Posts Tagged ‘vintage books

06
Jan
15

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.

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13
May
14

Into the White House: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4)The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s massive Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power is shorter in scope than any of previous three books but looks at one of the most crucial periods of Johnson’s life: 1960-63.

The book opens with Johnson as majority leader in the Senate and arguably one of the most powerful politicians in the US. As the 1960 election rolls around, Johnson goes from front-runner to also ran, his indecision (Caro suggests it’s a fear of failure and humiliation) costing him as John Kennedy builds an insurmountable lead, both in the polls and in on-the-ground campaigning. Johnson eventually swings in, but far too late to make a real impact. In one of the most interesting sections of Caro’s books, he explains the backroom talks between JFK and Johnson, mostly conducted in a hotel room, that led to two bitter opponents sharing the same presidential ticket – the bitter feud between Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

That dispute, which got more and more bitter as the years go by, runs throughout this book. First RFK has the upper hand: as vice-president, Johnson’s role was largely ceremonial and RFK took every opportunity to embarrass and diminish Johnson. Caro takes you inside meetings and strategy sessions where Johnson wasn’t just mocked to his face (like the time a staffer told him to shut up and walked away) but wasn’t even consulted. Caro’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, is shocking: not just in how little attention was paid to Johnson – he wasn’t even present for the definitive meeting – but for Johnson’s brunt, warhawk approach. It’s an attitude I’m sure you’ll see more of in the next volume.

The book turns on a dime in November 1963. There was a scandal around Johnson protegé Bobby Baker and a building investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. And Kennedy was thinking of dropping him in the 1964 election: Caro makes a convincing case that Johnson’s career was rapidly approaching its end.

The drama builds to a fever pitch when Kennedy and Johnson go to Texas; I’m sure you know what happened next. In a detailed look at that day, Caro never takes his focus away from Johnson: he follows him in the car to the hospital, into a cubicle where he awaited the news and eventually to Air Force One, where he took the oath of office. It’s all explained in amazing detail, right down to why he chose a specific judge, where the photographers stood, even how it felt inside the airplane (and why!). This intense focus shows a different side than the one I’m used to seeing and Caro never gets overwhelmed by the day’s events, even as he lays them out like a documentary filmmaker.

The back half of the book focuses on the next few weeks: how Johnson kept the White House together and provided a smooth transition; how he worked his legislative charm to pass critical bills (the budget, a tax cut, the 1964 civil rights act) in a Senate determined to filibuster to death; how he made his own stamp on the presidency. Caro suggests Johnson’s role here kept things from getting out of hand: a lesser personality would have seen those bills stuck to die in the Senate, could have seen the White House lose confidence of the masses and – most interestingly, if rather speculative – from any military action starting between the US and Cuba.  He also makes an interesting case: could Kennedy have actually passed the same bills? Would be have turned to Johnson – or, for that matter, would Johnson have risen to the occasion?

Despite the short period this book covers, it’s as fascinating and detailed as any of the three previous. While at times the narrative starts to lag and the vice presidential years feel a little rushed over, once Caro gets into the meat of Johnson-as-President, the book takes on a new energy, attempting to prove the line that echoes throughout all of Caro’s four LBJ books: Power reveals. And Caro makes a good case that the Johnson who rocketed to prominence in this book is the real guy, capable both of The Great Society and the Vietnam War.

But how much credit does LBJ deserve? Caro makes a convincing case for Johnson as the driving force behind the civil rights act, but it’s been argued Caro gives him too much credit at the expense of men like Everett McKinley Dirksen or Mike Mansfield who played just as large a role in the Senate, a chamber inclined to resist presidential pressure.

Rating: 8/10. Not the best single individual volume – the third is hard to beat for it’s massive scope and distillation into a highly readable volume and the Senate election in the second is as wild as anything in all four – but it’s essential for anyone who enjoys biographies. As a whole, Caro’s books are the gold standard. Recommended!

Related: Rising to Power -Master of the Senate

Related: The War Years – Means of Ascent

Related: Portrait of the President as a Young Man – Path to Power

01
Apr
14

A Portrait Of The President As A Young Man: The Path to Power – Robert A. Caro

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, [#1])The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro

Down in the United States, they’re entering an election year. It’s one here too, with Rob Ford running for reelection against political heavyweights like Oliva Chow and John Tory. So lately I’ve had a hankering for a good political read; watching Game of Thrones and House of Cards kind of scratched that itch, but not in the way I wanted. So, instead, I turned to something I’ve meant to read for years: Robert Caro’s multi-volume (and still, as of this writing, uncompleted) biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Even with all the hype and praise around this series, I was still surprised by The Path to Power It’s not just a detailed, engrossing look at the 36th President’s early years, it isn’t just a top-notch biography, its a detailed look at the tricky, crooked and utterly fascinating world of Texas politics in the first half of the 20th century.

As Caro makes clear, this was a hard world to live in. There was complete poverty in the hill country where Johnson grew up; even in the 1930s, this rural community was without electricity and indoor plumbing. People washed clothing by hand in front of a roaring fire (gotta keep the water hot, not to mention the sad irons), even on summer’s hottest days. And, politically, it was even harder: campaigning was a lot of hard travel and was often against the big shots in the city. LBJ’s father tried his hand at it for a while; before long, he was crushed by the land, by the politics and eventually, by debt. LBJ made sure that wouldn’t happen to him.

It’s a long book, but even through 700 pages, it’s compelling, taking readers along for LBJ’s rapid ascent, showing the inner workings of a complicated, opportunistic and driven young man. Drive is the key word when describing the young Johnson: while he demanded a lot from his staff – Caro at one point mentions how Johnson drove one worker to several nervous breakdowns over the years – he also worked insane hours, especially when campaigning. And the campaigns are the backbone of this book: the long drives through desolate Texas back roads, walking through fields to meet with isolated farmers and the backroom dealing with oilmen, construction barons and other wealthy, influential men. As Caro makes clear, LBJ was not going to end up like his father.

One may think this was a more naive, simple era of politics, but in many ways it was even more cynical than ours. Johnson wasn’t shy with money,  scheming to buy billboards, to grease newspaper editors and to buy votes en masse. Everyone else did, too. Caro doesn’t shy away from this; if anything, he makes a 1941 senate campaign sound like two groups of influential millionaires trying to out-bribe the other; it ended when one group managed to buy more votes than the other. The reporting here is top-notch: he doesn’t just keep track of where the money’s going, he turns what could be a confusing jumble into a clear narrative.

And that’s maybe the best way to describe this thing in brief, too. Johnson’s early years were complicated and shaded in misdirection. Caro doesn’t just cut through Johnson’s embellishments, he makes the dry Texas hill country come alive. He starts with the years when settlers first arrived, runs through his father’s years in state politics and looks at LBJ’s student years, when he turned a loose social group into a political machine. And it goes beyond just Johnson, too: this book has fascinating portraits of other influential Texans like Sam Rayburn, the Kleberg family and W. Lee O’Daniel.

Rating: 9/10. Detailed, compelling and packing a hell of a punch, The Path to Power is a startling look at the 36th president. Political biographies don’t get better than this. Recommended.

04
Mar
14

Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Something Like an AutobiographySomething Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa (trans. by Audie E. Bock)

A short, entertaining and informative book by the iconic director, Something Like an Autobiography is a good read for anyone interested in Kurosawa’s films – provided they’re interested in the early years of his works.

Indeed, his book – which reads a little like the first volume of a two-volume set – only covers the years leading up to Rashomon, when Kurosawa exploded into international attention. Still, while the career it covers is comparatively short, it’s packed with information on his early life and early films that are still criminally overlooked.

As a filmmaker, his early period had some of his most audacious, angry movies. Stray Dog is a tense, nervous ride through the seedy, bombed-out ruins of post-war Japan, following a young detective (played by the one-and-only Toshiro Mifune) trying to track down his stolen sidearm. In lesser hands, it could’ve been a pulpy gangster flick, but between Kurosawa’s script and Mifune’s acting, it’s a landmark of Japanese movies: you can feel it’s influence in the Nikkatsu Noir set, consisting of movies released well over a decade later.

Also covered are Drunken Angel, an even darker ride through post-war Japan that follows a dying criminal and an alcoholic doctor, and the early samurai flick The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. As a source on these early films, not to mention on how he got started in making movies, Something Like An Autobiography in invaluable for fans.

But where it’s really fascinating is it’s look at his life away from movies: his relationship with his troubled older brother Heigo, the tragic earthquake of 1923 and his long friendship with Uekusa Keinosuke, who eventually became his writing partner on movies like Drunken Angel.

It’s a fascinating history: he battled Japanese censors during the war, American ones right after it and studio bosses throughout. And he’s frank, often holding himself accountable when something doesn’t come out as he planned – his movie Scandal comes to mind right away – and explains not only his ideas for how to film a movie, but how to work with actors and how important a strong script is. There’s a lot to chew on here: it’s part remembrance, part manifesto and part how-to-guide.

The only problem is how quickly this book wraps up: it ends right around the release of Rashomon, meaning some of his best films – Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru – aren’t discussed (and let’s not forget Dodes’ka-den, maybe his most personal movie). It’s too bad, I would have loved to hear him open up on his later classics.

Rating: 7/10. If you’re a fan of his works, this book is great and shows a new look into how his movies came about. It’s brevity aside, this lucid, honest and entertaining autobiography is good to have. Recommended.

 

03
Dec
13

Who is Sebastian Knight?

The Real Life of Sebastian KnightThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

A fun, if intentionally confusing book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a nice slice of vintage Nabokov. On the surface, it’s a farce of a detective story: the half-brother (known only by the last letter of his last name: “V.”) of a famous novelist tries to reconstruct a life and track down a mysterious women Knight had a disastrous affair with. And, of course, it quickly spirals out of control, with V. passing judgement on other writers, breaking down his brother’s prose and supplying lots and lots of conjecture.

With V., Nabokov plays around a lot with the idea of truth. The narrator of this book spends most of it insisting that everyone else got the story of his half-brother wrong, while being just twisted enough to seem like a convincing liar, like when he opens a chapter by saying:

“As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible. I have tried not to allude (though a hint now and then might have made the background of my research somewhat clearer).

Coming from the narrator of a book, it’s a curious statement. And like so much of what V. says throughout, it’s misleading at best.

By book’s end, it becomes a question of who exactly Knight is? And for that matter, who is his half-brother, who nobody’s ever heard of before? Who is the mysterious plainclothes cop that helps V. for no concrete reason? And why do so many people have names corresponding to chess pieces?

Here, Nabokov spends time poking fun at everything from literary critics to detective novels. It’s obtuseness makes it a little maddening sometimes, but it’s also pretty funny, too: the last scene made me laugh out loud. And like just about everything Nabokov wrote, it’s his language is gorgeous. It’s amazing to realize this was his first novel written entirely in English! Not to mention under stressing circumstances, with World War Two just on the horizon and a sudden flight to the United States shortly before it’s publication.

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s not one of the Big-And-Famous Nabokov novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight still a blast and probably makes a good starting place for people who feel daunted by Pale Fire, Lolita or The Gift. It’s clever, funny and will really make you think about what you’re reading. Plus, it’s likely the best novel ever written on the back of a bidet.

09
Sep
13

Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: Not Quite As Fun As the Real Thing

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by Samuel Pepys, mostly thanks to a twitter account that’s tweeting his diary line by line. The diary itself is a hell of a beast: it runs for several volumes, was written in shorthand and wasn’t published in full until the mid 1970s.

For about a decade, he kept a detailed diary of his day-to-day life: what plays he saw, what gossip he heard at work, what he did for pleasure and what was happening around him. He did it in an objective way, often writing about himself as just another character, exposing his flaws. It’s a fascinating look at turbulent time in English history.

Thing is, it’s a daunting read. You can get public domain editions for cheap for the Kindle, but they’re old and likely bowdlerized. There’s a few print editions, but they’re either edited down (Penguin’s edition runs over 1,000 pages, only covers a selection of the diary and is pricy to boot) or based off those older versions. And Oxford, who I usually turn when it comes to older English lit, doesn’t have an edition at all.

So with all that in mind, I turned another way to learn more about Pepys, to Claire Tomalin’s biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but I feel like there should be a better choice out there.

Her biography covers the life of Pepys, divided basically into three sections: before, during and after he wrote the diary. While we have a glut of information on the middle period (thanks to Pepys), details on the other two are a little spotty. Here’s where Tomalin’s biography works best: taking information from a huge range of sources and distilling them all into a cohesive whole, giving readers a clear narrative of how the son of a poor tailor rose to a position of power and riches in Restoration-era England.

And even here, there are still problems. For example, we don’t know how Pepys met his wife Elizabeth, just that they were a couple by the time the diary started. This isn’t shocking, considering they met nearly 400 years ago. There’s a lot we don’t know about people of a much more recent vintage and I think it’s a testament to Tomalin’s researching abilities to form a narrative out of this spotty record. And she does a good job at pointing out the foibles of the man: he had his flaws, including a couple that’d probably land him in jail today.

What I enjoyed her less were the diary years. She switches from a linear history of Pepys to cover his diary thematically: one chapter covers his life at work, another his extramarital affairs, etc. It’s a bit of a jarring switch and has the effect of spoiling itself. When she quickly moves through the diary, jumping over whole sections, we learn what’s going to happen to people before we get there.

Another problem I had was her interpretations and extrapolations of the diary. There’s a general sense of not letting Pepys speak for himself: he’s often quoted and referenced, but rarely at length. Instead, Tomalin often suggests what she thinks Pepys meant by a certain phrase or why he wrote the way he did. There’s a lot of supposition here – probably a trait any biographer would have – but it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t let someone who wrote so much speak for himself so much. Especially given the praise she has for his diary.

An example of such extrapolation:

Moving so fast through the events of each day and the crowds of the people with whom he had dealings, his energy burns off blame, making it surprisingly hard to disapprove of him. Pausing for a moment to make a few vows to curb his own behaviour, he remarks that “my love of pleasure is such, that my very soul is angry with itself for my vanity in so doing.” He means, I think, that is moral vanity in him to be making vows that aim above his real level, and that in his soul, he thinks it might be better to remain his authentic, pleasure loving self. (Pg. 188)

Some of the conclusions seem a little odd too. A point is often made that Pepys was unusually forward in his thinking, that his objective look at himself is a more modern attitude than a 17th century one. I suppose this is true, but only in a general sense: it’s neat that he was thinking about himself the way many of us do, but what’s not to say that’s a modern thing? Even Gilgamesh had some of the same issues on his mind as we do now and he’s been dead for what, 4,000 years?

Tomalin’s book closes with a look at Pepys later life: he was elected as a MP, with a high post in the English Navy. He was pretty well off financially, wrote a history of the Navy and had formidable library to boot. He’d risen from humble beginnings to friendly relationships with Earls, Dukes and even two different Kings: Charles II and James II. He even spent a spell as a political prisoner in the Tower of London.

And while he was in many ways a fascinating man with an interesting life, Tomalin makes it clear that his greatest contribution was his diary, which doesn’t just cover a turbulent period of English history or show an inside look at the government’s workings. It’s that he has a clear, lucid and insightful look at his own life and everything that happened within.

And that is what makes it tough to really recommend the biography. I felt sometimes like I was reading a padded out introduction and afterward, but maybe that’s unavoidable when reading a book about a book. And while it’s occasionally a gripping read, I was often bogged down in the supporting details; I understand that the Earl of Sandwich played a role in Pepys life, but I didn’t need nearly this much information on him.

Rating: 5/10. I don’t regret reading her biography of Pepys and I’d even recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in this period of English history. But next time I feel like reading about Pepys, I’ll go to the real thing.




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