New & Noteworthy
What to read this month
The Argentina Reader
edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo
by Peter Ackroyd
Vintage UK/Trafalgar Square
No book can be more wearisome than a collection of old reviews, but this one is an exception, and Ackroyd's volume should be put on the shelf with V. S. Pritchett's and Cyril Connolly's critical works. A novelist, a historian, a biographer, and a critic, Ackroyd has an intelligence at once astringent and subtle, and there seems to be no English writer that he has not only read but also assimilated. This gives his criticism a rare historical authority. Sure, read him on such European and American writers as Baudelaire, Calvino, Walter Benjamin, and Edward Dorn—and read him for his biting asides ("[Susan] Sontag refers on occasions to 'strategies of discourse', by which she means 'the way people write'"). But above all read him on Spenser and Philip Larkin, on Shakespeare and Auden, on Samuel Johnson and Blake, on Macaulay and Milton and Woolf and Coleridge and Dickens. Exquisitely sensitive to the complex dialogue among writers across the centuries, and to the history embedded in the English language, Ackroyd conveys more naturally, and therefore more effectively, than any other critic a sense of English literature as an organic whole—as "an everlasting animal" (to quote Orwell on English culture) "stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same."
by Diana Athill
Athill, now eighty-five, was once regarded as the best editor of literary fiction in London. This memoir of her "very English childhood"—an upper-middle-class country upbringing, with ponies, books (and a grandmother to read them aloud), kind servants, and impromptu plays in the drawing room—is idyllic without nostalgia or sentiment, owing largely to Athill's nearly pathological honesty. As a child she wondered, "Am I ever going to get away from this awful self-awareness?," and she spares herself no unpleasant truths about her character, conduct, or (the memoir is framed in the present) physical decline. Especially sharp yet sympathetic is her depiction of her parents' sad and eventually sexless marriage, their endless bickering, and the emotional effects this had on her and her brother. Athill recognizes the limitations of her parents and of the milieu in which she was raised, but from her decent, stiff-upper-lipped elders, who detested lying and who made her accept "without question" certain responsibilities to animals, spring her fearless—heedless—candor and her grit and sense of duty (which, she recounts in a memorable passage, she summoned as a girl to put a suffering hedgehog out of its misery—an act she recalls with residual horror and justifiable pride). I read this book when a pre-publication copy arrived a few months ago, and had decided not to review it (how many English writers can we cover?). But I've found myself unable to forget this gracefully written, clear-eyed, and beguiling reminiscence.
by Sybille Bedford
Ivan R. Dee
Although the acerbic wit of Huxley's early novels—Antic Hay, Crome Yellow, and Point Counter Point—rivals Waugh's, and although his range and depth as an essayist are breathtaking, his artistic stature doesn't merit a nearly 800-page biography. Which makes Bedford's achievement all the more astonishing. Her book, first published in 1973 and recently reissued, is one of the great literary portraits of the past fifty years—and next to it the forthcoming and perfectly adequate Huxley biography by Nicholas Murray seems superfluous. Rarely can a doorstop biography be described as elegant; an accumulation of quotidian detail almost inevitably bloats and clogs the work. But Bedford (now ninety-one), a cosmopolitan and stylish novelist, maintains a sophisticated and coolly ironic tone (aided by her decision to divide her very long study into many very short chapters) throughout her chronicle. Not only did Huxley—whom Bedford nicely characterizes as "an evolved Victorian Englishman at home in the second part of the twentieth century, at home in Southern California"—know everything, he knew everybody, from Orwell (who as a fellow schoolboy at Eton was entranced by Huxley's diction) to Charlie Chaplin. Certainly Bedford deftly captures Huxley's multi-faceted mind and world (the two writers were close friends), but what makes her work so singularly absorbing is the complete sympathy she somehow pairs with her characteristic detachment.
The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
edited by Gary E. Moulton,
University of Nebraska Press
Numerous writers have recounted the tale of Lewis and Clark's epic exploration of the American West, but the explorers themselves wrote by far the most mesmerizing account. The seven volumes of their journals—written (especially Lewis's) in an elegantly forceful and direct style—and those of the enlisted men of the Corps of Discovery, which make up another three volumes, describe the vast herds of bison on the plains; the ordeal of crossing the Lolo Pass; the awesome sight of the Columbia River gorge and of the vast Pacific; and the tense and intricate interactions between the explorers and Native Americans. These books, in short, make up probably the single greatest adventure story in American history. But more important, they are the apogee of the American Enlightenment, cataloguing and analyzing information and discoveries embracing geography, botany, zoology, astronomy, geology, ethnography, linguistics, and meteorology—and they are thus a memorial to the expedition's sponsor, Thomas Jefferson. It took nearly two centuries to publish a definitive edition of the journals: the hardcover set was completed in 2001. Meticulously edited, with detailed (and absolutely necessary) footnotes, these volumes are a triumph of scholarly publishing. A more affordable ten-volume paperback edition will be published in March, as will a single-volume abridgement by the series' editor, capturing the dramatic story of the Corps's journey through the unknown third of the continent more vividly than the capacious journals, which perforce dwell at length on scientific and geographical details. One version or another belongs on most readers' shelves—and should accompany any road trip through the West.
by Willard Sterne Randall
Americans lack a great biography of their most brilliant, far-seeing, and dashing Founder, Alexander Hamilton. (This is especially annoying given that even John Adams's effete and neurasthenic great-grandson Henry has been granted not one but two exceptional multi-volume studies.) If, as Progressive historians would have it, American politics was for a century a struggle between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, Hamilton's vision of America triumphed long ago. In his Report on the Public Credit and Report on the Subject of Manufactures he did nothing less than limn America's capitalist development; and of course the Federalist Papers (of which his essays form the bulk) constitutes America's most original contribution to political theory. In short, it is impossible to understand this country without apprehending Hamilton. But the contrast between Hamilton's éclat and the plodding products of his biographers—Forrest McDonald's highly intelligent and lucid, if eccentric, Alexander Hamilton (1979) excepted—has been conspicuous. Sadly, Randall's book, flabby and bereft of analysis, fails to break the mold. For a full-scale examination of Hamilton's history and ideas readers should turn to McDonald; but the best portrait of him can be found in Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's magisterial and scintillating The Age of Federalism (1993), a somewhat overlooked masterpiece.
by Patrick Dillon
Justin, Charles & Co.
This harrowing chronicle of England's early-eighteenth-century "gin craze" portrays a society in the grip of an epidemic. Cheap, highly addictive, and deadly, "Madame Geneva," as the drink was called, offered comfort and oblivion to London's slum dwellers ("kill grief" was another of its many nicknames), but the middle and upper classes also succumbed to it. The results were catastrophic—the number of cases of fetal alcohol syndrome alone had to have been appalling. This is the second book in the past year on the subject, and it just edges out Jessica Warner's Craze. Dillon's overheated prose suits this tale of mania, particularly in his depiction of the chaotic London underworld, which is more absorbing than his well-researched and involved account of the often venal (no surprise) efforts to control, regulate, or prohibit the drink. Far less successful is his epilogue, in which he draws facile and anachronistic parallels between those efforts on the one hand, and American Prohibition and the war on drugs on the other. Will historians please stop tacking on superficial and "relevant"—and, inevitably, "progressive"—public-policy lessons that mar their careful reconstructions of the past, a notoriously foreign country?
U.S. National Defense for the Twenty-First Century
by Edward A. Olsen
Almost all books on U.S. foreign policy are jejune, and they fall into two categories: bland recitations of the conventional wisdom (invariably employing the oxymoronic formula that America must maintain its global leadership in "partnership" with its NATO allies), and the blathering of such dissenters as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. The latter group has sold surprisingly briskly since 9/11; presumably readers (especially on college campuses) are searching for a real debate about America's role in the world. But neither Chomsky nor Vidal—both of whose shibboleths have grown as stale as those presented at any Council on Foreign Relations study group—is intellectually honest or precise enough to supply a rigorous contrarian argument. Olsen is. His detailed analysis and proposals are important and fresh—radical, in fact. A former State Department intelligence analyst, he cogently argues that in foreign policy less is more: America's security will be enhanced if the United States forsakes its hegemonic ambitions and the globe-girdling alliances that accompany them. And although he advocates an aggressive campaign against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, Olsen sensibly enough points out (in, alas, typically wooden prose) that "the lower the United States' interventionist military profile abroad, the less the risks will be of attracting terrorists." After all, although both Democratic and Republican leaders orate that terrorists hate us for our freedoms and values, such states as New Zealand and Luxembourg share those freedoms and values yet aren't targets of al Qaeda. Those looking for forceful dissent and a genuine alternative to the foreign-policy status quo should eschew the slim, angry, and slipshod books published by Verso and the New Press and instead examine Olsen's unsentimental non-interventionism.
The Russia Hand
by Strobe Talbott
Why do books like this get published? Unimaginative and ambitious, Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton Administration and the primary architect of its policy toward Russia, has for decades been an assiduous Washington operator and an unwavering espouser of the establishment position. These memoirs are, predictably, self-important, unrevealing, and self-serving—and the accounts they contain of the two most important issues involving Russia during the Clinton years, NATO enlargement and the alliance's war against Yugoslavia, are so disingenuous and selective that they're misleading almost to the point of dishonesty. To appreciate its shallowness, compare this book with the gracefully brilliant, skeptical, and probing memoirs of another Russia hand (and an opponent of Talbott's NATO policy): George F. Kennan.
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