I always look forward to the summer as a time when I can walk on the sand, swim in the pool, and dive into reading. I do some work, but mostly I indulge my tastes, high or low.
A few summers ago, I finally decided to read Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. It’s a masterpiece without an ending, or, more precisely, it has three endings, none of which are satisfactory. Written in 1904, it’s a rich, Garibaldian tale set in the fictional Costaguana, a Colombia-like country, and (like history itself) defies a clear conclusion. Instead of the Panama Canal, a British-owned silver mine is the novel’s source of wealth, political restraint, and stability. Over the course of his novel, Conrad manages to anticipate both Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and the endless revolutions and instability of Catholic Latin America.
Last summer, I enjoyed The Hope, part one of Herman Wouk’s very readable two-part novelized history of Israel. Wouk intertwined historical figures with fictional characters, who carry the story with their personal passions and mishaps. I realized that I was caught up in the contours of a novel when I was dismayed to read that an alluring female character was depicted as blond—not dark-haired, as I had imagined her.
This summer, I began by reading Stuart Eizenstat’s 990-page account of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Eizenstat, who served as the Georgian’s domestic policy advisor, writes to redeem Carter’s reputation. He achieves some success, but, as I suggest in my review for Commentary, Carter inadvertently paved the way for Reaganism. I then turned to an alternating diet of Eric Ambler and Ross Macdonald. Ambler, whose espionage novels of the late 1930s conveyed an unparalleled sense of menace, served as a British officer during World War II. His espionage plots featured not professional spies but amateurs of some technical knowledge inadvertently drawn into a web of intrigue. He wrote The Light of Day, the 1962 novel on which the heist movie Topkapi is based, but some of his best postwar writing focused on the meld of Muslim and Marxist insurgency that he depicts in State of Siege and Passage of Arms, both of which I read this summer.
First my friend Peter Cove and then people in the friendly confines of Long Beach, Long Island suggested that I try Nelson DeMille’s 500-page, plot-driven detective novel, Plum Island, set on the eponymous spot of land located in Long Island Sound between the North Fork of Long Island and Connecticut. It’s the site of biological-research labs and the source of innumerable rumors—a good source for a detective story. I loved the book’s account of North Fork geography and the peculiar weather that attracts vintners, but DeMille’s lead character John Corey is a caricature, drawn with a Bond-like sex appeal and juvenile repartee.
There’s little chance that DeMille’s books will be reissued as classics by the Library of America; he’s no Ross Macdonald, who is often described as the heir to Raymond Chandler. That’s true, with a significant caveat: Macdonald’s protagonist Lew Archer is rarely involved in Philip Marlowe-like rough stuff. Archer winds up entangled in mysteries where not greed but suppressed family feuds and failures are the driving dynamic. He sometimes finds himself drawn into a priestly role, serving as the unintended confessor to fully drawn malefactors.
As the summer winds down, I’m reading Patrick French’s biography of the recently deceased Nobel Prize-winning writer V.S. Naipaul. If, for the first third of the twentieth century, the Polish-born Conrad was the greatest writer in the English language, then his heir Naipaul, born in Trinidad, carried that mantle into the century’s closing third. French makes it clear that Naipaul was a miserable husband and a curmudgeon of the first order. I met Naipaul only once, at the Manhattan Institute’s 1990 Wriston Lecture, where his talk became the basis for his famous essay “Our Universal Civilization,” a celebration of the openness of the West. When I told the Manhattan Institute’s Larry Mone that I had read Naipaul’s novels Guerillas and a Bend in the River, and his first-person account of the non-Arab Islamic world, Among the Believers, he suggested that I sit next to the author on the occasion. I was delighted, but to my dismay, personal civility wasn’t among the virtues Naipaul recognized as essential for civilization. He sat and scowled, rose to give his speech, and returned grimacing. That said, he was a marvelous writer, and I look forward to finishing French’s biography and then reading Naipaul’s nonfiction essays on the Caribbean—not far, in its enduring dilemmas, from Conrad’s fictive Costaguana.