Some books I read this year:
Chaos and Night, by Henry de Montherlant. This short novel from the 1950s is best known for the line, “I accuse the Americans of being in a continuous state of crime against humanity.” Though it’s spoken by Don Celestino, the book’s central character, it’s almost always attributed to Montherlant himself, which is a little odd since the conservative author hardly shares his protagonist’s curdled leftism. Besides anti-Americanism, Montherlant is also known for — at least it’s where I first encountered him — Simone de Beauvoir’s savage attack on the misogyny of his novels. (“For Montherlant it is first of all the mother who is the great enemy; … it is clearly seen that what he detests in her, is the fact of his own birth.”) It’s true that Celestino’s daughter Pascualita, the novel’s only female character, is vain, superficial and rather stupid. But she comes off much better than the protagonist himself, a delusional, rage-filled and hypocritical Spanish ex-anarchist. Though the book is constantly echoing Don Quixote, Celestino is a rancid parody of Quixote — his fantasies are repulsive as well as unreal. It’s about the least sympathetic portrayal of an old radical I have seen, a brutal travesty of the revolutionary intellectuals of the early 20th century.
So, why read such a thing? Mainly because it’s an very nicely constructed little book, written in a perfect style and with a whole series of brilliant little set pieces. And Don Celestino, vicious and self-pitying, is one of those unignorable personalities who takes over the page, with his rage against the whole world, from America to his few friends down to the pigeons he goes out of his way to drive from their crumbs. Personally, I was hooked from the monologue that opens the book: “To the north, there’s England, an incomprehensible country, and the Scandinavian states, incomprehensible countries. To the south there’s the Vatican. The dome of St. Peter’s is the candle-snuffer of Western thought… To the west there’s the United States. The United States is the canker of the world…”
The American Political Tradition, by Richard Hofstadter. I picked this up after Seth Ackerman — a very smart guy and good comrade, even if I don’t share his political vision — mentioned it here. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it earlier, it should be required reading for any halfway educated USAnian. The central theme is the fundamental conservatism of American political thought: With the partial exception of the abolitionists (represented here by Wendell Phillips), there’s never been a popular anti-systemic politics with any real access to state power. At the highest levels it’s just been a choice of conservatisms. Hofstadter has clear preferences among these. He likes best the reluctant radicals who under the pressure of events are prepared to change everything so that everything can remain the same, like FDR and Lincoln — though as he pointedly notes in the case of Lincoln, this meant that he spent most of the Civil War seeking to restore the conditions that had produced the war in the first place. (This is always the problem for conservative reformers.) Much worse are the principled conservatives like Calhoun — or more unexpectedly Grover Cleveland, who out of pure principle favored business over labor even more than the most venally pro-business Republicans of the Gilded Age. Worst of all are the populist conservatives like Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. TR’s is the most thoroughly repulsive of the generally unflattering portraits in the book, combining smug thoughtless aristocratic privilege with brutal petty-bourgeois resentment. He frankly said that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, and eagerly hoped that every strike would finally let him haul out the Gatling guns, or at least bring his “cowboys” around to smash some workers’ heads. After reading this, it’s hard to walk through the lobby of the Museum of Natural History without feeling a little queasy.
Not Entitled, by Frank Kermode. The thoroughly charming memoir of the critic and English professor. Somebody said that if we wrote about lives the way we experience them, there’d be a dozen chapters on childhood, two or three on adolescence, and a brief afterword covering the rest. Kermode more or less follows this formula, with almost half the book devoted to his childhood on the Isle of Man, and another third to life in the British navy during World War II; there’s a couple short chapters on his postwar flounderings, and he passes over his long and successful academic career in a rushed handful of pages, as if embarassed by them. Which he probably was: The title of the book refers to what sailors were told on payday when they had incurred enough fines to cancel out their whole salary, but it’s also the attitude Kermode takes toward his whole life. His successes were fortuitous and unearned; more deserving people missed their chance for no good reason. Even writing in his 70s, he describes himself as feeling always like the youngest one in the room, unprepared, the newcomer, off balance and out of place, having arrived late and trying to find his place in a conversation already under way. Traa dy lioaur, “at the heel of the hunt,” in the Manx phrase his mother used to use of him. It’s a long time since I’ve read a book in which I’ve found such a kindred spirit.
What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. I won’t lie, I picked this up to help me talk about teaching on the academic job market. But it’s really good! It was recommended to me by Prof T., to whom it was recommended, I think, by some other teacher; it seems to be kind of a cult thing that way. Bain’s central point is that we should think of classes in terms of what students do, not what the instructor does. Teaching isn’t a matter of pouring “material” into students and hoping they “retain” it, it’s about creating an environment in which they can actively engage in the same kind of work and critical thought that professionals do. (The same spirit someone like Andrew Lawrence brings to guitar teaching.) It’s an insight I’d been stumbling toward on my own but which is much more fully developed here and backed up with research and case studies. This book goes on the short shelf with other pieces of everyday utopianism — A Pattern Language, Cziksentmihalyi’s Flow. It’s a slighter book than those but the spirit is the same — we don’t have to just carry out our daily activities the way they always have been, but we also don’t have to revolutionize them according to logic of profit. It is possible to think clearly, freely and genuinely about how to do things right on their own terms.
Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas. A first novel by someone you’ve never heard of; he doesn’t seem to have published even a story before this. It was recommended to me by my father when it came out a couple of years ago; I resisted reading it then because I knew it had a 9/11 subplot, and I’m allergic to WTC sentimentalism. But that’s only a small part of the book, which as it turns out I like very much. It’s a bit hard to say why. After all, it’s an entry in the justly reviled struggling-writer-in-Brooklyn genre. And while I generally prefer a clean austere style, Thomas is a writer of compulsively detailed descriptions — a single golf swing takes half a page. (Think Updike on Doritos.) Now one obvious difference between Thomas and “all the sad young literary men” is that he is African-American. It’s treacherous to think that any work of art can allow you to really understand a subjective experience foreign to your own (but isn’t that always what we hope for from art?) but this feels like a convincing picture of (one kind of) life as a black man in post-civil-rights America. In tone it’s somewhere between Nathan McCall’s memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler and the lovely Medicine for Melancholy. It’s significant that, as a “type,” the unnamed (but clearly autobiographical) protagonist is arguably a black man only second, and a struggling artist first. Why can’t you have all the angst that goes with that just because you’re black?, is one of the main themes of the book. There’s a nice scene about halfway through where he plays a set at an open-mike night and, after doing various old blues songs ends with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The white hipster running the thing is disappointed: “I thought you were going in a different direction.”
It’s also a book about being broke, about alcoholism, and most distinctly, about blue-collar work. The narrator, who needs to earn money very quickly to preserve his marriage, has set aside his novel and returned to his old work as a carpenter. Thomas’ overflowing, almost compulsive descriptions are so much more interesting when they’re not about golf swings, but about the specific tasks and relationships involved in renovating a building. (So it’s a book about gentrification too.) At one point the narrator finds himself in a nice restaurant, and all he can think about is how superb the dry-walling is. (This goes in the labor-as-man’s-highest-need file, next to the poor hatmaker in Mrs. Dalloway, whose favorite activity in her walks around London is admiring the workmanship of ladies’ hats.) That so much of the loving description is of manual labor rather than middle-class consumption rituals is one important thing that sets this book off from Updike and from the Jonathans. But setting aside all that, it’s just beautifully constructed, it achieves what fiction is there for, it engages you emotionally. When the narrator finally has some bills in his pocket and seems set to squander them, when he seems set to give up in his fight against alcohol, you want to push your head through the page and shout, No.