Double Intellectual Centerfolds! Today is also the release of Camille Paglia's Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars [Kindle]
The definitive list of the best things about the 21st century so far: online check-in and Daniel Mendelsohn. For anyone who occasionally misses the sustained stimulation of a great college lecture, each of his essays is a feast. In Daniel's world, among the worst criticisms is "unrigorous." All twenty-four pieces in Waiting for the Barbarians [Kindle] palpably throb with exactitude. He is not fooled by "the knowing winks that too often substitute for genuine insight." Throughout his many topics -- Avatar, Satyagraha, Mad Men, the perpetual interest in the Titanic, Sappho, the Iliad, Herodotus, Horace, Oscar Wilde on the classics, Stendhal, Rimbaud, Hollinghurst, Littell, the memoir craze, Noel Coward, Edmund White, Franzen, Sontag -- recurring themes are self-knowledge (and its lack), the hazards of memory, and "the extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice."
In his reviews he never limits himself to the work at hand but always locates it in a trenchant analysis of the artist's/author's oeuvre and era. Even an article about a worthless subject like Broadway's Spider-Man becomes an examination of ego, humiliation, and the poison of today's blockbuster mentality. Though he decries the "cultural boosterism" that can be associated with niche literary markets, he is exceptionally deft at excavating the twin mines of gay culture and gay sex, from his beloved Greeks, to Wilde and Rimbaud, to the span of 20th century England in Hollinghurst's work to the New York of the 60s and 70s in City Boy. You didn't get this from other reviewers of The Stranger's Child:
"...[The Swimming Pool Library]'s insistence on highlighting the urgent presence, in so many gay men's lives, of what you could call the less theoretical side of desire. Penises, for instance. In one of the many scenes that take place in the shower of Will's gym...a swoony catalog of male members gives you an idea of the way in which Hollinghurst's velvety sentences can smoothly twine around a subject that some literary novelists might find dauntingly rebarbative... Style, in Hollinghurt's work, is the great leveler--it brings within the orbit of serious fiction subjects and acts that other writers, even gay writers, might 'tastefully' elide."
"...make the provocative argument that 'queerness' is what allows us to read the true story of the past."
"In the five novels that he has published over the past twenty-two years, the distinctive knowingness to which gay people often feel privy, the sense of having privileged access to powerful secrets and hidden motivations not visible to other people, is a vital element in a serious literary investigation into knowledge, truth, narrative, and history."
Do not attempt to read Waiting for the Barbarians all at once. Give it several sessions a week. You will need the between times to pursue its many leads, like Antonio Munoz Molina's "masterpiece" Sepharad or Richard Howard's translation of The Charterhouse of Parma, which "has the headlong plottiness of Balzac... and the elaborate, almost glacial self-consciousness of Flaubert."
The one unforgiveable flaw of Waiting for the Barbarians is that it lacks an index.
The paperback of Daniel's previous collection of essays, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken, is now on sale for $6.80.
Daniel will read tomorrow night, October 17, at the B&N on Broadway & 82nd St. He also appears at Brooklyn's PowerHouse Arena on October 24; the 92nd St Y on October 28; DC's Politics & Prose on October 29, and in Los Angeles on November 8.