F R O M C H I C A G O
TRAVELS IN THE REICH, 1933–1945
Foreign Authors Report from Germany
Edited by OLIVER LUBRICH
“Given the glut of books about Nazism that rehash familiar ground, Travels in the Reich achieves no mean feat in approaching the subject in a new way. . . [It] gives readers the rare opportunity to peer into Nazi Germany through the eyes of outsiders.” —Times Higher Education Cloth £19.50
DUKE ELLINGTON’S AMERICA
HARVEY G. COHEN
“Extremely intelligent and formidably researched.” —Claudia Roth Pierpont, New Yorker
“Harvey G. Cohen’s new book illuminates
Ellington’s career as never before, and also helps to deepen our understanding of larger trends and issues in American politics and culture.”
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The University of Chicago Press www.press.uchicago.edu FROM THE PULPIT
visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to inquire for good books but new books’. He could have written this yesterday.
A LONDON AGENT sent me a note saying that she couldn’t risk her reputation by submitting In Praise of Older Women to a publisher. Esquire sent back the typescript with a giant pencilled ‘NO!!!’ scrawled across the last page. Helen Gurley Brown sent it back with a polite note saying it was ‘too sexy for Cosmopolitan’. And that was in the Swinging Sixties. Nor did it end there: no one in France would publish it until 2001.
In Praise of Older Books
Granted, many old books are irrelevant. Governing ideas and the accepted ways of seeing things have always been false: classes and nations seek reassurance and self-
A student paper called In Praise ‘a happy novel about sex’. This happiness is infectious, but it is also offensive, as sex has always been more hurt than joy to many. Sex bares the ego as much as the body. It makes us vulnerable; we hate to read anything about it that challenges our self-image.
Back in 1965, I ended up publishing In Praise myself in Toronto and, thanks to the endorsement of Northrop Frye, Earle Birney and other august figures, the novel won through. In America the books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote to the publisher: ‘I have thrown my copy into the wastepaper basket. I hope that Mr Vizinczey will be murdered before he manages to write another book.’ Most New York editors were more sophisticated: they killed the hardcover by ignoring it. The few good reviews were negated by sneering dismissals and silence. However, thanks to Brigid Brophy, Elizabeth Smart, Michael Frayn, Margaret Drabble, Isabel Quigly, Graham Greene and other writers and critics of stellar reputations, the novel won through in the UK as well; on the back of the UK reviews and sales, even the American paperback took off. Since then In Praise has been recognised by a minority of influential writers and journals, gaining a widening readership in some countries, but always having to struggle against the silence of most of the conventional media. Truth never dates, nor does the aversion to truth.
Earlier this year, Penguin brought out the novel as a Modern Classic, and I hoped that this confirmation of its enduring appeal would inspire a few literary editors to mention In Praise and so bring it to the attention of a new generation of readers. However, I see that surviving the test of time for forty-five years doesn’t entitle a novel to be noticed. On the contrary, it now has one more strike against it: it is an old book, a classic. Unfortunately most editors ignore the classics, and some don’t even bother reading them. But who am I to complain when Tolstoy is given the same treatment? A review in the Culture supplement of the Sunday Times welcomed a new work of history with ‘finally a book about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia from a Russian point of view’! We are sinking ever deeper into a provincialism in time, as T S Eliot called it. In his preface to The White Devil, John Webster speaks of ‘those ignorant asses who,
justification rather than knowledge, and the pressures on writers to give support through their fiction to current ideologies and pretensions are difficult to resist. But some books embody the unchanging laws of the human universe that are indispensable to our understanding of life and our survival.
Even those who accept this tend to assume that there is no need for the media to talk up the classics, as whoever can learn from and enjoy them already knows about them. There were similar assumptions about opera, yet the number of new fans grows by the hundreds of thousands through great opera productions brought to them via television or beamed into cinemas. Attention to books by the truly great is still left for anniversaries. There are millions of readers who could enjoy and profit from the classics a great deal more than from most contemporary books, but who have never heard of them. They read the books pages in the papers but when do they come across the names of any of the giants?
In 1967 Michael Ratcliffe gave me three whole pages of The Times’ Saturday Review to write about Stendhal. The following week all copies in print of The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma sold out. In 1977 there was no Kleist in print in the UK. John Higgins of The Times gave me a whole page to write about him. The text was printed in smaller type than the rest of the paper to make room for the whole piece. It produced enough public demand to get Kleist’s stories into print and started the revival of Kleist’s plays. All that the greatest writers need is editors and columnists to champion them consistently; then we would have a more sophisticated citizenry. Whenever I go to the sea I take with me extra books to give away. I start up conversations with people reading rubbish on the beach and if they sound more intelligent than the books they are reading I give them one of my favourites: Stendhal, Balzac, Pushkin, Tolstoy, or a short novel of Dostoevsky, Kleist, Swift or Mark Twain. I have a roughly 50 per cent success rate, and often with people who have little formal education. They write or phone to thank me and their surprise is that those oldies are page-turners. I persuaded a Memphis editor who loved my pieces on the classics to reprint them under the heading All Time Bestsellers. All books pages should have a column like that. If the kind of fuss made about celebrity memoirs would be created for War and Peace or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, those books would outsell Dan Brown.
LITERARY REVIEW October 2010