Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Robert Darnton’s Poetry and the Police, Jeremy Harding’s Mother Country


Several months ago Frank Rich declared that Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $28) had done "for our traumatic time" what The Great Gatsby did "for the ominous boom of the 1920s." In case you’ve somehow missed it, Freedom is a novel about the Way We Live Now. Spanning three decades but set mostly in the era of George W. Bush, it is a parable about "the freedom to fuck up your life," to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, Walter Berglund. Rich’s comparison dishonors Fitzgerald, who wrote Gatsby with an economy of means and a sense of the tragic that exceeds Franzen’s grasp. Fitzgerald was a novelist; in Freedom, Franzen is an amateur ethnographer impersonating a fiction writer. His novel is overstuffed with finger-puppet characters and the clutter of contemporary life: there’s no reason to know that someone is wearing "Chinese-made sneakers" or that someone else watches Pirates of the Caribbean during a transatlantic flight. Freedom is crammed as well with rants passed off as dialogue and dialogue that either serves no narrative purpose or reeks of research done in the lifestyle pages of the New York Times.

Rich’s treatment of Freedom as a weather vane is not entirely inaccurate. Taking its cue from a decade’s worth of headlines, the novel is more meaningful as news than as fiction. Its popularity is evidence of how badly people crave literary heroes, especially ones whose novels, like pop songs, are of the moment. At one point in Freedom Richard Katz, an aging rocker and a college pal of Walter’s, goes with Walter to hear a young musician. "It was all in all a great show," Richard admits, despite the performer’s "insufferable" self-indulgence and "artful crimes against pop convention." Yet Richard can’t help feeling "like the one stone-sober person in a room full of drunks, the one nonbeliever at a church revival." That’s pretty much how I feel about Freedom.

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The Tree of Cracow stood at the center of Paris in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. It’s said that the large, leafy chestnut came by its name from the debates about the War of Polish Succession that took place beneath its branches or nearby. It’s also possible that Cracow—Cracovie in French—is a pun on craquer, to tell dubious stories. Newspapers with information about public affairs were forbidden under Louis XV, and so the streets and cafes ran thick with loose talk about the king and matters of state. People flocked to the Tree of Cracow to hear nouvellistes de bouche spread rumors about the court supplied by sources at Versailles. Street singers belted out scurrilous poems about the king and his retinue set to the melodies of popular tunes. "Literature is news that STAYS news," Ezra Pound says in the ABC of Reading. In Paris under Louis XV, poetry was often mauvais propos, news that gave offense.

In 1749 Parisians feasted on a half-dozen poems that ridiculed Louis XV for being humiliated in foreign affairs by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle as well as in the royal bed by an ignoble mistress. The king ordered a crackdown on unauthorized poetry recitals, and the police rounded up fourteen suspects, mostly students, clerks and priests, and gathered evidence. The investigation is the subject of Robert Darnton’s fascinating Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard/Belknap; $25.95). As Darnton retraces the steps of the police, he branches off into explorations of the world of ordinary people under the ancien régime and the formation of public opinion in an oral culture. He also has a polemical aim. "The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past," he writes, "even a sense that communication has no history" before the days of television and the Internet. Darnton deflates that illusion by showing how poems seeped into the public sphere as they passed through oral and print media: first copied on scraps of paper, then dictated by one person to another, then memorized and sung to an audience. For Darnton, poetry was an information network long before networks were news.

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For long periods of his childhood, Jeremy Harding lived by the River Thames in tastefully run-down establishments set amid embankments, overgrown towpaths and sodden flood plains. Mother Country: Memoir of an Adopted Boy (Verso; Paper $17.95), a delicate and absorbing account of Harding’s investigation into the circumstances of his adoption in 1952, owes much to water as well. Harding’s approach to his past is more fluid and invigorating than those now promised by memoir: tiresome self-pity, tawdry personal revelation, graceless self-invention. Harding is reticent, and fiercely so; it is left to the book’s front matter to disclose that its author is an accomplished journalist and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books. Reticence serves Harding well. It fosters curiosity, patience and tact, which allow him to conjure up from the sediment of public records and spillways of memory the hitherandthithering courses of two lives: those of Margaret Walsh, his natural mother, and of Maureen Harding, his adoptive mother.

Harding was 5 when he learned from Maureen that he had been adopted. His mother, she explained, was an Irish girl who had worked in a shop. Maureen also regaled Jeremy with stories about her own youth: rides in a horse-drawn carriage trailed by Dalmatians; skiing trips to Chamonix. With persistence and luck, Harding learns his natural mother’s identity and discovers, contrary to his belief, that Margaret is alive and living in West London near the housing projects where she was pregnant with him. But the book’s big surprise concerns Maureen. From discussions with old friends of Margaret’s, Harding learns that there were no Dalmatians or skiing trips for Maureen. Rather, there was a childhood in public housing and later a marriage (her first, and not to Jeremy’s adoptive father) that catapulted her from a hardscrabble life into a world of leisure. Maureen adjusted her speech, and past, accordingly, and never looked back. In the mother country, Harding explains, without ever raising his voice, class can be a trap, a miasma of murk and discoloration.

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