Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books in brief

Herewith, some short reviews of books I have read lately.

>>> Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth
I stand second to none in my love of Roth's work - he is truly America's greatest living novelist (as I have mentioned elsewhere). Simultaneously, Roth makes his books intimate tales of not-so-ordinary lives and great analyses of history and man's place in it. Both aspects are written with emotional fire yet humane understanding. The success of his recent run of books in these aspects - the magisterial Everyman, his American trilogy - makes Exit Ghost the more disappointing.

It is not a bad book by any stretch. It continues (and concludes?) the story of Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of several previous Roth novels: now impotent and incontinent thanks to a prostatectomy, he has spent a decade as a rural recluse, but returns to New York for a medical procedure. While there, he up-ends his life by swapping apartments with a young literary couple, firmly embedded in the time (2004 election) and the city.

He Lear-like falls prey to his passions and the aggressors of senescence - disease, memory loss, desire without act - but without any real passion felt behind the words. Roth's style does not evoke Zuckerman's feelings, but instead seems chilly and distant, as if to insulate himself from Zuckerman's decline. It doesn't help that Zuckerman fantasises about conversations in the form of play dialogue, distancing himself and thus us from the true roiling emotions.

>>> The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich
There is no more famous introduction to art through the ages than Gombrich's much-reprinted book, now in a wonderful pocket version, with translucent pages and full colour illustrations. Gombrich, who professed himself astonished at the limitless editions his book has gone through, wrote it for late-teenagers or undergraduates. This does mean he takes a rather - if we were being kind - grandfatherly tone in narration. It is a bit like being taken through your first alphabet.

I can see why he wanted it to be didactic, since it is covering the most important bases of art theory and art history, and I'm certainly not claiming I haven't learnt a lot from it - it starts with pre-historic art and winds its way through centuries and continents. It just gets a little wearing, being led by the hand through gardens of earthly delight.

Having complained, I must certainly still commend The Story of Art, since it overturns so many thoughtless prejudices. For example, my foolish understanding of ancient depictions of the human form had been that artists were not as skilful at representing it as they are today; what Gombrich points out is that they could do so if they wanted to, but their depictions depend on their purpose - a horrific central American sculpture of the god of death naturally demands a horrific face.

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