Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 167)
Nicholas Delbanco 1942-
(Full name Nicholas Franklin Delbanco) English-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, critic, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Delbanco's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 13.
Delbanco is best known for his works of fiction, most notably the Sherbrookes Trilogy, which traces five generations of a prominent New England family. His many novels include the experimental work In the Middle Distance (1971), a part-fictional, part-autobiographical narrative, In the Name of Mercy (1995), a murder mystery focused on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, and What Remains (2000), the story of a German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany to settle in England and the United States. Delbanco's short stories, like his novels, address themes of aging, masculinity, intergenerational family dynamics, the craft of writing, and tensions between the past and the present. His style is characterized by poetic language, multiple character perspectives, and narratives that jump back and forth between distinct time periods. Delbanco's several works of nonfiction range across a variety of subjects, including travel writing, literary biography, and music history.
Delbanco was born on August 27, 1942, in London, England, the son of German Jews who had left Germany before World War II to escape Nazi persecution. When Delbanco was six years old, the family immigrated to the United States, where they settled in Larchmont, New York. Delbanco graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1963 with a major in literature. In 1966 he completed a master's degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Delbanco was twenty-four when his first novel, The Martlet's Tale (1966), was published. In 1970 he married Elena Greenhouse, with whom he has two children. Delbanco has held posts at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He taught creative writing and English literature in the department of language and literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, from 1966 to 1984. From 1984 to 1985 he taught as a professor of English at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1985 Delbanco was hired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he serves as the head of the graduate program in creative writing as well as the Hopwood Awards program. Delbanco was also a staff member at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference from 1984 to 1994. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award in 1973 and 1982, the PEN syndicated fiction award in 1983, 1985, and 1989, and the Michigan Council for the Arts award in 1986.
Some of Delbanco's earliest novels are modern stories based on biblical and classical texts. The Martlet's Tale is a reimagining of the biblical tale of the prodigal son, set in modern Greece. Fathering (1973) is a modern retelling of the Theban trilogy—Sophocles's series of plays about Oedipus and Antigone. In the Middle Distance is an experimental novel combining fiction and autobiography in a self-conscious, multi-layered narrative voice. In the Middle Distance alternates between first-person narration in the form of a journal kept by the protagonist—a fictional author by the name of Nicholas Delbanco—and third-person narration which describes the life of the Delbanco character. The novel intentionally blurs the distinctions between the real-life author Nicholas Delbanco and the fictional character who shares the same name. The plot concerns the writer's attempts to remodel his farmhouse in upstate New York while engaging in self-analysis and struggling with his creative process. Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy—Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980)—follows the history and genealogy of the Sherbrookes, a distinguished family from Vermont. The Sherbrookes Trilogy is written in Delbanco's characteristic poetic prose and examines the tensions between the family's past and present. In the Name of Mercy, set in a hospice care facility in Michigan, explores the topical issue of doctor-assisted suicide within the genre of the murder mystery. Old Scores (1997) describes an affair between a professor and a student on a small Vermont college campus that turns out to have a profound impact on the lives of both characters. The narrative of Old Scores moves back and forth between the time of the affair and the present lives of the characters. What Remains follows three generations of a German-Jewish family who fled Hamburg to escape the Holocaust and settled in England and the United States. The story is told from the multiple perspectives of various members of the family.
The short stories in About My Table, and Other Stories (1983) focus on men in their late thirties grappling with the experience of aging who are torn between marital commitments and their own escapist fantasies. The tales in The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (1990) feature characters who are writers in the process of struggling with their craft and their careers. In the 1980s Delbanco began to publish various works of nonfiction, covering a wide range of topics. Group Portrait (1982) examines a group of famous writers—including Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells—who all lived in the same area of England during the early twentieth century. Delbanco discusses the professional and personal relationships between the writers and the extent of their influence on each other's writing. The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (1985) is based on Delbanco's travels with this well-known musical trio; one member of group is his wife's father. Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (1989) recounts Delbanco's journey with his wife and two daughters through the region of Provence in southern France. Delbanco contrasts his current perspective of the region with his impressions from his previous journeys to the area. The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (2000) includes a collection of fiction and essays on the craft of writing. The title piece is Delbanco's fictional reconstruction of an incident in which a suitcase full of original manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway was lost in a train station. In The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (2001) Delbanco traces the history and restoration process of his father-in-law's antique musical instrument, a rare Stradivarius cello crafted in 1707.
Delbanco's first novel, The Martlet's Tale, earned him early recognition as a promising young novelist. Gregory L. Morris has extolled In the Middle Distance for its complex narrative structure, arguing that, “What Delbanco ultimately pursues in this novel is a triple-layered examination of self and the ability to accurately declare the truths of that examination.” The novels of the Sherbrookes Trilogy have remained Delbanco's most celebrated works of fiction. Critics have complimented the poetic prose and deftly drawn characters in the trilogy and have lauded Delbanco's treatment of the family's intergenerational tensions. His novel In the Name of Mercy has received mixed assessments. Some critics have found the fictional narrative compelling and praised Delbanco for his ability to build suspense. Others have found the novel overly topical in addressing the issue of doctor-assisted suicide and observed that the book fails to adequately clarify the arguments on either side of the debate. Reviewers have been generally enthusiastic about What Remains, applauding Delbanco's skill at crafting the alternating perspectives of the novel's variety of characters. Neil Gordon has admired Delbanco's characterizations in What Remains, remarking that, “In a prose as evocative and clear as any being written in America today, Delbanco draws us into the very thought processes of his characters, showing us the past through their eyes and with the thick reality of their emotions.” Critical response to Delbanco's short story collections has been largely positive, with commentators praising Delbanco's craftsmanship and ability to evoke strong emotion through well-chosen details. Richard Eder has observed that the stories in About My Table are “written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought.” Response to Delbanco's various works of nonfiction, however, has been largely mixed. Reviewers of Group Portrait have faulted Delbanco for failing to provide the reader with new insight or information on the authors included in the study. Despite these criticisms, the work has been commended for expressing a strong sense of affection for its subjects. Additionally, several critics have found Delbanco's accounts of his travels in The Beaux Arts Trio and Running in Place to be tedious and overwritten, offering little in the way of original observations on his subject. On the other hand, The Countess of Stanlein Restored has garnered an enthusiastic response by some reviewers, with Amanda Heller describing the book as “a little gem, a trove of fact, lore, and sensual description evoking two enduring and intertwined traditions—the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.”
The Martlet's Tale (novel) 1966
Grasse, 3/23/66 (novel) 1968
Consider Sappho Burning (novel) 1969
News (novel) 1970
In the Middle Distance (novel) 1971
Fathering (novel) 1973
Small Rain (novel) 1975
*Possession (novel) 1977
*Sherbrookes (novel) 1978
*Stillness (novel) 1980
Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells (criticism) 1982
About My Table, and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (nonfiction) 1985
Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (travel writing) 1989
The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories and Essays on the Narrative [editor; with Laurence Goldstein] (short stories and essays) 1991
In the Name of Mercy (novel) 1995
Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work [editor; with Alan Cheuse] (nonfiction) 1996
Old Scores (novel) 1997
The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (nonfiction) 2000
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SOURCE: Massie, Allan. “Foreigners.” Spectator 249, no. 8048 (9 October 1982): 28-9.
[In the following review, Massie describes Group Portrait as interesting, perceptive, and well-crafted.]
‘Some years ago my friend H. G. Wells wrote to the papers to say that for many years he was conscious of a ring of foreign conspirators plotting against British letters at no great distance from his residence, Spade House, Sandgate’. (Ford Madox Ford: Return to Yesterday.) These words lie at the heart of Mr Delbanco's book, [Group Portrait,] though, curiously, he doesn't quote them. Three of the foreign conspirators were Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane. Ford tried to pretend that a fourth was W. H. Hudson, but it's more likely that Wells had Ford himself in mind—it was in his Hueffer days before his change of surname disguised his German antecedents.
And of course Wells was quite right, up to a point. James, Conrad and Ford (as it seems more convenient to call him) were indeed engaged, if not exactly on a conspiracy, at least in an attack, that gave the impression of being in some way concerted, on that ‘loose baggy monster, the English novel’. The phrase was James's own, and the baggy monster was the target he had set himself to shoot down. Like almost all such consciously-selected oppositions, there was something a bit disingenuous in what James was...
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SOURCE: Tuohy, Frank. “Birds of a Feather.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4151 (22 October 1982): 1148.
[In the following review, Tuohy comments that Group Portrait fails to offer the reader any new insight or information on its subject.]
Nicholas Delbanco has planned his work [Group Portrait] to illustrate what he calls “colleagueship” or “collegiality”: a quality that he identifies as having existed among these writers when all of them were living close to each other in West Kent or East Sussex around the turn of the century.
Today, especially when one is resident at a university, it is easy to assume that writers enjoy each other's company, and to proceed to the conclusion that in doing so they will share useful ideas about technique an so on. The idea of writers' seminars, creative writing courses and workshops, has spread from the United States to this country. If the same thing happened in the past, it must have been under the auspices of personal friendship. The popularity of books about the Bloomsbury group has strengthened this impression, though in their case friendship of the inner circle must have been helped by the fact that they were all doing different things and, to that extent at any rate, did not get in each other's light.
Delbanco quotes from Ada Galsworthy's notebook to show the large number of writers whom her husband...
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SOURCE: Moser, Thomas C. “Views of Edwardian Fiction.” Sewanee Review 91, no. 2 (April 1983): 282-91.
[In the following review, Moser compares Group Portrait with two other books on Edwardian fiction. Moser comments that Delbanco's book is neatly organized and well-written, and that the strength of the book lies in the author's expression of a strong sense of affection for his subject.]
Even though all periods, all decades, are transitional, the Edwardian age is one of the most conspicuous. Richard Ellmann's phrase is the “two faces” of Edward; Samuel Hynes's, the Edwardian “turn of mind.” Between the end of Victoria's lengthy reign with its intellectual, technological revolutions and its gigantic novelists and 1914's initiation of a period of incredible, almost incessant, international violence and flashy modernist writers, the intervening years must somehow, from our point of view, account for the change. Three new books, of greatly differing approach and quality, take as their common subject the fiction of that post-Victorian period. In Edwardian Fiction Jefferson Hunter, of Smith College, treats the subject topically; in The Edwardian Novelists John Batchelor, an Oxford don, studies critically the work of six writers; in Group Portrait Nicholas Delbanco, a novelist and teacher at Bennington, considers biographically five writers who were friends and neighbors...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fidelity and the Urge to Fight.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 2, 8.
[In the following review, Eder discusses the themes of aging and the struggle of individuals caught between marital fidelity and escapist fantasy in the stories of About My Table.]
“We do not die from being ill; we die from being alive,” Montaigne wrote. [In About My Table,] Nicholas Delbanco writes of early middle life, when a certain amount of dying has already been done. Bloom has become sheen. The body's youthfulness is still there, but beginning to harden into its own memorial—it will not be renewed. It is the time when blows become cumulative, sapping resiliency and propagating their bruises.
Delbanco's nine short stories are like nine mourners at the same wake. It is a preliminary wake; there will be others. In each story the protagonist is in his late 30s and going through a climacteric of sorts. Forgotten or suppressed bits of life come back to him; but not in the final deathbed's grand retrospective of regret or rejoicing. These are data that must be lived with. It is too soon to give up and too late to hope. But life will be different.
The stories, written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought, are independent but linked. They are linked in...
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SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “Welcome the Wimps.” New Republic 189, no. 18 (31 October 1983): 35-8.
[In the following review, Hulbert compares About My Table to two other books of fiction about “men ill at ease in a post-feminist age.” Hulbert asserts that Delbanco's stories are poorly plotted and lacking in variety, and that the female characters are mere caricatures, observing that the collection fails to evoke a “moral sympathy” in the reader.]
“A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949), the book that helped inspire a flood of literature about the peculiar female predicament: manifestos and monographs, and a stream of novels—“the female sexual picaresque,” one critic called the emerging genre. But to judge by the publishers' lists of the last decade or so, Beauvoir spoke too soon about men. Thanks to feminism, men have begun to feel their situation is less powerful and more peculiar, and they have gotten the notion of writing about it. Their books don't yet occupy as much space in the bookstores as women's do. But back in the how-to, pop psychology sections, a shelf has been filling up with titles like The Male Machine, The Liberated Male, The Hazards of Being Male, On Men and Manhood. The New York Times recently launched a weekly...
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SOURCE: Delbanco, Nicholas, and Gregory L. Morris. “An Interview with Nicholas Delbanco.” Contemporary Literature 25, no. 4 (winter 1984): 386-96.
[In the following interview, which originally took place in November 1983, Delbanco discusses connections between his fiction and his own life, developments in his writing style, and the origins of his Sherbrookes trilogy.]
Nicholas Delbanco lives in Bennington, Vermont and teaches at Bennington College, where he directs the Bennington Writing Workshop and directs the M.F.A. in Writing program. He is the author of ten novels, including the three books of the acclaimed Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession, Sherbrookes, Stillness), and has most recently published a collection of short stories entitled About My Table, and Other Stories. He has also written two works of nonfiction—Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells, and the forthcoming The Beaux Arts Trio. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, and has published and read his works widely. The interview took place in November of 1983 at Wells College in Aurora, New York.
[Morris]: May we start with a little of your biography, particularly since some of your own experience seems such an integral part of your fiction?
[Delbanco]: I was born in London of German parents who were, in my...
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SOURCE: Review of Group Portrait, by Nicholas Delbanco. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 3 (summer 1984): 268-69.
[In the following review, the critic asserts that Group Portrait offers little new factual information concerning the community of six authors in London in 1900, and that the central ideas of the book are not argued in depth.]
In 1900 within a day's journey from each other, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells were neighbors in Kent and East Sussex. Comparing their situation to the expatriate Left Bank of Paris and to Bloomsbury, Nicholas Delbanco examines the community of these artists [in Group Portrait]. None of the writers were native to the region, and Delbanco maintains that their aggregation there was a “conscious retreat, a place of exile.” Although the book jacket promises a “biographical study of writers in community,” there is little biographical material in this book except what could be culled from the major previous biographies, such as Arthur Mizener's The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford or Frederick R. Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. By focusing on the single year and the communal aspects of the novelists, however, Delbanco brings a new organization and emphasis to material which is generally well known.
The romantic notion of the solitary, isolated genius...
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SOURCE: Morris, Gregory L. “Nicholas Delbanco in the Middle Distance.” Critique 29, no. 1 (fall 1987): 30-45.
[In the following essay, Morris discusses In the Middle Distance in terms of its multilayered narrative, observing that the novel is an examination of the self and the writer's struggle to accurately represent the truth about himself.]
Nicholas Delbanco is the author of eleven published works of fiction. The earliest of these works were experimental, dense, and highly subjective; Delbanco's emphasis here was largely upon language, and in such novels as Grasse, 3/23/66 and Consider Sappho Burning, he strained the limits of allusiveness almost to the point of obsessive linguistic sport. In 1971, however, Delbanco published a book entitled In the Middle Distance, a sort of “fictional autobiography” that turned Nicholas Delbanco the author into Nicholas Delbanco the character. The novel's protagonist is an architect by the name of “Nicholas Delbanco,” and the book's “outer narrative” details this “Delbanco's” self-examination of the content—and ruin—of his life. This outer narrative is told in retrogressive fashion, beginning with the present time and circumstance of “Delbanco's” life and working successively backward to his childhood. At the same time, “Delbanco,” the character, keeps a journal (a typical...
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SOURCE: Wildman, Eugene. “Going Away Again.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1989): 4-5.
[In the following review, Wildman describes Running in Place as part autobiography, part travel literature, and observes that the book is an expression of Delbanco's “love affair” with the area of Provence, France.]
The interplay of memory and landscape is the subject of this non-fiction offering by novelist Nicholas Delbanco. The book [Running in Place] is part autobiography, part travel literature and is an account of the author's several stays in Provence, that storied region of the South of France. It is a description of a love affair with the land, a deepening intimacy, an eventual, inevitable growing apart and the need to have a place to belong to.
Provence has been a favorite locale of writers and artists through the centuries. The traditions of courtly love and the troubador poetry that celebrates it were born there. In the 14th Century the papacy was there, the seat of ecclesiastical power shifting from Rome to Avignon. Cezanne and Van Gogh made its landscapes famous.
Ford Madox Ford wrote a book about Provence. Henry James and D. H. Lawrence both sang its praises. Albert Camus is buried there. James Baldwin, a longtime friend of the author, lived there, as did actor Dirk Bogarde. Of still uncertain aesthetic interest, Baby Doc Duvalier fled to...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Travel Writing that Goes No Place.” Christian Science Monitor 81, no. 195 (1 September 1989): 13.
[In the following review, Rubin is highly critical of Running in Place, describing the book as unoriginal, uninteresting, monotonous, and poorly organized.]
Society hostess Elsa Maxwell is often credited with turning the South of France, specifically the Cote d'Azur, into a fashionable summer resort in the 1920s. (Before that, it was a place “resorted to” chiefly in the winter.) But Provence, the region of southeastern France that includes that stretch of coastline, has a long history of colorful associations: Roman Gaul, the Albigensian heresy, the medieval troubadours who virtually invented “romance.” A land of sunshine, olive trees, olive oil, garlic, honey, lavender, and perfume, Provence has held a special appeal for painters, who reveled in the clear brilliant light of the region.
The South of France must hold special associations for author Nicholas Delbanco, one presumes, or he would not have written [Running in Place] a book on the subject. But whatever this region may mean to Mr. Delbanco, very little in the way of inspiration, information, interest, or pleasure is conveyed in the lifeless pages of this very derivative, poorly organized, and monotonously written book.
Delbanco first visited the region as a college...
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SOURCE: Pritchard, Melissa. “The Perils of Literature.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 February 1990): 6-7.
[In the following review, Pritchard praises The Writer's Trade as a brilliantly ordered and controlled book that examines the “craft and peril” of being a writer.]
Each of us erects our hidden altars, secretly hoping for salvation from mortality. Art exists as a particularly potent religion, the artist exalted as free agent, as re-creator of the universe. In Nicholas Delbanco's 13th book and second collection of short stories, The Writers' Trade, the craft and peril of being a writer is scrupulously examined.
In the title story, a young man, Mark Fusco, achieves extraordinary success with the publication of his first novel. Intoxicated by language and literature, discovering joy in his solitary craft, he attends the sweet triumph of a publication party, receiving adulation as bounty and gift. Afterward, feeling “there was nothing he could not attain, no prospect unattainable,” he is deep in his giddy dream of success when the train he is on hits and kills a young woman. Abruptly he is diminished by the understanding that life goes on, that “what was out there, on the track, found him irrelevant.” His reaction, instinctively, is to take and absorb this stuff of life, write it down, elevate life into art.
In “And with Advantages,” Ben,...
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SOURCE: Simmons, Charles. “The Non-Telling Detail.” Washington Post (8 February 1990): B3.
[In the following review, Simmons comments that most of the stories in The Writer's Trade are flawed and bogged down by tedious details, but does reserve praise for two of the stories which he contends are well-written.]
Most of these nine stories are full of faults, some more interesting than others. In the title story [of The Writer's Trade] 22-year-old Mark Fusco has just published a first novel. It gets good reviews, and he appears to be at the start of a successful writing career. Author Nicholas Delbanco describes his professional progress: “Mark was learning to provide corroborative detail for his characters: birthday parties, a distaste for lima beans, a preference in socks. ‘Make a catalogue,’ his writing teacher had advised. ‘Make it on three-by-five cards. Know everything you can. Tell yourself the person despises lima beans. Try to decide if she likes snow peas or string beans better …’”
Delbanco himself follows this bad advice throughout, with wearisome results. For instance, in “And with Advantages,” a story about a 26-year-old writer, Ben, and his relationship with an old, ailing, famous writer, Ben goes from the old man's funeral to a girlfriend's apartment: “… they opened wine. The rooms were familiar, not strange. The bear rug by the...
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SOURCE: Cummins, Walter. Review of Writers and Their Craft, by Nicholas Delbanco. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 102-03.
[In the following review, Cummins asserts that Writers and Their Craft is entertaining, but that it fails to provide new ideas or a fresh perspective on the craft of writing.]
This collection, [Writers and Their Craft,] material originally contained in a two-volume issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, is an olio of essays, interviews, memoirs, short statements, stories, and even cartoons that the editors hoped would provide “a kind of road map through [American fiction] of the 1990s, a work whose polyphonic structure represents its subject with high fidelity.” What they have produced is entertaining and frequently illuminating; but it fails to function as a road map. Anyone attempting to follow it for guidance would end up lost in a tangle of conflicting routes. The effect is a version of the logical conundrum in which a traveler at a fork in a road asks directions of a man who may belong to one of two tribes—one whose members always lie or one whose members always tell the truth. Thus, some of the 100 or so contributors consider minimalism a breakthrough, and others consider it an abomination; some despair over the vacuousness of today's writing, and others find an abundance of riches.
Equivalents of much of the...
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SOURCE: Idema, James. “Fatal Decisions.” Chicago Tribune Books (1 October 1995): 6.
[In the following review, Idema praises In the Name of Mercy as an entertaining, masterfully written novel that includes a number of compelling characters. Idema comments that, although Delbanco's views on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide seem ambiguous, the story is thoroughly engaging.]
What seems for much of Nicholas Delbanco's riveting new novel to be an eloquent plea for legitimatizing euthanasia becomes in the long run more a cautionary tale. Man cannot be trusted with the institutionalized practice of assisted suicide, Delbanco appears to say. For all its merciful intentions, it is a deed so vulnerable to abuse as to be morally unacceptable. What is wrought “in the name of mercy” is often more wicked than good.
Meanwhile, to explore this enormously complex issue, Delbanco has [with In the Name of Mercy] written a terrifically entertaining book: a swift, white-knuckle thriller, with a big cast of compelling characters and a theme direct from today's news pages. That its point of view seems somewhat ambiguous detracts not at all from its engaging plot.
In the Name of Mercy is difficult to put down, even more difficult to forget once you have put it down. Never mind that it all ends in a horrific mess, with the innocent hero, an altruistic young...
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SOURCE: Leggett, John. “Can Death Be Humane and Cost-Effective?” Los Angeles Times (3 October 1995): 6.
[In the following review, Leggett comments that the novel In the Name of Mercy is a provocative story, but that it fails to clarify the arguments for and against doctor-assisted suicide.]
Nicholas Delbanco has taken on a provocative theme in his new novel, In the Name of Mercy.
He has seen the conflict between a doctor's Hippocratic obligation to heal, to do no harm, to leave the ending of a life to God and the contrary belief, acclaimed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, that there is mercy in hastening the death of an incurable patient in pain.
It is certainly a timely issue, given that today's medical profession is so technically advanced that it can, at great expense, prolong life unnaturally.
Delbanco lays his tale of healing and death at the Trueman-Andrews hospital and hospice in Bellehaven, Mich.
This enterprise is part of the empire of financier J. Harley Andrews, who has acquired it from the founder, Richard Trueman. The hospital and its adjoining hospice for terminal patients are a stage for the struggle between those who believe in the right to life and those who believe in the right to a timely death.
Our expectations are raised that the two physicians in charge of the hospital will dramatize...
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SOURCE: Kellman, Steven G. “Half in Love with Easeful Death.” Michigan Quarterly Review 36, no. 3 (summer 1997): 520-28.
[In the following review, Kellman discusses In the Name of Mercy in the context of societal debates over doctor-assisted suicide, and compares Delbanco's novel to other books addressing the same issue. Kellman asserts that In the Name of Mercy holds little interest as a work of fiction, beyond its topical relevance to a current social problem.]
To be or not to be is the most compelling of all literary questions. The illustrious cases of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Phaedra, Willy Loman, Ophelia, Antigone, Dido, Romeo, Hedda Gabler, Jocasta, Othello, and Quentin Compson demonstrate that the literary tradition has not exactly fixed its canon 'gainst self-slaughter. For Albert Camus, “There is but one genuinely philosophic problem, and that is suicide.” It is a challenge, too, to law and medicine.
A retired pathologist named Jack Kevorkian has become the most famous Michigander since Isiah Thomas by flaunting his complicity in the deaths of more than forty human beings. Using a device he calls the Mercitron machine, he has been ending the lives of those suffering not only from terminal and racking illnesses but from merely grievous ones as well. Although Kevorkian's actions are explicitly prohibited by law, juries have consistently refused to convict...
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SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “A Single Jew.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 15 (9 October 1997): 8-9.
[In the following review, Kazin asserts that Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work offers no new information or understanding that isn't already made clear in Malamud's fiction.]
Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel was awarded the National Book Award for 1958 against the outraged opposition of one judge. Malamud, amazed that he had won, exclaimed, “A miracle has passed.” He was delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honor. The waiter, looking him up and down, briskly informed him that the table was full and that there was no place for him. Not for the first time I was seeing a Malamud story unfold.
There was the afternoon at a Yaddo board meeting when Malcolm Cowley peremptorily addressed him as “Bernie.” This was a familiarity he instantly resented (friends had to call him “Bern”) and he flinched with an anger that I understood all too well. He felt he was being treated prima facie as just another commonplace Jew, like the Jews in immigrant Brooklyn he had raised up to a high level of American art. He identified with them, they were his blood relations and spiritual family, but he was something more—an artist, and people had better not forget it.
The readings, lectures, personal documents, and sundry analyses...
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SOURCE: Buckeye, Robert. Review of Old Scores, by Nicholas Delbanco. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1998): 250-51.
[In the following review of Old Scores, Buckeye praises Delbanco's writing as intelligent, compassionate, and well-crafted.]
We know the story: the sixties; college; the professor, Paul Ballard, and the student he becomes involved with, Elizabeth Sieverdsen; the brief flaring of their love, its near predictable failure. It was the sixties, after all, and too many mistook indulgence for love. And its sequel: to revisit, with the cold eye of experience and time, that youthful evanescence. Or, even worse, to come together again years later, marked by life, particularly divorce, and think that this time …
It is the story of Old Scores but not the one Nicholas Delbanco tells. Love is either more than we will ever understand or less than, much less than, we desire, but it is everything Paul and Elizabeth desire, all they need to understand, even if they do not know it at the time. Despite years apart, their love marks them forever, alters their lives. Delbanco gives us here an Abelard and Heloise for our time, and if his comparison, of necessity, at first diminishes, it also enlarges; Paul and Elizabeth are legitimate heirs. It is a characteristic modernist method to hold the present up against the past, and Delbanco has employed it...
(The entire section is 340 words.)
SOURCE: Gundy, Jeff. “Handling the Truth.” Georgia Review 106, no. 3 (fall 2000): 559-72.
[In the following excerpt, Gundy explores notions of truth in the essay collections of several authors, including Delbanco's The Lost Suitcase.]
Essays are often viewed as a kind of supplement, something that novelists and poets do with the leftover thoughts and stray impulses and bits of material that won't fit into their “real” work. Several aspects of the books under discussion here support this theory. One of them begins with an essay that the author breezily confesses having pieced together out of fragments from his commonplace book. And while dust-jacket notes are hardly to be trusted, if we take these at their word we learn that none of these authors is before all else an essayist. Of the whole group, only Sam Pickering is not more widely known as a poet or fiction writer, and even he, like David Brendan Hopes and Nicholas Delbanco, is described as a professor and then as an author. Turning to the others, we learn that Marjorie Sandor has won prizes for her short fiction and is also a professor, and that Hilary Masters has written eight novels. Even in their subject matter these books foreground issues related to writing fiction and poetry much more often than those related to writing nonfiction prose. Why are these authors, all of them quite capable essayists, seemingly reluctant to present...
(The entire section is 1683 words.)
SOURCE: Gordon, Neil. “No Direction Home.” Washington Post Book World (14 January 2001): 3-4.
[In the following review, Gordon praises What Remains for its thoughtful, evocative, and lucid prose, as well as vivid characterization. Gordon discusses the theme of Jewish identity in the wake of the Holocaust as treated in Delbanco's novel.]
The Holocaust is not only the brutal history of an attempted genocide nor the nightmarish story of the camps. It's also a symphony of dignity lost, of warmth and childhood forever poisoned by the knowledge that generations of Jews anchored in Europe were uprooted in a few sudden years by implacable bureaucrats and jackbooted sadists. Nowhere was this more shocking than in Germany itself, where hundreds of years of Jewish residence had created a community as inextricably interwoven into German life as Jews are today into America, Judaism being often the weaker of their cultural and political identifications. For the lucky few who were able to escape, the Holocaust was a story not of extermination but of the detailed daily cruelty of German anti-semitism: the subtle, cruel, torturous destruction of the most safe and comforting intimacies of family and home.
What Remains, Nicholas Delbanco's 15th work of fiction, is a pensive and evocative tour through three generations of an exiled German-Jewish family as they carry, first to Britain and...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
SOURCE: Kirshenbaum, Binnie. “A Desire to Belong.” New Leader 134, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 30-1.
[In the following review, Kirshenbaum praises What Remains as emotionally compelling and gracefully written.]
Nicholas Delbanco's 13th novel is a breathtakingly beautiful slim volume. But don't be misled by its size. The scope of What Remains is epic, spanning generations and continents. It is further testimony to Delbanco's skill as a writer that he artfully packs so much into such a compact work. There is nothing splashy here, no verbal pyrotechnics. Rather, it is the grace of language and of ideas that creates the gravitational pull which draws in the reader and swells the heart.
Told in chapters of alternating voices that skip back and forth in the time between 1944 and 1996, What Remains is the story of an extended family, three generations of refugees. These are not Emma Lazarus' tired, poor, huddled masses. They are rich German Jews who were among the fortunate in so far as they were able to get out of Nazi Germany largely intact, and with more than the shirts on their backs.
Although no longer fabulously wealthy—no more chauffeur-driven cars or costume balls—they are safely ensconced in bourgeois abundance (they do have a maid) in London. Yes, bombs certainly did fall and they did experience the irony of being unwanted, not for...
(The entire section is 1416 words.)
SOURCE: Heller, Amanda. Review of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, by Nicholas Delbanco. Boston Globe (19 August 2001): D3.
[In the following review, Heller describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an intriguing account focused on both the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.]
It is one of those confluences of circumstance best summed up as “genius of place”: For a number of variably evident reasons, about 300 years ago in the vicinity of Cremona, in northern Italy, a handful of craftsmen briefly produced the most sublime violins and cellos the world has ever known. Their names speak for themselves: Amati, Guarneri, and the most famous of all, Stradivari.
The author and scholar Nicholas Delbanco is fortunate enough to have a Stradivarius cello in the family (for such an exquisite creation is treated by its owner not as an inanimate possession but rather as a beloved, with a body and soul), belonging to his father-in-law, the master cellist Bernard Greenhouse. In this brief but intriguing essay, [The Countess of Stanlein Restored,] Delbanco sketches the rather murky provenance of this glorious old instrument, once owned by the violin virtuoso Paganini, and then details the painstaking surgery performed on it by a gifted artisan, Ren Morel, over a period of two years, an excruciating wait for an anxious owner approaching his mid-80s. This tiny...
(The entire section is 274 words.)
SOURCE: Elliott, Robin. “Lure and Lore of the Cello.” Irish Times (27 October 2001): 69.
[In the following excerpt, Elliott describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an engaging and affectionate portrait of a rare cello.]
The cello is an object of such consummate perfection that it is hard to believe that it was created by the human mind. It is exquisitely beautiful to look at, and has a range of musical expression rivalled only by the violin. By turns, it can provide a sturdy yet flexible accompanying line, or take flight in full-throated song. …
[In The Countess of Stanlein Restored,] Delbanco sheds light on the mysterious art of restoration. Delbanco holds the Robert Frost Collegiate Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, but he is also the son-in-law of Bernard Greenhouse, the semi-retired cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio. Delbanco has written an engaging and affectionate portrait of Greenhouse's Stradivarius cello, which is named after two former owners of the instrument: Stanlein, a French 19th-century aristocrat, and Paganini, the legendary Italian violin virtuoso.
This is one of about 60 surviving Strad cellos, as compared to just 12 violas but 600 or so violins.
Stradivarius made the instrument in 1707 near the start of his “Golden Period”, and it is the first of his smaller-sized...
(The entire section is 366 words.)
SOURCE: Foss, Michael. “Yours for Twenty Pence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5148 (30 November 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Foss offers a mixed assessment of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, faulting Delbanco for focusing too heavily on renowned persons such as cello-craftsman Antonio Stradivari and cellist Bernard Greenhouse, among others.]
This curious little book [The Countess of Stanlein Restored] promises to tell the story of the life, and the restoration, of a musical instrument. The instrument is the so-called Countess of Stanlein cello, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1707 and now in the possession of the respected American cellist Bernard Greenhouse.
The history of a fine old instrument is a rich field for all kinds of investigation. In fact, a whole sociology lies implicit in such an instrument. Many tricky questions are relevant to this story: matters of craftsmanship and technology; the commercial life of Cremona in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the demands of music on instruments and the relationship between compositional changes and instrument making; the requirements of performers and the pressures of audience expectation; the extreme tension, in a liberal economy, between the commodity value of an old instrument that has now become an art object and the need of none too wealthy players to release the musical potential of that...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Flanagan, Thomas. “Old Masters of the Modern Novel.” Washington Post Book World 13, no. 27 (4 July 1982): 3, 13.
Flanagan criticizes Group Portrait as offering little in the way of new information, but praises Delbanco for expressing a strong sense of affection for his subject.
Ruttencutter, Helen Drees. “Working in Harmony.” Washington Post (9 February 1985): G2.
Ruttencutter argues that The Beaux Arts Trio is “disappointing” and comments that Delbanco inserts himself into the text too much.
Slung, Michele. “Aix Marks the Spot: Traveling through Provence.” Washington Post Book World 19, no. 132 (6 August 1989): 9.
Slung asserts that the true topic of Running in Place is not the locations to which Delbanco travels, but the author's self-scrutiny in terms of the “powerful sensations” invoked by the experience of travel.
Additional coverage of Delbanco's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vols. 2, 189; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 55; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 13; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 234; and Literature Resource...
(The entire section is 166 words.)