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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

Joseph Roth, orphaned subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, died at the age of forty-four in Paris in 1939. He left behind one great novel, The Radetzky March; some considerable ones; and hundreds of short works, most of them newspaper articles. Over the past couple of decades the translation of Roth's works into English has been gathering momentum, notably through the endeavors of Michael Hofmann. The present work is a collection of feuilletons, short and in this case melancholic sketches, most from the 1920s, a few from the 1930s. They were brought together in 1996 by Michael Bienert and published in German as a walker's guide to Roth's Berlin. As such, the pieces must appeal less to the day-tripper and more to some Sebaldian connoisseur of loss—not only because the Berlin Roth depicted has vanished but because even as he described its qualities and people, his true subject was the emptiness, ephemerality, and unreason of Weimar Germany, which to Roth, Berlin epitomized: the city was "an aimlessly sprawling stone emblem for the sorry aimlessness of our national existence."

As these thirty-four pieces show, the writer's sympathies are with the down-at-heel, the misfits and outsiders and exotic relicts of a past way of life. He visits the demimonde of burglars, light-bulb thieves, pimps, and prostitutes. He wanders through the Jewish quarter, "a strange and mournful ghetto world" whose denizens are refugees from the East, and where he finds Solomon's Temple rebuilt, "in miniature of course," the labor of nine years. He extols the unassuming vocation of park wardens, and considers the predicament of a man released from prison after fifty-one years because "the authorities were in a good mood."

Throughout, Roth, self-styled poet and philosopher, confronts the sights around him as phenomena whose implications, usually dispiriting if not downright macabre, are never apparent but must be winkled out. In one disquieting piece he visits a steam bath, open all night in 1920. Here is revealed a netherworld of the homeless who, to gain shelter within its walls, must strip and perform a travesty of the routines of its daytime patrons. Indeed, Roth's best observations are built on such bleakly ironic conceits. Thus in 1923 he includes the unidentified dead in the number of "displaced persons" who, in the war's aftermath, haunt the streets of Berlin. Their photographs make up a gallery at police headquarters: nameless, reproachful of the living, they are the city's "obscure children," a reminder that "life isn't as serenely beautiful as the Pathé News would have you believe."

Roth is staggered by the city's sheer miscellaneousness. "Never," he wrote, "was so much order thrown at disorder, so much lavishness at parsimony, so much method at madness." He is horrified, yes, but fascinated, too, by Berlin's noise and visual chaos: "a noisy, parping, surging color, red and yellow and violet yells ... a network of wires overhead, a slashed and cross-hatched sky, as though some engineer had scrawled his deranged circuits across the ether."

Though a sense of foreboding is detectable in these pieces, the emphasis—until the very last one, written in 1933 in Paris—is less on what the future may bring than on its representing an increasing rift with the past, for which Roth feels a despairing nostalgia. "Regret for the passing of the old forms," he writes, "is like the grief of some antediluvian creature for the disappearance of a prehistoric state of being." That desolation is especially palpable in his tribute to the assassinated Walther Rathenau. To us, the murder of the Jewish statesman by right-wing extremists was perhaps the first, irreversible step toward the triumph of Nazism; to Roth, it was the destruction of a man who personified conciliation, the sort of melding of diverse elements that the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented to the writer—fancifully or otherwise. —Katherine A. Powers

Hothouse Flowers

Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Broadway Books

We're forty years this side of The Feminine Mystique, but at this point it has become impossible to figure out which group of American females is in the biggest funk. The binging/purging, self-mutilating early adolescents of Reviving Ophelia? The harried and exhausted working mothers of a thousand earnest tomes on "work/life balance"? Or—as one might conclude after reading Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's new book—the hotshot young career women who can't manage to coax eligible men into the honeymoon suite?

The book gets off to an unpromising start: Whitehead's research centers on her interviews with a group of sixty women, most of whom are white, many of whom attended elite prep schools, half of whom attended highly selective colleges (and the rest "good private colleges and public universities"), a few of whom hold graduate degrees, all of whom are pursuing glamorous careers. As we first meet these hothouse flowers, whining about their romantic blunders "over plates of mushroom ragout in a trendy Washington restaurant," trotting along the most fashionable streets of various American cities in "a brilliant alliance: an aspiring Alpha female hooked up with an Alpha city," it's all we can do not to side with the canny men who managed to steer clear of them. But once Whitehead moves beyond these particular women and discusses the roots of their shared problem, which, she believes, lie in the radical changes in the way girls in this country are reared and educated, the book becomes interesting and even moving. She describes a national "Girl Project" that began to take hold in America in the early seventies. I missed being part of this movement by only a few years, yet the differences between my girlhood and that of the generations that followed are stark. The modern girl has played competitive team sports since her earliest childhood; has attended schools that are highly concerned with girls' academic success, particularly in math and science; has attended college in a time when female students outnumber males; has emerged into a job market in which the traditional male jobs are increasingly held by women.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "What We Owe" (February 1997)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture.

Whitehead, a social conservative who wrote the controversial book The Divorce Culture, is hugely admiring of these changes, yet she indicates precisely how they have served to disadvantage young career women in the marriage market. Such women no longer find husbands in college, where the pool of available, like-minded men is large, but rather start looking for a permanent mate about ten years after graduation, when there is no formal "courtship system" in place, no pump room or fraternity formal or Dolly Levi to nudge an appropriate match along. Further, at this point they have joined a pool of prospective brides that includes younger women, women less dedicated to their own careers and therefore often more attractive to "career primary" men, and divorced women of all ages. Whitehead accurately points out that many of the sexual liberties that modern women have insisted on in the name of parity are in fact "nicely adapted to men's sexual and romantic self-interests."

Unfortunately, the book sputters out in an inanely optimistic conclusion. Whitehead's remedy for this complicated stew of social change and romantic disappointment? Internet dating! Also for-profit introduction services, better time management, and pre-engagement rings from Shreve, Crump & Low. What Whitehead fails to concede (perhaps because she is the mother of two unmarried daughters in their thirties) is that the situation does not lend itself to such easy fixes. She describes one interviewee who is not "looking for someone to take care of her," another who is consistently "driven by the best projects" at work, a third who insists she will only marry a man who will share equally in child-rearing. We are reminded that "today, the woman is free to make the first phone call, to suggest a first date, and to propose sex." These are perhaps laudable advances, but that such women would imagine that they would also elicit a formal, old-fashioned proposal seems naive. The national Boy Project may have taught America's young men to treat women with new respect in the classroom and the boardroom, and it has certainly prepared them for an unprecedented amount of no-strings nooky; what it has not impelled them to do is to make a bride of every hard-charging woman who suddenly—and fleetingly—wants to play fifties girl with a diamond solitaire and a box full of Tiffany invitations. —Caitlin Flanagan

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Francs" (December 19, 2001)
A short story by Edith Pearlman.

"Girl and Marble Boy" (December 29, 1999)
A short story by Edith Pearlman.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Afterglow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael, by Francis Davis. Da Capo Press. Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Love Among the Greats, by Edith Pearlman. Eastern Washington University Press. Pearlman's essay "Neshering" appeared in the December 1998 Atlantic.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/12/other-reviews/302644/