Short Takes

Email|Print| Text size + By Amanda Heller
February 10, 2008

On Eloquence
By Denis Donoghue
Yale University, 199 pp., $27.50

The distinguished literary critic Denis Donoghue takes issue with the way literature is treated in the university nowadays, which is to say, as fodder for a political-theoretical agenda in which the theorist often grinds the text along with his or her ax. Donoghue prefers a different approach, one so conservative it seems revolutionary: reading a literary work for the pleasure of what it says and how it says it.

Eloquence, in Donoghue's analysis of canonical and not-so-canonical texts, turns out to be one of those tricky concepts about which we can say with confidence only that we know it when we see it, or feel it, or hear it. There is eloquence of gesture, he tells us, and, borrowing from Eliot, eloquence of "incantation." Eloquence is style, but more so. "Eloquent" is not the same as "elegant," which we call a piece of writing when we are impressed but not moved; and not the same as "articulate," which, as a politician recently learned, can be backhanded praise, too easily implying that one expected the opposite.

Via Shakespeare, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, and more, Donoghue sensitively instructs us in eloquence - how it is achieved and how it is remarked, in gesture and incantation, the dancer and the dance.

Home School
By Charles Webb
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 240 pp., $22.95

Forty years have passed since Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson were last seen breathless on the back seat of a bus, staring at a future that suddenly seemed as dense and inscrutable as a new planet. The indelible scene, of course, is from the movie "The Graduate," which consigned Charles Webb, on whose novel it was based, to the bizarre fate of being the unknown author of his most famous work.

In "Home School" he makes an ill-advised attempt to reclaim his intellectual property. Eleven years have gone by, and Benjamin and Elaine have put a continent between themselves and Elaine's mother by settling in suburban New York. When they pull their two precocious sons out of school - less from principle, it seems, than general skittishness - and local officials threaten trouble, Benjamin hatches a plot that makes little sense even on the novel's own terms: He sends for Mrs. Robinson.

Writing a sequel is no way to escape its predecessor's shadow. Benjamin still speaks the strangled, weirdly formal diction that made Dustin Hoffman a star. Elaine still doesn't know her own mind. And Mrs. Robinson is more than ever the voracious spiderwoman of mid-century misogynist fantasy. That bus has long since left the station.

What I Was
By Meg Rosoff
Viking, 209 pp., $23.95

In a poetic epigraph to "What I Was," a man with "no anchor in the present" thinks back with longing to 1962, the year he "discovered love."

The elegiac preface gives way to the fug of adolescent cynicism and defiance as the novel's artfully unnamed 16-year-old narrator is dropped off by his father at St. Oswald's, a boarding school on the English coast, the boy's third school in as many years. "The weight of the nineteenth century settled around my shoulders like a shroud," he recalls, describing not merely the Victorian Gothic setting but his school's - his country's - calcified approach to education and upbringing.

Evading his dreary classes and bullying schoolmates, he wanders the shore one day and meets Finn, a teenager who lives alone and independent of school, family, polite society, all the forces that so oppress the narrator. Reclusive Finn tolerates the youth, who, over the course of a brief, cataclysmic friendship, comes to hero-worship Finn to an extreme he later recognizes as his initiation into unrequited passion. An unexpected but unsubtle plot twist reminds us of the author's roots in young-adult fiction, though her portrayal of adolescent awakening is intimate and thoroughly persuasive.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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