Bookchat 2018 #2

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958).

Mid twentieth century British literature boasts many figures who specialized in miniatures. Call it a response to postwar scarcity or an acknowledgment that their American cousins had the aptitude and patience for the Ike-era equivalent of the nineteenth century’s loose, baggy monsters, in Henry James’ curt dismissal. Think Henry Green, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark. These two books by Barbara Pym, who was rediscovered in the late seventies when Philip Larkin (himself the author of an exquisite miniature) named her one of his favorite novelists, concentrate on middle class life in small English towns. The specters of infidelity flicker briefly in upstairs windows, vanish. Priests and unmarried women commiserate over tea. In A Glass of Blessings, by my lights the stronger of the pair, the married narrator’s crush, improbably named Piers Longridge (the narrator: Wilmet Forsyth), lives with a young man who works as a model for knitwear patterns; Pym’s emphases are so modest that it took a few pages to realize Piers and Keith were homosexuals. While her novels aren’t slack, they’re distinguished by a lack of tension; with nothing at stake, the reader adjusts to enjoying the ripostes – imagine a wryer Wodehouse, free of camp.

William Taubman – Gorbachev: His Life and Times (2017).

In yet another sign of the shared foreign policy assumptions of the commentary class and popular historians, Democrats and Republicans alike agree that Ronald Reagan “won” the Cold War – “without firing a shot,” his autograph book-clutching fans will often add. These people use this assumption as a way to show how Donald Trump has disrupted the old order. While Reagan deserves credit for sticking with his pietistic, determinedly ignorant views about the horror of nuclear annihilation despite resorting to conventional means to turn Central America into an abattoir, he wouldn’t have gotten far with Yuri Andropov or Konstantin Chernenko, the carcasses wheezing in the Kremlin. In Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan found a man of exquisite intelligence and a formidable command of detail enthusiastic about reanimating a superannuated regime. William Taubman’s superb biography – the first in English! – benefits from access to thousands of pages of archival material, the diaries of close Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyayev, and several interviews with Gorbachev himself.

What emerges is a man who thanks to boyhood experiences living the absurd horrors of Stalin’s kulak collectivization recoiled from violence and respected market forces just enough to imagine he could modernize Soviet communism by effecting a grand new synthesis. As Taubman makes clear, the Soviet Union wasn’t ready, nor was Gorbachev. One of the late twentieth century’s bitterest because aptest ironies is how glasnost and perestroika created the conditions under which both the gerontocratic Soviet ruling elite and moderate reformers like Boris Yeltsin could undercut and eventually force Gorbachev to abdicate. The Charles Krauthammers and George Wills who excoriated Old Man Ron as the reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain and pushed him down the stairs lived long enough to praise the fortieth president for accomplishing what they despised him for trying. Still alert at eighty-eight, Gorbachev remains the prototypical prophet without a home. “Russia under Vladimir Putin largely abandoned Gorbachev’s path at home and abroad and returned to its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm,” Taubman writes. “But that only underlines how exceptional Gorbachev was as a Russian ruler and world statesman.”

Amy Bloom – White Houses (2018)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. At his side in his Warm Springs cottage was Lucy Mercer Rutherford, the paramour over whom wife Eleanor threatened to divorce Franklin in 1918, a move that would have wrecked his political career. In a hotel room in New York is Lorena “Hick” Hickok, the reporter and confidante who was once Eleanor’s lover and, for the sake of companionship after a harrowing few days, would be again. No hesitation either: the removal of stockings, the loosening of hair, the kisses. Amy Bloom’s novel presents back story – it cuts from April 1945 to Eleanor and Hick’s courtship in the early thirties – but is blessedly free of indecision.

Narrated by a Hick who’s terse and shrewd, like a butch Rosalind Russell, the slim White Houses is one of the more poignant gay novels published in recent years, not least because it understands how erotics rarely escapes the scrim of politics. When Missy LeHand, the secretary devoted to FDR like a monk to his abbott, gives her life to the president, he rewards the stroke-paralyzed woman with a mockery of a quick visit and no more; she’s out of his life, just like that (to be fair to Roosevelt, he bequeathed a portion of his fortune to her). Eleanor was, of course, married to the most powerful person on earth; despite the end of their sexual relationship, she and Franklin understood and respected each other just enough to provide the other the necessary distance – and Franklin used distance as adeptly as his famous laugh. “He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day,” Hick remarks. A nighttime confrontation over drinks makes clear to Hick that FDR knows what’s going on, cares not a whit, and relishes playing the genial host. For the sake of complementariness, Bloom shares the story of a Roosevelt cousin struggling to suppress his urge to hit on Pullman car employees – a variant on Sumner Welles. Read White Houses alongside Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers. 

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