Like Mark at RSB, I really did “wonder if anyone will bother to concern themselves” with Norman Mailer’s new book. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover Coetzee’s long review of the book in the February 15 New York Review of Books. Well, I thought, Mailer’s book is about Hitler, and Coetzee has a well established interest in the subject of evil in our world, so why not. Then I read the last line here:
The much-maligned domestic tyrant Alois comes across sympathetically as a canny customs officer, a husband proud of his virility despite advancing years, a devoted but luckless amateur beekeeper, a man of little school-learning anxiously climbing the social ladder. The scenes in which Alois struggles not to make a fool of himself during gatherings with fellow small-town notables are worthy of the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pécuchet.
Granted, B&P is not considered Flaubert’s greatest novel, but still I was surprised to see any Mailer work, in whole or in part, described as “worthy of Flaubert.”
Let Mailer alone – there are other surprises in Coetzee’s piece too. Check out the last line here:
All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks.
Normally a society can tolerate, even look benignly upon, a layer of autodidacts and cranks on the fringes of its intellectual institutions.
This is new to me: ”autodidact” as a term of derogation. But I think there’s something missing. Editorial error, no doubt. Surely the line originally read, “autodidacts, cranks, and artists.”