In her hilarious hatchet-job on her departed idol Susan Sontag, the lesbian academic Terry Castle describes the “relentless quizzing” she underwent in the “early days” of their friendship:
I almost came a cropper when I confessed I had never listened to Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek. She gave me a surprised look, then explained, somewhat loftily, that I owed it to myself, as a ‘cultivated person’, to become acquainted with it. (‘I adore Janáček’s sound world.’) A recording of the opera appeared soon after in the mail – so I knew I’d been forgiven – but after listening to it once I couldn’t really get anywhere with it. (It tends to go on a bit – in the same somewhat exhausting Eastern European way I now associate with Sontag herself.) (“Desperately Seeking Susan”, London Review of Books, 17th March 2005)
In other words: Sontag was a gasbag. And is there a sulphurous whiff of antisemitism in the phrase “Eastern European”? I fear so. I also fear that this book tends to go on a bit à la Janáček and Sontag. Which was a disappointment. I would like to have read it properly, but I couldn’t: like The Hitch, Rick Gekoski, who has a D.Phil. on Joseph Conrad, doesn’t use English as though it is his mother-tongue. Which is a pity. There are some interesting topics here, from the “carbonized” but still legible papyri in an ancient library at Herculaneum, which were bequeathed to posterity by the eruption of Vesuvius, to the richly jewelled cover of a “bookbinding executed in 1911” for Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was lost with the Titanic. Plus the alleged “wanking fantasies” in Philip Larkin’s diaries, which were destroyed on Larkin’s own instructions after his death.
There are also some Guardianista topics: the book is based on a series on BBC Radio 4, like Gekoski’s earlier (and better) Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (2005). And so there are constant references to the Holocaust and to white man’s inhumanity to non-white man, like African blacks and the Māori. There is also a lot about giants of European culture whom I don’t like: Joyce, Mahler, Kafka, Conrad and so on. True, I agree with Gekoski when he says, in the chapter about the looting of Iraqi antiquities, that Donald Rumsfeld was “indefatigably loathsome”, but I’m rather worried that I do. And I don’t like that way of putting it. Christopher Hitchens might have put it like that, though not, in his later days, about Rumsfeld. Gekoski is a successful book-dealer and knows a lot about art and literature. I just wish he could convey what he knows more elegantly and concisely.