Phèdre
Jean Racine
Translated by
Ted Hughes

(Farrar Straus Giroux)
Well, lets see if I can get this right. Theseus, King of Athens, has been lost somewhere out in the waters for twenty years, and they figure he's dead. Meantime, wife Phèdre falls in love with step-son, Hippolytus, his son by "the Amazon."

Hippolytus, in turn, is in love with Aricia, granddaughter of Thesus' one-time enemy, Erechtheus. The way that Phèdre deals with her unrequited love is the same way that many of us would: by turning sullen, mean, testy and petty. Phèdre's nurse and retainer, one Oenone, tells her to stop mooning around so much; that if she loves Hippolytus so much, just give him the word. So Phèdre relents, sends for the kid, and tells him that since his step-father doesn't seem to be on the horizon, she has decided to give him all her love.

Hippolytus is less than enchanted with step-mom's advances, since he is nuts for the innocent Aricia, so he mouths a few platitudes and gets the hell out of there. Meanwhile, lo and behold, King Theseus is resuscitated, sails into port, and is all ready to take his wife and his kingdom back into his arms. Unfortunately, with Oenone's connivance, he suspects that there's dirty foot awork, mistakenly coming to the conclusion that Hippolytus has been trying to put the make on Phèdre. The shit hits the fan, he tells Hippolytus to hit the road before he takes out a contract (with the gods) on him.

Now, Hippolytus is a bit of a martyr --- as befits a French-speaking Greek --- so he doesn't defend himself, but, instead, goes to his honey and tells her it's time for the two of them get out of town. Since he's handsome, loyal, well-spoken, brave, etc etc., and since she loves him, Aricia agrees to meet him down on the beach for their pre-planned escape.

Unfortunately, Thesus went ahead and called down a curse on Hippolytus, via Neptune. So as the kid is heading off into the sunset, a giant wave comes up, sweeps over him, tangles him up in the horses' reins, which drags him to a very disgusting, messy death that you don't want to see, much less think about. Meanwhile, fed up with Phèdre's now-I-will-oh-no-I-won't, Oenone kills herself by jumping off a cliff, and so Phèdre decides its time to 'fess up, which she does, and Theseus does the how-could-I-be-so-stupid routine, so he forgives the kid just when Panope, local citizen, comes along to tell him that the boy is now hamburger.

          

Since I knew the story, I figured I'd pick this one up and be bored silly, that FSG had put this one out to trade on Hughes's hot name (Sylvia Plath!) But the truth of the matter is that after the first two or three pages, it's hard to put down. It has that lovely inevitability that we look for in a good piece of writing, an inevitability towards tragedy that we find in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Camus, and Richard Wright, among others. We know that these characters are doomed --- doomed by lust (Phèdre), or by inability to be a rat (Hippolytus), or by pig-headedness (Theseus), or by simple evil-heartedness (Oenone). It talks to that part of us that (sigh) gets us involved in so many similar stupid imbroglios.

It's very easy to poo-poo Hughes --- his comet seems a bit too bright at this moment --- but he does a bang-up good job of getting us into the heads of these characters. Like much of early drama, we get few stage directions, but the translation is fine: for example, this is Phèdre, confessing her love for step-son, and, then, immediately after, hearing that the old man is returning from the dead:

    I am not one of those women
    Who manage their infidelity
    With a polished smile and a stone heart.
    I have not forgotten my ravings.
    Every gasp is still alive in me.
    Even these walls remember them,
    These ceilings are saturated with them
    Every room and passage in this palace
    Is bursting to shout my secret
    And accuse me. The air is quivering with it.
    The moment he steps through the door
    He will hear it.
    Let me die.

The set of the characters is richly described. Theseus who is not only king but who has subdued all the monsters of the deep, turns out to be a bit of a lunk; Phèdre is a woman whose all strung-out --- in the modern parlance --- on love; innocent Hyppolitus just wants to be out of it; then Oenone who turns out not only to be an Iago but a grump as well (at one point, she says to Phedre: "Why must you always talk of dying.") The whole play --- 88 pages --- is a heady mix of "Anthony and Cleopatra," Madam Bovary, "The Graduate," and "General Hospital."

--- Leslie L. Seamans


The
Great
Dismal
Bland Simpson
(University of
North Carolina
Press)

We would guess that there are some places in the world that are orthographically interesting, and attract attention thereby. "Furnace Creek," "Whore's Peak," "Point No Point," "Useless Bay," "Death Valley," and "The Great Dismal Swamp." Humm, that sounds interesting, we say, as we spot it on a map: Maybe we should take the kids there this vacation.

But after wandering through Simpson's Great Dismal, it would take a hell of a lot more than that to get us to visit there. He's not a bad writer, but how do you make lemonade from a lemon that is old, wrinkled, and so used up. Blackfly infestations, the fog and wind and rain, human depredation: we would equate a day of exploring the Dismal to a weekend in Tulsa, or maybe Parsippany, N. J.

Perhaps, a hundred years ago, there might be a reason to go and get lost in the Dismal, but a hundred years of ravaging by humans has turned it more drear than ever. According to the author, millions of board-feet of juniper and cypress have been logged there. Then came the repeated peat fires --- one started in 1923 burned for three years --- which turned the land to a moonscape and clouded the sky so that ships in the Atlantic were operating blind. The coon and the mink were decimated, as were the oyster beds. The fish aren't worth eating, unless you are into fish bones, the water is black as tar, and most of Lake Drummond, about two feet deep, is a tangle of juniper and gum and cypress roots and mud.

The only thing, as far as we can find in this book, that made the Dismal Swamp worth its salt besides its name was the fact that during Prohibition it was sufficiently isolated to be home to several hundred stills. That's about it. Unless you're into trekking with the 50-50 chance that you won't make it home again, you're probably better off in bed. As for us: we'll take the Okefenokee any day of the week. At least they had Pogo to lighten it up some.

--- E. J. Bierly


The
Hunger
Winter
Henri A
van der Zee
(Bison)

Towards the end of WWII, when the American troops streamed into Arnhem in east-central Holland in 1944, it was assumed that they would quickly demolish the German troops. But a surprise counteroffensive --- "The Battle of the Bulge" --- kept both armies moveless for several months. Meanwhile, the Dutch living north of the Rhine River had assumed that by the fall of 1944 they would be free, and had risen up in rebellion. The unexpected time remaining under German military rule meant that four and a half million Dutch "had to live through one of the worst winters in their history."

According to van der Zee, the Dutch were reduced to eating sugar beets and tulip-bulbs. They had lost much of their warm winter clothing to confiscation, the men were subject to deportation to Germany to work in the factories --- certain death --- and any and all Jews found in hiding --- there were some 10,000 --- were immediately sent away to the concentration camps. (Anne Frank was deported to Auschwitz in September of 1944.) More than 18,000 people died of starvation at the tragic close of a war that ultimately claimed the lives of a quarter-million Netherlanders.

Van der Zee was a boy in the occupied area in 1944-45, and his story of privation and hunger is occasionally moving, often fascinating:

    Another "delicacy" the Dutch devoured was tulip bulbs..."They contain a lot of starch," they told us, "and when cooked their consistency will be slightly mealy." We were advised to peel them, cut them in half and remove the bitter little yellow core. Almost everybody tried it out and nobody liked them, but the Dutch saying, "Hunger sweetens even raw beans," was more true than ever. [We found that] the bulbs were "not too bad" when boiled like potatoes.

All war is hell, and the Dutch, who had not been occupied since Napoleon, suffered mightily under the hands of Germans, who, as usual, overdid it --- managing to be gratuitously cruel at best and beastly at worst. The German military thought nothing of taking a whole area captive, enslaving the men, driving out the women and children, and burning the village to the ground as "reprisal" for any actions by the underground. Ever inventive, they brought a new viciousness to conflict --- forcing the pain of war on innocent civilians (Napoleon was the first to make war a universal medium; before, it had been solely the province of the very rich and their mercenaries; the Germans took his inventiveness to its ultimate).

Still, one must reflect that the plucky Dutch had been none too kind in their two-hundred year stewardship in Indonesia, Timor, the Antilles, and their other colonial holdings. In their homeland, we want to think of them as sturdy, bravely fighting the sea, wearing wooden clod-hoppers and, at least in this book, suffering manfully --- but the truth is, they aren't as innocent and loving as van der Zee would want us to believe. Tales, for example, of their cruel retributions on the denizens of Timor who chose to demur to being treated like slaves and were, too, "innocent citizens," make pretty ugly reading and their treatment at the hands of the Huns --- being on the receiving end of mindless government-imposed brutality --- might well make some of us believers in the concept of karma. It's certain that it was no accident that shortly after the end of WWII, they abandoned their colonies all over the world. They had looked in the mirror, and they didn't like what they saw.

--- Joan Betts


Amsterdam
Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
Her name was Molly, and she was a crackerjack journalist, photographer, world traveler, correspondent, and sex-pot. We meet her former lovers at her funeral service. There's husband George (rich, icy), and Vernon (hot-shot newspaper editor), Clive (composer), and Julian (the highly placed Foreign Secretary of England). She loved them all, with spice and pickles --- so much so that she once got the Foreign Secretary to pose in several daring photographs in (gulp)

    plain quarter-length dress, posing catwalk style, with arms pushing away a little from his body and one foot set in front of the other, knees slightly crooked. The false breasts under the dress were small, and the edge of one bra strap was visible. The face was made up, but not overly so, for his natural pallor served him well, and lipstick had bestowed a bow of sensuality on the unkind, narrow lips.

The coming of these photographs into public consciousness is the tale, and it's fun, and somewhat diverting. The pomp is mixed with the pleasant, and the characters are revealed to be a bit more (and a bit less) than they make themselves out to be. Clive is immensely successful as a composer, but sooner or later we figure out that his music is derivative, second-rate thefts from Beethoven. Vernon is the rising young journalist, but his success depends on getting rid of all the news that's fit to print and feeding on the appetite of the public for grotesquery (what do Siamese twins do when they get into a fight?) Only Molly ends up as being the saint, and now she's pushing up the daisies, as my Mum would say.

The author is fine at simple description. This, on the front page of the newspaper, described during the newspaper conference a couple of days before The Revelation:

    The photograph filled the entire width of eight columns and ran from under the masthead three quarters of the way down the page. The silent room took in the simply cut dress, the catwalk fantasy, the sassy pose that playfully, enticingly, pretended to repel the camera's gaze, the tiny breasts and artfully revealed bra strap, the faint blush of makeup on the cheekbones, the lipstick's caress that molded the swell and semipout of the mouth, the intimate yearning look of an altered but easily recognizable public face. Centered below, in thirty-two-point lower-case bold, was a single line: "Julian Garmody, Foreign Secretary"...The crowd (of editors) that had been so boisterous was completely subdued now, and the silence lasted for over a half a minute.

McEwan is at his best at moments like this, or when he is describing Clive, composing (even though he is composing badly: he is caught up, as all of us must get caught up, in the art of being an artist, the art taking us over for hours and days at the time).

But the plot turns out to be a bit silly and it jells only if we suspend our disbelief (the Foreign Secretary doesn't get canned because his wife comes forth and defends this little quirk of his.) It makes us wonder if the Booger Prize people didn't have a few more enticing candidates up their noses before they picked this one.

--- A. W. Allworthy


The Upset
That Wasn't
Harold I Gullan
(Ivan R. Dee)
We've come to appreciate those writers who pick a subject, and stick to it and do so with no superfluity. Thus, Harold Gullan, an "independent scholar" living in Philadelphia, wins our heart with this terse tale of Harry Truman's 1948 victory in the U. S. Presidential election.

All the respected pollsters told us that Thomas E Dewey would be a shoo-in, including Gallup, Roper, and Crossley. But, Gullan reports

    It was not an upset at all. It would have been if Dewey had won...Given all the factors in his favor, Truman should have done better.

There were many factors that made up the victory --- including the superb organization of the party (as Truman was "whistle-stopping" --- his advance men supplied him with excellent local references that he could bring up in his speeches.) Dewey, on the other hand, by choosing the "high road" --- ensured himself that he would create no drama. He was as fooled by the polls as the rest of us.

Truman had a history of winning as underdog. He did so, for example, in 1934 --- running for the U S Senate --- where he "outworked and outplanned" his opponents. As always, there was a split ticket, and Truman's connection to Boss Pendergast worked against him (it was claimed that he was a tool of the Kansas City machine; the author finds otherwise --- that Truman hewed a fine line in working with the machine but maintaining an independent honesty.)

Once in the Senate, Truman succeeded in the same way that Al Smith created his power base in Albany ten years before, and Lyndon Johnson rose so quickly in the U. S. House: by being "a workhorse," rather, as Carl Albert said, than "a showhorse." Truman succeeded in Washington where he

    carefully and selectively supported New Deal initiatives, sensibly responded to the interest groups upon which the fortunes of the Democratic Party rested, and patiently and adroitly maneuvered into a position of influence within the Senate.

The closest race for Truman was not in 1948 but in 1940 where he was so much of an underdog that Roosevelt saw him as a loser, throwing his weight behind Missouri's incumbent Governor Stark. When Truman called a meeting of his supporters, Robert H Ferrell says, "Half of those he asked didn't show up, and the other half saw only defeat facing the senator." Indeed, says Gullan "Thus began Truman's loneliest campaign, in 1940, not 1948."

How did he win in 1948? Superb organization and workers that exploited every weakness of the opposition during the whistle-stops. (The very word "whistle-stop" came from a derogatory statement by Senator Robert Taft to the fact that the president was blackguarding the Congress at whistle-stops all across the country. "This observation was received with glee at Deomocratic national headquarters," reports Gullan: "they promptly wired mayors and newspapers wherever Truman stopped to inquire whether they viewed their communities as 'whistle-stops.'")

The most powerful aid to Truman's campaign was the beloved vice-presidential candidate Alben W. Barkley, a witty and droll speaker. He referred to Dewey's "doses of New York soothing syrup" and Earl Warren's "faint odor of California orange blossoms" (Warren was the Republican vice-presidential candidate.) Barkley also helped pull in the "farm vote," perhaps the key factor in the victory, for the Republican house and "the do-nothing 80th Congress" had reduced government supported storage facilities which drove wheat prices into a tailspin.

The unhappiest part of the Republican ticket was Dewey himself, seen as a wind-up doll (see Walt Kelley's political cartoon above.) The Governor was one who distanced himself from the voters, ate alone, listened only to his wife (she liked his stupid hair-do), and barely communicated with his popular running mate.

Finally, there was voter apathy, fed by the polls that made the election a fait accompli. In the end, it was Truman himself who devised the noisy "give 'em hell, Harry" strategy. Some of his give-em-hell speeches were grossly overwrought, claims the author, and helped to reduce his plurality. He notes, for example, one given October 25, 1948, in Chicago, where Truman said that Dewey was part of the "gluttons of privilege...the undemocratic forces of the right. The dangerously concentrated economic power of a few men in the United States," he went on,

    required a front man to run the country for them. In Germany such interests had found Adolf Hitler; in Italy, Mussolini; in Japan, Tojo.

The implication was clear: Truman was calling Dewey "the potential stooge of a fascist elite." If Dewey, acting on his instincts, had responded to these inflammatory speeches, he might well have turned the tide. But Dewey's wife would have none of it. "If I have to stay up all night to see that you don't tear up that speech, I will," she told him.

Then there was the turnout:

    The greatest surprise to professional politicians and pollsters alike was how few people voted in 1948. Proportionately the vote was the lowest in twenty years...The outcome of the election was no upset. It would have been if Truman had lost, as he nearly managed to do. Merging fact and folklore, the twin myths of upset and Trumania have endured, however, dramatically dominating the deeper meaning of the contest.

--- Al Hefid


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