8 May 08 | Chad W. Post

It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of the New York Sun “Arts+” section and most of the reviewers who write for it. (Especially Ben Lytal, who, in my opinion, has the sweetest gig in all book reviewing.) Since the Sun has yet to penetrate the Rochester market, we usually resort to reading this online. As I was leaving my hotel yesterday, a businessman left behind his copy, giving me a chance to experience in print just how fantastic this section is.

The lead review yesterday was Adam Kirsch’s piece on Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy. I’m a huge fan of McCarthy’s Remainder and have been interested in reading this new book for a while.

(Besides, since the source text for this book—The Adventures of Tintin—is a translation, I love it unequivocally, not because it’s good or interesting, but solely because it came from another culture and therefore will prevent war.)

One of the things that appeals to me about this review is how intelligent and unapologetic it is discussing McCarthy’s section on Barthes, basing the whole review on Guy Debord’s notion of “detournement,” and, most importantly, not proclaiming this book to be either good or bad, but something more complicated.

The word belongs in quotation marks because these are not the kind of interpretive claims that can be judged true or false. Nor, however, are they the kind of licensed speculation that enriches our experience of a text, even while remaining undecidable — as, for instance, with Edmund Wilson’s claim that the ghosts in James’s “The Turn of the Screw” are just projections of the nurse’s repressed sexuality. Mr. McCarthy’s analyses are, rather, arabesques, sketched over the surface of Hergé’s cartoon — or, if you like, graffiti meant to obscure and deface it.

I am not entirely sure that Mr. McCarthy himself does not want us to see them in the second sense. After all, as he writes, Hergé’s work “betrays in its massive self-reflexiveness a desire to be taken seriously, to be seen to be considering the highly conceptual issues in contemporary art with which its author is clearly au fait, alongside a desire to mock the highness of the establishment that never accepted him as highbrow, to expose its pretentiousness, its fraudulence.” If Mr. McCarthy is out to vindicate Hergé, then Tintin and the Secret of Literature might best be read in this double spirit, as a brilliant and audacious hoax.

But what’s really interesting is that right beneath this review is a piece by translator Anthea Bell (a translator! writing a review!) on Asterix.

In French, Tintin easily predates Asterix; in English by only about 10 years, the time it took for an English-language publisher to venture on a translation of the first pun-packed, wisecracking adventure of the proto-French Gauls as they defy Julius Caesar and his conquering legions, maintaining a provincial but proud Gallic outpost in what is now northwest France. The series was thought just too French to be transplanted. But quintessentially French as it is, the appeal of Asterixian humor has turned out to be pan-European.

There’s no current Asterix book to tie this to, and aside from having translated Asterix a few years ago, no necessary reason that Anthea Bell would be writing about it in the daily newspaper. And in my opinion, that’s fantastic.

And beyond the book reviews, the “sports section”—which is also part of “Arts+”—is less gossipy and more thoughtful than most. (In particular, the breakdown of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is very well-done.)

I have my doubts about the rest of the paper, but there are only a handful of arts sections in the world that can compete with this one.

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