Short takes

By Barbara Fisher
January 4, 2009
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BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age
By D. J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 361 pp., illustrated, $27

The "Bright Young People" flourished in the 1920s and are remembered for their extravagance, whimsicality, frivolity, and calculated excess. While many of them frittered away much of their time and talent, many others produced fine novels, essays, paintings, design.

D. J. Taylor, who had access to the papers of the aristocratic Ponsonby family, plots the sad progress of the shallow and silly Elizabeth Ponsonby, a party girl who specialized in drink and scandal, causing her decent parents decades of worry before dying of alcoholism at the age of 40. At the other end of the spectrum were the middle-class meritocrats Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, strivers who chronicled the dazzling parties and recorded the catchphrases of the period. Stephen Tennant, an "invert" who sported marcelled hair, gold earrings, and sailor costumes and who produced nothing, partied with Anthony Powell, who wrote the period's great saga "A Dance to the Music of Time." The Mitford sisters with their baby talk and fascist sympathies flit in and out of the narrative, along with Guinnesses and Sitwells. Taylor seems to vacillate between sympathizing with the BYPs as decadent, debauched, and disappointed and condemning them as callous, unengaged, and amoral. His entertaining and incisive group portrait supports both of these interpretations and several more.

By Amélie Nothomb
Translated, from the French, by Alison Anderson
Europa, 152 pp., paperback, $15

Amélie Nothomb concludes her defiantly original romance by describing it as "infinitely more beautiful and noble than some silly love story." And she is correct that the affair between the 21-year-old Belgian Am??lie and her 20-year-old Japanese lover, Rinri, is unusual.

On her return to Japan, where she spent her first five years, Am??lie supports herself by teaching French. Her only pupil, a wealthy young man dissatisfied with their business relationship, subtly expands it from attraction to affection and attachment. Am??lie, an eccentric young woman with a bemused and somewhat detached view of herself, tries to resist his polite intrusions. She is a curious and careful observer of Japanese manners, courtesy, and tact, and this relationship tests her ability to translate from one culture to another and to transform close observation into appropriate action. Suspicious that Rinri is engaged in some nefarious activities when he disappears on a mysteriously extended shopping trip, she learns that he really does need two hours to choose three pieces of gingerroot. Similarly, she learns to freeze in strange positions so that Rinri can feast on her beauty, but she cannot teach herself to take him seriously as he sighs "something desperate about the fleeting nature of whiteness." She finds that she is unable to reject Rinri's marriage proposal and engagement ring, and becomes his fianc??e with no intention of becoming his wife. It is more polite to run away than refuse. While the plot and its tender ending are moving, it is Am??lie's amused appreciation of Japanese culture that captures and holds a reader's attention.

By Olivier Ameisen, with Hilary Hinzmann
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 332 pp., $25

This is not your usual memoir of addiction, degradation, and redemption. Olivier Ameisen begins typically enough, finding himself alone in a taxi, bleeding, bruised, and confused. Sensibly, he takes himself to the emergency room of New York Hospital, where he is on staff as a cardiologist. This is the first of many hospital visits for alcohol-related injuries and illnesses: broken bones (three ribs, shoulder, wrist), blackouts, lethal blood-alcohol levels, massive seizures, and potentially incurable cirrhosis. While doctors treat these problems, no one addresses the underlying overwhelming anxiety and panic that lead Ameisen to drink.

In his efforts to stop drinking, Ameisen tries everything - psychiatrists, tranquilizers, Alcoholics Anonymous, fancy spas, strict rehab. Nothing works for long. From his own experience and from listening to others at AA and in rehab, he concludes that there must be "shared biological mechanisms underlying all addictions and compulsions, and that a medical treatment for addiction must be possible." Here's the new piece. Ameisen claims to have discovered the medical treatment that works - baclofen, a drug now on the market as an approved muscle relaxant. In high doses, it has cured Ameisen and, he claims, could cure many others. He may or may not have found a cure, but he has certainly described the disease. His repeated and unsuccessful efforts to control his obsessive thoughts and addictive cravings are heartbreaking. The feeling of well-being produced only and always by alcohol is similarly heartbreaking.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age By D. J. Taylor

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 361 pp., illustrated, $27

TOKYO FIANCÉE By Amélie Nothomb

Translated, from the French,

by Alison Anderson

Europa, 152 pp., paperback, $15


with Hilary Hinzmann

Farrar, Straus & Giroux,

332 pp., $25

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