27 April, 2009Issue 9.1Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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“Any fool can write a novel but it takes a real genius to sell it”… J.G. Ballard, who died last week at 78, could write and sell. (Empire of the Sun sailed off the shelves after Steven Spielberg made it into a movie—with Christian Bale starring as the young Ballard.) But publisher HarperCollins announced last week that it had scrapped plans to sell the latest Ballard book because Ballard himself could not write it. The novelist, who lost a long battle against prostate cancer, had hoped that his last work would reveal “the meaning, if any, of life”.

In the wake of HarperCollins’s announcement, it appears that the coda to the Ballardian canon will be “The Dying Fall”, which the Guardian published this week. In it, the Leaning Tower of Pisa comes crashing down. While Pisa falls, Rome is resurgent, according to the Times Literary Supplement. Reviewer Rupert Shortt argues that the Catholic Church remains “remarkably robust”. Catholicism may be losing its dominance within Europe, but Europeans are losing their dominance within Catholicism: “The future conversation about Catholicism in the twenty-first century will be conducted increasingly by Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians.” In short(t), one might say that a tectonic shift is taking place at the heart of the Catholic world—but alas, that would be tasteless.

It’s not just Catholicism that is “resurgent”. God Is Back, say Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in the title of their newest book. “To anyone who lives outside Europe, the Harvard campus or Manhattan… this conclusion is not exactly startling,” observes the New York Times. Elsewhere, He never went away.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that Barack Obama won the presidency in part because he could speak about God more genuinely than his rivals. But although Obama talks about the Lord, he doesn’t talk about the Bard, according to the New York Times Week in Review. This is despite the fact that he lists Shakespeare’s Tragedies among his favourite books on Facebook.

Perhaps Obama’s decision to steer clear of Shakespeare in his speeches represents a shrewd side-stepping of a brewing Beltway brouhaha. Apparently, the Supreme Court’s liberal lion, John Paul Stevens, has teamed up with the cantankerous conservative Antonin Scalia to prove that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The more moderate Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy defend Stratford-upon-Avon’s claim. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is leaning towards John Florio.

“Any fool can write a novel”, but how many can write two? The Times lists the top 10 “literary one-hit wonders” of all time. Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, doesn’t make the list—although there are Poe followers (including Baudelaire and Borges) who probably would have put it there. Edgar Allen is all the rage in his bicentennial year, and a flock of new biographers are ravenously reaping the rewards. Poe might be a more appropriate Supreme Court subject than Shakespeare: as Jill Lepore notes in the New Yorker, the author died while committing voter fraud: “Poe, drunk and delirious, seems to have been dragged around Baltimore to cast votes, precinct after precinct, in one of that city’s infamously corrupt congressional elections, until he finally collapsed.”

Speaking of nevermore… J.G. Ballard. The dystopian writer predicted that with each passing generation, the life of man would grow duller. The TLS’s Michael Hoffman concludes that with each passing generation, the life of the Manns grew duller. Thomas’s brother (Heinrich) and sister-in-law (Nelly) are “certainly an interesting enough couple to justify a biography”. Thomas’s oldest children—Klaus and Erika—probably aren’t “worth writing books about at all”. WH Auden and Chester Kallman may have had it right when they quipped that the eldest son of Thomas was a “Subordinate Klaus”.

Although the Manns grew duller over the generations, the Vanderbilts did not. The San Francisco Chronicle reviews The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and concludes that Cornelius was “not a nice person”. The railroad robber baron fathered eleven children and practically disinherited all but one—son William, whom he left with $95 million of his $100 million fortune. William’s descendants continue to dominate the headlines. William’s great-granddaughter, 85-year-old Gloria, has written a new novel that the not-so-Puritan New York Post calls “unadulterated smut”. When Gloria writes of sex, she does so knowingly: her past lovers include Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and the author Wyatt Emory Cooper—with whom she spawned CNN heartthrob Anderson Cooper.

Speaking of unadulterated smut, the Times’s Michael Moorcock recalls the saga of J.G. Ballard’s 1968 pamphlet entitled “Why I Want to F*** Ronald Reagan”. The pamphlet posed the question: why did the then-California governor have such sex appeal? Meanwhile, James Mann (no relation to Thomas) poses the question: why did Ronald Reagan appeal to Mikhail Gorbachev? The Telegraph highlights the role of…(John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, see supra, will love this)…God. Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was a “closet Christian”.

Defying members of his own party, Reagan went to Moscow. Samuel Beckett, however, did not. In the New York Review of Books, JM Coetzee peruses a new volume of Beckett letters (see Stephen Ross on the same volume in Oxonian Review 8.7)—including the young Beckett’s audacious overture to Sergei Eisenstein: “I write to you…to ask to be considered for admission to the Moscow State School of Cinematography,” Beckett wrote in 1936, before acknowledging that “I have no experience of studio work.” Beckett waited for a reply. Fittingly, it never arrived.

Wait no longer… Blackwell announced last week that it would participate in a three-month trial of the Espresso Book Machine, which can print any one of 400,000 titles in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately for the OR, the bookseller has decided to debut Espresso at its Charing Cross branch instead of its Broad Street flagship. Oxford overlooked again? John Paul Stevens would not be pleased.

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