Reviewing Reviewers

Admiring John Updike Admiring Haruki Murakami

I am myself familiar with the reviewing cliché, from both ends of the business, so I say deliberately that Updike’s scope is rather breathtaking (from Isaac Babel straight to James Thurber on successive pages), and I add that he seems almost incapable of writing badly. When I do not know the subject well — as in his finely illustrated art reviews of Bruegel, Dürer and Goya — I learn much from what Updike has to impart. When he considers an author I love, like Proust or Czeslaw Milosz, I often find myself appreciating familiar things in a new way. I enjoy the little feuilletons he appends, for example on the 10 greatest moments of the American libido.

Christopher Hitchens reviewing Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism by John Updike in The New York Times

Hitchens quotes the “highly affable preface” to the book which has Updike wondering if he’s not critical enough, or critical in the wrong directions. “Should he perhaps have been a little kinder to E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo and Norman Rush or (by implication) a fraction more harsh with Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami?”

But it’s Updike’s calm and discursive attention to the details in Murakami’s second most recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, that provides a context for what can seem to be allegorical non-sequiturs in the Japanese novelist’s books. A man who might have come to life from the label of a Johnny Walker whisky bottle, and the fast food icon, Colonel Sanders are characters in Kafka on the Shore, and Updike muses on their mythological relevance.

In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventh century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki….Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. …

From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”: “Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.”…

In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”

John Updike. The New Yorker.

In a New York Times Essay Haruki Murakami reviews his own writing, describing the affinity he feels with jazz:

I had practiced the piano as a kid, and I could read enough music to pick out a simple melody, but I didn’t have the kind of technique it takes to become a professional musician. Inside my head, though, I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.

Haruki Murakami. New York Times. July 8, 2007

Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) by Francisco Zurbaran. The cover image for “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles

The Spiritual Journeys of L.A. Times and N.Y. Times Book Review Editors

Richard Bernstein had been Time’s first Bejing Bureau Chief, and Chief at bureaus in Paris and the United Nations, as well as a national cultural correspondent for the New York Times, before settling into a role he acknowledges as privileged and wonderful in the book reviewing department at the New York Times. He had reached the age of fifty without any significant hardships and his spiritual crisis came about through ennui, not hardship. He maintained his cultural and spiritual ties to Judaism but was absorbed by the pilgrimage made by an ancient Chinese Buddhist monk, who travelled into India and back to visit sites significant in the life of the Buddha.

In the year 629, a greatly revered Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out across Asia in search of the Buddhist Truth, to settle what he called the “perplexities of my mind.” Nearly a millennium and a half later, Richard Bernstein retraces the monk’s steps: from the Tang dynasty capital at Xian through ancient Silk Road oases, over forbidding mountain passes to Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Amu-Darya River, across Pakistan to the holiest cities of India—and back.

Jacket blurb from Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein (2001)

In last Sunday’s Times he mused on why news of the uprisings by Buddhist monks in Burma has largely disappeared from the news, contrasting it with how Buddhist monks seized, and kept, the attention of the press during the Vietnam war.

Anybody old enough to remember the Vietnam War will remember that day in 1963: it was June 11 when newspapers around the world carried the shocking image of a 73 year-old monk named Thich Quang Duc sitting in the middle of a Saigon street and maintaining his rigidly erect lotus position even while his body was engulfed in flames.

It was an image that changed the United States and Vietnam forever, a stunning, shocking and, in its way, sublime protest against the heavy-handedness and tyrannical capriciousness of the regime led by Ngo Dinh Diem being supported with the blood of young American men. Among its consequences was the American decision a few months later to engineer a coup leading to Diem’s assassination, though the Buddhists continued to protest against later regimes as well, contributing to those governments’ weakness and instability.

A self-immolation that nobody knew about would have no effect, of course, but in South Vietnam a young American reporter for The Associated Press, Malcolm Browne, was on the scene that day, snapping away with the camera he always carried with him, winning a Pulitzer Prize and changing the course of history.

We know from William Prochnau’s excellent book of 1995, “Once Upon a Distant War,” that Mr. Browne was present at that historic moment because he had been tipped off in advance by the Buddhists’ clever and skillful press relations representative.

Richard Bernstein. A Modern Buddhist Uprising Strikes a Quieter Chord. New York Times. November 4, 2007

Jack Miles spent ten years (1960 – 1970) training at a Jesuit Seminary. He was literary editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1985 to 1991 then spent five years on the paper’s editorial board, writing editorials. His books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God examine God and Jesus Christ as a literary figures. In May this year he lectured on the soul in modern literature at the Getty Center.

For imaginative reviewers, especially poets, no less than for scientists and a for few more far-sighted religious leaders, including, notably the Dalai Lama, recombinant DNA is our era’s understanding of soul. We are matter organized in a way that has both life and spirit as effects, so long as the organization can be prolonged or reproduced. In a remarkable way, this notion — with its distinction between the phenotype and the genotype — combines the Semitic assumption that as each man or woman has but one life to live with the Indic or karmic assumption that something is passed on that reflects experience passed on over many more lifetimes than one. That DNA is recombinant, its ultimate origin unrecoverably multiple and remote, seems particularly congenial to the belief in “co-dependent origination” associated with the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna.

To say this much is certainly not to claim that science is a religion or religion a surrogate. Yet, granting that there is no moral to the story of evolution, there are choices capable of moral construal as the human species becomes “evolution conscious of itself.” Evolution as such makes no moral judgements, in other words, but you may.

Jack Miles. Soul Searching. May 23, 2007.

Pankaj Mishra’s Career Begins With Admiring Edmund Wilson’s Criticism

Pankaj Mishra is famous for having discovered Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things while working as an editor at Penguin Books in India. As well as writing his own books of fiction and non-fiction he reviews books for newspapers and magazines around the world. While gathering the courage to become a writer and looking for something to write about, he read the criticism of Edmund Wilson at a University library in Benares. He feels that his career properly began when he came to write for the New York Review of Books after meeting co-founder Barbara Epstein.

I first met Barbara Epstein in New Delhi in 1997. She had come to India to give a talk on Edmund Wilson, whom I had idolized since discovering his books in a neglected old library in the North Indian city of Benares. I never expected to meet anyone who had known Wilson; the young Americans I met in India had barely heard of him. Such youthful idealism as mine does not usually survive its encounter with reality. Yet Barbara’s graciousness, wit, and ironical intelligence more than matched my fantasies of the remote American world of Wilson.

In an obituary for her when she died last year, he wrote:

It was while working with her that I learned the most valuable lessons of our friendship. I began to see more clearly how literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; how it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; how it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.

A new collection of Wilson’s criticism was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times last weekend:

At his best, Wilson has a novelistic drive and intensity so hypnotic that you forget you’re reading criticism altogether. He once wrote of great novelists that they “must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another,” and he did exactly that in “To the Finland Station,” his epic 1940 study of socialism and its founders. …

An independent man of letters, Wilson mastered the difficult art of freelancing while writing for Vanity Fair, the New Republic and the New Yorker, his home base after World War II. Wilson approached his trade as a journalist: He would find a group of subjects or books that interested him and write up his findings in his articles and reviews. He didn’t compose his books so much as assemble them from this vast output, expanding and trimming his pieces where needed. His method, which he outlined in 1943, is still instructive (budding critics, take note!): “You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject.”

Matthew Price. Los Angeles Times. November 4, 2007.

In 2005 in the New Yorker Louis Menand described the scope, and selectiveness, of Edmund Wilson’s interests:

Wilson had no interest in criticism as such. He wrote a few essays about the critical literature that had influenced him—Marxist and historical interpretation—but he paid little attention to the criticism being written by his contemporaries unless they were good writers themselves, in which case he read their criticism as a form of literature, which is how he preferred to read everything. He detested what he called “treatise-type” books—theoretical or social-scientific works—and avoided them, unless, again, they seemed to him to have literary or imaginative power. He read Marx but not Weber; he read Orwell but not Hannah Arendt. It was his practice, when he took up an author, to read the whole shelf: books, uncollected pieces, biographies, correspondence. When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame. “I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through ‘Don Quixote.’ ” Though he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn’t bother to finish “Middlemarch.” He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill’s company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the movies. He loathed the radio.

“A history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them”: this was the way Wilson described his ambition in his first major book, “Axel’s Castle,” in 1931.

Louis Menand. Missionary: Edmund Wilson and American Culture. The New Yorker. August 8, 2005.

Gary Giddins and the Impossibility of a Negative Review

Gary Giddins has published two collections of jazz criticism drawn mostly from a column he used to write for the Village Voice: Visions of Jazz: The First Century and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century, and brings to his reviews elements of literary criticism.

To borrow Harold Bloom’s conceit, Armstrong invented the human in American music, supplanting the mechanics of ragtime and traditional polyphonic jazz as well as classical alloys (from Gottschalk to Dvorak to Gershwin) that attempted to create “serious” music from American folk sources, with a fluid, graceful, rhythmically unparalleled model on which a durable art grounded in individualism could flourish.

In Armstrong’s world, it was no longer sufficient to merely master the trumpet or saxophone; instead, jazz musicians adapted their instruments as extensions of themselves, making each solo as distinct as a signature or a fingerprint. At a 1966 concert on Randall’s Island, Edmund Hall and Pee Wee Russell played a duet, and I could scarcely believe they were playing the same instrument, so utterly distinctive was each man’s approach to the clarinet. By then I had learned, with immense satisfaction, that not only is character fate, but also style, timbre, and attack. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman and Herschel Evans all played tenor saxophone and were of similar age and background, yet announced themselves unconditionally in the space of a few notes. Nor was this generational: for the same could be said of their successors, tenor players like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, Wayne Shorter, Zoot Sims, Booker Ervin, and — here is the thing — many others. This apparently infinite well of personal expression quickened my fixation and deepened my resolve.

Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.

And he explained at length how the changing fortunes of the recording and media businesses contributed to him rarely writing negative reviews.

The trade of writing about music hasn’t changed in the nearly 200 years since it became a journalistic sideline. The trick is still to find concrete images to describe and appraise non-verbal art and the feelings it engenders while sustaining one’s youthful ardor and openness — despite the mellowing or wisdom or crankiness or despair or revelation that comes with age. The death of jazz, movies, literature, and civilization is as confidently predicted as the end of the world and the second coming. Sidney Bechet, in his posthumous memoir, offered a more realistic credo: “You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It’s that way with music, too.” It’s that way with everything. Criticism is often a battleground between empathy and disdain. A musician once complained that my work is too emotional. He’s right. Much as I admire the writing of categorical intellectuals, feeling is the only arbiter I completely trust. Like everyone else, I aspired to join William James’s tough-minded tribe — just as I determined to be one of those who, in Bertrand Russell’s dictum, braved the future rather than retreat to the past. It didn’t work out that way: As a critic, I am chiefly an enthusiast mired in the past and reliant on sensibility. This confession is not an apology, just fair warning to anyone who wandered out of the rain into these pages.

A vigorous art deserves and requires a disputatious criticism. Better to be wrongheaded and punitive from time to time than reliably soft, predictable, and accommodating. But with the eradication of antitrust laws, and the selling out of the FCC, not to mention the retailing of art to corporate interests (through an insidious extension of copyright protection of what amounts to perpetuity), jazz has all but disappeared from commercial TV and radio. I concluded some time ago that I could not justify using the space allotted me in the Village Voice or any other venues to caution readers against records they’ve never heard of. Much of my time was spent searching for performances and recordings I liked well enough to explore in essay form and that exemplified the art’s liveliness. As a result, enthusiasm became a safe harbour and disputation a matter of personal grousing, except once in a while, usually when covering festivals that guarantee excuses to pick nits.

Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.