Calm and collected

Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, by Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Review of Books, RRP$24.95, 432 pages

The earliest recorded literary critic was Zoilus, a grammarian of ancient Greece, who was renowned for his devastatingly spiteful attacks. He savaged Plato, mangled Isocrates and so enjoyed assailing the epics of Homer that he became known as “Homeromastix” or “the scourge of Homer”. No one is certain how he died except that he did so unpleasantly, being crucified, stoned to death or thrown alive on to a funeral pyre. Unsurprisingly, none of his writings survive.

Despite ploughing the same furrow, Daniel Mendelsohn has taken a quite opposite route to the founder of his trade. Now in his fifties, Mendelsohn is probably the most lauded and decorated literary critic alive today (he is also an award-winning novelist and acclaimed translator), yet his criticism, which appears predominantly in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, is about as far from Zoilus in tone as it is in time.

Mendelsohn rarely seems disgruntled or angered by anything. The harshest words I could find in this latest collection of his essays were suggestions that a work was “awkward” or “something of a surprise” or “tame”. You might think that this singles out Mendelsohn as a toady, wheedling favour by going easy with the bile, but this would be a misjudgment. Take Mendelsohn’s measured disappointment with Alan Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel The Stranger’s Child – the review being the source of the previous quotations – which is all the more devastating for the deep reverence for and understanding he has of the rest of the author’s oeuvre. As such, when Mendelsohn adjudges the book “insufficient”, it lands with all the power of a roundhouse kick.

Mendelsohn typically writes with a calm and stately assuredness heavily informed by his background in the classics. Yet even when he has to perform the book reviewer’s most tedious task – the recitation of plot – he manages to sprinkle it with both insight and whim. More generally, he is incapable of being dismissive. In his brilliant review of Jonathan Littell’s second world war shocker The Kindly Ones (2009), he refuses to use journalistic shorthand, such as “second world war shocker”. Instead he treats the book’s successes with respect and its failings with an even-keeled moderation that is not only refreshing but necessary when dealing with something as complex as the literature of transgression.

What’s more, he appears painstakingly honest about the subjective nature of his trade. When, in an essay on the poet Rimbaud, he discusses how he had first read him late in life, he states that “although I found much that dazzled and impressed me, I couldn’t get swept away – couldn’t feel those feelings again, the urgency, the orneriness, the rebellion. I don’t say this with pride.” A lesser critic would point to this as a failing in Rimbaud’s writing, an example of some adolescent factor in his work. Mendelsohn, more honourably, prefers to see it as a failing in himself.

It is a questionable truism that the best criticism should send one rushing back to the original text. Curiously, I never felt like doing that while reading this book. So comprehensive and convincing are Mendelsohn’s suppositions that – whether it be the Iliad or the works of Oscar Wilde – I felt that I had just reread them, in a fraction of the time and with an insight that I had previously never managed to muster.

Although the majority of this book deals with the greats of the literary canon, it is front-loaded with essays on pop culture – James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar, Julie Taymor’s musical version of Spider-Man, the television series Mad Men. Mendelsohn’s tone barely registers the shift in subject matter. Beneath his Apollonian gaze, all are worthy of profound study and careful, considered, classical analysis. Indeed, you might sometimes find yourself wishing his temper was just a little more tempestuous, that his pen was just a little more poisonous; in short, that he was a little more like his carping, cantankerous forebear, Zoilus. In this you would only be human. Excellence is infuriating.

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