(My longtime friend Marshall Berman died suddenly on September 11, 2013, just a year ago today. To mark his yahrzeit I’m posting some remarks I made at a memorial service in November at City College, where he taught for over 45 years.)
I first met Marshall in 1958 or ‘59 when we were sophomores at Columbia – can it be that long ago? We arrived at this melting pot on Morningside Heights from different places. He was a secular Jew from the Bronx who’d already gotten a terrific education at one of New York’s elite public schools, the Bronx High School of Science. I was a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side and Queens, who had finally rebelled against a parochial school curriculum focused as much on Talmud as on English and math. He had been left raw and vulnerable a few years earlier by the early death of his father. Living at home, growing up too soon, he was the man in the family, the source of emotional support for his widowed mother and younger sister, while I had managed (with difficulty) to break away by moving out. Though he was in history and I was in English, we shared a vast intellectual hunger fed by many of the same books: classics of the Western tradition beginning with Homer and Plato, subversive modern works from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, radical contemporary books by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Norman O. Brown, and the Beats.
First published in Tablet (posted July 3, 2014)
My cousin Harry Krug, who died early last year at 88, was related to me only by marriage but he couldn’t have been more braided into my mother’s extended family. This matriarchy was dominated by strong-minded women like Harry’s mother-in-law, my aunt Lily, stubborn and spiky as a Russian peasant, and Harry’s wife Pauline, a force of nature, who had crisp reactions to everyone she knew. The climate of our clan was heated, the atmosphere operatic; the men who married in had to surrender their passports and go native, as my mild-mannered father readily did, trading in his dour Polish kin for some Russian joie de vivre. Harry too jumped in with both feet. Through stormy scenes he remained as genial and unflappable as his wife was volatile. With his generous girth and dark good looks, his twinkly, mischievous smile, it seemed impossible to upset him. Whatever the weather, no one was going to spoil his day.
Pauline and Harry, both born in 1924, met when they were twelve and became high school sweethearts on the Lower East Side. They always planned to marry but the war intervened and he was tapped for what would one day be dubbed the Greatest Generation. A year or so before he died I called him as part of my research for a memoir – he was one of the few people still around who had vivid memories of my childhood. Instead we spoke for an hour about his army experiences, none of which I had heard before, since he rarely talked about himself. Conversations with Harry usually focused on your life, about which he was endlessly curious, joshing, and funny. Unlike New York’s late, voluble mayor, he always wanted to know how you were doing.
First posted on NBCC Reads (October 29, 2013)
So many of the finest works of the last 38 years have been nominated for the NBCC book awards that it’s almost impossible to choose a single title. Many of the best did not finally win the award, including Irving Howe’s seminal World of Our Fathers, Norman Mailer’s remarkable nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song, J. M. Coetzee’s best novel, Disgrace, Marshall Berman’s irresistible study of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Paul Zweig’s unsurpassed biography of Whitman, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s delicious meditation on gay men and opera, The Queen’s Throat, to name just a few. Among those that did win the award, my favorites, singled out almost at random, include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Joseph Frank’s definitive biography of Dostoevsky, perhaps Philip Roth’s best novel, The Counterlife, C. K. Williams’s collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, Marilynne Robinson’s poignantly intelligent Gilead, and two enduring collections of essays, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One and Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz. But faced with the impossible demand to select only one title, I’d have to plump for The Stories of John Cheever.
First of all the stories, one after another, are simply wonderful – beautifully shaped, seductively written – the evolving arc of a whole career, brought together with perfect tact. A good dozen of them are among the outstanding stories of the postwar years – quite a batting average. Then too, the book came out at a low ebb of Cheever’s career: his writing had changed, The New Yorker, long his literary home, had begun turning down his work, which had nevertheless been typed, quite wrongly, as a certain kind of New Yorker story, teacup tragedies about predictable material – the genteel, gentile middle class, the terminally boring life of the suburbs – in a predictable tone of bland, well-mannered civility. Also, Cheever’s reception had turned sour; his edgiest novel, Falconer, had hardly been understood by reviewers, let alone welcomed. But reading the stories en masse overturned the stereotypes about him and his work, which now looked much darker and more daring than anyone had realized. There was a dawning sense of his conflicted, surprisingly tormented nature, which would be amply confirmed by the posthumous publication of his journals. Finally, there was the man himself, who charmed the pants off everyone as he accepted the award. I can still recall the wicked grin on his face, along with that wry New England tone of voice, when he said that he was so used to presenting awards to his friend Saul Bellow (whom he hugely admired) that he never expected to take one home himself. It was a performance, one of the most winning I’ve seen, but it was also heartfelt, a long overdue recognition that had to be the best reason for handing out these awards in the first place.
First published in The Threepenny Review (Fall 2013)
Novels demand a projection of self that varies with your moods and seasons, the stages of your life. Reading fiction is a way of finding yourself by losing yourself – getting immersed in stories about other people. It makes strange places seem familiar yet defamiliarizes people and places we thought we knew. You could describe it as a kind of possession. Fiction gives us not only access to but ownership of experiences not our own, even as it casts a kind of spell over us, drawing us out of where we are. Rosanna Warren describes it this way in her autobiographical essay “Midi”: “To read is to take possession. But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind, and to enter another world.”
For me as a young reader, that other world had two favorite regions I loved to explore – history, which seemed like a fabulous and richly peopled country, and sports, that fiercely competitive terrain where people from nowhere could make good. Since I was from nowhere too, a bright, ghetto-bred yeshiva boy, son of Americanized immigrants, it gave me bold figures with whom I could identify. I was particularly taken with a series of eight young adult novels by Joseph Altsheler about the Civil War, focused alternately on two cousins, close to each other before the war, who find themselves fighting on opposite sides. These books turned a divided family into a metaphor for a fractured nation pursuing a fratricidal war. First published during the first world war – Altsheler died in 1919 – they focused on major battles and had similar titles – The Guns of Bull Run, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chicamauga – place names that were exotic, hard to pronounce, yet meant America to me, the real America as opposed to New York Jewish world I knew best.
From the Mailer Review, Fall 2012:
[Going through my papers recently I came across the carbon of a letter nominating Norman Mailer for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It probably dates from around 1980 since it refers to The Executioner’s Song as recently published. The PEN American Center no doubt solicited nominations and this was my response. The occasion seemed to demand an exhaustive C.V., a condensed catalogue raisonée, but even in this pedantic format I notice a few phrases I’m moderately pleased to have written, since they evoke his talent in ways I had forgotten. The reference to André Gide particularly surprised me. Of course Mailer was not the only perpetual nominee never to be awarded the Nobel Prize. On this distinguished list he joins writers from Tolstoy and Proust to Graham Greene, Nabokov, and (so far) Philip Roth, some of them blocked by the dogged opposition of a single figure on the committee, others by their presumed failure to be sufficiently upbeat and life-enhancing, as the terms of the bequest officially demand. -M.D.]
Norman Mailer was born in 1923, attended Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1943, served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, and returned to write what is still considered one of the best of all American war novels, The Naked and the Dead (1948). Yet Mailer was not content to continue writing in the naturalistic vein of this first novel. One of the hallmarks of his career is his shifts of style and ambition from book to book. His second and third novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), remain impressive experiments in allegorical and political writing, especially where they touch on sexual themes. During this period Mailer wrote two of the best American short stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” and “The Time of Her Time,” and began a truly extraordinary career as a writer of nonfiction and journalism with “The White Negro” (1957), later collected with his other shorter writings in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Interlaced with a remarkable autobiographical commentary, these writings were truly prophetic and helped usher in the drastic changes in American culture in the 1960s, with their new interest in politics, their fascination with Beat and bohemian countercultures, and their advanced treatment of sex, which was radically new for the still-Puritan American culture of the period.
As a tribute to the late Joseph Frank (1918-2013), I reprint my review, slightly updated here, of the first volume of his great biography of Dostoevsky, which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 21, 1976).
Some great writers leave books behind that are like monuments, chiseled in alabaster, inviolable, or like tall mountain peaks which must be climbed simply because they’re there. Dostoevsky is one major writer who will never harden into a classic. He forces his readers to grapple with his books in a personal way, with some of the same intensity he brought to writing them. The author of the definitive biography, Joseph Frank, describes “the unusual sense of excitement that Dostoevsky manages to create from page to page, and the almost hypnotic fascination, quite aside from plotting, that he never fails to exercise on his readers.” At moments Dostoevsky seems to reach out and grab the unwary reader by the throat, enclosing us in an atmosphere of emotional violence that is sometimes comical but can also come to feel suffocating.
First posted in The Daily Beast (August 4, 2012)
Gore Vidal liked to style himself a populist but for his political leanings this hardly fit tha man at all. Populists in America come in many shapes and sizes, from William Jennings Bryan to Frank Capra, from Thomas Hart Benton to Sarah Palin. Vidal didn’t resemble these would-be common folk prone to idealize the salt of the earth. He was a patrician radical, a type more common in Europe than here, since we have never had a formal aristocracy. His prototype was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents, who felt that he had been born to public service but found that the corrupt, rough-hewn America of the Gilded Age had no use for his talents. Becoming a writer instead, he turned his disappointment into cutting irony and wit, surveying the details of American history – and his own life – from an eagle’s perch. After his death in 1918 his autobiography, written largely for private consumption, became a surprise bestseller, evoking an era long gone.
First published in The East Hampton Star (July 19, 2012)
Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books, $16.95) gives us only one phase of Dwight Macdonald’s storied career as a political gadfly, provocative journalist, nonpareil editor, and embattled critic. It showcases Macdonald as an endlessly entertaining highbrow scold, taking up the cudgels for literary standards, drawing a bead on misconceived cultural projects. His political writings are out of print but this side of his work is well worth revisiting. Macdonald died thirty years ago but, as many reviewers seem to agree, this may be the liveliest collection of essays published this year.
First posted in The Cine-files (May 28, 2012)
At a time when movies seem more mass-produced than ever, we have every reason to wax nostalgic about the French New Wave. Rarely have so many divergent but pathfinding talents emerged at the same time and place. The New Wave was essentially the product of a single decade, from 1959 to 1969, set in motion by a handful of directors who had sharpened their teeth as film critics in the 1950s. Their gift for offbeat storytelling, propelled by an invigorating spontaneity, ran parallel to the social upheavals of that era.. Yet each had his own personality, and their most characteristic films are surprisingly unlike each other. What they had in common needs no rehearsing here: their dislike of the upholstered, screenplay- and star-driven French cinema of their day; their preference for underrated Hollywood directors ranging from Hitchcock, Hawks, and Welles to hard-boiled outliers like Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray; their warm affinity for the European humanistic cinema of independent spirits like Vigo and Renoir, Cocteau and Melville, Bresson and Becker. With Melville they shared a love of the unsentimental brooding fatalism of American gangster films and pulp fiction, which were part of the heritage of postwar existentialism. But they were also caught between the buoyant, life-affirming legacy of Renoir, who showed them how to improvise and sympathize, and the plot-driven aesthetics of the more macabre Hitchcock, whose darker humor demanded iron control.
Though most of the New Wave directors enjoyed long careers, their best films came early on. Truffaut never equaled his first three breathtaking features, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim. These are the films I’ve invariably used in courses, and they still play beautifully, each in its own way. In his next feature, The Soft Skin, the Hitchcock influence weighs heavily on him, even as it kindles the imagination of Claude Chabrol who after his first features, such as the superb Les Bonnes Femmes, evolved his own style of bourgeois thriller over five productive decades. Yet his work too crested early, at the end of the 1960s with La Femme Infidle, This Man Must Die, and Le Boucher, all introduced here at the New York Film Festival under the Francophile direction of its devoted founder, Richard Roud. Godard is a special case since he produced so many varied films in the decade that followed the release of Breathless in 1960 – perhaps the film that most defines the New Wave and one that holds up astonishingly well on repeated viewings.
First published in the Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2012
The role of critics varies greatly according to the mission they imagine for themselves and the audience they address. Academic critics writing for their peers will take a different tack from public critics speaking to a general audience, large or small, or from writers themselves using criticism to carve out a space for their own work. Surprisingly, novelists and especially poets have proved to be among our best critics. Poet-critics from Johnson to Eliot form the main line of the English critical tradition, while the foundations for a coherent criticism of the novel were laid by Henry James. Yet American writers are better known for their prickly aversion to critics rather than their appreciation, even when critics built up the following for their work. My favorite example, one that set my blood boiling, was Saul Bellow’s likening of the critic to a deaf man tuning a piano. (Had he merely said “tone deaf” I wouldn’t have been so offended.) Then there are the old saws that continue to surface: “Those who can’t, criticize.” “No one ever grew up dreaming of becoming a critic.” All this implies that critics, with little imagination themselves, are hardly more than mechanical observers or failed writers, stewing in their inadequacy and taking out this resentment on their betters, the really creative spirits. As one wag put it, a critic is one who arrives late on the battlefield to kill off the survivors.
In fact, really good critics are writers, with their own style and literary personality, though their works feeds off other writing, as novelists and poets feed off the text of our common life. Both kinds of writers must somehow be faithful to their subjects yet find their own angle of vision. They have to tell the truth, a truth we’ll acknowledge, but, like Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.” They distill art into meaning, they punish failure and lionize success, but like all writers they work by way of selection, even distortion. We remember critics for their temperament as much as their critical judgment: the pugilistic vigor of Hazlitt, the digressive idiosyncrasies of Ruskin, the clerical acerbity of Eliot, the transparent windowpane of Orwell, the poetic conjunctions of Benjamin, the Hegelian dynamics of Adorno. We can forgive a great deal in a critic who manifests a striking sensibility or a startling point of view, as we are seduced by writers who freshen our sense of the familiar world. Some critics survive on the strength of their prose alone; some by promoting new artists and movements; others by introducing seminal concepts (the objective correlative, the dissociation of sensibility); by demonstrating sheer intelligence or depth of learning; or by helping reorient the history and direction of an art form. As it happens, T. S. Eliot could qualify under any of these categories. read more…