Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A good critic is hard to find

Over at Underbelly, Buce finds that Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel (1977), a “book about the rottenness of war,” does not really belong on any “list of the books that really define the last century,” although it is admirable in its way.

James Marcus reports on his “delightful conversation” with Lore Segal, the delightful novelist whose delightful Lucinella, about the New York literary world, has just been reissued in Melville House’s series The Contemporary Art of the Novella.

Patrick Kurp saunters in characteristic fashion from Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas, which leads him to contemplate the concept of similarity, to an essay by Kay Ryan. “Ryan’s essay begins as an anecdote about walking along a country road, looking at litter, and turns into an essay in applied epistemology,” he observes. Thus Kurp describes his own working method.

Brandon Watson has also been thinking about Aquinas recently. In a repost from last year, he exposits St. Thomas on passionate love. “In this account, the experience of love consists in a series of changes induced in us,” he begins, and then explains further.

Miriam Burstein lays out the “anti-Ritualist novel” The Vicar of St. Margaret’s (1899–1900), winner of the Religious Tract Society’s contest to see who could write the best book about “the evils of sacerdotalism.” To read Burstein, who brings her sharp intelligence and light touch to everything she writes, is to be reminded that literary masterpieces emerge from a solid mass of lesser contemporaries, which have sunk without a trace. Burstein restores the trace.

Jennifer Lynn trails the fascinating history of Halloween pumpkin-carving, which seems to be date from no earlier than 1866, back to “the Irish harvest celebration of Samhain.” Just as rabbinical Judaism converted the harvest celebration into Sukkot, the Church of Rome converted feast days like Samhain into All Saints Eve and All Saints Day. The original legends, however, are worth recovering.

Over at Wuthering Expectations, the Amateur Reader has begun a serial reconsideration of the Scottish novelist John Galt (1779–1839). He starts with The Provost (1822), the self-portrait of a “genuine Machiavellian.”

Mark Athitakis reviews The Humbling, a novel in which I said Philip Roth takes the conception of art-as-magic to its logical conclusion. Athitakis has a different and challenging view: “The Humbling is about the attempt to fight back [against old age and death], about desperately making bargains in the hopes of avoiding that end.” Thus do critics dispute each other, indirectly but with conviction.

When I said recently that I could not think of a worse prose writer than Toni Morrison who is praised for her language, a commentator rejoined: “Bellow does come to mind.” Jake Seliger captures exactly why Bellow deserves his reputation as the best prose writer of his generation.


R/T said...

Thank you for providing these links to comments by good critics. The title of your posting reminds me that I ought to return to the analysis of Flannery O'Connor that I had begun but abandoned a month or so ago. Thanks for the catalyst.

James Marcus said...

Thanks for taking note! I meant to email you after I posted the brief, blurry clip of Lore Segal, but in my floundering way I couldn't find an email address on your blog. Where can that pince-nez have gone to now?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. It's always nice when something I struggled to articulate for a half-hour or so gets elevated to the level of "review." There's much more to say about the The Humbling, which isn't Roth's best but deserves better than some of the easy dismissals it's received.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Burstein and her project actually directly inspired my John Galt Clishmaclaver.

Thanks for the link.