George D. Economou

Four Prose Proses

According to New York Times critic and reviewer Dwight Garner, one of the five critics in his book who deserve a statue is "Helen Vendler: Harvard English professor, stern but subtle arbiter of the poetry world. What she has not read is not worth reading. Before exams, students will rub the shoelaces of the bronzed Vendler for luck." Just as we're used to reading "In God We Trust" on every five-cent piece the nation's mint spits out, we expect to connect with a certain level of trust in the words of a person who writes criticism for a living, albeit of the nickel and dime variety, which the arbitrary setup first sentence not so subtly evinces. It is the snappily put out deceitful second sentence, "What she has not read is not worth reading," however, that merits the distrust of every clear-thinking reader. May students bite hard on such counterfeit coinage before and after their exams and avoid contagion by not rubbing the shoelaces of an idol so slavishly licked.


William Grimes quoting J. D. McClatchy in the final sentence of his New York Times obituary of John Hollander: "It is said of a man like Hollander that when he dies it is like the burning of the library at Alexandria." Although the vague postulation at the beginning of this hyperbolic expression doppio that previous parties have already said such things of men like Hollander, whoever they may be, attempts to imbue its declaration with a quality of unquestionable truthfulness, the allegation actively begs to be questioned. Since the library at Alexandria burned numerous times before its light finally went out, how many times does Hollander have to die for the similitude to catch on? How can this most calamitous loss in history to the written record of human knowledge, located in a spectacular shrine to all the muses famous for its devotion to inclusiveness, be compared to the loss of a professor poet who was militantly committed to excluding numerous of his fellows from the house of poetry? Should it be said of a man like Hollander that when he dies it is like the burning of an out-house in Connecticut? "No" to this as well.


Thanks to the unstoppable chatterboxing Dwight Garner, who by going public with a bit of journalistic gate-keeping policy in the first paragraph of a recent book review, what might, even if only rumored, be considered off the wall is now on the record: "When I was an editor at The New York Times Book Review not so long ago, we usually discouraged reviewers from mentioning the prizes an author had won, unless those prizes were ambrosial—The National Book Award, the Man Booker, the Yale Series of Younger Poets and so on. The reason was that there are so many prizes; they're what the book world doles out in lieu of money. They can be baffling. 'Honey, this one's won the Francis Flatulaugh Award for Oblique Heartbreak. What do you think?'" The reliably feckless Mr. Garner admits with characteristic insouciance that he made this revelation in order to exempt himself from this company constraint upon outside reviewers and then goes on to explain that he is not talking about Juan Pablo Villalobos' Quesadillas, the book under review, but about his Mexican author's first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, because it had been nominated three years ago for The Guardian First Book Prize, "a relatively modest prize, as these things go," and which it didn't even win. To line up an approach for his assessment of the second work, when he gets around to it, our eponymous reviewer garners a stand for his judgment of it from this earlier book's reception abroad, described in a remarkable string of terms in which a "posse of Britain's most interesting critics" rallied in support of this first novel "by whacking it up into the air as if they were the batsmen on a mighty cricket team." Given the novelist's nationality and his novel's setting, somewhere deep down in this witless jumble of words does not the vague figure of a piñata shimmer as well? Well, better to focus gratefully on the authentic Garner, for not only has he openhandedly shared his gift for mixed metaphors and freaky rhetorical ploys, he has also inadvertently opened a window on a world of journalistic decision making in which an essay like Orhan Pamuk's "Other Countries, Other Shores" can be blatantly put forth as a piece of writing under the signature of "purely literary" quality.


Four weeks after its dismal presentation at a Town Hall Tribute to C. P. Cavafy sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Onassis Foundation and PEN American Center on November 18, 2013, The New York Times Book Review published, with no mention of the essay's previous oral incarnation, "Other Countries, Other Shores" by Orhan Pamuk, in an English translation by Ekin Oklap, as its inaugural "Author's Note" weekly feature. It was introduced by Senior Staff Editor John Williams in his "Open Book" column as "Duly Noted: This week, The Book Review introduces Author's Note, an occasional series of first-person essays by celebrated authors on topics ranging from the deeply personal to the purely literary. To get started, Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, writes about the intersection of the life and work of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy." Perhaps one would have had to have experienced the unusually lame and impertinent performances by many of the "stellar line-up" who were supposed "to bring to life" the poet's time and legacy at Town Hall that night to understand why the editors of The Book Review chose to so honor what was one of the most shallow and, in its singularly disingenuous way, self-serving recitations on the program. One might tolerate, if not forgive, their settling for this piece of Pamuk over the other peculiarly focused or agenda-driven items in the proceedings, the poetry readings by Olympia Dukakis and Kathleen Turner excepted, because they felt they had to do something quickly about the Cavafy sesquicentennial with the end of its year just days away, though the absence of any mention of the commemorative year or preceding event organized to celebrate it as its source suggests an altogether different motivation. A matter of policy rather than of judgment, this incentive provides a more cogent explanation for this roughly one thousand word essay being singled out for publication in "the world's finest newspaper," even if the embarrassment of slim-pickings at Town Hall might have had something to do with the late hour choice of Pamuk's rumination as well as a rationale for omitting its provenance. If the ambrosial prizes in Garner's aforementioned list above allow for the exceptions that prove the rule, then the most divinely scented of them all, the Nobel, which allegedly sets Pamuk spectacularly apart from more writers than the mere number of fellow "Cavafians" at Town Hall, may well have incited the Big Mac Attack juices on which the Book Review often runs to cry out "Super-Size Me!" With such a credential, who cares if Pamuk only pretends to write seriously about the poet's life and work, mentioning by name only two poems, "The City," quoted in full next to the article and echoed in its title, and "Waiting for the Barbarians": Playing it safe with these two of Cavafy's best known and most written-about poems, he announces that the former has changed his sense of his "own Istanbul," and in his brief allusion to the latter, shares how it has been the source of a private joke between himself and a Turkish friend who had translated some of Cavafy's poems into Turkish from an English translation. Who cares if he pretends to be thoroughly versed in Cavafy's poetry when it is obviously not so: If he had read poems such as "Very Seldom," "One Night," and "Comes to Reside," he never would have categorically claimed that the old men in Cavafy's poems find wisdom in not trusting in the future, nor to oversimplify the complex continuity of his life work by putting forth a notion devoid of any understanding of its chronology—with a condescension so pure it can go undetected—that the poet consequently "fashioned for himself a new past, one based on books, history and Greek mythology." So what if in his utterly second-hand take on Cavafy's poems and in his portrait of the man as a "provincial" old Greek in Alexandria Pamuk repeatedly insinuates the words Istanbul (four times) and Turk/-ish (four times) into his reflection. And so what if he opens his superficial representation of Cavafy by informing his audience—and reminding those who already knew it—that the poet's family name, deriving as it does from an old Turkish word, cavaf (maker of cheap shoes), identifies him and his forebears as once upon a time having been subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and then closes it with a pointed reference to the darkness that befell the poet's city after his death when "after the nationalist uprisings in Egypt, Alexandria's Greek minority," in an obtuse, though likely unintentional, reverse allusion to another very famous Cavafy poem, "abandoned the city altogether," an exodus another might have described as having been caused by Nasser's expelling them. But hey, as Pamuk reassures the subjected to this intellectually bankrupt exercise, "Cavafy will never cease to surprise and move his readers," which, wouldn't you know, is "the final twist" through which the poet, the poem, and everybody else supposititiously win.

The sources referred to in each of the four sections of this work are Sunday Magazine, August 16, 2012; The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 2013; "Weekend Arts II" section of the Times, February 28, 2014; and The New York Times Book Review, December 22, 2013, respectively.

That these inanities are not about to stop has been recently corroborated by Orhan Pamuk's review, also translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap, of Adam Begley's biography of John Updike (New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2014) and Dwight Garner's review of Nina Stibbe's Love, Nina, A Nanny Writes Home, "The Arts," April 22, 2014. Determining which is more appalling, the decision to assign the Updike review to Pamuk, whose credential as a Columbia Professor of Comparative Literature neither the reviewer nor his editors choose to mention, and to actually publish it, or the review itself, is a difficult call. More book report than critical appraisal, "Updike at Rest," as somebody at the editor's desk was inspired to title it, then to follow it with the appropriately flatfooted subtitle, "Adam Begley's biography of John Updike surveys his work as well as his life," plods perfunctorily along until its middle, at which point Pamuk offers up the following astonishing conceit: "In a way, what Melville did for whales, Updike did for upper-middle-class America." Is this outlandish analogy original with the reviewer, or is it the result of an attempted restatement of something Begley said, lost in paraphrase and translation? Also difficult to say. Thankfully, by the end of his review Pamuk speaks in his own unalloyed, if Englished, voice: "This book's overall effect on me is a desire to sit down at my desk and work harder and write more." Amen. As for the incorrigible Garner, in the first sentence of his review, "Literary Lives Laid Bare By the Nanny," he lays bare another secret of his own literary reviewer's life, "I do judge books by their covers, sometimes, and the one on 'Love, Nina' made me place it in the 'probably not' pile." But what—he worry? He goes ahead and picks it up anyway because he can't resist getting a glimpse of that "rarefied London social and literary milieu," a hankering he can't stop betraying.