Books March 2008

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: a prodigy's rise and fall; Gordimer's and Coetzee's latest fiction; Chicago's greatest brothel
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BIOGRAPHY

Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy
by Kevin Bazzana (Carroll & Graf)

In the opinion of no less an authority than the composer Arnold Schoenberg, the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi was “the person most replete with genius I have ever heard.” But when Schoenberg rendered this verdict, Nyiregyházi was already washed-up in his mid-30s, one of those child prodigies whose early success makes them unfit to lead adult lives, personally or professionally. Bazzana (who also wrote about the troubled musician Glenn Gould) tells a sad and often-icky story of sexual excess—a dedicated satyr, the pianist had 10 wives!—and of a decline that took Nyiregyházi from a command performance at Buckingham Palace when he was 8 to a series of seedy California hotels that he inhabited until his death at 84. But the amazing thing about this story is the inextinguishable nature of this man’s genius, which kept flickering to life in recordings and odd performances, even incognito on occasion, long after the mainstream musical world had written him off.

The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles
by Margaret Leslie Davis (California)

Conniving charm may not earn you a high place in Paradise, but it does wonders in this world. A man of enormous energy and quick intelligence, Franklin Murphy came to Los Angeles from the University of Kansas, where he had been chancellor, at exactly the right point in the transformation of that postwar, urban sprawl into something resembling a modern city, and he had the good sense to see its remarkable potential. Under Murphy’s leadership as chancellor, from 1960 to 1968, UCLA emerged as a rival to Berkeley; the Times Mirror Company, where he was CEO from 1968 to 1981, quickly rose to international prominence in the fields of journalism and publishing (it was in these years that the Los Angeles Times briefly and brilliantly came to rival The New York Times); and many of the area’s and the nation’s eccentric philanthropists and cultural foundations eventually found in Murphy a reliable adviser and courtly counselor. But those who knew and worked with Murphy, and often shared the “midwestern” values he extolled, would likely have desired a less eulogistic account of his life than this one by Davis, a Los Angeles lawyer and biographer of other local heroes (Edward Doheny, the oil tycoon, and William Mulholland, the engineer who brought water to the city). Here Murphy’s warts are too often airbrushed away or viewed as beauty marks.

FICTION

The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
edited, introduced, and annotated by Maria Tatar; translated by Maria Tatar and Julie K. Allen (Norton)

Two centuries after his birth, critics recognize Andersen not only as Denmark’s greatest writer but as one of the giants of European literature. In this lavishly illustrated and still more copiously annotated volume, the Harvard professor and noted folklorist Tatar—who has written authoritatively on fairy tales as a genre and on the Grimm Brothers in particular—presents Andersen as a figure just as valuable for adults as for children. She’s an excellent guide to the lesser-known stories here, but equally adept when taking a fresh look at such beloved classics as “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Red Shoes,” all in splendid new translations.

His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey (Knopf)

The Australian-born, twice Booker Prize–winning Carey, now a New Yorker, doesn’t shy away from difficult novelistic feats. This time he tells his story from the point of view of 7-year-old Che, the child of fugitive ‘60s Harvard radicals. Despite attempts to cocoon him in his grandmother’s respectable milieu, Che finds himself on the run in a magical mystery tour circa 1972. Carey uses the third person, but is nonetheless strikingly effective in getting into the boy’s mind and heart. The strong, direct prose—particularly the dialogue, spoken and unspoken—is equally attractive, and just right for this picaresque, hard-boiled yet uplifting tale.

Diary of a Bad Year
by J. M. Coetzee (Viking)

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories
by Nadine Gordimer (FSG)

Here are the two white South African Nobel laureates in literature: he in the prime of his career, but misanthropic and negative as he surveys today’s world; she, an octogenarian bereft of her husband of nearly 50 years, yet full of zest, openness, and enterprise as she lets her imagination and interests roam far and freely. The deceased in Gordimer’s world seem more alive than the characters still breathing in Coetzee’s. In “Dreaming of the Dead,” Gordimer summons her dead friends Edward Said and Susan Sontag to a New York Chinese restaurant, and the group is still as passionate about prawns as about Palestine. To Señor C, Coetzee’s alter ego, just about the only ray of sunshine amid such predictable horrors as Bush, Cheney, and Guantánamo is the continuing presence of Bach’s music. Gordimer, in her 84th year, displays her characteristic gusto as she experiments with literary form and function in “Alternative Endings,” showing how she could end a story in three different ways based on the three senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Even when Coetzee attempts ventriloquism—as he writes in the voices of two young Australians—he fails to break through the fog of his self-absorption. Only remembering a famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov can unfreeze C, and a brief mention of his uncontrollable weeping at this memory is the emotional high point—after more than 200 pages of wasteland. The main action of Coetzee’s disjointed novel consists of C’s contemplating his navel and reflecting, endlessly and not very artfully, a seemingly limitless disgust. Readers in search of a wallow in schadenfreude should go for Diary of a Bad Year, but all others should grab Gordimer’s latest bag of sparkling short stories.

HISTORY

Sin in the Second City
by Karen Abbott (Random House)

If any American bordello achieved high repute, it was the luxurious Everleigh Club in Chicago at the turn of the last century. Here, such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters were enthusiastic clients, as was the local merchant prince Marshall Field Jr., who may have been fatally shot there. The Everleighs were adept at covering up scandal; even visiting royalty could publicly express a desire to drop by this famed house of ill repute. When Prince Henry of Prussia (Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother) visited Chicago in 1902, the Everleigh Club feted him with a consciously Dionysian tableau featuring a fake bull and real raw meat. Abbott tells her story with just the right mix of relish and restraint, providing a piquant guide to a world of sexuality neatly wrapped in just enough respectability to not merely survive but flourish until the Mann Act finally led to its closure in 1911.

The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century
by Jonathan Miles (Grove/Atlantic)

Wreck of the Medusa: Mutiny, Murder, and Survival on the High Seas
by Alexander McKee (Skyhorse)

In 1816, the Medusa, a French frigate en route to West Africa, came to grief on the Bank of Arguin, several miles off the Senegalese coast. Passengers and crew clambered aboard lifeboats and a makeshift raft; but efforts to tow the raft failed, and the 150-some souls aboard it—abandoned by the captain— were left behind. What followed was a fortnight of death, madness, and cannibalism. When rescuers at last arrived, they encountered only 15 survivors. The story is riveting enough on its own macabre merits, but Miles makes it more gripping still, chiefly through his deft reconstruction using scattered accounts and conflicting records. He also makes a wise casting decision: as heroes, we get the Medusa survivor Alexandre Corréard and the contemporary painter Théodore Géricault (whose famous 1819 work has long been visual shorthand for the horrifying episode and its aftermath). Miles uses their contrasting personalities and circumstances to forge a sort of Gallic Woodward-and-Bernstein dialectic, then pits the pair against the newly restored Bourbon monarchy and its shameful post-disaster attempts at saving face by suppressing the facts.

The volume by the maritime writer McKee (first published in 1975; this is its second reissue) is just as worthy as the Miles book, albeit far less readable. Perhaps owing to the reconstructive difficulties outlined above, the strangely uneven tone here—alternately poetic and prosaic (sometimes from sentence to sentence)—is occasionally confounding. McKee does best when he contextualizes the disaster, showing how the recently felled French Empire “was reflected in miniature aboard the Medusa,” and how the whole episode—from the maddening incompetence of the ship’s captain (a glorified customs officer favored by Louis XVIII’s brother), to the near-absent command structure aboard the raft (which facilitated the entropy), to the later disgraces perpetrated by the Bourbons—was a profound allegory for post-Napoleonic collapse. (Indeed, the political scramble after Waterloo may have indirectly doomed the voyage well before its launch.) Ultimately, though, this tale—an oddly ineluctable story of human suffering and endurance, cruelty and compassion—fairly tells itself. As such, both books are essential entries in the survival-literature canon.

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