Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Midnight in the Piazza San Marco of Whiny Rich People

Eleven years after his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bestrode the bestseller list, John Berendt has returned. Why was he gone for so long? Well, he went to Venice for a few weeks’ vacation, and he stayed. A fire had destroyed Venice’s 500-year-old opera house, La Fenice, just before he arrived, and the uproar surrounding that loss gave Berendt the excuse he needed to start doing what, it seems, he does best: meeting the rich, the meddling, and the untrustworthy. Just before a three-day trip of my own to Venice, I read the resulting book, City of Falling Angels.

In Venice, Berendt quickly found a small, isolated, wealthy society, riven by feuds and infighting—very similar to what he’d chronicled in Savannah in his earlier book. That set—the set, I suppose--really does seem to be Berendt’s natural subject, and they turn out to be the same in Venice as anywhere else: hideous and fascinating in their utter self-involvement.

Berendt talks to the mayor and a master glassblower. He meets a pair of American expatriates, one of whom has affected an upper-class British accent. He lets a particularly irritating artist rail against the hypocrisies of Venice while painting what sound like godawful scenes of submarines ploughing St. Mark’s Square. He meets an Anglican minister whose obligations are minimal: some tourists and a permanent congregation numbering in the teens. There is no evensong:
Reverend Jim swirled his drink pensively, no doubt recalling how, at some defining moment long ago, he had faced up to the necessity of choosing between evening prayers and cocktails, and chosen cocktails.

Smart man. Another American expatriate talks about his family’s attempt to offset the costs of maintaining their palazzo, Palazzo Barbaro:
For a while, we rented out the piano nobile for private parties, hoping it would be a harmless way to help pay expenses. We signed a contract with Jim Sherwood, who owns the ‘21’ Club in New York and the Cirpriani hotel here, to do the catering. He went to great expense. He bought a lot of equipment and even installed a standard industrial kitchen, but it all got to be too much. He created menu with really objectionable phony names like ‘Tournedos Barbaro,’ and he commissioned sets of glasses and dishes that had the Barbaro insignia, which is a red circle on a white background.
I said to him, “Jim, do you know where that insignia comes from?’” He didn’t know. I said, “It’s from a battle during the Crusades when a Barbaro commander sliced an arm off a Saracen infidel and swabbed a bloody circle with it on a white cloth to make a battle flag.” I said, “This is scandalous!”

By far Berendt’s favorite technique—one which makes me think he must seem a remarkably sympathetic listener, similar to how I imagine Joseph Mitchell—is to insert himself into an argument where facts are in dispute. He’ll talk to one disputant, then the other, passing arguments back and forth. In the process, both parties tend to slowly destroy their credibility in the eyes of the reader. Self-interest and self-deception are laid bare, but the disputes themselves rarely become clear.

That’s this book’s flaw, really, and the reason it isn’t as much fun as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Berendt this time has no real mystery; instead, he has a series of inconsequential disputes among the privileged. The characters are less compelling and personable than in his earlier book. Eventually, I tired of hearing them complain about one another. The rich have, presumably, feuded in Venice for centuries, and with or without John Berendt, they’ll continue to do so until rising sea levels put an end to the squabbling.

But Venice itself? Oh, it was excellent. We didn't meet the rich, didn't get involved in their squabbles, didn't stay for ten years. But we did eat good food, drink cheap wine, and gape at art and architecture.

Thanks to guest blogger Vince for pinch-hitting and making me think some more about Black Hole.

Friday, January 27, 2006


From Bob

Hi. This is Bob ringing in with a review Levi asked me to tackle ages ago.

I've read Pride & Prejudice twice now, which is quite a lot for a boy, particularly one who doesn't even own a cat. Like anything else written before 1930, or by the English, or by women, it's much too wordy and makes for fairly tedious reading. The simple plot is one of the oldest: after initial misunderstandings, two pretty, intelligent sisters marry very wealthy, decent men, while their silly sisters and homely friend fare less well for themselves.

What makes P&P worth your effort is that Jane Austen is so often a scream. She is an early master of deadpan, bone-dry, understated British humour. "It is a truth universally acknowledged," she writes in her famous opening line, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Sly! Many of her secondary characters form a procession of dimwits, fools, and petty socialites, politely described in all of their bumption and vainglory. Poisonous!

And the best thing about P&P is that it was written by an 18 year old girl. Its much easier to forgive the tedious romantic plot, windy descriptions of estate grounds, and the occasional bits of moralizing when you stop to consider that she was a brilliant young anonymous country woman writing primarily for the amusement of her friends and family. Certain feminist subtexts of her novels are all the more impressive, if no surprise from one so precocious.

Sadly, the happy marriages that Jane and Lizzy Bennett achieve were denied to Miss Austen in her own lifetime. Her later novels, written after a long lapse, may reflect the romantic disappointment and economic hardship she endured, but I haven't read them, so I wouldn't know. I've heard, however, that they are so inscrutable in their treatment of certain antagonists and protagonists that there is considerable debate today over where her sympathies actually might have lied; while Austen family histories reveal that she was something of a firecracker of a maiden aunt. So I'm sure I'll get around to reading them when I'm a 50-something bachelor with more freetime and several cats, and I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Black Hole

Author's note: Levi has asked me to write a review of the book he gave me for my birthday this year. Nominally this is because he needs someone to fill in while he's catting about Europe all week, but it also puts me (intentionally?) in the awkward position of having to evaluate his gift in a public forum. Undaunted, I hereby present to you, the many readers of this blog, that review. Oh yeah: overall, I liked the book.

The inside front jacket flap of Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005) displays a self-portrait of the author, Charles Burns, as a young man, while on the back flap is a portrait of Burns presumably closer to his present age, worry-lined and bereft of hair. Young Burns is in the front, old Burns at the end. This is a book about the transition from child to adult, and we can presume it is to some degree based on Burns's own youth. Although I'm guessing his did not include most of his high school being infected by a body-altering mutant virus.

Burns's use of the fantastical, or at least highly improbable, at the center of his plot suggests there's more going on here than "the nature of high school alienation." The symbolism-strewn mis-en-scene, the long dream sequences, the narrator dropping acid; all suggest a fascination with a deeper kind of transition, from ignorance to enlightenment, or some facsimile thereof.

The problem is, Burns never does more than suggest this kind of philosophical depth. He runs out of steam before he can explore it. Early in the book, he introduces a motif of vagina-shaped gashes. They appear in the flesh of dissected frogs, human flesh, even the fabric of reality. They variously seem to represent the fragility of life, fear of the other/female, entering a scary and unfamiliar place, and a desire to return to womblike oblivion. Burns would have us infer that all these things are connected. That's interesting to think about, but we'll have to do that on our own time. So too with the snake symbols, the garbage symbols. The book tantalizes us with these signs, but at the same time seems to want little to do with them.

About halfway through, Burns introduces a murder, and an escape into the woods, and guns. The vivid dream sequences dry up, and we're left with Bonnie and Clyde meets Freaks. Given the long period of time over which he wrote the book, maybe it's not surprising it abandons its original themes midway through, but it's still frustrating. It also appears to have prevented Burns from conjuring a satisfying ending. The final pages attempt a hasty return to the slow contemplation and symbolism of the earlier chapters, but it doesn't really take us anywhere.

Black Hole is: intriguing, entertaining, disturbing, straightforward, occasionally brilliant.

Black Hole isn't: sure what it wants to be, thematically coherent, pleasurable, uplifting, or something you'd want young kids to read.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Novels and Novelty

From Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth:
The experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days and even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not ‘real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. it teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.

For me, that’s also a reason I prefer novels to short fiction; I want to be immersed for longer—and more fully—than even the best short fiction tends to allow.

And now, on to the novelty! I'll be away from the blog for the next week or so, so I've lined up a couple of guest bloggers. Bob and Vince are going to write about other books I've read lately, but haven't blogged about. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Genius in a small package

A few weeks ago, I described The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a snack, unsatisfying to someone who’s looking for Tolstoy’s universal sympathy and understanding. I firmly believed that to get a real sense of Tolstoy’s genius, a person would have to read Anna Karenina or War and Peace.

Having on Sunday read Tolstoy’s last writing, Hadji Murat, I now know I was wrong. In 125 pages, Tolstoy packs in a novel’s worth of characters, events, and description. Hadji Murat was a Muslim war leader who defected to the Russian side during one of Russia’s seemingly perpetual efforts to dominate and subdue Chechnya; the book works through the consequences of that defection for everyone from a lowly soldier to Tsar Nicholas himself. Tolstoy introduces dozens of characters and gives each a moment of attention, of real distinction.

It’s that ability to create and differentiate minor characters that sets Tolstoy apart for me. While Dickens, whom Tolstoy greatly admired, created memorable secondary characters, he almost always employed some elements of caricature to fix them in the reader’s mind; Tolstoy, on the other hand, places them much more subtly, through the presentation of living—and loving—detail. Yet such detail never seems forced. When a private on overnight guard duty lose the bowl of his pipe, and his comrades help him fashion a pipe using the stem and the frozen ground, all the characters in the scene—which is utterly unnecessary to the plot of the novel—come to life. Tolstoy’s realism, made of carefully chosen detail, seems instead made of randomly ordered reality, as if nothing has been chosen but everything shown; the balance between the contingent and the necessary seems the same as in real life.

And the realism extends not just to characters, but to the whole, it seems of Russian life and landscape. Here is a military ball, more or less from the view of Hadji Murat:
The next day was a Monday, the evening when the Vorontsovs usually entertained. In the large, brightly lit reception hall, music was coming from a source unseen in the winter garden. Women, young and not so very young, in clothes that revealed both their necks and their arms, and almost their breasts, twirled in the embraces of men in bright dress uniform. By the mountain of the buffet footmen in red tailcoats, stockings and shoes poured champagne and carried sweets around to the ladies. The wife of the chief, similarly half-naked, despite her years, walked among the guests, smiling amicably, and said a few kind words through the interpreter to Hadji Murat, who was surveying the guests with the same indifference as the day before at the theatre. After the hostess, other naked women also came up to Hadji Murat, and all, without any shame, stood in front of him and, smiling, kept asking him one and the same thing: how he liked what he saw. Vorontsov himself, in gold epaulettes and aguillettes with a white cross around his neck and a sash, went up to him and asked the same thing, obviously certain, like all those who asked, that Hadji Murat could not but like everything that he saw. And Hadji Murat replied to Vorontosov too as he replied to everyone: that they did not have this—without saying whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that they did not have it.

And Tolstoy is just as adept at depicting troops heading off on a raid:
The detachment assigned to the raid consisted of four battalions of infantry, two hundred Cossacks, and eight guns. The column marched along the road, while on both sides of the column in an unbroken line, going up and down across gullies, went chasseurs in high boots, sheepskin jackets and sheepskin hats, with rifles on their shoulders and cartridges on cross-belts. As always, the detachment moved across hostile ground observing silence as far as possible. Only occasionally did the shaking guns clatter over ditches, or an artillery horse, which did not understand the order for quiet, snort or neigh, or an angry officer shout in a hoarse, restrained voice at his subordinates because the line had become too extended, or was too far from, or too close to the column. Only once was the silence broken when from a thicket of thorns located between the line and the columns there sprang a nanny-goat with a white belly and behind and a gray back, and a similar billy-goat with small horns curving onto his back. The beautiful, frightened animals swooped so close to the columns in great leaps with their forelegs tucked up, that some of the soldiers, shouting and laughing, ran after them, meaning to bayonet them, but the goats turned back, slipped through the line, and, pursued by a few horsemen and the company dogs, flew off like birds into the mountains.

Amidst all this detail, there are patterns and doublings and careful organization, even a sense of inevitability, as Hadji Murat tries to determine the best of his limited options. Tolstoy works with themes of struggle, and determination, and the ways in which people can see or mistake their burdens and their possibilities. But ultimately, what matters are the people themselves, and the access Tolstoy gives us to their thoughts and lives, and how the time we spend there enables us to think about our own.

If you’ve balked at the length of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, pick up Hadji Murat. If you like it, you’ll like Tolstoy, and discovering that is worth an investment of a couple of hours of anyone's time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


This fall, Canongate Books launched The Myths, a series of nicely produced little hardcover books by accomplished authors reworking familiar myths. They launched the series with three books, beginning with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and following with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Jeannette Winterson’s The Weight.

Karen Armstrong’s book is as advertised, as she manages in 150 pages to explore the evolving role of myth in (mostly Western) culture since the early days of man. She’s not breaking any new ground, but she tells the story well, and her ability to succinctly summarize is satisfying:
Logos is the mental activity we use when we want to make things happen in the world. . . . Myth is the discourse we need in extremity.”

Of the first two works of retelling in the series, Margaret Atwood’s version of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view on Ithaca is the weakest. Atwood’s Penelope is steadfast and smart—and one nice touch is that her brains are, as one might expect, a reason that Odysseus chose her—but her long wait and her machinations in holding off a houseful of suitors and her ungrateful son never come to life. Even the specific question Atwood poses at the outset (Why does Odysseus hang Penelope’s twelve maids upon his return?), while the subject of the most interesting speculation in the book (One possibility is that they are a remnant of earlier tales of ritual sacrifice of virgins.), feels like a starting point that, though intended to provide a way to turn the tale inside out, instead simply leads it into dead ends.

I prefer to leave the question of Penelope’s fidelity unanswered. Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, knows how easily a person can be convinced of an untruth he desires to believe, and Odysseus himself wants to believe Penelope has been faithful. So he kills the suitors and the maids rather than take a chance of hearing otherwise, and he tests Penelope only by the most transparent of ruses. He wants to believe her—but maybe it's not only that. Maybe he even wants her to be lying, because successful deception, far more than fidelity, would make her a fit wife for him.

Jeannette Winterson’s retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, on the other hand, combines the mythological and the personal, the ancient and the modern, to great effect. Some of her brief sentences and repetitions border on preciousness, but the thought animating the story makes up for it. She turns it into a meditation on burdens, and the difference between those we take up by choice and those that are forced on us by history, tradition, or expectations. Atlas, who has the boundless horizon on his back dreams of escape to his walled garden; Heracles dreams of escape from his labors and freedom from his destructive self. What burdens will we bear for others? What is the mix of utility and compassion in that act?

More important, though, is that Winterson gets her characters:
When Heracles wanted something, he usually started by shouting for it. . . . Heracles was getting angry. If shouting didn’t get him what he wanted, he used his club.

And of Atlas, taking up again the burden of the cosmos:
Slowly, so as not to spill one drop of milk, Atlas lowered the Kosmos back onto his shoulder, and bent himself under the burden. He did it with such grace and ease, with such gentleness, love almost, that Heracles was ashamed for a moment. He would gladly have dashed the world to pieces if that would have freed him. He saw now that Atlas could do just that, but did not, and he respected him but would not help him.

Ultimately, that’s why The Weight works, and why myths are still interesting now, after the belief has gone: Winterson has thought about her Atlas and Heracles and the ways they would interact. It’s not about explaining things, or showing us how ideas work by using symbols. Rather, it’s about showing us the choices these recognizable characters have—and how and why they make them—and about what that tells us about who and what we are—or might be.

Friday, January 13, 2006

After the harvest

The last three months of the year are a great time to be a book lover. I said to Stacey that going into my regular bookstore (57th Street Books) in late October is, I imagine, like seeing the harvest all brought in safely, the granaries filled to bursting. Only my position is the inverse of the farmer’s in that situation. He hopes to make the harvest last the amount of time he needs until the next harvest; I hope to make the time last until I can eat up all the books.

I’ve thought about putting together a list of my favorite books of the year, but I think I’m going to take a pass, partly because so many books came out in the last few months of the year that I bought and put on my shelf, but haven’t gotten to yet.

How about instead a single book that I’ve been enjoying for months now? It’s a book I happened across at Shaman Drum Bookshop while visiting my friends Jeremy and Catherine in Ann Arbor, Graeme Gibson’s The Bedside Book of Birds. Gibson, who is Margaret Atwood’s husband, has compiled what the subtitle calls an avian miscellany, an anthology of images of and writings about birds, ranging from cave paintings (“When an anonymous artist incised an owl in the cave at Chauvet, there were probably fewer people on earth than in the Greater Toronto area today.”) to Saki writing about birds on the Western Front in World War I:
At the corner of a stricken wood (which has had a name made for it in history, but shall remain nameless here), at a moment when lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire swept and raked and bespattered that devoted spot as though the artillery of an entire Division had suddenly concentrated upon it, a wee hen-chaffinch flitted wistfully to and fro, amid splintered and falling branches that had never a green bough left on them. The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may well have wondered why anything having wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place. There was a battered orchard alongside the stricken wood, and the probable explanation of the bird’s presence was that it had a nest of young ones that it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert. Later on, a small flock of chaffinches blundered into the n the solitary hen-bird, they made no secret of their desire to get away as fast as their dazed wits would let them. The only other bird I ever saw there was a magpie, flying low over the wreckage of fallen tree limbs; “one for sorrow,” says the old superstition. There was sorrow enough in that wood.

to naturalist Peter Matthiessen:
The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distances and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures. I think of them as birds of wind, as “wind birds.” To the traveler confounded by exotic birds, not to speak of exotic specimens of his own kind, the voice of the wind birds may be the lone familiar note in a strange land, and I have many times been glad to find them; meeting a whimbrel one fine summer day of February in Tierra del Fuego, I wondered if I had not seen this very bird, a half-year earlier, at home.

I’ve been using the book as its title asks, reading a bit here and a bit there before bed, so after several months, I’m only about fifteen percent through it. As in birdwatching—even of the lazy sort that Stacey and I do from our front window, of sparrows and finches and juncos and doves—patience is important, and hurry can be counterproductive. Perfect for bedtime, too, in other words.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two deaths and an angel

From John Aubrey's Brief Lives, on the death of Francis Bacon:
Mr. Hobbs told me that the cause of his Lordship's death was trying an Experiment; viz. as he was taking the aire in a Coach with Dr. Witherborne (a Scotchman, Physitian to the King) towards High-gate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my Lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in Salt. They were resolved that they would try the Experiment presently. They alighted out of the Coach and went into a poore woman's house at the bottom of Highgate hill, and bought a Hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the body with Snow, and my Lord did help to doe it himselfe. The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not returne to his Lodging (I suppose then at Graye's Inn) but went to the Earle of Arundel's house at High-gate, where they putt him into a good bed warmed with a Panne, but it was a damp bed that had not been layn-in in about a yeare before, which gave him such a colde that in 2 or 3 dayes as I remember Mr. Hobbes told me, he dyed of suffociation.

From Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens:
The angel Arizaphel collected books. If he were totally honest with himself, he would have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand bookseller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours—he was incredibly good at it.

And, returning to Barbara Pym, from Crampton Hodnet:
Miss Doggett cleared her throat and said impressively, "I always think it such a pity when I see young people up here wasting their time in doing something which can only bring disgrace upon their families. All this Socialism and Bolshevism, for instance. If you take my advice, Mr. Cherry, you'll have nothing to do with it."
"I don't see how it can bring disgrace on my family, said Mr. Cherry, with sudden boldness.
"Do you think your mother would like to see you speaking in Hyde Park?" demanded Miss Doggett.
"My mother is dead," said Mr. Cherry, feeling that he had scored a point.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Things come together

One of my favorite aspects of reading is the occasional serendipitous convergence, wherein something I’ve picked up one place turns up in another book I’m reading later. Nonfiction and fiction interweave, and knowledge gleaned in one area resonates in another. A reader brings those moments on himself, largely, through his preoccupations—in my case, it’s primarily my Anglophilia—but they’re still a pleasant surprise.

Reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman this weekend, I enjoyed several such moments. Flashman purports to be the first installment of the autobiographical writings of a Victorian soldier who happens also to be, in Harry Flashman’s own words, “a coward and a scoundrel.” Throw in womanizer, imperialist, opportunist, violent brute, misogynist, and casual racist, and you’ve got Flashman down. George MacDonald Fraser pretends to have been given the papers to edit upon their discovery in a trunk at mid-century; he’s been doling them out in novel-length installments since 1969.
Fraser found the germ of Flashman in a passing reference in the Victorian boys’ novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays; he’s mentioned as a bully who, deservedly, is drummed out of Rugby. From that mention, Fraser created a character whom he has now followed through more or less all the great military disasters and blunders of the Victorian era, from the charge of the Light Brigade to Little Big Horn. Throughout, Flashman cheats and lies and wenches his way, never sticking his neck out for anyone except himself; yet time after time, he ends up covered in undeserved glory. Explaining how he retailed a post-battle packet of lies to his superiors, Flashman says
I can say that I told it well—off-hand, but not over-modest; just a blunt soldier reporting to his seniors. It calls for nice judgment, this art of bragging; you must be plain, but not too plain, and you must smile only rarely. Letting them guess more than you say is the kernel of it, and looking uncomfortable when they compliment you.

At times, Flashman’s cowardice and lack of ethics can be downright uncomfortable. Fraser is doubtless saying something about the nature of heroism,the lies of hero-worship, and the concept of honor, but overriding such concerns is his desire to tell an exciting story—which he does, thereby somehow salvaging the time he’s asking us to spend with this frequently horrid man.

Flashman finds Harry Flashman beginning his military career serving under Lord Cardigan, commander of the 11th Hussars, later to enter history at Balaclava as the Light Brigade. Therein lay the weekend’s first convergence: about a year ago, I was given by my friend Maggie (about whose excellent gifts of books an entire post will come later) Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why, which, though nearly fifty years old, seems still to be regarded as the best account of the catastrophe that was the charge of the Light Brigade. It’s utterly engrossing, simultaneously an explanation and a riveting recreation. Lord Cardigan (whose name lives on in the sweaters he wore while awaiting orders on his yacht in the weeks before the charge) I knew from Woodham-Smith to be an arrogant martinet and world-class incompetent; fortunately, Flashman inadvertently manages, through a couple of ill-advised adventures with women, to get detached from the 11th Hussars—though he will eventually return, for he mentions later surviving the slaughter at Balaclava.

For now, he finds himself serving in Afghanistan, which the British had recently invaded in order to prop up a friendly king and thus ensure a buffer between India and Russia. That was the second convergence: New Year’s weekend I spent editing my friend Steve’s thesis, wherein he applies social movement theory to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War and the mujahideen fighting against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. Reading the novel, I kept thinking back to Steve’s thesis and seeing a direct line between the meddling of the British Empire and the meddling of the United States and Russia in more recent times. Flashman sees through it all; one of the benefits of a narrator who is utterly unsentimental and truthful is that he clearly sees all illusions—even those of an empire he’s serving—as ultimately self-serving lies. The British position is unjustifiable and untenable, and Flashman’s only concern is that he live through the inevitable disaster.

Just as in reality, the British are forced from their station in Kabul in an ignominious retreat that quickly turns into a deadly rout, the horrors of which Fraser conveys as well as anyone I’ve read. Harried by Afghan raiding parties, the army of 14,000 (some 4,000 soldiers, with the rest families, servants, and Indian and Afghan camp followers) is doomed from the start. Within days, it is utterly destroyed, with but a single man surviving to reach the garrison at Jallalabad. I had a clear image of him riding in, but it took a few hours for me to realize that the image was not my own: it was from a painting by a Lady Butler, The Remains of an Army, which I had seen a year or two ago in A. N. Wilson’s The Victorians.

Flashman of course survives as well, though detached from the army in a harrowing battle midway through the march. He survives in large part because he has by chance teamed up with a non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Hudson. In the course of their flight, he begins to think about the relationship of officers and the lower ranks, much along the lines of what I discussed earlier on this blog when writing about Admiral Nelson. Early in the escape, noting Hudson’s particular competence, Flashman says
I found myself considering this Sergeant Hudson for the first time, for beyond noticing that he was a steady man I had given him not much notice before. After all, why should one notice one’s men very much?

Writing sixty years later, however, about Hudson’s questioning of some of the command decisions that led to the ruination of the army, Flashman says
I didn’t think much of Hudson’s questions about Gandamack and Elphy at the time; if I had done I would have been as much amused as angry, for it was like a foreign language to me then. But I understand it now, although half our modern generals don’t. They think their men are a different species still—fortunately a lot of ‘em are, but not in the way the generals think.

Knowing what he himself is not—good, brave, ethical, self-sacrificing—Flashman is all the more impressed when he finds those qualities, and so is the reader.
But Flashman learns nothing from Hudson’s heroism, except possibly that the wages of heroism are death, and he ends the book unrepentant and covered in the false glory that only an empire can bestow. He’s even featured in a cartoon in Punch, which makes for the weekend’s final convergence, as Punch’s editor for many years was the father of novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose review of Barbara Pym first set me to reading Pym, about whom more later this week.

I think this is what paranoids are talking about, only less sinister: if you’re looking for pattern, it’s there to be found.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Post-war, pre-Marshall Plan

Returning temporarily to books I read over Christmas brings me to Paula Fox’s The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. It's a very brief book—just over a hundred pages, including photos, and it feels it, incomplete and uncertain. But the choppy, foreshortened nature of the narrative seems a necessary part of the story being told. In 1946, Fox, the daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter (and, according to the IMDB, the grandmother of Courtney Love), worked as a stringer for a low-level wire service in Europe, filing stories mostly from Warsaw, Prague, and Paris. Impressionistic and uncertain herself at age 22, she presents snapshots of a shell-shocked populace struggling to find its feet.

We Americans often forget how devastated Europe was by World War II and how long it took for life to return to a semblance of normalcy there. It didn’t help that the two winters following VE day were two of the harshest on record. From Warsaw, she writes:
The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose dies people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers, and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with wooden seats trapped on the front, from which, after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone.

Arrangements had been made for us to attend the opening of the opera house that night, the first time a concert had been given there since the beginning of the war. Our Wroclaw interpreter told us to dress warmly. “There are holes in the roof from the bombing,” he said.

Even after the musicians had taken their seats, even when the audience filled the loges and orchestra, that penumbral cavern with its smell of dust and damp felt like a catacomb. There was something wrong with the electricity, and the lights couldn’t be dimmed without plunging us into total darkness. . . . The violin soloist . . . wore mitts; I could see from the box where I was sitting that they were woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. The musicians wore ordinary suits. Some were without ties.

Fox herself seems to still be uncertain what she learned that winter, how she feels about what she saw, how she understands that year of her life. The deprivation of the European scenes is sharply contrasted with the luxury (despite continued rationing) of the London set she moves in due to her parents, and in the shift, she is at least a tiny bit reminiscent of Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby: present yet apart, impressed yet appalled, and implicated despite. But the fault here is not really Fox's—it's not too-passive witnessing of cruel indulgence, but rather the near-ultimate failure of humanity in general, and the close, detailed witnessing of its consequences. For that reason, The Coldest Winter feels like a necessary book, one that nagged and insisted at its author for 70 years in an attempt to force understanding.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On reading

From Barbara Pym's No Fond Return of Love:

"All this reading," said Miss Lord. "I used to like a book occasionally, but I don't get time for it now."
"I took my degree in English Literature," said Dulcie, almost to herself.
"But what does it lead to, Miss Mainwaring?"

"I've written a couple of articles," [Viola] lied, "and I'm thinking of writing a novel. It seems more worthwhile than doing research," she added provocatively.
"Yes, perhaps it may be," Dulcie agreed. "It's creating something of one's own, certainly, even if it isn't any good. I'm sure," she added hastily, "that yours will be awfully good. I should think you have the gift for observing people and getting them down on paper."
"Oh, it won't be that kind of novel," said Viola distastefully.

Moyer Bell has reissued nearly all Pym's novels, of which this is my fourth. I'll write more about her later in the week.