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PROUST AMONG THE STARS; By Malcolm Bowie; Columbia University Press: 352 pp., $28

The Best Books of 1999 | THE BEST NONFICTION OF 1999

December 05, 1999

Among the many brilliant developments in Malcolm Bowie's book on Marcel Proust, the most striking may be the one that concerns the novelist's moral imagination. It leads to an unexpected redefinition of virtue. Bowie's very personal voice, his ability to be tersely abstract while remaining closely bound to the sensuous rhythms of the narrative, suffices to renew one's faith in the value of literary criticism. He can say more in three sentences than many a scholar in a belabored chapter. His erudition is graceful, and his references, including classical sources, are not presented to flaunt his knowledge but to bring the reader into more meaningful contact with the text under discussion. This is criticism motivated by intellectual joy, creatively sustained by felicities of expression. Whether Bowie writes of the narrator's many voices, his talents as mimic or magpie, the teasing and caressing syntax of the Proustian sentence or the sexual and social labyrinth of exacerbated desires, there is aphoristic pleasure to be derived from almost every page of this book.

STELLA ADLER ON IBSEN, STRINDBERG AND CHEKHOV; Edited by Barry Paris; Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $27.50

In his tribute to Elia Kazan at the 70th annual Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese remarked that Kazan introduced a new style of acting into American movies. Clips from "A Streetcar Named Desire," "East of Eden," "On the Waterfront," "Wild River" and "Splendor in the Grass" showed this style in action, and it doesn't lessen Kazan's brilliance as a director to point out that the style couldn't have existed without Stella Adler. "Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov" is edited with great skill by Barry Paris, who extracted the essence of Adler from 3,000 pages of transcripts of her lectures to young actors at the drama school she founded in 1949. The book is not for actors only but for anyone interested in theater. No critic has written or talked about theater, including as these playwrights, with more insight and passion.

THE INFORMATION AGE; Economy, Society and Culture; Volumes I-III; By Manuel Castells; Blackwell: 1,460 pp., $27.95 each vol.

The three volumes of "The Information Age," taken together, are a truly stunning achievement. Manuel Castells comes as close to being our owl of Minerva (Hegel's canny philosophical spectator who "takes flight only at dusk") as we are likely to have--a scholar who, with remarkable mastery, has brought his experience over a lifetime to bear on astonishingly diversified data sets, pulling them together into a compelling account of the complex relationship between the progressive and reactionary, the globalizing and particularizing forces that are transforming our perplexing world. From the time of the Enlightenment, a cunning dialectic of irony has made emancipation through technology the condition for new, invisible forms of servitude. Castells has captured the dialectic brilliantly and restored to us the possibility of human liberation--through, but also in spite of, our technological progress. His project is thus imbued with what for our times is a rare nobility animated by a spirit that refuses to be drowned by its own creations and governed by a mind that would persuade us that reason can still temper and contain (if not fully master) its own infinite informational fragments and its infernal globalizing systems.

THE GREAT DISRUPTION; Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order; By Francis Fukuyama; The Free Press: 354 pp., $26

Tthe heart of this book, its contribution to the cultural debate, is informed by a rich body of important scholarship that is virtually unknown among not only East Coast intellectuals but also Wired-style exponents of the "New Economy." Drawing on serious empirical and theoretical work from fields ranging from evolutionary game theory to animal behavior, Francis Fukuyama provides a lucid course in what he rightly argues is "one of the most important intellectual developments of the late twentieth century": "the systematic study of how order, and thus social capital, can emerge in a spontaneous and decentralized fashion." "The Great Disruption" is an important and ambitious work. It promises to communicate unconventional ideas to political intellectuals bound by convention and thus to inject much-needed vitality and realism into stale and stylized debates. In a nonthreatening and serious way, Fukuyama is making another bold claim: that the trial-and-error processes of a free society lead not to decay but to discovery, not to disorder but to new and ever-evolving forms of order.

ODD MAN IN; Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture; By Suzanne Muchnic; University of California Press: 314 pp., $29.95

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