If you are inclined to look at the current political scene with Jobian despair, you have good cause. If you are inclined to view it with the nonchalance of an Alfred E. Neuman, at least you have good precedent. Alfred E. who? Well, perhaps you need to be of a certain age (which may compound your political angst), but Alfred E. Neuman has been the genius loci, the guiding spirit, of Mad Magazine since its founding—gulp—60 years ago. Harvey Kurtzman, its founding editor, did not last long in his role as leader, but his found mascot did. He was no sui generis exemplar of American insouciance, though. Alfred, as Sam Sweet writes in the Paris Review blog, has a long and tangled history that stretches practically back to Huck Finn.
To which we say: Potrzebie. But if you tend toward that darker view of things, it may be of interest to know that a copy of Mein Kampf housed in Adolf Hitler’s own study in Munich is up for auction, expected to fetch somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000. The book was signed not by Der Führer but instead by nine American officers who found it there. Why they thought it proper to do so is a question for history. And were there other annotations? The author and owner, we know from Timothy Rybeck’s excellent book Hitler’s Private Library, was in the habit of scratching notes in his books. Perhaps a reader will find in the margins there some revealing bit of memorandum: “Invade Russia in winter? Maybe not such a good idea.”
Andrei Codrescu, the essayist, poet, and erstwhile NPR commentator, once said to me with some amazement that everyone he knew was reading Anna Karenina. And why not? Writing in Commonweal, Richard Cohen examines its reputation as the best novel in Russian literature, and perhaps in literature, period. (William Faulkner, who was no slouch, thought so, anyway.) The team-cum-literary industry of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translated it in 2001, but Cohen deems their version inadequate. Another translation has come along since, and at least one another is rumored to be on the way, so that readers have plenty of choices. Meanwhile, David Remnick’s “The Translation Wars,” published in The New Yorker 10 years ago, remains a useful guide to some of the controversies.
If Tolstoy published Anna Karenina today, would readers find it suitable beach reading? And would it win any major awards? The Man Booker International Prize might be one of the likeliest venues for such acknowledgment, for it has proven a barometer of both good taste and good judgment. This year is no different: Its 13 longlist candidates include several books we admired, including Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water, Elena Ferrante’s Story of the Lost Child, and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, the last of which Kirkus named one of the best books of 2015.
Speaking of the Booker Prize legacy, we note the passing of the novelist Anita Brookner, who died on March 10. As The Guardian observes in its obituary, she was the first female to hold the Slade chair of art history at Cambridge University, but she was better known for writing densely plotted, expertly observed stories that she thought reminiscent of Zola, Sand, and Flaubert. One of them, the aptly titled Hotel du Lac, which we praised as a “delicate, provocative pleasure,” won the Booker Prize in 1984, surprising book people and bookmakers alike. Brookner was 87.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.