2 March, 2009Issue 8.6Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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When the Nobel Committee awarded its peace prize to Elie Wiesel in 1986, the committee called the Romanian Jewish writer “a messenger to mankind”. Wiesel’s message in his most recent novel, A Mad Desire to Dance, has not resonated with reviewers: the New York Times calls it “uncomfortably simplistic”, filled with “facile insights”. (The San Francisco Chronicle’s one-word verdict, which Review of Reviews cited last week, might have been more apt: “unreadable”.)

But the novel is no longer the medium for Wiesel’s moral voice. Instead, Wiesel’s eloquence and outrage reached a crescendo this past week at New York’s posh “21” Club, where the Nobel laureate lashed out at his one-time friend, financier Bernard Madoff. Wiesel and his wife lost their life savings in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and his Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity saw $15.2 million go up in flames.

The Madoff affair has restored Wiesel’s way with words; again he paints the haunting images that characterised Night (1958) and Dawn (1961). Wiesel on what he hopes for Mr. Madoff’s future:

I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, “Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,” nothing else.

A subject for Wiesel’s next novel? He says no. “It would be too cheap, too ugly… I don’t write about ugly people.”

The Curious Case of Salman Rushdie. Contrast that to the knighted-but-not-Nobeled Salman Rushdie, who seems to write about anything and everything that comes to his mind. This week, Sir Salman tries to lance Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the mega-hit set in his birthplace Bombay. Rushdie’s objection: he can’t stand Slumdog because the novel and the adapted screenplay “beggar[] belief”. (Evidently, Rushdie has reincarnated as a hard-boiled realist. Just ignore the plot twist in The Satanic Verses (1988) in which Farishta survives an airplane explosion over the English Channel and assumes the personality of archangel Gibreel.) Meanwhile, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), another adapted screenplay, “doesn’t finally have anything in particular to say”. (We wonder whether the same might be true of Rushdie’s 5,000-word bombast.)

Rushdie quotes an anonymous British film producer’s proclamation that “all movies made from books are shit”. He starts searching for exceptions, which are not rare: by the Oxonian Review’s tally, 15 of the top 25 titles on the American Film Institute’s all-time list and 14 of the top 25 on the British Film Institute’s list were based on books or short stories. Indeed, Rushdie once wrote that his “very first literary influence” was the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which was based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel (though he conveniently forgets this fact now). By the end, Rushdie acknowledges: “The case against film adaptations remains unproven, and… a plausible argument can be made that many cinematic adaptations are better than their prose source materials”. This moderate conclusion is certainly better for Rushdie’s own acting career. Then She Found Me (2007), in which Rushdie appears alongside Helen Hunt, Colin Firth and Matthew Broderick, was based on an earlier novel, as was Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), in which Rushdie shares the silver screen with Firth, Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.

Frankly, It Was Rape… Elsewhere, Rushdie has voiced his astonishment over the fact that Gone With the Wind (also an adaptation of a novel) topped The Wizard of Oz in the 1939 Oscars voting. Meanwhile, Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara wins new life as a feminist heroine (seventeen-inch waist and all) in film critic Molly Haskell’s Frankly, My Dear (2009). In reference to the scene in which Rhett Butler forces himself on Scarlett, Haskell writes: “Women’s so-called rape fantasy… did not have to be the expression of a masochistic desire for violence… but rather could be a carefully orchestrated drama of losing control under specific conditions and in well-chosen hands.” New York Times reviewer Armond White breathlessly declares that “feminist criticism has never been more daring”.

Even more breathlessly, the Canadian magazine Macleans lauds Scarlett O’Hara as “a perfect tough-times model” for the “Great Recession”. Scarlett did save her family’s home by marrying a wealthy widower who could pay off the overdue property taxes. Perhaps we’re radical feminists, but we don’t think that a loveless marriage is the “perfect tough-times model” for weathering the sub-prime storm.

Speaking of Film Adaptations… Variety reports that a film version of Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus’s autobiography Banker to the Poor (2003) will start shooting in Bangladesh early next year. Italian director Marco Amenta says that “Slumdog has become [his] inspiration”. No word yet on the working title, but our bet: Who Wants To Be a Microlender?

Waugh, Revisited… British newspapers fawned over The House of Wittgenstein (2008), by Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn, when the book appeared here last fall. The Telegraph called it “rich and wide-ranging” and the Independent said it was “marvellous” and “sharp”. This month, The House crosses the Atlantic, and while the Wall Street Journal concludes that Waugh’s own “cranky and eccentric” family makes him “well-suited” to take on the Wittgensteins, other US reviewers are reluctant to rave.

All are fascinated by the family. According to legend, one Wittgenstein son’s first spoken word was “Oedipus”. Paul Wittgenstein attended high school with Hitler, lost his right arm in World War I and nonetheless became “a world-class pianist of outstanding technical ability and sensitivity”, according to Waugh. But New York Times reviewer Jim Holt accuses Waugh of being “positively misleading” in his “mocking and somewhat philistine” portrayal of philosopher Ludwig.

In the Jewish Daily Forward, Benjamin Ivry says that Waugh’s portrayal of Paul Wittgenstein is positively misleading as well. Waugh’s claim that one-armed Paul was a “world-class” pianist “is contradicted by surviving recordings”, Ivry writes. (Unfortunately for those who would prefer to make up their own mind, these recordings do not survive on the Internet—except for a quick clip here.)

Brideshead, The Original? The Guardian is the latest to review Leslie Mitchell’s new biography of Maurice Bowra, the longtime Wadham warden who may or may not have been the inspiration for Mr. Samgrass of Brideshead Revisited (1945) notoriety. According to reviewer DJ Taylor, “As [Bowra] grew older, Oxford college life became more professionalised, less interested in the humanist pursuit of the good life, less interested, in fact, in Bowra himself.”

But this month, British book reviews are interested in no one more than Bowra. According to the Times, Bowra encouraged his students “to live as the Greeks and poets had lived”, but he himself he was neither a great classicist nor a great poet. He was “at the centre of the great homosexual mafia… of the late 1920s and 1930s”, but he also sought quixotically to keep his sexuality under wraps. He refused to write a preface for a collection of poems by the gay Greek writer Constantine Cavafy, and he boycotted an honorary-degree ceremony for the gay Nobel laureate André Gide. The Independent notes that Bowra’s legacy lives on in, among other places, the rose garden across from Magdalen College. (Bowra had it installed because his nemesis, Magdalen College President TSR Boase, famously hated roses. The area then became known as “the Boase Garden”).

Superman, The Original. Jerry Seinfeld, Shaquille O’Neal, and Nicholas Cage are all interested in bidding for the first Superman comic, dated June 1938, according to the Telegraph, which notes that the anonymous seller paid 35 cents for the comic at a used bookstore in 1951, when he (or she) was nine years old. (Auctioneer ComicConnect has squashed speculation that Spider-Man lover Barack Obama might get into the game.) The Times says bids have surpassed ¬£140,300 and adds Samuel L. Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Eminem to the list of potential purchasers. For those who don’t have that kind of cash to spare, the New York Times recommends Supermen!, a new anthology of 1930s comics, on sale from Seattle-based Fantagraphics for $24.99 (¬£17.65).

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The New York Review of Books wants you to be its Facebook friend. (It had 4,766 fans by our last count.) The London Review of Books is lagging behind (twenty-seven fans and counting). Even the Oxonian Review beats that (sixty-seven, and you can be the next).