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Return to the February 1998 Table of Contents
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

No Laughing Matter

by Anthony Cronin. Fromm,
272 pages, $29.95.

Brian O'Nolan (alias Nolan, O Nualláin, Ua Nualláin, Brother Barnabas, Flann O'Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, and so many other "pseudonymous personalities" created "in the interests of pure destruction" that his biographer gives up counting them) was born in 1911 in Strabane, Ireland. He therefore belonged to the generation of Irish writers who operated in the afterglow of the Celtic revival and under the albatrossian shadow of James Joyce. As O'Nolan, he was an able civil servant supporting a widowed mother, two jobless older brothers, nine younger siblings, and the large house in which his father had kept his Gaelic-speaking clan in comfort. As Barnabas, O'Nolan was an undergraduate prankster and literary leader. As Flann, he was the author of the splendidly comic innovative novel At Swim-Two-Birds. As Myles, he wrote an amusingly testy column for the Irish Times, complaining of almost everything in sight. As the rest of the crowd, he wrote provocative letters to editors, which was not an unusual diversion for a Dublin literary man. Mr. Cronin is a Dublin literary man himself, and his description of the world that surrounded his cantankerous subject -- of authors, critics, journalists, and people who had had a play rejected by the Abbey -- has a delightful authenticity. As a young admirer of O'Nolan, he knew that set. On one occasion O'Nolan, despite his perpetual exasperation at being tagged a follower of Joyce, organized a memorial tribute to "the great exile." Friends representing the characters in Ulysses were to follow Bloom's daylong route in two "growlers." Mr. Cronin represented the young poet. The expedition was launched in disorder and foundered in a pub along the way, but clearly it was a fine affair while it lasted. It was also, in an oblique way, prophetic. O'Nolan can be said to have foundered in a number of pubs, and did not live to enjoy the international esteem in which he is now held. Mr. Cronin has recorded his man with sympathy and shrewdness and has re-created his time and place so vividly that one can fairly smell the whiskey.
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Borrowed Ware

translated by Dick Davis.
Mage, 203 pages, $24.95.

Mr. Davis has put what he calls "Medieval Persian Epigrams" into easy, idiomatic English and provided an engaging introduction to the Persian world and an explanation of the code words that might otherwise puzzle modern readers. These authors were court poets, highly valued and well rewarded for wit, elegance, and a light touch. Originality of theme was not necessary, but there are surprises among the lovers' laments and financial complaints. Jahan Khatun, one of the few women poets, considered erotic reform but decided to "renounce renunciations." (A contemporary accused her of being a prostitute, but Mr. Davis points out that he "said this kind of thing" about everybody.) Vahshi requests,
Sweet breeze, inform my noble
lord from me
That panegyrics are what I excel at,
And if he gets obstreperous and rude,
Say satire's also something I do
well at.
The poems are faced by versions in Persian script, making the collection pretty as well as amusing.

The House Gun

by Nadine Gordimer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
256 pages, $24.00.

The social or political implications of Ms. Gordimer's novels are usually just that -- implications underlying an interesting story. In this case the basic question -- Does a violent society provoke violence in nonviolent individuals? -- is brought to the surface and debated (at wearisome length, to be honest about it) in a murder trial. The novel's major characters are the parents of the killer, a prosperous, quietly liberal white couple who hire an expert black lawyer to defend the son about whose life they knew almost nothing until he shot a former lover with "the house gun," which is standard domestic equipment in South Africa. Ms. Gordimer's exploration of racial and generational differences is subtle, but the position of the parents as helpless bystanders in the legal process deprives the book of much of the narrative drive that this fine author normally provides.


by Anita Brookner.
Random House, 256 pages,

Ms. Brookner's latest novel follows what has become virtually a formula for this author. A loner leading a life of boring routine is jolted out of the rut by an unexpected force. The loner in this instance is a widow whose contact with the human race has been reduced to her late husband's female cousins and their spouses. These people are all seventy or so; they have nothing to worry about but their health, and nothing to do but decide where to spend the August holidays. When an American-raised granddaughter insists that she be married in England, the poor old coots react as though the sky had fallen on them. That the American invasion does them all good comes as no surprise. A touch of salvation is part of the formula.

Baule: African Art
Western Eyes

by Susan Mullin Vogel.
Yale, 312 pages, $65.00.

Ms. Vogel is an authority on African art whose present book concentrates on the Baule of the Ivory Coast, whom she has studied for more than twenty-five years. Baule masks and sculpture have considerably influenced European artists, although the Baule themselves do not acknowledge "art." They have "things" -- objects endowed with meaning and capable of exercising power. If those things happen to be beautiful, so much the better -- like fine frosting on a cake. Ms. Vogel explains this African perception as well, probably, as it can be explained to a Western audience, and in doing so provides an extensive and very interesting description of Baule society and of the people she knows and has worked with. The illustrations are magnificent and include dances, ceremonies, shrines, and scenes of everyday life, all well annotated.

Intimate Encounters

by Richard Rand.
Princeton, 220 pages,

Mr. Rand has been assisted by Juliette M. Bianco and four contributors of essays in the creation of this survey of genre painting depicting "Love and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century France." The paintings, with the exception of Watteau's ambiguous fantasies and Chardin's understated views of middle-class life, are brilliantly colorful scenes of flirtation, seduction, and peeping-Tommery. The critics of the time, quoted at length, complained of the "feminization" of painting. Female authors unconnected with painting complained discreetly of their limited rights. There was a lively market for prints. These matters are earnestly reported by the scholarly contributors to the overall text. There is no information from the patrons who actually bought these cheerful works instead of the sober historical and religious paintings favored by the critics. One would like to know what those cash customers thought when they made their choices.


essay by Donald Kuspit. Abrams,
344 pages, $60.00.

The fantastic, sometimes alarming glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly are lavishly and beautifully photographed in this enchanting display of his work, and rewardingly discussed by Mr. Kuspit. Biographical information and location of the works are included.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Making the Corps by Thomas E. Ricks. Scribner, 320 pages, $24.00. A portion of this book appeared in somewhat different form as "The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society," in the July, 1997, Atlantic.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 104-106.

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