Joseph Frank and the Unknown Dostoevsky

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.

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Becoming Gore Vidal

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.

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The Great Contrarian – Dwight Macdonald

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.

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Looking Back at the French New Wave

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 Infidle, 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.

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The Work of a Critic

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.Continue reading →

Remembering Daniel Bell, 1919-2011

Daniel Bell’s death closes out one of the most expansive and impressive intellectual careers of the twentieth century. He was a teacher of mine during my last term at Columbia, a friend for many years afterward, and an amazingly wide-ranging writer who could be both prescient and wrong on key issues. His style, with its staggering breadth of reading and reference, was anchored in intellectual journalism rather than in academe. His essays, he said in 1960, “were written for audiences not specialized but educated, audiences responsive to ideas.” Bell’s initial fame came from his thesis on “the end of ideology,” an argument that seemed haplessly ill-timed when it appeared just at the outset of the 1960s, which was to prove one of the most ideologically polarized decades in American history. It also seemed little more than a rephrasing of the cold war anti-Communism of the postwar intellectual scene. But with the pragmatism of post-Communist leaders, who deploy Marxism as a facade for state-dominated capitalism, and the break-up of traditional liberalism, Bell’s point has held up better in the long run than it did at first. And in his essays on the new American Right in the fifties and sixties, collected and edited in The Radical Right, he was one of the first to see how ideology, above all a populism of resentment, had settled in at the other end of the political spectrum.

I couldn’t have disagreed more with the viewpoint of his influential book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, in which he highlighted every irrational feature of the culture of the 1960s, creating an unrecognizable portrait of the whole era as “an attack on reason itself.” But he was at least consistent in tracing this back to modernism itself, which he saw reductively not as a breakthrough in the arts but as a pernicious outbreak of apocalyptic nihilism. “What the new sensibility did,” he wrote, “was to carry the premises of modernism through to their logical conclusion.” Culture was not Bell’s strong suit. His treatment was coarse-grained and almost embarrassingly indebted to Lionel Trilling’s more nuanced dissent from modernism and his critique of the “adversary culture,” including his notion that the sixties represented a kind of acting-out of modernist ideas. Bell too saw the new culture as “an effort by a cultural mass to adopt and act out the life-style which hitherto had been the property of a small and talented elite.” But even in the 1950s, in an essay chastising but welcoming the new Dissent magazine, he argued that “the problem of radicalism today is to reconsider the relationship of culture to society.” This was in many ways prophetic. The long-range effects of the counterculture were far greater than the impact of the political left, apart from the conservative backlash that it provoked.Continue reading →

The Challenge to Book Culture

On the face of it, it would be hard to imagine a more depressing cultural subject right now than the future of book culture. Publishers are hurting badly; droves of independent bookstores have closed down; Borders, a major chain of booksellers, has filed for bankruptcy and is currently dumping the dregs of its stock at its flagship store on 57th Street and Park Avenue; floundering newspapers have cut loose their reviewers and, at best, folded their book review sections into their shrinking pages. The newspapers themselves may not be far behind. The Great Recession delivered the coup de grace; advertising revenue is in free fall. Ask any editor, any author, any media maven: it is not a pretty picture. The executive editor of the New York Times wonders whether there will still be a print edition five years from now.

On the other hand, some would argue that this worst of times is also the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, to online booksellers like Amazon, to the ubiquitous Google digitizing whole libraries, books have never been so readily available, including rare books, out-of-print books, and, thanks to the famous “long tail,” older titles once hard to find, since bookstores rarely stocked them. Loving the serendipity of browsing in bookstores, actually fingering the merchandise, we forget the frustrations of the fruitless search, the books we could not find. Browsing online we find it’s all there yet tantalizingly out of reach.Continue reading →

All in the Family – Jackson Pollock

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 2011

In the public mind Jackson Pollock was a tough-guy American artist, a cowboy out of Cody, Wyoming, who stretched the limits of abstract art not with brush and easel but by dripping, pouring, or flinging paint at canvases tacked to the floor of his small barn on Long Island. This image of Pollock as an “action” painter, an existentialist in jeans, was less a commentary on his art than the offshoot of Hans Namuth’s celebrated films and photographs of Pollock painting: the choreography of a man in perpetual motion, communing with the canvas as if by instinct, immersed completely in the creative moment. Pollock’s alcoholism, his difficulty in dealing with fame, and finally his death in a near-suicidal car crash in 1956 completed the picture of a tormented masculine loner wrestling with his inner demons.

The last figure we expect to meet is Pollock the family problem, the messed-up sibling. Yet this is precisely the role he plays in this fascinating collective portrait of the painter, his four older brothers, and their parents and wives during the years of his painful apprenticeship. American Letters, 1927-1947 is an enlarged version of a book first published in 2009 in France, an intricate network of letters these family members wrote to each other, full of news and chatter, often merely dutiful, at times covertly desperate. Though Jackson Pollock’s name is on the title page, the book was no doubt conceived as a tribute to his brother Charles, whose career as a painter over six decades was overshadowed by Jackson’s. Carefully edited by Charles’s second wife, Sylvia Winter Pollock, the book is illustrated by his early drawings, which show him to be a competent but conventional social realist. Perhaps pressed by Jackson’s example, he was reborn as a softly lyrical abstract painter after 1945.Continue reading →

Battleship Potemkin and Beyond: Film and Revolutionary Politics

Published in Dissent Magazine (Summer 2011).

For decades after it came out in 1925, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, portraying an episode in the first Russian Revolution of 1905, was commonly described as the greatest film of all time. Even at the height of the Cold War, spectators would still be captured by its recreation of a spontaneous mutiny on one of the czar’s naval vessels. It provided not only a thrilling account of a collective uprising but a virtual textbook in how film editing could excite sympathy, fear, and revolutionary anger. The film’s purpose was no less propagandistic than Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi productions of the 1930s, especially Triumph of the Will, but its themes were humane: not exalting the irrational cult of a supreme leader but dramatizing the oppressive violence of Russia’s old regime; the basic, universal longing for human dignity; and a bright but brief springtime of freedom and solidarity. For Eisenstein, working at the dawn of the Stalinist era, that liberation seemed to have been realized, although we came to know how soon it would be cut off. In the light of history, we cannot look at Potemkin with innocent eyes, yet its hopes and illusions seem as timely as the latest uprisings in the Arab world.

The release of a new version by Kino Lorber, with the sequence of shots, the Russian intertitles, and the original score all restored, offers an occasion to reconsider not only the movie itself but the issue of politics and film, especially revolutionary politics. Eisenstein was essentially a formalist, but he believed that film, as a revolutionary medium, could forward political revolution as well, for its techniques could incite popular feeling and bring it to a high pitch. No one could have agreed with him more than, say, Joseph Goebbels. For most of us, on the other hand, film and revolution make for an incendiary mix. It seems axiomatic that a political film ought to be complex and thoughtful, not simply rousing. But the avant-garde of the 1920s, especially in France, Germany, and Russia, set out to smash the conventions of depth in traditional narrative. For the new art cinema, stories with realistic settings, unfolding moral themes, and highly individualized characters belonged to the bourgeois world of the nineteenth century. To Eisenstein it was collective action that counted, not personal heroism or individual responsibility. Casting nonprofessional actors for Potemkin, he was drawn to physical types whose appearance expressed their social role, not performers who could give full play to complex motives.Continue reading →

“Whose Dog Are You?” (On Light Verse)

Published in Parnassus 32, Vols 1 & 2 (2011)


Ogden Nash. The Best of Ogden Nash. Edited by Linell Nash Smith. Ivan R. Dee 2007. 465 pp. $28.95.

American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse. Edited by John Hollander. Library of America 2003. 194 pp. $20.00

The Norton Book of Light Verse. Edited by Russell Baker. W. W. Norton 1986. 447 pp. $17.95.

The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. Edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press 1994. 512 pp. $19.95 (paper).

Andrew Hudgins. Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children. Drawings by Barry Moser. Overlook Press 2009. 113 pp. $14.95.

Ben Milder. What’s So Funny About the Golden Years. Time Being Books 2008. 88 pp. $15.95 (paper).

Edward Lear. So Much Nonsense. Introduction by Quentin Blake. Bodleian Library 2007. Unpaginated. $25.00


In my wayward teens I took it for gospel that real poetry had to be rhymed and metrical. I even wrote a scattering of such poems, until a high school teacher, taking undue advantage of his authority, told me brutally how bad he thought they were. This put me off writing poetry but, luckily, not off reading it. In this constellation of formal poetry, light verse was the fun part, the slightly Victorian stuff I relished most, but I also loved the work of Ogden Nash, who took spectacular liberties. His lines, inflated by a breathless rush of prose, usually didn’t scan, and his rhymes often were clever or devious rather than inevitable. Perpetually at play, he made up words or bent words to fit the rhyme. He came on as a complainer, a man chronically out of sorts. With his customary tone of mild irritation, he seemed haplessly at sea in the modern world. The elastic, pell-mell form of his verse contributed to this sense that life somehow never matched one’s expectations. Bubbling over with details, he was always getting carried away, as if he had too much to say to confine himself to the words in the dictionary, the shape of a regular line, or any easily anticipated rhyme.

An Ogden Nash poem typically begins with a great title, often a long one, the prosier the better, such as “Hearts of Gold, or A Good Excuse Is Worse Than None.” This one opens with a paradox, pinpointing a source of exasperation with the social habits of his fellow man:

There are some people who are very resourceful
At being remorseful,
And who apparently feel that the best way to make friends
Is to do something terrible and then make amends.

The lines vary in length, and their rhythm defies the metronomic tick-tock that grounds the beat in most light verse. The tone is not the serious poet’s tone, not vatic, terse, or meditative, but that of the familiar essayist, of E. B. White and Thurber and Benchley—in short, the peevish accents of The New Yorker in its early incarnation as the upstart American cousin of Punch . Continue reading →