Stanley Elkin was not an autobiographical novelist. He never franchised fast-food restaurants (“The Franchiser”), wrestled professionally (“Boswell”), ferried terminally ill children to Disney World (“The Magic Kingdom”) or had sex with a bear (“The Making of Ashenden”).
Literary criticism is literature that discusses other literature, situating whatever book or poem historically, while at the same time, relating the literary work to the extraliterary: to the other arts, or to the world in general. Book reviewing is much the same as criticism except shorter, and the function it serves is often as much literary as one of consumer guidance: I give Kerouac three stars, or four, or three-and-a-half; William Burroughs’s new novel about nude dining gets two thumbs up, “a must-read.”
Jean-François Revel, who died three years ago this past spring, was America’s most intellectual supporter in France. He was a philosopher and writer, a Resistance fighter during the war (born Ricard, Revel was his nom de guerre), a conflicted socialist before 1968, later a converted “liberal” (in French, libérale means “conservative”) and a member of the Académie Française. A bald, plump gourmand — Revel was also the author of books on gastronomy and poetry — he was often invited on French radio and television, where he was as witty and quotable as Bernard-Henri Lévy or any other nouveau philosophe of the 1970s (André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut), though unlike them, he was a practicing journalist and not Jewish.
The buses waited in the synagogue lot. There was already an argument. One mother said the buses shouldn’t idle, it was bad for breathing. For Joseph, her Joey’s asthma. Another father said it was okay. Don’t make them turn off the buses then turn them back on. We were waiting for two more families. The drivers were asleep.
‘Chronic City” initially seemed an important and pleasurable novel to review, just as it must have initially seemed, to Jonathan Lethem, an important and pleasurable novel to write. The ideal reviewer, as if a character in science fiction, relives the writer’s experience word by word, sentence by sentence. The reviewer becomes, in a sense, the author’s projection or double, questioning choices of plot, wording and punctuation, and revising paragraphs and pages, until what results is an alternate book: Like it or not, you’re reading my own version of “Chronic City” now. (This is apropos of nothing much. But it seemed important and pleasurable enough at the beginning.)
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was a philosopher only after he was a composer, as if the music he made in his youth required an entire system, and a later age, of interpretation. There was a method to this method, too. First he discarded European thought; then European thought, or the governments that gave it political sanction, discarded him. In 1938, Adorno left Frankfurt for New York, then for the Promised Land of Los Angeles, where he summered even in winter alongside his collaborator Max Horkheimer and peers Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann.
Ghérasim Luca was born in 1913 in Bucharest and, as a Jew and intellectuel, spoke Yiddish, Romanian, German and French, the last being the language of his books. A dissolute late adolescence found Luca traveling often through Paris, where he became interested in the movement called Surrealism. He spent the war hiding in Romania, which hated its Jews but occasionally sheltered them, too.