Books

Once Again to Zelda by Marlene Wagman-Geller

Alas, Wagman-Geller's sentences are unwieldy, weighted with passive constructions.


Once Again to Zelda

Publisher: Penguin
Subtitle: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications
Author: Marlene Wagman-Geller
Price: $16.95
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780399534621
US publication date: 2008-11
Amazon

A “1”. It’s a shocking rating, one I never expected to give. But Wagman-Geller’s book is a first for me -- one I simply could not finish. Oh, I got to page 251 in 276 pages of text (pages 277-313 are references), before that, moving from a willingness to be entertained to doubt to disbelief to disgust.

I began charitably enough. It was the Sunday before Christmas, a freezing, rainy day, a perfect day to spend reading what appeared to be a charming book. An examination of dedications! What could be more amusing for the bibliophile in your life? I was thinking Ammon Shea, Anne Fadiman, Wendy Lesser -- writers whose love of books makes time spent with them delightful.

Okay, so Marlene Wagman-Geller, who is described as a “veteran high school English teacher,” isn’t much of a writer. Her sentences are unwieldy, weighted with passive constructions:

“My research gave me new insight into history, a discipline I have always found an engaging pursuit.”

“I discovered that what precedes the opening line of a novel can serve as a crystal ball as to what is to follow the turning of the pages.”

Relax, I said to myself. Don’t be uncharitable. This is a light book for a rainy day. (But she’s an English teacher! cried my inner Dale Peck.) So I read. Once Again to Zelda is divided into 50 short chapters, each devoted to a book, its dedication, author, and the story behind the dedication. I read about Mary Shelley and Charlotte Brontë, Herman Melville and George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain.

All had miserable lives, great books or no. I was chugging along amiably enough when I began noticing a pattern: many of these poor unhappy writers meet happiness in eternal rest. Of George Eliot, buried beside her beloved George Lewes:

“It was fitting that the author would spend eternity with the one who had always seen her inner beauty and whose love had ‘conferred happiness upon her life.’”

Of Mark Twain, who died mourning his wife:

“On the tail of Halley’s Comet, he was able to return to his Eden, and his Eve.”

On Carson McCullers:

“Maybe in the next world, unlike this one, her heart no longer had to be ‘a lonely hunter.’”

Maybe you believe in the afterlife and are okay with this. Me, I’m horrified. I’m all for a fab afterlife, but how do we know? Worse, perhaps, is Gellman-Wagner’s habit of putting thoughts in her dying authors’ heads. Oscar Wilde dies, not in a grungy hotel room, but recalling his salad days as the toast of the town. Poor Martha Gellhorn is imagined looking down from heaven, enraged at her obituary, which neglects her career in favor of her famous husband. “In retrospect,” Truman Capote’s happiest hours were spent during childhood, making up stories for his aunts and good friend Nelle Harper Lee. Really?

I kept on. Then I reached chapter 18, Atlas Shrugged. Like many 15-year-old bookworms, I went through a major Ayn Rand phase. I read all her books, then moved on to secondary sources, notably Nathaniel Branden’s My Years With Ayn Rand (the 1989 text) and Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand. The Brandens, now divorced, were some of Rand’s most passionate acolytes. By now the story of Rand’s affair with the younger Nathaniel while the two were married—Nathaniel to Barbara, Ayn to actor/artist Frank O’Connor—is the stuff of contentious legend.

What remains undisputed by all parties is the destructive impact the affair had on all four people. In My Years, Nathaniel writes of the stress Ayn’s demands placed on him, and the final, miserable scene where he breaks off their sexual relationship, telling Ayn she is “too old.” Ayn slaps him, then throws him out of her life. Barbara’s book seconds this painful accounting.

Both books also note Frank O’Connor’s increasing unhappiness—Ayn fell in love with his face, ascribing to his beauty an intellect he did not possess. A quiet, gentle man who adored gardening and nature, he was distraught by Ayn’s insistence they leave their bucolic California home for the Capitalist intensity of New York City. Miserable and isolated, Frank slid into dementia.

Yet Wagner-Gellman calls their marriage one of love, neglecting the more unpleasant realities. In her version of the story, Ayn asks Nathaniel for a break in relations, whereupon he takes up with another woman. When Ayn asks for a resumption of the affair, Nathaniel demurs, and Barbara is asked to clear matters up. Further, Wagman-Gellman claims Atlas Shrugged took 14 years to write; Nathaniel pegged it at 11.

These claims may seem trivial, but in a book about books, facts are critical, and these omissions cast my earlier reading into doubt. Where was Wagner-Gellman getting her information? I flipped to the reference section and was shocked: nearly every source is from the internet, many of them from Wikipedia.

The internet can be a fine source of information. It can also be the free-for-all scandalizing the folks over at the The New York Review of Books. And Gellman-Wagner certainly gives them fodder (Daniel Mendelsohn, are you reading this?) Nowhere did I find printed material cited. If Wagner-Gellman read Nigel Nicolson’s fine Penguin Lives biography of Virginia Woolf for her entry on Orlando, dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, she doesn’t mention it. Nor, it seems, did she tackle Hermione Lee’s masterful biography of Woolf. Hey, Nicolson is only Vita Sackville-West’s son. And Hermione Lee is one our best contemporary literary biographers. But no: Wiki strikes again.

Night was drawing on, and I was losing steam. Chapters on Irène Némirovsky, Stephen King, and Laura Hillenbrand presented material clearly taken from the books themselves—if you’ve read Suite Française, On Writing, or Hillenbrand’s 2003 piece in the The New Yorker, you know the stories behind the dedications.

Then I reached chapter 46, The Year of Magical Thinking. I should preface this by saying that if I engaged in organized worship of any kind, Joan Didion would be in my pantheon. The day Magical Thinking came out, I called my local independent bookshop as they were unpacking the shipment. I begged them to hold one for me, left my office in the middle of the morning without consent, and all but ran to the store. You get the idea.

Marlene Gellman Wagner let's a seemingly innocent but otherwise maddening typo slip into Didion’s dedication:

“This book is for John and Quintana.”

Now, if you are anything at all like me, i.e., you’ve read the book a million times, you know this isn’t what Ms. Didion wrote. But I trotted over to the bookshelf and double-checked:

“This book is for John and for Quintana.”

In a book dedicated to dedications, this is inexcusable. Aaagh! Mind you, this is not an advance review copy where mistakes and typos are expected. This is, sadly, the finished product. It is a disservice to writers, who are abused enough these days, and to readers, who may be unwittingly misled.

--

Earlier this year I wrote a scathing review of a book, only to have the author respond with a series of nasty emails to me, my editors, and my long-defunct blog. It got me thinking about unkind book reviews. I don’t write many. I am a writer myself, and know how painful it is to see your work derided by others. Initially I vowed to emulate Joan Acoccella, who has mastered the art of writing kindly even when she’s criticizing. But I am not Joan Acoccella, and a book like this sets me boiling.

An English teacher should avoid passive constructions. She should read the secondary literature. She shouldn’t misquote. She shouldn’t misquote Didion. Heaven only knows what else she got wrong. Maybe we’ll find out, if there is an afterlife, when we meet a bevy of enraged authors at the pearly gates – or at the gates of Hell.

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