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Jeff Simon: My favorite book this year is Michelle Dean's 'Sharp'

Jeff Simon

The apt title of Michelle Dean's book is "Sharp." Is it ever.

It's about some of the smartest women of the 20th century and it's my favorite book of 2018 thus far (Atlantic Monthly Press, 362 pages, $26).

Thereby hangs a tale. In her preface, Dean writes, "the forward march of American literature is usually chronicled by way of its male novelists, the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, the Roths and Bellows and Salingers. There is little sense in that version of the story, that women writers of those eras were doing much worth remembering.

"Even in more academic accounts in intellectual histories, it is generally assumed that men dominated the scene. Certainly, the so-called New York intellectuals of the mid-20th century are often identified as a male set. (But in) the ... crucial matter of producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were right up to par -- and often beyond it."

So here's a book of portraits of female wits and intellectuals with, as we like to say now, "edge." They transformed thought and prose in the 20th century -- 10 female writers: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm.

Now let me throw one more monkey wrench into the works in this story -- one that's very personal and requires some explanation.

It's usually held that the national prominence of a critic or columnist for a regional newspaper is bound to be circumscribed in contemporary America. We're not talking about Mencken in Baltimore anymore. That's been true for as long as I've been doing what I do.

But that presence isn't nonexistent either. We're all in this together -- especially in the journalistic age of the computer and the internet. I've always believed the intellectual life of the provinces is that much more valuable because it's capable of coolly and analytically weighing in the balance whatever is going on in the cultural centers like Los Angeles and New York City. (When, for instance, Pauline Kael went off her head in the New Yorker and declared Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" a work of art, as important and pioneering in its way as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was in its, my private giggle wasn't loud enough to disturb the cultural peace. But it was accurate and awaited only the passing of time.)

We're part of a community of commentary, some nationally known, some regionally, some locally. Influences almost always flow from the center outward but even before the internet, there was a lot of omnidirectional flow, especially from a city as culturally ambitious as Buffalo in the '60's and '70's.

Obviously, no one's going to care how I got to be who I am but it's been odd, over the years, to discover how wrong people have been when they bothered to guess who impressed and influenced me.

An old and dear friend whom I much admired once guessed that, as with so many, I learned a lot from Tom Wolfe. Except in my admiration for the idea of a "new journalism" I, in fact, learned nothing from him. I learned more, God help me, from the first pieces Rex Reed wrote in Esquire, which were reprinted in the sarcastically titled, "Do You Sleep in the Nude?"

But Reed -- whose pre-celebrity early work was quickly taught in journalism schools -- was still very minor to me. The writers whom I learned most from were Dwight Macdonald, John Leonard, Norman Mailer, Wilfried Sheed and, yes, by God the critics Michelle Dean sometimes ghettoizes sexually in "Sharp."

In retrospect, I'd be terrified of looking at a lot of old work because if I encountered early stuff where I was working out a Mailer influence, I might well opt for opening a vein instead.

On the other hand, if I were reading Esquire Magazine in the early '60's -- which I did religiously because it was where everything was happening first -- the occasional voice of Nora Ephron was sane, hilarious and, it seems to me now, incapable of doing me anything but good.

It was virtually impossible to review movies in the late '60's and early '70's and not learn things from Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. The way John Leonard married TV criticism to his literary enthusiasms was one of the happiest and most important professional discoveries of my life, even if he got much of his method from Clive James across the ocean (who, somewhat remarkably, has outlived Leonard, though his infrequent work now is, he tells us, produced under mortality's constant eagle glare).

I can't tell you how sorry I am that Leonard's unique voice is so little remembered now, but it was unique and amazing and, more than anyone, predictive of what would come with the internet. I also can't tell you how joyous it is to read Dean's "Sharp" and to encounter together the life and times and works of Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Renata Adler, Joan Didion and -- on a slightly higher plane, Rebecca West and Hannah Arendt.

Yes, of course, the juicy old stories are here in abundance along with, yes, gossip, most of us didn't know. Almost universally known, for instance, is the moment when Mary McCarthy told Dick Cavett on television that almost everything Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including "and" and "the" only to be drubbed financially by Hellman's superior ability to keep expensive lawyers on retainer. Of course, there is Pauline Kael's once-scandalous attempt to haul screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz up to the level of the star and director of "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles.

I don't really know why Camille Paglia's stalking of Susan Sontag from university to university to get her to openly discuss lesbian sexuality isn't included, but you have to be grateful to Dean for including so much of the inundating intellectual waltz that Mary McCarthy and Sontag performed over the years.

If ever you find yourself in "Sharp" momentarily lamenting that the book seems analytically thin sometimes, you can't help but rejoice all the way through at how anecdotally rich it is.

Dean is a contributing editor of the New Republic. She's got impressive intelligence and writing chops both. I have absolutely no complaint to make about any feminist reader who wants to claim "Sharp" as a marvelous exemplar of a book that probably should have been written years ago. As long as no feminist reader is put off by the proprietary feelings of those of another gender altogether.

A couple of other books -- about art -- I want to mention to those who, like me, get a wee bit fed up with the idea that summer books should be "beach reads" of minimal heft and maximum escape. So here are a couple that present fresh, piecemeal information brilliantly and entertainingly:

The Museum of Lost Art

By Noah Charney

(Phaidon, 296 pages, $35)

Most people who go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence have no idea that when they're drinking in Sandro Botticelli's "Primavera" or "The Birth of Venus" that Savanarola had managed to convince the painter to carry his paintings to one of the pyrotechnic preacher's "Bonfires of the Vanities," but that those Uffizi masterpieces only survived because the Medici family had squirrelled them away where neither Botticelli and Savanarola could get to them. This book is full of art that wasn't so lucky -- lost and marred by Theft, War, Accidents, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, Acts of God, Destroyed by Owners, Buried and Exhumed. It's a beautifully illustrated guide to art, to whom, fate has often been astonishingly cruel.

The Lives of the Surrealists

By Desmond Morris

(Thames and Hudson, 272 pages, $39.95)

Here's something little known if at all: when Desmond Morris' best-selling piece of pop zoology "The Naked Ape" was one of the most interesting smashes of 1969 -- and was followed by such absorbing behavioral studies as "Manwatching" -- that the author was also a surrealist artist from the late '40's on whose first London Show was with Joan Miro. The dustflap here tells us "he has since completed two and a half thousand surrealist paintings," which makes him ideal to put together the kind of wonderfully anecdotal book that tells us Magritte could be so cynically commercially that he made several copies of famous paintings which, could be then signed on order. A couple of friends who deplored his crassness invented a statement supposedly by the artist offering copies of the work, sized to order, at discount prices. Magritte exploded and never talked to his friends again. A merrily entertaining inside book about people who are not usually treated this way.

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