J A N U A R Y 1 9 9 5
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material and unpublished sketches and has used these resources adroitly to show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
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.
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
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
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.