I should credit my editor at The Soho News, Tracy Young, for the title of this review, which ran in their November 26, 1980 issue. For my younger readers, and even for some of my older ones, it might be helpful to add that the “snake oil salesman” alluded to in my final sentence is (or, rather, was) Ronald Reagan. — J.R.
Lectures on Literature
By Vladimir Nabokov
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95
“Let us not kid ourselves,” intones the tall athletic Russian professor to his students at Cornell. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature. The girl Emma Bovary never existed; the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”
No doubt. And even at the price of four first-run movies, this long-awaited volume of aristocratic riches has got to be the publishing bargain of the year. Comfortably oversized, decked out with plentiful reproductions of the Great Man’s notes, annotated teaching copies, diagrams, and sketches, it might be the best analysis of fiction by a practitioner to have come along since The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s masterly study of the short story.… Read more »
This is one of the last book reviews that I wrote for The Soho News, a weekly alternative newspaper in New York that didn’t survive the 1980s but that afforded me during the early part of that decade my only extended and regular opportunity to date to review books as well as films. This particular piece, a double review, ran in their August 18, 1981 issue, under a different title (“Reading about looking”), and I was pleased to hear some time later from Susan Sontag that it was of my pieces that she clipped. –J.R.
Reading about Looking and Looking at Reading
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
By Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Howard
Hill and Wang, $10.95.
If on a winter’s night a traveler
By Italo Calvino
Translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95
In most bookstores, the new Barthes and Calvino books stare at one another like mutually envious friends in their separate ghettos, eyeing one another across a great divide and empty space: the social space separating essay from fiction.
Barthes’ grief-stricken gaze at photography sees beyond it to his own desire, then sees beyond that desire to the hypothetical Proustian (or Jamesian) novel he will never write — a nervous gaze that leaps like a butterfly across a crowded garden, never lingering with any simple petal-like photo for long, frustrated and impatient at the uselessness of this activity in summoning back his beloved mother.… Read more »