New Yorker editor Remnick (King of the World, 1998, etc.) continues a happy tradition of self-anthologizing, gathering favorite pieces from the past two decades.
If there is a theme in these disparate pieces, it is to be discerned in what Remnick calls his “attempt to see someone up close, if only for a moment in time.” Thus two sterling profiles of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who may have kept himself at an Olympian remove in his gated-compound exile in Vermont, both out of Frostian disdain for his neighbors and of justifiable paranoia, given the hatred the Soviet regime felt for him. Philip Roth, another Remnick subject, keeps himself similarly inaccessible in the New York countryside, mostly so he can get his writing done; by Remnick’s account, the prolific Roth does little else, though “over the years, Roth has let himself be diverted at times from his work.” Don DeLillo won’t admit much diversion at all, unlike Václav Havel, who put a human face on Czechoslovakia’s postcommunist government by, among other things, puttering about in the halls of the presidential palace on a motor scooter. Remnick’s pieces often touch on thorny issues, as with his profile of an American-Russian couple who are shaking up the world of translation of Russian literary classics and his little study of British leader Tony Blair, who muses, just before the Iraq invasion, about getting rid of Robert Mugabe and “the Burmese lot” and concludes that such types should be removed from the stage when possible: “I don’t because I can’t, but when you can you should.” Remnick also profiles boxers, in the closing section on the sweet science, which is seemingly a passion of Remnick’s but a decided step down from the political and writerly topics he’s pursued thus far.
Elegant, interesting, even memorable, certainly more so than most magazine writing.