Waiting for the Barbarians:
Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture
by Daniel Mendelsohn
$24.95 List Price
A compelling mixed review is a devilishly difficult thing to write. Raves and pans have obvious, inherent drama, as they get to trumpet great successes or bemoan deplorable failures. But a mixed review must share the less exciting news that something is good, not great—or that, while the work in question mostly misses the target, it is not entirely without interest. Many mixed reviews thus read like so much wishy-washy indecision.
But the most compelling reviews in Daniel Mendelsohn’s very good new collection of them, Waiting for the Barbarians, are decidedly mixed. Regular readers of the New Yorker, the New Republic, and, especially, the New York Review of Books know that Mendelsohn is a formidably learned writer, a classicist who has written a scholarly study of Euripides, translated C. P. Cavafy, and published memoiristic books about the Holocaust and gay life in America, and also knows French. They may have noticed, too, that Mendelsohn always does his homework. Reviewing Richard Howard’s 1999 translation of The Charterhouse of Parma for the New York Times Book Review, for instance, Mendelsohn speaks knowledgeably of translations from 1901, 1925, 1958, and 1997.
Even more important, Mendelsohn brings to his subjects both an attentive eye and a sympathetic mind. One never finishes one of Mendelsohn’s reviews feeling like he had it in for, say, Jonathan Franzen, or Anne Carson, or Matthew Weiner—to cite three writers who get dinged harder than most in the new collection. He expresses considerable admiration for Franzen and Carson—though not so much for Weiner, the