D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 3
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
A History of Warfare
by John Keegan.
Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50.
Mr. Keegan begins his examination of warfare by defying Clausewitz with "War is
not the continuation of policy by other means." He goes on to discuss war
making in terms of methods, which have progressed from largely ritual displays
of hostility doing limited damage to modern slaughters with sophisticated
long-range weapons, arguing that through most of history, conscious policy has
had little to do with actual fighting. The text is rich in unexpected detail
and unorthodox interpretation, which makes it steadily provocative reading. It
is not, in the end, encouraging. Mr. Keegan insists that there is a "warrior
culture," which "exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong
to it" and "follows it . . . at a distance." Thanks in part to that distance,
war has become an insupportable habit. Mr. Keegan recommends a return to the
primitive habits of "restraint, diplomacy and negotiation."
The Robber Bride
by Margaret Atwood.
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 466 pages, $23.50.
Zenia was dead, to begin with. Tony, Charis, and Roz, the university
contemporaries whom she robbed of men and money, have observed, with relief,
the burial of a container of ashes. They are understandably dismayed when Zenia
reappears, as solid and sinister as ever, in a joint called the Toxique. The
three victims are now middle-aged, and while they still suffer from the virtues
of the woman more precious than rubies, they have certain abilities not
assigned to that maid of all work with a sideline in real estate. Tony is a
professor of military history, Charis is given to meditation and herb teas, and
Roz is a successful financier. The question that moves the novel forward, as
opposed to its flashbacks into the disastrous past, is whether their combined
expertise is enough to thwart whatever mischief Zenia has in mind. Ms. Atwood
makes her characters believable, as she does the men whom they inexplicably
value--for not one of those fellows could be trusted even to put out the
garbage. The settings, from bohemian Toronto to a rundown farm to a college
building mustily devoted to "worthy but impoverished departments," are as
clearly evoked as the characters. The amoral, spiteful, ruthlessly
self-interested Zenia is almost too bad to be true, but she represents all the
impulses that Tony, Roz, and Charis have repudiated or suppressed. Good women,
in Ms. Atwood's view, are their own enemies, and whether one agrees with her
opinion or not, she has written a brilliantly intelligent novel to support
Oak Island Gold
by William S. Crooker.
Nimbus/Chelsea Green, 128 pages, $11.95.
Anyone with a weakness for lost mines and sunken galleons should be intrigued,
although not ultimately enlightened, by Mr. Crooker's account of nearly two
centuries of futile digging and pumping on a small island off the coast of Nova
Scotia. Ever since a young man came upon a clearing where an old tackle block
hung from a tree limb over a depression in the ground, treasure hunters have
poured money (and lives) into the ensuing hole. Despite financial losses and
squabbles over excavation rights, enough has been learned about arrangements on
Oak Island--an artificial beach and underground water conduits--to indicate
that someone went to a great deal of trouble there, and presumably for valuable
reasons. Responsibility for the hypothetical valuables has been assigned to
Captain Kidd, burying loot like a proper pirate (which he probably was not),
and even to Francis Bacon et al., bent on simultaneously concealing and
preserving the original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays--which they, of
course, actually wrote. Mr. Crooker's own theory, which he frankly presents as
currently unprovable, has the merit of conforming to eighteenth-century
practice at its worst and of linking to a definite historical event. The whole
tale would be preposterous did not the publisher acknowledge "the financial
support of the Department of Communications and The Canada Council." That
James A. Welu and Pieter Biesboer, project directors.
Worcester Art Museum/Frans Halsmuseum, distributed by Yale University Press,
391 pages, $60.00.
Although Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a member of Haarlem's Guild of St.
Luke, maintained a workshop with at least one student, and was in her time both
accomplished and successful as a painter, art historians forgot about her for
two centuries. She was, to be sure, a woman. She was also, as the authors
acknowledge, not an innovator. One of her paintings was long attributed to
Frans Hals and fell sharply in value when Leyster's hand was recognized. Her
subject matter was frequently that widely popular in the Dutch genre
market--laughing children embracing realistically disgruntled cats, and merry
meetings. Merry meetings required at least one musician, one drunk, and one
suspiciously gaudy blonde beauty, plus as many auxiliary revelers as the
painter's energy and the patron's purse could accommodate. The text suggests
that such paintings were warnings against wine, wenches, and wasted time. To a
modern eye, the warning is invisible. Merry meetings may, however, have
contributed to Leyster's eventual obscurity. After some years as an independent
businesswoman, she married Jan Miense Molenaer, a painter who specialized in
the subject, and her own work apparently ceased. The authors offer no personal
information about Leyster, because none survives, but a great deal about her
contemporaries, their techniques, and the stylistic influences, art-market
operations, and ideas current in the period. The book is admirably illustrated
and, as the subtitle promises, reconstructs "A Dutch Master and Her World."
by George V. Higgins.
Holt/John Macrae, 272 pages, $22.50.
Mr. Higgins's acidic novel opens with two plainclothes policemen sitting in a
car waiting for a suspect to appear. They are a grouchy veteran and the younger
colleague to whom he is turning over the investigation, and they hate each
other for reasons of origin, education, connections, temperament, and previous
association. Most of these reasons emerge in their garrulous, raspy
conversation. No Higgins character has ever been taciturn. The novel does have
a plot, involving that dilatory suspect, but the principal thrust of the book
is sociological. The author is explaining, by illustration, the irrelevant
personal prejudices or resentments or obsessions that can--and in this case
do--derail what should be a relatively simple police action. The various
episodes (they do get out of the car) are sad or funny or savage, but all
combine to display the peculiar world, both professional and private, in which
these men operate. The plot is merely an excuse for the illustrations.
Dreams of Exile
by Ian Bell.
Holt, 296 pages, $25.00.
Mr. Bell is a frankly prejudiced biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson. He has
no use for anyone--W. E. Henley, for example--who questioned his subject's
activities or accomplishments, and he resents the literary attempts of
Stevenson's wife while acknowledging her loyalty and courage. These animosities
aside, Mr. Bell has produced a well-organized account of Stevenson's progress
from fragile only child to negligent student to nonpracticing lawyer to
bohemian dilettante (his father was a patient man with a sound income) to
successful, respected author. For a man plagued by illness, Stevenson covered
an amazing amount of territory and did an astounding amount of work. His
nomadic life is worth the attention Mr. Bell has given to reconstructing it.
by Joachim Pissarro.
Abrams, 310 pages, $67.50 until 1/1/94, $75.00 thereafter.
The author is a great-grandson of the painter considered by many to have been
the real originator of the Impressionist school. He is also an art historian
and concentrates on Pissarro the painter, paying minimal attention to other
aspects of his subject's life. Politically, however, Pissarro was sympathetic
to anarchism, if only as a theory (bomb throwing horrified him), and in his
work that cast of mind led to a demand for absolute freedom. He abhorred "any
art whose function is to deliver a message, to render or express an idea, to
arouse a sentiment, or to tell a story." That noncommitment may explain why,
for all the skill and visual beauty of his paintings, Pissarro was never as
successful in his own time as some of his less austere contemporaries. The
book's illustrations are lavish and include many works not otherwise available
for viewing. No question, he was a superb painter of what he chose to see. The
observer can make his own guess as to why Pissarro chose to see it.
The Phantom Empire
by Geoffrey O'Brien.
Norton, 281 pages, $20.00.
Mr. O'Brien believes that movies influence both public opinion and private
conduct. He also believes that public opinion and events influence moviemakers
wishing to turn a profit. His elaborate reflections on these less than arcane
points are easily read and easily forgotten.
by Guy Billout.
Creative Editions, 32 pages, $16.95.
The humorous vision here will be familiar to everyone who has seen Guy
Billout's drawings in The Atlantic Monthly.
Copyright © (1993) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1993; Volume 272, No. 6;