historical essay, which is more rewarding (and occasionally exasperating) the more the reader knows about the subject. The book—which discerned continuities in German history and argued that Nazi foreign policy wasn't an aberration but merely an extreme expression of Germany's drive for the mastery of Central and Eastern Europe —was and remains enormously controversial. And, of course, Taylor courted controversy, from his celebrated opening sentences ("The history of Germany is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality") through his frequent epigrammatic summaries ("No one can understand the Germans who does not appreciate their anxiety to learn from, and to imitate, the West; but equally, no one can understand Germans who does not appreciate their determination to exterminate the East"). But the subsequent scholarship of Hans Gatzke, Fritz Fishcher, Immanuel Geiss, and Taylor himself (in The Origins of the Second World War) testifies to the cogency—if not the correctness—of his interpretation of "the German problem."More important, this book still contains the most concise, intelligent, and pungent assessments in English of, among many other topics, the revolutions of 1848, the impotence—and therefore the historical irrelevance—of German liberalism, Bismarck's and Stresemann's strategies, and the irrationality of Tirpitz's "risk fleet" ("Nothing could better express the roaring spluttering energy of Germany, like a ship's propeller out of water, than this vast naval force, absorbing great quantities of economic power, engendering disastrous international friction, destined never to be used to any decisive purpose in war, but to perform a role in history only as the match which began the explosion and collapse of the Hohenzollern Reich"). Taylor's work is a model of stylish, scintillating compression. This edition is part of an important publishing venture—the Routledge Classics series, which brings out unusually handsome paperback reissues of often neglected seminal works of twentieth-century sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, and criticism.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. 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.

Before Tinder, a Tree

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