The Magazine

Booked Up

A critic's anthology of literary bliss.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By JOHN SIMON
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Cavafy is primarily an elegist, capable of recalling with equal emotion the touch of a hand and the fall of an empire, of memorializing both the carnal favorites of ancient Antioch and the perfect limbs of the dirty young blacksmith down the street. To this Greek living in Egypt among Arabs and British colonials the world appears as a palimpsest: When Cavafy looks at Alexandria, he glimpses, beneath the blandness of a modern urban wasteland, the playground of youthful gods.

Again:

If reading the Victorians may be likened to devouring a rich Christmas feast, reading [Prosper] Merimee is like sipping a dry Martini--cold, bracing, and delicious. Be warned however: His characters may be primitive or exotic people, but that only means that they are stripped of the meretricious veneer of so much polite society. As a result, they reveal our most primal fears and secret desires with heartless and dreadful clarity.

Or this tribute to Switzerland's Jacob Burckhardt:

Even though Burckhardt was to make his name as a historian of the Italian Renaissance, he was an equally notable authority on the culture of ancient Greece and the reign of Byzantium's Constantine the Great. In those days, many scholars refused to confine their efforts to some narrow field of specialization; in fact, they ranged across subjects with the swagger of adventurers, soldiers of fortune, condottieri."

Also:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." With these unforgettable words the reader is launched into one of the most powerful visions of .  .  . what? Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a far more complex work of art than commonly believed, being one of the half dozen greatest romance novels of the century and a subtle undercutting of the whole romance genre. It is simultaneously a devastating examination of the sexual politics of marriage, a haunting study of jealousy and psychological obsession, and a classic of suspense.

For such good offices I am almost willing to forgive Dirda's little lapses: "Disinterest" (for uninterest), "a novel like this" (for this one), "the military tribunal Scipio Africanus" (for tribune), and Ovid's famous "Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor" transmogrified into "Video melora proque deteriora sequor." But I must stop now, and go off in search of Dirda's no-doubt equally pleasurable earlier collections.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.