by Phoebe Adams
TREASURES OF TURKEY (Skira, $29.50) is a beautiful, useful, maddening book, devoted to descriptions of all the lovely objects accumulated in Turkey by civilizations dating from 6500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. It is beautiful because of the fine colorplates, useful because the text by Ekrem Akurgal, Cyril Mango, and Richard Ettinghausen discusses styles and origins clearly and notes precisely where things are to be found, and maddening because the reader inevitably yearns to go and see all this splendid stuff — a project which requires travel over a rectangle running from east of Trebizond to Istanbul and Troy, down the Ionian Coast, east across the Tigris, and north again to the Black Sea.
Back in 1948, BEX SHAHN exhibited a painting of a demonic beast with a halo of flames. He called it Allegory, and a previously sympathetic art critic denounced it as a Communist manifestation and called for the deportation of the artist. Since Mr. Shahn had really had in mind a fire in which four children died, he was taken aback, and the business has continued to gall him for nearly twenty years. The result of his annoyance, for which one must be incongruously grateful to that misguided critic, is THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PAINTING (Paragraphic Books, $3.95), which reproduces, with Mr. Shahn’s illustrations and in his clear handwriting, his meditations on the intellectual process underlying any picture. He describes the assemblage of scattered aspects of reality, their conversion into a symbol with a private meaning, and the modification of that symbol to achieve a universal meaning. Mr. Shahn writes succinctly, with the simplicity of serious purpose, and his ideas are both subtle and stimulating.
PIERRE SICHEL’S biography MODIGLIANI (Dutton, $10.00) makes little attempt to understand the artist’s character or motives. It is devoted merely to tracing his actions, a formidable task. During his years in Paris, Modigliani seems to have known or met everybody from Picasso (predictable) to Katherine Mansfield (who would have thought it). Most of these people were unbridled gossips and memoir writers in any case, and Modigliani’s disorderly life and pitiful death overstimulated the imaginations of a good many of them. Mr. Sichel quotes everybody, patiently sorting probable fact from sentimental fancy, hoping to demolish the legend of Modigliani as a drunken satyr painting in a fog of hashish. The author cannot dispute the fact that Modigliani was his own enemy, but does reasonably well in establishing limits for the war. Why it existed at all is a question for some more analytical, less courteous biographer to dig into, and Mr. Sichel has left a neatly cleared piece of ground for the purpose.
Behind a facade calculated to alarm the unscholarly, GUTENBERG AND THE MASTER OF THE PLAYING CARDS (Yale University Press, $15.00), by HELLMUT LEHMANNHAUPT, conceals a nice little piece of detective work on the printer’s aims and the people who worked with him, plus much information on the transition from written manuscript to printed book.
THE AYLWINS (Norton, $4.95) by J. I. M. STEWART makes good on its subtitle, “an Oxford Comedy,” and succeeds into the bargain in keeping the reader absorbed to a surprising degree in the goings-on among the dons and fellows of an Oxford college. What is involved is a peculiar and somewhat batty crisis of conscience. The denouement, wholly unexpected, is as skillfully developed as one would expect it to be by this expert novelist, himself a lecturer at the University of Oxford, who writes equally attractive mystery stories under the pseudonym of Michael Innes.
DICK SCHAAP’S TURNED ON (New American Library, $4.95) is another of the true crime books that have flowed like a river since the success of In Cold Blood. Mr. Schaap rather testily denies any connection with that work; his book is “simply reporting” of the sad, dreary, inadvertent killing of a young woman by a lover who, with nothing but goodwill in his heart, gave her an overdose of heroin. Since the girl was dead and the young man in jail, Mr. Schaap’s researches had to be centered on their friends, the New York drug scene in general, and the police. What he turns up is a portrait gallery of lost dogs — the timid, the ineffectual, the unattractive, the would-be artists a trifle short of talent or nerve or both, and the plain sick. Although somewhat given to thievery, dope being an expensive consolation for their troubles, they are on the whole a gentle and inoffensive group of criminals and of serious danger only to themselves. Part of this impression may well be misleading; Mr. Schaap was dealing with young people who came, predominantly, from middleclass or wealthy families, and allowances and private incomes were common. The book proposes no solution for drug addiction, offers no diatribes pro or con anything, and is written with an agreeable lack of sensationalism. It also presents a couple of wisecracking narcotics policemen who will wind up on television if they don’t watch out.
With the luck of owning an agreeably lackadaisical father, JAN YOORS now a designer of tapestries, did what most boys merely dream of doing. He ran away with the Gypsies, and for ten years or so traipsed around Eastern Europe with their jingling horse caravans. THE GYPSIES (Simon and Schuster, $5.95) describes that experience, which was much less disorderly than legend leads one to expect. According to Mr. Yoors, Gypsy society, although far-flung, constantly on the move, and blandly contemptuous of Gaje law, is within itself carefully organized, soberly administered, and severely honest, while the people themselves are a various, likable crew. The Gypsies is unsensational and unsentimental — a respectful, affectionate tribute to the “race of strangers” who became the author’s adopted kin.