Contents | December 2001

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The Atlantic Monthly | December 2001
Books & Critics

New & Noteworthy

Lots of new Irving Berlin; more of the same from John Barth; the ideal courier
The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin
edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet
Knopf, 558 pages, $65.00

n the aftermath of September 11 the whole country seemed to be singing "God Bless America," underscoring Irving Berlin's incomparable role in American song. (Berlin wrote the piece toward the end of World War I but suppressed it until the outbreak of World War II, fearing that it might be too broad or corny.) His anthems include "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," and "There's No Business Like Show Business"; no other songwriter has written as many. No one else has written as many popular songs, period. Yet although he was lauded as a tunesmith of genius as far back as 1911, when he debuted "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin is often undervalued as a lyricist and said to lack Cole Porter's erudition, Lorenz Hart's interior rhymes, and Johnny Mercer's homespun wisdom. The Complete Lyrics, which spans eighty-one of the composer's 101 years (1888-1989), demands that we reconsider this appraisal. In addition to highlighting his gift for economy, directness, and slang, it presents Berlin as an obsessive, often despairing commentator on the passing scene.

By the late 1960s Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood lyrics had come to be seen mostly as hackwork. Robert Kimball helped to redress that view with a series of oversized anthologies of great lyricists. He began in 1983 with The Complete Lyrics of Cole Portera shrewd choice, because Porter's wit suited the printed page especially well. He moved forward with complete editions of the equally intricate work of Hart and George Gershwin. Last year, with his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, Kimball compiled an indispensable anthology, Reading Lyrics, which, surprisingly, includes more songs by Berlin than by anyone else. Now, in collaboration with one of Berlin's daughters, Linda Emmet, he has broken the locks off Berlin's fabled archive, giving us Berlin's oeuvre, a third of which—nearly 400 songs—was unknown.

Berlin wrote about everything: the wars, of course; and most aspects of show business, all the national holidays, and every kind of cooing and wooing; but also economics, FDR, Al Capone, nudist colonies, censors, Bolsheviks, lynchings, Prohibition, New York's finest, sex, loneliness, isolation, and insomnia. On balance, Berlin was sadder and funnier than we knew. As a parodist, he took on Porter ("I'm a eunuch who / Has just been through an op— / But if, baby, I'm the bottom, / You're the top") and himself ("God bless America, / Land I enjoy, / No discussions with Russians / Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi"). A swarm of puns on the word "step," in "Everybody Step," is worthy of the Marx Brothers, and "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now" remains a rare comic response to the aftermath of war. Some of his lines might have passed muster with Dorothy Parker: "Someday I'm going to murder the bugler; / Someday they're going to find him dead— / I'll amputate his reveille, / And step upon it heavily, / And spend the rest of my life in bed."

Berlin's lyrics are often crude, though never cruel, and many of them are pure swill. Yet from the beginning he had an ear for the telling phrase, employing dialects to freshen familiar tropes: "I just couldn't stop her, for dinner and supper / Some kisses and hugs was the food; / When she wasn't nice it was more better twice, / When she's bad she was better than good." Still, his greatest work is that which instantly entered the public imagination, and if it is impossible to read "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?," "How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "All By Myself," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," "How About Me?," and many more without hearing the melody in the mind's ear, that's the way it's supposed to be. The trick was to find the right words for the right tune, and no one did it better than Berlin.
—Gary Giddins

Coming Soon!!!
by John Barth
Houghton Mifflin, 406 pages, $26.00

evotees of literary postmodernism may feel compelled to read every word generated by one of its pioneers, John Barth. That's why the best part of Coming Soon!!!—Barth's latest "narrative," as he vaguely labels it in a subtitle—is on page 344, where the aging master promises to write no more. "Done done done, as best Yrs T can do it. Or, rather—like century, like millennium, like career and soon enough life itself, anyhow the able span thereof—all but done, whenafter let Authority be Transferred, Torch Passed, to whoever merits same." In addition to being such a relief, that passage is actually comprehensible, unlike vast portions of the rest of the book.

Back in 1956, when he was twenty-six, Barth published a brilliant novel, The Floating Opera, and another one soon after, called The End of the Road. Although several subsequent works (The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse) were critically praised, the truth, if such a thing could be known, might turn out to be a sort of Emperor's New Clothes phenomenon, in which to admit you couldn't make head or tail of a Barth novel was to set yourself apart from the hordes who were shouting "Bravo!" very loudly from the back cover. Now seventy-one, Barth until recently taught creative writing in the graduate writing seminar of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, and his fame rests in large part on that prestigious position and on his frequent lectures and essays. These are invariably elegant formulations of postmodern literary theory, written or told in a light, commonsensical, witty, and insightful tone that one wishes he would apply to his fiction.

The plot of Coming Soon!!! is a typical and irritating example (in fact, it's a repetition) of the stories-within-stories-within-stories fictional format that Barth so ardently loves. It concerns two novelists—a recently retired professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins and a graduate writing student there. Each is writing a variation of The Floating Opera, and the two authors engage in a sort of race: to finish their respective novels, to publish, to push the limits of postmodernism, and so forth. Coming Soon!!! is their efforts intertwined, and the verdict is that neither, finally, is worth the paper it's printed on, much less the reader's time and attention. Perhaps, instead of attempting to slog through Coming Soon!!!, readers should read, or re-read, Barth's extraordinary early contributions to American literature, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road.
—Nan Goldberg

The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family
by William J. Bennett
Doubleday, 207 pages, $22.95

he acknowledgments of William Bennett's new book include a nod to the weighty matters that occupy the author's workaday life: someone named Nora Burns is thanked for having "kept the office running while I was buried in fourteenth-century histories." This may well have been a demanding task, but it can hardly have been a long-lived one; the fourteenth century is mentioned in exactly one sentence of The Broken Hearth. On the other hand, poor Ms. Burns must have been run off her feet on those occasions when her employer was "buried" in accounts of the sex lives of contemporary celebrities and in the prime-time television lineup, which he apparently watched in a state of some agitation, pencil at the ready to note examples of "infidelity, promiscuity, and half-naked bodies groping in bed." The book's thesis is that we've all gone to hell in a hand basket, our moral fabric rent by the combined, malevolent forces of divorce, the women's movement, single parenthood, and Suddenly Susan. The book is so often bombastic—Bennett is one to muse on "the Promethean arrogance of the last decades"—and silly that one feels almost unsporting pointing out its failings. Feminists with any history of cardiac irregularity should be separated from The Broken Hearth by doctor's orders; they might get to Bennett's recommendation that women—not men—ought to arrive at a "compromise" between their professional and parental duties and fall face forward, casualties of the cause.

But women with sounder constitutions would do well to read this book, because Bennett is on to something here, something that ought to be of central concern to feminists. It is this: the sexual revolution and the women's movement, which are perhaps boons to middle-class and rich women, have in many respects been disastrous for poor women. The growing acceptability of fatherless families may be an agreeable turn of events for the single professional woman who harbors a greater desire for a child than for a man, but poor women impregnated by men who feel no societal imperative to stick around are "forced to go on welfare or to get by on menial jobs, and their chances of improving themselves are bleak," Bennett writes. "Abandoned by their men, they have been abandoned no less cruelly by the American Left, by the enthusiastic advocates of female sexual 'liberation' and by the noisy critics of a 'patriarchy,' from which, in a benevolent form, they could only stand to benefit." Furthermore, we learn that the Centers for Disease Control concluded in one study that "birth certificates lacking a father's name were strong predictors of infant death." Add to this the well-documented fact that children living under the same roofs as their fathers suffer far less physical and sexual abuse than those living with a stepfather (or a mother's boyfriend), and it becomes abundantly clear that the various forces in our culture that seek to render fathers unnecessary members of their own families—including those feminists who champion women's personal fulfillment over virtually all their obligations—do so at the considerable expense of the poor. What a pity it's a message that only the William Bennetts of our society have the courage to deliver.
—Caitlin Flanagan

Zeno's Conscience

by Italo Svevo, translated by William Weaver
Knopf/Everyman's Library, 496 pages, $20.00

talo Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno, first published in 1923, seems so effortlessly inventive and eerily prescient that one wonders why the novel isn't more widely appreciated. Championed by James Joyce and then largely ignored in the United States, Zeno's Conscience is a hilarious chronicle of a neurotic schemer whose desire to cure his various pathologies is exceeded only by his ability to rationalize them away.

Writing an autobiography at the behest of his despised psychoanalyst, Zeno Cosini loosely organizes his memories around such themes as "My Father's Death," "Wife and Mistress," and "Psychoanalysis." Deluded, solipsistic, and lazy, he begins by recounting the history of his consuming passion for smoking and his attempts to free himself of the addiction. Zeno lights up cigarettes to see if he'll be disgusted (and therefore healthy again), searches for meaningful dates on which to kick the habit, and is almost perpetually certain that he has just smoked for the last time. But it's the quitting that exhilarates him. One's final cigarette, Zeno believes, "gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health."

For Zeno, true progress is impossible; life is thesis and antithesis, resolutions and backsliding. Perpetually on the rebound, he enters the family business after vacillating between law and chemistry degrees, and then marries the unattractive Augusta to prove that he no longer pines for her beautiful sister, Ada. Svevo's elliptical sentences convincingly reflect Zeno's psychological contradictions. "I was truly fond of Ada at that moment," Zeno thinks, "and it is a very strange thing to feel fondness for a woman one once ardently desired, did not possess, and who now matters not at all."

Given such contortions, Svevo can't be an easy author to translate. William Weaver, a Bard College professor who has translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, updates the novelist's idiosyncratic prose with great affection. In his perceptive introduction, Weaver explains that Svevo's Italian (his third language, after the Trieste dialect and German) was considered aesthetically wanting. In contrast to Beryl de Zoete's mellifluous translation, Weaver's version conscientiously preserves the choppiness of Svevo's ungainly style.

Weaver's biographical tidbits shed welcome light on Svevo's brilliantly offbeat project, which offers devastating and prophetic insights into psychoanalysis and the self-help movements it spawned. Ultimately, Zeno flunks out of therapy (he can't refrain from lying to his doctors), but somehow he emerges a little wiser. As World War I begins and old age approaches, Zeno finds a prescription for inner peace: "Sorrow and love—life, in other words—cannot be considered a sickness because they hurt."
—Elizabeth Judd

by J. G. Ballard
Picador USA, 392 pages, $24.00

here are many good reasons to read J. G. Ballard. But the best may be the chance of running into lines like "Paul, these bullets—don't get too involved with them" and "The sea was smooth enough to xerox, a vast marbled endpaper." Both come from the latest nightmare romp by the British author (Crash, Empire of the Sun) whose name is synonymous with utopias run amok. And both are redolent of a psychological displacement that makes Ballard's fictional world like no one else's—a place where a young wife, presented with evidence of a bloodbath near her swimming pool, merely deems it wise not to get "too involved"; a place where even the beauty of the sea is best appreciated in terms of office machinery.

Super-Cannes picks up where Ballard's previous novel, Cocaine Nights (1998), left off—but this time, instead of targeting a retirement community on Spain's Costa del Sol, Ballard has trained his sights on a high-tech business park, Eden-Olympia, overlooking Cannes. Especially amusing is his nonstop homage to the French Riviera of writers past. Particulars on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's high life there, for instance, make it clear that their Côte d'Azur is as remote from Ballard's brave new corporate world "as the casino at Monte Carlo was from the temple of Karnak." After all, in Eden-Olympia—where "work is the new leisure"—who has time for the beach? For all its tongue-in-cheek humor, an urgency underlies this cautionary tale about the corporate-political power vacuums that emerge when people are so consumed by their jobs that they have no time left for social connection. Super-Cannes may spell out a few of its points too starkly, but it has plenty of piety-blasting fun along the way.
—Michael Upchurch

Philip Sidney: A Double Life
by Alan Stewart
St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne, 412 pages, $26.95

onsidered by many of his contemporaries to be the embodiment of Castiglione's ideal courtier, cultivated, gallant, gracious, and honorable, Philip Sidney enjoyed an even greater posthumous reputation, not only as a gifted poet but also as a hero of English Protestantism. He was born shortly after the beheading of his maternal grandfather, his uncle, and his uncle's wife, Lady Jane Grey, whom the Protestants had hoped to install as Queen in place of the Catholic Mary. He died at not quite thirty-two, of a wound sustained while fighting Spanish forces in the Low Countries. The first biographical treatment of his life—by his adoring friend Fulke Greville, who was not actually present at the scene—had the wounded Sidney giving his water bottle to a dying soldier with the soon legendary words "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine."

In the course of his research, Alan Stewart tells us, his initial distrust of the Sidney hagiography gave way to a growing realization that Sidney actually was a hero—and not just in England but in the rest of Europe, where he won the friendship and esteem of humanists, scientists, diplomats, and statesmen, particularly (though not exclusively) those engaged in the cause of religious freedom for the beleaguered Protestants. Indeed, during his brief lifetime he was in many ways more admired on the Continent than back home at the court of Queen Elizabeth, who was far more reluctant than Sidney to commit English monies to the defense of her allies and whose complicated relationship with Sidney's powerful and ambitious uncle, her on-again, off-again swain Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, seemed to render her intermittently suspicious of the whole Sidney-Dudley clan.

Having mined much in the way of archival material, Stewart illuminates court life and diplomacy in Sidney's time and the constraints under which he operated. The most serious flaw in this otherwise estimable biography is that it neglects what Sidney valued so highly: the interior world of the poetic imagination. Or, as Sidney put it in his "Defence of Poesie": "Neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments, if they had not taken a great passport of poetry ... Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done ... Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden."
—Merle Rubin

For Rouenna
by Sigrid Nunez
Farrar, Strauss,and Giroux, 208 pages, $22.00

ensitivity is a quality we tend to associate with those whose socio-economic status enables them to lead relatively sheltered lives: people who have the freedom to cultivate their sensibilities, the time and space to notice fine distinctions and pleasant nuances. The heroines of Sigrid Nunez's fiction, like Nunez herself, have come up the hard way, from a world of urban poverty in which there is very little to cushion them from the harsh necessities of just getting by. Nunez's heroines nevertheless bear a surprising resemblance to Anita Brookner's: they are delicate, even timorous women, given to solitary, ruminative walks through city streets. Yet they show astonishing courage when contemplating the depths of loneliness that are inseparable from the human condition.

The narrator of For Rouenna is a middle-aged woman novelist, presumably Nunez herself. As the story opens, she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is living alone in a building full of women and cats. She has also received a letter from a woman who has read one of her books, Rouenna Zycninski, whose name doesn't ring a bell at first, although they grew up in the same Staten Island housing project. After some hesitation the narrator gathers up the courage to accept Rouenna's invitation to meet. In many ways the two couldn't be more unalike. Rouenna, a former Army nurse who served in Vietnam, claims to have no use for "sensitive plants," which this narrator certainly is. The narrator moves in literary and artistic circles, whereas Rouenna seldom even reads a book. Yet a bond develops between them. And although the narrator is taken aback by the suggestion that she, a writer, might want to help Rouenna tell the story of her Vietnam experiences, this is exactly what she ends up doing. Her initial ambivalence toward Rouenna is superseded by a determined, self-effacing effort to tell Rouenna's story as Rouenna herself might have done.

Nunez's outstanding quality as a stylist is her transparency. There is a conspicuous lack of pretension about her writing, a refreshing earnestness. Reading her, we feel that everything is out in the open. But in her case transparency does not go hand in hand with a simplistic world view. Rather, it is her poignant sense of the complexity of human life that impels her to write as plainly and directly as possible, reminding us that those who live in the gritty world of housing projects, or even amid the apocalyptic horrors of war, are as sensitive as anyone else.
—Merle Rubin

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From the archives:

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The final chapter of this book first appeared as "The Lawless Frontier," in the September, 2000, Atlantic.

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Half the essays in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2001; New & Noteworthy; Volume 288, No. 5; 140-145.