Friday, February 07, 2003

The following are a few recovered reviews from years past that someone -- not you, perhaps, but someone -- may find amusing.

The Bearable Lightness of Short Lives

Saint Augustine by Garry Wills (152 pages)

Mozart by Peter Gay (177 pages)
Penguin Lives series. Lipper/Viking. $19.95 each.

Great lives are all alike; the rest of us are unaccomplished and unnoticed in our own ways. Read a few definitive scholarly biographies and see if you don't agree. After awhile, they all sound the same: each telling a rags to riches tale with reverent awe and a Tower of Babel of footnotes. With some hoarders of useless facts -- scholar squirrels, as Gore Vidal termed them -- the results can be truly painful to endure.

This is why the new Penguin Lives series, started earlier this year, is something of a relief. It is based on the proposition that great lives can also be good reads, especially if you have a writer who is not only economical but truly engaged by his subject.

Garry Wills, for example, historian and ex-seminarian, is the perfect choice to summarize the Bishop of Hippo. Wills ably and unhurriedly covers the saint's alleged preoccupation with sex, his lasting if often curious notions of free will, and his greatest hits: "time, memory, the inner dynamic of the self, the inner dynamic of God, the continual activity of God in the soul, first by ongoing creation and then by regeneration in grace."

Augustine was "considered peripheral in his day, a provincial on the margins of classical culture," Wills writes, yet he debated, worried, pulled apart and examined enough questions of human experience to fill 93 books (that we know of) and preserve 400 sermons (of the 8,000 he preached), usually working late into the night dictating to a slew of secretaries. In the course of a lifelong effort to justify the ways of God to man, he also laid the groundwork on free will that would later influence Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

"Who is weak, and I am not weak?" The apostle Paul's assertion (II Corinthians 11:29) was Augustine's motto; to know one's own weakness, one's own capacity for evil, is to know humanity. Augustine's own life-defining sin was a seemingly "motiveless" crime, when he and some other boys stole some worthless pears they didn't really want. But, Augustine discovered, there was a motive, the motive of group psychology, which he would recall later as he dealt with early church schisms.

Wills is fascinated by Augustine but he's honest about him too: while religious intolerance was a fact of life in the fourth century world, Wills points out that Augustine supplied a "theory of suppression" that would leave a "dangerous legacy" to future generations. The Lord Himself said "Compel them to come in," and for Augustine that basically meant saving heretics by any means necessary save death.

And yet, Augustine -- who famously had a child out of wedlock prior to his conversion -- was a model of restraint in other areas of human failing. He drew a line between what C.S. Lewis, nearly 1600 years later, called man's animal and diabolical selves. "Sins of calculation, cold acts like lying, were what he most castigated -- Satanic sins," Wills explains. "For sins of the flesh (which Satan, having no flesh, could not commit), his own experience did not make him intolerant but compassionate."

Peter Gay takes a more thematic approach with his life of Mozart. Rather than going from start to finish, he looks at this oddball from several overlapping sides: his close relationship with an overpowering and jealous father; his service at the hands of several patrons, none of whom knew quite what to make of him; his strong sexual appetite and rather weird anal fixation; his spendthrift ways; and, of course, his virtually lifelong gift for composing immortal musical works in no time at all. Like Shakespeare, he worked quickly and exhaustively, and he absorbed everything around him.

Mozart's father, Leopold, himself an accomplished musician, recognized his son's genius early on, and naturally took it upon himself to manage it. The relationship of the two has long been a matter of intense psychological scrutiny; Leopold realized there was little room in the life of a genius for more than one close relationship, and he tried to make sure it was him. Mozart had other ideas, of course, and their tumultuous relationship was permanently rent by his marriage to the 19-year-old Constanze. Leopold not only never accepted her, he never "showed the slightest interest in Mozart's children, or the slightest sympathy for the couple's distress at losing four of them in short order."

It was a good marriage nonetheless, Gay writes, as both Wolferl and Constanze seemed to spend every spare minute doing the wild thing. When work forced him to be away, Mozart wrote warmly horny letters home, full of longing for her "beautiful little ass," barely controlling his "little boy" that yearned to enter her "beautiful nest."

The comforts of the flesh no doubt came in handy, as both spent themselves into poverty. Yet the worse things got, the better. Where other composers blazed brightly in youth and faded, Mozart just kept getting better. The last years of his life were dreadful; they were also the years of the magisterial Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter"), written in 16 days, and the elegant final Requiem.

Of Mozart's alleged rival Antonin Salieri, Gay has rather little to say, except that the main contention was between Leopold and Salieri, and that envy, such as it was, was on Mozart's side; he would have loved the kind of awards and honors the popular Salieri received, as well as the favoritism of Emperor Joseph.

Mozart's actual death remains a mystery; Gay suggests he was a victim of 18th Century medical ignorance,where bleeding was the standard practice and no one bothered to sterilize instruments. Gay is skeptical about Mozart's alleged burial in a pauper's grave. He thinks Mozart might not have wanted a lavish funeral -- which hardly sounds to me like Mozart at all.

Wills and Gay are able to get a lot in a small space because they are fans with a natural grasp of what's important and a lively way of presenting it. The weekend I spent in the company of these books left my own mind ablaze with interest.

(Yes, I know, a weak ending. Maybe I was in a hurry.)

Rushdie's Stories

East, West: Stories by Salman Rushdie. Pantheon Books. 214 pages.

East and west, London and India, imagination and reality; for Salman Rushdie, they are worlds apart and as close as next door.
Six years ago, as we all know, they collided. Rushdie, a native Indian living in London, was sentenced to death by Iran's
Ayatollah Khomeini for writing a novel.

They collide again in this debut collection. These stories, set in India, London, and both, show Rushdie's imaginative debt
to both cultures. The "East" stories are simple and conversational, the kind you might hear from a street-corner
philosopher in Baghdad. The "West" stories are more "postmodern": wildly imaginative, if a touch obscure. Either way, Rushdie is a
master fantasist.

In "Chekhov and Zulu," maybe the best story in the book, a couple of Trekkies become involved in a covert government plot.
The ending is pure magic: the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi becomes a losing battle between the Starship Enterprise and the
Klingon Bird of Prey.

"At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" is less a formal story than a meditation on art and commerce. Dorothy's magical shoes
are up for bid from everyone, real and fictional: movie stars, hangers-on, E.T., a lost character from a Waugh novel, and
religious fundamentalists, who (like the protestors of The Last Temptation of Christ and Rushdie's The Satanic Verses) want the shoes only to destroy them. They all grapple for the shoes that can take them "home," which -- as Rushdie can surely attest -- is the most imaginary concept of all. (Consider the title of his collection of criticism: Imaginary Homelands.)

Home also figures in "The Courter," where the alienation of an Indian nanny is mirrored by the narrator. The two cultures are
like ropes around his neck: "I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I
choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose."

I was less impressed with "Yorick," in which a descendant of Hamlet's fool tries to tell what really happened way back in
Elsinore. And a story about Christopher Columbus's lust for Queen Isabella doesn't add up to much, despite a profusion of minus and
equal signs that indicate dialogue.

Although this is Rushdie's first collection of stories, the short fiction form is hardly new to him. His hyper-plotted novels
casually wander from story to story, place to place, high culture to popular, fact to fantasy.

East, West is the work of a first-class tale-spinner, a man whose multi-levelled mind is God's own private mystery.

(Okay, so the last line was a direct steal: yes, it was Nicholas Cage's description of Laura Dern in Wild at Heart. It sounded good at the time, and I was certain no one would notice. No one did. No one read it.)


All The Trouble in the World by P.J. O'Rourke. Atlantic Monthly
Press, 341 pages. $22.

Are Republicans funny?

Okay, it's a dumb thing to ask. Prosecution will rephrase the question. Is there such a thing as a funny Republican humorist?

Quick answer: Not Limbaugh. Rush is a party mouthpiece; all ideology, donkey snorts and no punchline. Watching him is like
watching old footage of Herman Goering, all twelve chins jiggling with glee as Uncle Adolf entertains the Reichstag with FDR jokes.

So who else is there?

My nominee is P. J. O'Rourke, a self-described ex-draft dodger and unreconstructed Republican. He's bitter, insolent, bratty,
cynical, self-deprecating, and basically user-friendly. And he makes me laugh out loud. He's Limbaugh with a human face.

O'Rourke's standard bully pulpit is before the unconverted: Rolling Stone, where rock and roll and left-wing politics go hand
in hand. O'Rourke knows he has to be entertaining if he's going to preach capitalistic plunder to Generation X.

Here is O'Rourke, summing up the Gen X mood of prevailing despair: "The whole world is rotten. Everything stinks. Nobody
loves me. Everybody hates me. My name is Legion. I'll be your server tonight. The special is worms."

In this new collection, O'Rourke returns to his favorite subject: international strife, and his favorite target: social
reformers. Stops include Bangladesh (not as bad as they say), the Amazonian rain forest (chigger hell), Haiti (a model health plan,
oddly enough) and Somalia (believe what you've heard). He even visits the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro -- a weekend jaunt to
shoot fish in a barrel.

In Bangladesh, he finds that weepy concern about overpopulation misses the point. The problem isn't too many people, but a government that squanders most of its country's fertile soil on jute, or twine fiber. Not only that, he notices that population comptrollers always get most exercised over bloated non-white bellies.

"Fretting about overpopulation," he decides, "is a perfectly guilt-free -- indeed, sanctimonious way for `progressives' to
be racists."

In Rio, he watches in awe as Earth Summiteers find an unlikely ally in Fidel Castro.

"We throw these bastards out of the door of human liberty and back they come through the window of ecological concern. Here is
old Busy Whiskers -- puffy, aging, abandoned at the door of Marxism, a back-number tyrant and ideological bug case who has
reduced the citizens of his own country to boiling stones for soup. And now he's a friend of the earth."

But like H.L. Mencken, to whom he is often compared, O'Rourke's sour humor doesn't always cancel his stupidity. For
O'Rourke, pollution is a perfectly acceptable by-product of prosperity. "Screw the rights of nature," he snarls. "Nature will
have rights as soon as it gets duties."

Did I say Limbaughism with a human face? Make that a cartoon rat's face. Whatever. P.J. O'Rourke is the funniest Republican

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