Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life
by Brigitta Olubas

Shirley Hazzard begins her memoir, Greene on Capri (2000) with an anecdote that has become well-known, if not notorious, among people who know anything about her. “On a December morning of the late Sixties,” she writes, she was sitting  by the windows in a café on the piazetta in Capri, doing a crossword puzzle. The weather was terrible. Hazzard watched two men approach the café. One of them was Graham Greene. She had never met him, but she recognized him, “as one would.” Greene and his friend came into the café, which was almost deserted, and continued their conversation. Something reminded Greene of a poem (by Browning), which he recited until he got to the last line, which he could not quite recall. No matter how hard he tried, he could not summon it.

When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, “The line is

“Or so very little longer.”

I went away at  once, back under the rain to the hotel San Felice….

That evening, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, encountered Greene and his friend at their regular dinner restaurant. They all introduced themselves and agreed to dine together. “And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.”

Intriguing and amusing as this little story is, it also provides a very big key to Shirley Hazzard’s sense of herself. Her behavior in the story as well as her manner of presenting it, reveal a woman who thought of herself as elegant and superior. The telling line is, “I went away at once…” She did not wait to be thanked by the famous writer, nor did she hang on him like a fan. She did not identify herself — a wise move, given that, as the author of a few stories published in The New Yorker and  a novel, her name might have meant nothing to him. She could be fairly sure that their paths would cross again; she had already noticed him here and there on the tiny island. He would discover in due course of time who her husband, a well-known literary American, was. She was able to make the most of seeming to be a djinn or a fairy, appearing out of nowhere with just the bit of esoteric knowledge that he needed. To  judge by the full picture of Hazzard that Brigitta Olubas provides in Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, the writer, then in her late thirties, was already gifted at making herself known to important people.

Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. It ought to as be unnecessary to specify which Sydney as it is to specify which London, but this wasn’t the case a century ago, when the arts in Australia might be said to have been rear-guard. Talented people simply left, and Shirley was no exception. She took every advantage of her father’s trade-representative postings to Hong Kong and New York. In New York, she was old enough to get a job, which she did, at the United Nations, almost immediately, thus establishing a foothold independent of her family. This was just as well, as the family broke up almost immediately, too. Her older sister, with whom she never got on, married a lawyer twenty years older than herself (Francis Steegmuller was twenty-five years older than Shirley), and the parents’ marriage collapsed in scandal: Hazzard’s father was having an affair with a woman in his office. He withdrew to Australia with the other woman, while Hazzard’s mother took up the life of a peripatetic albatross, incapable of sustaining friendships and other connections and content to exasperate her daughters.

I was bored to distraction by the lack of event in Olubas’s opening chapter, as I daresay Hazzard was by her own early life. The family enjoyed the tolerable prosperity sometimes achieved by those with difficult, dubious, but altogether colorless backgrounds. Marital happiness seems to have been sacrificed to conventional ambition. The origins of Hazzard’s finer sensibilities and wider outlook are hard to pin down. No inspiring teacher appears to have been involved. Although Shirley experienced the beauty of Sydney Harbour, she would not acknowledge it until much later. What did make an impression was a grand mansion in the Blue Mountains to which her school was relocated during the first shock of World War II. The Italian language, an immense feature of her maturity, entered her life indirectly, via a love of Leopardi’s poetry, which she seems to have discovered while temporarily exiled in Wellington; during the subsequent interval in Sydney before leaving for New York in 1951, she took Italian lessons and attained the beginnings of a proficiency that would flourish when she was posted by the UN to Naples in 1956. The time in Naples changed the direction of her life.

I spent most of an afternoon searching the 467-page text of Shirley Hazzard for a line that I did not find and might have made up. It had to do with Hazzard’s setting out, at some point, to become a significant person, or a person of significance. I concluded that the search was superfluous. Olubas doesn’t make a fuss about it, but her book is studded with glimpses of Hazzard’s self-conscious social advancement. This career became more overt once Hazzard got to New York, in 1951, and she no longer had to manufacture her own ideas of significance. With her marriage to Steegmuller in 1963, she gained “open sesame” to the world of letters, not just in New York but in Paris and Italy as well. There were people everywhere, it seemed, who were happy to talk about books with her. She was a voracious reader, and, gifted with something like an eidetic memory, which absorbed any verse that moved her — or any commendable phrase at all — making memorization unnecessary, she was quite literally a fountain of erudition, with no need to look things up. She formed a taste, both in literature and in life, that was “modern” but conservative: yes to Eliot and Auden, no to Abstract Expressionism. She seems to have been unfailingly genteel. As a lady who had read everything, she was certainly distinguished.

What’s missing from Shirley Hazzard is what its subtitle promises. There is very little about actual writing — almost nothing, really. There is frequent mention of Hazzard’s difficulty in finding the time to write. It would be misleading to say that she enjoyed a busy social life, because her time with other people was spent in earnest conversation; whether she ever danced in her life is never disclosed, and we have her own testimony in Greene in Capri that food was never of primary interest to her or to her husband.  (One gets the sense that they’d have known if it was bad, that’s all).) But what with traveling between three homes — apartments in New York and Naples, and rooms in Capri — and accompanying her husband not on all but on many of his trips here and there for research (Steegmuller produced important biographies of Flaubert, Apollinaire, and Cocteau, among other books), Hazzard was in transit far more often than most writers, and she never had a remote refuge in which to work. Writing The Transit of Venus, her masterpiece, took ten years to complete. More than twenty years would pass before her next and last fiction, The Great Fire. If anything, Olubas relies on the novels for biographical information.

For example, Olubas draws on The Bay of Noon, a novel that Hazzard published in 1970, for her account of Hazzard’s year in Naples, 1956. There don’t appear to be journals or even working papers to draw from, so, aside from the somewhat oblique view that we get of Hazzard-in-Naples, we have no idea how Hazzard-the-writer considered her experience while drafting the novel. It is clear, although Olubas could make it clearer, that Shirley Hazzard was not only private but secretive; she had nothing to gain, one concludes, from unedited self-disclosures. It would have shattered, or at least crazed, the mirror of an all-knowing sybil of unimpeachable sophistication that Hazzard presented to her international acquaintance to have revealed the girl from an assertively uncultivated family in Sydney. The sad thing about her almost extinguished insecurity (combined with a lack of worldliness as a youth) is that it seems to have opened the way to her having become something of a monologuist in adulthood, a trait that enchanted some people while boring others to tears. Worse, when forestalled by responses of varying politeness, she would whine: why would no one listen to her? This was insatiable: people listened to her plenty. She was also given, with advancing age, to somewhat overripe sentences; for example, these two gems from Greene on Capri:

One remembers long and well, and, without prompting, what is truly interesting — the moments that, pondered, shared, revived, become part of the inward legend. (70)

We had been told that he was steadily weakening; and we came up to the house in November light and with the pang of finality — that consciousness, after familiar pleasures, of a leave-taking (141)

For my part, I’d have considered the first sentence ponderous enough without actually using the word, and I can’t really hear Greene saying “remembered pleasures” instead of “better times,” if not just “fun.”

It remains for me to re-read The Transit of Venus. When it came out in 1980, I was still a young barbarian, and while I could follow the story easily enough I had no idea what it was about. Twenty-odd years later, I definitely had an idea, but it didn’t seem impressive. We shall see what I make of it a third time. Stay tuned.


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Men and Brethren
by James Gould Cozzens

For a few years now, I have been working my way backwards through the oeuvre of one of the two great but now forgotten midcentury American authors, James Gould Cozzens. The other is John P Marquand, whose novels I’ve been reading in no particular order. What I admire about both writers is the match between theme and tone. The theme is the proper behavior for an educated American male, and the tone captures the unsentimental rigor with which both authors investigate this question. Their heroes have ideals that they know to be unattainable, but they reject the option of not pursuing them. Marquand’s central figures tend to be bankers or even writers. His heroine, Polly Fulton (B.F.’s Daughter, 1946), is the wealthy daughter of a self-made industrialist. Cozzens’s men — and in the later novels, they are all men — belong to professions, usually the law, but, in the case of Men and Brethren (1936), the central figure is an Episcopal vicar. With Cozzens, the rigor of inward disposition is matched by the rigor of practical discipline.

Also typical of a late Cozzens novel is the very tight schedule: the action must be accomplished within a short period of time. The action of By Love Possessed, Cozzens’s last big novel (1957) takes place within exactly forty-nine hours — a mantel clock chimes at the start and at the finish. Men and Brethren occurs within the space of about twenty-four, from late Friday afternoon to roughly the same time on Saturday. Matthew Bruccoli, Cozzens’s biography, points out that this was Cozzens’ first attempt at extremely short duration, and even remarks that Cozzens’ original plans were for a Friday-night story only. This is not too suggest that Men and Brethren is a long short story. If anything, it is a novel that is far too short; there is more in it than can be dealt with in a short story, much more. What saves the hectic novel from incoherence is the character of the vicar, Ernest Cudlipp.

One simplification — like most absences, it may go unnoticed by the reader — is that Cudlipp is neither seen in church nor visited by members of its concgretation. The reader is presumably familiar with church services and parishioners’ problems. What Cozzens wants to show is all the other troubles and obligations that confront the Vicar. The administration of St Ambrose Chapel presents some of these; others involve Cudlipp’s friends, his connection to most of whom is, or was, spiritual. (As to family, we hear of his “unyielding” father at the very end, but nothing else about his background.) St Ambrose is not a chapel in the dissenters’ sense, of course; it is a sideshow, old and grubby, of Holy Innocents, a flush parish that has, just in time for its centenary, built its third church, a “serene” building in the Byzantine style. The church and the chapel are only a few blocks apart in midtown Manhattan, but the course of those blocks stretches between neighborhoods of great economic difference. St Ambrose sits only a short distance from the noisy elevated train, and its mission is to bring Christ to working people who are underserved by all denominations save the Roman Catholic.

Another Episcopal church haunts the background. Years ago, Cudlipp was attached to St Matthew’s, further downtown. Run by a Dr Ogilvie, St Matthew’s is said to have been “a circus.” Cudlipp was allowed to conduct what seem to have been rather free-style vesper services that attracted large crowds, almost a thousand each week. There seems also to have been a clampdown by the diocese, with the implication that Cudlipp is still somewhat on probation and lucky to be the vicar of anything. This is one of the many rich veins of background that Cozzens would explore over the course of his later novels, but I have told you only a little less about it than can be learned from the  novel itself. As it is, it suffices to buttress the portrait of Cudlipp’s character, which is engaged almost without interruption in the struggle to do his Christian duty. Indeed, the term “Christian duty” comes to seem  almost oxymoronic.

Aside from the serious tensions between fitness — observing ecclesiastical terms and conditions — and charity (not to mention determining what charity really comes to), Cudlipp is confronted by a number of people who mean or have meant something to him but whose idea of self-determination entails some degree of physical self-abuse, either addiction or sex outside the rules. One of the principal secondary characters complains that she could never forgive herself, to which Cudlipp replies, “You can’t forgive yourself because you’re not entitled to forgive yourself.” For most of my lifetime, the Vicar’s comment would have been dismissed with shock or contempt, but a moment’s thought will remind us that the idea behind it is one of key points in twelve-step recovery. Whether we are to be forgiven by God or by our fellow man, we do not get to act as we please, or to decide unilaterally whether the benefits that we take for ourselves outweigh the burdens of others.

In solitary moments, Ernest Cudlipp is often unsure what to do, or what is right or prudent. In the heat of the moment, however, he is one of the most decisive men, and possibly the most decisive thinking men, to be met with in fiction.

The Vulnerables
by Sigrid Nunez

In her writing, Sigrid Nunez comes across as attentive and observant and self-contained. She has affairs with men, but she never settles down with one, or hasn’t yet.) And her books are never romances. The Vulnerables is a COVID novel, so long as it is understood that COVID is a synonym for that dreadful and unnecessary word, “lockdown.” People huddle in their homes, going crazy; they’re obsessed with their screens partly out of habit and partly because the pandemic has disturbed their attention spans.

For a while, during the same time, I found myself unable to read. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again — just one of the many uncertainties of that spring. (Not a writer I know who didn’t experience the same.)

It’s all very familiar, or perhaps familiar to me because from the first it has sounded alien; that’s not what I went through. I was already accustomed to being at home all day, leading pretty much the life that I am still leading. It was only a pleasure to have my late wife at home, too, although she didn’t care for it quite so much. I am sure that there are other people who, like me, had atypical experiences of the pandemic. But I’ve given up expecting to read about them. COVID has become a cliché; nobody has anything new to say about it. Not even Nunez.

“Lockdown” — the term a violent, and almost criminal overstatement — is simply the backdrop, the particular dropcloth of catastrophism in the background. (As is, somehow, Trump. It seems that Trump will be forever associated with it, at least among those who think something worse than a political troublemaker.) Because the chapters are not numbered, or even titled, it’s difficult to say just what goes on in the foreground, which is characterized by a ruminative drift. There are three stories in the first part of the novel, each longer than the preceding one. The first story is really just an anecdote, and like all childhood anecdotes it ends up wondering what ever happened to so-and-so. The second story is about a college classmate, to whom we are introduced at her funeral. The narrative backtracks, necessarily, but after a while the subject changes, via a mutual friend, to the present day, where we find Nunez’s fictional self babysitting a parrot. As she demonstrated in The Friend, Nunez is very, very good with other people’s pets. Whereas in The Friend she brought a Great Dane to live in her apartment, however, taking care of Eureka the parrot requires moving into a (COVID-vacated) apartment where the bird has a special room all to himself.

After an interlude, this third story is resumed, and it ends when Eureka is taken away by the boy who was supposed to be his baby-sitter in the first place. (The new location is a loft, in which Eureka can actually fly, once his clipped wings grow back.) And that’s that, so far as prolonged narrative chains go. There are many discursions, especially into the matter of writing, teaching writing, remarks of famous writers, &c.  A friend of mine who read the book twice, and who interviewed Nunez for Vanity Fair, calls it “a prose exercise.” Which is fair, as long as it’s understood that the prose is excellent. Think of a pianist improvising. Contemporaries claimed that Mozart’s improvisations were miraculous in the moment, but none was ever written down. Nunez’s book has been written down. Alas, like all improvisations, it cannot be meaningfully excerpted for the purposes of review. You’ll just have to take my word for it that The Vulnerables is a very good read. I am not sure why Nunez calls her book a novel — which she does not only on the dust jacket but several times within the text itself — but perhaps that’s part of the exercise.

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by Penelope Fitzgerald

Every now and then, I am arrested, in the course of reading, by a sharp sliver of poetry. My mind refuses to go on until every shred of meaning and delight has been tasted. This recently happened in a re-reading of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, a novel that compares, in its blend of smiles and foolishness, only with Fitzgerald’s earlier novel (about the BBC in wartime), Human Voices. A young woman — this is in Florence in 1956 — is confronted with the problem of an absent lover. He is in fact finishing some family business before marrying her. This has taken him to a remote village in the South, where there is only one telephone. She can’t bear hanging around waiting for him to call, so she makes a quick trip to London, where she has a good friend, having been educated at a convent school (the girl is a countess), and where she is quite out of her fiancé’s reach.

The telephone, with its power of idiot silence, had become her enemy. (p 189)

The sentence includes a beautiful instance of strong poetic diction slipped gracefully into prose. “[I]ts power of idiot silence” has a Miltonian grandeur that, while at odds with the everyday nature of the problem, captures quite beautifully the misery of being subject to that power. It is the horrible power to just sit there, doing nothing, and it is more horrible because it must be made to take the brunt of the victim’s dissatisfaction, which could be easily relieved by a thoughtful call from the the right person, with whom, however, our young lady cannot really be angry, because she is very much in love with him. Much better to denounce the telephone as an idiot. A measure of this idiocy is the chance that the phone might actually ring, but with a call from someone else, worse than silence because it will block the lover’s call should he make one. And she cannot, of course, carry the phone around with her — not in 1955, when, for that matter, nothing like “call waiting” was envisioned except by visionaries. Now, of course, there are new horrors, and idiotic ones, but the power of idiot silence remains. Fitzgerald’s phrase captures the way lovers helplessly make mountains out of molehills, so that the failure to receive a banal phone call — hi, it’s hot here, we didn’t get much done, what did you do? — assumes a tragic intensity that is also comic because it is so out of proportion to our normal feelings about phone calls. It is love, of course, that invests the telephone with the power of idiot silence.

The young woman, Chiara Ridolfi, meets Dr Salvatore Rossi at the interval of a May concert that begins with a violin sonata by Brahms. When Chiara responds to Salvatore’s question about the sonata — did she enjoy it? No — Salvatore is gobsmacked, because no one ever agrees with him. Ergo, he must be in love, and this he finds irritating. He finds it irritating throughout the entire novel, right up to the last page, but irritation does nothing to mute his ardor. One might argue, with only a token perversity, that Salvatore’s irritation not only attracts but magnetizes Chiara.

Whatever it is that draws her to him, other than love at first sight, her privacy is guarded by Fitzgerald. The novel begins with her father setting out to arrange for the nuptials to take place at a family farm in the country. There is also a nearly ruined villa, La Ricordanza, but Chiara, feeling that Salvatore might be uncomfortable in its faded grandiosity. The meeting at the concert is presented several chapters later, but at no point do we witness their private betrothal. Fitzgerald writes as though the lovers had no choice in the matter.

This almost operatic fatalism suits their mismatch. She, the Florentine aristocrat with a distant American mother; he the son of the South, his father not a peasant but a worker who idolized and even met, with his young son in tow, the hospitalized Gramsci. It is unclear that Salvatore shares his father’s politics, but Gramsci gleams as a saint in the doctor’s mental firmament. He does not inspire the doctor in any noticeable way, although perhaps Salvatore’s irritation is a local expression of Gramsci’s global impatience. What I mean to say here is that there is nothing in Salvatore’s past that he can bring to the present in Florence. As for Chiara, she is not quite eighteen years old (Salvatore is thirty), and correspondingly certain that her love for Salvatore is the only matter of any importance. “Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty,” Fitzgerald writes by way of introduction, “but not thought beautiful in Florence.” No. it is the neurologist from Mazzata who is struck. But of course. There does not appear to be a town or even a village in Italy called “Mazzata,” but the word connotes a heavy, possibly lethal, blow.

In fact, Innocence might be characterized by its sense of offstage violence. Sometimes, as in classical drama, we’re told all about what happened. More often, we’re not; we have to form our suppositions from the slight evidence given, all the time aware that it is not very important to know anything very precisely. I am strongly reminded of the exhilarating scene in the now-famous screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, in which the heroine tries to conduct a respectable conversation with her new boyfriend and his mother while her ex-husband and her music teacher are loudly engaged in fisticuffs in the next room. The novel itself ends with the same reckless elan that concludes that escapade. Cary Grant rushing past temporarily dumbfounded spectators gives way in my mind to Salvatore, barely moments before relieved of a shotgun, buzzing off on his Vespa.


The Upstairs Delicatessen
by Dwight Garner

One of my great pleasures in life has been lunch, alone, with a book, at some local downscale restaurant that approximates a café. There aren’t many left. I loathe Greek diners/coffee shops, not only because the food is bad but because of the noisy, fluorescent-lit atmosphere. Music in the background is okay, as long as it’s not loud, and I want only enough light to read by, coming preferably through a window. A club sandwich is ideal, so long as the tomato is under control (thin-sliced and not too watery). Much as I love good cheeseburgers, they’re really too drippy for the welfare of propped-open books. Neatness is at least as important as flavor.

This may explain why I was attracted by the title of Dwight Garner’s new book, The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, & Eating While Reading. I imagined a table by the window — this would be one of those delis with tables and waiters — offering the always endearing (and rather rare) street view from the second floor. At a deli, moreover, there might be real liverwurst — grey, bitter, and not at all sweet —  to combine with red onion and perhaps even bacon between two mustard-coated slices of rye bread. The title made me hungry to read the book.

I was also attracted by the chance to have a glimpse of a noted book reviewer’s personal life, or at least this particular book reviewer. It’s not, or not just, that he’s well-known and obviously influential. It’s rather that my agreement with his opinions is  never total, and sometimes not even harmonious. At the same time, I never altogether disagree, unless his subject is a figure from so-called pop culture, and I bristle at the very idea of paying attention to such a person, at least in a literary context. How can such an intelligent, thoughtful reader be so different from me? Upstairs Delicatessen roughs out an answer. The book opens with an autobiographical sketch that stretches nearly to forty pages. The chapter winds down with references to some famous food passages from famous novels (Proust’s madeleine, Woolf’s boeuf en daube) and concludes as follows:

A few elite experiences are described in this book, but so is my devotion to fried-bologna sandwiches. The West Virginian and the Manhattanite in me are locked, like the ourobouros, in constant battle. Like you perhaps, I’m snobby about a million things, but I’m not snobby about a million other things. If you must set this book down, I invite you to do as the critic Cyril Connelly once did, and mark your place with a strip of streaky bacon. (48)

I, on the other hand, have come to the conclusion, urged on me by many friends, that I am snobby about everything. A felt very snobby indeed about the source of Garner’s title:

The great critic Seymour Krim liked to refer to his memory as “that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine.” It’s a phrase I’ve always loved. (7)

What a homey, ghastly image. I must note, though, that, despite all my disapproving remarks, I did enjoy reading it. The Upstairs Delicatessen is really too easy to read, just as a bag of snacks is easy to consume — leaving one feeling not quite tippety-top.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters and an interlude. Three of the chapters concern the principal meals of the day, while the other two are devoted to shopping (for food) and drinking (something unlikely to take place in a deli). It does not take long to discover that Garner is not, as a rule, going to be describing his favorite things to eat. He may mention them, but that’s all. About the fried-bologna sandwich, he discusses a vending machine in Texas that dispenses hot ones,  a brand of bologna that might owe its piquancy to the ministrations of a particularly insanitary worker, and the appearance of such sandwiches on upscale restaurant menus. Similarly, the pages that are dotted with references to hot dogs run from Mencken’s disappointment that there weren’t more varieties to the réclame of Gray’s Papaya. Garner does not need to describe the taste of these comestible because he can be fairly certain that his readers are more than a little familiar with them. Garner is also aware that these well known flavors are highly seasoned by the particular circumstances (from time of day to time of life) in which they are tasted. Correspondingly Garner seasons his text with a commonplace-book’s stock of literary, rather than culinary, quotations, some of them so circumstantial as to be tangential to the business at hand.

In Joseph O’Neill’s excellent novel Netherland, the narrator comments: “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” Muriel Spark, in A Far Cry From Kensington,  recommended this: “It is my advice to anyone getting married,” she wrote, “that they  should first see the other partner when drunk.”  (184)

“Breakfast” offers a pleasant example of the commonplace-book style’s penchant for unruly vagaries. Ir is not about the indigestible variety of things that different people start the day with, but a literary run-through of familiar options such as biscuits and bacon. But breakfast itself is sometimes forgotten. Susan Sontag, according to Sigrid Nunez, might cook a pound of bacon and serve at as dinner. Toward the end, the narrative hits a pothole in Cormac McCart5y that knocks it into a dispute about what the New Orleans restaurant Mosca’s would or would not offer its diners. It remembers its ostensible subject at the last minute.

But back to breakfast. Some mornings I do overdo it on the eggs, or the pancakes,  or the biscuits, and I just climb back into bed. I’ve committed what the backgammon app on my phone calls a “casual blunder.” Back under the duvet, I sympathise with the speaker in Finnegan’s Wake who said, “I’ve eaten a griddle.” (76)

In the middle of “Lunch” there  Garner gives us an account of the weirdest meal in the book — and he was there. This is not an extract from someone else’s writing. He does not explain how or why he happened to be at the table of eight when Nathan Myhrvold served not so much lunch as an homage to his idol, Ferrand Adria, the founder of molecular cooking. There were fifty courses, few if any of them individually ample. Garner tells us that he wasn’t hungry when he got up from the table, but his next meal, a few hours later, consisted of a cheeseburger at “Dicks, the indispensable Seattle burger joint.”

No amount of twiddling could improve upon it. Myhrvold’s  meal had left me feeling curiously empty. I didn’t speak Spanish and Adria didn’t speak English, Our conversation, through a translator, was strained. … There was no conviviality, no banter, no jokes, no music. It felt like an autopsy. (113)

He concludes by referencing David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The comparison is not apt. Wallace was writing about a Caribbean cruise, pointing up its utter banality while disclosing the crew’s smile-plastered discomforts. From a certain angle, Myhrvold’s menu might be seen as pretentious, but as the science-lab abstraction of a normal meal, it was anything but banal. For all his interest in cuisines that were exotic until very recently, he does not seem to have been even intellectually engaged by Myhrvold’s experiments. The tone of the entire episode, is narrated in a somewhat more pointed version of the book’s tone overall; it presents Garner as a regular guy. And he is a regular guy, if by “regular” you refer to cultural arbiters, their families, and their college roommates.

“Dinner” is about everything from snacks to eat while cooking, through music to listen to, to the ideal dinner guests. The most memorable bit, for me, is this one-sentence paragraph.

My favorite thing to read, alone in a restaurant, is a restaurant review. (205)

The Life of the Mind
by Christina Smallwood

The Life of the Mind is the most literate (and therefore satisfying) first novel that I’ve read in a long time. Unlike the run of contemporary fiction by sophisticated women, it is not journalistic. For all the reported climate-catastrophe news (most of it presented ironically) and reports of modern manners, Life is a moralist’s appraisal of academia set atop the turbulent foundation (pardon the oxymoron) of a woman’s reproductive complications. Dorothy, whose last name is not given (thus concealing her ethnicity; we’re told only that she wore a cross around her neck as a girl) has conceived, through no fault of her own, a monster, a misshapen fetus that he doctor wants her to abort as soon as possible. The stretch of the novel takes us to the end of Dorothy’s cleansing (not Smallwood’s word), the evacuation of the final resinous bits of fetus.

When Dorothy is not sitting on a toilet dealing with the excreta of her womb, a preoccupation of the novel that seems to flout its title, she drifts on a voyage to Wonderland, in which Dorothy observes and questions and doubts herself somewhat, rather like Alice. (She is also Dorothy, and the Oz connection is nailed by an encounter with a UK undergraduate in Las Vegas.) Despite almost constitutional misgivings about herself,  Dorothy is usually the only sane woman in the room.

I wish that Smallwood had not made a point of the shambolic aspect of Dorothy’s personal  life. In Dorothy’s mind, her sloppiness is of a piece with her lack of academic advancement, but she has the causation wrong, and Smallwood doesn’t correct her. The fact is that the academic world in which Dorothy hopes to flourish makes no sense — something that is underlined repeatedly, as for example by the success of a fellow graduate student, Alexandra, whose “significant” insight seems to be little more than an enumeration of doors as obvious metaphors in Victorian fiction. Presenting Dorothy as an aren’t-we-all schlump is misleading. She’s actually a beacon, if a beacon under a bushel.

Dorothy is an adjunct professor at a fine university in New York. She teaches writing courses, one of which is titled “Writing Apocalypse,” and her students behave more or less like pre-school toddlers.  The only demand made upon them is that of attendance. The rigors of education are nowhere in sight, nor is the desire for it. Instead of acquiring more knowledge and greater understanding, students devote their classroom time to expressing what little they have of either.

Dorothy has a non-academic friend named Gaby. Gaby is a princess, far more affluent by birth than Dorothy herself. Gaby’s superiority is an accessory that she cannot remove; perhaps fortunately she does not feel obliged to live up to it at all times. But she bristles when it is questioned, as if often is, unintentionally, by Dorothy. We are treated to many well-seasoned texts between the friends, but here they are in  actual conversation:

Gaby had started talking about her birthday, which had recently passed. They had been sitting on the sect4ional in Gaby’s apartment, facing each other, socked toes nearly touching. Gaby was trying to explain the relief of aging out of people’s misperceptions of her. She had crossed the Rubicon, she said.

“Like Caesar,” Dorothy had joked.

Gaby’s eyes were runny, two undercooked eggs. She did not like thee reference. “No,” she said, pulling away her feet and tucking them underneath her. “I’m not an emperor.”

“I know, said Dorothy . “I just meant that Caesar also —”

“I don’t think I’m Julius fucking Caesar,” Gaby said.

“I’m sorry,” Dorothy said. (40)

Poor Dorothy: she doesn’t know how to respond to Gaby’s inflammable ignorance. It goes without saying that Gaby has taken no action that can be compared to Caesar’s defiance of the Senate; indeed, she has done nothing at all but get older.

This is very much a novel about women. There are one- and one-half roles for men, both status-equals and nice, though the half-man, Keith, is objectionably kinky. The whole man is Dorothy’s partner, Rog, seen as supportive overall. If Dorothy has a father, I missed him. In this novel, men are not the ones causing the screw-ups.

Two older women, who ought to be guides or mentors, prove to be too preoccupied with themselves to bother with someone as lackluster as Dorothy. The first is a former thesis adviser, Judith, a comically fatuous academic who favors another candidate, Alexandra. Alexander has hit upon the tremendous significance of doors in Victorian fiction — Judith pronounces her work “significant.” (There can be no higher accolade.) The second is a therapist, the therapist whom Dorothy consults because she’s doubtful of her regular therapist. This second therapist is, on the face of it, pretty dodgy; she keeps an office with a real-estate agent. The room has no window, “Where the window should be was an abstract painting, all whit e lines and splotches of color…Dororfthy resented that the therapist’s painting activated her critical insecurities, not to mention her envy” — Dorothy has never been able to afford more than a couple of nice posters.

The therapist has been producing a podcast of her sessions. When Dorothy realizes that her sessions with the therapist will not be part of the show, a “dopey grind spread helplessly acrowss her face, the clownish tell of embarrassment and rejection. She sat stupidly and silently stumped. The therapist tries to soften the blow.

“For the record, Dorothy, I find you sympathetic … But listeners…”

Dorothy wasn’t insulted. She was grateful.

“I get it,” Dorothy said, aware that the therapist always let her have the last word. “I don’t think I’m sympathetic, either.” (57-59)

The novel ends with Dorothy immersed in an positive orgy of grading papers; an orgy because it is certainly as mindless as any of them.

Now was not the time for comments. It was a time for quick and dirty evaluation. Give them grades, move along. Render judgments. Send fires and floods and rainbows.

Next in the pile was a treatment of Freud’s “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” It was good: A-. The next one was about the Puritans. It really deserved a B+, but Dorothy was in a groove. A-. The one underneath that was about Shiva. Enthusiastic A-! … Then came papers on genocide, coral reefs, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the Roman Empire. There were three papers on the plague, two on the death of God, and one on the death of the novel. She felt a thrill spread like hot milk throughout her body as all the endings that had ever been piled up before he4r, and she graded them all the same, all nearly perfect, before dumping each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash. (228-9)

The title phrase occurs once, toward the end of the novel.

The librarian took a step back, as if Dorothy were some subway lunatic. Her shrug said, It’s your life. She removed a handful of paper — Dorothy had, typically, overdone it — and shut the printer tray door. She pushed a button to test. Efficiently, the printer rolled out a sheet of hieroglyphics and bars of varying dimensions.

“There,” she said, like she had just wiped up some milk spilt from Dorothy’s bottle. Dorothy looked into the future and saw herself, forty, forty-five years old, a contingent member of the faculty, waiting on the printers, absorbing the admonishment of the croney librarian, and thought how naïve she had once been to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind. (212)

This confirms any suspicions the reader might have had that in Smallwood’s mild satire, the life of the mind is a presumed in academics, much as cowboys lead lives on horseback. Perhaps this is what market-driven society has driven us to: only within academia are people compensated for leading lives of the mind, while by the same token that compensation corrupts the mind’s ability to think.

In the wider world, the life of the mind is interrupted, regularly and sometimes permanently, by media that are faster and more visual than print.

Sending a thoughtful email that she had drafted over several days and edited would, she knew, be a form of aggression; it would be foisting unpaid labor, a homework assignment, on a friend. She herself liked homework, but it was unreasonable to hope for such an email: There  was  too much television to catch up on, and if you wanted to know what someone was doing, you could usually find out on social media. Still, Dorothy had not stopped checking, or expecting, or wishing that a good message might be out there, waiting in the ether just for her.  (17)

The Life of the Mind does not attempt to make the case that social media and the screens on which they deliver their newsoids are doing nobody any good. There is no need to make a case. The familiarity of Dorothy’s problems in a world choking on its own vanity says it all.

Critical Comment
An Introduction

The entries that will appear on this Web log are not book reviews.

Since its beginnings in the early Nineteenth Century,  modern (or mass-produced) literary journalism has had a firm grip on the word “review.” The first really successful literary journal, which ran from 1802 to 1929, was the Edinburgh Review. Its background was the liberal thinking spawned by the Scottish Enlightenment — politics, in other words; still the most suitable subject for journalism. (Hazlitt, Walter Scott, and Macaulay were just three of its notable contributors.) Journalism generally answered the question, “What’s new?”Literary journalism, accordingly, sought to account for the latest books likely to be of interest to its readers. The accent was on novelty, not background.

Eventually, the word “review” was shared by publications with their contents. The New York Times Book Review first appeared in 1896; Americans who read a fair amount usually call it, simply, “the Book Review,” which nicely collapses the word’s two connotations.

With some exceptions, usually produced by the authors of actual books, book reviews are formulaic essays, more sophisticated than but not fundamentally different from middle-school book reports, outlining the plot (without necessarily revealing the ending) and evaluating the principal characters. The reviewer will also size the book up in various comparisons, with the author’s other work (if any) as well as with books on the same or similar subjects. Because of fashions in journalism, today’s reviews will try to engage the reader by introducing some personal experiences, not necessarily directly relevant to the book under review, of the reviewer. The result, publishers pray, will boost sales without providing too naked a crib sheet for those who “don’t have the time” to read books but who want to appear to be on top of the latest things. Book reviews really are a kind of news, and that’s how they’re read.

For a few years, in a blog that I used to keep, I reviewed the contents of each Sunday’s Book Review, and I learned a few things. A “good review” is a well-written essay, and not to be confused with a review that judges a book “favorably.” And the thing that both good favorable and good unfavorable reviews do is to steer readers either toward books that they’re likely to like or away from books that they’re not. The worst kind of “bad” review is the tantrum in which a reviewer complains that the book under review is not a completely different book, most likely one that the author had no intention of writing. The best “good” reviews, in contrast, explain, in paraphrase, what it is that the author set out to do. This is the reviewer that every writer hopes to get but rarely does.

Such excellent commentaries are not really compatible with the principles of journalism, or at least with the book-report formula. They don’t focus on the comprehensive overview of a book. Instead, they venture daring, if not impertinent, impressions of what it’s like to look at the world through the author’s eyes. Or they may simply take up a detail that has caught the attention of a reader interested enough to write about it. Background is a very important part of the comment’s persuasive authority. Novelty as such is of little or no interest; what takes its place is a sense of the intriguing difference. This is what makes the comment “critical.”

Since, as a rule, I won’t be writing about books that I don’t like, I can hope that the entries here will all be good and favorable. I won’t call them reviews, however, because a good many of the books won’t be new. They’ll be books that I’ve re-read, possibly for the umpteenth time, or classics that I’ve finally gotten around to reading for the first time. Instead, I’ll hope that they pass for critical comment, not journalism.