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N O V E M B E R   1 9 9 5

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


William Morris

by Fiona MacCarthy.

Knopf, 800 pages, $45.00.

Ms. MacCarthy's superbly thorough and elegantly written life of Morris (1834- 1896) is a very large book--legitimately so, for Morris was a very large man. He was born to money and the uppermost levels of the Victorian middle class, and although he never objected to money, he early repudiated piety and antimacassars to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was a painter, a poet, a novelist, a translator of old Icelandic literature, an expert admirer of early Gothic architecture, and an influential advocate of individual craftsmanship, as opposed to the mass production of the Industrial Age. Craftsmanship led him into the design and production of fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, embroideries, and books. He learned to be an expert dyer. He developed ideas, still current, on land conservation and the dangers of air and water pollution. As an angler, he was versified by his friend Rossetti: "Enter Skald, moored in a punt, / And Jacks and Tenches exeunt." Morris eventually became an enthusiastic socialist, joining the medley of rich radicals, adventurous intellectuals, and working-class protesters which constituted "that mix of class and culture that has given British socialism such a bizarre character." Socialism put a strain on Morris's long friendship with Edward Burne-Jones, who was painting his way to a knighthood, but not on that with Georgiana Burne-Jones (Rudyard Kipling's aunt), who lavished tea, buns, and socialist exhortations on baffled Devonshire farmers. Ms. MacCarthy does not ignore Morris's faults, which included an alarming temper, but the reader cannot fail to share her admiration and affection for his extraordinary energy and versatility. The book is generously and intelligently illustrated with photographs, color plates, and Burne-Jones's roly-poly caricatures. Morris was, in addition to his other outsize qualities, definitely stout.



Suspended Animation

by F. Gonzalez-Crussi, photographs by Rosamond Purcell.

Harcourt Brace, 160 pages, $16.00.

Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi is a professor of pathology and understandably interested in "the preservation of bodily parts." His widely learned, quietly witty essays on this subject range from his confusion, as a young intern in a Catholic hospital, over the proper treatment of "products of conception" to the elaborate wax anatomical models created in the eighteenth century. The subject matter may be somewhat arcane, but Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi makes it both interesting and relevant to current discussions on medical research. Ms. Purcell's handsome and eerie photographs parallel but do not illustrate the text.



The History of Danish Dreams

by Peter Hoeg, translated by Barbara Haveland.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pages, $24.00.

"Or Notions of the Twentieth Century" is the alternative title of Mr. Hoeg's novel. The tale is a semi-fantastic, semi-burlesque family saga in which the author presents a mad nobleman who preserves the feudal past by stopping his clocks, an illiterate but successful newspaper publisher, thieves too kindhearted to steal anything worth the trouble, a preacher who reduces his flock to such unworldly gloom that they paint their houses black, and a positive procession of equally daft residents of the country that Mr. Ho/eg describes, in one of his frequent and mischievous personal intrusions into his fiction, as "the most unhinged place in the history of the world." At bottom the novel is grim social satire, but the surface is surprising, steadily inventive, and highly amusing.



A Blue Tale and Other Stories

by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Alberto Manguel.

University of Chicago, 120 pages, $14.95.

All three stories in this collection are early work by their subsequently distinguished author. "A Blue Tale" is a clever experiment in style. The other two are exercises in psychological exploration, and foreshadow the clarity and logic of Yourcenar's mature writing. According to the foreword by Josyane Savigneau, "The First Evening" is an elaboration, or a rewriting, of a story initially written by Yourcenar's father. One would like to have that original for comparison, but presumably it does not survive. While significant for serious critical study of Yourcenar, these stories offer little to excite a casual reader.



Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man

by Norman Mailer.

Atlantic Monthly, 448 pages, $35.00.

Mr. Mailer is neither an art critic nor an academic. He can therefore approach Picasso unencumbered by aesthetic jargon (although he maliciously quotes some) or dreams of tenure. He writes as an intelligent literary artist who appreciates and hopes to understand the work of a great visual artist, and to do so through examination of the man's actions and character. He has plenty of witnesses to consult--it seems that everyone who ever encountered Picasso wrote about it--and uses quotation generously while warning readers of the possible limitations of his sources: Gertrude Stein, reporting the famous party in honor of Henri Rousseau, "by habitual reflex . . . gets a good bit of it wrong." Mr. Mailer's view of Stein is refreshingly iconoclastic all the way; nor does he hesitate to reveal his sympathy for Picasso's mistress Fernande Olivier, his liking for Guillaume Apollinaire, and his contempt for certain critics and dealers. This is biography constructed with a fiction writer's liberty of psychological insight and a fascinated observer's freedom of personal opinion. The unorthodox approach produces excellent, very readable, results.



City of Dreadful Night

by Lee Siegel.

University of Chicago, 255 pages, $39.95/$15.95.

Professor Siegel's "Story About Horror and the Macabre in India" is not exactly a novel but, rather, a fictionalized assemblage of what the author has gathered of Indian hair-raisers. He contrasts these with Western horror stories, sensibly using Dracula as the definitive example. He does not, oddly, make use of the actual contrast. In Dracula supernatural horror erupts in the normal human world of telegrams, newspapers, and railroad trains. The Indian tales reverse this pattern. Supernatural horror is the normal world, into which human beings intrude. The indigenous inhabitants of that macabre Indian world come in several varieties but can be roughly summed up as ghouls. The first blood-slurping monstrosity bedecked with unattractive fragments of human anatomy is impressive. The second is less so. The reader's shudders eventually subside into yawns.



Dinopix

by Teruhisa Tajima.

Chronicle, 80 pages, $18.95.

Mr. Tajima, experimenting with photography and digital design, has had the whimsical notion of presenting dinosaurs in modern settings. He gives us brachiosaurus on Manhattan Beach and stegosaurus on an ice field and ankylosaurus gingerly crossing railway tracks. The captions are partly serious and partly fanciful. Allosaurus "frequently attacks human beings." Ingenious work for the entertainment of dinosaur buffs.


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