Chef’s Salad

by Julia M. Klein
Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother
By Simon Schama
Ecco, 432 pages, $27.99
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To listen to Simon Schama, or to read him, is to be exposed to gushing torrents of prose, prodigious and ecumenical scholarship, and the avidity of an enthusiast. Schama is University Professor and the author of at least 15 books, treating topics as various as Rembrandt, the transatlantic slave trade, and the French Revolution. As an award-winning writer-presenter of television documentaries, he has ranged across art, literature, and history.

In Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother, Schama reveals himself as a dedicated foodie, a film buff, a critical observer of American politics, and a connoisseur of what he calls “gothic language.” Arranged by topic and including essays, reviews, reportage, lectures, and theater program notes, the book serves as a fitting aperitif to his more substantial works.

My own first encounter with Schama was a happy accident. I had driven to the Free Library of Philadelphia this April to hear the filmmaker John Sayles, but when I waltzed into the auditorium, just as the ticket takers had dispersed, Schama was being introduced — and I realized I had mixed up the dates.

My disappointment abated almost immediately. Reading from Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, Schama plunged into the lushly descriptive “Cool as Ice,” from Vogue, evoking in besotted language what he called “the delirium of ice cream.” He extolled the art of the essay and such practitioners as George Orwell, disdainfully dismissing the less-studied utterances of today’s bloggers. And he expressed his partiality for “extreme American writing,” citing as favorites Melville, Fitzgerald, Faulkner (of course), early Mailer (The Naked and the Dead), Whitman, Lowell, Frost, and Joseph Heller, who had been a friend. Overall, it was a pyrotechnical performance — learned, forthright, intentionally excessive.

So by the time I picked up the new book, I was not entirely an innocent. The intense verbal energy, fondness for digression, and breathtaking syntactical feats that characterize a Schama talk all mirror his prose. Here, for instance, is full-on Schama in “Virtual Annihilation: Anti-Semitism on the Web,” describing the failure of 19th-century culture to banish the superstitions of the past:

From the outset, of course, the machinery of sensationalist stupefaction — the dioramas, and panoramas, the Eidophusikon — was the natural handmaid of the sublime and the terrible. As Victorian Britain became more colonised by industry, so its public became greedier for spectacles of disaster, brought to them as visceral entertainment: the simulacra of Vesuvian eruptions; the collapse of the Tay Bridge; an avalanche in the Simplon. More ominously, the paradox of a modernist technology co-opted to attack modernism became, in the hands of its most adroit practitioners, no longer so paradoxical.

The vocabulary is difficult, the references arcane, the phrasing musical, the argument complex. It may take more than a single reading to parse it. From this passage, Schama moves, in brilliant spurts, to D. W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, and, finally, the topic at hand: the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda on the Web.

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