Julie Checkoway

It is a startling coincidence to have, in one season, the appearance of not one but two memoirs about William Shawn, the former editor of the New Yorker Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing and Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here: A Love Story but perhaps more interesting is that, while each is an elegy for Shawn, the two books couldn't be more different.

The differences make Mehta's and Ross's memoirs complementary; indeed, alone, each is only a partial picture of Shawn, the New Yorker's editor-in-chief for more than three decades. In his book, Mehta, a staff writer at the magazine from 1961-1994, depicts the platonic but intense affection between a writer and his editor. In her book, Ms. Ross, also a longtime New Yorker staff writer, delivers without apology the confessional tale of her over 40-year- long affair with the married Shawn. Mehta's memoir which is as gorgeously written as his magazine pieces and his previous 20 books (Remembering is the eighth in an autobiographical series entitled Continents of Exile) is a lament not only for Shawn but for a bygone era of chivalrous good intentions and courtly behavior in the literary world, an era of editorial paternalism and excellent manners. Shawn's New Yorker which lasted from 1952-1987, when Shawn, at the age of 77, was asked by the new owner of the magazine to resign was less a business than a family, peopled by the likes of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Renata Adler, A.J. Liebling, St. Clair McKelway, and Maeve Brennan, writers to whom Shawn demonstrated fatherly allegiance. Not only did Shawn respond like a "Talmudic scholar," to his writers' work, says Mehta, he frequently ministered to their more personal needs including, in some cases, forgiving them their messy debts and hospitalizing them when mental illness or alcoholism overtook them. In Here but Not Here, Ms. Ross, covers similar historic ground, but laments more directly the loss of Shawn as a person. Ross's purpose is to make the reader see the real Shawn hopelessly in love, plagued by phobias, blocked in his own writing, and overwhelmed by his own invisibility as an editor and a human being. "Responsible as he was, toward the magazine and the lives of all the creative people involved with it," Ross writes, "attuned as he made himself to all their frailties and disappointments and successes and joys," Shawn "could do nothing to help himself. He wanted someone to know and believe there was more to him; he was desperate to feel alive." In late 20th-century America, when the line between the public and the private has become utterly blurred, Mehta's is the decidedly public memoir of Shawn and Ross's the utterly personal. Ross's book complicates and completes Mehta's reverent portraiture, but raises the question: How is one to reconcile the two William Shawns Mehta's Algonquin-frequenting, dignified father figure, and Ross's obsessive lover, who would leave his editorial desk at night and stand across the street from Ross's fifth floor apartment, staring up for hours at her lighted window? In the end, these memoirs are twin halves not only of Shawn, but of an era in American culture the early to mid 1960s a time of public good taste and, behind the scenes, some very private secrets. Reviewed by Julie Checkoway.

It is a startling coincidence to have, in one season, the appearance of not one but two memoirs about William Shawn, the former editor of the New Yorker Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing and Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here: A Love Story but perhaps more interesting is […]

It is a startling coincidence to have, in one season, the appearance of not one but two memoirs about William Shawn, the former editor of the New Yorker Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing and Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here: A Love Story (Random House, $22.50, 0375501193) but perhaps more interesting is that, while each is an elegy for Shawn, the two books couldn't be more different.

The differences make Mehta's and Ross's memoirs complementary; indeed, alone, each is only a partial picture of Shawn, the New Yorker's editor-in-chief for more than three decades. In his book, Mehta, a staff writer at the magazine from 1961-1994, depicts the platonic but intense affection between a writer and his editor. In her book, Ms. Ross, also a longtime New Yorker staff writer, delivers without apology the confessional tale of her over 40-year- long affair with the married Shawn. Mehta's memoir which is as gorgeously written as his magazine pieces and his previous 20 books (Remembering is the eighth in an autobiographical series entitled Continents of Exile) is a lament not only for Shawn but for a bygone era of chivalrous good intentions and courtly behavior in the literary world, an era of editorial paternalism and excellent manners. Shawn's New Yorker which lasted from 1952-1987, when Shawn, at the age of 77, was asked by the new owner of the magazine to resign was less a business than a family, peopled by the likes of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Renata Adler, A.J. Liebling, St. Clair McKelway, and Maeve Brennan, writers to whom Shawn demonstrated fatherly allegiance. Not only did Shawn respond like a "Talmudic scholar," to his writers' work, says Mehta, he frequently ministered to their more personal needs including, in some cases, forgiving them their messy debts and hospitalizing them when mental illness or alcoholism overtook them. In Here but Not Here, Ms. Ross, covers similar historic ground, but laments more directly the loss of Shawn as a person. Ross's purpose is to make the reader see the real Shawn hopelessly in love, plagued by phobias, blocked in his own writing, and overwhelmed by his own invisibility as an editor and a human being. "Responsible as he was, toward the magazine and the lives of all the creative people involved with it," Ross writes, "attuned as he made himself to all their frailties and disappointments and successes and joys," Shawn "could do nothing to help himself. He wanted someone to know and believe there was more to him; he was desperate to feel alive." In late 20th-century America, when the line between the public and the private has become utterly blurred, Mehta's is the decidedly public memoir of Shawn and Ross's the utterly personal. Ross's book complicates and completes Mehta's reverent portraiture, but raises the question: How is one to reconcile the two William Shawns Mehta's Algonquin-frequenting, dignified father figure, and Ross's obsessive lover, who would leave his editorial desk at night and stand across the street from Ross's fifth floor apartment, staring up for hours at her lighted window? In the end, these memoirs are twin halves not only of Shawn, but of an era in American culture the early to mid 1960s a time of public good taste and, behind the scenes, some very private secrets. Reviewed by Julie Checkoway.

It is a startling coincidence to have, in one season, the appearance of not one but two memoirs about William Shawn, the former editor of the New Yorker Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing and Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here: A Love Story (Random House, $22.50, 0375501193) but […]

The writer Grace Paley once said that "every story is really two stories," by which she meant that fiction is textured, that it is about the interplay between two narrative lines. Martha Cooley's ambitious debut novel, The Archivist, takes Paley's proposition to a new level, concerned as it is with the rich interplay between not two lines but three.

At its surface, The Archivist is the tale of its narrator, Matt Lane, a 60-ish librarian at a private university near New York, a man who has been entrusted with the care of certain personal correspondence between the poet T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale, letters which are supposed to remain sealed until the year 2020. But the archivist's attempt to preserve the privacy of those letters is a metaphor for larger concerns. Lane, a Prufrockian character, has a sealed history of his own the haunting memory of his dead wife, Judith, a manic depressive poet, a woman not unlike Eliot's own wife Vivienne. The central portion of the book consists of Judith's suicidal diary entries. Lane must come to terms with these writings and with his own complicity in his wife's illness, and there begins the novel's third line—that of Roberta Spires, a prepossessing graduate student who inserts herself both into the off-limits Eliot-Hale archives and into the archived secrets of Lane's own life.

Like A.S. Byatt's Possession, The Archivist is both a romance and a novel of ideas. While Lane and Roberta explore the letters and their own tentative December-May relationship, the characters also grapple with the problem of faith in a post-Holocaust world. Both Roberta and Matt's dead wife, it turns out, are Jews of European origin whose families have shielded them from their true religious and cultural identities. In the course of Lane's and Roberta's conversations about faith, Cooley archly equates the role of God and the archivist. "As an archivist," Matt Lane says, "I have power over people" to preserve and destroy. What, Cooley wonders, is the humane function of the archivist—and of God—in a postwar world where ideas about preservation and destruction have been problematized?

T.S. Eliot and other Imagist poets of the early 20th century argued that symbols must speak for themselves. At its heart, The Archivist is a deeply symbolic story about privacy and memory. If the archivist's job is to preserve the private papers of others, what is his responsibility to the material of his own life and the material of the lives of those with whom he is intimate? In the novel's final chapters, Matt Lane sheds at last his Prufrockian stance and takes surprising action to resolve this question. In what ways, Martha Cooley is asking us, are we all like archivists preservers and destroyers of what it is we know about ourselves and others?

The writer Grace Paley once said that "every story is really two stories," by which she meant that fiction is textured, that it is about the interplay between two narrative lines. Martha Cooley's ambitious debut novel, The Archivist, takes Paley's proposition to a new level, concerned as it is with the rich interplay between not two lines but three.

Once, every half century, at longest, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of Seven Gables, a family should be merged into the great obscure mass of humanity and forget all about its ancestors. A hopeful, democratic, and particularly American suggestion, but isn't ancestry, one's place in a personal, familial, and cultural lineage, a difficult fact to ignore or erase?

It is the obsessive concern with this question that drives the plot of Nicole Mones's ambitious debut novel, Lost in Translation. At the center of the novel is protagonist Alice Mannegan, who has lived for many years in self-imposed exile in the People's Republic of China. Mannegan has left behind a complicated family entanglement in the States: her widowed father is a Congressman widely known for his stubborn stand on segregation. Mannegan is haunted not only by her father's racism but by a particular incident a murderous race riot for which she feels responsible. At 36, Mones's heroine, a translator who lives in the hazy no man's land between languages, is a lost soul whose existential longing for resolution to her problems is manifested in a desperate desire to merge with things Chinese.

She tries to erase her own identity through sexual hunger, prowling Beijing discotheques in search of men, using an assumed name Yulian, or Fragrant Lotus and attempting to ritually adopt a dead Chinese woman as her ancestor.

But Mannegan's personal history is largely the back-story of the novel. In the foreground, she is an interpreter for a team of American and Chinese scientists who travel to China's desert Northwest, home of Mao's infamous prison labor camps and, more symbolically, the edge of the Chinese genetic world. The team believes they will find the bones of Sinanthropus, or Peking Man, which have been missing since World War II.

Much is at stake here. The rediscovery of the bones last in the possession of a Jesuit priest will provide both Western and Asian scholars with evidence that will reinforce their notions of evolution and race. For the Chinese in particular, the find could rule out the distasteful possibility that [they] might be descended from Africans. For Mannegan, the location of the bones may help her to understand, at last, her own place in some larger mosaic. In the end, Lost in Translation, which is authoritative in its description of modern China (Mones is an old China hand) is in equal parts a detective story and romance. On the search for Peking Man, Mannegan becomes involved with a Chinese homo erectus (!) expert who tries to teach her that despite her desire to shed her own origins and become Chinese, in the words of a Chinese proverb, you can move mountains and alter the course of rivers more easily that you can change a person's nature.

Julie Checkoway is the author of Little Sister: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia.

Once, every half century, at longest, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of Seven Gables, a family should be merged into the great obscure mass of humanity and forget all about its ancestors. A hopeful, democratic, and particularly American suggestion, but isn't ancestry, one's place in a personal, familial, and cultural lineage, a difficult fact to ignore or erase?

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