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Critic at large


A FEW years ago, I had lunch with Bill Buford, the genial fiction editor of the New Yorker. I'd kept in touch with him since his Granta days, when he transformed a campus rag into a seriously cool, seriously literary magazine that punched way above its weight, and I'd been thrilled when he decided to go back to his native country and take up the challenge of editing the New Yorker's fiction. He'd begun to have an effect all right, shorter, sprightlier, riskier stories had begun to replace the slightly stodgy fiction the magazine seemed to favour, but I wasn't lunching with him to discuss the inroads he'd made into tradition at the New Yorker. What we'd met to discuss was the line-up of Indian writers to feature in a special issue the magazine was publishing to coincide with India's 50th anniversary celebrations. In true New Yorker tradition, the magazine was casting its nets far and wide, asking for suggestions from dozens of people, and commissioning many more writers than could be accommodated in the special issue. But it was all good fun, and terrific for raising the profile of Indian writers in the U.S..

In the middle of lunch, Bill suddenly said, "Wouldn't it be fun if we could get Anthony Lane across to Bombay to sit through a Hindi movie and then write about it." In the event, that was one of the ideas that never worked out, but I was reminded about our conversation when I came across a clunky book by Anthony Lane entitled Nobody's Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker (Knopf). It was a book I picked up without a moment's hesitation because I've been a fan of Lane for a long time, relishing his movie reviews (and occasional book review) for the magazine. I spent last weekend leafing through the book, thoroughly engrossed, but on Monday morning as I began to write about it, I could only ask myself why anyone would spend $35 to pick up an anthology of movie reviews. Make no mistake. These are wonderful "fizzy reviews", to echo John Updike who says: "Anthony Lane must be the fizziest critic around. Each paragraph tickles the nose like a flute of champagne". But, like champagne, his reviews work best when they are fresh on the pages of the magazine. Read a few years later, between the covers of a book, and they were, more often than not, flat.

The author has a stab at justifying the book's existence. He writes in his introduction, "You are holding a hunk of old journalism. The prospect is not immediately appealing. Who, like Oliver Twist, will have either the nerve or appetite to ask for more? Yet Oliver did want more; he knew what would land in his plate, if the beadle consented to his request, but he asked anyway. Even gruel has its uses, and so, more alarmingly, does a half-forgotten film review. There is surprising nourishment to be had from revisiting earlier judgments, if only for the pleasure of reversing them, wondering what curious conditions led one to cast them in the first place, or serving them up with relish to those who are constitutionally doomed to disagree". Well, you, if you're Anthony Lane I guess this argument would serve as well as any but would you as a reader really want to know, at some considerable expense, what Lane thought of "Con Air" many years after it was first screened? So much more convenient to look it up in Leonard Maltin's Video Guide or some such than to go to the trouble of ploughing through the review. Perhaps, but for Anthony Lane's fans (and I'm sure these are thick on the ground) there is a lot of pleasure to be had from revisiting these reviews, for the sheer excellence of the author's prose style and witticisms. And as a bonus there are a few literary/review essays on writers like Nabokov, Sebald and Evelyn Waugh. As I said I had a very good time, but I think it's fair to say this is a book for hardcore Anthony Lane fans. For the rest of us, let's hope he'll actually get down to writing an original book.

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