Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bad boys

David Castronovo’s Blokes is a study of four more-or-less blokey post-war British (indeed English) writers: the poet Philip Larkin, the novelist Kingsley Amis, the playwright John Osborne, and the critic Kenneth Tynan. Castronovo is an American academic, and in some ways his American-ness – or at least his non-Britishness – shows. He is under the impression, for example, that “ratbags” is a singular term, like “jackanapes.” He also believes that Philip Larkin wrote a poem called “Sunny Penstatyn.” (The place is called Prestatyn.) And several times he uses the hideous epithet “cheesy” to denote general awfulness. It’s depressing to learn that even highbrow Americans have started using this crass term. Americans are entitled, I suppose, to invent an orange product that comes out of an aerosol can and call it cheese; but to proceed to coin a word suggesting that cheese is an inherently shitty substance is going a bit far. Those of us who enjoy the subtler varieties of the fermented curd must resist the internationalisation of this term at every opportunity. Has Castronovo never savoured a slice of barbecued haloumi, or carved himself a wedge of Brie? He is writing, remember, about a country in which the Ploughman’s Lunch is a justly celebrated staple.

But these are side issues. The main question is this: how well is Castronovo able to conceal, or transcend, the fact that he is an academic, writing an academic treatise? We know what books like this can be like. Amis himself, in Lucky Jim, cruelly nailed the properties of the publish-or-perish endeavour: the selection of the “strangely neglected” topic; and then the article itself, with its “niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-inducing facts, the pseudo-light it [throws] upon non-problems.” I should say right away that Castronovo’s book isn’t as bad as that ... [read more] 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Steady on, Oprah

On Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

When a character in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom embarks on a reading of War and Peace, she confirms something you probably already knew. Jonathan Franzen’s ambitions are Tolstoyan. Not that Franzen tries to emulate Tolstoy at the technical level: he isn’t that audacious. But he does want to bring the serious social novel out of retirement. He wants to write big realist books that get all of modern America in. This is a laudable aim. In many ways, Franzen’s execution is laudable too. Freedom is a rich and readable book. But those who want to rank Franzen with the American greats must have an impoverished notion of what literary greatness is. Freedom showcases Franzen’s shortcomings as vividly it demonstrates his strengths. It confirms, for my money, that his high seriousness as a thinker is not nearly equalled by his technical resources as a writer ... [read more]