Posts Tagged ‘new york review of books


Between the covers: Forewords and Afterwords – W.H. Auden

Forewords and Afterwords by W.H. Auden

A collection of essays about literature, Forewords and Afterwords is a nice collection of reviews, forewords and such but it suffers from a lack of context, not to mention age.

Today, Auden’s remembered mostly as a poet (when he’s remembered at all, anyway), but during his lifetime he was a voluminous writer and lecturer. He translated, wrote librettos and taught at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. And he wrote a lot for the trades, too.

These are generally what comprises Forewords and Afterwords. It’s generally taken from the last decade of Auden’s life, when he wrote short book reviews for slicks like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere. In these, he generally lays down his ideas on prose, what a biographer should include (or ignore) and the perils of translation.

Some of his ideas are interesting, if a bit odd. He doesn’t just think writers should have biographies written about them, he suggests most writers would gladly publish anonymously to stay out of the spotlight. Likewise, he draws a thick line between private and public life and what a biographer should cover.

For example, Auden writes that Charles Dickens’ disastrous marriage doesn’t offer any light on his novels, so why should it be reported. Elsewhere, he says reading correspondence between people after their death is no better than sneaking a peek at their letters when they’re out of the room. I wonder what he made of James Joyce’s infamous love letters, let alone their publication.

Of course, he has no problem bending his own rules when it comes to a book he likes, like a biography of Alexander Pope. One wonders if his own messy private life –  Auden was openly gay but proposed marriage to several women, notably Hannah Arendt – is simply why he holds this opinion. He certainly didn’t like his dirty poems getting published!

Elsewhere, he betrays an attitude that’s either intentionally cantankerous or just reflective of snobby taste. When reviewing Lincoln Kerstein’s long-forgotten book of poetry Rhymes of a PFC, he calls it the best book he’s read about World War II, slighting books like Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and more.

Still, at times, he writes with force, particularly on religious matters. I especially liked his line when reviewing a science book through his devout Episcopalian beliefs:

“If… it is a statistical impossibility that I should be walking the Earth instead of a million other people, I can only think of it as a miracle I must do my best to deserve.”

The forewords collected in this book are also interesting snapshots of their time they were written: his take on Shakespeare’s sonnets is wildly different than other writers: not only is he uninterested in their subject and circumstances, he casually dismisses several of them:

“Going through the hundred and fifty-four of them, I can find forty-nine which seem to me excellent throughout, a good number of the rest have one or two memorable lines but there are also several which I can only read out of a sense of duty.”

Of course, he makes the interesting observation of their publication: did Shakespeare intend for them to be made public? And if not, was publishing them after his death tantamount to betraying his privacy? It’s an interesting take on someone who’s writing an introduction to a collection of them. And questions Auden poses again and again.

I suppose the great flaw of a collection like this also works as one of it’s virtues: by this time, so many of these books have fallen out of print and into obscurity that reading about them has the duel effect of spotlighting something impossible to find.

Another example: he praises a collection of writing by Russian author Konstantin Leontiev called Against the Current. The book he praises is long out of print and goes for a pretty penny on sites like Amazon. And Leontiev himself has fallen basically into the abyss; I don’t think any collection of his writing is in print at all. Reading about Leontiev raises his profile a bit, but it’s also like reading about music you can’t hear or a painting you can’t see: you’re trusting the critic to portray something you’ll likely never encounter. And, as shown above, Auden was somewhat problematic in his opinions, so that trust is only grudgingly given – if at all.

Despite his contrariness and desire for privacy, some of the books most interesting passages come when he interjects his own life into his reviews, comparing his upbringing to that of Evelyn Waugh, outlining his family history or the importance of reading Greek in prep school. He never would’ve written an autobiography – even when he writes of himself, it’s hard not to feel a shade being drawn over his past – but when he shows a little of himself, his reviews shine.

In all, a bit of a mixed bag: some of the introductions and reviews are interesting, especially if you’re familiar with the books or authors involved. He certainly convinced me to look more into Goethe and Henry Mayhew’s books. But elsewhere, the reviews lack interest to someone in 2015. After all, it’s hard to convince anyone to read a book these days; it’s harder still to convince them on something published nearly 40 years ago.

Rating: 5/10. Interesting to literary snobs and Auden fans. And occasionally, his prose shines – and makes me curious in reading The Dyer’s Hand, not to mention any other collection of his as-yet uncollected nonfiction – but not enough for me to recommend.


A Revisionist History of Ancient Greece: Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series)The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

If you’ve read my reviews here for any length, you’ll know I’m a sucker for Ancient History. I’ve read everything from Aesop to Tacitus, histories to poetry. But if I had to choose one that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’d probably be the Fagles and Knox translation of The Odyssey: not only is it presented in a great translation with a ton of notes and context, but it’s just a blast to read.

But truthfully, part of that enjoyment came on a recent re-read, which I did on the urging of another book I recently picked up by the late Homeric scholar Moses Finley: The World of Odysseus, which was recently republished by The New York Review of Books with an introduction by Knox.

A clear, concise and fascinating look at the world of Ancient Greece,  Finley’s The World of Odysseus busts a myths about two of the most famous stories to emerge from the ancient world and lays out a clear vision of how Finley thinks things were nearly 3,000 years ago.

On the surface, it sounds like one of two things: dull, full of academic jargon and of little interest to the average person, or full of supposition and guesswork. Surprisingly, it’s neither of them. Finley supports his opinions with careful readings of Homer, opposing them against other Ancient Greeks (Hesiod, generally), and with the support of our knowledge of oral epics in other cultures and other ancient societies. And the way he does it, carefully laying out an opinion and explaining why how he reached it, never comes across as overly academic – or in a way that talks down to his readers.

In a nutshell, Finley lays out a thesis that neither The Iliad or The Odyssey have any real basis in fact: there may have been a Troy, but it certainly wasn’t subject to a ten-year siege, for example. And forget trying to chart Odysseus’ journey on a map: if Homer knew anything about geography, he didn’t leave it in his poem. He goes a step further, too, explaining customs between city-states (finally, a good explanation for the gift-giving!), between a king and his community and man and the gods.

Two examples to show the simple genius of Finley’s book. In one chapter, Finley points out the changing roles of Greek religion in Homer: the sun-god Helios, who you’d think would rank among the most powerful gods, has such little power he has to turn to  Zeus when Odysseus’ men eating his cattle. In another, he observes how oral histories of the Second World War have changed and been embellished in just a short period of time; based on that, how could one reasonably think a history told over hundreds of years, in many oral forms, could retain anything but a grain of truth?

Finley’s book is packed with interesting observations like that. It breaks down myths and misperceptions, trashes naive and lazy assumptions by historians and archaeologists. It came just as the Linear B tablets were discovered and just before they were decoded; once they were and the idea that one might find Ajax’s receipts was destroyed, Finley’s controversial takes were finally accepted. Looking back, it’s a wonder anyone thought otherwise.

Rating: 7/10. It’s a short read, but one that’s remarkably full of insight, lucidly presented. People who know The Odyssey in depth will have things to chew on here, but so will newcomers. It’s a scholarly text that reads like a popular history. Recommended!


Swords, Ships and Jokes: Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships

The Long Ships

A wild ride through Europe c. 1000 AD, Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships is something of an overlooked classic. It’s got everything you’d want from a fun summer read: wild brawls, romance and quests for missing brides, hidden treasure and a sly sense of humour to boot.

The story follows Red Orm, the youngest of a family of Vikings in tenth century Scandinavia. Stolen aboard a Viking ship at 13, he quickly becomes friends with the crew and goes off on a journey that takes him as far abroad as Spain. Before long, he’s roaming through Europe and into the courts of Kings and Caliphs before fighting his way back with a ragtag crew. Later, he takes part in the defeat of an English army, gets wealthy, becomes a rather casual Christian and falls for a princess.

And that’s just in the first third of this book; it only gets wilder from there: a giant gathering of Scandinavians in the wilderness; a corrupt and maniacal, sex-crazed ex-priest and his band of evildoers; a secret stash of Byzantine gold hidden in a series of weirs and more fighting and pillaging than you could shake a sword at.

But like I said above, what really sets this book apart is Bengtsson’s sense of humour. What could be a simple paint-by-numbers historical novel comes alive thanks to that: the characters feel much more complete, never taking themselves too seriously. My favourite part is a recollection of a wedding where an argument over a horse deal erupts and things go crazy:

“However, when the bride… saw her uncle’s eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom’s kinsmen, she has seized a torch from the wall and the the bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids, with great presence of mind,  had forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death; so this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden…” (pg 133)

This sense of humour’s constantly there through the book. Orm is inordinately lucky, surviving a number of misfortunes, but he’s constantly wary of doing anything. His friend Toke is fond of breaking into verse when slashing people with his sword and even fonder of getting drunk afterward. Bentsson’s ironical sense of humour works wonders here, keeping the book from taking itself too seriously and giving readers a break from the also-unrelenting violence. It would’ve been easy for The Long Ships to fall into the potboiler trap of being nothing more than a series of Viking fights, catering to people who think the Sagas start and end with Thor. It’s to Bentsson’s credit that his sense of humour makes Orm, Toke and the others come alive here.

NYRB’s edition has a few maps, which are nice, and an introduction by Michael Chabon, which is well-meaning but doesn’t really add anything; “It’s a great book,” he says, over and over. I appreciate the sentiment and agree with him, but it’s easily skipped over. The translation by Michael Meyer is good, although it’s a little oddly formal-seeming sometimes (see all the passive voice in the above quote).

Rating: 9/10.  If you’re at all into historical fiction, Icelandic Sagas or even stuff like Game of Thrones, you’ll love this. It’s swordfights, jokes, plundering and more. Recommended.