This page includes old book reviews, some discursive writing about writing, and other pieces that don’t fall neatly in one category.
New Haven Advocate
Review of Laurie King’s The God of the Hive
20 April 2010.
Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet
17 February 2010.
Review of Dean King’s China Unbound
4 May 2010.
Review of William Alexander’s 52 Loaves
27 April 2010.
Review of Howard Frank Mosher’s Walking to Gatlinburg
Review of Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology
Review of Frank Delaney’s Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show
Review of Adriana Trigiani’s Brava, Valentine
The Daily Star: Literature
Note: The Daily Star is the national newspaper of Bangladesh. It was a pleasure to write for and connect with readers in my parents’ homeland.
A Human is a Human Because…
Review of Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British Protected Child
Paper and Web. 20 February 2010.
Paper and Web. 21 November 2009.
Some Notes on Authenticity
Paper and Web. 18 July 2009.
In Defense of V.S. Naipaul
Paper and Web. 13 June 2009.
Note: New Age is another paper based in Bangladesh.
Re-claiming Language and Democracy
Paper and Web. 19 October 2008.
Reform the U.N.’s Approach to Nuclear Arms
Paper and Web. 28 August 2008.
The New Republic
LOST & FOUND
Silent Treatment: How the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore embraced and elevated silence
Web. 25 August 2004.
Only at TNR Online | Post date 08.25.04
A young Bengali poet, the son of an aristocratic Hindu family, gives up his wealth and moves to a hut to commune with nature. Leaves fall. Time passes. He struggles intensely with his place in the universe, recognizes the infinite and the unseen, and undertakes a world voyage to spread his wisdom, inspiring a vast following. This is not the plot of a Bernardo Bertolucci film, but a rough outline of the life of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet who in 1913 became the first non-Westerner to win the Nobel Prize. How, today, are we to understand a man who seems a stock figure from central casting: the white-haired mystic who wrote against the background of a picturesquely impoverished Third World landscape? In his moving introduction to Gitanjali (“Song Offerings”), the volume that catapulted Tagore into international fame, W.B. Yeats offered an answer to this question.
“The writing of European saints … has ceased to hold our attention,” Yeats wrote. But in Tagore‘s poems, with their “untranslatable delicacies of color,” lies a world of spiritual thought that “I have dreamed of all my life long.”
In 1886, at age 25, Tagore locked himself in a boathouse on the Ganges river, his only companions “the wild ducks which came during the time of autumn from the Himalayan lakes.” There, he internalized his unworthiness to speak before the manifest beauty of God, and wrote the majority of Gitanjali. After its publication, in 1912, he embarked on a whirlwind tour through Europe and America that garnered him overwhelming attention and knighthood. Tagore‘s unique melding of humanistic ideals of reform with aspirations to the divine has become a fundamental part of the Bengali ethos: His songs are sung across the Bengali-speaking diaspora, and they form the anthems of both India and Bangladesh. But few critical studies on Tagore have appeared in the West, which is perhaps why we are now unable to read of his life without resorting to caricatures of “the Indian poet.” Yeats predicted hopefully that Tagore would not be subject to poor half-readings, that his verses would never “lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning,” or be carelessly tossed aside by university students who renounce their idealism “when the work of life begins.” Indeed, his poems could hardly sit still on a lacquered table: Their language bursts and thrills.
Gitanjali comprises 103 loose translations of prose-poems that were re-crafted into the much better-known songs. The cool cadences of the poems form a compendium of glittering, self-contained gems with a staggering range of subjects. As in The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran (who is often compared to Tagore and was deeply influenced by him), a world-weary voice proffers meditations on death and life, absolution, nature, the simple love of a child for his mother, passion and reason, pain and beauty. However, in a manner ultimately more fluid and effective than Gibran’s, Tagore slips on various guises: a novice entranced by his lord’s singing, a lover, a beggar, and (most ubiquitous) an indigent traveler who seeks to renounce his pride in return for his master’s deliverance. Calling upon his hidden beloved, he waits during a “dark lonely day” for endless, tedious rainy hours. Elsewhere, he is beset by frustration, speechlessness, and shame. He imagines himself as a Phaeton who seized “the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued [his] voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving [his] track on many a star and planet.” His journey is that of any aspirant to spiritual or intellectual depths, “the innermost shrine at the end.”
One anticipates that the poet will eventually meet his master. Yet in poem after poem, at the moment of seeming fulfillment, the cry, “Oh where?” only “melts into tears of a thousand streams…” As the reader and the poet anticipate absolution, both are refuted. In the midst of the poems, Tagore seems to turn to us to ask, “Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far-away song floating from the other shore?” In this search for the other shore, we must accept a dissolute knowledge of God’s existence, the song’s elusiveness, and total disappointment.
Modern readers, driven by the gods of satiation and utility, have been led to believe that one’s name and success constitute power and identity in the world, and all journeys, filled with sweat and pain, have an attainable end. Tagore dedicates his affections to a different god. He takes “shelter in a silent obscurity” that undergirds his aspirations. This willing anonymity is gorgeously woven into the images of Bengali village life. The poet longs to sail in a boat in a shoreless ocean. He hears doves coo and shepherd boys “drowse and dream”; his “arid heart” stretches like the dry fields. “Neem leaves rustle overhead” as he sits “like a beggar maid, drawing [his] skirt over [his] face,” watching the rich procession of kings. All the while, the air is laden with the promise: “He comes, comes, ever comes.” Time lapses before his quest; centuries “follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.”
Aside from a single explicit reference to Hinduism (“the divine bird of Vishnu”) Tagore‘s volume is remarkable for its universality. He had developed a concatenate perspective on many world religions. Gitanjali echoes Christian parlance as expressed in the Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus urged his disciples to “recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.” Yet God is left unnamed. Tagore‘s desire to “lay down [his] silent harp at the feet of the silent” illustrates a true seeker’s response to the hidden beauty that lies beyond appropriation. As an anonymous student, Tagore embraces a linguistic and aural silence that humbles us in thought. With the hush of a novice before the mysteries, the reader watches as
Tagore‘s desire for silence unfolds in lines of the most genuine and noble longing.
In our violent modern history, accepted silence and self-imposed obscurity are alien concepts. Gitanjali reveals how far we have collectively strayed from the blessings of humility and the desire for a loss of self. Tagore almost lifts the reader into a sense of what a saint is. He is the same as a speechless child:
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet…
They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells…
With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them
on the vast deep.
TNR ONLINE CLASSIC REVIEWS: A Review Each Week of The Greatest.
Note: When I was an intern at The New Republic during the long summer of 2004, I helped with some of the transfer of the magazine’s paper archives to digital. Selecting a great past book review or short piece by a great author and writing a short introduction to the reprint as a “Classic Review” was one of my jobs. These very old exercises are difficult for me to find online, so they’re stored here.
The Advertising Man by S.N. Behrman
Only at TNR Online | Post date 08.29.04
Positively eerily, the looming eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg hover over the Valley of Ashes between New York City and West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Those massive eyes—disconnected and floating on a billboard–symbolize the nightmare of success and wealth in the city. Their visage lingers in our mind long after the book is finished. Here, S.N. Behrman, the short story writer and playwright, shows us the glitter and change of the American city in his 1919 essay, “The Advertising Man.” He brings us the days when looming names, signs, and billboards were just beginning to hover above New Yorkers’ heads. He nods to the power of advertising to provide “the color in a drab world,” and admits that “the ugliness of subway kiosks and L stations is relieved by the chromatic splashes which adorn their sides.” Behrman scolds the advertising philosopher for disdaining popular government, “[f]or it is democracy that has made him a God.” Dr. Eckleburg, his all-seeing eyes peering from an ever-present advertisement, might agree.
Mussolini’s Bullfight by Stark Young
Only at TNR Online | Post date 08.22.04
Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched into Rome in 1922, and a year later the bullfights commenced. Il Duce stabilized Italy’s economy, “saved Italy,” and, not only did he make the trains run on time, but as shown in this colorful 1923 essay, he made the bulls run as well. Stark Young–Mississippi-born,son of a Civil War veteran, translator of Chekhov, dramatist–penned the following while on TNR‘s staff (where he was to return after 1924, to stay until 1947). Young’s expertise in drama came to the fore as he witnessed a Bologna bullfight, with its “crowd of five, ten, fifteen thousand people fill[ing] the huge amphitheatre, which indeed is like the Roman Emperors’ Coliseum.” Immersed in the “mixture of the barbaric with grave elegance that you see everywhere in Spanish things,” Young describes the fight with the eyes of a seasoned spectator, and in a manner reminiscent of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Coincidentally enough, 1923 was the year Hemingway saw his first bullfight in Spain and was to find it a lifelong passion.
Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings by Edmund Wilson
Only at TNR Online | Post date 07.18.04
Serious literature, or at least American consumption of it, is truly dying. This alarming conclusion is based on a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey, “Reading at Risk,” which found that fewer than half of adult Americans read any form of written literature and that only 12 percent read poetry. Furthermore, not only are people reading less, but what they are substituting for novels and poetry–books-on-tape, supermarket romances, video games, Ten Things I Hate About You as the summation of Shakespeare–points to an “imminent cultural crisis,” a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The study asserts that “literary culture, and in turn, literacy in general, will continue to worsen” in view of the dumbing down of both readers and what is read. We might note that this panic over the quality of American literature through the loss of traditional forms is hardly new. In this 1924 essay by a frustrated Edmund Wilson, the critic wonders whether contemporary poetry–even by its finest practitioners, E. E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens–comes close to measuring up to the formal beauty of the past.
The Saddest Story by Theodore Dreiser
Only at TNR Online | Post date 07.31.04
Was it a ghoulish fascination with suffering and poverty that stirred Theodore Dreiser to write? Was it a prurient obsession with single young women? In fact, he claimed that it was none of these elements (commonly leveled against his work by critics), arguing instead in this 1915 book review that “it is against smug conventionalism wherever found, too dull to perceive the import of anything except money and social precedence, that I uncap my fountain pen.” As his own 1900 novel Sister Carrie was lambasted for years as “immoral” (and not published in full until 1981), Dreiser was understandably frustrated by the stifling grip of contemporary critics and the legions of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which censured much of his work. Bitterly, he uncaps his pen here to write harshly about a new novel by Ford Madox Hueffer–better known by his late pseudonym, Ford Madox Ford–whose work he saw as embodying the values of the old guard. Although The Good Soldier is today considered Ford’s masterpiece, Dreiser decries its “encrusting formalism which, barnacle-wise, is apparently overtaking and destroying all that is best in English life.”
Six Years After* by Katherine Mansfield
Only at TNR Online | Post date 08.15.04
After Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923, her literary rival, Virginia Woolf, noted that the writer “haunted her” with cryptic dreams. It would seem that Mansfield also haunted many of her contemporary’s writings, as various forms of her were placed in the novels of Francis Carco, John Middleton Murry, and Aldous Huxley. She is largely acclaimed for revolutionizing the English short story, freeing it of the traditional trappings of a clear unidirectional plot and expanding the interior consciousness of her characters and their often uncomfortable dilemmas, both personal and philosophical. A frank writer of sex, pregnancy, the follies of men, mental and physical violence, Mansfield is also heralded in her native New Zealand as a chronicler of the particularities of life on the lush, wild island. “Six Years After,” one of Mansfield’s last stories, depicts a peaceful journey on a steamer that is, of course, so much more than a peaceful journey on a steamer.
Some Cursory Remarks on Swearing by William Lyon Phelps
Only at TNR Online | Post date 07.11.04
Dick Cheney’s pithy expletive at Senator Leahy on the Senate floor sparked a media frenzy over the vice president’s decorum and class. Such debates have a long history in America, as in this essay by William Lyon Phelps, the legendary Yale English professor and critic, published at a time when “Scuttled, by God!” and “Damn her, lewd
minx!” set the low bar for obscenity.