Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Exactly is Wrong With "The Golden Notebook" (1962)?

I don't often get to make an independent critical judgment of a "great book." If I'm reading it on the assurance of its greatness, after all, I will either like it and therefore have nothing to add to the original recommendation; or I'll hate it and leave in disgust fifty pages inside, and know that I never really read far enough anyway to make a fair judgment. The Golden Notebook presents a rare opportunity, therefore, in being a great book whose greatness I read all the way through and still greatly disliked.

Of course, something beyond a feeling of obligation kept me going for all 600 pages. Reader(s) of this blog will note besides that, for all my supposed dislike of Lessing's book, this did not prevent me from harvesting from it my usual bounty of quotations to wedge irrelevantly into posts (though you will also have noticed that I am fairly promiscuous in this regard). But I am still left with the felling that despite its many recommenders and its considerable interest and its well observed portions, and despite an earnest desire on my part to like it, I don't like it. And I think now, after months of soul-searching, I know why. But since I've gotten myself too worked up already, we should probably start over.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Liberal Hawks

Things fare ill, both materially and spiritually, for that cluster of writers we call the interventionist left -- or, less charitably, the "liberal hawks." They first formed ranks in 2003 at the start of the invasion of Iraq; they had their brief apotheosis at the signing of the Euston Manifesto in 2006; and they mostly fizzled out when the moral consequences of the War on Terror became increasingly visible to the world and difficult to bear.

They were wrong from the start, to the extent they really lived up to their "hawk" designation; but they did have their moments in the early days when they nonetheless seemed, grudgingly, to "have a point." They were an eruption, a spasm, and like most such things they had their origin in energies that had in fact been unduly repressed and misdirected by an older, more relativistic Left, and that therefore manifested themselves in destructive forms when they did break through the resistance. One didn't like the Eustoners, that is to say, but one felt at times that the old leftist warhorses had some responsibility for their creation. The whole movement had a certain enfant terrible quality; it was upstarts like Nick Cohen and the then-unreconstructed Johann Hari against the old farts like Noam Chomsky and Terry Eagleton, who had been saying the same things for far too long.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"The King of Comedy" (1983): A Review

This gangly, awkward, sad, and uncomfortably hilarious film from Martin Scorsese is not much talked about anymore. Judging from Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia, it seems to have been upsetting fare for a lot of reviewers at the time of its release, which makes sense. The King of Comedy is an unrelenting staring contest with the most hopeless, outsized, and perpetually unrealizable kinds of creative ambition; and since most film reviewers have some creative ambitions themselves, watching it must have felt for some of them like an encounter with a private nightmare. Perhaps the strangest review in this vein comes from Roger Ebert, who contends: "It's hard to believe Scorsese made [this film]; instead of the big-city life, the violence and sexuality of his movies like 'Taxi Driver' and 'Mean Streets,' what we have here is an agonizing portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up." A weird assertion, as I say, because in spite of the superficially novel setting and subject matter, The King of Comedy is in every way a very typical kind of Scorsese movie, exploring the same characteristic themes and obsessions that all the rest of his work has done. It may be a "portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up" -- but what movie by this director is not?

Monday, February 2, 2015

John Updike's "Terrorist" (2006): A Review

John Updike's late and to some ill-advised foray into writing about Islamist terrorism is not a part of his career we talk about. I don't even get the sense that 2006's Terrorist has the distinction of being the "justly forgotten" entry in the Updike oeuvre -- something noticeable if only for its absence. It's more the case that people remember the novel exists, but don't incorporate that fact into their understanding of the world. "John Updike wrote a post-9/11 novel about an American high school student who joins Al-Qaeda? Oh yeah, I guess he did." The knowledge is present in one's mind, but somehow unassimilable. That's how I thought about it, anyways. Recent events in the news, however, and the fact that I noticed the book randomly in the library, not only made me finally assimilate it, they also made me decide to read this book that I had never had any intention of reading.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


The word "courage" doesn't instantly summon for us the same kind of associations it once would have. One gets the sense in reading William James, say, that for people of his generation, there could be no confusion or doubt about the definition of the term: it meant above all the willingness to face death or violence. It was "If..." and Balaclava; it was the blind charge into the nose of the Gatling gun; it was sitting quietly in the grand ballroom of the Titanic, as does one character in A Night to Remember, while listening to the wood panels all around you give a final creak and shudder before giving way. For earlier generations of outlaws and rebels and revolutionaries, similarly, courage was the ability to hold a grimace when facing the firing squad. It was that "calm and haughty look" on the condemned man's face, which "damns the whole multitude around the scaffold." (Baudelaire, Aggeler trans.). Nowadays, we view such a definition of courage as primitive, materialistic, insufficiently spiritualized. What about the courage to risk social opprobrium? The willingness to differ from one's peers? The ability to think for oneself?