gall and gumption

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Reading Roundup aka Random Firing

Bob B. recommends McGahern's memoir, which has a lovely title.

I have just finished reading Conor Cruise O'Brien's biography of Edmund Burke, The Great Melody. It is a thematic political biography of Burke, and while that sounds boring it isn't. If you were half inclined to like Burke before this book will take you the rest of the way. I put him in my own weird personal Pantheon now, and I do confess that I don't think he would like to find himself near neighbors with Talleyrand, who is my other favorite statesman, perhaps because he is so the perfect opposite of Burke that he is the paramount example of what you could do in the other line.

Burke was a politician of conscience his entire life, and the O'Brien book makes that movingly clear. He left his mark on four great political matters of the day, any one of which would have made the reputation of any other man: Ireland, India, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. He was driven. On India, the American colonies and the French Revolution the positions he took were politically unpopular -- much of his work was holding the opposition party together and keeping it at doing the job of an opposition; but when it really came to the crunch in these things he found himself isolated, the way you are isolated when you go on and on about something a bit too long for everybody's taste. But the reason Burke went on and on and on was that he could see so far ahead. There is a sense in which he failed, in that most of the time nobody followed his advice. But he lived long enough to see himself proved right every single time. And, in the way that people can know, he knew that he knew.

There are people who are interesting because they see beyond. Sophocles, the playwright, loves those people. Like Oedipus and Antigone. They seem so extreme to everybody else, but it's that they see further. They don't define the world in terms of their own interests. It's as if the gods are more immanent with them and they get exasperated, they won't lighten up. Of course, they can't lighten up, they can't be like other people, they can't see less than they see. They have the authority of their own acutely, painfully perceived experience and whatever self-knowledge and understanding comes with it. And as tragic as it may be, there is nothing to trade it for.

Burke is one of those people who couldn't help seeing beyond. In him it was, among other things, an ablity to read political conditions with such scope and subtlety that he really seemed like a prophet. Plus he had this gift of oratory and this driven, moral passion. His speeches are splendid and O'Brien quotes all the important stuff in the book.

I think Talleyrand saw beyond also, but I think he not only saw it, he went there and came back and figured out a way to capitalize on it. He saw the destruction of legitimacy in France. He was part of the party that helped to bring it about, even though he was from one of the oldest families in the country, with a lineage as distinguished as the Bourbons. When the Revolution turned on him, he went to England where he lived a rather uncomfortable life -- not only was he an emigre, he was regarded with deep suspicion by the English. So he went to America, and having no money, became a real estate agent. Then one day he went back to France and made himself useful to Napoleon by pretty much bringing back the image, if not the reality, of legitimacy, to support Napoleon's dictatorship. He was as shrewd and far-seeing a statesman as Burke, he was in on all the big divisions of the spoils in Europe, the signing of treaties and the redrawing of borders, all without a trace of sentiment or even much apparent feeling, and yet he was so effective. He was a survivor, he was a man whom nobody could intimidate. He was like someone who you couldn't frighten with hell because he had checked it out quite calmly already. A lot of English people thought he was the Devil. As far as English fears and phobias went, he hit every hot button. He was a former Catholic bishop who became a revolutionary and then he backed Napoleon and he was French, French as French could be, and for the 40 years of political mess after the Revolution this weird inscrutable artificial being who didn't even put his own stockings on just kept resurfacing and resurfacing and each time he resurfaced he got a little lot richer. And then, just to totally crown it all, he was the father of the painter Eugene Delacroix, as in Madame Delacroix had an affair with him. I LOVE THIS.

Some of you might remember a phase of my life when I was handing out Delacroix's journals in that lovely compact Phaidon selection, translated by Lucy Norton, I was handing them out like Gideon Bibles. This was before I knew who Delacroix's father was. And I liked that same cool quality in Delacroix's writings too.

Complete opposite of Burke but I like both of them. I shouldn't but I do.

I'm halfway through Middlemarch, which seems even better than the last time I read it, funnier and smarter.

And I finished a book called Among the Mansions of Eden by a journalist named Weddle who lives in Malibu. I can see that it would be tempting to write a book like this. It's quite tame by the standards of the "Stars in Grotesque Gilded Cages/Ooh! Bizarrro Murders" genre. This one gave me the persistent feeling that the eccentric lives that I was reading about were quite normal and the writer was the one who was a kook. I think this is because, well, what sort of person wants to draw a moral from the life of Herbalife founder Mark Hughes? What sort of news is it, really, for this journalist to come back and tell us that opulence doesn't make people happy? So the people who are unhappy in their wretched excess just seem more like us but not in any sort of revelatory way, "Milton Berle was human too!" But more like, "Yeah. So?" I suppose you can keep repackaging these bits of celebrity lore (Buster Keaton's bustup, the Manson killings) and wrapping them, in this instance, into the book's real estate history, but at some point it must be acknowledged that this amounts to putting out the same product with one hand while waggling your finger about it with the other.

So why did I read it? Because I have no taste, as you know. Also I like reading stories about real estate because land is one of those subjects about which people go really really crazy. And I wanted to have a look at a loosely organized nonfiction book, just to assure myself of how badly it could be done and yet still drag a a reader along. I am satisfied.

Caroline is starting the Hilary Spurling's two-volume Life of Matisse.

Also there's an autobiography out by a very famous screenwriter -- one who specializes in the sort of movies that Bruce Willis acts in. I want to read it because the guy sounds like such a miserable, ferocious bastard. So I'll have to remember his name and find the book again. The evils of procrastination!

And Tom sent me a link about Rousseau's dog which I am afraid to open, for fear it might have some dreadful bit of information that will keep me up nights.

And no, this is not an ad for Amazon.


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