m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A P R I L   1 9 9 5

Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

Marie Curie

by Susan Quinn.

Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30.00.

A life of quick and easy success (unless that success is followed by tragedy) gives a biographer little dramatic material with which to compel a reader's attention. Ms. Quinn has no such problem. Maria Sklodowska was a Pole, born under the Tsarist tyranny, with a background of minor aristocrats and occasional revolutionaries. Because her immediate family had no money for advanced schooling, she worked for some years as a governess to support her sister's studies in France. When Marie herself reached Paris, she made quick progress to a degree, married Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist, and set about examining certain oddities arising from the discovery of x-rays. She detected, and isolated, radium. In summary it looks easy, but it was not. The governess job was hard work and led to a disappointing love affair with the son of one of her employers. Her student days in Paris were spent in cashless hard study. Her marriage to Curie was a happy union of interests, temperaments, and productive research, but rewards came slowly. Curie had not attended the right schools--an important matter given the old-boy nature of the Academie des sciences--and Marie was (horrors!) a woman and not even French. She was not permitted to present reports of her discoveries in person. Her husband had to do it, although for the most part he had little to do with her work beyond contriving lab space and equipment. Even in her honored old age she was suspected by some male bigots of being a fraud riding on her dead husband's achievements. Ms. Quinn's admirable biography demonstrates that she was far from a fraud. It presents a woman of great intelligence and enormous power of concentration, whose normally gentle and almost timid manner masked strong emotions and fierce determination. It also masked--imperfectly--a normal capacity for erotic indiscretion and professional severity. Madame Curie emerges here as an agreeably human genius.

Modern Japanese Diaries

by Donald Keene.

Holt, 544 pages, $50.00.

Professor Keene has selected quotations from the diaries of Japanese travelers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, adding commentaries explaining who the diarists were and why they went where they did. The material will be of interest to students of Japanese cultural history. To other readers, it will prove that most Japanese resemble travelers of other nationalities, being distressed by unfamiliar food, bewildered by strange furniture and plumbing, and astounded by barbarous customs.

Thomas Mann

by Ronald Hayman.

Scribner, 512 pages, $35.00.

The papers that the novelist ordered sealed until twenty years after his death have become available to Mr. Hayman for this biography, which is the kind commonly referred to as monumental. Monuments are normally large and impressive, but they are not lively. The term is appropriate, for vivacity is not among Mr. Hayman's skills and probably not among his intentions. He has included every discoverable fact of Mann's life, whether meaningful or not. The principal revelation of those sealed papers is that until he married, in his late twenties, Mann had only homosexual loves, and all his life he was intensely attracted to handsome young men--although his determination to appear, as well as to be, a great writer, and eventually a moral force for the preservation of what he considered truly German ideals, seems to have deterred him from acting on such attractions. A full account of an artist's life must always be considered valuable, but it does not necessarily alter the merit or meaning of his work, much less explain his ability to do that work. Admirers of Mann's fiction will find no reason in this extremely detailed biography to shift their ground.

Endangered Pleasures

by Barbara Holland.

Little, Brown, 192 pages, $18.45.

Ms. Holland's amusing essays defend "Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences," and do it well. Her basic enemy is what she sees as overextension of the work ethic--a state of mind linking taxes to morality, "by which everything that produces taxable income is fine with us; losing your shirt at Las Vegas or Pimlico is unfortunate but morally okay; losing it at the Saturday-night poker game is wicked, because the winners won't be telling the IRS." The pleasures Ms. Holland celebrates produce no taxable income, and she is fair about her selection. There are, she points out, "those who disapprove of idleness, gin rummy, slang, song, unauthorized sex, naps, socialism, and jacuzzis for moral reasons. They enjoy it; moral indignation is a pleasure, often the only pleasure, in many lives. It's also one of the few pleasures people feel obliged to force on other people." Ms. Holland is not trying to force pleasures on anyone. She merely reminds us that many are there for the taking.

A Small City in France

by Francoise Gaspard, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.

Harvard, 208 pages, $32.50/$15.95.

The town of Dreux, sixty miles west of Paris and once a place where little ever happened, attracted attention in 1983 because the neo-fascist National Front party won a local election, ousting the socialist mayor, Francoise Gaspard. Her account of the affair is a level-headed analysis of the conditions that led to the victory of the extreme right wing: the rapid development and industrialization of a previously self-contained, semi-rural area, heavy immigration of foreign workers, an unintentional division of the city into isolated ethnic enclaves, and the collapse of the national economy, which left people of all classes and origins frightened at best and unemployed at worst. This intelligently constructed book is not the apologia of a defeated politician. It is an ethnographic and social history of more than French importance, for the problems of accelerated growth and abrupt decline which the author describes are international.

Poems of Ambrose Bierce

edited and introduced by M. E. Grenander.

University of Nebraska, 240 pages, $35.00.

Ambrose, nicknamed Bitter, Bierce did not consider himself a poet, and, Ms. Grenander's appreciative introduction notwithstanding, he was right. He was, however, an adroit writer of satirical verses savaging "railrogues," hypocritical priests and patriots, devious lawyers, and crooked politicians. (Like his contemporary Mark Twain, he would have considered that last adjective redundant.) He foresaw a time when

"Red-handed murder rioted; and there

The people gathered gold, nor cared to loose

The assassin's fingers from the victim's throat,

But said, each in his vile pursuit engrossed:

'Am I my brother's keeper? Let the Law

Look to the matter.' But the Law did not."

Bierce fought for the Union at the start of his adult life, and the subsequent rise of Jim Crowism led him to complain, "I know what uniform I wore-- / O, that Iknew which side I fought for!" He died in Mexico, observing Pancho Villa's forces in another civil war, after a lifetime of varied, cantankerous, sharp-witted journalism. He wrote soundly--in prose--on literary matters; several such pieces are usefully included in this collection. Ms. Grenander is reasonable in requesting that Bierce be remembered for more than that invaluable work The Devil's Dictionary.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture