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Microreviews

Cross Channel
Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf, $21

The British characters in this collection of short stories set in France react to their "cross-channel" displacement with ambivalence: They feel foreign among the French, but intimate with them for all that. Each of Barnes' stories is based upon this central theme, but he builds very different narratives around it (ranging from the reminiscences of a futuristic traveler moving through the "Chunnel" in 2015 to an exploration of a loving, female couple who move into a chateau in the late 19th century), and we find it developing in surprising ways. Cross Channel offers some striking insights into how the play of familiarity and alienation structures not only the interactions of the French and English, but most other human relations as well.

-- Aman Garcha

Darkness and a Little Light
Johannes Bobrowski, trans. Leila Vennewitz
New Directions, $19.95.

Levin's Mill
Johannes Bobrowski, trans. Janet Cropper
New Directions, $12 (paper)

In America, Johannes Bobrowski is best known (though as yet insufficiently) for his hushed, elliptical, incantatory poems, which respond as specifically as Paul Celan's to the devastation wrought by the Third Reich. In the course of a brief career (released from a Soviet POW camp in 1949, he died in 1965), Bobrowski also produced a significant body of prose. Like his poetry, the short pieces collected in Darkness and a Little Light combine a sense of reserve before the unspeakable with a complete simplicity of tone. Often no longer than a page, they remind the reader of the burden of history, loss, and violence that haunts even the most seemingly ordinary of everyday acts.

The novel Levin's Mill is a more explicitly political work, the story of an unscrupulous German mill owner's efforts to destroy a Jewish competitor. Its unusual narrative structure conflates past and present: Though set in the last century, it is told by a contemporary descendant of the German from a number of different and rapidly shifting viewpoints; the reader becomes a disconcerted party to the collective life of the village as well as the particular cares of its inhabitants. The book has a strange, persuasive impersonality (one that stands in exemplary contrast to the self-involved Method Acting of the typical modern American novel), a clearsightedness that excuses nothing. Like the wheels of the mill that give the novel its title, the characters are moved by forces, variously economic, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious, that they cannot comprehend -- or so it seems. The carefully inconclusive conclusion of the book makes us all the more painfully aware of what the outcome of that incomprehension would be.

-- Edwin Frank

John's Wife
Robert Coover
Simon & Schuster, $24

Coover's unpleasant vision of a small, suburbanized midwestern city at first fascinates but finally bores the reader of his new novel. The sex, which is constant, is extraordinarily aggressive and emotionless, the plot withholds any hints of redemption or hope, and the narrator is spectacularly contemptuous of the town's population. All of this is engaging enough for a while, but Coover's scathing style becomes ever less interesting and more oppressive as his novel continues. By not affording the characters even the smallest degree of depth or complexity, John's Wife is reduced to a disjointed catalog of uncontrolled neuroses and desires rather than a truly disturbing exploration of the perversions underlying the mythic American small town.

-- Aman Garcha

The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You

George Garrett
Harcourt, Brace, & Company, $24

Murder and mayhem in the South is the subject of this ambitious but confusing novel. In it a contemporary historian interviews the citizens of a small Florida town where, in the same week that Martin Luther King was shot, a pair of murders, a kidnapping, a suicide, and an arson all occured. The novel unfolds in Faulkneresque fashion from a dizzying variety of perspectives, among them those of a waitress, an African-American lawyer, and a retired professor, and though it constantly returns to actions that took place 30 years ago, it is also very much rooted in the present, with many references to Clinton, CNN, and Madonna. Garrett has an ear for dialect and a knack for deft and nuanced characterization, and though multiple narration is a somewhat worn-out device by now, it allows him to juxtapose a bittersweet recollection of the Old South with a view, tacitly accepting, of the far less regionally particular place it has become.

-- James Gardner

Thomas Mann: Eros And Literature
Anthony Heilbut
Knopf, $40

In this well-written but reductive biography, Heilbut reads Mann's work in light of his closeted homosexuality. Heilbut doesn't examine Mann's books simply to "reveal" more or less hidden homosexual themes, but he does ground Mann's view of the artist as the permanent outsider, the rakish and unreliable threat to police and Nazis, in his sexuality. Difficulties abound. Mann -- long married and a model pater familias -- apparently never had sex with another man, and though the diaries Heilbut has mined suggest that Mann did have pederastic desires, that is more matter for gossip than proof of identity.

But there are good things in Heilbut's book, too -- a discussion of Mann's competitive relations with his novelist brother Heinrich, for example, where we see at work a real talent for illuminating the complexities of human motivation. Heilbut is a man in the grip of a theory, but he shows his greatest psychological acuity when he isn't thinking about sex.

-- Joseph Shea

The Blue Devils of Nada

Albert Murray
Pantheon, $23

This book has honorable intentions and high ambitions. Murray wants to demonstrate the centrality of Black artistic achievement to the American imagination. He talks about the indomitable sense of style the great blues singers took from sufferings endured, about the ways Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie transformed country and city sounds into a national music unimagined by the conservatory-trained, and about how the jazz improviser draws on discipline the better to discover new freedoms. Jazz, Murray claims, is not just a kind of music but a way of feeling and knowing, the definitive aesthetic form of American life.

So this is a work of practical criticism, unconstrained in its likes and dislikes, in its determination to make the reader see. That's a good thing, but this is not a very good book. It subverts its own enthusiasms with a lack of humor, and for all its talk of improvisatory range, strikes for the most part one scoldingly earnest note. Murray promises a lot, but he lacks the chops to perform.

-- Edwin Frank

The Seven League Boots
Albert Murray
Pantheon, $25

The final installment in a trilogy that began with Train Whistle Guitar and The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots is an old-fashioned fairy tale retold in the rhythms of jazz. Our Hero, Scooter, goes out into the world to win fame and fortune. First stop, the legendary jazz band of the Bossman Himself. Temptations befall Our Hero, in the persons of movie stars and heiresses, but nothing very bad happens. In fact, nothing much happens at all -- it's language that matters here: In the stories the band members tell we hear not just the rhythm of the music they play, but the rhythm of the road trip, and the history of American music. The novel loses its giddy beauty after Scooter leaves the band, but we owe Murray a debt of gratitude for his evocative writing and for reminding us anew of the power and beauty of great jazz.

-- Sarah Browning

Terrors and Experts
Adam Phillips
Harvard, $19.95

Adam Phillips has written another perkily amusing book of essays about psychoanalysis. Packed with quotable quotes and wise non-sequiturs, at times inspiring, at others pretentiously obscure, the book reads like a literary evocation of the unconscious while also making some sensible points. Phillips argues that psychoanalysis works a lot better as critique than prescription: When analysts bank on expertise, supplanting a patient's knowledge with their own ("You're not afraid of horses, you just want to kill your father"), they betray the hope for freedom from authorities that brings patients into treatment in the first place. But then, Phillips says, psychoanalysis is closer to parapsychology or religion than it is to medical treatment. It doesn't provide knowledge but experience, and it doesn't need experts to practice it -- or defend it. "Nobody needs psychoanalysis," Phillips reminds us, "but some people might want it."

-- Alison Karasz

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review



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