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March 09, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern (Harvard: $8.95). For the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th Century, the most dangerous enemies were not other political forces, but clocks, telephones and electric lights. These inventions threatened the comfortable residence of leaders in Hapsburg Palace, Stephen Kern believes, because they brought new meaning to space and time. As the growth of industry changed concepts of time, continuity from the past was threatened; as perceptions of space changed, the empire became so heterogeneous that many feared it would disintegrate.

Revolutions carried out in the name of time and space have erupted more often in culture than in politics, however, and so most of this book focuses on the arts. In Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," for instance, the narrator gains self-awareness by opting for the time frame of dreams and memories rather than wearing or watching authoritarian, "superficially marked dials."

The Periodic Table, Primo Levi; Raymond Rosenthal, translator (Schocken: $6.95). A chemist, Primo Levi was sentenced to Auschwitz after fighting with the Partisans in Italy. While he survived the experience, only his writing helped him escape from it. This critically acclaimed 1975 work, first translated into English in 1984, is Levi's third autobiography. It is the first, however, to relate his meditations on war and human nature to his exploration of the natural world as a chemist. Nature, in this book, offers order, reflects human qualities and, finally, enters Levi's consciousness: In "Carbon," the book's last chapter, we follow an atom as it flies around the world, through a flower and into a nerve cell in Levi's brain: "The atom is in my writing; it guides this hand of mine to impress upon the paper this dot, here, this one."

Earwitness and The Human Province, Elias Canetti (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $6.95 and $9.95). After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, Elias Canetti became known in America for writing stories about death and the Nazi regime he fled. For Canetti, however, destruction didn't end with World War II. In "Earwitness," Canetti offers 50 stories, each chronicling a type of person who carries the seeds of destruction in an indiscriminate, often prejudicial attitude. In many of the stories, Canetti's criticism is initially understated: The "Earwitness comes, halts, huddles unnoticed in a corner, peers into a book or a display, hears whatever is to be heard, and moves away untouched and absent." Eventually, however, Canetti tells us how dangerous his characters really are: Those fond of the "Earwitness," Canetti writes, "have no inkling that they are speaking with the executioner himself." All of those studied by Canetti are unaware of their environment in some way, from "the Submitter," society's victim, to "the Fun-Runner," who "has no prejudices. He finds that people are alike everywhere, for they always want to buy something."

"The Human Province," a diary that Canetti kept while writing "Crowds and Power" from 1942 to 1972, takes a broader but equally cynical view, looking at a society "in which all people sleep standing, in the middle of the street, with nothing disturbing them . . . in which every man is painted and prays to his picture." Man is constrained, Canetti believes, not by some omnipotent force, but by himself: "The word freedom serves to express an important, perhaps the most important tension," he writes. "People always want to get away , and if the place they want to get to has no name, if it is uncertain and they can't see any borders in it, they call it freedom."

The United States Navy in World War II, edited by S. E. Smith (Morrow: $15.95) is expansive (1,000 pages) and thorough, with more than 100 contributors, 142 photographs and 18 pages of battle maps. The stories, written by naval officers, military experts or journalists, transport readers into the center of the battle, rarely nestling in present-day scholarly perspectives. A chapter titled "The Battle Analyzed," for instance, runs no more than two pages. Reflective depth, however, is made up for by entertaining stories about "Mush the Magnificent's" dauntless leadership ("He was in danger, and he was hot on the trail of the enemy, so he was happy") or about dangerous adventures, such as one naval run through icy polar straits near Murmansk, Russia.

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