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A Review of: Vermeer in Bosnia
by Gordon Phinn

Readers will arrive at this book through one of three routes: Staunch New Yorker supporters will be gratified that yet another of the magazine's contributors now has a plump compendium of his wit, travels and wisdom available for those long cool retroviews which the winter months alone can afford. Serious Weschler wonks, those who long ago collared his talent for their collections, relishing in such titles as Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Calamities of Exile and that Pulitzer prize nominee Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, can beam with pride as they place Vermeer In Bosnia beside their bedside faves. The rest of us, that is those of us who are not already hiding under the covers, can make the usual sniffy busy-with-Proust noises and quietly hitch our wagon to his rising star before it finally settles in that firmament of the fastidious.
As for my sorry self, I can easily claim him as an Anthony Lane wannabe, whose style and syntax, while as praiseworthy as any who can leap those New Yorker hurdles with more than a modicum of grace, consistently falls short of the master's exacting standards. Doubters may examine any page of Lane's recently paperbacked, Nobody's Perfect, at leisurely random. A preening snort from a dismissive acolyte this may be, but in the face of the fulsome jacket praise of such trendoids as David Byrne, Geoff Dyer, and excuse me, Dave bloody Eggers, it seems somehow wholesomely appropriate. The boy's good, but he's not that good.
Any journalist worth his salt can go anywhere and write about anything, and on that count Weshler never lets the side down. From base camp of New York, through the Hague, Warsaw, Belgrade and back to L.A., he wanders, poised reflection at the ready. I say "wanders" as only adroit editorship has crafted such a well plotted travelogue from twenty odd years of magasine assignments. A Polish segment sees perhaps the most in-depth profile of bad boy filmmaker Roman Polanski ever attempted. Clocking in at just under seventy pages, it presents the protagonist as an Achilles heeled hero muddling through the dark wood of his life with a pocketful of candles and no matches. Shakespeare meets the novella on a comfortable budget.
Also included is a fascinating portrait of the then unknown in the West, Polish fence-hopping political exile-turned-oligarchy-stooge-turned-satirist, Jerzy Urban. If you previously thought Poles and Catholics predictable and boring, read this. Definitely not for the pious of any persuasion.
Speaking of the Bard, there's an intriguing piece on New York thesps Douglas Hughes and Andre Braugher, whose then current production of Henry V, aimed to reassert textual clarity over the myth-making revisionism of the past. Apparently we just didn't whack the French at Agincourt, we massacred defenceless p.o.w.'s behind the lines, and those empire-burdened Brits are just too proud to admit it. Richard Branaugh please take note. Weschler conjures up the contemporaneous massacre of eight thousand Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica as slaughter for thought: General Mladic equals Henry V. Well, shoot, somebody's gotta be the bad guy, right? Where else are we gonna get history from? No villains, no victims, no drama: let's all go back to heaven and start again.
And by the way, did you know that demonstrating students in Belgrade, during that long face-off with the Milosevic gang (which eventually resulted in something resembling a fair election and the ouster of the junta), instructed grim-faced cops in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics? First I'd heard. Must we read the news every hour instead of every other day? A daunting task indeed.
And speaking of daunting tasks, take the case of distinguished Italian jurist Antonio Cassese, then serving as the President of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, whose daily intake of sadism, bestiality and hatred would encourage even angels to work shifts. When Cassese's coping mechanism turns out to be lunchhours with the Vermeers in the Mauritshuis. Weschler launches into the book's loveliest sustained meditation on the outrageous insults the spirit must surmount in this vale of tears and woe. Combining history, theology, art criticism, epic poetry and memoir, he weaves a compelling peaen to the proposition that we, as individuals cornered by chaos, must find "peace within ourselves and then breathe it out." With such deft weaving does Weschler win our hearts.
The book as a whole is filled with such delights. The author prunes his thoughts with guile and precision, pacing his narratives with almost perfect quotes. Here are two or three: "God, he was a nuisance," Andrzej Wajda recalls of Polanski as a young actor. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman on Harpur College: "Binghampton was one of the early capitals of psychedelics, and the drug culture definitely accelerated my decomposition beyond any containable point." On Jerzy Urban: "Oh, he's always good for a laugh."
Weschler's world is equal parts gruesome, contemptible, garrulous and sublime, as all good worlds should be. He is almost an artist, but not quite. As he remarks in his preface, "Why I Can't Write Fiction", for him "the world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences," and "the web of all those interrelationships is already dense to the point of saturation." He finds no room for fiction. Such is the plight of the note-taker as opposed to that of the inventor. Of course, society reserves its lustiest applause for inventors. That, I daresay, Weschler will have to live with.
Of caveats, there are but few: I would warn against perhaps the worst case of daddy's little girl vanity I've yet witnessed. After a triumphant portrait of his composer grandfather Ernst Toch, Weschler feels emboldened to compare his twelve-year-old's paragraph with a three volume set of Kant, suggesting that the philosopher could have benefitted from the girl's pithiness. One is reminded of the many fathers whose devotion is quickly shattered by those rebel yells drenched in hormones, yells that the world will cure with its sadly draconian measures.

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