How I would hate to be plunked down for the first time in the ocean of books today, without map or compass, or the instincts of a veteran reader. Lousy books and the promotional machinery that pushes them defy the best efforts at orienteering. Writers preen, critics pander, readers despair. How is a serious reader to identity the good, great, useful and necessary books drowning in “biblia abiblia?” Even seasoned readers get snookered.
Among American artists, Saul Steinberg ranks with Hopper, Marin, Davis, Porter, Diebenkorn and Burchfield in my little pantheon. What good news to learn a biography was in the works. Even knowing the awfulness of her National Book Award-winning life of Samuel Beckett failed to dim the naïve sense of excitement I felt for Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg: A Biography, until I started reading the damned thing. Bair’s book is written in the most inept prose I’ve encountered, outside the blogosphere, since I read her Beckett biography. She subsequently devoted books to mediocrities -- Simone de Beauvoir, Carl Jung, Anaïs Nin – and her writing doesn’t improve with the return to genius as her subject. Bair exhibits no interest in her medium – that is, words – an indifference shamefully abetted by the editors at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Her sentences are repetitious, lumbering and tone-deaf, and she has the annoying tic of saying the same thing two or three times within a single paragraph. The result, at 732 pages, is a morbidly obese book.
Instead of saying Steinberg’s mother was a monstrous egotist, Bair spends pages detailing her rants (including one about a refrigerator). Rather than showing us his drawings (only thirty-five are reproduced), she describes them in excessive detail and blunts their wit. She resembles the guy who tells an unfunny joke, repeats it more loudly, and then tells you why you should be laughing. Harold Rosenberg described Steinberg, friend to Nabokov, Bellow, Perelman and Aldo Buzzi, as a “writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draftsman of philosophical reflections.” Steinberg said, “I am a writer who draws,” and much of his appeal is literary, but a reader would hardly know that from Bair’s book. Steinberg was an unpleasant character, a narcissist who applied one set of rules to himself and another to the rest of the world. What makes him precious is his category-defying artistry, but Bair devotes more attention (and far more pages) to his petulance than to his work.
The passage quoted at the top is from Thomas De Quincey’s 1848 essay on Alexander Pope (The Works of Thomas De Quincey, Vol. 16, Pickering & Chatto, 2003). Later in the same paragraph De Quincey writes:
“…where the good cannot be read in its twentieth part, the more requisite it is that no part of the bad should steal an hour of the available time; and it is not to be endured that people without a minute to spare should be obliged first of all to read a book before they can ascertain whether in fact it is worth reading. The public cannot read by proxy as regards the good which it is to appropriate, but it can as regards the poison which it is to escape.”
[On New Year’s Eve, the Saul Steinberg Foundation posted forty-seven pages of corrections to Bair’s book, and as of Friday that takes us only through the first 134 pages. The words of the foundation’s PDF are “TO BE CONTINUED.”]