Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Simon says

John Simon, who has written engagingly about theater, film, literature, and music for decades, now has his own blog: Uncensored John Simon.

Simon's criticism — especially of theater — has frequently generated strong reactions, pro and con. He is extremely knowledgeable about his subjects, writes a stylish and often witty prose, and tends to be conservative (in his tastes; I don't know anything about his politics). Simon's critical judgments can be severe — if he was censored by his publishers, it doesn't show — and no other modern critic has punctured inflated reputations and taken down avant-garde pretension with as much gusto.

The hard rap on John Simon is that he is excessively nasty as a reviewer, treating work that doesn't satisfy him as virtually a crime. He has also set some teeth on edge by including in his denunciations put-downs of an actor's appearance. Not costumes or make-up, but bodies and features. He once wrote of Shelley Winters playing a role after she'd gained a lot of weight — I'm quoting from memory, but I think this is pretty close — "she is a disaster, or perhaps considering her girth, it would be more correct to call her a disaster area."

He is pretty old now, in his mid-80s. We will see on his blog if he has mellowed (I suspect not). His erudition will still be in evidence, as will his mastery of language. (Simon was raised in Belgrade and came to the United States when he was 15. Like the Pole Joseph Conrad, he learned to write elegantly in an acquired language.)

Here he is, musing in his blog on New Year's Day the consolations of a long life:
… First there is work.  There is this blog with which to reach out to the others who can be talked to, befriended, and lose some of their otherness.  …

Then there are books, books that can be read or reread and offer consolation. When I was very young, I thrilled to Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer; an autographed copy sits on my shelf.  The print is devilishly fine, but I have my trusty glasses.  It is a novel about young people growing up—but perhaps old people, too, can still do some growing up. …

Essays are always good; they challenge the mind into thinking rather than complaining. …

And there is music—my huge collection of classical CDs.  How about a Samuel Barber concerto, to set me dreaming?  Or some Janacek?  His string quartets?  Or an opera?  There is wonderful tamed wildness in his music that can break out into colorful indignation or subside into jocular intimacy in a trice.  Or for amusement, but amusement tinged with exquisite sentimentality, a little Poulenc?  The ravishing Sextet, or a ballet, or any of the sonatas? …

Finally there is bed, sleep and dreams.  This is where you can truly surprise yourself if you can transport your dream scenarios into your waking memory.  The other night I had a long dream that, if I could have fully captured it and written it down, would have—damn it—made a terrific short story.  But forgetting also has its rewards: dreams are like a collection of stories in a book especially written for you, and you want to get on to the next one.  I say “for you” rather than “by you” because they are written by another self astonishingly lodged inside you.  Close as a twin yet different.  
John Simon over the years has taught me to appreciate things that otherwise might have been lost on me and probably made me a better reviewer when I was in that line. At times I, like many others, found him too negative or cruel. Still, I appreciate that he is passionate about the humanities, and much rarer, he understands what he is passionate about and why. He is a warrior on behalf of Western culture, and takes slovenly thought, tastelessness, and lack of ability in those who call themselves artists very personally. If he is freer than before to speak his mind, he's earned it.



zazie said...

Many thanks for the link ; this is a pleasant blog indeed! And I do enjoy the language, as well as the thoughts. I wish I could hear him too.
After those many years in America, does he still feel "European", I wonder.

Dennis Mangan said...

I believe that Simon's politics are as conservative as his taste. Didn't he used to write for National Review?

Rick Darby said...


I don't know if he still feels European, but John Simon knows European culture far better than most Americans do.


Yes, he did write for National Review, and also for The New Criterion. But he was the theater critic for the politically left New York magazine until they shopped him after 30 years.

It's to his credit that, as far as I know, Simon has kept his personal politics separate from his writing on the arts. That's rare these days.

Sheila said...

Back in 1980, on the flight over to England to begin my stint as a Fulbright Scholar, I read Simon's "Paradigms Lost." Brilliant and biting attack on the mangling of the English language by the dastardly, the diversified, and the merely dumb. I didn't know he was still around! Highly recommend his old book, however.

dan g. said...

What a pleasant surprise to read an appreciation of Simon, one of my unsung heroes. Also a pleasant surprise to see that the man is still alive and active. (Stanley Kauffmann, another venerable old critic - one for whom Simon has expressed admiration, though I often find him off-base - is also still reviewing movies for The New Republic.)