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Art for Art's Sake & Literary Life:
How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology and Culture of Aestheticism 1790-1990

Gene H. Bell-Villada
University of Nebraska Press, $45, $18.95 (paper)

Nominated for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle award in criticism, this elegant volume tackles nothing less than the "concrete social, economic, political, and cultural reasons for the emergence, growth, diffusion, and triumph of l'art pour l'art" over the past two centuries. "To associate Art for Art's Sake exclusively with Oscar Wilde," Bell-Villada warns, "is to blind ourselves to the wider spread of aestheticist doctrines, both past and present." This wider spread he traces from Schiller and Kant to Paul de Man and beyond, by way of Poe, Pater, Latin American modernismo-and the IRS's Schedule C (where writers and artists are classified under no. 9837, "other amusement and recreational services"). Novelist and critic Bell-Villada has an ear for the wry and the telling: In illustration of "authorial deference" to wealthy patrons we learn that Lord Halifax thought nothing of interrupting Pope's formal Iliad readings to suggest "poetical improvements"; explicating the pressures of journalism and print technology on writing, he informs us that Balzac sweated "twelve hours a day at his desk, producing thirty pages per sitting," while Dumas pumped out "100,000 lines a year at 1.5 francs per line." An engaging, erudite, admirable study.

--Matthew Howard

Hell: A Novel
Kathryn Davis
The Ecco Press, $22

Kathryn Davis's third book is, in a way, a mystery novel, its multi-leveled narrative dilating around the death of a repellent child named Joy who seems to have fallen from a dam (get it?) but whom, on the other hand, several people might gladly have killed. Joy's death, coinciding with a hurricane in the Philadelphia suburb of X in the 1950s, is Davis's rabbit-hole down into an older kind of Mystery: the way mortality strings us up between the food we consume daily and the haunted spaces in which our vitality is played out. The nameless, tubercular narrator, Joy's grudging playmate, arranges the hapless occupants of an inherited dollhouse (one-handed celluloid butler, clothes-pin Dad, headless daughter, frayed mother) into horrific caricatures of her own household's petty traumas. Their plight is intercut with that of Edwina Moss, a nineteenth-century writer on domestic economy; the ruins of her ill-managed house stare out at the neighborhood from amid the ash trees behind Joy's house. Moss's mad obsessions, in turn, point back to the idyllic tale of Napoleon's "culinary architect" Antonin Carème, whose tabletop creations joined nourishment to beauty with an ease from which the book's other inhabitants have been banished. What saves Hell from the empty Peter Greenaway-style pageantry that would spell its death onscreen is an infinitely supple rhythm in the writing, which conveys the eternal knotting-together of need and impossibility. Davis's imagination propels itself like her own description of someone unseen coming up Edwina's hall, with "a vague shuffling noise, lax yet oddly precise, as if an approaching mummy's trying very hard not to trip over its own unraveling feet."

--Joel Smith

The Girl, Painted
Eve Shelnutt
Carnegie Mellon University Press, $9.95 (paper)

In her fifth collection of stories, Shelnutt weaves a corporeal silence into words, fabric poetic in its elegance but nevertheless tethered to ideas-to the "conundrum of time" and of loss-that force the reader to ask questions of what in everyday life remains unspoken. Shelnutt masters strangeness into consciousness; plot issues secondarily, as a matter of shocking but excessively quiet happenstance: in one story, a boy is sent away to live with aunts, carrying flowers and a note in his pocket, his mother thinking that "all words were prophecy, announcements that kept fate tamed." In another, two women depart for Nova Scotia under a sky filled with black birds, and confront sensuality and difference in events bred by landscape. But it is Shelnutt's language that most rewards the reader. For in a defiance against both minimalism and sentimentality, she adheres to form, addressing incalculable underlying experience, "absorbing the paradox" of both poised distress and fated contingency.

--Jennifer Anna Gosetti

Exile And Creativity:
Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances

Edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman
Duke University Press, $54.95, $18.95 (paper)

This collection of pieces exploring the world of the outsider-the emigré, the exile, the expatriate, the refugee, the nomad, the cosmopolitan-restores the worn scholarly notion of "otherness" to a lively particularity. While some essays tend more toward the academic (for instance, Linda Nochlin's look at exiles' art and John Neubauer's investigation of "homelessness" as a foundational structure in literary theory), and others (such as Denis Hollier's letters from Paris to editor Suleiman, explaining his resistance to writing for this book, and Henry Louis Gates's personal reflections on meeting Josephine Baker and James Baldwin) blur borderlines between scholarship and art, most discuss the pain-and, often, pleasure-of foreignness with rare subtlety and humanist solidity. National identity is a hot topic, but the abstract rhetoric of much current work on it effaces a great deal of its interest. Suleiman and her authors succeed by offering in-depth analysis via compelling stories of exiles and their work: Shelley, Mickiewicz, Joyce, Hemingway, Conrad, Ovid, Dante, Descartes, Hobbes, Dreyfus, Carrington, Kitaj, Tzara, Bréton, Bakhtin and Lukács are but a few of the exiles encountered on this readerly journey.

--Shelley Salamensky

John L. Williams
Serpent's Tail, $13.95 (paper)

1994, Camden High Street, London. Punk is dead, a subculture shattered to pieces. Not for Jeff, protagonist of Williams' tragicomic short novel. Still emotionally entangled in the good old times, Jeff needs only a flash, a glimpse of passing Frank (short for Francesca) to trigger off his version of the (post-)punk scene of the early 80s. Looking back from the mid-90s, however, it's hard for him to provide a coherent account. "You were just there, you were a bystander," Jeff recalls Frank saying in a dream. Apparently her judgement is right: still feeling for her, Jeff is unable to talk to her about Ross, his former bandleader and her former lover. Passivity also best describes his part in the blackmail they try to pull on Ross. Williams displays Jeff's disposition in all its ambivalence: Mixing memory with desire, he feels the need to romanticize the past, a self-imposed loyalty that is the source of his inactivity. On the other hand, it is this slightly marginal position that provides the distance he needs to give a honest description of the generation that "came of age in the years between punk and Thatcher." In his off-beat narrative drive, Williams catches the spirit of the times: Faithless is a highly enjoyable fictional counterpart to the era's oral histories and the more sociological approaches of Greil Marcus or Jon Savage.

--Carsten Schinko

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

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