So, I've had a bit more time with Charles Simic's review of Indignation, and it's prompted this unplanned penultimate entry in my Summer of Roth ruminations.
I include a cursory look at the different responses to the novel in my final post, but two things struck me in particular about the Simic review that I wanted to take up with you. First, on my second, closer reading, I noticed this error in Simic's review:
"Olivia has a scar across the width of her wrist that Marcus noticed the first night."
That's incorrect. Marcus fails to notice the scar, and makes much of this later in the book. In a letter to Olivia, he does write "I did see the scar at dinner," but immediately after the letter, the narrator admits "I didn't know what I was doing by lying to her about noticing the scar ... " (p. 76)
It seems to me there are two ways of looking at this. The first is simply that honest mistakes happen - reviewers are human after all. (Well, most of them are.) And there's also the question of what constitutes a meaningful mistake. I'm reminded of John Banville's hilarious rebuke to John Sutherland, who called him out for fouling up a detail about the squash game in Saturday: "Summoned," Banville wrote, "one shuffles guiltily to the Department of Trivialities."
But on the other hand, this kind of mistake also suggests at least the possibility of a less than attentive reading. In the case of Saturday, I happen to agree with Banville - none of the readers I spoke to could clearly recall the squash outcome. But this mistake seems to strike a bit deeper at something that goes to the heart of book - Marcus's self-aggrandizing delusions. What do you think? Does a mistake like this rise to the level of capital offense? Is it simply that perhaps we all expect more from the New York Review of Books? (And I say that as a great admirer of NYRoB, Simic and Roth.)
The second thing that's grown to trouble me about Simic's review is this: In a 4,000 word review, Simic spends nearly 2,900 of them offering nothing more than tedious plot summary. He simply retells the entire story of Indignation - and within that summary offers only a single extended quotation from the work. Beyond that, there's little of Roth's music to be found. (The entirety of the review only contains one other extended quotation.) Now, I have generally found word-count breakdowns of reviews to be less than illuminating but when you consider that another 700 words is spent in introductory throat clearing, we seem to be left with little that actually takes the book's critical measure. And I wonder, to some extent, if the reason isn't this:
Anyone living in the 1950s could imagine such a destiny. I did, though I'm five years younger than Roth, who was seventeen when the war started. An innocent boy who dies in a war has been such a common occurrence in the history of the world that calling it a tragedy doesn't carry much conviction.
I'm left wondering whether Simic's personal identification with this story diverted him from a more critical approach? Because once you really spend some time with this review, there doesn't seem to be much there there. Did Simic know that on some level and fill the space with plot - (a tendency I've seen before at NYRoB)? Or did he genuinely feel the best service to be offered to readers was a virtual scene by scene recounting of the novel?
How do you find this review? Do you consider it useful, illuminating? Does it strike you as New York Review of Books caliber? I'd love to hear what you think on this one as I try to wrap this all up.