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Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets& Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen an Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets& Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen and passion”—on a wide range of subjects, from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag’s Journals. Trained as a classicist, author of two internationally best-selling memoirs, Mendelsohn moves easily from penetrating considerations of the ways in which the classics continue to make themselves felt in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men. Also gathered here are essays devoted to the art of fiction, from Jonathan Littell’s Holocaust blockbuster The Kindly Ones to forgotten gems like the novels of Theodor Fontane. In a final section, “Private Lives,” prefaced by Mendelsohn’sNew Yorker essay on fake memoirs, he considers the lives and work of writers as disparate as Leo Lerman, Noël Coward, and Jonathan Franzen. Waiting for the Barbarians once again demonstrates that Mendelsohn’s “sweep as a cultural critic is as impressive as his depth.”


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Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets& Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen an Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets& Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen and passion”—on a wide range of subjects, from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag’s Journals. Trained as a classicist, author of two internationally best-selling memoirs, Mendelsohn moves easily from penetrating considerations of the ways in which the classics continue to make themselves felt in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men. Also gathered here are essays devoted to the art of fiction, from Jonathan Littell’s Holocaust blockbuster The Kindly Ones to forgotten gems like the novels of Theodor Fontane. In a final section, “Private Lives,” prefaced by Mendelsohn’sNew Yorker essay on fake memoirs, he considers the lives and work of writers as disparate as Leo Lerman, Noël Coward, and Jonathan Franzen. Waiting for the Barbarians once again demonstrates that Mendelsohn’s “sweep as a cultural critic is as impressive as his depth.”

30 review for Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture

  1. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal. “Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, ev Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal. “Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought? - Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.” (You can read the full text here.) Thus, the essays in this collection “consider the ways in which the present, and especially popular culture, has wrestled … with the past.” (p. xi) The second theme found in these essays is what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem”: The extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice, made all too possible by the latest technology, has bled beyond just our entertainments to affect how we think about and conduct our lives. He divides the book into four sections: “Spectacles,” which reprints the type of reviews that initially endeared me to him – looking at popular culture through the lens of our past; “Classica,” which focuses on reinterpretations of the Classical canon; “Creative Writing,” which deals with more modern works of fiction; and “Private Lives,” which considers how a private life ends up represented on the printed page. As with Mendelsohn’s other critical volume, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, I was entranced by the author’s erudition and insights. Even stuff that I would not normally be interested in, Mendelsohn makes so interesting and relevant that I feel compelled to – at the very least – look at the source material to see what he’s talking about. (The compulsion sometimes passes – despite the reviews here, I feel no need to watch Avatar or rewatch Titanic (more about both below); on the other hand, his interpretation of Achilles’ character in his piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad does have me itching to reread the poem.) Below, I want to give an abstract of the reviews collected here. I cannot recommend this book too highly, and would encourage any interested reader to hunt a copy down and read it for themselves so they can get the full force of Mendelsohn’s arguments. “The Wizard” – Mendelsohn begins with a review of James Cameron’s Avatar. His title refers to the movies’ similarities to The Wizard of Oz (which Cameron has alluded to). But where the latter film ended with a reaffirmation of reality, “by contrast, the message of the new movie … is – like the message of so much else in mass culture just now – that ‘reality’ is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, is whatever you care to make of it …. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. ‘There’s no place like home’ has become ‘there’s no need for home.’ Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie of our time.” (p. 17) “Truth Force at the Met” – This is a laudatory review of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about the life of Gandhi. Mendelsohn concludes by writing, there is no plot but there is a structure which “achiev[ed] a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?” (p. 35) Not a fan of opera, this was one of those essays that moved me while reading it but afterward my disinclination for the genre reasserted itself. I’m not sure I could feel what Mendelsohn does were I to see it (at the conclusion of the performance he saw, the author writes that he burst into tears), but the general point quoted above is a valid measure of what makes a book, a film or a play significant. “Why She Fell” – “Why She Fell” is Mendelsohn’s thoughts on why Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man was such a disaster. Taymor attempted to combine the classical transformation myth with the modern American version. Her failure was two-fold. First, the two conceptions are incompatible. Where, in ancient tales, metamorphosis is a punishment and a humiliation, in the American version, transformation is empowering. And she tried to make a blockbuster movie rather than stage a play: “Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These … lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects … [that] make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be ‘real’ at all.” (p. 49) “The Dream Director” – “The Dream Director” is a review of Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a film about the final days of Hirohito’s reign as god-emperor of Japan. Mendelsohn also discusses Sokurov’s other works – Russian Ark and Moloch. The underlying theme of all three being the gap between “human realities and what [Sokurov] calls the ‘theater’ of ideological performances.” (p. 55) “The Mad Men Account” – In this New York Review of Books piece from 2011, Mendelsohn rips into the TV show Mad Men, about which he writes: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the direction is unimaginative. Worst of all … the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic …. [I]t proceeds … like a soap opera.” (p. 67) The show commits a surfeit of sins but they can be condensed down to four chief ones: (1) The show raises serious themes without giving them serious thought or textured characterization. (2) The direction is static and unimaginative. (3) The acting is unexceptional “and occasionally downright amateurish.” (p. 73) And (4) there’s an ad hoc quality to the writing. But he goes on to argue that despite these manifest flaws (I don’t watch the show so I can’t attest to their veracity), Mad Men appeals to a viewing demographic who were children during the show’s time period and watched their parents living their lives – “the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.” (p. 78) “Unsinkable” – Back in the day, my ex dragged me to see Titanic when it came out. In her defense, she went only because we were double-dating with her best friend, who was a fan. The film is really rather awful, an opinion shared by Mendelsohn. But he takes this piece of schlock as an opportunity to examine why the Titanic has become a modern myth. It comes down to two things. The story’s ability to be a canvas on which we paint our anxieties about modernity, technology, class, race and all the other problems we face. Mendelsohn compares Cameron’s vision of the myth to two Greek tales: Iphigenia, where two maidens are sacrificed to male egos, and Oedipus, where two heroes – symbols of achievement and overweening pride – are brought down by their own flaws. The second need the Titanic can fill is our perverse desire to see something beautiful destroyed. “Battle Lines” – As I’ve mentioned, Mendelsohn has a genius for making the reader see a work in a whole new light. Such is the case in his review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad. Here, Mendelsohn argues that Achilles’ capacity to be human expands over the course of the poem but only at the cost of his closest friend – pathei mathos, we suffer into knowledge – and that Homer suggests “the whole range of human action and emotion – of an existence that … has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.” (p. 112) (He treats of a similar theme in the last essay from this section.) Strictly in terms of Mitchell’s translation, the author is positive, and makes me want to get a copy to see the rest of Mitchell’s work. Compare this excerpt from the Lattimore edition to Mitchell: LATTIMORE: “You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people.” MITCHELL: “Drunkard, dog-face, quivering deer-hearted coward, you have never dared to arm with your soldiers for battle.” “In Search of Sappho” – In his review of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, Mendelsohn’s primary focus is on Sappho’s role in modern imagination. Of the (reputed) nine volumes of Sapphic verse that reposed in Alexandria’s library, we retain one complete poem, one nearly complete lyric (recovered only in 2004), and a bunch of fragments (sometimes no more than a few words). And they’re found in the oddest places, such as Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Pronouns, or a quote from Herodian’s On Anomalous Words, included because it contained a curious spelling of the word “sky.” Under such circumstances, “Sappho” is often not much more than a reflection of her translator or biographer. While the author praises Carson’s translations generally (e.g., eptoaisen = “put the heart in my chest on wings”), he criticizes choices such as rendering Fragment 108 as “O beautiful O graceful one” when the Greek clearly uses the word kore, “maiden.” Or translating optais amme (Fragment 38) as “you burn me,” even though the pronoun is plural and more correctly translated “you burn us.” “[S]he’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” (pp. 135-6) “Arms and the Man” – Mendelsohn argues that Herodotus was the first serious prose writer in Greek. Prior to his Histories, there wasn’t even a word for prose it was considered such a debased form of writing. While the Landmark edition reviewed here has some admirable qualities (particularly the plethora of maps and illustrations), it fails to capture Herodotus’s charm as a writer, and it fails to understand Herodotus’s purpose in writing: To make the actions of ordinary men as important as the deeds of the heroes in the Iliad and other myths. “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls … ‘things that result from human action’: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and … psychology.” (p. 156) “The Strange Music of Horace” – This is another review that takes a translator to task for failing to grasp the meaning or importance of the works he’s translating – in this case J.W. McClatchy, who fails to reflect Horace’s meticulous use of form. “Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar” – I don’t have any notes from this essay, which posits: What would Oscar Wilde have produced if he had become an Oxford don? “Epic Endeavors”* – “Epic Endeavors” is a composite review of three recent novels based on classical Greek myths “that, to varying degrees, not only ‘do’ the Greeks … but … do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create … a literature that is thoroughly of the present.” (p. 197) David Malouf’s Ransom builds upon the scene where Priam and Achilles meet to discuss a truce so Hector’s father can bury his son. This is Mendelsohn’s favorite of the three books as (he argues) it successfully expands “the possibilities of Homer’s story.” (p. 202) Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is not as successful. Some of Mason’s imaginings are clever but Mason’s tricks “pale, in both scale and complexity, beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago …. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey – too clever by half.” (p. 206) The third book is John Banville’s The Infinities, which reimagines the Amphitryon myth in the story of a modern-day mathematician and his family. Not as good as Ransom but better than The Lost Books of the Odyssey. All three books, however, in Mendelsohn’s estimation, whatever their flaws, are evidence of the “inexhaustible … potential of the classics themselves.” (p. 209) “After Waterloo” – “After Waterloo” is another essay where I made no notes. It’s a rave about Richard Howard’s translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma – both the translation and the novel in general. “Heroine Addict” – I was excited to find this review in the collection. I discovered Theodor Fontane just this year (2012) and thoroughly enjoyed the two novels I’ve read so far – Irretrievable and Effi Briest. I became positively giddy to find that Mendelsohn shares my enthusiasm for Fontane, writing that the key to Fontane’s success as a novelist is his narrative style: “a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader ‘overhear’ the speech of his characters …. It is this skill at delineating characters through dialogue … that creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have.” (p. 226) I feel a sense of satisfaction when my own critical faculties are validated by a professional whose opinions I respect. “Rebel Rebel” – This is a disquisition on the poems of Rimbaud. The most interesting thing I found in this piece was Mendelsohn’s observation that Rimbaud is a poet of adolescence. He stopped writing at the age of 20 because he grew up, and the urgency of rebellion died. (p. 256) “The Spanish Tragedy” – “The Spanish Tragedy” introduced me to another author I’d never heard of – Antonio Muñoz Molina, and his novel Sepharad. It’s a glowing review of a book that Mendelsohn writes is “something of a masterpiece.” (p. 274) “In Gay and Crumbling England” – In this essay, Mendelsohn reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. While the essay is interesting to read, it’s about an author and a subject I have no interest in, so – again – no notes and nothing to write. “Transgression” – “Transgression” was another essay I was pleased to see as I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones on my wish list for a while now. (There’s a copy at one of my libraries but I’ve never gotten around to taking advantage of its availability.) Mendelsohn argues that the book is working on two levels: One is a historical fiction that addresses the violence and inhumanity that lurks beneath the “kindly” exteriors of ordinary people. The second level is a mythic-sexual element that asks “What is justice?” and how does it appease the desire for vengeance. In his estimation, separately the two threads work. The difficulty comes when Littell attempts to combine them into one novel. In making Aue (the protagonist) a “brother,” the historic passages excel but they’re undercut by the mythic ones, where it becomes harder and harder to understand Aue as a fellow human being. He becomes “precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.” (p. 303) In his conclusion, Mendelsohn recommends the novel as it “can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.” (p. 308) The final section, “Private Lives,” was the least engaging for me. In it Mendelsohn focuses on memoirs, with the most interesting to me being the essays on Noël Coward and Susan Sontag. Among the general claims he makes, I found this observation the most intriguing: “Ideally, a memoirist’s revelation of himself should seduce readers into a comparable willingness to examine themselves and their lives without vanity, without props. In this way, a literary experience can lead to a profound life experience.” (p. 375) Let me reiterate here that this is a remarkable collection of essays, and I strongly recommend it. However, if there’s one criticism I would level at Mendelsohn it’s that many of his sentences are too long (“discursive,” to use a more erudite word; or “prolix,” to use another one I have a fondness for). He starts out with a beautifully simple subject and verb but then goes off on a tangent that occupies a clause or two before getting to the predicate (many of the ellipses in the quotes above are reflections of this). It’s a tendency I don’t recall from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays. This may diminish the reader’s enjoyment but not – I would hope – enough to dissuade him or her from reading these essays. * Mendelsohn has an interesting digression at the beginning of this piece where he mentions the ancient Greeks’ penchant for revising and retelling their myths. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, for example, Oedipus and Jocasta are still alive many years after the revelation of incest and parricide; in his fragmentary Oedipus, the king’s blindness is a result of injuries sustained when he killed Laius. And in his Helen, Euripides dramatized a popular myth that claimed the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, remaining faithful to Menelaus; Paris spirited away a phantom. Anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths will have already encountered this. The topic is of interest to me because – as anyone who’s browsed my bookshelves will know – I happen to take an interest in several modern mythologies. Namely, Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’d like to see the owners of these properties relax their grips, ideally trashing the idea of “canon” entirely, and let us return to the days when authors like James Blish, Sondra Marshak, Diane Duane, John M. Ford (to name some ST authors) or Alan Dean Foster (to name a SW author) could write their own interpretations without being strait-jacketed. (I know there’s fan fiction out there that does this but its reach is very limited, even in the age of the internet. I want to see the phenomenon go mainstream, as they say.)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Antigone

    You will know Mr. Mendelsohn from essays that have appeared frequently over the years in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Here are twenty-four of the more recent works split into four categories: Spectacles, Classica, Creative Writing and Private Lives. His subjects run the gamut, from Julie Taymor's Broadway production of Spider-Man to the television series Mad Men, Herodotus to Horace; Stendhal, Rimbaud, Noel Coward, Susan Sontag...all with delightful detour You will know Mr. Mendelsohn from essays that have appeared frequently over the years in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Here are twenty-four of the more recent works split into four categories: Spectacles, Classica, Creative Writing and Private Lives. His subjects run the gamut, from Julie Taymor's Broadway production of Spider-Man to the television series Mad Men, Herodotus to Horace; Stendhal, Rimbaud, Noel Coward, Susan Sontag...all with delightful detours through the common (and uncommon) wisdoms of the day. If you're of a mind to sample a collection of urbane, esoteric and pleasantly sophisticated considerations of culture at the cusp of the new millennium - here's a very agile mind at work.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ρωξάνη Τόκου

    Ένα απολαυστικό ανάγνωσμα από έναν δεινό γνώστη της αρχαίας ελληνικής γραμματείας. Πέρα από την ευφυή του σκέψη, το καυστικό του χιούμορ και την ενίοτε αιφνιδιαστική ευαισθησία του, γεννά μια ακατανίκητη δίψα για μάθηση. Κάποια από τα δοκίμια θα αποτελούσαν πηγή ατελείωτων συζητήσεων ανάμεσα σε εκπαιδευτικό και μαθητές.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Hank Stuever

    An immersive experience for people who try to write intelligent cultural criticism (that includes me) as well as those who enjoy reading it. For popular culture fans, there's plenty here to think about; the middle section of essays on classics will be a chore, but a worthy one. It's difficult to quibble, since Daniel Mendelsohn could write circles around most of us, but I'm not sure every piece here was meant to live between hardcovers. Some of the insights he lands on are eloquently demonstrate An immersive experience for people who try to write intelligent cultural criticism (that includes me) as well as those who enjoy reading it. For popular culture fans, there's plenty here to think about; the middle section of essays on classics will be a chore, but a worthy one. It's difficult to quibble, since Daniel Mendelsohn could write circles around most of us, but I'm not sure every piece here was meant to live between hardcovers. Some of the insights he lands on are eloquently demonstrated, but also make him seem a little like Captain Obvious, explaining things for an audience that may not even own a television or ever darken the door of a cineplex, but, just as likely, have seen the movie or watched the show and are right there with him. I don't think he always has a handle on writing for both crowds, so there's a tone of lecturing that creeps in. It sometimes feels like he's writing mainly for himself. (Which, in a way, we all are.)

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kostas

    "Μια από τις αποστολές του λογίου, πέρα από την αυστηρή έρευνα, είναι και η πεφωτισμένη εκλαϊκευση", σημείωνε ο Ουμπέρτο Έκο κι είναι ένα χάρισμα που διαθέτει ο Daniel Mendelsohn. Αφορμή για τα περισσότερα κείμενα του είναι η κινηματογραφική ή θεατρική κριτική, εν τέλει όμως πρόκειται για δοκίμια που βοηθούν τον αναγνώστη/θεατή να εκλεπτύνει το αισθητήριο του και να εμπλουτίσει τα κριτήρια του ως προς την ποιητική δημιουργία. Με την ικανότητα του να πραγματεύεται κλασσικά έργα με σύγχρονους, οικ "Μια από τις αποστολές του λογίου, πέρα από την αυστηρή έρευνα, είναι και η πεφωτισμένη εκλαϊκευση", σημείωνε ο Ουμπέρτο Έκο κι είναι ένα χάρισμα που διαθέτει ο Daniel Mendelsohn. Αφορμή για τα περισσότερα κείμενα του είναι η κινηματογραφική ή θεατρική κριτική, εν τέλει όμως πρόκειται για δοκίμια που βοηθούν τον αναγνώστη/θεατή να εκλεπτύνει το αισθητήριο του και να εμπλουτίσει τα κριτήρια του ως προς την ποιητική δημιουργία. Με την ικανότητα του να πραγματεύεται κλασσικά έργα με σύγχρονους, οικείους όρους καταφέρνει να κάνει το πνεύμα τους προσιτό στον μη ειδικό αναγνώστη κι η φρεσκάδα του λόγου του κρατά το ενδιαφέρον του αμείωτο. Όσοι, σαν εμένα, βαριόνταν τα Αρχαία στο σχολείο διαβάζοντας τον D. M θα αναθεωρήσουν!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Muntz

    I never imagined I would read a collection of book reviews for pleasure, but Mendelsohn is such a good writer. The section on the classics in particular is amazing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    March 22, 2014 To say I enjoyed this book does not capture my experience with it. I struggled, I laughed, I ruminated, I was awakened. I wrote something about this book earlier (below) which cannot be graced with the title “review,” but I have decided to add to it since I wrote that before I finished the book, and now I have. After reading several of Mendelsohn’s essays, I found my taste for and understanding of his writing improving, and I read avidly on to see what he would say about the work o March 22, 2014 To say I enjoyed this book does not capture my experience with it. I struggled, I laughed, I ruminated, I was awakened. I wrote something about this book earlier (below) which cannot be graced with the title “review,” but I have decided to add to it since I wrote that before I finished the book, and now I have. After reading several of Mendelsohn’s essays, I found my taste for and understanding of his writing improving, and I read avidly on to see what he would say about the work of Hollinghurst, Littell, Franzen, Edmund White, and Sontag. Mendelsohn wields a scalpel with care and precision. His essay on Franzen made me think of divorce: that is, I imagine (!) at the time of a divorce one’s disaffected spouse may reveal much about the defects of one’s personality that may often be hidden to the rest of the world. This essay undresses Franzen’s personality through his own words much as a disaffected spouse might in a divorce hearing. A writer must feel pain and pride in equal measure when their work comes to the attention of Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn might be an acquired taste, but there is something necessary here. There is a passage in his revelatory essay on Sontag that makes the point that reading his work is as important as reading the “great books” of modern fiction for those who love literature: ”The great irony of [Sontag’s] career is that her apparent conviction, derived from her early immersion in nineteenth-century European literature, that to be a significant literary figure you had to be a novelist, paradoxically blinded her to what already made her a significant literary figure…of course literature does possess a genre that strives to be both objective and personal, an accurate record and a subjective testimony, a representation and an interpretation at the same time, and it’s the genre at which Sontag really excelled: criticism…that it never occurred to her to think of her own métier when thinking about what literature could do—is more wrenching than anything she ever wrote in her fiction.” Good criticism is good literature. I highly recommend seeking out Mendelsohn’s work wherever you might find it, and winching open the confines of your mind to consider his trenchant criticisms. ----------------------------------------------------- March 06, 2014 Reading this collection of reviews by the essayist and classics scholar Mendelsohn, I was reminded of my post-undergraduate days when I tried to read a Russian econometrics journal in translation. Most of it went over my head, but if I really tried, sometimes a point would register. One gets some satisfaction from that. I am not qualified to review this book, but I drew pleasure from knowing there are people like Mendelsohn out there, who can make connections between artists, thinkers, and writers of the past and the things we do and think today. At least one thing I do owe Mendelsohn: on the first page of his Foreword, he introduces to me a poem written by Constantine Cavafy called "Waiting for the Barbarians." He tells us that in this poem Cavafy is describing the officials of a sophisticated and wealthy state standing at the gates of their city waiting for representatives of another state, the "barbarians", to arrive. Orators cease speechmaking, senators stop legislating, the emperor sits his throne dressed in his silks and jewels, waiting. They wait and wait, dressed to the teeth and murmuring anxiously, until it becomes clear the "barbarians" won't be arriving as planned. The officials had actually been looking forward to their arrival. "Perhaps these people were a solution of sorts." I had just finished My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit which is Shavit's attempt to begin a dialogue with anyone and everyone about the situation in Israel and Palestine. In that book he says that some in Israel harbor "a great belief in a great war, which will be their only solution." The juxtaposition of these writings, Shavit's and Mendelsohn's, in my reading life gave me the impetus to seek out Cavafy's Collected Poems. For that, and for my learning in one of his essays that Oscar Wilde was a classics scholar much admired among his teachers and contemporaries at Oxford, I am forever grateful to Mendelsohn. I still have an essay or two in this book to read that I discovered "as I was walking out the door" at the end of this collection. They look like luscious peaches on a tree: full of insight, erudition, and wit. But I require silence, calm, and concentration to tackle them. If those conditions come to me shortly, I will indulge, with pleasure.

  8. 5 out of 5

    James

    Daniel Mendelsohn is my new intellectual crush. I picked this up from a "New Books" display at work, my attention caught by the scowling hoplite on the cover, the comic-book graphics, and the promise of 'essays from the classics to pop culture.' After I looked inside, I realized that I'd been reading Mendelsohn with pleasure in the New Yorker (including the essay on Herodotus included here) for some time. I gobbled up the classics essays on offer in Waiting for the Barbarians like candy. Only on Daniel Mendelsohn is my new intellectual crush. I picked this up from a "New Books" display at work, my attention caught by the scowling hoplite on the cover, the comic-book graphics, and the promise of 'essays from the classics to pop culture.' After I looked inside, I realized that I'd been reading Mendelsohn with pleasure in the New Yorker (including the essay on Herodotus included here) for some time. I gobbled up the classics essays on offer in Waiting for the Barbarians like candy. Only one of the articles, though - the excellent piece on Mad Men - is really about pop culture. The essay ostensibly about the Broadway Spiderman debacle is really an examination of Julie Taymor's entire career - a career in which she has generally hoed a much snootier row than musical comic book adaptations. Mendelsohn is one of those infuriatingly brilliant polymaths who fill me with a piquant blend of resentment and besottedness. A classicist by training, he also apparently reads Spanish, French and German with sufficient fluency to make confident judgments about tone and voice. At his best, Mendelsohn is a lapidary stylist and he has astute (and, on occasion, when he's not at his best, bafflingly abstruse) things to say in this collection about fiction, poetry, literary and cultural criticism, opera, theater, movies, and tv.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    (5 stars for the classical section, 3 stars for the final 2, averaging out to 4 stars overall rating) A reader's enjoyment of this collection of essays is really going to depend on his or her set of pre-established interests. Mendelsohn's writing is sharp and his thinking incisive, but I found my interest tapering off in the last two sections (reviews of contemporary fiction and memoirs). However, I positively really enjoyed the first section on modern day "Spectacles," i.e. theatrical productio (5 stars for the classical section, 3 stars for the final 2, averaging out to 4 stars overall rating) A reader's enjoyment of this collection of essays is really going to depend on his or her set of pre-established interests. Mendelsohn's writing is sharp and his thinking incisive, but I found my interest tapering off in the last two sections (reviews of contemporary fiction and memoirs). However, I positively really enjoyed the first section on modern day "Spectacles," i.e. theatrical productions of all sorts, from Avatar to Mad Men to the Broadway Spiderman musical, and positively gobbled up the second section on "Classica." This is where, for me, Mendelsohn's strengths as a writer and critic really shone (unsurprisingly, given his classicist training). His reviews of recent translations of Homer, Sappho, Herodotus, and Horace are lively, responsible, and attentive to the various facets of translation -- not just vocabulary but form, not just form but genre, not just genre but historical context -- while also providing his own insights into the original texts. I was left wishing for an entire collection of his thoughts on the classics!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Simcock

    I never tire of reading Daniel's criticism. Calling it criticism seems almost a disservice, and a term like cultural commentary seems more descriptive. Whether explaining the relevance of classicism to contemporary dilemmas, unearthing nuanced subtexts in popular culture, or contextualizing classics, his writing never fails to delight and enlighten. I never tire of reading Daniel's criticism. Calling it criticism seems almost a disservice, and a term like cultural commentary seems more descriptive. Whether explaining the relevance of classicism to contemporary dilemmas, unearthing nuanced subtexts in popular culture, or contextualizing classics, his writing never fails to delight and enlighten.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Wow, do I feel like a big fat dummy after reading this collection of essays. It hit me, just how uneducated I am. I felt like Justin Long's character Dr Lexus in the movie Idiocracy while reading this book. Sigh. I almost gave up during the Classics section. I cannot begin to fake an interest in ancient Greek poetry. Halfway through, I perked up, enjoying the Herodotus essay (I loved his Histories in college - although according to Mendelsohn all the cool kids back then preferred Thucydides). Eve Wow, do I feel like a big fat dummy after reading this collection of essays. It hit me, just how uneducated I am. I felt like Justin Long's character Dr Lexus in the movie Idiocracy while reading this book. Sigh. I almost gave up during the Classics section. I cannot begin to fake an interest in ancient Greek poetry. Halfway through, I perked up, enjoying the Herodotus essay (I loved his Histories in college - although according to Mendelsohn all the cool kids back then preferred Thucydides). Even when I'm right, I'm wrong. More sighs. The only essay I enjoyed in the third section was the Oscar Wilde one, which was wonderful. Other than that, I continued along in the slogfest. The final section, about memoirs, was by far my favorite. I thought all of those essays were well worth the read. I don't think I was the right audience for this. The essays I connected with, I truly loved. However, the majority of them were so, so dull & long-winded. I felt Mendelsohn was preaching to the choir, not trying to make a reader, unfamiliar with the discussed work or author, learn to appreciate something new.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    In all honesty, this book is a 4.5 rather than a 4 or a straight 5. Daniel Mendelsohn writes incredibly refreshing and eloquent critics, and this is a collection of some of his best. Going from Cameron to Glass to Sontag, I felt like I learnt equally as much about myself as I did about the artists and their work. What struck me most is how balanced Mendelsohn's reviews tends to be, never focusing on a nitty-gritty detail, but always placing the artwork in the larger context of both the artist an In all honesty, this book is a 4.5 rather than a 4 or a straight 5. Daniel Mendelsohn writes incredibly refreshing and eloquent critics, and this is a collection of some of his best. Going from Cameron to Glass to Sontag, I felt like I learnt equally as much about myself as I did about the artists and their work. What struck me most is how balanced Mendelsohn's reviews tends to be, never focusing on a nitty-gritty detail, but always placing the artwork in the larger context of both the artist and the world surrounding them. While one might say that his essays sometimes meander quite far from the topic at hand, sometimes taking half the review to even get there, each of these anecdotes is carefully crafted and sure to avoid the pitfalls of superficiality that fellow critics like Leo Lerman would every so often fall prey to. Very much appreciated the chapter on Fontane. Definitely a recommended read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    GONZA

    The first part was not so interesting for me because I am far from being a movie expert, but then it was so good that I am reading his fiction novel about the Odissey right now, he seems really expert on the topic. La prima parte mi ha un po'annoiato perché il cinema e i film non sono proprio il mio argomento preferito, ma poi tutti i saggi che sono seguiti, su autori piú o meno conosciuti (da me) é stata talmente interessante che mi sono messa subito a leggere il suo libro (fiction) sull'Odissea The first part was not so interesting for me because I am far from being a movie expert, but then it was so good that I am reading his fiction novel about the Odissey right now, he seems really expert on the topic. La prima parte mi ha un po'annoiato perché il cinema e i film non sono proprio il mio argomento preferito, ma poi tutti i saggi che sono seguiti, su autori piú o meno conosciuti (da me) é stata talmente interessante che mi sono messa subito a leggere il suo libro (fiction) sull'Odissea, argomento sul quale sembra essere un vero esperto.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Dorneman

    Mendelsohn's critical essays are not easily read, at least not by this plebian reader, asunfamiliar with the works of Stendhal, Antonio Munoz Molina, or even Herodotus as I am, but if you are willing to plunge in, still worth the effort. At the very least, you will learn what books you are unlikely to enjoy reading (Johnathan Littell's THE KINDLY ONES, and Susan Sontag's novels, for example), and more importantly, you will learn WHY you, or someone else, may or may not appreciate those works. Re Mendelsohn's critical essays are not easily read, at least not by this plebian reader, asunfamiliar with the works of Stendhal, Antonio Munoz Molina, or even Herodotus as I am, but if you are willing to plunge in, still worth the effort. At the very least, you will learn what books you are unlikely to enjoy reading (Johnathan Littell's THE KINDLY ONES, and Susan Sontag's novels, for example), and more importantly, you will learn WHY you, or someone else, may or may not appreciate those works. Recommended, with reservations.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carla

    A 400+ page collection of some great essays by Daniel Mendelsohn. Essays cover everything from talking about Julie Taymor's Broadway Spider-Man: The Musical failure to Herodotous, from Stendahl to Susan Sontag. Mendelsohn's focus - classics, writers and other artists, morality, high-brow/low-brow, American and European 19th and 20th century. Absolutely terrific essay on Memoirs and a bad essay on Susan Sontag - but, all in all, a very, very fun, interesting, thoughtful collection. A 400+ page collection of some great essays by Daniel Mendelsohn. Essays cover everything from talking about Julie Taymor's Broadway Spider-Man: The Musical failure to Herodotous, from Stendahl to Susan Sontag. Mendelsohn's focus - classics, writers and other artists, morality, high-brow/low-brow, American and European 19th and 20th century. Absolutely terrific essay on Memoirs and a bad essay on Susan Sontag - but, all in all, a very, very fun, interesting, thoughtful collection.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gail Kennon

    i love his voice and his well crafted arguments. i love him and i'm glad i have other books by him to read. i love his voice and his well crafted arguments. i love him and i'm glad i have other books by him to read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Howard Cincotta

    There may be more important literary and cultural critics out there, but none who are better or more insightful writers than Daniel Mendelsohn, whether commenting on the curious emptiness at the center of Mad Men, why the Titanic has never let go of the public imagination, or the illusive authorship of the Iliad. Waiting for the Barbarians, from the best-known poem of modern 20th-century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, was perhaps my most enjoyable reading experience, at least intellectually, of There may be more important literary and cultural critics out there, but none who are better or more insightful writers than Daniel Mendelsohn, whether commenting on the curious emptiness at the center of Mad Men, why the Titanic has never let go of the public imagination, or the illusive authorship of the Iliad. Waiting for the Barbarians, from the best-known poem of modern 20th-century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, was perhaps my most enjoyable reading experience, at least intellectually, of the past year. Mendelsohn was trained as a classicist – he recently produced the definitive translation of Cavafy’s work, with extensive commentary – and it is remarkable how effectively he can bring that perspective to contemporary culture, as in the complex mythos embodied in such movie epics as Avatar and Titanic. You, like me, may be relatively indifferent to the travails of Spider-Man, The Musical, but Mendelsohn’s explanation of the difference between human metamorphoses in Greek mythology and comic-book super heroes is worth the price of admission. One of Mendelsohn’s most attractive traits is his ecumenical enthusiasms. From the evidence, Mendelsohn may not be fluent in Chinese or Japanese, but he seems to have mastered the major modern European languages, and of course the ancient ones, Latin and Greek. As a result, he can write with humor and deep understanding into everything from blockbuster movies (always rich fodder for excavating deeply embedded mythic skeletons), why Stendhal’s hastily dictated Charterhouse of Parma is a masterpiece, the complex strategies behind the odes of the Roman poet Horace, how we impose meanings on the surviving fragmentary lines of Greek poet Sappho, and the evolution of the memoir from the confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau’s to 19th-century slave narratives and partial frauds like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Even where I found myself skeptical or in disagreement, Mendelsohn is consistently brilliant. His critique of Jonathan Franzen seemed excessively harsh, I thought; The Corrections is a towering work by any measure – and if Franzen prefers Snoopy to Charlie Brown, so what? Mendelsohn’s analysis of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – a pornographic mash-up of Holocaust violence and the Oresteia myth – is characteristically brilliant, but a bridge too far for me, amounting, in the end, to a tortuous exercise in defending the indefensible. But in the end, Daniel Mendelsohn understands one important fact better than anyone else: the ancient gods are alive and well among us.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    i feel like i've expressed my wish to be a number of different literary figures at some point or another, but when you—or i guess when i—get right down to it, and keep in mind my actual interests & predilections, there is no one i want to be when i grow up more than daniel mendelsohn, really, who is perfect. everything about his career is everything i want (except for the teaching at Bard part, i could never teach, which doesn't really bode well). i'm having a hard time articulating just how goo i feel like i've expressed my wish to be a number of different literary figures at some point or another, but when you—or i guess when i—get right down to it, and keep in mind my actual interests & predilections, there is no one i want to be when i grow up more than daniel mendelsohn, really, who is perfect. everything about his career is everything i want (except for the teaching at Bard part, i could never teach, which doesn't really bode well). i'm having a hard time articulating just how good of a critic, a thinker, he is and in all the ways i want to be a good thinker too. ugh. i should also note a substantial part of my affection is rooted in the fact that he's also a classicist, and i love love love his writing on the classics, even if i think he rather holds classical translations to a way higher standard than any other languages he discusses (admittedly a tendency i share, and one i think is kind of common—i can't say much about greek, but once you know latin, NOTHING ELSE will do, and most translations sort of enrage me). in the last essay in the collection, on sontag, he makes much of her autodidactic desire to "know everything," which he kind of seems to share, to me, and which is part of his allure, that he really does seem to effortlessly know everything—there's a reason the publisher chose to quote on the back cover the bit about how his "sweep as a cultural critic is as impressive as his depth." because it's true! he is both so broad and so deep that it's crazy and it just makes me want to cry because i will never be as eloquent (okay, to make myself feel better on this end, he does slightly overuse interrupting emdash/parenthetical phrases that will make you lose track of what the original sentence was saying, a bad habit WHICH I ALSO POSSESS) and intelligent as him.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ivan Mulcahy

    Mendelsohn's opening essay here is a review of Avatar. I didn't like the film, though I loved most of director James Cameron's other big budget festivals of relentless technology - Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss. I didn't like Avatar more after reading Mendelsohn. What I did feel was confidence and enthusiasm for Mendelsohn as a critic. I want to hear this man. He is so intelligent yet clear, honest in his enthusiasm and so perceptive in his analysis. Informed but unpretentious. Similarly, in the Mendelsohn's opening essay here is a review of Avatar. I didn't like the film, though I loved most of director James Cameron's other big budget festivals of relentless technology - Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss. I didn't like Avatar more after reading Mendelsohn. What I did feel was confidence and enthusiasm for Mendelsohn as a critic. I want to hear this man. He is so intelligent yet clear, honest in his enthusiasm and so perceptive in his analysis. Informed but unpretentious. Similarly, in the opposite direction, I loved Mad Men much more than Mendelsohn. Yet I would rather discuss the TV series with him than with a friend who also loved it. Buy this book if you like intelligent warm commentary on the stuff we like nowadays.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    Only read the essay on Julie Taymor's Spider-Man musical, which was interesting. Only read the essay on Julie Taymor's Spider-Man musical, which was interesting.

  21. 4 out of 5

    R.J. Gilmour

    Just finished Daniel Mendelsohn's collection of essays Waiting for the Barbarians. Mendelsohn is one of those writers who is able to tackle almost any topic and make it interesting, even classical studies. The book brings together Mendelsohn's critical reviews and short pieces he has written over the years for assorted journals and magazines and collects them sorting them into four sections; Spectacles, Classics, Creative Writing and Private Lives. His piece on the memoir craze "But Enough Abou Just finished Daniel Mendelsohn's collection of essays Waiting for the Barbarians. Mendelsohn is one of those writers who is able to tackle almost any topic and make it interesting, even classical studies. The book brings together Mendelsohn's critical reviews and short pieces he has written over the years for assorted journals and magazines and collects them sorting them into four sections; Spectacles, Classics, Creative Writing and Private Lives. His piece on the memoir craze "But Enough About Me" tackles our cultural obsessions with memoirs and writing about the self. It is a fascinating and important piece for anyone interested in the popularity of the genre.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    An amazing array of essays that cover the classics to pop culture (ok that sentence was a bit of a rip-off from the back cover!) But it's true!! Not only is there a great breadth of topics but Mendelsohn treats them beautifully with his own vast knowledge and wit. Some of the essays concerning the classics such as Sappho were a little over my head but Mendelsohn made them enjoyable with great background writing. It was also fascinating to read his treatment of more modern culture such as James C An amazing array of essays that cover the classics to pop culture (ok that sentence was a bit of a rip-off from the back cover!) But it's true!! Not only is there a great breadth of topics but Mendelsohn treats them beautifully with his own vast knowledge and wit. Some of the essays concerning the classics such as Sappho were a little over my head but Mendelsohn made them enjoyable with great background writing. It was also fascinating to read his treatment of more modern culture such as James Cameron's movie, Avatar and the ever popular television series, Mad Men. A must read for anyone who enjoys stuff..any stuff, you will love it!

  23. 5 out of 5

    K

    Somewhere around .5 of a star here is based solely on the essay about Oscar Wilde the baby classicist, FYI. As a rule, when Mendelsohn is talking about something I care about, even a little bit, I am blown away by his insight. If not, he can be pretty hit or miss. This book contained two essays that took my breath away, some solid points about things I already cared about, a few essays that drew my interest to new subjects, and only one that I will actively avoid ever reading again.

  24. 5 out of 5

    John

    Another excellent collection of critical essays. Mendelsohn's range is remarkable, both in the sense of the breadth of what he considers (Mad Men, Avatar, Noel Coward, Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, the Iliad) as well as his ability to genuinely treat all of these things as worthy of serious critical attention— and to find something genuinely worth talking about in all of them. Another excellent collection of critical essays. Mendelsohn's range is remarkable, both in the sense of the breadth of what he considers (Mad Men, Avatar, Noel Coward, Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, the Iliad) as well as his ability to genuinely treat all of these things as worthy of serious critical attention— and to find something genuinely worth talking about in all of them.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kirsti

    The essays about classics were over my head for the most part, but I enjoyed the essays on recent literature and pop culture. Mendelsohn says Jonathan Franzen writes with "a kind of political and aesthetic autism. . . . every landscape is a landfill, every season is rainy"; Susan Sontag was "bristling with epigrams." The essays about classics were over my head for the most part, but I enjoyed the essays on recent literature and pop culture. Mendelsohn says Jonathan Franzen writes with "a kind of political and aesthetic autism. . . . every landscape is a landfill, every season is rainy"; Susan Sontag was "bristling with epigrams."

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mary Beth

    Although some of the essays cover intimidatingly arcane subject matter, Mendelsohn's exquisitely thoughtful prose is always worthwhile. His examinations of such varied topics as memoirs, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Mad Men, and especially Julie Taymor's Spider-Man by way of Ovid inspire bracingly fresh reconsideration. Although some of the essays cover intimidatingly arcane subject matter, Mendelsohn's exquisitely thoughtful prose is always worthwhile. His examinations of such varied topics as memoirs, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Mad Men, and especially Julie Taymor's Spider-Man by way of Ovid inspire bracingly fresh reconsideration.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eloise Von woolfe

    Well-crafted, contemplative, insightful. Slightly weak in bridging some essays from academia/specialist to culturally educated/intellectual layperson. Would that all readers were lit majors...but some major gems for all, esp. on visual culture (tv, film).

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jim Wayland

    Great stuff. I'd read some of the essays herein when they were originally published (like the Titanic piece in The New Yorker, for example) and loved them. Nice to see a collection of his writing. I'm gonna look up his other collection of essays. Great stuff. I'd read some of the essays herein when they were originally published (like the Titanic piece in The New Yorker, for example) and loved them. Nice to see a collection of his writing. I'm gonna look up his other collection of essays.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tuck

    no, gr ate my review. i bet mendlsohn never has to say that.

  30. 4 out of 5

    August

    Exceptionally good.

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