D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 5
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
The Island of the Day Before
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Harcourt Brace, 528 pages, $25.00.
Mr. Eco presents an unstated challenge: Can you, dear
reader, identify this item (term, myth, person, event, theory) before I get around to doing it for
you? Once identified, the item is not necessarily explained. The phonetic
misalliance by which Buckingham becomes Bouquinquant remains a mystery,
although reference to that duke is reasonable enough for the year 1643. Mr.
Eco's protagonist is Roberto, a minor Italian nobleman blackmailed into spying
for France on the doings of an Englishman aboard a Dutch ship. An accurate
method of determining longitude was much desired by all maritime powers at the
time, and competition for such a method underlay Roberto's thoroughly unwelcome
mission. He had been quite happy consorting with speculative philosophers in
Parisian salons. He wound up in the South Pacific, marooned on a seemingly
deserted ship anchored between unreachable islands. Roberto assumed that he was
located on the as-yet-undetermined international dateline, with yesterday to
port and tomorrow to starboard--in short, in a timeless nowhere. The novel
purports to be an editor's decipherment of what Roberto wrote that he
experienced (which was unexpectedly lively), considered, and imagined in his
isolation. The editor is tart but not unsympathetic. As Roberto rambles through
theories on physics, astronomy, medicine, love, and theology, Mr. Eco parodies
the style in which the seventeenth century dealt with those topics, throwing in
a witty atheist, a flirtatious précieuse, and a couple of mad mechanics
(both priests) as spokespeople. The novel glitters with zany antique ideas and
obliquely questions the validity of their modern counterparts. It is an
amazing, and discreetly unsettling, work of art.
by Phillip Herring.
Viking, 386 pages, $29.95.
The reputation of Djuna Barnes (1892- 1982) rests on a mere three
works--primarily the novel Nightwood--all of them powered by vengeful
anger against her family and a faithless lesbian lover. Anger against her
family was thoroughly justified by what today would be considered juvenile
sexual abuse, but it has to be considered a limited source of inspiration. By
1958, when the play Antiphon was published, Barnes, who had been a
notable member of the Anglo-American literary group in France during the 1920s
and 1930s, had abandoned lovers and alcohol and retired to a small flat in
Greenwich Village, where she spent the rest of her life in bad-tempered
seclusion. One cannot envy that life, but Professor Herring makes it
interesting reading and a sound period piece. The people Barnes knew were an
assembly of the distinguished and the eccentric, and her grandmother, a
moderately successful nineteenth-century poet and journalist commended by John
Greenleaf Whittier (who subsequently regretted it), is worth a biography all by
A Fool and His Money
by Ann Wroe.
Hill and Wang, 244 pages, $22.00.
Read the first chapter of
A Fool and His Money
Ms. Wroe, a historical scholar, studied medieval records in
the remote town of Rodez, France, because more attractive places were infested by already
entrenched researchers. There were ample records to study, because, she was
told, "Of course it has lots of stuff left. It's such a God-awful place that
no-one would want to go there even to sack it." Ms. Wroe unearthed a court case
involving a hoard of gold that may, or may not, have belonged to the owner of
the property where it was found in the year 1369--or possibly 1370. In pursuing
that pot of gold, Ms. Wroe learned about conditions in Rodez during the Hundred
Years War. Bandits and guerrillas roamed the countryside, along with French,
English, and stateless troops. Rodez was not only fortified; it was divided by
an interior wall, with the more elegant ecclesiastical City subject to the
British and the commercial Bourg subject to the Count of Armagnac. The City
paid taxes to the Black Prince--that is, England. The Bourg did not, and it
paid as little as possible to the Count--that is, France. There were separate
municipal governments and much municipal rivalry. There were also businesses
that operated across the wall; people who held property in both halves of the
town; specialists like the mason Huc del Cayro, who worked anywhere; and
scalawags who managed to evade taxes by remaining unfindable in either section
of the place. Ms. Wroe has unraveled a complicated civic mess, and recovered a
number of violent or amusing episodes. She clearly enjoyed doing it, and shares
her pleasure with the reader in accomplished prose.
by Jean Echenoz, translated by Mark Polizzotti.
Godine, 128 pages, $21.95.
Mr. Echenoz's novel is an exuberant spoof of the kind of
thriller in which every spy is a double agent and the reader never learns the real object of any
The Life and Times of Miami Beach
by Ann Armbruster.
Knopf, 224 pages, $45.00.
In a little less than a century Miami Beach has gone from
being a haunt of mangroves and alligators to having a position on the National Register of
Historic Places. That status derives from Art Deco architecture, which is only
one of the several, usually fantastic, styles that have erupted in the resort.
The city has boomed and busted and rebounded; it has survived hurricanes and Al
Capone and conversion to a Second World War military facility; and it has never
taken its collective eye off the original ball--money. Anything profitable has
been welcome. By the late 1940s Miami Beach could "figure into its annual
budget a couple of hundred thousand dollars in fines and forfeitures" from
bookies. Edmund Wilson, on a journalistic survey, was "astounded and appalled
by this place."Ms. Armbruster's readers can be painlessly entertained. The book
is lavishly supplied with photographs.
Pushkin: The Man and His Age
by Robin Edmonds.
St. Martin's, 320 pages, $27.95.
Mr. Edmonds's biography of Pushkin has the merits of
conciseness, careful examination of the events and the people that led to the poet's early death in
a duel, and copious quotation from his work for the benefit of readers with a
command of Russian. The translations of the poetry can benefit nobody. The
book's demerits are a utilitarian style and the occasional assumption that the
reader knows as much about pre-Pushkinian Russia as the author does.
The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer
by Barbara J. Bloemink.
Yale, 318 pages, $45.00.
Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) spent the greater part of
her early life in Europe, where her mother, a well-heeled grass widow, whisked her three
daughters through spas and hotels, Florine visiting museums and studying
painting as often as possible. When the family returned to New York in 1914,
the painter set to work on her own in a style unrelated to any instruction. Ms.
Bloemink describes her subject's paintings as "too satiric to be called
romantic, too specific to fall under the heading of surreal or fantastic, and
too obviously generated from a thorough knowledge of Western art history to be
termed primitive." Stettheimer's subject matter was so intensely familial that
she had no purchasers; her only public success was as the designer of the sets
and costumes for Four Saints in Three Acts. Her habit of sprinkling
canvases with small but recognizable figures or surrounding a portrait with
significant but improbable objects makes Stettheimer as unsuitable for
small-scale reproduction as anyone since Hieronymus Bosch--and small-scale
reproduction is all that this book provides. The painter wrote poetry, however,
and quotation from that establishes her as a wary, amiably cynical observer of
the human comedy.
The world is full of strangers
They are very strange
I am never going to meet them
Which I find easy to arrange.
All in all, Stettheimer suggests a cross between Grandma Moses and a slightly
mellowed Dorothy Parker--an unlikely but engaging combination.
Bring Back the Buffalo!
by Ernest Callenbach.
Island Press, 250 pages, $22.50.
Mr. Callenbach offers persuasive financial and
environmental reasons for returning the Great Plains, the high, dry grassland region extending through
ten states, to the bison that once flourished there, where European animals and
farming methods have not. He offers practical methods for making such a change.
He foresees opposition to the move--and probably underestimates it, because the
U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies bison as "exotic animals." Those
people in Washington . . .
Environmental and Health Atlas of Russia
edited by Murray Feshbach.
Paims Publishing House/Center for Post-Soviet Studies, 400 pages, $95.00.
Information from this atlas was used in the creation of At
Last Count, "The Diphtheria Zone," in the February Atlantic.
Behind the One-Way Mirror: Psychotherapy and Children
by Katharine Davis Fishman.
Bantam, 558 pages, $27.50.
This book grew out of the Atlantic cover story
"Therapy for Children," in the June, 1991, issue.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Volume 276, No. 6;