Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.
The Hellmouths of Bewdley
I wonder if at one point Tony Burgess thought he might become a writer of tough-guy, dirty realism: adopting an approach that is popular among the (male) bards of Ontario’s backwoods. In The Hellmouths of Bewdley, his first book, you can definitely see leanings in that direction, especially in the stories dealing with the pretty town of Bewdley’s down and out. A more powerful pull, however, is felt toward the transformation of the rawest physical experiences into poetry, and in particular the transformation (metamorphosis? apotheosis?) of dead bodies into hallucinogenic, lyric visions. The end of the story “Winter” is a good example of this, and shows where Burgess would soon be heading, leaving Bewdley behind and jumping down the hellmouth into an anti-Bewdley where there is no law but the law of the jungle and everyone is either executioner, victim, or witness.
It seems to me that Stephen King’s best novels are the ones (a) that he wrote in the 1980s; and (b) that are centripetal or focused inward, sculling streams of consciousness to a rhythm set by the subjective awareness of time.
With those two criteria set, I think Misery is one of his two or three best books. It’s a much darker story than the Rob Reiner film version, as King’s Annie Wilkes is a cruel ogre out of the world of fairy-tales as much as she’s a psychological case. She would eat Kathy Bates for breakfast.
Then there is the subtext, with Paul Sheldon as King’s alter ego: a successful genre writer whose dreams of literary cred go up in smoke on a portable barbecue. A little lower layer, however, is darker still, with Paul recognizing that he is playing Scheherazade to himself, that junk fiction is his junk, the opium not only to the masses but for his own bitter soul. He’s weeping as he writes, though at least the pay is good for misery.
Shutting Out the Sun
Before their fall from the commanding heights of the world economy you could read for days about the secrets to Japan’s success. Since then there have been nearly as many books trying to explain what went wrong. I remember reviewing one of these, Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, fifteen years ago. Shutting Out the Sun is a later work in the same genre, taking as its dominant theme an analogy between Japan’s hikikomori (young male shut-ins) and Japan’s economic withdrawal and isolation, with the United States serving as enabling, co-dependent mother. It makes for an interesting mix of pop psychology, cultural studies, and political science, though it’s undone just a bit, I felt, by the amount of sympathy Zielenziger has for the hikikomori.
There is no consensus opinion on hikikomori syndrome. Some see it as a case of advanced codependency. In the West the diagnosis would likely be some form of autism. Zielenziger thinks it might be related to post-traumatic stress disorder, which I think is a huge stretch. Essentially, they appear mainly to be bitter losers who have decided, in the best adult-baby fashion, to sulk their lives away while being cared for by their mothers. I’m no proponent for tough love in general, but sympathy is the blood these vampires feed on and serves only to encourage and enable them. As does a judgement like Zielenzeger’s that the hikikomori are “far more sensitive and intelligent than their average classmates.” On what evidence? And does he really believe that these cases possess “the very qualities their nation need[s] to shake off its own inwardness”? It seems to me they are more symptoms of the disease than they are its cure.
The Twelve Caesars
Matthew Dennison’s revisiting of Suetonius is probably unnecessary even for the general reader, adding little to the familiar story of the first dozen Roman emperors either in terms of new scholarship or fresh interpretation. Still it’s hard to go wrong with these colourful illustrations of how the power of an office corrupts. It may be that some of the worst of the bunch in fact wanted to do a better, more responsible job, but that was never in the cards. Following Augustus, though with less restraint, they resigned themselves to playing their part in the comedy.
Dying Every Day
James Romm’s previous book, Ghost on the Throne, did an admirable job summarizing an almost impossibly complex and sprawling story: the breakdown of the Classical world after the passing of Alexander the Great. Dying Every Day may be seen as a contrasting, systolic movement, narrowly focused on the career of Seneca at the court of Nero. It is not a biography or general history of the period but an essay that tries to identify which of the “two Senecas” handed down to us in the literature is a closer approximation of the man. Was he a time-serving hypocrite and enabler of Nero’s despotism, or a philosopher aware of his own falling short of Stoic ideals who nevertheless did the best he could in a bad and ultimately fatal situation, a true hostage to fortune?
There’s no way of answering such a question now, but for what it’s worth Romm takes a sympathetic approach and tends toward the latter reading. It’s easy, perhaps inevitable, to become compromised living under an absolute dictator. Not coincidentally, this makes the historian’s job even harder, as the members of a dictator’s court have roles to play that require concealing , by various subterfuges, their real thoughts and feelings. It seems likely that Seneca had no idea how bad Nero was going to turn out, and when he did it was too late to do anything about it or even to save himself. In retrospect he probably realized that the only way to win was not to play the game.
Better Living Through Criticism
A. O. Scott
In these essays on criticism (or “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth”) the film critic A. O. Scott quickly disposes of originality. “Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.” “Really, there is nothing new under the sun.” Well, I didn’t have to put that second one in quotation marks, but it’s what he says.
This is an essential first step in such a book, as Scott has nothing new to say. The usual, and very familiar, subjects and sources are canvassed. I didn’t find much to disagree with, which is both good and bad. Good in that Scott doesn’t say anything very stupid; bad in that his main point is that criticism is all about thinking, with the critic being, ideally, a kind of catfish (to borrow a contemporary trope or meme for a disruptive force). And yet despite this one feels inclined to skim the pond.
I think critics are important, but are they essential? One of the saddest things about Scott’s book is the interchapters that take the form of interviews or dialogues with himself. Or perhaps even sadder is the fact that the book’s impetus seems to have been a tweet made by the actor Samuel L. Jackson about one of Scott’s reviews. I doubt Jackson cared about Scott’s response, leaving the prominent critic to spend a good chunk of the book talking to himself. You have the sense of a man very much alone in a room, knowing that when he leaves he’ll be the one who has to finally turn out the lights.