Touching on everything from pragmatism to arson, The Nation's Fall Books issue features Marilynne Robinson on William James, William Deresiewicz on Saul Bellow, Jana Prikryl on Sarah Bernhardt, Frances Richard on Susie Linfield, Samuel Zipp on Ed Koch and Aaron Thier on Julia Holmes. Plus, translations and a poem by Anne Carson.
The life and thought of William James were both a defense and embodiment of the mind's power to shape and create our lived world, Marilynne Robinson argues in "Risk the Game." How absurd, then, that a century after James's death, "Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world’s being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable."
Credit: Print Collection, The New York Public Library
For William Deresiewicz, the Letters of Saul Bellow come as a gift from the grave: "Drollery, mordancy, tenderness, quick-draw portraiture, metaphysical vaudeville, soul talk, heart pains, the whole human mess—Saul Bellow’s letters are a Bellow novel, the author himself the protagonist." In the case of an author whose books "are letters," Deresiewicz writes, "but letters, necessarily, to the world," the collection offers insights into one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century.
Credit: Viking / © 2010 Janis Bellow
The tale of the nineteenth-century theater star Sarah Bernhardt, according to Jana Prikryl in "The Dirty Halo," "is a tale, essentially, of how a woman of the Victorian era harnessed the currents of the Romantic to fabulate herself and by the same stroke bring a new jolt of excitement to a slightly moribund theatrical tradition." Through her "workaholic, mythmaking, passionate but unsentimental force" on stage and off, Bernhardt played a role that was as much foundational as revivifying: her star-power "forged what we still assume to be the dimensions of the celebrity's role in society."
"To look at a photograph," writes Frances Richard in "The Thin Artifact," her review of Susie Linfield's examination of photography and suffering, The Cruel Radiance, "entails a peculiar kind of participation: distanced in time and space, and severely limited in regard to the context leading to and consequences stemming from the moment fixed on film, yet often viscerally affecting. And so the viewer of desperate photographs faces an intractable conundrum." In her attempt to examine this conundrum while contextualizing the implications both geopolitically and morally, has Linfield, Richard asks, extended her book's argument beyond its fruitful limits?
When Ed Koch took office as mayor of New York City in the winter of 1978, "Faith in the urban experiment—the idea that people from all walks of life, from everywhere, could live together in cities—was at its nadir." So writes Samuel Zipp in "Burning Down the House," his examination of the epidemic of fires and neglect that brought the city to its knees, and of the mayor whose neoliberal policies transformed the city from a center of manufacturing into the nation's financial capital.
Credit: Lee Quiñones
The world of Julia Holmes's first novel, Meeks, writes Aaron Thier in "Suitors," is one that resembles our own in some ways but remains unavoidably unfamiliar: most notably, "young men must spend something like one 'season'—spring, and summer and early fall—as a kind of professional bachelor." But according to Thier, despite Meeks's unusual novelistic universe and "even if the language is often enough the language of despair, it's so pure and new that I can feel the joy in it."
Credit: Lucy Holmes