How I Choose Which Books to Cover, Rosamond Lehmann, the Third Reich

By Benjamin Schwarz

January 2004 ATLANTIC

tumblr_inline_mjrl3hnQW81qz4rgpReaders often puzzle over why a certain book or subject is ignored in this section while another is written about; or they discern—or think they discern—certain predilections in our coverage. Periodically we make explicit our prejudices, preferences, and aims. This section, like the magazine as a whole, seeks to discriminate. Our readers are bombarded with information every day, and more books are published in a week than most of our readers could get through in a year. We want to tell them which titles shouldn’t be missed, which are unjustly neglected, and which we think should be ignored, though they may be widely praised elsewhere.

Although in some ways constraining, discrimination also liberates us. We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source—which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don’t have to cover the waterfront. For example, we chose not to review Pat Barker’s latest, because although she’s an important novelist we admire, her most recent book happens to be very far from her best effort. Its review, we reasoned, would be unfavorable but, since it would also point to her obvious talent, would hardly be an evisceration; in other words, it would almost necessarily be equivocal and boring (that good novelists so often produce less than stellar novels largely accounts for the fact that fiction reviews are so often politely qualified and, well, dull). Instead, because life is short and one’s reading time considerably shorter, we want to draw readers’ attention to the best books, regardless of (original) publication date, which is why we review a fair number of reissues. We assume that readers want to know about Modern Library’s new edition of George Gissing’s previously all but unobtainable New Grub Street, for example, and Vintage’s reprints of Somerset Maugham’s novels—and not just what’s of the moment. In fact, we think readers would rather hear about, say, Yale’s reissue of Jerome Carcopino’s vivid but scholarly Daily Life in Ancient Rome than about Thomas Cahill’s widely reviewed, formulaic, and patched-together Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.

Gissing and Maugham are English, of course, and some readers think they detect an Anglocentrism in our books coverage, especially in our fiction reviews. This charge of parochialism is half right. We tend to focus on prose style in our assessment of fiction. It’s obviously far more difficult to do so when reviewing literature in translation, because both the reviewer and the reader of a work encounter not the author’s writing but the translator’s rendering of it. Hence we run fewer pieces on translated works than do comparable book-review sections (although the essays on Proust and Cervantes in this issue testify to our attentiveness to major new translations of essential works). And we’re therefore particularly interested in books written originally in English—by British novelists but also by American, Canadian, and Australian authors—and especially mindful of the influences and echoes spanning centuries among writers in this language. But one aesthetic penchant does militate in favor of British writers specifically: we prefer wit, wryness, and detachment to zeal. Whereas didactic blather and a pedantic spirit still infect too much American fiction, we find that British authors often write with the kind of insouciant precision we prize (as does an American writer such as Lorrie Moore).

If we run more than the predictable number of reviews of novels composed in English, we run fewer than the predictable number of reviews of books on politics, public policy, and current affairs. This is partly because we assiduously cover these areas in other parts of the magazine, but mostly because a very high proportion of these titles are just godawful. (I write this as someone who once made his living as a foreign-policy analyst.) Magazine and journal articles are usually the best forum for bold and original arguments on these subjects; most books on them tend to have (at best) a kernel of an important idea, padded with superfluous case studies and second-rate reporting. But we do ferret out those titles that present important arguments, especially titles ignored in the public discourse, and we also focus on some titles that we believe distort current debate or receive unwarranted praise. In this regard we would cite the review we ran of Germs, a book that we believed hyped the bio-terrorism threat. It was published just after 9/11, and was widely reviewed during the subsequent anthrax scare; in fact, its arguments helped shape how that story was covered. Most reviewers lauded the book, and particularly praised the authors’ prescience. We asked Bruce Hoffman, an unusually judicious terrorism expert, to assess it. His contrarian review trenchantly pointed out the book’s fundamental flaws; briefly, persuasively, and sharply made a case that local and national authorities were devoting too much attention to the wrong sort of terrorist threats; and proved to be correct.

Readers sometimes note that we tend to run pieces that are either unusually short or unusually long compared with those in other review sections. As for the short ones, we’re convinced that important and praiseworthy titles can be reviewed analytically, with verve, and even definitively in much less space than other book sections usually allot. We strive to make these short pieces read like mini-essays, tightly argued and with a strong point of view, rather than like capsule summaries. In our fiction reviews we eschew plot summary; we think novels should be elegantly characterized, not recapitulated. This approach gives the reviewer, even in a short piece, room to place the book in a larger context, be it of the author’s body of work or of trends in fiction. As for the long pieces, we’re trying to nurture and revive the stylish, critical, often saucy and disputatious review-essay, because we believe that from Macaulay through Virginia Woolf to Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, and Gore Vidal it’s proved to be a form perfectly suited to discussing complex ideas with grace and flair, and to taking the pulse of the contemporary intellectual and cultural scene. In such pieces we might cover traditional subjects (canonical writers, historiographical debates), but we’re aiming also to restore what Orwell (in describing his own work) called “semi-sociological literary criticism.” We’ll occasionally examine hugely popular (or widely discussed) novels and nonfiction books to assess the social, economic, and commercial roots and contexts of literary phenomena. More often we’ll use this form to explore what are often dismissed as lifestyle subjects. In bookstores frequented by Atlantic readers whole sections are devoted to titles that chronicle, or offer advice about, the way the professional class lives now—its anxieties and obsessions; what its members spend their money and time on; what they talk about on dates and after dates, at dinner parties, and on the sidelines during their kids’ soccer practice. The books’ subjects range from college admissions to family life; from competition in the workplace to creating a home life; from courtship, sex, and marriage to homework, raising kids, and the problems facing teenage girls. We believe that these issues—together with the way they’re framed and defined by the books people read—should be the subject of discerning, sympathetic, occasionally tart cultural criticism.

And while we mix short and long, we also mix low and high. To take a piece in this issue, for example, we think a book by an author and polemicist as popular as Dr. Laura demands to be discussed seriously. But we also find that too many nonfiction books that would once have been characterized as middlebrow—popular history and historical biography most prominently —garner too easy praise and get too much attention in serious general book-review sections at the expense of significant, sometimes pathbreaking semi-academic books. We take the opposite approach: We might ignore, say, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams—not because it’s a bad book but because we assume that our readers already know about it and because we have nothing fresh to say about it or its subject. We want, however, to inform our readers about, and to explain the significance of, complexly argued and unfairly ignored books such as (to pick two recent U.S. history titles) Allen C. Guelzo’s biography of Lincoln and E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America.

Literary Studies

Rosamond Lehmann
by Selina Hastings
Vintage UK/Trafalgar Square

The English novelist Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) wrote a few splendid and in this country largely forgotten novels about the interior and intensely romantic lives of lower-upper-middle-class women. (By far the best of these are the satiric yet empathic Invitation to the Waltz and its anguished sequel, The Weather in the Streets.) A member of that characteristically British tribe of mid-twentieth-century high-second-tier female authors that includes Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, Sybille Bedford, and Rose Macaulay, Lehmann wrote fewer superb books than most of them, but she amply deserves this nearly 500-page biography because of her own intensely romantic life. She was what was once termed unlucky in love, and also what is now termed emotionally needy—voraciously so. Lehmann had a knack for choosing the absolutely wrong man, again and again. Her first husband, a remarkably immature son of a shipping magnate, had a pathological fear of impregnating her (“Our sex life,” Lehmann recalled, “was a disgrace to sex”); sure enough, upon learning she was pregnant, he insisted she get an abortion, after which he congratulated her on once again being “all clear & clean inside.” Quite understandably, she soon embarked on an affair, and she subsequently married her lover, the silly, rich, and equally immature Wogan Philipps. But after the birth of her first child she found the idea of sexual relations with Philipps repulsive, and soon both she and he were unfaithful. After a passionate but short liaison with the caddish Goronwy Rees (the affair ended when she read in The Times of his engagement to another woman, of whom she’d never heard; he would later be immortalized as the devious Eddy in Bowen’s The Death of the Heart), she started her “tremendous affair” with the love of her life, the poet Cecil Day Lewis. He was an uber-cad. That things would not go well with him Lehmann should perhaps have surmised from the fact that soon before meeting her, Day Lewis—a married man with two children—had a son (whom he would never acknowledge) by the wife of a local farmer. Weak and improvident, Day Lewis vacillated between his wife and Lehmann for nine years before abandoning both for a younger actress. Lehmann never recovered from that betrayal, and her despair was compounded eight years later when her daughter, “the one flawless joy of my life,” died of polio at twenty-four. But in this portrait, at once acerbic and compassionate, gossipy and astute, Hastings balances sympathy and judgment: the men Lehmann picked may have been lousy, but she herself was a demanding and histrionically self-absorbed lover; one of her closest friends acknowledged that being the object of her overwrought romantic attention was “like being suffocated by a great eiderdown of rose petals.” And she only grew needier and more smothering to friends and lovers (the latter were more and more the product of her increasingly pathetic, vain imagination) as her famous beauty faded. Born the day after Queen Victoria’s funeral, Lehmann died lionized by late-twentieth-century feminists, and throughout her adult life she moved fluently among Britain’s literary, social, and political elites (the book’s supporting cast ranges from Virginia Woolf to Noël Coward to the head of MI6; in a convoluted familial connection typical of that set, Lehmann’s second husband married Hastings’s father’s first wife). This rich and compelling work reveals as much about that peculiarly intertwined world as it does about the peculiarly unhappy romantic fortunes of an intensely sensitive—some might choose to say brittle—woman.


The Coming of the Third Reich
by Richard J. Evans
Penguin Press

Three British historians have recently written commanding and lasting chronicles of the Third Reich. In 2000 Ian Kershaw completed his two-volume Hitler—a masterpiece of academic biography, which perhaps will never be superseded—and Michael Burleigh published his one-volume narrative of Germany under the Nazis, the best scholarly general history of the subject until now. Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (he was the utterly convincing, if prickly and pedantic, scholar whose testimony thwarted the libel suit of the notorious David Irving), has published the first of a projected three volumes that when finished will long remain the definitive English-language account. Although Burleigh’s history is written with more flair, it lacks the scope and depth of Evans’s, which probes far more fully into social, economic, labor, cultural, and legal matters. And whereas Burleigh took a self-conscious and distracting condemnatory approach (one would have thought a degree of moral agreement had already been reached regarding the Nazis), Evans’s tone is cool, and hence far more authoritative. But his book is not without flaws. This volume ends in mid-1933, just after the Nazis crushed the opposition political parties, abolished the trade unions, cowed their conservative sometime allies, and brought the churches to heel—and Evans confirms Burleigh’s emphasis on the central role played by the Nazis’ skillful deployment of street violence and political terror in engendering popular compliance and in preparing the ground for the Nazification of all aspects of German life. But whereas this portion of his work is both gripping and precise, the opening sections—the book’s first 150 pages—are diffuse and intellectually lazy. In these chapters, devoted to historical background, Evans catalogues such topics as the history of German anti-Semitism; the religious, regional, and class differences that divided Bismarck’s Germany; the Weimar Republic’s structural political weaknesses; and culture, the arts, and public morals in the 1920s. But he fails to link them with exactitude to the subject of his book—the rise of Nazism. The extent to which Hitler and the Nazis were a natural or even an inevitable outgrowth of forces embedded in German history and society is, of course, a subject of perennial debate, and Evans can’t really be faulted for failing to come up with a definitive interpretation. But by letting the facts merely sit on the page, with almost no attempt to interpret, shape, and dissect them, he essentially throws up his hands; these flabby chapters mar the work as a whole, and they clash with Evans’s crisp, analytical, meticulously argued history, which emerges as soon as Hitler and the Nazis enter the story. (Evans’s closing chapter, in which he assesses both the extent and the limits of the Nazis’ electoral success and, concomitantly, Hitler’s use of both law and thuggery in establishing a one-party state, is as bracingly intelligent a historical analysis as I’ve read.) An always reliable, often magisterial synthesis of a vast body of scholarship, and a frequently deft blend of narrative and interpretation, Evans’s book is an impressive achievement. If in his subsequent volumes he avoids the laxness that vitiates this one, his opus will be one of the major historical works of our time.

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