F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 5
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
A Feather on the Breath of God
by Sigrid Nunez.
HarperCollins, 180 pages, $18.00.
The first-person narrator of this first novel is the daughter of an
unprosperous Chinese and the German wife he acquired while serving in the
Second World War. How and why this happened is a total puzzle to their daughter
growing up outside New York City, where both her parents are uncomfortable
aliens and she herself feels anchorless. The novel is an intelligent and
poignant examination of social and erotic displacement, and written with such
extraordinary and seemingly unstudied conviction that one accepts every word of
it as the truth. An impressive debut.
by William M. Murphy.
Syracuse, 540 pages, $39.95.
Mr. Murphy is an acknowledged authority on the Yeats
family--that is, "William Butler Yeats and His Relatives," whose activities are reported in this book.
Mr. Murphy promises the reader factual information unencumbered by literary
interpretation, art criticism, aesthetic estimate, or psychological
speculation, and he keeps his word except on those occasions when he must
decide which family member is least mendacious. Willie and Lily and Lollie and
Jack (officially William Butler, Susan Mary, Elizabeth Corbet, and John Butler
junior) were the offspring of a marriage between Susan Pollexfen and John
Yeats. The Pollexfens were business people with a high regard for money. They
were nonintellectual, glumly pious, and socially glacial. The Yeatses were
Anglo-Irish gentry, landowners and clergymen, merry idealists with a high
regard for learning. The match would probably have been awkward in any case,
but when John quit a promising legal career to become a painter, feckless
finance and professional disappointment led to perpetual disorder. The
children, however, were all successful in their separate ways--William as a
poet, Jack as a painter, Lily and Lollie (sometimes referred to, with acid
Irish wit, as the "weird sisters") in the revival of arts and crafts that
accompanied the Irish renascence. They met or knew or quarreled with almost
everyone of note in Ireland at the time. The gossip and tensions and rivalries
that Mr. Murphy has revealed are fascinating, while the financial maneuvers of
the sisters amount to a small saga. Mr. Murphy has avoided posthumous
psychologizing, but he cannot avoid genetic theory, for the Yeatses were very
conscious of the incompatibility of Yeats and Pollexfen blood. John senior,
broke in New York and the recipient of money from William, put the family
position neatly: "It was like a Yeats to send this money and make no fuss about
it. It was like a Pollexfen to have it to send."
The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun.
Farrar Straus Giroux, 400 pages, $25.00.
On a winter day in Istanbul, Galip comes home from his
languid law practice to find that Ruya, his wife and also his cousin, has run away. He assumes that she
has taken refuge with her half-brother Jelal, a widely read newspaper
columnist, but Jelal is also missing, from both the paper and his formal
address. Galip goes sloshing through slush and grime in search of the errant
pair. The novel is constructed in alternating chapters--one describing Galip's
wanderings and the strange and garrulous people he meets, who all tell him
strange stories; the next reproducing one of Jelal's old columns, which also
contain stories and which Galip studies in the hope of finding a clue to the
writer's whereabouts. The flow of seemingly unrelated tales suggests a Thousand
and One Nights kaleidoscope, but there is a single concern underlying the
shifting surface, and that is the question of identity--What is it, what is its
value, what stability does it have? Jelal's name derives from that of a
medieval mystic and poet who advised, "Appear as you are, be as you appear. You
are not this body, but a spiritual eye--what the eye of man contemplates it
becomes." Jelal describes, and Galip experiences, a state in which each is
watched by a disembodied eye that is also what it watches. Jelal refers
frequently to historical figures and to Hurufi, a mystical sect practicing a
method of divination based upon numbers assigned to letters of the alphabet.
Galip tries the method on Jelal's columns without success. It is likely that
only a Muslim or an Islamic specialist can grasp all the implications that the
author has embedded in his brilliantly shifting text, but one of them must be
Turkey's difficulty in maintaining national identity in its Janus-faced
position as the western fringe of the Middle East and the eastern fringe of
Europe. With the questions it raises and the author's satirical jabs at
literary critics, imported fads, civic authorities, and "small towns where
they're big on their religion and their graveyards," Mr. Pamuk's novel is
exciting. It gives both the imagination and the intelligence thorough
Great Women of the Bible
by Dorothee Solle, Joe H. Kirchberger, Herbert Haag, and others.
Eerdmans, 295 pages, $75.00.
Representations of biblical women in art and literature are
the announced focus of the authors. The text includes relevant excerpts from the Bible, rather
summary accounts of the use made of such texts by authors from early times to
our own, and commentaries of a contemporary feminist character which naively
stress the obvious and cannot be considered either literature or art. The
illustrations provide a vivid record of the styles in which differing cultures
have visualized scriptural heroines and victims. There is also generous
material on nonbiblical legends and traditions from the Middle East.
by Stephen Fry.
Random House, 304 pages, $22.00.
Mr. Fry's novel, an odd mixture of the sentimental and the
ribald, is in the end a comedy in praise of sex, alcohol, kindness, and common sense, items that
the author considers interdependent. Readers who cannot tolerate that view had
best avoid the book--but they will be missing some real fun.
Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species
by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer.
Knopf, 336 pages, $24.00.
This book grew out of the authors' January, 1992, cover story for The Atlantic,
"The Butterfly Problem."
The History of the Blues
by Francis Davis.
Hyperion, 224 pages, $24.95.
The chapter on Robert Johnson in this book originated as an article titled
"Blues Walking Like a Man," in the April, 1991, issue of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.