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J A N U A R Y   1 9 9 5

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi

by William Dalrymple.

HarperCollins, 352 pages, $23.00.

Because Mr. Dalrymple opens his year in Delhi with his rich and stingy landlady and her dotty husband, the reader may anticipate a pukka sahib report on quaint natives. The fear is groundless. Mr. Dalrymple is a sympathetic observer of Indian life and a hardworking student of the history of Delhi. Beginning with Mrs. Puri, the landlady, a Sikh driven penniless out of Lahore at the Partition of 1947, the author works his way back through the Raj, the Mughal Emperors, and the Mahabharata, arriving at archaeological digs into the remote past. Along the way he finds improper Englishmen, murderous intrigues, crumbling palaces, holy men, descendants of Genghis Khan, eunuchs, doctors practicing medicine in classical Greek style, connections with the Gilgamesh epic, and partridge fights. Partridge fighting is an old diversion of which Delhi is still a famous center. Nowadays these "bird challenges" are held in a Muslim graveyard, where Mr. Dalrymple observed one. He describes the proceedings with sharp details of the betting, the jostling, and the birds' shrieks and leaps and spur-slashings. The contest was exciting, until it was interrupted by the unforeseen arrival of a funeral. The defeated cock, kissed and cuddled by its owner, was expected to survive. There is, perhaps, a faint parallel between that partridge and Delhi. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt throughout its history. Its present condition appears to approximate convalescence--a time of transition between the disruption caused by the Partition of India and a new type of society created by the resulting influx of Hindu refugees, among whom are the Puris and Mr. Balvinder Singh, of International Backside Taxis, without whom the author would have seen less and done it less amusingly.



Gustav Klimt: From Drawing to Painting

by Christian M. Nebehay.

Abrams, 288 pages, $65.00.

Mr. Nebehay inherited from his father a connection with the Viennese art world and knew Klimt in the last year of his life. He has had access to background material and unpublished sketches and has used these resources adroitly to show the artist's working methods and the extent of his influence, and also the kind of patrons he attracted and the conservatives whom he alarmed. The illustrations are generous and so are the quotations from Klimt, his associates, his sometimes exasperated friends, and his critics. (Turn-of-the-century Viennese critics were both savage and witty.) This is a splendid book for any admirer of Klimt and likely to make an admirer of anyone unfamiliar with that artist's glittering, idiosyncratic, subtly disturbing creations.



Hardy

by Martin Seymour-Smith.

St. Martin's, 896 pages, $35.00.

Previous biographers have represented the novelist Thomas Hardy as a misogynist, a misanthrope, a social misfit, and a moping neurotic. He has even been credited with an illegitimate son. Mr. Seymour-Smith disagrees with all such interpretations. The difficulty with his own life of Hardy is that denunciation of those previous biographers frequently obscures his view of Hardy as a man who combined acute social sensibility and rationally controlled pessimism with canny professional action. There is a consistent interpretation of Hardy in this fat volume, but a reader must exercise patience and persistence to find it.



Toulouse-Lautrec

by Julia Frey.

Viking, 680 pages, $34.95.

Ms. Frey has had access to family papers that were either overlooked or concealed until recently, and these documents have enabled her to provide information on areas of the painter's life in which gossip and guess have previously flourished. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's story remains basically what it has always been--an example of great accomplishment against heavy odds of pain and physical disability--but added detail makes it even more impressive, and Ms. Frey's attention to relatives, friends, fellow artists, and dealers creates a solid worldly setting. There are numerous black-and-white illustrations and fifty color plates, which, although small in scale, serve the reference purposes for which they are intended. Well-written, well-constructed, and intelligently sympathetic, this is an excellent biography of an extraordinary artist.



Good Bones and Simple Murders

by Margaret Atwood.

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 164 pages, $20.00.

Ms. Atwood's collected oddities and fragments are individually inventive and satirical. Gertrude of Denmark gives her version of the family scandal. A disgruntled narrator recalls a previous and more agreeable life as a bat. Correct feminist terminology destroys a classic fairy tale. A visitor to an alien planet explains her macabre motives. The quality that holds the disparate items together is contempt --contempt for society in general and men in particular. The pieces read best in isolation, for taken at one sitting they arouse pity for the author's victims--men in particular.



Hunters & Gatherers

by Geoff Nicholson.

Overlook, 215 pages, $21.95.

The protagonist and part-time narrator of this novel is an unsuccessful writer who has wangled an advance for a book about eccentric collectors. He finds several of those, one of whom collects him. As a story about people, the tale is not to be taken seriously. As a reflection on the amount of disorganized trivia, both material and factual, that encumbers modern society, it is intentionally and effectively disconcerting.



Great Art Treasures of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Abrams/Booth-Clibborn, 1,581 pages, $195.00.

Although the traditional birth date of the Hermitage is 1764, when Catherine II bought a large number of paintings, royal collecting had already begun with Peter the Great's enthusiasm for Dutch and Flemish art. The imperial habit spread and so did the museum, which now occupies an impressive stretch of riverfront and contains about three million items, some of which are presented in this impressive publication: a two-volume, boxed, twenty-pound monument. The photographs of everything from Stone Age figurines to twentieth-century paintings are accompanied by texts from museum experts. These texts are flatly utilitarian in style but suitably informative. The objects displayed are magnificent and more than justify the claim of the director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, that his museum is "one of the world's greatest."



The Living & the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia

by Nina Tumarkin.

BasicBooks, 254 pages, $25.00.

Nina Tumarkin's Atlantic report on this subject, "The Great Patriotic War as Myth and Memory," appeared in the June, 1991, issue.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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