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Always Something Novel

May 31, 2007 By:
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What sort of criteria can be used to measure the success of a book? I'm not talking about any sort of obtuse critical theories, but about the tools that everyday devoted readers use to evaluate what they've just read. High on any list would have to be pleasure, which comes in assorted flavors: love of plot, character, style. Though these points would appear to be applicable solely to fiction, they can be adapted to nonfiction as well, especially vivid works of history and biography.

Other book-lovers may judge along more intellectual lines -- whether or not their worldviews have been broadened, say, or their knowledge quotients added to. Yet another means of assessment might be the excitement of being introduced to a wholly new field of science or a new patch of history, or "traveling" with a writer to a distant terrain.

But I have another way to gauge quality, and that's by how many other books I'm sent to as I'm reading the one set before me. Now, some readers might protest and say that's too narrow a device since it may only apply to nonfiction. Though the book I'm about to discuss does fall into that category, it doesn't always have to be so. Fiction these days has hardly been confined to the author's imagination, and so novels can have you packing off looking for all sorts of other things -- the true story that inspired the author or a history of a country that's been used as background.

Doesn't Break a Sweat

I think of this as a pretty flexible mode of appraisal, and it gets a nimble workout in the case of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of reviews and essays by Joan Acocella published by Pantheon Books. I've noted before that Acocella is in a class by herself as a critic, harkening back to the age of the great New York intellectuals in the depth and breadth of her knowledge, and the facility with which she can move among so many different kinds of information -- critical evaluation, history, biography -- and make it look like this mighty balancing act never caused her to break a sweat.

Acocella is primarily the dance critic for The New Yorker, and yet, just because she does one job with such skill hasn't stopped her from covering many other subjects, mostly in the book-review pages there, while writing, off and on, for The New York Review of Books as well. Though ballet is at the heart of a good number of the essays in this first compilation of her critical writings -- as well as the subject of the majority of the books she's published to date -- she also evaluates fiction, poetry, biography and journalism.

Each of the articles in this wide-ranging collection -- which is dedicated to the memory of her father, Arnold Ross -- is like a little novel or biography in itself. For example, though the piece on novelist Joseph Roth was occasioned by the appearance of a new edition of The Radetzky March, which many consider to be the writer's masterpiece, we don't simply hear about the novel but also about the whole of Roth's life, and the centrality of the work to his career and his vision. By the end of the essay, you feel that you really know Roth -- his desires, his ambitions, his fears -- and what drove him, the supreme Middle-European novelist of the interwar period, to drink himself to death before the onslaught of Nazism.

Here is a typical passage drawn from that essay: "With the writings of Kafka and Robert Musil, Roth's novels constitute Austria-Hungary's finest contribution to early-20th century fiction, yet his career was such as to make you wonder that he managed to produce any novels at all, let alone 16 of them in 16 years. For most of his adult life, Roth was a hardworking journalist, traveling back and forth between Berlin and Paris, his two home bases, but also reporting from Russia, Poland, Albania, Italy and southern France. He didn't have a home; he lived in hotels. His novel-writing was done at café tables, between newspaper deadlines, amid the bloody events -- strikes, riots, assassinations -- that marked Europe's passage from the First World War to the Second, and which seemed more remarkable than anything a novelist could imagine. His early books bespeak their comfortless birth, but his middle ones don't. They are solid structures, full of psychological penetration and tragic force. The Radetzky March, his masterpiece, was the culmination of this middle phase."

Or consider this from her piece on the great ballet dancer Nijinsky. Acocella's article was prompted by the appearance of a psychobiograhy called Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap Into Madness by Peter Ostwald, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Though not a fan of psychobiographies, she found the book surprisingly good, and reading it gave rise to some of her finest musings.

"Whatever Nijinsky was in reality, he is by now a legend, a major cultural fact, and not just because of his extraordinary story but because of the way that story ties in with certain critical issues in ballet. Ballet's relationship to time -- the fact that the repertory, unanchored by text, is always vanishing, just as the dance image on the stage is always vanishing -- forms a large part of the vividness and poignance of the art. We are always losing it, like life, and therefore we re-create it, mythologize it, in our minds. Nijinsky's life -- his rapid self-extinction and the disappearance of his ballets -- is like a parable of that truth. If dance is disappearance, he is the ultimate disappearing act. Accordingly, he is held that much dearer. If many people today still believe that he was the greatest dancer who has ever lived, that is partly because there are almost no records of his dancing. Until recently, there were no known films of him. ...

"Nijinsky's life also has something to say about the connection between ballet and sex. His self-absorption, his imprisonment within himself and his body, is an experience that many dancers must have in some measure, given that they are required from puberty to live wholly within the body -- caring for it, training it, studying it in the mirror -- and then, as adults, have to go out night after night in front of thousands of people and practice an art that, however scientifically codified, however painstakingly inculcated, nevertheless depends entirely on the body's energy, its beauty, its responsiveness, its capacity to create symbols, incite dreams: in other words, the very things that we bring with us to bed. This is not to suggest that dancers are particularly sexy people, or prone to mental illness. In my experience, they are patient, hardworking, exceedingly disciplined people who are more likely at the end of the day to go home and soak their feet in Epsom salt than to try to extend their sexual horizons. Nevertheless, they do live within their bodies, and it is by their bodies' actions that we know them. On the stage, particularly when they are moving to music, they can seem to us a dream of the perfect physical life, in which the body is capable of saying all that needs to be said. If that is the dream, then Nijinsky's self-imprisonment can be seen as the nightmare, and his sexual obsessions the bogeymen. Nijinsky eventually developed a horror of sex. (This is a constantly reiterated theme of the diary, and it is the reason he took up vegetarianism: meat was thought to incite lust.) After years of having his body gazed at and exclaimed over every night in the theater and discussed every morning in the paper, such a recoil is no surprise."

I think highly of Acocella for all the reasons enumerated above but also because our tastes dovetail so neatly. She analyzes some of my favorite writers: Italo Svevo, Ralph Ellison, Stefan Zweig, Primo Levi, Joseph Roth, H.L. Mencken, M.F. K. Fisher, Sybille Bedford, Penelope Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Frank O'Hara. There are few critics who seem to care about these extraordinary artists these days, and hardly any of those who do, then take the time to write about them with such care.

We don't agree completely. She has higher opinions than I do of Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Simone de Beauvoir, and still what she has to say holds my attention, and at times almost convinces me.

Books of the type that Acocella has written have, unfortunately, become endangered species. Back in the era of the New York intellectuals, such works were the staples of every publishing season. But the fact that this work is something of an anachronism is just another reason to cherish it.

But, oh yes, the main reason I think so highly of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints is that soon after I read it, I purchased 12 other books, all of which Acocella mentioned while simply going about the business of doing her job.

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