Sunday 14 September 1997
Yes, it's Susan Sontag, kicking off a review of Simone Weil's essays, pronouncing upon the age in the crackling air of the early Sixties. Oh, but those must have been the days! Our civilisation remains undoubtedly bourgeois and about as liberal as it was in 1963, though differently so. Now, however, we prefer our heroes not repetitive but merely repetitious, and therefore comfortably familiar. As for extremity, we have it in spades, but trainspotting is just a spectator sport.
The world was so much younger then, in the year of Beatlemania, of John F Kennedy's assassination, of the invention of sexual intercourse. Young shoulders bore old heads, though. Jonathan Miller was best known then as a satirist, one of Peter Cook's young co-stars on That Was The Week That Was. Along with Sontag, he was also a contributor to the first issue of the New York Review of Books. He dismissed John Updike's The Centaur in the tones of a Master or Warden, rather than a recent graduate. "At the centre of all that wearisome pedantry he has a neglected germ of literary imagination," said the future opera director of the future greatest living American novelist.
Grand it may be, but it remains fresh all the same. Now Miller and his fellow critics have been assumed into the Net, and the Web edition of the first New York Review of Books, February 1963, is an impressive demonstration that good criticism lasts. So have the names of the contributors, who included Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, William Styron and W H Auden. James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time was hot. William Burroughs' Naked Lunch was new, and so was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.
Naturally, some of the terms and sensibilities are anachronistic. Baldwin and his unconvinced reviewer wrote of the "Negro". Mary McCarthy observed that in Naked Lunch "sex, while magnified - a common trait of homosexual literature - is a kind of mechanical mantrap baited with fresh meat". The remarkable thing about these pieces, though, is how untouched by passing fashion they are. They command respect because they remain useful. After Burroughs' eventual passing, we're left with an immense body of work: a Burroughs body provokes mixed and visceral reactions. In contemplating an obituary judgment, it helps to be pulled up short with a reminder that in the midst of his fantasies, Burroughs really meant all that deranged stuff about psychiatry, control and power. As McCarthy puts it, "for the first time in recent years, a talented writer means what he says to be taken and used literally, like an Rx prescription."
Another advantage of early reviews is that they are free from the influence of accumulated reputation. William Phillips was also unimpressed by cover shouts hailing Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power as, among other things, a "Twentieth Century Leviathan". He demolished it in a single paragraph, arguing that since Canetti's central insight was unexceptional - that there are rulers and the ruled - the project depended on how the idea was elaborated. This Canetti had failed to do, instead writing a sort of poem; "a bad poem, far too long, cluttered up with home-made jargon, and much too pretentious".
There's plenty more where that came from, and more on the way. The issue is a curtain-raiser for the progressive lodging of the NYRB's entire archive on the Web. The Review proposes to charge for access eventually, presumably because heavyweight writers have heavyweight agents. Snap it up while it's still free.
Review of THE KIDNAPPING OF EDGARDO MORTARA By David I Kertzer (Picador pounds 18.99)
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