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Books Brief Reviews

Illustration by Philippe Lardy

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


My Century
by Günter Grass,
translated by Michael Henry Heim.
Harcourt Brace, 320 pages, $25.00.

Mr. Grass was born in 1927. The century of the title is that of Germany, with a piece of the book for every year of it. The author begins with a brisk little story of the Boxer Rebellion, in which a young soldier salvages a pigtail from an execution site. His fiancée throws it in the fire, lest it haunt the house. This tale may, or may not, be considered a deliberate omen of the grim or ironic or discouraged reminiscences that Mr. Grass's fictional narrators subsequently provide. These narrators give a vivid, if partial, view of German society. Very few of them are persons of distinction, although the Kaiser does make an appearance. The years 1914 to 1918 are covered by conversations between the writers Erich Maria Remarque (anti-war) and Ernst Jünger (all for it), arranged by a Swiss researcher who privately describes her "witnesses of an era" as "an impressive, if slightly fossilized, pair." The item for 1919, set (unlike most) in its own time, is a housewife's diatribe against turnips. The Second World War is represented by a gathering of veteran war correspondents who complain about what their editors refused to print and explain military errors. It is one of several pieces with a clear satirical edge. Most of these not-quite-stories depend on oblique implications of folly and helplessness to create the impression of a country drifting without a course. The format enables Mr. Grass to write his version of history while pretending not to, and also to include the kind of odd detail that formal historians rarely mention.

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Balthus
by Nicholas Fox Weber.
Knopf, 644 pages, $40.00.

Admirers of the painter Balthus (Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) revere him as a great artist. Detractors accuse him of pedophilia, pornography, and mysterious deviltry. Mr. Weber belongs to the first category, and was euphoric when the reclusive painter agreed to extensive interviews despite his long-ago statement "I refuse to confide and don't like it when people write about art." Mr. Weber's profession is writing about art, with an inclination toward psychological and symbolic interpretation. The result of this conflict of positions is a peculiar and interesting book. Balthus was gracious, charming, and hospitable, very much the European aristocrat that he claims to be, and impervious to psychological probing. Mr. Weber eventually became so exasperated that he labels the painter a liar. He also resorts to quoting from everything ever written about Balthus, and to interviews with everyone still alive who ever knew him. He appears quite unaware that he is giving an amusing account of an earnest snooper in heavy-footed pursuit of an agile dodger. Balthus insists that he paints ordinary reality. Mr. Weber insists that he does not, and Mr. Weber is right in terms of what is ordinary. If, however, Balthus considers the imagination of the viewer to be part of reality, his more provocative paintings can be seen as operating like the ideal dirty limerick -- the kind that evokes naughty meaning in the hearer's head without the use of a single naughty word. Unfortunately, the illustrations in this truly exceptional book are so inadequate that the details discussed by the author are often invisible and the brushwork always is.


Ghosts of Cape Sabine
by Leonard F. Guttridge.
Putnam's, 368 pages, $26.95.

The Greely Expedition, remembered today (if at all) as a bungling disaster, was initially the project of William Henry Howgate, a scalawag officer in the newly formed Army Signal Corps who had won "the wholehearted trust" of its ailing commander. Howgate wanted the United States to participate in an international scheme to set up scientific stations around the Arctic. It was still believed in some quarters that ice-free water surrounded the North Pole. There was the usual pulling and hauling in Washington -- Army, Navy, Congress, press -- but despite a profound lack of enthusiasm from Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War, Howgate's project materialized, with his friend Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, of the Signal Corps, in command. The expedition was dropped off at Lady Franklin Bay, on Ellesmere Island, in August of 1881, equipped with materials for good housing and lavish provisions. An annual supply ship was promised. No ship ever came. Supplies dwindled, animosities increased, and Greely was not the man to hold the party well together through a terrible retreat. There were few survivors and much scandal, including talk of cannibalism. Mr. Guttridge's pursuit of records, letters, and diaries has enabled him to reconstruct the whole story, and it is as fascinating and exciting as any adventure novel, even though the reader knows the outcome from page one.


Moira's Crossing
by Christina Shea.
St. Martin's, 288 pages, $22.95.

Moira and her sister, Julia, both in their teens, are shipped from poverty and tragedy on an Irish sheep farm to America, where their father hopes they will find a better future than he can provide. The O'Leary girls are not alike. Moira is handsome and energetic, and has abandoned the church. Julia is mildly deformed, fragile, and severely pious. Between them lies the rarely mentioned truth about their younger sister's death. They stick together despite their differences, and their zigzag progress in the new country makes a quietly appealing novel. Ms. Shea's style combines a briskly practical surface with a lyrical undertone. It holds the reader's interest.


Girl With a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier.
Dutton, 234 pages, $21.95.

The narrator of Ms. Chevalier's novel is Griet, a Protestant girl in Delft, who at sixteen, because her family has fallen on hard times, becomes a maid in the household of the painter Vermeer. The Vermeers are Catholics -- a species that Griet has never met before. She is not accustomed to gentry, either, and the Vermeers count as such even though their bills go unpaid. Ms. Chevalier has done very well in creating the feel of a society with sharp divisions of status and creed. She pictures the furniture, the household equipment, the streets and markets. Griet is a memorable character -- reserved, wary, observant, and, although she does not know it, afflicted with a serious and ultimately dangerous crush on her employer. The situation makes a fine story, which is exceptionally well told.


Phoebe-Lou Adams has written her Atlantic book column, under a variety of titles, since 1952.

Illustration by Philippe Lardy.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 105-106.