Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why I like Henri Pirenne better than "Chris" Wickham, plus Black Wings Has My Angel

I've read all or parts of three books recently by the great historian Henri Pirenne, who wrote in the last century, and never once does he use the words narrative, storyline, or interventionist. That's one reason I like him better than I do his successor in our time Chris Wickham. Another is that Wickham writes under the name Chris, even though his name is Christopher. Call me old school, but I say save that informality for the pub. If you're going to write a book about ancient Rome and its heritage in the Middle Ages, use your full name.

2) Black Wings Has My Angel is as chilling a work of noir as it is said to be, and it has been reprinted by New York Review Books, so you know it packs a ton of literary respectability. But don't hold that against Elliott Chaze's 1953 novel, originally published by Gold Medal. The novel follows several conventions of mid-century noir (readers of Jim Thompson might like it, or of Charles Williams at his darkest, for example), and it does does so thoroughly and well. But Chaze's writing is so understated, its narrator/protagonist's reaction to his hellish so circumstances so heartbreakingly matter-of-fact at times and so tragically noble at others, that the book becomes at the same time something more.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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8 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I like it when NYRB delves into noir, or things approaching noir. They pick good stuff.

March 13, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd love to be able to sneer at NYRB, but I can't because you're right. And, to its credit, it will occasionally pick figures from the crime fiction community to provide cover blurb (though I read the edition from Stark House Pree). No nonsense about transcending the genre there.

March 13, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think there's a certain group of readers who wouldn't "condescend" to read noir, but might if NYRB tricked them into it. So more power to them if they succeed.

March 13, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That could be another way of saying that NYRB is putting crime fiction in the hands of people who might not otherwise read it, which is not a bad thing. But they've had people like Duane Swierczynski and Sarah Weinman blurb their editions, which suggests an absence of literary condescension.

Library of America has published a fair amount of crime fiction, possibly its editor-in-chief, Geoffrey O'Brien, i s a big noir fan. This included work by Ross Macdonald, whom I doubt I will ever warm to. And I admit that knowing Black Wings Has My Angel has also been published by NYRB sharpened my thinking about what makes it the book it is. So did Barry Gifford's blurb on the Stark House edition to the effect that the novel is a great literary novel that just happens to be about a crime.

March 13, 2016  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

Classic historians make excellent reading. I don't care a fig that they don't share our frame of reference; that just makes them more interesting. I'm currently reveling in Thomas Babington Macaulay's "History of England". Great prose, great insights.

March 13, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're absolutely right. Those guys could write. Gibbon was funny, especially in his footnotes. And I read the first two volumes in a five-volume edition of Macaulay a few years ago and quite liked them. I'll have to read the rest.

It's not just classic historians who could write, if by "classic" one means pre-twentieth century. Pirenne wrote in the twentieth century, and Fernand Braudel died only in 1985. Those guys, while very different in approach from the Macaulays and Gibbons, wrote on a similarly grand scale with a firm purpose in mind that they stuck to from the beginning. That gives their work a beautiful narrative coherence that their inferior successors lack.

One irksome feature of the Wickham book I mentioned is that be begins each chapter with an anecdote, presumably to lend flavor or color or narrative drive, before beginning the chapter proper, which is apt to include words like "timeline," "narrative," and "expansionist." Pirenne, Braudel, Gibbon et al. did not have to include colorful chapter introductions because it would not have occurred to them that their writing should be anything but colorful and compelling, without need to relegate the colorful, compelling parts to an introduction.

And sometimes, as in Pirenne's case, the frame of reference was so novel and so powerful that successors are compelled to respect it and react to it, as Wickham does with respect to Pirenne.

March 14, 2016  
Blogger LJ54 said...

For those seeking more news on Elliott Chaze--the best Mississippi author you never heard of-- please check out his fan page. Trying to accumulate as many 'likes' as possible so feel free to 'like' this FB fanzine. Thx. https://www.facebook.com/Elliott-Chaze-fan-page-114645885234829/?

April 22, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks.

April 23, 2016  

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