David Frum and I have had an interesting twitter debate about the merits of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (you can read the dialogue here). I have a much higher regard for Trollope than Frum does and I thought it might be useful to spell out at greater than 140 character length why he’s one of my favorite novelists (and also quote some sharp critics on Trollope).
I’ve had a soft spot for Trollope ever since I started reading his novels a teenager. It’s good to start young when delving into Trollope because it takes a lifetime to survey his work. He was one of the most prolific writers of good fiction. He had 47 novels under his belt, many of them hefty tomes weighing in around the length of Bleak House, Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. As if those novels were somehow insufficient there are also five volumes of (quite excellent) short stories and miscellaneous but still voluminous books of (solid, informative) travel writing and other non-fiction (including an excellent, rewarding memoir). All of which adds not just to an oeuvre but almost a mountain range, a formidable requiring time and perseverance to conquer.
The conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza is in the news lately for a number of reasons. His book Obama’s America , which purports to show the Kenyan anti-colonialist roots of the American president’s worldview, is a bestseller. Accompanying the book is a documentary entitled 2016 which has been been a great popular success, at least as far as polemical political films are concerned.
But aside from his public activities, D’Souza’s private life is now much talked about with the news that he offended his Christian evangelical fans last month when he was spoke at a South Carolina Baptist church. When he arrived at the event, for which he was paid $10,000, D’Souza came not with his wife of two decades but with a much younger woman who was introduced as his fiancé. (This so-called fiancé graduated high school in 2002, when D’souza was 41 years old and the author of nine books). Further investigation revealed that D’Souza hadn’t in fact initiated divorce proceedings against his wife when he gave the talk, but did so when he started being questioned about his behavior. (Sarah Posner has an fine rundown of the controversy here).
Matt Yglesias and others have raised their collective eyebrows at the fact that Jay Nordlinger of National Review Online was willing to very casually deploy the derogatory term “wetback.” As it turns out, Nordlinger is a repeat user of this word. In 2006, Nordlinger wrote that for many on the right, George W. Bush was “big-spending, wetback-lovin’ squish.” And going back away, I discovered that other National Review writers have used the term “wetback”, notably the magazine’s resident light verse writer William H. von Dreele, who wrote in 1979 that his love of Mexican tomatoes could only meant that “I’m a wetback to the core.”
Words, of course, only have meaning in the context in which they are used. On at least one occasion National Review employed “wetback” in a defensible way, in an article from February 14, 1986 by K.E. Grubbs Jr. deploring anti-immigrant sentiment titled “Just Another Wetback.” But the other uses of “wetback” have all been as an offhand slur, the type of derogatory term you habitually use when talking about an inferior race.
Hilton Kramer, the art critic and founding editor of The New Criterion who died at age 84 earlier this week, rather enjoyed his own reputation for being fearsome and formidable. Take a look at the back cover of his essay collection The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) where Kramer presents himself to the world as a very severe killjoy, almost like a caricature of the critic as hanging judge. “Would it kill him to crack a smile?” a friend asked when he saw that photo. (The photo is pasted above).
Yet as off-putting as he could seem from afar, Kramer enjoyed many close collaborators and admirers, who are already bearing witness to his virtues. Since others writers are making the case on behalf of Kramer, I want to enter a few dissenting notes about his writing and public presence.
Back in his salad days in the early 1950s, Kramer’s big break came from publishing in Partisan Review and he saw himself as heir to that magazine’s stance of being both politically and aesthetically engaged. Unfortunately, his politics were absurd. He started off as a cold war liberal (with perhaps a few social democratic sympathies). In the early 1960s even served as art critic for The Nation, an alliance that both he and the magazine would later regard with bemused puzzlement. In reaction to the turmoil of the late 1960s Kramer became a very fierce and unbending neo-conservative, of the sort that prefers ideological purity to any acknowledgement of reality.
In a 1987 essay on Sidney Hook, Kramer with his characteristic obtuse overconfidence argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was a far bigger threat to the free world than Joseph Stalin had ever been. “Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network,” Kramer asserted. “By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.” Equally in keeping with his impervious intellectual manner was the fact that when Kramer reprinted this essay in his 1999 collection The Twilight of the Intellectuals he carefully excised this passage, displaying an appropriately Soviet willingness to re-write history.
Via a facebook friend and the New York Times comes news that Dmitri Nabokov died last week at age 77. He lived, of course, under the shadow of his remarkable father Vladimir — and also in some ways equally formidable mother Vera but there was very little, if any, resentment. the Nabokovs adored their only son and he in turn conscientiously looked after them while they were alive and thoughtfully managed his father’s literary legacy. As some Nabokov scholars have learned, Dmitri could be a bit cantankerous at times, but he did yeoman’s work in helping to translate the Russian works into English, in bringing collections of the letters to print, and in taking care of the many little devotional editorial tasks that a great writer needs and deserves. Dmitri decision to allow the publication of The Original of Laura was controversial but I think he made the right call in a difficult case.
Aside from his care for his father, Dmitri lived a very active and colorful life (although also a seemingly lonely one). He was an opera singer and a race car driver, a high liver and a world traveler. One interesting biographical tidbit is that during his car racing days someone tried to kill him by sabotaging his vehicle. I believe that the mystery of this attempted murder was never solved. Dmitri Nabokov talked about this and about his father in this 1986 interview with Don Swaim.
Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.
Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).
Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:
Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer
For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.
For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.” Continue reading →
Rick Santorum was riding high in Iowa earlier this month but his presidential campaign now seems to be faltering. I wrote about Santorum as a lightning rod in the cultural wars for the Globe and Mail in an article that can be read here. Below is a slightly amended and expanded version of the same piece:
I’ve been enjoyed Bruce Bawer’s essays on politics and culture for nearly 30 years, so I’ve been troubled over the last few weeks by the way his name has become entangled with that of the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
Bawer has had a fascinating career: he’s a gay writer who made his name in some extremely homophobic magazines, an avowed Christian has sought to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, a literary essayist who is also a formidable political polemist, and an American expatriate who has become a central figure in Europe’s burgeoning anti-immigration movement.
In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”
In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”