Staff Picks: Peasantry, Propaganda, Playground Crises


This Week’s Reading


A still from Forbidden Films: a nitrate film vault in the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany.

9781555974466After several years of hearing Norwegians describe Dag Solstad as their greatest living novelist, I finally read Shyness & Dignity—and got some idea of what the fuss is all about. Like the title, the plot is defiantly unprepossessing: a high school teacher notices something new about the play he’s teaching (for the umpteenth time), and this discovery triggers an existential crisis on the playground. The part that every Norwegian remembers is when the hero beats his umbrella to death against a water fountain, but behind this moment of high drama lies an amazingly compact story of one career, two marriages, and the history of Western philosophy, with particular attention to Kant and 1968. It is suggestive, sad, and extremely funny. I’ve already forced my copy on a friend. —Lorin Stein

Felix Moeller’s disturbing new documentary, Forbidden Filmsbegins outside the fortified bunker where Nazi propaganda films, still banned by the German government, are stored. There’s such a high quantity of nitro-celluloid, an archivist tells the camera, that the facility officially qualifies as an explosive device. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to literalize Moeller’s central metaphor: seventy years after their creation, the films still have the capacity to ignite controversy and endanger viewers. Moeller documents the rare screenings the government allows, as audiences turn up in droves for … what, exactly? the novelty? the danger? a dose of national guilt? (Film archives take note: turns out you can sell out a black-and-white movie just by slapping on a ringing endorsement from Joseph Goebbels.) I left the theater stunned at the propaganda films’ ability to grab and sway 2015 audiences—to frighten elderly Germans, to shock students, and to galvanize neo-Nazis, who still use the films to attract teenage followers. It’s worth seeing the look on the face of a middle-aged German man as he walks out of a screening and praises an anti-Polish film for its educational qualities: more people should know, he says, that it was really the Polish who started Word War II by persecuting and interning ethnic Germans. —Rebecca Panovka

The laconic Robert Frost balked at the idea of collecting his prose during his lifetime, but he did include his two most voluble critical essays—“The Figure a Poem Makes” and “The Constant Symbol”—as prefaces to a handful of his poetry collections. The essays find him carrying his poetic fascination with the colloquial into his prose, to a nearly maddening effect; both read like transcripts of impromptu lectures, though in fact they were meticulously drafted. They are, in places, chatty to the point of gibberish. But if you can weather the Yankee turns of phrase, you’ll encounter lovely definitions of poetry that seem to spring from Frost’s own lines: a good poem has the “straight crookedness of a good walking stick” or, like ice thrown into a hot pan, “rides on its own melting.” Frost, conscious of his own influence, strings the reader along with a chummy but nonetheless diabolical wit. Reading the essays alongside his poetry, I’m reminded of D. H. Lawrence’s exhortation: “An artist is usually a damned liar … never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” (Alas, Frost wouldn’t like that. When Lionel Trilling invoked Lawrence in a controversial speech he delivered at Frost’s eightieth birthday party—the idea was to supplant Frost’s avuncular reputation with something a bit darker—Frost remarked that the comparison left him “puzzled, oh, utterly at sea.”) —Oliver Preston

gatesFour of the stories in David Gates’s new collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, first appeared in the Review—so to mention the book here may seem like a mere formality. But it must be said: the collection is really good. Blurbs on the jacket laud Gates’s fearlessness and “high moral art,” and rightly so, but I’m surprised more isn’t made of his comic talents. There’s a caustic wit at work on nearly every page; empathy and misanthropy match stride for stride in a way that recalls Cheever at his best. In “Banishment”—a previously unpublished novella about a spectacularly bad marriage—it sometimes seems there’s an act of casual betrayal on every page, each designed to puncture another set of social mores. If we all read the story aloud to the most optimistic grads in our lives, we could appreciably lower the marriage rate. —Dan Piepenbring

In the opening of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee says, “This is a book only by necessity.” Published in 1941, about five years after Fortune sent Agee with Walker Percy to write about white sharecroppers in the Deep South, the book refuses to hew to any established forms. It’s self-indulgent and angry, aimed at whatever power structure or part of human nature devalues human life. The prose bounces between hellfire sermon and lyrical lily-gilding that exists as if to delight itself, and the chapter structure is a convoluted disaster. But it works—the book seems to justify its amorphousness as it goes along, as if to say, There’s no way to really do justice to this material, so here goes nothin’. Sometimes Agee writes like an omnipotent third eye, sweeping up the landscape and the big picture; other times he zooms in, as when he’s sneaking around a sharecropper’s property at night, cataloging and remarking on the condition of the items in his barn, sniffing them, just to tell us that they all reek of sweat, dust, and mildew. —Jeffery Gleaves

Yesterday, Dany Laferrière became the first Haitian author to enter the sacrosanct French Academy in Paris—so maybe now’s a good time to take on one of the cornerstones of Haitian literature, Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew, first published in the forties. Roumain was the founder of the Haitian Communist Party, and this, his last novel, finds him renewing the peasant-novel tradition: it’s both a political manifesto and a declaration of love to the Haitian landscape, as bountiful as it is avenging. After a fifteen-year absence, Manuel returns to his rural hometown to find it devastated by drought and divided by internal strife. He seeks to extricate his people from poverty by negotiating between two cultures: science and voodoo, town and country. Through Roumain’s poetic prose, Manuel is depicted as an ideal leader, favoring the common good over personal vested interests. Fatalist through and through, Masters of the Dew is a genuine tragedy, softened only by the musicality of its language. —Charlotte Groult

Set in seventies-era suburban London, Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is an unflinching portrayal of alcoholism and the disintegration of a family—bed-wetting, burbling, blackouts, delusion, denial. One character graduates from homemade wine to a bottle of gin a day, and then attempts to extract ethanol from a tin of shoe polish; another has schemes for booze money that range from pawning the copper bathroom pipes to stealing a brain from a hospital morgue. Even Colette, the matriarch, has recently traded sniffing glue for Special Brew. Her sense of self-sacrifice, like that of so many addicts, is an outlet for her sense of guilt. Woodward explores the whole listless, desolate spectrum of alcoholism. At one point, Colette’s brother formulates a wet-brain-ish theory that the past doesn’t exist and memory is merely a dream. “Life must be real,” Colette tells him. “If I was making all this up, surely I’d make up a better life for myself.” —Kit Connolly

«The_Gadfly»_coverE. L. Voynich was prominent among revolutionaries in the late nineteenth century; accordingly, her novel The Gadfly became especially popular in the Soviet Union, where it sold millions of copies. Set in the 1840s during the Italian Risorgimento, it focuses on a disillusioned but noble cripple—Arthur Burton, the eponymous Gadfly, who, having discovered radicalism, abandons the Church and begins to write candid, satirical tracts. Sure enough, the state comes after him. But what should be a cut-and-dry political parable, a paean to the insurgent spirit, is complicated by the supporting cast: Burton’s priest, his father, and lover all intercede in various ways, and the book becomes a stirring meditation on forms of love—romantic, religious, familial, and revolutionary. —Alexandra Rezvina