Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing About Writers

Richard Zacks, the author of Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, writes adequately. He practices the Time manner of omitting the definite article, writing for example "Rogers's six-foot-tall assistant, twenty-eight-year-old Katherine Harrison", which sets my teeth on edge. Now and then he just has to wedge in some facts--
Twain reached France and brought the family back on May 18 to the famous harbor with more than one hundred piers, the busiest commercial port in America.
That is, New York. He has found that a dollar in the 1890s was the equivalent of $30 today, which is useful information for evaluating Twain's debts, expenses, and revenues; however, he gives 2016 equivalents repeatedly,  as if the reader will have forgotten the ratio, or can't multiply by 30 (or 150, if the money is given as pounds sterling). There are sentences that distract one, such as
(Chatto published elite authors such as H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett.)
Chatto and Windus did, but not by 1896.

Still, Zacks conveys the main facts of the trip clearly enough, and the history of Twain's business disasters and family griefs.

One would not notice so much the faults of the writing but for the paragraphs of Twain's writing given every few pages and, for those of us who have read Following the Equator, our memories of that book. Eudora Welty, reviewing Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, wrote of it that
The heaviness of [Mizener's] own style seems always to show most when he comes up against Ford's imagination; that seems to burden him. "The right cadence," so central in Ford's style and in his own test of good writing, is lacking in his biographer. ... This calls insistent attention to itself, for situated among the paragraphs of Mizener are the many quotations from Ford. To read while they alternate is like being carried in a train along the southern coast of France--long tunnel, view of the sea, and over again.
(Collected in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews.)

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