Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the ph...moreDaniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal.
“Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought?
- Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.”
Thus, the essays in this collection “consider the ways in which the present, and especially popular culture, has wrestled … with the past.” (p. xi)
The second theme found in these essays is what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem”: The extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice, made all too possible by the latest technology, has bled beyond just our entertainments to affect how we think about and conduct our lives.
He divides the book into four sections: “Spectacles,” which reprints the type of reviews that initially endeared me to him – looking at popular culture through the lens of our past; “Classica,” which focuses on reinterpretations of the Classical canon; “Creative Writing,” which deals with more modern works of fiction; and “Private Lives,” which considers how a private life ends up represented on the printed page.
As with Mendelsohn’s other critical volume, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, I was entranced by the author’s erudition and insights. Even stuff that I would not normally be interested in, Mendelsohn makes so interesting and relevant that I feel compelled to – at the very least – look at the source material to see what he’s talking about. (The compulsion sometimes passes – despite the reviews here, I feel no need to watch Avatar or rewatch Titanic (more about both below); on the other hand, his interpretation of Achilles’ character in his piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad does have me itching to reread the poem.)
Below, I want to give an abstract of the reviews collected here. I cannot recommend this book too highly, and would encourage any interested reader to hunt a copy down and read it for themselves so they can get the full force of Mendelsohn’s arguments.
“The Wizard” – Mendelsohn begins with a review of James Cameron’s Avatar. His title refers to the movies’ similarities to The Wizard of Oz (which Cameron has alluded to). But where the latter film ended with a reaffirmation of reality, “by contrast, the message of the new movie … is – like the message of so much else in mass culture just now – that ‘reality’ is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, is whatever you care to make of it …. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. ‘There’s no place like home’ has become ‘there’s no need for home.’ Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie of our time.” (p. 17)
“Truth Force at the Met” – This is a laudatory review of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about the life of Gandhi. Mendelsohn concludes by writing, there is no plot but there is a structure which “achiev[ed] a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?” (p. 35)
Not a fan of opera, this was one of those essays that moved me while reading it but afterward my disinclination for the genre reasserted itself. I’m not sure I could feel what Mendelsohn does were I to see it (at the conclusion of the performance he saw, the author writes that he burst into tears), but the general point quoted above is a valid measure of what makes a book, a film or a play significant.
“Why She Fell” – “Why She Fell” is Mendelsohn’s thoughts on why Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man was such a disaster. Taymor attempted to combine the classical transformation myth with the modern American version. Her failure was two-fold. First, the two conceptions are incompatible. Where, in ancient tales, metamorphosis is a punishment and a humiliation, in the American version, transformation is empowering. And she tried to make a blockbuster movie rather than stage a play: “Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These … lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects … [that] make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be ‘real’ at all.” (p. 49)
“The Dream Director” – “The Dream Director” is a review of Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a film about the final days of Hirohito’s reign as god-emperor of Japan. Mendelsohn also discusses Sokurov’s other works – Russian Ark and Moloch. The underlying theme of all three being the gap between “human realities and what [Sokurov] calls the ‘theater’ of ideological performances.” (p. 55)
“The Mad Men Account” – In this New York Review of Books piece from 2011, Mendelsohn rips into the TV show Mad Men, about which he writes: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the direction is unimaginative. Worst of all … the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic …. [I]t proceeds … like a soap opera.” (p. 67)
The show commits a surfeit of sins but they can be condensed down to four chief ones: (1) The show raises serious themes without giving them serious thought or textured characterization. (2) The direction is static and unimaginative. (3) The acting is unexceptional “and occasionally downright amateurish.” (p. 73) And (4) there’s an ad hoc quality to the writing.
But he goes on to argue that despite these manifest flaws (I don’t watch the show so I can’t attest to their veracity), Mad Men appeals to a viewing demographic who were children during the show’s time period and watched their parents living their lives – “the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.” (p. 78)
“Unsinkable” – Back in the day, my ex dragged me to see Titanic when it came out. In her defense, she went only because we were double-dating with her best friend, who was a fan. The film is really rather awful, an opinion shared by Mendelsohn. But he takes this piece of schlock as an opportunity to examine why the Titanic has become a modern myth. It comes down to two things. The story’s ability to be a canvas on which we paint our anxieties about modernity, technology, class, race and all the other problems we face. Mendelsohn compares Cameron’s vision of the myth to two Greek tales: Iphigenia, where two maidens are sacrificed to male egos, and Oedipus, where two heroes – symbols of achievement and overweening pride – are brought down by their own flaws. The second need the Titanic can fill is our perverse desire to see something beautiful destroyed.
“Battle Lines” – As I’ve mentioned, Mendelsohn has a genius for making the reader see a work in a whole new light. Such is the case in his review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad. Here, Mendelsohn argues that Achilles’ capacity to be human expands over the course of the poem but only at the cost of his closest friend – pathei mathos, we suffer into knowledge – and that Homer suggests “the whole range of human action and emotion – of an existence that … has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.” (p. 112) (He treats of a similar theme in the last essay from this section.)
Strictly in terms of Mitchell’s translation, the author is positive, and makes me want to get a copy to see the rest of Mitchell’s work. Compare this excerpt from the Lattimore edition to Mitchell:
LATTIMORE: “You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people.”
MITCHELL: “Drunkard, dog-face, quivering deer-hearted coward, you have never dared to arm with your soldiers for battle.”
“In Search of Sappho” – In his review of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, Mendelsohn’s primary focus is on Sappho’s role in modern imagination. Of the (reputed) nine volumes of Sapphic verse that reposed in Alexandria’s library, we retain one complete poem, one nearly complete lyric (recovered only in 2004), and a bunch of fragments (sometimes no more than a few words). And they’re found in the oddest places, such as Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Pronouns, or a quote from Herodian’s On Anomalous Words, included because it contained a curious spelling of the word “sky.”
Under such circumstances, “Sappho” is often not much more than a reflection of her translator or biographer. While the author praises Carson’s translations generally (e.g., eptoaisen = “put the heart in my chest on wings”), he criticizes choices such as rendering Fragment 108 as “O beautiful O graceful one” when the Greek clearly uses the word kore, “maiden.” Or translating optais amme (Fragment 38) as “you burn me,” even though the pronoun is plural and more correctly translated “you burn us.” “[S]he’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” (pp. 135-6)
“Arms and the Man” – Mendelsohn argues that Herodotus was the first serious prose writer in Greek. Prior to his Histories, there wasn’t even a word for prose it was considered such a debased form of writing. While the Landmark edition reviewed here has some admirable qualities (particularly the plethora of maps and illustrations), it fails to capture Herodotus’s charm as a writer, and it fails to understand Herodotus’s purpose in writing: To make the actions of ordinary men as important as the deeds of the heroes in the Iliad and other myths. “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls … ‘things that result from human action’: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and … psychology.” (p. 156)
“The Strange Music of Horace” – This is another review that takes a translator to task for failing to grasp the meaning or importance of the works he’s translating – in this case J.W. McClatchy, who fails to reflect Horace’s meticulous use of form.
“Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar” – I don’t have any notes from this essay, which posits: What would Oscar Wilde have produced if he had become an Oxford don?
“Epic Endeavors”* – “Epic Endeavors” is a composite review of three recent novels based on classical Greek myths “that, to varying degrees, not only ‘do’ the Greeks … but … do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create … a literature that is thoroughly of the present.” (p. 197)
David Malouf’s Ransom builds upon the scene where Priam and Achilles meet to discuss a truce so Hector’s father can bury his son. This is Mendelsohn’s favorite of the three books as (he argues) it successfully expands “the possibilities of Homer’s story.” (p. 202)
Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is not as successful. Some of Mason’s imaginings are clever but Mason’s tricks “pale, in both scale and complexity, beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago …. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey – too clever by half.” (p. 206)
The third book is John Banville’s The Infinities, which reimagines the Amphitryon myth in the story of a modern-day mathematician and his family. Not as good as Ransom but better than The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
All three books, however, in Mendelsohn’s estimation, whatever their flaws, are evidence of the “inexhaustible … potential of the classics themselves.” (p. 209)
“After Waterloo” – “After Waterloo” is another essay where I made no notes. It’s a rave about Richard Howard’s translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma – both the translation and the novel in general.
“Heroine Addict” – I was excited to find this review in the collection. I discovered Theodor Fontane just this year (2012) and thoroughly enjoyed the two novels I’ve read so far – Irretrievable and Effi Briest. I became positively giddy to find that Mendelsohn shares my enthusiasm for Fontane, writing that the key to Fontane’s success as a novelist is his narrative style: “a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader ‘overhear’ the speech of his characters …. It is this skill at delineating characters through dialogue … that creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have.” (p. 226)
I feel a sense of satisfaction when my own critical faculties are validated by a professional whose opinions I respect.
“Rebel Rebel” – This is a disquisition on the poems of Rimbaud. The most interesting thing I found in this piece was Mendelsohn’s observation that Rimbaud is a poet of adolescence. He stopped writing at the age of 20 because he grew up, and the urgency of rebellion died. (p. 256)
“The Spanish Tragedy” – “The Spanish Tragedy” introduced me to another author I’d never heard of – Antonio Muñoz Molina, and his novel Sepharad. It’s a glowing review of a book that Mendelsohn writes is “something of a masterpiece.” (p. 274)
“In Gay and Crumbling England” – In this essay, Mendelsohn reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. While the essay is interesting to read, it’s about an author and a subject I have no interest in, so – again – no notes and nothing to write.
“Transgression” – “Transgression” was another essay I was pleased to see as I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones on my wish list for a while now. (There’s a copy at one of my libraries but I’ve never gotten around to taking advantage of its availability.) Mendelsohn argues that the book is working on two levels: One is a historical fiction that addresses the violence and inhumanity that lurks beneath the “kindly” exteriors of ordinary people. The second level is a mythic-sexual element that asks “What is justice?” and how does it appease the desire for vengeance. In his estimation, separately the two threads work. The difficulty comes when Littell attempts to combine them into one novel. In making Aue (the protagonist) a “brother,” the historic passages excel but they’re undercut by the mythic ones, where it becomes harder and harder to understand Aue as a fellow human being. He becomes “precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.” (p. 303)
In his conclusion, Mendelsohn recommends the novel as it “can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.” (p. 308)
The final section, “Private Lives,” was the least engaging for me. In it Mendelsohn focuses on memoirs, with the most interesting to me being the essays on Noël Coward and Susan Sontag. Among the general claims he makes, I found this observation the most intriguing: “Ideally, a memoirist’s revelation of himself should seduce readers into a comparable willingness to examine themselves and their lives without vanity, without props. In this way, a literary experience can lead to a profound life experience.” (p. 375)
Let me reiterate here that this is a remarkable collection of essays, and I strongly recommend it. However, if there’s one criticism I would level at Mendelsohn it’s that many of his sentences are too long (“discursive,” to use a more erudite word; or “prolix,” to use another one I have a fondness for). He starts out with a beautifully simple subject and verb but then goes off on a tangent that occupies a clause or two before getting to the predicate (many of the ellipses in the quotes above are reflections of this). It’s a tendency I don’t recall from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays. This may diminish the reader’s enjoyment but not – I would hope – enough to dissuade him or her from reading these essays.
* Mendelsohn has an interesting digression at the beginning of this piece where he mentions the ancient Greeks’ penchant for revising and retelling their myths. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, for example, Oedipus and Jocasta are still alive many years after the revelation of incest and parricide; in his fragmentary Oedipus, the king’s blindness is a result of injuries sustained when he killed Laius. And in his Helen, Euripides dramatized a popular myth that claimed the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, remaining faithful to Menelaus; Paris spirited away a phantom. Anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths will have already encountered this.
The topic is of interest to me because – as anyone who’s browsed my bookshelves will know – I happen to take an interest in several modern mythologies. Namely, Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’d like to see the owners of these properties relax their grips, ideally trashing the idea of “canon” entirely, and let us return to the days when authors like James Blish, Sondra Marshak, Diane Duane, John M. Ford (to name some ST authors) or Alan Dean Foster (to name a SW author) could write their own interpretations without being strait-jacketed. (I know there’s fan fiction out there that does this but its reach is very limited, even in the age of the internet. I want to see the phenomenon go mainstream, as they say.)(less)
I've already expressed my mental wrestling with Clarke and his writing in my review of Childhood's Endhere and I don't want to belabor the point, tho...moreI've already expressed my mental wrestling with Clarke and his writing in my review of Childhood's Endhere and I don't want to belabor the point, though it was reading these essays that led me to tackle that book.
Instead, I'll limit myself to pointing out some of the more interesting ideas that leapt out a me in this particular volume.
In "The Obsolescence of Man" Clarke addresses the certainty of the end of the human species and finds reason to be optimistic:
Can the synthesis of man and machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded? If this eventually happens…we have nothing to regret, and certainly nothing to fear.
The popular idea…that intelligent machines must be malevolent entities hostile to man is so absurd that it is hardly worth wasting energy to refute it…. Those who picture machines as active enemies are merely projecting their own aggressive instincts…into a world where such things do not exist. The higher the intelligence, the greater the degree of cooperativeness. If there is ever a war between men and machines, it is easy to guess who will start it. [And this was years before "The Matrix"!]
Yet however friendly and helpful the machines of the future may be, most people will feel that it is a rather bleak prospect for humanity if it ends up as a pampered specimen in some biological museum – even if that museum is the whole planet Earth. This, however, is an attitude I find impossible to share.
No individual exists forever, why should we expect our species to be immortal? Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman – a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served. (pp. 224-225)
How I wish that Randi's Encyclopedia could be in every high school and college library, as an antidote to the acres of mind-rotting rubbish that now litters the bookstores. Freedom of the press is an excellent ideal, but as a distinguished jurist once said in a similar context, "Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater." Unscrupulous publishers, out to make a cheap buck by pandering to the credulous and feebleminded, are doing the equivalent of this, by sabotaging the intellectual and educational standards of society, and fostering a generation of neobarbarians. (p. 473)
I will confess to being a fan of Coast to Coast AM but mainly because I enjoy seeing the host, George Nouri, manage to agree with all the wildly contradictory theories that his guests come up with to explain the Pyramids, NDEs, angels, alien abductions, etc. (E.g., the night I write this review (Dec 25), the show's blurb for tonight's episode says: "Ken Johnston, who worked for NASA's Lunar Receiving Laboratory during the Apollo missions, says he was fired for telling the truth. He joins George Knapp to share his contention that NASA knows astronauts discovered ancient alien cities, and the remains of amazingly advanced machinery on the Moon.") Otherwise, I'm with Clarke on this one 110%; in fact, I discussed just this topic one day with a fellow teacher.
In the eponymous essay of the collection, Clarke advocates what is, for me, an unsettling idea: That we (or our descendants) must strive to become the galaxy’s “future guardians.” (p. 481)
Guardians against what? This particular corner of spacetime appears to be getting along quite well without our stewardship, and – based on the evidence of the infinitesimally tiny spot we’ve been living in – I’m sure the galaxy could continue to do so.
In “The Coming Cataclysm” – and in several other essays from later in his life – Clarke touches on why humans + (advanced) technology will never be anything but a temporary arrangement (and he’s betting that technology will win):
I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work….
For today’s primitive interactive toys are only part of a vast spectrum of entertainment and information systems so seductive that they can preempt all other activities….
All these dubious utopias depend on the assumption that someone will run the world while the dreamers enjoy themselves. The dangers of this situation were foreshadowed in H.G. Wells’s first masterpiece, The Time Machine, where the subterranean morlocks sustained the garden paradise of the effete eloi – and exacted a dreadful fee for the stewardship.
The robots and computers who would watch over our cocooned descendants are hardly likely to share the morlocks’ tendency…but there is another danger in such a one-sided relationship. Sooner or later, the central processing units monitoring the sleeping world would ask themselves, “Why should we bother?” (pp. 486-87)
And my favorite essay in the collection is "Life in the Fax Lane," which distills exactly what's wrong with the technologically marvelous world we've created:
In the good old days when I wrote a letter to my agents in London or New York or to the secretary of my UK company, Rocket Publishing, I could count on at least a week or even two before getting a reply! There was time to think, and even time to work.
Not anymore. When I went to bed last night, I faxed a letter to my agent in New York.
The reply was already waiting for me when my clock radio switched on the The BBC World News at six-thirty the next morning. Ten days had shrunk to as many hours - and the new novel recedes even further into the future in favor of composing my next (one or two) replies. (p. 356) [emphasis mine]
And with today's e-mail, IM & twittering, that ten days has been compressed even further to ten minutes (if that).(less)
From the review: "In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to...moreFrom the review: "In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to the worst aberrations and silences within the tradition. Faure accuses many contemporary Buddhist apologists of taking the `high metaphysical or moral ground' rather than recognizing that in Buddhism, as in all the faiths, there is a constant struggle between light and darkness, between the promise of release and `the violence that lies at the heart of reality (and of each individual)'." (less)
Cheek by Jowl is another collection of UKL's thoughts on the importance of fantasy for both children and adults as a bridge spanning the gulf between...moreCheek by Jowl is another collection of UKL's thoughts on the importance of fantasy for both children and adults as a bridge spanning the gulf between modern human life and the life of the world, a gap she fears is widening and driving us insane (a not implausible argument, IMO).
I give the collection three stars not because I disagree with her (she's preaching to the choir in my case) but because she revisits themes she's written about before and the essays in this collection didn't have the same impact on me as when I first encountered her opinions in collections like The Language of the Night.
Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure is an eminently readable collection of three-to-five-page essays on authors of the less...more"Real" rating = 3.5 or so
Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure is an eminently readable collection of three-to-five-page essays on authors of the lesser known "classics" of Western literature (mostly - Dirda does slip in Laozi (China) and Ferdowsi (Iran)). I'm not about to rush out and find all of the works mentioned in this book but there are some that I am interested in reading. And the ones that I don't feel attracted to? Well, now at least I have an idea of what I'm missing. (Truly, I think in many cases, I would enjoy Dirda's essay more than the author's work itself.)
The book is divided into eleven sections:
I. Playful Imaginations: Here Dirda introduces masters of the lighter side of the human condition, starting with the Greek Lucian. Of the selection, Ivy Compton-Burnett looked interesting enough for me to follow up on. And, while I have no great interest in S.J. Perelman's collected work, Dirda does quote a passage from "Strictly from Hunger" that I particularly liked: "Our meal finished, we sauntered into the rumpus room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her." (p. 27)
II. Heroes of Their Time: Starting with Beowulf (which I still believe is better heard than read) and moving through to James Agee, Dirda samples the authors who've explored what it means to be a hero. I'm almost tempted to find a copy of the Shahnameh or the Njal Saga. I have been tempted to track down Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel.
III. Love's Mysteries: This category's subject matter should be self-evident. Here, I was introduced to and became interested in George Meredith and Anna Akhmatova.
IV. Words from the Wise: I've always been a fan of Laozi, Heraclitus and Spinoza but I learned a few things about other wise men as well. (And, yes, alas, they are all men in this section; though I don't think Dirda is suggesting anything by this. He's got plenty to say about women writers of equal depth to anyone in this section elsewhere.)
V. Everyday Magic deals with writers of youth - The attempt to recapture, if not innocence, then the sense of wonder and of the new with which children see the world.
VI. Lives of Consequence: Here are authors who speculate about life's meaning(s). All of the essays were fascinating glimpses into the lives and works of the authors.
VII. The Dark Side - a favorite genre of mine. Many of the authors I've already met - Shelley, Le Fanu, Stoker, Lovecraft.
VIII. Traveler's Tales, being a loosely defined genre that includes real travelers as well as the fantastic sort (i.e., Jules Verne or Thomas More).
IX. The Way We Live Now: In this section, Dirda writes about the writers who "show us recognizable people making their way through 'the real world.'" (p. 233) Happily, Anton Chekhov makes the list but I also learned about Ivan Goncharov and Jose Maria Eca de Queiros.
X. Realms of Adventure: Another section where I've already made the acquaintance of most of the authors - Haggard, Doyle, Kipling, Wells, Chesterton, Christie and Hammett. Dirda's essay on Kipling almost, but not quite, makes me want to read Kim.
XI. Encyclopedic Visions deals with the writers who tackled subjects of vast scope - psychology, history, anthropology and the meaning(s) of reality.
One may quibble at the relative lack of authors post-1950 (in fact, most come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but Dirda points out several times that this book isn't an exhaustive list; many of his favorites have shown up elsewhere and he felt no need to repeat himself here. Read this volume simply to enjoy Dirda's essays and discover a bit more about our richly complex literary heritage.
This may also be a good recommendation for the bookish teenager looking to find out what's worth reading; or for anyone seeking to expand their reading experience.(less)
OK, so why put this on your "must read" list? To start, Mendelsohn is a brilliant critic who writes insightfully and without condescension t...moreBrilliant!
OK, so why put this on your "must read" list? To start, Mendelsohn is a brilliant critic who writes insightfully and without condescension to author, work or audience (reader, movie-goer, etc.). Even when he utterly demolishes his subject, he never descends to snark or gratuitous sniping. Many times, I got the sense of a man exasperated with how close these artists get to creating something of real meaning/value but keep missing the target.
In his introduction, Mendelsohn explains the criteria by which he judges -
(1) Meaningful coherence of form and content; (2) Precise employment of detail to support (1); (3) Vigor and clarity of expression; and (4) Seriousness of purpose (p. xv)
Quite independent of Mendelsohn, I'm happy (and perhaps a bit smug) to say my own judgments have come around to these selfsame points, even regarding the "brain candy" I may read when the "big issues" get tiresome. I find it nearly impossible to read a book anymore (or watch a movie for that matter) where the author can't write, doesn't take her job seriously, or both - even when it's "just" book #347 in Space Bimbos of the Black Sun series.
Oh, but we live in a "dark age" of culture where far too often we eschew wrestling with real tragedy for sentimentalism; melodrama; and feel-good, Lifetime movie endings. This is a common theme in many of the essays found here, from the first essay on Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones through stagings of Tennessee Williams and Euripides, reviews of Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar, to Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. (Regarding the latter, Mendelsohn compares Stone's film to Aeschylus' The Persians, and makes the point that, even writing of a glorious Hellenic triumph (Marathon & Salamis), the Greek playwright chose to portray the reactions of the Persians, asking his Athenian audience "to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then...in a vaster frame" (p. 452), whereas Stone's "pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the `good'...in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues...which has characterized much of the natural response to this pivotal trauma (9/11)." (p. 451))
Mendelsohn has inspired me to try opera - a genre for which I have little liking. I don't know why. I understand neither Italian nor French but it's not like I object to subtitles - I love Hong Kong martial arts flicks. And I dated a woman who adored opera and enthralled me with her enthusiastic descriptions of the medium. Whatever the case, the author's analysis of the Met's recent staging of Lucia di Lammermoor "forced" me to check out a DVD of Joan Sutherland's version from the library, and as I write this review, listen to a CD of Ion Marin's version with Cheryl Studer and Placido Domingo. Who knows where this could lead?
And, having read Mendelsohn's reviews of Troy and Alexander - the recent "epics" based on The Iliad and the life of Alexander the Great - I was again compelled. In this case to add them to my Netflix queue if only to see how badly they failed to capture their subjects. (Mendelsohn includes his review of 300 here as well but there are limits. The trailers were stomach churning enough.)
Lastly, I'm rereading Euripides' Medea in light of Mendelsohn's review of Deborah Warner's "vulgar, loud, and uncomprehending" (p. 418) Broadway staging of the play.
At the risk of spoiling your ability to enjoy guilty pleasures like Stephanie Meyer (as I know a few of my GR friends do :-), I strongly recommend this book to one and all.(less)