Monday, June 20, 2011

Magisterial Writing

Despite a huge backlog of really fine reading matter waiting for my attention, I found myself drawn to an old paperback on my shelf of the seemingly last collection of the writings of Janet Flanner, the longtime New Yorker Paris correspondent, who wrote under the pen-name "Genet." (Yes, I know the second e should have a circumflex but this program being what it is...)

This volume of her uncollected writings followed what would have seemed to have been a complete gathering of her articles contributed over 50 years in four previous volumes. It was published in 1979. Reading these pieces--many of them were written on reporting trips to Germany before and after World War II, with side trips to Vienna and Warsaw after the war--makes one remember what great writing is like. Her prose always has a knowing, commanding tone without acting like it does. But it grabs you and holds you, just as her seemingly numberless Letters From Paris did every time The New Yorker arrived with one of her pieces, almost every month or more frequently.

In this particular collection, you get to read a famous early profile she wrote in the early 30s of Hitler, and then a post-war account of the Nuremberg trials, along with side trips to Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival and Vienna for a description of how the state opera carried on postwar without its own opera house. Lastly, there are several pieces from Italy in the very early 50s. All superb, of course, but probably the perfect subject for such a magisterial writer--and I use the word to mean one with great authority or assurance--was the writer Thomas Mann, resident in the U.S. after fleeing Germany in the late 1930s. Flanner, whose elegant style makes one forget at times that she was born an Indiana Quaker, takes the full measure of Mann the individual as well as the famed author.

Her 1947 "Letter From the Ghetto" recounts conversations with the few surviving Polish Jewish leaders, who are wondering why the U.S. was taking quite good care of former Nazis it deemed of possible use in the already incipient Cold War, while denying entry to the Jewish refugees who might quite justifiably have been given the unused German and Austrian quotas from the war years as an easy bureaucratic device. Everywhere she went she seemed to put her finger on the key issues that others missed amid the turmoil of largely destroyed Europe.

She wrote with the ease also that came from knowing everyone who mattered in Paris. Her obituary of Margaret Anderson, who ran The Little Review, and her review of the memoirs of Sylvia Beach, who published Joyce's Ulysses when no one else could or would, are magnificent, especially as she knew the subjects well. Probably to me the capstone was a 1975 piece that summed up the "years alone" Alice B. Toklas spent in Paris after Gertrude Stein's death in 1946. I don't think I've ever seen a more comprehensive summary of both the difficulties of the survivor and the sheer amazing quality of her story.

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