Wednesday, 5 May 2010

'Massive, unflagging, moral...'

I'm rereading Lolita, probably for the fifth or sixth time - it never palls, only grows richer and more wonderful with each reading, the sure sign of a great, rather than merely good, book. The copy I'm reading is my battered old Penguin, dating from 1980 (in fact the belated first Penguin edition) and full of misprints. Its pages are brown and it's falling apart at the dried-out spine. The back cover, unsurprisingly, is plastered with a fine array of raves, including one from Lionel Trilling ('No lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness, no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita') and three words from Dorothy Parker: 'A great book'. It is Bernard Levin who throws down the most magnificent handful of adjectives - 'Massive, unflagging, moral, exquisitely shaped, enormously vital, enormously funny'. All of this is of course true, or a well-intentioned stab at the truth, but what struck me as I idly scanned these blurbs was how much inflation has hit the business of reviewers' adjectives in the intervening years. It's now all but impossible to find a novel with any kind of literary pretensions that isn't garlanded in similar praise from swooning reviewers or open-mouthed fellow authors. The most run-of-the-mill, so-what plod of a 'literary' novel - or indeed the most laughably bad - will be hailed on its back (and often front) cover as 'masterly', 'compelling', 'dazzling', 'intensely moving', 'thrillingly original', 'richly comic', 'essential', etc. These are all, as employed nowadays, pretty much meaningless, and nobody with any sense would take any notice of them, unless, by any chance, they are the words of an honest critic rather than a hack reviewer. It seems nobody bothers to read them for sense either. Consider this, from a Susan Sontag rave on the back cover of W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants: 'I know of few books written in our time but this one which attains the sublime'. This is surely not what La Sontag meant to say (for 'which attains', substitute 'that attain'). Not that it matters...

9 comments:

  1. I often think the author, on reading these, must feel like hiding from the world in embarrassment and never writing aonther word.

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  2. Mind you, publishers do have a remarkable ability to sift blurb gold from the sludge of lukewarm reviews.

    Though the marketers of West End shows rule here. From the Love Never Dies posters, for example, which are splattered with superlatives (between those suspicious ellipses), you'd have no clue at all that the show was universally slated.

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  3. Does Sontag's comment make sense even after your correction? 'But this one' suggests she's excluding it from her 'few books'.

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  5. Cannot think of the book without picturing James Mason, can only today think of Mason as Mr Barlow's butler hence the phial of holy water in left hand and Nabokov in the right.
    I miss Levin, imagine what his comments would be today.

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  6. too young to remember Levin at the peak of his popularity, but have read a couple of his books, which I loved

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  7. I'm smiling over the phrase "swooning reviewers." At least some of us don't have to suffer from that burden!

    I don't know why I can't get on the Lolita train. Just never have been able to. I'm sure it's my fault. But "moral" in what way...?

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