segunda-feira, 31 de maio de 2010

When Europe Wept By ANDREW ERVIN

When Europe Wept

Julie Orringer

By Julie Orringer
602 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95

   A few years ago, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury had some less than charitable things to say about American literature. “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” ­the secretary, Horace Engdahl, argued. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” His comments upset some people on our shores, but despite the obvious over­simplification he was right.
   Recently, much of American literature seems to have been looking inward. That’s one of the many reasons Julie Orringer’s first novel, “The Invisible Bridge” (which follows her well-regarded story collection, “How to Breathe Underwater”)  deserves to be praised. It takes the introspective themes we’ve loved so well in American literature — from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to A. M. Homes’s “Music for Torching” — and points them in a different direction.
   Orringer’s central character, Andras Levi, is a promising student of architecture who leaves his native Hungary to study in Paris in the late 1930s — until his scholarship is revoked when anti-Jewish laws go into effect. As you might expect, the trials he and his wife and their extended families face will grow exponentially worse in the years to come. Their happiest days and, later, their struggles, are rendered in sweeping, epic fashion.
   The war in Europe drives Andras and his wife, Klara, apart, as it does so many of the people around them. After returning to Hungary, Andras is relatively lucky, assigned to a labor unit while others wind up on the brutal eastern front or at a mining camp in Siberia. Then, in a cruel twist, a newly exposed secret from Klara’s past threatens to further disrupt her family’s fortunes. The Levis’ experiences give us a close look at the terrible ways that enormous historical events can affect individual lives.
   Not unlike a typical Hungarian meal, “The Invisible Bridge” might have benefited from the elimination of some fat in the first few courses. The slower pace wouldn’t necessarily pose a problem, except that it makes an already abrupt endgame feel more rushed. Orringer’s readers wind up bracing themselves in a kind of anticipatory dread, awaiting the greatest horror of the 20th century. All along we know, or think we know, what’s in store for Andras and his family.
   Yet Orringer builds on that historical tension in very clever ways. We all know what happened in the Holocaust, even if few among us can ever understand it, and the close of the novel demonstrates the refreshing trust Orringer has in her audience. “The Invisible Bridge” provides another literary glimpse of the day-to-day horrors of that time, and also reminds us of the potential contributors to the postwar world — the architects and painters, the professionals and tradesmen — who were lost from Mitteleuropa. A brief epilogue, set in the United States, brings the monumental tragedy even closer to home.
   Orringer has accomplished much in this novel, despite occasional outbreaks of purple prose. Then again, the vocabulary available to any artist to evoke the Holocaust is severely limited. Some things can never be adequately described. The strength of “The Invisible Bridge” lies in Orringer’s ability to make us care so deeply about the people of her all-too-real fictional world. For the time it takes to read this fine novel, and for a long time afterward, it becomes our world too.
Andrew Ervin’s first book, “Extraordinary Renditions,” a collection of novellas, will be published in September.

Dispatches From the Other. By FRANCINE du PLESSIX GRAY

Dispatches From the Other

Simone de Beauvoir

By Simone de Beauvoir
Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier
800 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40

   In 1946, when Simone de Beauvoir began to write her landmark study of women, “The Second Sex,” legislation allowing French women to vote was little more than a year old. Birth control would be legally denied them until 1967. Next door, in Switzerland, women would not be enfranchised until 1971. Such repressive circumstances account for both the fierce, often wrathful urgency of Beauvoir’s book and the vehement controversies this founding text of feminism aroused when it was first published in France in 1949 and in the United States in 1953. The Vatican placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books. Albert Camus complained that Beauvoir made Frenchmen look ridiculous. On these shores, the novelist Philip Wylie eulogized it as “one of the few great books of our era,” the psychiatrist Karl Menninger found it “pretentious” and “tiresome,” and a reviewer in The Atlantic Monthly faulted it for being “bespattered with the repulsive lingo of existentialism.”
   In her splendid introduction to this new edition, Judith Thurman notes that Blanche Knopf, wife of Beauvoir’s American publisher, heard about the book on a scouting trip to France and was under the impression that it was a highbrow sex manual. Knopf asked for a reader’s report from a retired zoologist, Howard M. Parshley, who was then commissioned to do the translation. Knopf’s husband urged Parshley to condense it significantly, noting that Beauvoir seemed to suffer from “verbal diarrhea.” Parshley complied, providing the necessary Imodium by cutting 15 percent of the original 972 pages. And so it was this truncated text, translated by a scientist with a college undergraduate’s knowledge of French, that ushered two generations of women into the universe of feminist thought, inspiring pivotal later books like Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” and Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics.”
   Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton,  Sophia Tolstoy and others. She also scrutinizes the manner in which various male authors, from Montaigne to Stendhal to D. H. Lawrence, have represented women (and, in many cases, how they treated their wives). Urging women to persevere in their efforts at emancipation, she emphasizes that they must also do so for the sake of men: “It is when the slavery of half of humanity is abolished and with it the whole hypocritical system it implies that the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its authentic meaning and the human couple will discover its true form.”
   How does Beauvoir’s book stand up more than a half-century later? And how does this new translation compare with the previous one? I’m sorry to report that “The Second Sex,” which I read with euphoric enthusiasm in my post-college years, now strikes me as being in many ways dated. Written in an era in which a minority of women were employed, its arguments for female participation in the work force seem particularly outmoded. And Beauvoir’s truly paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood — another characteristic of early feminism — is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious. Every aspect of the female reproductive system, from puberty to menopause, is approached with the same ferocious disdain. Females of all living species are “first violated . . . then alienated” by the process of fertilization.    Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.” Beauvoir doesn’t appear to have spent much time with children or teenagers: a first menses, in her view, leads the girl to be “disgusted by her too-carnal body, by menstrual blood, by adults’ sexual practices, by the male she is destined for.”
   If Beauvoir’s ruminations on “the curse” are pessimistic (and pessimism runs through “The Second Sex” like a poisonous river) her reflections on sexual initiation and marriage make them sound like torture. She chooses the most brutal examples of deflorations — mostly rapes — to make her points. Wedding nights “transform the erotic experience into an ordeal” that “often dooms the woman to frigidity forever.” It isn’t surprising, she adds, “that ‘conjugal duties’ are often only a repugnant chore for the wife.” “No one,” she argues, “dreams of denying the tragedies and nastiness of married life.” Conjugal love, in Beauvoir’s view, is “a complex mixture of attachment, resentment, hatred, rules, resignation, laziness and hypocrisy.” Even marriages that “work well” suffer “a curse they rarely escape: boredom.” Already alarmed? Wait until you come to the discussion of motherhood. A woman experiences the fetus as “a parasite.” “Maternity is a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism.” “There is nothing like an ‘unnatural mother,’ since maternal love has nothing natural about it.” It is significant that the only stage of a woman’s life Beauvoir has good things to say about is widowhood, which, in her view, most bear quite cheerfully. Upon losing their spouses, she tells us, women, “now lucid and wary, . . . often attain a delicious cynicism.” In old age, they maintain “a stoic defiance or skeptical irony.”
   It should be noted that Beauvoir, at least in her personal life, did not hate men. They were, in fact, central to her happiness; she merely loathed the institutions imposed on women by what she considered a patriarchal society. Her lifetime companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, the more conventional of this dazzling couple, proposed to “Castor” and was rejected with the comment that he was being “silly.” (The nickname Castor, French for “Beaver,” was inspired by Beauvoir’s prolific output and her compulsively disciplined work habits; she researched and wrote “The Second Sex” in a mere 14 months, while pursuing several other projects.) A tiny beauty with severely plaited dark hair and a regal manner, always fastidiously attired, she was highly attractive to men. Her complex erotic relationship with Sartre, which occasionally involved the sharing of female partners, and her ardent affair with the American writer Nelson Algren, indicate that she had a pronounced sexual appetite. And though she might have been loath to admit it, both men had a profound impact on the writing of “The Second Sex.” It was Algren who persuaded Beauvoir to expand one of her earlier essays on women into a book-length work. And it was Sartre who provided one of the book’s two basic insights: the existentialist notion of an opposition between a sovereign self (Man) and an objectified Other (Woman), who, limited by her weaker physical strength and the travails of motherhood, must abide by Man’s dictates.
   The other pivotal notion at the heart of “The Second Sex” — a more problematic one, which Beauvoir came to on her own — is her belief that, in Parshley’s translation, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This preposterous assertion, intended to bolster her argument that marriage and motherhood are institutions imposed by men to curb women’s freedom, will be denied by any mother who has seen her toddler son eagerly grab for a toy in the shape of a vehicle or a gun, while at the same time showing a total lack of interest in his sister’s cherished dolls. It has also been disputed by certain feminist scholars, who would argue that many gender differences are innate rather than acquired.
   Yet notwithstanding its misconceptions and frequent obsolescence, “The Second Sex” retains an awesome majesty and continues to provide many astute insights into women’s lot. Among the best parts of Beauvoir’s book are those on women artists and intellectuals. Why have women not created art as great as men’s? she asks. Women’s overwhelming desire to please is at fault. The truly original writer is “always scandalous,” and women’s desire to please keeps them from daring to “irritate, explore, explode.”
   Should we rejoice that this first unabridged edition of “The Second Sex” appears in a new translation? I, for one, do not. Executed by two American women who have lived in Paris for many years and taught English at the Institut d’Études Politiques, it doesn’t begin to flow as nicely as Parshley’s. A few instances: Writing about the aggressive nature of man’s penetration of woman, Parshley felicitously translates a Beauvoir phrase as “her inwardness is violated.” In contrast, Borde and Malovany-­Chevallier’s rendering states that woman “is like a raped interiority.” And where Parshley has Beauvoir saying of woman, “It is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life,” the new translators substitute, “It is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity.” In yet another example, man’s approach to woman’s “dangerous magic” is seen this way in Parshley: “He sets her up as the essential, it is he who poses her as such and thus he really acts as the essential in this voluntary alienation.” But in Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, “it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby as the essential in this alienation he grants.” Throughout, there are truly inexcusable passages in which the translators even lack a proper sense of English syntax: “Moments women consider revelations are those where they discover they are in harmony with a reality based on peace with one’s self.”
Never mind. Despite this new edition’s shortcomings, one should be grateful that Beauvoir’s epochal work will be drawn to the attention of another generation. “What a curse to be a woman!” Beauvoir writes, quoting Kier­kegaard. “And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” No one has done more than Beauvoir to explain the conditions of that curse, and no one has more eloquently, irately challenged us to turn that curse into a blessing.

Francine du Plessix Gray is writing a book about Marie Antoinette’s lover, the Swedish diplomat Axel von Fersen.

The Joy of (Outdated) Facts. By GEOFF NICHOLSON

The Joy of (Outdated) Facts

   The other day I realized I absolutely had to own a copy of the recently published facsimile of the first Guinness Book of Records from 1955 (limited edition of 5,000, mine is No. 177). It’s a fine book, and it gave me just want I wanted. Since I bought it, I’ve been regaling people with stories of Jacko, a dog owned by one Mr. J. Shaw of London that killed 1,000 rats in an hour and 40 minutes in May 1862; Mrs. Theresa Vaughan of Sheffield, who had had 61 bigamous marriages by the age of 24; and Dionsio Sanchez of Spain, who once drank 40 pints of wine in 59 minutes. It was a different world.
   A world in which, if the book’s preface is to be believed, men went into bars and argued about facts. Dreamed up by Sir Hugh Beaver, the chairman of the Guinness Brewery, the Guinness Book of Records was to be kept behind the bar and pulled out to settle disputes, like, apparently, those over how many entrechats Nijinsky could perform in a single elevation. (Ten, since you ask.)
   It took a while for me to understand why my need for the book had been so great, and then I realized, with a bit of a slap to the head, that for much of my life I’ve been accumulating “books of facts,” single volumes as well as multivolume sets. I also have eight random volumes of the 1969 World Book Encyclopedia, which I found on the street. Since I have the L volume, I can give you an idea of how the World Book editors thought things stood in London, Los Angeles and Luxembourg at that time, and what the prospects were for the lumber industry and for children’s literature: Miriam Gurko’s “Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” for example, comes highly recommended for “older boys and girls.” But don’t ask me about anything from D to K.
   As for why I’ve acquired these books, no doubt childhood trauma comes into it. While I grew up in an unbookish household, we did own (and I still have) a copy of “Everybody’s Pocket Companion: A Handy Reference Book of Astronomical, Biblical, Chemical, Geographical, Geometrical, Historical, Mathematical, Physical, Remedial, and Scientific Facts, Dates Worth Knowing, World Sports and Speeds Records, Mythological, Physiological, Monetary, Postal and General Information.” It’s undated but seems to be from the early 1950s. Within its small pages, you could learn the capitals of all the French colonies, “various trigonometrical formulae,” and how to remove a wet ink stain. (Steep it in milk.)
   Most of us, I suppose, like to think we have a good general knowledge. But knowledge is rarely “general” at all. It’s usually extremely specific. As an Englishman who’s been in the United States for well over a decade, I still find many of the questions on “Jeopardy!” distinctly parochial. You may know what American city has Chocolate Avenue running through it (Hershey, Pa.). But why would I? An American watching English quiz shows would feel equally adrift.
   Similarly, books of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.
   With hindsight, we can always see through the dubious “authority” of such historical sources. Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages. Since encyclopedias are supposed to be balanced and disinterested, the bias often seems even more naked. Sometimes I wonder if the editors of my 1952 Encyclopaedia Britannica ever regretted their assessment of William Faulkner: “It is naturalism run to seed, for it means nothing. . . . In the hands of Faulkner brute fact leads to little but folly and despair.” Certainly the current editors of the Britannica reckoned some serious updating was required. In the online edition, we now read, “Some critics . . . have found his work extravagantly ­rhetorical and unduly violent, and there have been strong objections, especially late in the 20th century, to the perceived insensitivity of his portrayals of women and black Americans.” Note, however, that instead of a lofty judgment, we’re now given the opinion of these shadowy “some critics.”
   The preface to the 1952 Britannica says “experience indicates” that 75 percent of its material needs updating “only at long intervals” while the other 25 percent “requires constant revision.” Now there are online changes every day, with markers in the database to denote the comparative “volatility” of the entries, the executive editor, Michael Levy, told me.
   However, changes are evidently still not to be undertaken lightly. According to the “article history,” the entry for Faulkner has been amended just four times since 2006, three of them the addition of Web site links. Wiki­pedia, where anyone can make changes, has a much more freewheeling attitude: 30 revisions for Faulkner in April 2010 alone, although some of them, of course, are simply undoing other people’s revisions.
   Keen scholars can use these histories to track how our knowledge about the world and everything in it changes over time, but the rest of us use Wikipedia and similar repositories of facts mainly as a quick and very blunt research tool. This has its pitfalls. A school librarian friend who teaches research skills tells me (with despair) that her greatest struggle is getting students to do more than tap into Google. The corollary is that kids have also told her with complete confidence that the moon landings were fake and that 9/11 was an inside job. Their proof: It says so online.
   It’s sometimes tempting to see the Internet as a free-for-all where facts, conspiracy theories and downright lies are created equal, but hierarchies of one kind or another still operate. The last time I looked, a Google search yielded about 350,000 results for Edna St. Vincent Millay and 1.5 million for William Faulkner ­— pretty good numbers, until you see that Lady Gaga gets over 70 million. The name Dionsio Sanchez (probably a misprint of the suspiciously appropriate Dionisio) yields just 9 results, not all of them for the record-breaking wine drinker. As a matter of fact, Sanchez no longer appears in Guinness World Records either. As the current editor in chief, Craig Glenday, has said: “We’re not going to encourage that sort of thing today. That’s how people get hurt.”
   Of course, ideas of what’s worth knowing, and even what’s interesting, are constantly changing: The fascination with trigonometrical formulas certainly seems to have receded. But in a world where ever fewer people care about, or even understand the nature of, fiction, where readers and viewers demand facts and reality, outdated books of supposedly impartial information can be a useful reminder of just how slippery facts are — as unreliable as the most unreliable narrator.
   Douglas Adams once told me that shortly before he wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” he was working on a screenplay with the premise that all human civilization had been obliterated, except for a single copy of the Guinness book. Aliens from another planet tried to use it to reconstruct what life on Earth had been like: people sitting atop poles for 152 days at a time, eating 77 hamburgers at a sitting, talking nonstop for 127 hours.
   The movie was never made, which I think was a great shame. The poster could have been emblazoned with the words “based on a true story.” All the facts were right there in the book, and you can’t argue with facts, can you? 
Geoff Nicholson’s most recent book is “Gravity’s Volks­wagen.”
The New York Times - May 20, 2010

The Hacker and the Hack. By DAVID KAMP

The Hacker and the Hack

By Stieg Larsson
Translated by Reg Keeland. 563 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95

   If you’re a latecomer to the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, here, briefly, is the deal: Larsson was a Swedish journalist who edited a magazine called Expo, which was devoted to exposing racist and extremist organizations in his nativeland. In his spare time, he worked on a trilogy of crime thrillers, delivering them to his Swedish publisher in 2004. In November of that year, a few months before the first of these novels came out, he died of a heart attack. He was only 50, and he never got to see his books become enormous best sellers — first in Sweden and then, in translation, all over the globe.
   “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the third installment of the ­trilogy; its predecessors, “The Girl With the Dragon tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” have already sold a million copies combined in the United States and many times that abroad. All three books are centered on two ­principal characters: a fearless middle-aged journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes an Expo-like magazine called Millennium, and a slight, sullen, socially maladjusted, tech-savvy young goth named Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the books’ titles, who, in addition to her dragon tattoo, possesses extraordinary hacking abilities and a twisted, complicated past. Together, Blomkvist and Salander use their wiles and skills to take on corporate corruptos, government sleazes and sex criminals, not to mention these miscreants’ attendant hired goons.
   This all might sound rather Euro-cheesy, a bit Jean-Claude Van Damme, but it’s not. Larsson was a cerebral, high-minded activist and self-proclaimed feminist who happened to have a God-given gift for pulse-racing narrative. It’s this offbeat combination of attributes — imagine if John Grisham had prefaced his writing career not by practicing law in Mississippi but by heading up the Stockholm office of Amnesty International — that has made the series such a sui generis smash.
   Larsson’s is a dark, nearly humorless world, where everyone works fervidly into the night and swills tons of coffee; hardly a page goes by without someone “switching on the coffee machine,” ordering “coffee and a sandwich” or responding affirmatively to the offer “Coffee?” But this world is not dystopian. The good guys (or, I should say, the morally righteous people of all genders) always prevail in the end. The books, translated by Reg Keeland, are not lightweight in any sense — their combined bulk, at upward of 500 pages apiece, will strain the biceps of even the most Bunyan­esque U.P.S. delivery­man — but they’re extra­ordinarily fleet of movement and utterly addicting.
   The first in the series, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is an especially artful construction, its thriller intrigue enrobed in a Dominick Dunne-style screwy-rich-people tale. When we meet Blomkvist, his professional reputation has been momentarily blotted by a libel verdict against him, and he has grudgingly accepted a private assignment from an elderly, wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger: to crack the unsolved mystery of Vanger’s favorite great-niece’s disappearance some 40 years earlier. Vanger’s people have taken the precaution of ordering a background check on Blomkvist, hiring a security firm that sics its most ruthless researcher, Salander, on him. It’s not until halfway through the story that Blomkvist learns of his vetting and his minxlike vetter, but when he does, he seeks out Salander to be his partner in the vanished-niece investigation, and, lo, Larsson’s dynamic duo is born. This being Sweden, they also indulge in the occasional bout of casual sex.
   If you haven’t read “Dragon Tattoo,” I recommend that you forgo the remainder of this review and plunge into it headlong, both because you’ll enjoy yourself and because, as the kids say, spoilers lie ahead. With each sequel, Larsson simply picked up where he had left off, so it’s tough to discuss the final volume of the series without acknowledging some of the big reveals of its predecessors.
   The second book, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” is something of a comedown. Book 1 has a wintry elegance to it, as the investigation compels Blomkvist (and, later, Salander) to move up north from Stockholm to the Vanger family’s remote island compound, a bleakly beautiful place dotted with houses inhabited by relatives who distrust one another. The dysfunctional Vangers are one of Lars­son’s better inventions: their alli­ances and schisms are perfectly observed; the psychic damage wrought by their privileged life is all too authentic.
   But Book 2 is more cartoonish. Unmoored from the Vangers, Larsson relies more on implausible villains, far-fetched coincidences and unsurvivable-in-real-life episodes of violence. This doesn’t stop “Played With Fire” from being entertaining, but it’s silly and over the top. ­Blom­­kvist is back on the job at Millennium, and we are forced to swallow the facts that (a) the sinister, shadowy sex trafficker his magazine is hot on the trail of, Alexander Zalachenko, just so happens to be Salander’s father, and a former Soviet spy to boot; (b) Zalachenko’s chief henchman, a big galoot named Ronald Niedermann, is afflicted/blessed with a rare defect called congenital analgesia, which makes him impervious to physical pain; (c) Zalachenko manages to frame Salander as the prime suspect in a series of murders committed by Niedermann; and (d) Salander, in a climactic confrontation with Zalachenko and Niedermann, survives being shot and buried alive by them, then uses her cigarette case to claw out of her grave and then manages, despite having grievous physical injuries and a bullet lodged in her brain, to swing an ax into her father’s head — though he, too, somehow doesn’t die.
   Book 3, gratifyingly, brings the action back to a place somewhat resembling reality and, in so doing, restores dignity to the franchise. It begins with both Salander and Zalachenko in the hospital in critical condition, and Blomkvist on the case to exonerate the one and finger the other. The possibility that Zalachenko will be exposed to public scrutiny introduces a clever new wrinkle: the reactivation of some retired Swedish cold warriors whose responsibility it was, during the Soviet era, to harbor, handle and re-ID Zalachenko after he defected to Sweden in the mid-1970s.
   These old spies don’t want their cover blown, or that of the ultrasecret unit of the Security Police for which they worked, the Section for Special Analysis. So Salander and Blomkvist are presented with yet another adversary, this one from within the depths of the very government that should be protecting them. It’s all skillfully interlaced: the turf wars between the police and intelligence agencies; the back story and continuing skulduggery of the Section; the dogged shoe-leather journalism of Blomkvist and the Millennium staff; and Salander’s impressive ability to marshal the forces of her hacker peers from her hospital bed.
   And for fans of the first two books, there are plenty of the Larssonian hallmarks they have come to love: the rough justice meted out by Salander to her enemies; the strong, successful female characters, like Blomkvist’s lawyer sister, Annika ­Giannini, and Millennium’s editor in chief, Erika Berger; and the characters’ acutely Swedish, acutely relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. Berger and Blomkvist are occasional lovers, and have been since Book 1, despite her being married and his irrepressible penchant for tomcatting. It’s all cool: their dalliance has the blessing of her husband, Greger, who sometimes sleeps with men. As Larsson writes about Berger: “In the early ’90s . . . she and Greger had been guests of the glass artist Torkel Bollinger at his villa on the Costa del Sol. During the vacation Berger had discovered that her husband had a definite bisexual tendency, and they had both ended up in bed with Torkel. It had been a pretty wonderful vacation.”
   There are moments in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” as there are in the two earlier books, in which Larsson the pamphleteer gets the better of Larsson the novelist. The original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Man Som Hatar Kvinnor,” or “Men Who Hate Women,” and this sort of ham-handed didacticism at times interferes with Larsson’s natural storytelling ability. Near the end of Book 3, Blomkvist is actually made to speak the words “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” Save it for the study guide, Stieg! Likewise, Berger is assigned a subplot — in which she takes a new job as editor of a major newspaper and acquires a stalker who leaves notes that address her as “whore” — that has no bearing whatsoever on the main story, and seems to exist only to demonstrate how down Larsson is with all the oppressed ladies in the house.
   But these transparently “activist” moments are forgivable, as is the pathological coffee drinking, a tic that recurs so relentlessly that I don’t think Larsson realized it was a tic.    A thought on this subject: Many of the Larsson faithful subscribe to a belief that the author’s premature death was not of natural causes. He had been threatened in real life by skinheads and neo-Nazis; ergo, the theories go, he was made dead by the very sorts of heavies who crop up in his novels. But such talk has been emphatically dismissed by Larsson’s intimates. So let me advance my own theory: Coffee killed him. If we accept that Blom­k­vist is, in many respects, a romanticized version of Larsson, and that Blomkvist’s habits reflected the author’s own, Larsson overcaffeinated himself to death. Of course, the cigarettes and junk food to which both men are/were partial couldn’t have helped, either.
   In any event, it’s sad that Larsson died, and that “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the last book he finished. I’m not surprised at the reports that many American readers, suspended in mid-­momentum by the ambiguous ending of Book 2, sprang for pricey imports of the British edition of Book 3 instead of awaiting its publication here. Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.
David Kamp, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, is the author of “The United States of Arugula.”

The New York Times - May 20, 2010

Fangs and Other Fluff, Completely Guilt Free. By Janet Maslin

Fangs and Other Fluff, Completely Guilt Free
By Janet Maslin

   Memorial Day marks the start of a special season: the time to stop lying about what you read for fun. Call anything a beach book, and suddenly you’ve got an excuse for being seen with it. No need to claim you’re reading Christopher Farnsworth’s “Blood Oath,” about the president’s personal vampire, only because there’s a wait at your library for a copy of “The Road.”
   Don’t think of Mr. Farnsworth’s debut thriller as the umpteenth vampire knockoff on the market. Think of it as the inventive one in which a brave young White House staff member asks, “You really expect me to believe we’ve got a vampire on a leash, and we can just send him after terrorists and spies whenever we want?” Multibook series and $200 million movie franchises have been built on a lot less.
   When they’re treated as beach reading, even the most well-devised books can be taken more lightly. Sometimes that’s a relief. Consider “The Nearest Exit,” a terrific second installment in Olen Steinhauer’s “Tourist” spy series about Milo Weaver, a brooding C.I.A. operative with all the right lone-wolf tendencies. Milo, who was alluring from the start, would bring to mind George Clooney, even if Mr. Clooney didn’t intend to play him some day.
   Milo arrived fully formed in the first “Tourist” book with a mountain of personal and professional baggage. His story is even more complex this time around. But the agile twists of “The Nearest Exit” are best enjoyed if you don’t have to explain, say, how the theft of art in Frankfurt, the abduction of a Moldovan teenager in Berlin and the killings of mullahs in Sudan are related. Milo gets it. Milo figures it all out and stays several steps ahead of the game. Why not just take Mr. Steinhauer’s word for that? Milo’s company is at least as valuable to the series’s appeal as is his flair for international trickery.
   Besides, it’s easier to explain being drawn to a highly complex story than having a hankering for anything aimed at the young-adult set. But here’s a badly kept secret: An awful lot of best-selling adult books have the large fonts, short chapters and simple ideas of young-adult books anyhow. And “Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer” happens to be a legal thriller by the otherwise fully adult writer John Grisham. Mr. Grisham can tell a good story no matter what audience he’s telling it to.
   His new book kicks off a series about Theodore Boone, a 13-year-old who is the son of two small-town lawyers and is madly infatuated with all things related to the courtroom. Not since Nancy Drew has a nosy, crime-obsessed kid been so hard to resist.   What’s more, Mr. Grisham manages to make Theo’s amateur law practice perfectly plausible. If you pick up “Theodore Boone” and get hooked, just say you’re looking at it for your sister/nephew/ neighbor/other. Presto! Not guilty. It’s no crime to let your inner seventh grader loose.
   And it’s fine to dig into the latest Dave Barry collection, even though there are many, many Dave Barry collections. And that this one includes essays about his vasectomy and colonoscopy.
   First of all, “I’ll Mature When I’m Dead” isn’t a quickie: there are 18 humor pieces here, and all but the one about the colonoscopy are new. Second, this isn’t a book to take on vacation; it is a vacation. Simply consider that the entire “Twilight” series seems to have been written for the express purpose of giving Mr. Barry the chance to make fun of lousy writing.
   “With a feeling of ominous foreboding based on the cliffhanger ending of the last book,” Mr. Barry begins “Fangs of Endearment,” a wall-to-wall riotous parody. Adopting the voice of the series’s dimwitted, verbally maladroit heroine, Mr. Barry comes up with little marvels like “I wondered who it could be and decided to find out by opening the door,” and, “With a feeling of even greater foreboding than usual, I kept walking forward, putting one leg in front of the other in an alternating sequence.” One character has “vampire eyes glowing with redness like two hot eyeball-sized coals.”
    In his “Solving the Celebrity Problem” chapter Mr. Barry writes about fans who besiege him to tell him how much their kids loved his book “Hoot.” In other words, they confuse him with Carl Hiaasen, but that’s a happy accident all around.
   Next month brings Mr. Hiaasen’s “Star Island,” which revolves around a 22-year-old pop star who has a drug problem. The main character is a look-alike hired to distract paparazzi from photographing the pop star when she is throwing up a birdseed, vodka, painkiller and stool softener mix into an ice bucket, as she discreetly does at the start of “Star Island.” This book is billed as fiction, but you be the judge.
   One real pop star whose story has been overlooked is Tommy James, who grew up as Tom Jackson and made up the band name “Shondells” in high school study hall. Then he lifted a song called “Hanky Panky” from a bar band without knowing where it came from, and Tommy James and the Shondells turned it into a monster hit. (It came from the stellar Brill Building songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.)
   That debut smash, in 1966, was the start of a wild story involving Roulette Records’ boss, Morris Levy, and an awful lot of guys who called Tommy “kid” for reasons he would be slow to understand. The title of his boisterous memoir, “Me, the Mob, and the Music,”  is self-explanatory.
   Among the plaques in Mr. Levy’s office was one that said, “O Lord, Give Me a Bastard with Talent.” A directional microphone hidden in the “O” in that sign would ultimately lead to Mr. Levy’s conviction on racketeering and extortion charges. Until then Mr. James (whose book was written with Martin Fitzpatrick) would have some wild times as one of Roulette’s golden boys. It’s high time that he had a book to himself, since his stories can almost rival the wider-ranging show business lore recalled by Jerry Weintraub in “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead.”
   Between Mr. Weintraub’s skills as a raconteur, Rich Cohen’s punchy style as his co-writer and a fabulous cast of those with whom Mr. Weintraub has done business over the years, this book is paved wall to wall with funny, hard-nosed stories. If Mr. Weintraub ever backed down from a negotiation while promoting concerts, producing movies or just finding ways to sell snow to Eskimos, he’s not telling. Never mind, because he’s great at the name-dropping game: “Yeah, Elves. It’s me. What’s up?” Even in that kind of company his best stories are the ones about himself.
   The actor Bryan Batt’s best stories are about his mother. No wonder: “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother” is a title to be reckoned with, and so is Gayle Batt, the steel magnolia whose son plays Sal Romano on “Mad Men.” Mr. Batt — “Pumpkin,” to Gayle — engagingly tells his family’s story through good times and hard ones. His acting career has had its ups and downs too. (He was a cat in “Cats.”) The pièce de résistance: his mother arrived to watch the shooting of the “Mad Men” Season 3 premiere, in which Sal figures prominently. Mrs. Batt had to be warned by her son that she’d be watching a scene in which Sal is explicitly groped by a bellhop. “Pumpkin,” she answered, “I can’t wait.”
   If Mr. Batt is confidently embarrassment-proof, Chelsea Handler is coated in armor. Her “Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang” opens with a riff on her discovery of masturbation as an 8-year-old, a startling writing gambit even for her. But the chapter is ridiculously funny, especially since Ms. Handler remembers her 8-year-old self as full of adult backtalk. “I’m 8,” she claims she said irritably to her father as she complained about the 15-year-old boy next door. “Are you familiar with the term ‘molester?’ ”
   With that kind of chutzpah, Ms. Handler can go toe to toe — or whatever to whatever — with Chuck Palahniuk, whose “Tell-All” is full of boldface words that become stranger and stranger as he presents an escalatingly loony pipe dream that savages Lillian Hellman and many others. Having gone off the deep end with his most recent envelope pushers (“Haunted,” “Rant,” “Snuff” and “Pygmy,” none of them readable), Mr. Palahniuk is in good form once again. Finally.
   Jill Kargman’s “Arm Candy” also uses boldface. Unfortunately, she isn’t kidding. “Move over, Ashton and Demi! New York has its own pair of May-December stunners in eligible finance heir Chase Lydon and famed model/muse Eden Clyde,” she has a gossip columnist exclaim about the supposedly red-hot couple her book describes. Read it only if you think a model’s horror of turning 40 is an interesting plot idea.
   In terms of value “Arm Candy” looks like the Oxford English Dictionary compared with Claire Cook’s “Seven Year Switch.” Its cover actually depicts a woman sitting in a beach chair, with a book on the table beside her as turquoise waves surge at her feet.
   Even against such stiff competition Debbie Macomber’s “Hannah’s List” does this year’s most egregious job of pandering. Ms. Macomber presents the lonely Dr. Michael Everett after his wife, Hannah, has died of cancer. Hannah turns out to have left behind a three-name list of women Michael can marry. The story of Hannah’s deathbed offer comes wrapped in a treacly sweet cover, visible at a distance of about 100 yards.
   Ms. Macomber has also produced a knitting book with the same cover art. You can knit the shawl made for Hannah while she was undergoing the chemotherapy that couldn’t keep her alive.
   Better yet, you can throw in the beach towel and decide that this year’s hot-weather reading exemption has its limits. Maybe they’ve got “The Road” at the library after all.

The New York Times - May 27, 2010

domingo, 9 de maio de 2010

My God, the Suburbs! By Colm Tóibín

My God, the Suburbs! By Colm Tóibín

     One of John Cheever’s most famous stories is called ‘The Swimmer’. It is set, like much of his fiction, in the lawned suburbs somewhere outside New York City, and it is filled, like most of his fiction, with despair. The hero, Neddy Merrill, the father of four daughters, is sitting by a neighbour’s pool drinking gin when the idea comes to him that he might reach home by doing a lap of all of his neighbours’ pools on the way. In the pages that follow he is both a mythical hero of the suburbs and a holy fool; he is both a legend in his own dreams and a ridiculous figure, a character whose reality is evoked by the close detail with which his world is described, but who is also a victim of his own imaginings. There is a realism in the way the detail and the characters are evoked which forces the reader to believe that this is actually happening – that Neddy is really swimming home, pool by pool – but there is also something else going on which makes us wonder if the story is a metaphor for something, or a parable. It ends with Neddy’s arrival home to find his house dark and its doors locked. ‘He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.’
     In Cheever’s journals for the months before he wrote the story, he included an entry which dealt with his increasing ambition and fame: ‘I dream that my face appears on a postage stamp.’ Soon afterwards, he wrote about something which might have prevented this actually happening: about a secret life which gave him creative energy and filled him with suburban shame. On the one hand, he wanted to be a happily married man and a devoted father, the man whom his friends and readers believed him to be. ‘It is my wife’s body that I most wish to gentle, it is into her that I most wish to pour myself,’ he wrote. But, on the other hand, his thoughts had a habit of turning, as they did in that same diary entry, to his sexual interest in men, this time to a male figure he had seen by a swimming-pool. ‘His soft gaze follows me, settles on me, and I have a deadly itchiness in my crotch.’ He thought about having sex in the shower with the young man; he contemplated ‘the murderous checks and balances of a flirtation’. But then he realised that he was, in fact, a respectable married man with three children who dreamed of having his face on a stamp. ‘But then there are the spiritual facts: my high esteem for the world, the knowledge that it is not in me to lead a double life, my love of perseverance, a passionate wish to honour the vows I’ve made to my wife and children.’ Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the urge, which his creation Neddy Merrill would soon also feel, to plunge into life, to race after our instincts, to upset the petty canons of decency and cleanliness, and yet if I made it in the shower I could not meet the smiles of the world … I have been in this country a hundred times before … Why should I be tempted to throw away the vast delights of love for a chance shot in a shower?
     Thus ‘The Swimmer’, read in tandem with Cheever’s journals, becomes a version of the writer’s dream and then his nightmare. His dream was that he should have ‘breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty’, his nightmare that he would come home to an empty house, that he would, because of instincts he barely understood and deeply despised, lose the domestic life he craved and the people he most loved. He wrote in his journals that he was locked into ‘the toleration of an intolerable marriage’. Soon after his account of the man he had seen by the pool, he wrote of being with his younger son, Federico: ‘I have no freedom from him. Never having known the love of a father has forced me into a love so engulfing and passionate that there is no margin of choice.’
     He filled his journals with images of love for those around him and longing for domestic harmony, and then broke the harmony with images of despair, often caused by hangovers (he drank vast quantities, often starting in the morning), and of hate, usually for his wife (who for much of the time they were married did not speak to him, often with good reason). Few images of happiness or ease were allowed to stand. In 1963, for example, he registered a memory from childhood of being at the beach with his parents and his older brother, Fred, and then returning home.
     We have our ice cream on the back lawn, read, play whist, wish on the evening star for a gold watch and chain, kiss one another goodnight, and go to bed. These seemed to be the beginnings of a world, these days all seemed like mornings, and if there was a single incident that could be used as a turning point it was, I suppose, when my father went out to play an early game of golf and found a dear friend and business associate on the edge of the third fairway hanging dead from a tree.
     The tone in Cheever’s journals was usually self-pitying and humourless. In the stories, however, he could turn domestic despair into comedy and then back again, often in a single phrase. Neddy in ‘The Swimmer’, for example, Cheever wrote, ‘might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one’. Or in ‘The Country Husband’, as the children are bickering in their father’s presence before their mother enters to announce that supper is ready in their nice suburban house, Cheever risks a phrase that makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry: ‘She strikes a match and lights the six candles in this vale of tears.’
     For Cheever, the house, the simple suburban house, was a sort of hell. Yet this was where he lived, and the idea of losing it, or being left alone in it, was a further depth of hell that he dreaded. In his journal for 1963 he brooded over this:
     My grandfather is supposed to have died, alone, unknown, a stranger to his wife and his sons, in a furnished room on Charles Street. My own father spent two or three years in his late seventies alone at the farm in Hanover. The only heat was a fireplace; his only companion a halfwit who lived up the road. I lived as a young man in cold, ugly and forsaken places yearning for a house, a wife, the voices of my sons, and having all of this I find myself, when I am engorged with petulance, thinking that after all, after the Easter egg hunts and the merry singing at Christmas, after the loving and the surprises and the summer afternoons, after the laughter and the open fires, I will end up cold, alone, dishonoured, forgotten by my children, an old man approaching death without a companion.
     Cheever had another problem besides his fear that his secret sexuality would be discovered and that he would lose the cocoon of domestic life which left him so blissfully unhappy. He was a snob. He believed that he was a Cheever and that this meant something, that he belonged in some way to American grandeur. Thus his social status in the suburbs mattered to him, as did material wealth and its trappings, even when he did not have them. The decline in fortune suffered by his parents and the drunken antics of his brother, their letting the family name down, filled him with as much shame as his own sexuality or his own drinking. In company he could be suave and charming, but the minute he was alone and putting pen to paper, this shame and its attendant dramas would make its way into his fiction and his journals in guises both comic and maudlin. He was aware, as were others, of his ‘cultivated accent’ – his daughter, Susan, reported her friends asking if he was English or something – and noted that he should be careful with it. ‘When this gets into my prose, my prose is at its worst.’
     The first Cheever in America was Ezekiel, who was headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708, and the author of a book on Latin which was the standard textbook in the United States for more than a century. On his mother’s side, Cheever claimed to be descended from Sir Percy Devereaux, a mayor of Windsor: indeed, his mother kept a picture of Windsor Castle on her wall. But this was nonsense; he had no such ancestor. When Cheever’s family wanted to mock him, they referred to him as the Lost Earl of Devereaux. His mother was a nurse; he gave some of her characteristics, such as her interest in organising others, to Honora Wapshot in his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle. Like Coverly Wapshot, Cheever blamed his mother for handing on some of her worst anxieties to him. His father was a shoe salesman.
     In his early forties, after winning an O. Henry Award, Cheever went to see his mother. He reported the following exchange: ‘I read in the newspaper that you won a prize.’ ‘Yes, mother, I didn’t tell you about it because it wasn’t terribly important to me.’ ‘No, it wasn’t to me either.’ In the Wapshot novels, everybody loves Coverly’s older brother, Moses, but ‘everybody did not love Coverly.’ So, too, everyone loved Fred, John Cheever’s older brother, who was born in 1905, but everybody did not love John, who was born in 1912. By the time his mother was pregnant with him, indeed, the marriage was under so much strain that Cheever’s father invited an abortionist to dinner. As Blake Bailey writes in his biography: ‘It was a story that haunted Cheever the rest of his life … Not surprisingly, he saw fit to blame his mother for having the bad taste to tell him of the episode.’
     The family was affluent at first, living in a large house in Quincy, Massachusetts, but by the 1920s, as the Depression came to New England, Cheever’s father’s business failed and he began crying at the breakfast table. Fred was the strong one and excelled at sport whereas John was weak and prone to illness. Fred defended him, however, punching an Irishman who said that his little brother looked like a girl when he skated. Cheever opened his story ‘The National Pastime’: ‘To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.’ His uncle, when he saw him, said: ‘Well, I guess you could play tennis.’ Cheever covered his tracks by hating tennis all his life and developing an elaborate and conspicuous interest in sport, including baseball. ‘He flung himself into icy pools and skated with a masculine swagger,’ Bailey writes. While Fred was away at college, John also developed an interest in other pastimes, such as attending ‘a penis-measuring contest, followed by an orgy’ and soon learning to masturbate with a boy called Fax Ogden. ‘Rainy days were best of all,’ Bailey writes, ‘as the two boys could stay in bed and practise, indefatigably, their favourite pastime.’ Cheever wrote in an unpublished memoir that ‘when one bed got gummed up we used to move to another.’
     Cheever was good at blaming people; so skilled did he become at it that he sometimes went as far as blaming himself. Since he never had a job or went out much, and mainly saw his family and his family only, he specialised in blaming them. He blamed his father and his brother for not playing ball with him when he was small. He blamed his father for losing his money, his brother for leaving home. He blamed his mother for many things, but mainly for opening a giftshop to keep the family going and making a success of it. Once she opened the shop, Cheever wrote, ‘I was to think of her, not in any domestic or maternal role, but as a woman approaching a customer in a store and asking, bellicosely: “Is there something I can do for you?”’ The vulgarity of it all was an ‘abysmal humiliation’ for him. When he read Freud, Cheever also discovered that his family was a ‘virtual paradigm for “that chain of relationships” (weak father, dominant mother) “that usually produces a male homosexual.”’ Thus they didn’t just make him poor, they made him queer, and he spent the rest of his life resenting them.
     Since home did not suit his tastes, Cheever invented an alternative and much grander home – the artists’ retreat at Yaddo in upstate New York, where he first went when he was 22. He seems to have enjoyed himself immensely there over the years. ‘It’s the only place I’ve ever felt at home,’ he said. In 1977 he reminisced: ‘I have been sucked by Ned [Rorem] and others in almost every room and tried unsuccessfully to mount a young man on the bridge between the lakes.’ Soon, despite this, or because of it, he became a favourite of Mrs Ames, who ran the place, and of the servants, who called him Lord Fauntleroy. (‘Only dogs, servants and children know who the real aristocrats are,’ he liked to say.) One of his happiest memories was returning to Yaddo and overhearing the parlourmaid say: ‘Master John is back!’
     Cheever’s early stories deal with the nuclear family as a crucible of tension and betrayal; his families drink together and manage to cause each other nothing but pain. He became a master of the single, searing image of pure desolation in the midst of the trappings of good cheer and middle-class comfort. Because of his drinking habits and also because his talent seemed to focus best on the small moment of intense truth, he had real difficulty writing his first two novels. When he was 40, he gave a hundred pages of a novel to the editor who had commissioned it to be told that they were worthless, that he should give up writing and look for another way of making a living. Although The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and The Wapshot Scandal (1964) were well received and have their comic moments, there is something unfocused about the narratives and sketchy about the characters. As he came to the end of The Wapshot Scandal he wrote in his journal: ‘I cannot resolve the book because I have been irresolute about my own affairs.’
     This is an interesting understatement, but it was maybe as far as he could go. And it is a fascinating idea that his talent could thrive using the sharp system of the story, but he struggled so much with the novels simply because there were vast areas of himself that he could not use as a basis for a character dramatised over time. In his stories he could create a tragic, trapped individual in a single scene or moment; he had a deep knowledge of what that was like. In his two Wapshot novels, using broad strokes, he managed merely a comic family down on their luck.
     The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him.    The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
     By the time he joined the Signal Corps, Cheever was married and his wife was pregnant. In 1952, in one of the earliest entries in his journal, Cheever wrote:
     I can remember walking around the streets of New York on a summer night some years ago. I cannot say that it was like the pain of living death; it never had that clear a meaning. But it was torment, crushing torment and frustration. I was caught under the weight of some great door. The feeling always was that if I could express myself erotically I should come alive.
     Later, Mary Cheever would report that she knew that there was something wrong with her marriage. ‘I sensed that he wasn’t entirely masculine.’ When asked if she discussed it with Cheever, she said: ‘Oh Lord, no. Oh Lord, no. He was terrified of it himself.’
     Cheever didn’t like homosexuals. ‘Their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs and scraps of French’ struck him as ‘an obscenity and a threat’. Having struggled to remain monogamous (and heterosexual) for almost 20 years, he noticed a change coming. When he saw Gore Vidal on TV in the early 1960s he thought him ‘personable and intelligent’ and then wrote: ‘I think that he is either not a fairy or that perhaps we have reached a point where men of this persuasion are not forced into attitudes of bitterness, rancour and despair.’ Soon afterwards, Cheever noted more men of his persuasion in a diner. ‘I think there is a fag beside me at the lunch counter,’ he wrote. ‘He drums his nails impatiently and who but a fag would do this?’ He prayed for the surf to wash such people away. In 1960, 19 years after his marriage, he spent a night with Calvin Kentfield, a writer he had met at Yaddo a decade earlier. He noted in his journal:
     I spend the night with C., and what do I make of this? I seem unashamed, and yet I feel or apprehend the weight of social strictures, the threat of punishment. But I have acted only on my own instincts, tried, discreetly, to relieve my drunken loneliness, my troublesome hunger for sexual tenderness. Perhaps sin has to do with the incident, and I have had this sort of intercourse [oral, it seems] only three times in my adult life. I know my troubled nature and have tried to contain it along creative lines. It is not my choice that I am alone here and exposed to temptation, but I sincerely hope that this will not happen again. I trust that what I did was not wrong. I trust that I have harmed no one I love. The worst may be that I have put myself into a position where I may be forced to lie.
     In 1964, Cheever invited the writer Paul Moor, who was a fan of his work, up to his hotel room in Berlin. ‘I think he was or may be a homosexual,’ he wrote to a friend about Moor. ‘This would account for the funny shoes and the tight pants and I thought his voice a note or two too deep.’ Later he wrote in a letter: ‘I would like to live in a world in which there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.’ Cheever at this stage was 52. Most of his observations about homosexuals are unusual perhaps in that he wrote them down and then did not want them destroyed after he died. But they were not unusual as ways for a married man who was gay to keep the world at arm’s length by pretending, even if just as a brief respite, that other homosexuals were queer, while he just happened to like having sex with men. (Even in his late sixties Cheever barely tolerated this aspect of himself, and did not tolerate it at all in others. When an old friend confided that he, too, had had gay encounters, Cheever wrote in his journal: ‘I decided, before he had completed the sentence, that I would never see him again as a friend and I never did.’)
     Just as it is important to place Cheever’s diaries and what would later become known as his self-loathing in its historical context, it might also help if we did the same with his drinking. But even in the context of the time, he was drinking a lot. Bailey reports on his moods and phases as a drunk:
     There was Cheever the antic, happy drunk, who one night in 1946 danced the ‘atomic waltz’ with Howard Fast’s wife, Betty, on his shoulders, until she put out a cigarette in his ear and he flung her to the floor. There was Cheever the mean drunk, whose dry wit would suddenly turn vicious at some vague point … And finally – more and more often – there was Cheever the bored and even boring drunk, pickled by the long day’s drinking and wishing only for bed.
     In the late 1950s, his brother Fred had to be hospitalised for ‘alcoholic malnutrition’. ‘Alarmed that his brother’s fate could prove to be his own,’ Bailey writes, ‘John pored over his journal and was appalled by the obviously “progressive” nature of his disease.’ He looked up the telephone number of Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, he wrote in his journals: ‘Then, my hands shaking, I open the bar and drink the leftover whiskey, gin and vermouth, whatever I can lay my shaking hands on.’
     ‘My God, the suburbs!’ Cheever wrote in 1960. ‘They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.’ By this time he had been living in the suburbs for almost a decade, having moved in 1951 to Scarborough (with his wife, his daughter, Susan, born in 1943, and son Ben, born in 1948) and then in 1961 to a large house in Ossining, where he was to live for the rest of his life. His third child, Federico, was born in 1957 in Rome, during a family sojourn there paid for by MGM’s purchase of the rights to one of his stories for $25,000.
     Cheever’s relationship with his children was very close and mostly difficult, partly because he had nothing much to do all day except lounge around looking at them in a state of half-inebriation and total dissatisfaction. Towards the end of his life, he told colleagues that once, after a row with his wife, he woke to find a message written in lipstick by his daughter on the bathroom mirror: ‘Dere daddy, don’t leave us.’ When it was pointed out that such a scene occurs in his story ‘The Chimera’, with the same misspelling, Cheever replied: ‘Everything I write is autobiographical.’ But this was not so. Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography and another in wishful or dreamy thinking. His daughter later denied that the scene took place: ‘I know how to spell,’ Susan Cheever said, ‘and I think what we wanted was for him to leave us. One thing about my father was he was always there, you could not get rid of him. He worked at home, he ate at home, he drank at home. So “don’t leave us”? That was never the fear.’
     ‘Cheever,’ Bailey writes, ‘loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown. He was dismayed by his oldest child, for one thing, as she continued to “overthrow his preconceptions” by remaining, as he put it, “a fat importunate girl”.’ As she was growing up, her father was a nightmare. ‘I defied my father’s fantasies,’ she wrote in her memoir Home before Dark. ‘As an adolescent I was dumpy, plagued by acne, slumped over, and alternately shy and aggressive, and my lank straight brown hair was always in my eyes.’ When she invited boyfriends home, Cheever was not helpful. ‘He liked to invite my boyfriends off with him to go scything in the meadow or work on a felled tree with the chainsaw or clear some brush out behind the pine trees. I don’t know what happened out there, but they always came back in a rage.’ With his elder son, he was almost worse. Ben, Bailey writes, was now old enough to be a considerable disappointment in his own right: as his father was at pains to remind him, he too needed to lose weight and do better in school and (especially) take an interest in sports like other boys … Cheever, a great reader of Freud, was not consoled by the news that homosexual tendencies are somewhat innate in all people; rather he became even more vigilant in cultivating a proper ethos for his older son. ‘Speak like a man!’ he’d say, driven up the wall by the boy’s high-pitched voice, not to mention his giggling (‘You laugh like a woman!’).
     Cheever picked on one of his son’s friends whom he thought was effeminate. The boy, he wrote, ‘often stands with both hands on his hips in an attitude that I was told, when I was a boy, was the sign of a congenital queer … He is attached securely to my son and I do not like him.’
     Cheever’s view of other writers was not sweet either. He wrote to a friend about John Updike: ‘I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company. I think his magnanimity specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.’ (Updike, when he read this remark in Cheever’s published letters in 1994, returned the compliment, when he described his feelings about Cheever’s drinking: ‘I felt badly because it was as though a natural resource was being wasted. Although the covetousness in me, and stony heart, kind of rejoiced to see one less writer to compete with.’) In 1965, Cheever (who, unlike some of his fellow writers, was not boycotting the White House) managed to heckle Updike as he read a story at a reception there. ‘The arrogance of Updike goes back to the fact that he does not consider me a peer,’ he wrote in his journals, bitterly noting that Updike considered Salinger a peer.
     Out of all this hate and resentment and foolishness, two figures escaped. One was Cheever’s younger son, Federico, and the other was Saul Bellow. Cheever seems to have liked both of them; or both of them had worked out a way to evade the daily spite he directed at all others, including his editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell, who, he noted, bored him stiff. Federico got on with his father by not taking him seriously, by becoming his kid brother rather than his son, and then slowly becoming his father’s protector. ‘More and more,’ Bailey writes, ‘Federico had become the father and John the wayward boy: the latter had to be told not to swim naked in other people’s pools, not to use the chainsaw when drunk – on and on – while the former patiently absorbed the insults Cheever inflicted on whosoever presumed to look after him.’
     When Cheever met Bellow in the early 1950s he felt an instant rapport with him. ‘I do not have it in me to wish him bad luck: I do not have it in me to be his acolyte,’ he wrote. ‘I loved him,’ Bellow said in return, and added that Cheever had not tried Yankee condescension on him. ‘It fell to John to resolve these differences [of background]. He did it without the slightest difficulty, simply by putting human essences in first place.’
When Cheever said of Bellow, ‘we share not only our love of women but a fondness for the rain,’ Mary Cheever remarked: ‘They were both women haters.’ Certainly, most of the time, Cheever hated his wife. As the position of women in America began to change, and Mary Cheever developed independent views and ambitions, her husband’s temper was not improved. ‘Educating an unintellectual woman,’ he remarked, ‘is like letting a rattlesnake into the house. She cannot add a column of figures or make a bed but she will lecture you on the inner symbolism of Camus while the dinner burns.’ His hatred for his wife disfigured some of his stories, including ‘An Educated American Woman’ (1963) and ‘The Ocean’ (1964). (He conceded that his depiction of ‘predatory women’ was a ‘serious weakness’ in his work.) ‘An Educated American Woman’ is perhaps the best account we have of how frightened American men were by the possibility that their wives would be anything other than little homemakers.
     Just as the position of women was changing in America, so, too, the prejudice against homosexuals was fading. While Cheever was threatened by the former, it was clear that the latter would have a profound effect on him once he left his own house in Ossining and took a look at the world. In 1973, when he began teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he had T.C. Boyle, Ron Hansen and Allan Gurganus as students. Not only were these talented young writers, but one of them – Gurganus – was extremely handsome (as the photograph included in Bailey’s biography makes abundantly clear) and, as Bailey puts it, ‘quite insouciantly gay’. As Cheever admired Gurganus’s work (and introduced him to Maxwell, who published one of his stories), he presumed that Gurganus would return the compliment by sleeping with him, despite the fact that he was almost 15 years older than Gurganus’s father. Some of his letters to Gurganus were playful, including the one where he asked (in return for the Maxwell introduction) for some favours. ‘All I expect is that you learn to cook, service me sexually from three to seven times a day, never interrupt me, contradict me or reflect in any way on the beauty of my prose, my intellect or my person. You must also play soccer, hockey and football.’ Gurganus let him know as sweetly as he could that while he liked him, he did not want to sleep with him. ‘How dare he refuse me in favour of some dim-witted major in decorative arts,’ Cheever wrote. He asked Gurganus to consider whether such figures ‘appreciate the excellence of your character and the fineness of your mind’.
     What Cheever was really looking for, as Gurganus put it, was ‘somebody who was literary, intelligent, attractive and manly, but gay on a technicality’. Early in 1977, at the University of Utah, he met Max Zimmer, a PhD candidate in his early thirties, who had been brought up as a Mormon. As Cheever felt ‘a profound stirring of love’ and came on to Max, Max felt ‘confusion and revulsion’. That spring Cheever noted:
     How cruel, unnatural and black is my love for Z. I seem to mean to prey on Z’s youth, to drive Z into a tragic isolation, to deny Z any life at all. Love is to instruct, to show our beloved what we know of the sources of light, and this may be the declaration of a crafty and lecherous old man. I can only hope not.
     In fact, he hoped not quite a lot of the time. And his hoping not was generally improved by sending Zimmer’s work too to the New Yorker.
     Since Cheever took the view that sexual stimulation could improve his eyesight, part of Max’s function, once their affair began, was to offer the same comfort as a good pair of spectacles might have. (When driving at night, Cheever used to ask his wife to fondle his penis ‘to a bone’.) ‘Whenever Max submitted a manuscript,’ Bailey writes, ‘Cheever would first insist that the young man help “clear [his] vision” with a handjob; then (as Max noted in his journal) Cheever would ‘take my story upstairs and come back down with a remote look of consternation on your face and with criticisms so remote they only increase my confusion’.
     Max, who was confused, as they say, rather than actually gay, was uneasy and guilty in the Cheever household.
     If he thought it was OK to parade me in front of Mary and his children, then I guess it was OK. The fact that I didn’t feel OK doing it was my problem … Obviously it’s what people in the East do, the way he takes it in stride. Sitting down at the dinner table with his family, an hour after I’ve given him a handjob and he still has stains in his corduroys from it, I guess this is OK here. It’s tearing my guts out, but Ben’s being nice to me, and Susie – who should take a fucking plate and bust it over my head – and poor Mary, you know.
     In her memoir, Susan Cheever wrote about the view the family took of Max’s presence.
     He was often at the house in Ossining, and although this was not a comfortable situation for him, he treated my mother with a relaxed courtesy and respect. In fact, he treated her a lot better than my father did. I was always glad to see him. He was pleasant and funny, and when they were together my father seemed more accessible than he usually was.
     In 1975, at the age of 63, after a drunken term spent teaching at Boston University, Cheever stopped drinking. A year later, he finished his novel Falconer. Susan Cheever describes that year:
     My father’s certainty as a writer was never more apparent than during the year he was writing Falconer … Each chapter and scene seemed to stream from his imagination already written. These were the things he had been longing to say … Falconer is a novel about a man imprisoned for the murder of his brother. He is a heroin addict, and his marriage is a travesty of marriage vows. The centre of the book is a tender homosexual love affair.
     When the book was published, Cheever was on the cover of Newsweek with the caption: ‘A Great American Novel’. The book was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks. In 1979, Cheever’s collected Stories won a Pulitzer prize and wide critical acclaim.
     Falconer arose from the clash between the two most significant buildings in the town of Ossining: Cheever’s suburban home, which was for him and his family often like a prison, and Sing Sing. In the early 1970s, when he had exhausted himself by drinking and had also exhausted himself writing slack stories on the subject of the deep despair and the minor travails inherent in American East Coast suburban life, Cheever was invited to teach at Sing Sing, where he befriended one of the prisoners. He saw a great deal of this man when he was released. ‘Almost every set piece in Falconer,’ Bailey writes, ‘almost every detail … appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing, based on information he’d extracted from inmates.’ The novel, which is short, has a relentlessness in tone, a gravity and seriousness, which is unlike anything else Cheever wrote. It is as though the book were not merely a strained metaphor for all the anguish Cheever felt and caused in his life, but a dark exploration and recognition of that anguish, presented in a style which was factual but also heightened and controlled and then filled with pain. The style is risky in the way it allows bald statement to brush against an overall vision which is like something from the Psalms. The sense of violence, hatred, pain and deep alienation is offered raw; beside this, love, or something like love, comes as dark redemption or another form of power. In the middle somewhere are the grim ordinariness of prison life and some brilliant sex scenes. If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.
     Cheever’s journals for the months when he worked on his masterpiece are fascinating. He understood that even the smallest experience, such as a wait at an airport, can become something much larger in the imagination. ‘On the question of crypto-autobiography,’ he wrote, and the fact that the greatness of fiction is not this, I am writing not from my experience as a teacher in prison but from my experience as a man. I have seen confinement in prison, but I have experienced confinement as a corporal in a line rifle company, as a stockade guard, as a traveller confined for 36 hours in the Leningrad airport during a blizzard, and for as long again in the Cairo airport during a strike. I have known emotional, sexual and financial confinements, and I have actually been confined to a dryout tank on 93rd Street for clinical alcoholics.
     In the next entry, he ends with a remark which is one of the few endearing remarks in his journals and should be the motto of every writer alive: ‘All right, I want something beautiful, and it will be done by June.’
     Cheever enjoyed being famous and dry for the last few years of his life. Since there was something petulant and childish about him when he was a drunk, now merely the child remained. Susan wrote about these years, as he basked in late success. ‘Wealth and fame and love had an odd effect on my father … He went through a kind of adolescence of celebrity. At times he seemed to be his own number one groupie … In restaurants, he let head waiters know that he was someone important. Since this kind of behaviour was new to him, he wasn’t particularly graceful about it.’ Federico, whose remarks on his father in this biography are notable for their wisdom and general good humour, has the best line on his father’s fame: ‘When you’re a musician, people can ask you to play, and when you’re a movie star, people can ask for your autograph, but what does it mean to be a famous writer? Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.’
     As he made an effort to repair the damage he had done to his family, Cheever was aware that his journals, four thousand pages of them, lay in a drawer like a lovely toy time bomb. Two weeks before he died he phoned his son Ben: ‘What I wanted to tell you,’ he said, ‘is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.’ Ben wrote that he was ‘forgiving’. ‘But mostly I was just bewildered, and I remember now that my reply came almost as a whisper: “I don’t mind, Daddy, if you don’t mind.”’ After his death, when Susan read the diaries, needing to flesh things out for her memoir, she was pretty surprised by the general tone and content, and ‘not only’, as Bailey writes, ‘because of the gloomy, relentless sexual stuff’. The New Yorker and Knopf paid $1.2 million for the rights to publish the diaries and they appeared in 1991. Mary Cheever, who had stayed with him until the end, did not read them. ‘I didn’t have any strong feelings about whether they were published or not. I can’t read them. Snatches of them I’ve read, but I can’t sit down and read that stuff. It isn’t my life at all. It’s him, it’s all him. It’s all inside him.’