Sunday, December 08, 2013

For Pleasure: Fall 2013

In his new book, How To Read Literature, Terry Eagleton asserts that "given the brilliance of the novel and the billions of English-language readers in the world," it is likely that at any given moment, someone is reading Jane Austen's Emma.

My math may be inadequate but somehow I doubt this, though I'm willing to agree that Austen's novel is being read every year, and even every month.  I may be on safer ground however in asserting that this year I may have been the only non-graduate student or historian to have read all 934 pages (plus notes) of Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History by Robert Sherwood.

Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize playwright, was a speechwriter in FDR's White House, and got access to lots of documents, memos and correspondence, including Hopkins' diaries.  This book makes full and fulsome use of those documents, so it is in the most specific sense a documentary.  It begins where other books about Hopkins end: when he stopped being the chief architect and administrator of the New Deal.  It chronicles his later and much different roles as FDR's private diplomat, and Hopkins comes across in Sherwood's telling as a key figure, a man uniquely trusted by key wartime partners such as Churchill and Stalin.  He was trusted because he immediately grasped what was needed, and was an honest broker.  They seemed fond of him personally as well.

Sherwood writes of Hopkins' "passionate hopefulness" that made him a positive force in the two greatest dangers that confronted the U.S. in his time, the Great Depression and World War II.  At the same time, he was a trenchant analyst and adviser.  This book reproduces my favorite Hopkins' quote.  At the beginning of  the FDR administration when the Depression was most acute, someone proposed a project to help the unemployed  that would take a lot of time to prepare but would do so in the long run.  "People don't eat in the long run," Hopkins snapped.  "They eat every day."

Hopkins was also a lightning rod for opposition to FDR, much of it hateful.  Because FDR was so popular, critics focused on Hopkins and hounded him the entire time he served the U.S. and the Allied cause with such dedication that he fatally ruined his health in the process.

Sherwood makes succinct observations about FDR as well, calling him "one of the greatest geniuses as an administrator that ever lived."  He also documents time after time when Roosevelt's political instincts--particularly on how to communicate with the public--went against advice but were most often right.

But the overall effect of this book is accumulated through the details--the numbers of ships and planes England or Russia needed, the timing of various but huge strategic moves, the detailed descriptions of the meetings, all the decisions involving immense resources and numbers of lives.  As Sherwood himself observes, " can hardly read these cold, dry minutes without sensing the Homeric awfulness of the responsibility imposed upon the few who were compelled to decide so much."  Through these details a sense of what the war was really like, and what these people were like, emerges with more power and authenticity than through any briefer summary.

The other reading I did was principally related to theatre.  The plays I was seeing as local theatre columnist weren't very inspiring for awhile, so I turned to reading David Hare's plays, mostly those collected in David Hare: Plays 2.  I'd watched some interviews etc. with him on Youtube and I wanted to read some of his prose as well, so off the same library shelf I took his account of performing his own one-person play, Via Dolorosa, a book called Acting Up.  Hare writes with very definite views of the process (which change along the way) and he offers a wealth of observation about theatre and its relationship to society.  As I knew I wanted to read it again and refer to it, I bought a copy.

Reading plays is a special skill most of the time.  I can read Tom Stoppard's plays for their language but without a very good idea of their structure or how they might look on stage.  But some playwrights are easier to read than others, and Hare is one.  Partly because his descriptions and stage directions are so clear and specific, but mostly because the narrative is clearly in the dialogue.  Another playwright who is a particular pleasure to read, I found, is A.R. Gurney.  I read Volume IV of his Collected Plays with great pleasure and admiration.

No comments: