What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 - 2011, #6: Whitney Balliett's "Guernsey Gossip"

Whitney Balliett was a great listener, an inspired responder to sound. His jazz pieces are among the very best writings ever to appear in The New Yorker. A hallmark of the fifty book reviews he did for the magazine is his ear for the voice on the page. He was a connoisseur of “ear” writing. In a review titled “Families” (The New Yorker, August 17, 1987), he describes a group of novelists (Berry Morgan, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Anne Tyler) as “‘ear’ writers” – writers “who can be read aloud with pleasure, and they sometimes set whole books in the vernacular.” It was high praise, indeed, if he said of a writer that he or she has “a good ear.” See, for example, his review of The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty (“Making The Jump,” The New Yorker, January 5, 1981), in which he praises Welty’s “fine comic ear.” In “Talking on Paper” (The New Yorker, December 10, 1984), his wonderful review of The Letters of Jean Rhys, he says,

These are, as she told Wyndham, talking-on-paper letters. Her small, tough, courteous, funny, angry, wise voice comes at us from Cornwall gales and Devonshire downpours, from weariness and illness (both frequent), from drink and beleaguerment. It talks and talks, and is an unstoppable human music that declares again and again that, no matter what, she is afloat and on course.

That “unstoppable human music” is very fine.

For #6 place on my “Top Ten,” I’ve chosen Balliett’s memorable ““Guernsey Gossip” (The New Yorker, June 1, 1981), a review of G. B. Edwards’ “nearly flawless” dialect novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It begins with one of those lyrical, luminous figures that Balliett seemed to effortlessly conjure whenever he wanted to:

Fine opening paragraphs are like sunrises: they fill the mind with light and set up an irresistible momentum.

Four remarkable quotations – the first paragraphs of Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress, Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Peter De Vries’ The Vale of Laughter, and A. J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana – are followed by the opening passage of Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page:

Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Quéripel from Pleinment say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.

Reading that, we know straight away that The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is apt to be something Balliett is strongly taken with. And we are right. Balliett describes the book as follows:

Ebenezer is literate but unbookish, and rarely puts pen to paper. So the book, like all first-person dialect novels, is an impossibility: it converts a fluid spoken language into a fixed imaginary written one. It makes sound visible.

It makes sound visible – that could stand as Balliett’s artistic credo - because for forty-nine years (1952 – 2001), that’s what he did at The New Yorker. Like all my “Top Ten” critics, Balliett is a great quoter. He introduces one of the best quotes in “Guernsey Gossip” this way: “His account of her [Ebenezer’s mother’s] death shows the cool, sure way this lovely book goes.”

Balliett doesn’t suspend his critical judgment; he never does; he can be biting when he wants to. But regarding The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, he merely says, “Unfortunately, the book goes soft toward the end.” You can tell from his descriptions of it, e.g., “So life churns beneath the book’s calm, circular, gossiping exterior” – that he’s totally smitten. What hooked him is Edwards’ “charming, crabbed, funny, articulate, rude, unerringly intelligent” talking-on-paper.

So far as I know, Balliett’s New Yorker book reviews are uncollected. If a collection came out, I’d snap it up in a flash. Meanwhile, if you want to read the pieces, you can go online to the New Yorker archive, where you’ll find all fifty, a wealth of incomparable book reviewing.

Credit: The above artwork is by Fido Nesti; it appears in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008, as an “On The Horizon” illustration for the event “Eat, Drink & Be Literary,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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