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Pickle Me This

March 3, 2007

Full Disclosure?

I don’t really see how one can attack a collection of letters, except on two terms: the first, maybe you don’t like reading letters; the second, the letters are boring. As my entries of late have made clear, Decca: The Collected Letters of Jessica Mitford was hardly boring. This book was absolutely enthralling, and Mitford’s letters found their way into my dreams. Epistolary dreams! You can’t fathom it. This was such an absorbing book, a twentieth century overview, and a record of one absolutely fascinating life. Jessica Mitford was a complex, exasperating, difficult woman, but she was brilliant, funny and sharp, and I have never before gained such an intimate understanding of character from a book as I did with this one.

And so, when one takes a collection of letters that are decidedly not boring, the plan of attack must be through character. Fine, I suppose. Though that seems to me a strange approach for a book review, and probably inappropriate. And no doubt, Jessica Mitford herself would not disagree with Daphne Merkin’s review in Slate that she was neglectful mother, that “vitriolic archness was her first and last defense”, or that empathy was not always her forte. Etc. etc. (though I think this reviewer simplifies her character considerably– eg. why she “airbrushes” her deceased son from her memoir, because she could not bear to relive his death through writing about it).

What is inexcusable, however is for a reviewer to write such a review, with its snide attacks, and not mention that she herself is rubbished in the book, perhaps underlining her perspective? Decca, page 706: Sez Decca: “[Did you read the] New Yorker women’s issue? Some good, some awful. One of the worst was by someone called Daphne Merkin, v. long and all about how she craves to be whipped (she’s a masochist) with nary a joke in it. Marina looked up “Merkin” in the OED– says it means “a pub*c wig”.

So perhaps Ms. Merkin had a bone to pick, but shouldn’t she have been a bit more honest about picking it?

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