Perfect profile

Reporting: writings from the New Yorker, by David Remnick, Picador, 483pp, £18.99

September 18 2006 / New Statesman

When in the late 1990s Ian Hamilton began compiling The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Essays, he was certain that there should be no place for the long profile in his ideal republic of letters. “The rise of the literary ‘profile’, in newspapers and in glossy magazines, is usually deplored, but it has produced some good writing . . . The trouble is: it tends to get badly out of date . . . Also, the literary profile, without meaning to, tends to get sucked into the book-publicity machine: critical comments get sacrificed to personality-portrayal.”

David Remnick specialises in the long literary profile and, in his hands, it is a most capacious and flexible form - the ideal form, perhaps, for our age of globalised celebrity. He may write to the moment, but there is little that is out of date about the work in this collection of his writings from the New Yorker, the magazine he has edited since 1998 and taken into profitability after the drift and profligacy of the Tina Brown years. Indeed, to read some of these pieces several years after they were first published, and knowing what has since happened to some of the subjects, merely enhances their appeal as well as their poignancy.

While working on a profile of Vladimir Putin in 2003, Remnick visited the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the wealthiest man in Russia, at his gleaming offices in Moscow. Khodorkovsky, who was using his wealth to prepare for a move into politics, conceded that he took advantage of the bandit capitalism that had flourished under Boris Yeltsin as post-Soviet Russia experimented disastrously with unfettered market reforms. “You could get away with not breaking any laws because there weren’t really any laws,” he said. “Not everything was ethical. This is not something for me to be proud of.”

Khodorkovsky had changed; now he was a reformer and a democrat, but Putin was watching him. In 2005, as Remnick reminds us in a postscript, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for tax evasion after a “bogus trial”. He is now in prison in south-east Siberia, his fall complete.

Remnick is especially interested in political power and in those who have or pursue it, which is what leads him to seek out the company of prime ministers and presidents and, when he is with them, to listen hard and to report perceptively on what he sees. The long interview-profile of Tony Blair, from when Blair was campaigning ahead of the 2005 general election - “the Masochism Campaign”, as Remnick calls it - is so rich in detail and sympathetic observation, sceptical without being cynical, that one finishes it with sadness for what has been lost since the invasion of Iraq and all that has gone wrong for Blair. He was once, after all, such a symbol of renewal and so full of promise himself. “Blair,” Remnick writes, “risked everything in his decision to support Bush, and, when his case for war turned out to be unfounded, he lost the confidence and trust of much of the population.”

As a reporter Remnick tends to seek out only those he admires, such as the writers Philip Roth or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or those with profound influence in the countries that, aside from the US, interest him most: Russia and Israel, countries to which he returns again and again as he seeks to document their troubled modernity. He uses the prestige of the New Yorker and the authority of his position as entrées to most of the places he wishes to go, whether this is inside Downing Street with Tony Blair or at home with Al Gore in Nashville. He was not, however, able to get inside the Kremlin with Putin. Maybe the cold-eyed authoritarian had not read the New Yorker.

Remnick is not a swaggering writer. He is present in his pieces, but never obtrusively; they are emphatically not about him, which is as it should be. Nor is he an ostentatious stylist, a verbal showman in the style of the New Yorker’s film critic, Anthony Lane, whose pieces can have a flashy emptiness. He has a strong, muscular, unpretentious style and a restless curiosity that enables him to write as well about literature and politics as he does about boxing (there is an enthralling capsule essay here on the ruined heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson).

Is the New Yorker the best of all English- language magazines? There is much about it that, technically, could be improved: its headlines and standfirsts are inadequate, its design is predictable, the short fiction it publishes is seldom worth reading, and photography should be used more creatively. Yet none of this really matters because such is the range, quality and sophistication of so much of the journalism in the magazine, notably its coverage of international affairs, that one continues to read it with both admiration and longing, especially when Remnick himself is writing. Would that we had a magazine that was as well resourced and as rigorously edited in this country.