Apples and Oranges
In praise of comparisons
In attempting to go straight to the heart of a matter, it helps if you simplify reality, or magnify some part of it. This is what Maarten Asscher does in his collection of personal essays Apples and Oranges, using the method of comparison to shed light on an array of subjects in the field of art, history and literature.
Set Telemachus next to Hamlet – two sons obliged to avenge their fathers’ honour – and soon you’ll be discussing willpower versus existential indecision. Compare Marcel Proust, who opted for the life of a hermit, with writers whose work emerged from behind prison walls and the nature of a writer’s freedom becomes clear. Rather that sticking to whatever is topical, Asscher is guided by an insatiable historical curiosity and a continual awareness of contemporary concerns.
Themes that occupy him in particular are identity and morality. Asscher is intrigued by how writer and critic Anatole Broyard managed to conceal the fact that he was black even from his children. His outrage at a biographer who readily assumes Primo Levi committed suicide prompts a wonderful essay about the difference between suicide as a right and suicide as a duty. He deals with thorny issues, but other discoveries and insights are no less valuable, such as that living next to the wrong sea can affect how you judge a book, or that Sigmund Freud based his psychoanalytical method on the work of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who laid bare the history of Troy by delving through layer upon layer of remains.
Sometimes Asscher slackens the reins and uses comparison purely to express admiration, for instance for Paul Valry’s Cahiers, which are so far removed from the concept of the novel that they might almost be called a modernist alternative. Or for the way Delmore Schwartz describes his parents’ marriage in the short story ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’.
Engaging in this kind of comparison means starting with the extraordinary and moving on to the universal. Asscher would like to see the same approach taken up by art historians; only specialists, he believes, can become authoritative generalists. Comparison is not an aim in itself but an analytical method and a means of sparking a debate. The insight to be derived from these inspiring and sometimes provocative essays is proof of the author’s point.
- Surprising lines of approach and a graceful, elegant style.
- Sometimes lightfooted, sometimes melancholy, but always right on the mark.