Alexander Cockburn and I were both Eng Lit majors. It’s one of the things that brought and kept us together for 20 years. When politics became too boring to endure, we talked about books, usually old ones. These discussions would often begin with Alex calling up and saying, “Okay, Jeffrey, who wrote this”, then reading a passage such as the following:
“In order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period, well, say, a thousand years , but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow? And in fact, – here the stranger turned to Berlioz, – imagine that you, for instance, start governing, giving orders to others and yourself, generally, so to speak, acquire a taste for it, and suddenly you get …hem … hem … lung cancer … – here the foreigner smiled sweetly, and if the thought of lung cancer gave him pleasure — yes, cancer — narrowing his eyes like a cat, he repeated the sonorous word —and so your governing is over! You are no longer interested in anyone’s fate but your own. Your family starts lying to you. Feeling that something is wrong, you rush to learned doctors, then to quacks, and sometimes to fortune-tellers as well. Like the first, so the second and third are completely senseless, as you understand. And it all ends tragically: a man who still recently thought he was governing something, suddenly winds up lying motionless in a wooden box, and the people around him, seeing that the man lying there is no longer good for anything, burn him in an oven.”
Flummoxed, I stammered, “Uh. Uh.”
“Out with it, Jeffrey. Choose somebody, at least.”
“Balzzzz–. No, no. Hugo! Victor.”
“Tsk. Tsk. Think of the cat. The cat!”
Cats? Eliot, no. The verboten Celine, that infamous ailurophile, perhaps? “Oh, yes. Buh-Buh-Bulgakov!”
At his instigation, I’d read The Master and Margarita only the year before. (This passage remains highlighted in my battered copy 20 some years later.)
Cockburn refused to believe there were many novels worth reading after Ulysses (certainly not Finnegans Wake), except those penned by PG Wodehouse. And, for someone who started out writing reviews for the TLS, Alex spent very little time reading recent fiction, except when prodded by his pal Ben Sonnenberg, the great editor of Grand Street. Over two decades, I can’t remember Cockburn ever recommending a new novel for me to read, though he was aghast at the fact that I hadn’t read Goncharov’s Oblamov or Patrick Hamilton’s The Charmer and considered these defects a sign of my near illiteracy. I filled in the voids pretty quickly, but he always remained just a little bit suspicious of my literary bona fides. I redeemed myself a little when I offered him a first edition of his father Claud’s masterpiece Ballantyne’s Folly, which I made a point of saying I’d picked up at the old Caveat Emptor used bookshop in Bloomington, Indiana, years before we met.
My fiction reading was largely fixated on the generation of fiction writers who came up in Joyce’s wake, so to speak: Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ishmael Reed and Thomas Pynchon. But I admit that not much has grabbed me since the death of Roberto Bolaño. And that’s a pity, because our age cries out for a new Dostoevsky, though perhaps none of our current crop of political and financial overlords are deep enough to sustain that kind of psychological probing.
In looking through the CP archives, I was a little surprised by how few reviews of any kind of books either of us wrote and most of those were written to trash awful texts written by over-praised hacks. Of course, getting revenge through reviews can be taken to extremes. I think of poor Jean-Paul Sartre spending the last productive decade of his life writing The Family Idiot, a 3,000-page demolition of Gustave Flaubert and dying before he could complete the volume on the work that set him off: “Madame Bovary.” As much as Sartre professed to detest Flaubert that kind of obsession must have concealed a secret passion.
I thought about why we hadn’t spent more time writing about “good books,” spreading the cheer that there still texts worth reading and it brought to mind a line from one of my favorite professors in college, a medievalist who taught Chaucer to students who didn’t know Middle English and Shakespeare to students who didn’t know iambic pentameter from the Pentagon. This first day of class he made a point of ripping out the introductions to the works we’d be reading that semester, a truly Herculean feat of strength when it came to the Riverside Shakespeare. “Rid yourselves of these distractions from the text!” He had a particular animus toward poor Richard Aldington, the English poet and critic who wrote most of the introductions to the Penguin editions of DH Lawrence’s novels. His amputated copy of The Rainbow remains one of my most treasured possessions. He used to admonish us that “If you feel compelled to write about the meaning of a poem or novel, it’s a sure sign that you’ve missed it entirely.” This was a liberating philosophy when it came time for term papers.
So what to say about this year’s crop of books, except that I’m glad people are still writing them and that books, those musty relics of the enlightenment, are still capable of striking a chord–otherwise there wouldn’t be such a revived movement to restrict the reading of them. As always, censorship campaigns will do more to sell a book than the publishers, especially in a time of non-existent advertising budgets.
There’s an old cliché that history is written by the victors. This is often credited to Winston Churchill, but probably goes all the way back to Tacitus, if not Herodotus. True enough, I suppose. But let the losers and victims start writing history and watch all hell break loose, as we’re seeing with the hysterical reaction to Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. Nothing better captures our national neurosis than our possessiveness about a past we scarcely know anything about. There’s some news they’ll just never forgive a writer for delivering. Consider the fact that Tolstoy remains excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, despite repeated entreaties from his descendants.
Unlike the US Constitution, which is permanently set in an admixture of 18th century cement and originalist bullshit, history doesn’t remain static. Its meaning changes through time and perspective. What is CRT but a new lens for looking at a past we thought we knew. It’s a different lens than one that EP Thompson crafted, which is different from the one David Graeber developed. Put them together and you begin to see history in three-dimensions, four if you’re lucky. It’s our task as writers to document the world at least as fast as its essential elements are disappearing (or, more bluntly, being disappeared) and to give some sense of the forces behind these accelerating cultural and biological extinctions. The best prose agitates as it elucidates.
Here are a dozen or so books that opened new ways of looking at the world for me this year. I sincerely hope the authors are as pleased to make this annual list as Mark Twain was after he read starchy William Dean Howells’ enthusiastic review of his first book Innocents Abroad. When Twain met Howells in the offices of the Atlantic Monthly a few weeks after the rave review was printed, he exclaimed: “When I read that review of yours, I felt like the woman who was so glad her baby had come white.”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Icebound: Shipwrecked at the End of the World
Dostoevsky in Love: an Intimate Life
The Subversive Simone Weil: a Life in Five Ideas
(University of Chicago)
Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement and the American Story of Sacred Lands
Ahab’s Rolling Sea: a Natural History of Moby-Dick
(University of Chicago)
The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire and What Happens Next
(University of California)
White Malice: the CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa
Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Spectres Over the Gilded Age
The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: a Chronicle Foretold
Fox and I: an Uncommon Friendship
(Spiegel & Grau)
Build Bridges, Not Walls: a Journey Into a World Without Borders
The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine
Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery and War Transformed Medicine
(Harvard University Press)