Short Reviews

The End of the Affair

According to the philosopher and World War II veteran J. Glenn Gray, the lever of courage on the battlefield is love: the bonds forged in combat move men to risk their lives for one another. Fear of letting the other fellow down makes heroes, Gray writes in The Warriors (1959). But what if there are no other fellows to let down? Solitary courage must fling its grapples upon the fear-slicked self. Christopher Robbins's subject in this true though sometimes hard-to-credit biography -- the tests of courage are so many, so solitary, and so successfully passed -- is Michel Thomas, now a world-famous linguist and language teacher. In Robbins's vivid telling Thomas is a Holocaust survivor who escapes the death camps by daring stratagems, a French Resistance fighter who outwits Klaus Barbie, a U.S. Army intelligence officer who captures war criminals with brilliant ruses, and a lover who never lets the imminence of death ("And as we were making love ... an American artillery position opened fire right above us in the hills") dash his desire. "There were those who despaired [but] I was not prepared to let reality overwhelm me," he says, describing the metaphysical impertinence that saw him through a war that broke nations. "I wanted to find a way to fight back." His story is almost too singular to be inspiring.

This year we have seen Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard's lambent, affectionate, and eloquent literary memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene. Now, as a counterweight, William Cash offers us an erotic epic spiced with more than a little theology: Greene's passionate affair of many years with the beautiful American-born Catherine Walston. The novelist seems to have been as assiduous in sexual pursuits as in the search for God, and maybe more so -- though Greene's adultery, to be fair, always took second place to the writing of fiction. Greene had a wife, two children, four mistresses (five, if Margot Fonteyn qualifies), and innumerable prostitutes, all while he continued his frantic pursuit of Catherine Walston and also wrote The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, , and The Quiet American. He somehow managed to survive this exhausting activity as a communicating Roman Catholic. Lady Walston, whose husband was rich and very tolerant, also slept with many men other than Greene, including an Irish revolutionary, an American general, and a priest or two. Cash goes so far as to justify his research efforts by claiming a central place for adultery among the inspirations for literature. The Third Woman provides hypnotic voyeuristic reading; but Cash's panting sensibility has trouble nailing down his argument.

O should not be read in public places, against the certainty of tears. Set in Green Bay, Wisconsin, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, written with a rare purity of style, this story of two women of different generations and classes, growing up and old, is continually moving in a wry, Chekhovian way. The novel is especially artful in its manipulation of setting to register the foreclosures of time and possibility. Bea Maxwell is a woman whom love passed by: from high school to college in Madison to her first job in Chicago to her return to Green Bay to care for her mother and begin a successful career -- through the whole of a caring and love-worthy life -- no man has so much as asked her out on a date. Love comes close once, when her boss makes an advance ("There was a kiss or almost, something between a bump and a kiss"), but a ringing phone kills the moment -- her only one. Shelley, a little-valued daughter in a poor family, contracts polio in shake-your-fist-at-heaven circumstances. Disfigured, she at least finds sex. She asks her (older) lover if he notices her bad leg. "You're different at first," he says, "but then you're not. Then you're just young." This is Mona Simpson's fourth novel, written with compassionate realism.

For better and worse, The Dark Valley is, as its subtitle promises, panoramic. In a gigantic, sweeping history of the Great Powers in the grip of the Great Depression, Piers Brendon depicts, among dozens of other dramas, the Bonus March on Washington, the Concorde riot in Paris, Barcelona in paroxysms of revolutionary ardor, Moscow in the dull terror of the show trials, and post-Anschluss Vienna in anti-Semitic ecstasy. His astute pen portraits include all the main dramatis personae -- Stalin, Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini, Blum, Chamberlain -- and also dozens of secondary characters, among them the doomed Nikolai Bukharin and Britain's "Iron Chancellor" of the Exchequer Sir Philip Snowden, who supposedly coined the term "the idle rich." Although the book's subject -- "a low, dishonest decade," in Auden's phrase -- is unrelievedly depressing, The Dark Valley is almost always gripping and often very funny. But it is unwieldy and uneven. Brendon arranges his impressionistic chronicle in chapters dealing with the individual Great Powers, so the relationships, chronological and otherwise, among events in the different countries can be difficult to discern. The Dark Valley's accounts of the terror famine in the Ukraine and the Nazis' book burnings are harrowing and exact, but only a careful reader will recognize that these two horrors were occurring simultaneously, along with Franklin Roosevelt's hundred-day flurry of New Deal legislation. Surprisingly, for a British historian who has previously written exclusively about Englishmen and Americans, Brendon's most trenchant and vivid accounts are of events and settings outside his field of expertise -- Bukharin's trial and the decadent cosmopolitanism of Shanghai, for example. His depiction of the United States is a rehash of histories of the New Deal and American popular culture. And his account of Britain's appeasement policy is simplistic: Brendon, who also serves as the keeper of the Churchill archives, divides the actors in that drama into craven fools on one side and Churchill, the omniscient and indomitable hero, on the other. In doing so he virtually ignores the past thirty years of scholarship on this subject -- which, while not exonerating the appeasers, reminds us of the terrible quandary facing statesmen in London as they sought to protect Britain's far-flung global interests (threatened by three aggressors in three theaters) with extremely limited financial and military means. Still, although Brendon's history sometimes lacks nuance and focus, he paints his panorama with verve and authority. A generation that has never heard of Joachim von Ribbentrop, let alone Pierre Laval (Time's 1931 Man of the Year!), and that was told that Newt Gingrich's "Republican revolution" was a truly world-historical event, could find few better renditions of a decade when all the great questions had yet to be settled.

Peter Martin has written the best biography of the greatest biographer in the English language. James Boswell was a literary idiot savant: to Carlyle's verdict -- an "inflated, gluttonous creature" -- should be added the qualities vain, buffoonish, dissolute, snobbish, and narcissistic (Samuel Johnson complained, "You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I'm sick of both"). But Martin illuminates how Boswell's often lovable faults served his peculiar genius. Boswell's exasperating peskiness, for instance, helped make him an extraordinary character portraitist and chronicler of his age. He obsessively hunted celebrities and shamelessly intruded on them. He stalked -- and charmed -- Hume, Garrick, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Voltaire, Rousseau (onto whom, as Martin recounts in a funny, incredible chapter, he managed to glom for days, and with whose mistress he even had an affair), and, of course, his great catch, Johnson. Linked with what Martin persuasively describes as Boswell's manic depression was his womanizing of Clintonian dimensions, a subject that Martin treats in far greater detail than did Boswell's earlier biographers -- appropriately, given what could fairly be described as Boswell's sex addiction and the attention he lavished on it in his journals. One of the many virtues of Martin's work is his successful synthesis of Boswell's life story with a keen analysis of Boswell's artistry -- a rare virtue in contemporary literary biographies. This is a delightful, intelligent, authoritative book.

It turns out that Jay Wright, an African-American poet from New Mexico, has been writing impassioned and lucid poetry for more than thirty years. Adept at narrative, at visionary celebration, at the imagery and symbolism of half a dozen cultures from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the United States, these poems range in multiple voices through history and over several continents, dwelling on a sense of place and striving toward cultural self-definition. Unlike most other contemporary African-American poets, Wright draws for his figures not on the inner city but, rather, on sense-impressions from nature; he relies on language "bodied in the deep ground / of my tongue's impossible passage / through the ill-defined logic / of my body's exaltation." This immense work also exalts and celebrates the multicultural heritage of the American Southwest, usually in sweeping language. Sometimes, however, Wright descends to a sweetly memorable scale: "Invite me, woman, / to the music of your middle." At present he is living in Vermont.

Illustration by Anthony Freda.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Short Reviews - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 120-122.