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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2007

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2007

Nick Hornby
8 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece — Jan Stuart
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City — Jonathan Mahler
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare — James Shapiro
  • Essays — George Orwell
  • The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game —Michael Lewis
  • Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer — James L. Swanson

BOOKS READ:

  • The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece — Jan Stuart
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City — Jonathan Mahler
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare — James Shapiro
  • Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man — Claire Tomalin

One thing I knew for sure before I started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy: I wouldn’t be going back to the work. Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of the Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding. When I was seventeen, the scene in Jude the Obscure where Jude’s children hang themselves “becos they are meny” provided much-needed confirmation that adult life was going to be thrillingly, unimaginably, deliciously awful. Now I have too meny children myself, however, the appeal seems to have gone. I’m glad I have read Hardy’s novels, and equally glad that I can go through the rest of my life without having to deal with his particular and peculiar gloom ever again.

I suppose there may be one or two people who pick up Tomalin’s biography hoping to learn that the author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude turned into a cheerful sort of a chap once he’d put away his laptop for the night; these hopes, however, are dashed against the convincing evidence to the contrary. When Hardy’s friend Henry Rider Haggard loses his ten-year-old son, Hardy wrote to console him thus: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.” Every cloud, and all that… Those wise words could only have failed to help Haggard if he was completely mired in self-pity.

Hardy died in 1928, and one of the unexpected treats of Tomalin’s biography is her depiction of this quintessentially rural Victorian writer living a metropolitan twentieth-century life. It’s hard to believe that Hardy went to the cinema to see a film adaptation of one of his own novels, but he did; hard to believe, too, that he attended the wedding of Harold Macmillan, who was Britain’s prime minister in the year that the Beatles’ first album was released. What happened to Hardy after his death seemed weirdly appropriate: In a gruesome attempt to appease both those who wanted the old boy to stay in Wessex and those who wanted a flashy public funeral in London, Hardy was buried twice. His heart was cut out and buried in the churchyard at Stinsford where he’d always hoped he’d be laid to rest; what was left of him was cremated and placed in Westminster Abbey, where his pallbearers included Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, and Edmund Gosse. Hardy was a modern celebrity, but his characters inhabited a brutal, strange, preindustrial England.

Such is Tomalin’s skill as a literary critic—and this is a book that restores your faith in literary criticism—that I did end up going back to the work, although it was the poetry, not the novels, that I read. The poems written immediately after the death of Hardy’s first wife, Emma, are, as Tomalin points out, quite brilliant in their…

I think they’ve gone now. They never read on after the first couple of paragraphs, and I know they will approve of the Tomalin book, so I’m pretty sure they will leave me alone for a while, and I can tell you what’s been going on here. Older readers of this magazine may recall that I had a regular column here, up until the autumn of 2006; you may have noticed that when I was removed, I was described as being “on sabbatical” or “on holiday,” a euphemism, I can now reveal, for “being re-educated,” which is itself a euphemism—and here the euphemisms must stop—for “being brainwashed.”

The Polysyllabic Spree, the three hundred and sixty-five beautiful, vacant, scary young men and women who edit this magazine, have never really approved of me reading for fun, so after several warnings I was taken by force to the holding cells in the basement of their headquarters in the Appalachian Mountains and force-fed proper literature. It’s a horrific place, as you can imagine; everywhere you can hear the screams of people who don’t want to read Gravity’s Rainbow very much because it’s too long and too hard, or people who would rather watch Elf than that Godard film where people sit in wheelbarrows and read revolutionary poetry out loud. (I saw poor Amy Sedaris down there, by the way. I won’t go into what they’ve actually done to her. Suffice to say that she won’t be making any jokes for a while.)

Luckily, I have seen lots of films where “mad” people (i.e., people whose refusal to conform results in being labeled insane) resist all attempts by The Man to break them, and I have picked up a few tips. For ex-ample: I hid under my tongue all the Slovenian experimental novels without vowels they were trying to make me read, and spat them out later. I had a little cache of them hidden beneath my mattress, so if the worst came to the worst I could read them all at once and kill my-self. Anyway, if you see me recommend a book that sounds incomprehensible, you’ll know they are taking an interest in my activities again.

I have bought a lot of books and read a lot of books in the last few months, so this first postbrainwashing column is more in the nature of a representative selection than an actual diary. And in any case I have been told that there are certain books I have read recently, all novels, that I’m not allowed to talk about here. One beautiful, brilliant novel in particular, a novel that took me bloody ages to read but which repaid my effort many times over, was deemed unacceptable because its author apparently impregnated an important member of the Spree a while back (and some Spree members are more equal than others, obviously), and the Spree regard sex as being obstructive to the consumption of literature. What is the… What is the point of having a books column like this if you have to lie about what you’ve read?

In my tireless and entirely laudable attempts to teach myself more about the past, I have been working methodically through books about individual years, namely James Shapiro’s 1599:A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. And I read the actual books, too, not just the titles and subtitles. If I read two of these year-books a week, then I’m covering a century every year, and a millennium every decade. And how many millennia are worth bothering with, really? I’m pretty excited about this project. By 2017, I should know everything there is to know about everything.

Pedants might argue that there was more to 1599 than Shakespeare, and more to 1977 than Reggie Jackson signing for the Yankees, an event that provides the spine for Jonathan Mahler’s book. But this, surely, shows a fundamental lack of faith in the writer. Mahler has had a good look at 1977, and decided it was about Reggie Jackson; if he’d thought there was anything going on in the rest of the world worth writing about, then he would have chosen something else instead.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning is not just about Reggie Jackson, of course. That New York summer there was the blackout that resulted, almost instantaneously, in twelve hours of looting and burning over an area of thirty blocks; there was a colorful mayoral race between Bella Abzug, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, and Ed Koch; there was the Son of Sam, and Studio 54, and a World Series for the Yankees. In those few months, New York seemed to contain so much that you can believe, while reading this book, that while Mahler can’t cover our planet, he has certainly touched on most of our major themes.

That phrase “the city itself emerges as the book’s major character,” or variants thereof, is usually the last desperate refuge of the critical scoundrel, but Mahler pretty much pulls off the trick of anthropomorphizing New York, and the face that emerges is almost unrecognizable; certainly there’s been some major plastic surgery since the 1970s, and not all of us find the stretched skin and the absence of worry lines in SoHo and the Village attractive. There’s no doubt that New York is safer, less broke, and more functional than it was back then. But it’s impossible to read about the city that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning portrays so thrillingly without a little ache for something funkier.

You know I said that you should view with suspicion any book I’m recommending that sounds dull? Well, James Shapiro’s 1599 isn’t one of them, honestly. It’s a brilliant book, riveting, illuminating, and original (by which I mean, of course, that I haven’t read much like it, in all my years of devouring Shakespeare biographies), full of stuff with which you want to amaze, enlighten, and educate your friends. 1599 was the year Shakespeare polished off Henry V, wrote As You Like It, and drafted Hamlet. (I was partly attracted to Shapiro’s book because I’d had a similarly productive 2006—although, unlike Shakespeare, I’m more interested in quality than quantity, possibly because I’ve got one eye on posterity.) Shapiro places these plays in their context while trying to piece together, from all available sources, Shakespeare’s movements, anxieties, and interests. Both Julius Caesar and Henry V are shown to be more about England’s conflict with Ireland than we had any hope of understanding without Shapiro’s expert illumination; the section on Hamlet contains a long, lucid, and unfussy explanation of how Montaigne and his essays resulted in Hamlet’s soliloquies. I’d say that 1599 has to be the first port of call now for anyone teaching or studying any of these four plays, but if you’re doing neither of those things, it doesn’t matter. The only thing you have to care about to love this book is how and why things get written. The “why” is relatively straightforward: Shakespeare wrote for money. He had a wife, a new theater, and a large theater company to support, and there was a frightening amount of competition from other companies. The “how” is more elusive, although Shapiro does such a wonderful job of accumulating sources and inspirations that you don’t really notice the absence of the man himself, who remains something of a mystery.

Claire Tomalin and James Shapiro take different paths to their writers: there is scholarship in Tomalin’s book, of course, but she is more interested in the psychology of her subject, and in exercising her acute, sensitive critical skills than she is in history. Both books, though, are exemplary in their ability to deepen one’s understanding for and appreciation of the work, in their delight in being able to point out what’s going on in the lines on the page. We’re lucky to have both of these writers at the top of their game in the here and now.

Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of my favorite films—or, at least, I think it is. I haven’t seen it in a while, and the last time I did, I noticed the longueurs more than I ever had before. Maybe the best thing to do with favorite films and books is to leave them be: to achieve such an exalted position means that they entered your life at exactly the right time, in precisely the right place, and those conditions can never be re-created. Sometimes we want to revisit them in order to check whether they were really as good as we remember them being, but this has to be a suspect impulse, because what it presupposes is that we have more reason to trust our critical judgments as we get older, whereas I am beginning to believe that the reverse is true. I was eighteen when I saw Nashville for the first time, and I was electrified by its shifts in tone, its sudden bursts of feeling and meaning, its ambition, its occasional obscurity, even its pretensions. I don’t think I’d ever seen an art movie before, and I certainly hadn’t seen an art movie set in a world I recognized. So I came out of the cinema that night a slightly changed person, suddenly aware that there was a different way of doing things. None of that is going to happen again, but so what? And why mess with a good thing? Favorites should be left where they belong, buried somewhere deep in a past self.

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