It is obviously just as wrong to review books (or performances or exhibitions) by your friends, as it is to publish criticism of works by your enemies. Sometimes there are exceptions. I did not know, when I was commissioned by the Spectator to review The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, that more than a third of the contributors were recruited from a group that I chaired (until I stood down last week), so I knew many of them and perforce some were friends. The proof that I am capable of being objective is that some American readers thought what I regarded as a rave review of the book was not entirely positive. There is evidently some cultural dissonance here, as no British person who has read the review thought it was anything but a strong recommendation to buy, read and use this fine reference work.
This summer I’ve received (or bought) some books by friends that I want to call to your attention. This is not a review, but something more akin to an endorsement – of some very excellent books.
Michael Craig-Martin’s On Being an Artist (Art/Books, www.artbookspublishing.co.uk) is a gloriously illustrated credo-cum-memoir by the distinguished Irish-born, American-raised, Yale-educated, British-resident senior artist. A seminal figure in the early days of British conceptual art, he gave us as a 1977 wedding present a copy of his famous “Oak Tree,” the set of instructions for placing a glass of water on a shelf and declaring that it was an oak tree. Since then Michael has become even better known for his teaching at Goldsmiths College in London, where he tutored the notorious generation that became known as the Young British Artists. He remains a better artist than any of his too-famous pupils, as he understands colour and space in a profound way not evident in most of their work so far. He is also a splendid writer, humane, amusing and informative. This is a handsome, wise and often funny book, open and honest about his own life, and interested in the life and work of others.
Recapitulations by Vincent Crapanzano (Other Press, New York) opens with a startling sentence: “My parents taught me that it was rude to ask someone what he or she did for a living.” I suffer from the same learned-in-childhood shyness when first meeting someone – which is why I think this striking remark is one of the great, memorable starting points of a memoir by the celebrated anthropologist and teacher of comparative literature. This is, in the old-fashioned sense, an apology (i.e., a defence) of my friend Vincent’s academic work and life. He has taught at nearly every major university in the Anglophone world, and as he is polylingual, in several non-English-speaking countries. He owes this to the European upbringing his mother chose for the family following the early death of his psychiatrist father.
This is a graceful volume, written in limpid prose, with its narrative prompting reflections on memory, nostalgia, love, sex and death. The anecdotes are knitted together by their common concern for matters of genuine interest to most readers. Pace a truly risible review by the religious-loopy-left-wing windbag Terry Eagleton in the TLS, there is no egotism about these tales, which do much to help the reader understand the amazing, colourful twists and turns of Crapanzano’s career, which has been a good deal more exciting than that of your average academic. Vincent is married to our friend, the gifted, hyper-intelligent writer, Jane Kramer, and the glimpses of her in this very honest and open memoir are part of its charm.
I have to confess I haven’t quite finished reading Theodore Zeldin’s new book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life (Maclehose Press, Quercus, London). He explains its structure in his preface: “Each of my chapters begins with the voice of a person from a different epoch and civilisation confronting one of the big decisions that everyone has to make, and responding with a story of their own experience.” The author then enters into a sort of conversation with his subject, to see what solutions there might be today for someone faced with a similar problem or opportunity. This is so not a self-help manual that some of the topics Theodore discusses would alarm anyone in search of that sort of guidance.
For example, in the chapter “What Else Can One Do in a Hotel?” he says “a hotel today is a United Nations in miniature, employing and hosting people from every part of the world.” Theodore, of course, wants us to use a hotel stay as an opportunity to ask the questions Vincent’s and my parents brought us up not to ask of strangers. Privacy, in this context, is the enemy; and the chief villain in the historical development of the hotel or inn becoming a private refuge for the wealthy is César Ritz (1850-1918). Turning posh hotels into “24-ho0ur theatres, with staff playing the role of deferential minions, unquestioningly indulging their guests’ every whim,” has resulted in the segregation of “the rich, middle and poorer classes” in separate hotels. (He could have added Ritz’s criminal career as an embezzler to the charge-sheet; he confessed, in writing, to his crimes when the Savoy sacked him, along with Escoffier in 1898.) The joy of Zeldin is his curiosity about others, which is infectious – a cure for social shyness on good philosophical grounds.
Last Folio: A Photographic Memory by Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova (Prestel, Munich, London, New York) has an essay by my friend Katya Krausova that is essential to read before looking at the photographs by Yuri Docj of Holocaust-devastated places and objects in present-day Slovakia. The narrative, though mostly visual, turns on a pair of coincidences revealed in Katya’s short piece, which adds poignancy and verve to this gorgeously disturbing book. Indeed, the volume is mostly about books – ruined books, scraps of books, sacred calligraphy, and the buildings that contained them. The people who owned or used the books are there by implication, resurrected by the care, love and art of Dojc and Katya, and by two splendid end-pieces by the Iranian novelist, Azar Nafisi, and a disquieting diatribe against his German forbears by Steven Uhly.