Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is an enigma in its own right. Its subject, the British mathematical genius who contributed to the cryptanalyAlan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is an enigma in its own right. Its subject, the British mathematical genius who contributed to the cryptanalysis of the Nazi enigma code and to the beginnings of the computer, was not an easy subject. He was a homosexual at a time when homosexual acts were considered a crime. He was a largely unhappy loner. And he was a powerful intellectual.
Hodges adopts three approaches to his biography. First, he gives the facts of Turing's life as much as it was possible, for a person who largely lacked the ability to analyze his own life. Secondly -- and this takes up the majority of the book -- he follows Turing's ideas in computing and science in general. (At times, Alan Turing seems a history of Britain's contribution to the development of computing.) Finally, after Turing's suicide in 1954, he provides a long polemic about the role of gays in science in a world that was paranoiac about the Cold War and various spy scandals.
Admittedly, I skipped quickly through much of the mathematical discussion, and also through the polemic coda. What held me was the character of Turing himself, his abortive attempts to break out of his loneliness -- all the while shortening the Second World War by his brilliant contributions to cryptanalysis using computer prototypes.
Perhaps it is possible to write a better book about Turing, but among all the other stuff, I think Hodges did a respectable job. As a computer professional, I recognize in Alan Turing one of the great minds in at the start of my field....more
When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three.When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three. I cannot help but wonder if he heard the train go by, carrying the wounded officers and men of the Royal Hungarian Army after its defeat to the Russians at Rava-Ruska.
BZM, as I shall call him, managed to survive and, in fact, managed to live for another half century, becoming one of Hungary's most beloved artists. But in The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, we see only a tiny slice of that life. Would that it were more! Supposedly the remainder of his autobiography was hidden or destroyed by a relative.
We tend not to know much about the Galician Front in 1914-1915, except that the casualty rates for the monarchy's forces were horrifying. In the first two weeks of fighting alone, the Austro-Hungarian forces lost some 400,000 killed, wounded or captured. The "butcher's bill" rose to 850,000 by the end of 1914 and to 1,600,000 by March.
We meet young Bela at a seaside resort in Croatia (then part of Hungary) the day that war is declared. Then we follow him to Veszprém, where he is called up to report, and from there to Galicia, where he engages in the battles at Rava-Ruska and Magierov. Wounded, he returns to Budapest where he has a month to recuperate before returning to duty. During that month, he visits a priest relative in the north of Hungary, and then returns for a while to the Croatian Adriatic.
During this time, BZM came to a realization:
Nature slumbered, seemingly indifferent. Everything moved forward in accordance with unchanging laws; sleeping or waking, every struggle, in accordance with its slow, gradual, hidden evolutionary laws. Nature flowed on its course, impervious to the absurd behavior of men, their mutual slaughter and assorted acts of wickedness. The whole world was manifestly indifferent in the face of the life-and-death struggles of men: it neither took their side nor opposed them, but simply paid no attention. Let them get on with it. Let them reap what they sow.
This edition from the New York Review of Books is the first publication of this fascinating little document in any language. It is translated into English by the author's grandson, Peter....more
That he is so little known in North America obscures the fact that Simon Bolivar was like all our Founding Fathers rolled into one -- plus a winning gThat he is so little known in North America obscures the fact that Simon Bolivar was like all our Founding Fathers rolled into one -- plus a winning general, which none of the Founding Fathers ever were. And instead of liberating just one country, he liberated five: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. And when he had served his role as revolutionary and liberator, he turned to nation-building. It was there he finally failed.
John Lynch's biography, Simón Bolívar: A Life is a book of alternating triumph and tragedy. Bolivar tried to do in one lifetime what was given to few men -- not even to Napoleon. It was made even more frustrating by the strange stew of races, climates, and topography that is the northwest of the South American continent. Toward the end of his life (dead at the age of 47 from tuberculosis), Bolivar wrote:
You know that I have ruled for twenty years, and from these I have derived only a few certainties: (1) America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; (3) the only thing one can do in America is to emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; (5) Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in her final hour.
And yet, the countries of South America are emerging from almost two centuries of rule by caudillos and incompetents and are hopeful once more. The peoples of South America now begin to appreciate what Bolivar tried to do.
John Lynch's biography is excellent. My only complaint is that it could have used better maps to illustrate the tens of thousands of miles traveled by the indefatigable Bolivar over mountains, across plains, and through jungles to achieve his ends....more
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
Well, let me see. This is both autobiography and fiction at the same time. (Its author at one point says, "I make no distinction between memory and imWell, let me see. This is both autobiography and fiction at the same time. (Its author at one point says, "I make no distinction between memory and imagination.") And that's not the only thing étrange about ce livre ci. Raymond Federman keeps switching between Anglais et French, quelquefois in the middle of a sentence, si non a paragraph.
Yet there is something likeable about Return to Manure, which purports to be a rambling tale about the author's stay at a farm in Vichy France after he somehow escaped being gassed at Auschwitz along with the rest of his family. He lives with a farmer named Lauzy, who mistreats him and sexually abuses the livestock, and his daughter-in-law Josette, with whom Federman develops a kind of ongoing sexual relationship.
There are several levels of narration. At the innermost level, it is Federman talking about his experiences. Interspersed with that are questions and comments from his wife Erica as they drive through France looking for the farm for old time's sake. On a yet higher level, there are questions and comments from the publisher (centered and boxed) who is bringing Return to Manure to press.
No doubt it is an odd book, but not an unlikeable one. In the three years he works on Lauzy's farm, Federman becomes a decent farmer. But then the war ends, and he returns to Paris looking for any of his family who may have survived. ...more
There are several criteria one can use to rate a book: The most obvious is its own intrinsic merit. If that were my main criterion, Boni De CastellaneThere are several criteria one can use to rate a book: The most obvious is its own intrinsic merit. If that were my main criterion, Boni De Castellane's How I Discovered America: Confessions of the Marquis Boni de Castellane (the title above is, I believe, the original French title, of which I read a translated Kessinger Library Reprint), would be only two or three stars. Boni de C is a notorious name-dropper; and he is so relentlessly a French aristocrat that unless the reader has a special affinity for that sort of thing, the reading experience would suffer correspondingly.
It just so happens, however, that the book was written by a character who was thought to be the original of of Proust's Robert de Saint Loup. And throughout the book, one is constantly running into the originals for Charles Swann (Charles Haas), Norpois (Gabriel Hanotaux), the Baron de Charlus (Comte Robert de Montesquiou), and the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes (Comte Henri and Comtesse Elisabeth Greffulhe). In fact, I read the book with a copy at my side of William Howard Adams's A Proust Souvenir, with its splendid society photographs by Paul Nadar.
There they are, all of Proust's characters from In Search of Lost Time. All that is missing is the exquisite sensibility of that young social climber Marcel Proust. It is his work that turned Boni de Castellane's work from a negligible piece of aristo-chatting into a literary document....more
When John Ford died in 1973, I cried. I loved his films: Again and again, I pop my favorite titles in the DVD and watch them, marveling at how effortlWhen John Ford died in 1973, I cried. I loved his films: Again and again, I pop my favorite titles in the DVD and watch them, marveling at how effortlessly Ford made everything look perfect. One of the actors in his "stock company" was Harry Carey Jr., who wrote an excellent book about his ten films with Ford entitled Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.
The films covered were Three Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagonmaster (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Long Gray Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), The Searchers (1956), Two Rode Together (1961>, Flashing Spikes (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). I cannot think of a list of ten films by any filmmaker who ever lived that are as great.
Carey's father, Harry Carey Sr., and his mother, Olive, started starring in Ford westerns beginning in 1917, and continued for a number of years through the silent era. Ford liked having familiar people working with him, and the son of his old star Harry Sr. came in for special attention -- not always of the most favorable kind. But Ford was that way, an old curmudgeon with a touch of brilliance.
I don't look at this as a typical actor autobiography, but as an ordered set of reminiscences of a relatively minor actor who spent a lot of time with the old man and who knew a lot about working with him through good and bad times.
If you like Ford's films, this is a good book to read; and I am indebted to Harry Carey Jr. for writing it....more
It was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis BorgeIt was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis Borges the man. But not, by any means, of Borges the poet and writer of short stories and essays. I still think he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature on merit alone, but I begin to understand why he cheesed off the liberal-minded Nobel Prize Selection Committee.
Perhaps my favorite translator of Borges is Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whose book Georgie and Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story has just recently been published. Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during the 1960s, shortly after he married Elsa Astete Millán, and through the divorce. What Di Giovanni discovered was that Borges was fatally naive when it came to women, politics, and social life. In fact, he was incredibly feckless in many ways. Di Giovanni writes:
[I]n later years, he travelled to Chile to receive a medal from the hands of Augusto Pinochet. This was one of the worst decisions of his life. But, he maintained, in his digging-his-heels-in mode that no one was going to tell him what he could or could not do. I imagine that it would never have occurred to Borges to question and be horrified by Pinochet’s well-oiled programme of eliminating Communists and other left-wingers. Borges was so universally condemned for his action that I think he came to realize his colossal mistake. But to justify it and himself, when I mentioned his folly to him, he said, ‘But I thought the medal was a gift of the Chilean people.’
Equally, if not more disastrous, was Borges’s marriage to Elsa. Years earlier, he had mooned over her; but, typically, someone else married her. (“Georgie” was not prime marriage material, as he lived with his mother well into his old age.) Then, one day, he met her again and—discovering that she was now widowed—took up with her again. By now, Borges was a famous literary figure; and, Elsa, being a social climber, thought that she was now about to enter the high life.
Her behavior during visits to the United States was execrable. She would steal silverware and other “souvenirs” from Borges’s friends and associates. During a visit to the Rockefellers, she insisted in photographing every room and asking about all the furnishings. It got to the point that people stopped inviting Borges lest Elsa come along. When she accidentally left a nutria coat in Cambridge after one trip, she made the return of the coat into an international incident involving U.S. and Argentinian ambassadorial and consular staffs.
Not that Borges was an ideal husband. He was an elderly blind man who happened to be impotent (which Elsa had known earlier) and incredibly old fashioned, a sort of Anglo-Argentinian who was neither all one thing or all the other. Finally, with di Giovanni’s help, Borges divorced her. He later re-married, with Maria Kodama, who now controls his esate.
Di Giovanni’s book is mandatory reading to supplement all the hagiographical biographies of the author who never quite get at the man’s character....more
This is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more tThis is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more than a reminder to the writer, and crude illustrations of rooms, streets, and scenes that played a part in the early life of Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle).
And it is only the first twenty or so years in Stendhal's life that are covered, comprising his childhood in Grenoble, his first few months in Paris, and his happiness at joining Napoleon's army in its invasion of Italy.
Why is it called The Life of Henry Brulard when Stendhal's real name is Marie-Henri Beyle? If we learn anything in the first two-thirds of the book, it is that Marie-Henri loathes his father and his aunt Seraphie, who seems to spend most of her time belittling and punishing him. He refuses to call himself Beyle, adopting instead the name Brulard, which belonged to his late, beloved mother. When Seraphie dies and he finally gets to Paris, he is disconsolate because in Paris there are no mountains, as in his native Dauphiné. In fact, until the very end, when Stendhal falls in love with Italy, he is a young man not comfortable in his own skin:
"Is Paris no more than this?"
This meant: the thing I've longed for so much, as the supreme good, the thing to which I've sacrificed my life for the past three years, bores me. It was not the three years' sacrifice that distressed me; in spite of my dread of entering the Ecole Polytechnique next year, I loved mathematics; the terrible question that I was not clever enough to see clearly was this: Where, then, is happiness to be found on earth? And sometimes I got as far as asking: Is there such a thing as happiness on earth?
Although The Life of Henry Brulard lacks the formal excellence of a great literary biography such as we are accustomed to, it is so manifestly truthful and self-critical that, for once, we do not feel that the author is busily embroidering an alternate past for himself.
The whole book was written over a four-month period in the 1830s, when Stendhal was fifty-two. Reading The Life of Henry Brulard is like experiencing a great writer forgiving all the dead ends and defeats of his youth. It is, if anything, a kind of celebration of a wayward youth. Stendhal stops writing abruptly when he feels his life is on the right track. What we get are all the wrong tracks that threatened to overthrow his development.
Fortunately for all of us, Stendhal went on to become a great writer, one who was eventually happy within his own skin. ...more
Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with --Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with -- if not the ultimate reality -- more outer layers. That artichoke heart is elusive, and perhaps cannot be found at all.
I have loved reading Dick's work for decades. This is the first time I ever tried to read a book about him. Douglas A Mackey in his survey of the author and his work, suitably entitled Philip K Dick, tries to come to terms with his subject, and does a creditable job at it. At one point, he quotes an unpublished work by the author:
At one time my heme was the search for reality, which I posed as: What is real? What isn't? But I think really my theme, What is human? What isn't? is more vital and was there all the time underlying the other. After all, the subdivision of reality most important to our ability to make something we can treasure out of our life is the reality of other humans. To define what is real is to define what is human, if you care about humans.
That last phrase I find most illuminating. There are people among us so wrapped in their pets, their TV-fed fantasies, and their craziness that they may very well not care about humans. Not when they can pick up a military assault rifle and shoot up a kindergarten.
Fortunately, Dick does care about humans. He does encounter some problems, however, dealing with his female characters. Males care about humans in general in a very different way that males care about women. The result is that it is difficult (but not impossible) for male authors to create convincing women and vice versa. It is a small failing in Dick, who was married five times and couldn't really sort out his problems with women during an incredibly creative lifetime.
Dick in his endless search for reality has produced at least a dozen works that easily cross over from science fiction to literature. It is no accident that three volumes (comprising thirteen novels) of the prestigious Library of America have been devoted to his work....more
This is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has beenThis is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has been a seat of government for the Czechs for hundreds of years. Václav Havel was the last President of Czechoslovakia (the first after the fall of Communism) and the first President of the Czech Republic (after Slovakia opted for its own independence).
To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy-Tale Hero consists of a series of notes made to his staff between 1993 and 2003 which were discovered on his computer. Then there were sections written in 2005 from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington during a long stay there, and finally a running interview with Karel Hvizd'ala which threads its way through the book. It shows some of the big issues that confronted Havel during his tenure at the Castle, such as the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Czech Republic's entry into NATO. It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:
In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.
At other times, Havel had to complain about the ugliest telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.
I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being an internationally known playwright, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches!
Particularly impressive was Havel's answer as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:
I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.
Would any of our politicians be so cogent and candid? ...more
But this was not to be. Not only was the Liberator dying, but he had the misfortune of seeing the proud republics he had founded falling prey to disunity and squabbling. In answer to the pleas of his friends to continue in the leadership, he backs off:
It was the end. General Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios was leaving forever. He had wrested from Spanish domination an empire five times more vast than all of Europe, he had led twenty years of wars to keep it free and united, and he had governed it with a firm hand until the week before, but when it was time to leave he did not even take away with him the consolation that anyone believed in his departure. The only man with enough lucidity to know he really was going, and where he was going to, was the English diplomat, who wrote in an official report to his government: "The time he has left will hardly be enough for him to reach his grave."
And so it was. When Bolivar and his retinue reach the shores of the Caribbean, he temporizes about leaving while dealing with rumors of the dissolution of Colombia and Venezuela. He is half tempted to go back to war to restore Riohacha. Except he is desperately ill, and his moment of glory is past. Even as death approaches, he is a remarkable man; and his letters fly all around South America and the Caribbean trying futilely to hold all the pieces together one last time.
It was a kind of double sadness anticipating the death of this incredible conqueror, in the shadow of the death of Garcia Marquez, who wrote this book in 1989, a quarter of a century ago.
The General in His Labyrinth is, like others of his works that I have read, a simple story, bathed in the magic of the tropics, and told with a kind of sublime generosity toward his characters. There is not a shred of irony or post-modernism to destroy the effect. Garcia Marquez joins other great storytellers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nikolai Leskov in his respect for the primacy of the tale itself.
For some reason, I thought I had read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia years ago, but it appears I did not. Most likely, I got bored by one of theFor some reason, I thought I had read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia years ago, but it appears I did not. Most likely, I got bored by one of the two political chapters and probably stopped reading. Now, I find both the biographical and the political matter both to be excellent; and I see clearly how Orwell's experience fighting with the P.O.U.M. (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) militia in northeast Spain made possible the great essays such as "Politics and the English Language" and such books as 1984.
If you are interested in stirring battle scenes, then Homage to Catalonia is manifestly not for you:
Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae -- every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.
During the whole several months of Orwell's military experience, there was only a single action that could be called a battle, and it turned out to be inconclusive.
Shortly after the book's midpoint, Orwell finds himself in Barcelona during a period of civil unrest. The Communists, who through Stalin were funneling weapons -- and orders -- to the Popular Government in Valencia, did everything in its power to destroy P.O.U.M. for being "Trotskyite." And we all know what Stalin thought of Trotsky, particularly during the 1930s. (He had him assassinated in Mexico.) In many ways, Stalin forced his Spanish clients to be every bit as Fascistic as Franco's forces, which were supported by the Nazis and Mussolini's fascisti.
From his experiences in Barcelona, Orwell regrets the extinction of P.O.U.M.:
I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busing 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this.
It is shortly after this that a stray Fascist bullet finds its way to -- and through -- Orwell's neck, missing his artery by mere millimeters. After Barcelona and the wound, Orwell tries to get out of Spain without being arrested for being a member of the now despised P.O.U.M.
Homage to Catalonia is one of Orwell's greatest books: I am delighted that I finally read it. ...more
When I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort andWhen I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort and found out that it was more or less true. At least to some degree. I have never in my reading encountered a writer who took so much joy in being a crook, a drug addict, and a sexual deviant. At several points during his autobiographical book (or should I say novel?), he talks about his experience being Life Styles of the Rich and Dysfunctional.
Belfort had founded a brokerage company called Stratton Oakmont in the early 1990s and became fabulously wealthy by essentially not following the regulators of the SEC and NASDAQ. At the same time, he lived high off the hog, consorted with prostitutes, and conspired with his associates to drain his clients of millions by selling them dubious investments. At one point, he says:
How much had my drug addiction fueled my life on the dark side? As a sober man, would I ever have slept with all those prostitutes? Would I have ever smuggled all that money to Switzerland? Would I have ever allowed Stratton's sales practices to spiral so far out of control?
I don't entirely believe Mr. Belfort because of the book's acknowledgments. He could apparently afford to higher a lot of high-priced talent to make him look like the silkiest of silk purses. The book is well written, but doesn't pass my fingerspitzengefuhl ("hunting dog nose") test: He looks too much like he enjoyed every moment of his life, even when he was doing things that were truly reprehensible, if not outright criminal.
Perhaps I am a secret Puritan at heart, because I don't buy it. But the story is well told, and Jordan Belfort comes across like someone we would all love to have as our friend -- even while he was picking our pockets and rogering our wives, daughters, and girlfriends. ...more
One of my favorite films of the 1980s was Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century Peruvian rubber baron who decides to bring the opera to tOne of my favorite films of the 1980s was Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century Peruvian rubber baron who decides to bring the opera to the jungle city of Iquitos. In order to do this, he must find a way of moving a largish steamship over a ridge that separates two adjacent rivers, the Camisea and the Urubamba.
Naturally, such an idea is madness on the face of it. But Herzog did it, and the result is a film production that will continue to amaze people as long as films are being watched.
Almost equal to the film, however, is Herzog's journal of the making of the film, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. Although in form the book is theoretically a documentation of an insanely difficult film production, it is as much a series of vignettes of life in the jungle, dreams, tales of encounters with snakes, spiders, Peruvian Indians, strange fish and birds, jungle rot, illnesses and wounds, and whatnot. Here is a brief example:
When I tossed a cigarette butt, still glowing, into a metal sewer grating, suddenly something like a snake shot up out of the damp, black sewer, seized the butt, dropped it again at once, and disappeared just as fast. It was a very large frog.
Here is another typical instance of jungle life:
Our kitchen crew slaughtered our last four ducks. While they were still alive, Julian plucked their neck feathers before chopping off their heads on the execution block. The albino turkey, that vain creature, the survivor of so many roast chickens and ducks transformed into soup, came over to inspect, gobbling and displaying, used his ugly feet to push one of the beheaded ducks as it lay there on the ground bleeding and flapping its wings into what he thought was a proper position, and making gurgling sounds while his bluish red wattles swelled, he mounted the dying duck and copulated with it.
There were also many descriptions of problems with the cast and crew, particularly with Klaus Kinski, who played the lead. After one of his crazier tantrums, a number of Campos Indians came up to Herzog and whispered whether he wanted to have the actor killed. Kinski got wind of what was going on and immediately died down.
This book is a classic and tells me more about the area around the Peruvian headwaters of the Amazon than I have seen in any other source. But then Herzog had made two films in the area. In addition to Fitzcarraldo, there was the equally excellent Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also starring Kinski. Also, this book gives me a good reason for never having wanted to become a film director: I would have gone stark raving mad and would have had to be killed by the Indians out of spite. ...more
Normally, I don't like biographies that much because most people do not have such exciting lives throughout. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was an excNormally, I don't like biographies that much because most people do not have such exciting lives throughout. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was an exception. He started out as a slave trader, enlisted as a private after Fort Sumter, but quickly rose to the rank of general commanding Confederate cavalry in Tennessee and Mississippi. He typically won battles in which his side was grossly outnumbered, never neglecting to "put the skeer" on his enemy.
With no West Point or other significant schooling, Forrest was an original. When attacked from two sides, he would think nothing of dividing his forces and have each attack in opposite directions. His cavalry operated more as dragoons, who used horses for mobility but fought as infantry. At Brice's Crossroads, he did the unthinkable: He had an artillery charge that completely flummoxed the Union forces. (Even now, I cannot imagine what THAT looked like.)
Unfortunately, Forrest was associated for the rest of his life with the massacre at Fort Pillow. He grew disgusted when his negotiations for a truce were running into what he considered bad faith. At this point, he ordered his men to "kill every God damned one of them." Most of the Union forces were black soldiers in uniform, and they were more likely to be killed than the whites.
After Appomattox, Forest became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, though he repudiated the organization and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to build a railroad between Memphis and Selma. But the Fort Pillow taint plus local envy from his fellow Memphis citizens led to the project being abandoned.
In the end, Forrest wasted away and died of advanced diabetes twelve years after the war.
Jack Hurst has done a creditable job in his Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. There was no question but that Forrest was a bad ass. But, according to Civil War historian Shelby Foote, he is one of the two greatest geniuses the war produced, the other being Abraham Lincoln....more
The title of this book is a complete misnomer. It is actually a brief biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War Hero and 18th President of the United SThe title of this book is a complete misnomer. It is actually a brief biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War Hero and 18th President of the United States.
I have always been partial to Bruce Catton, probably because he was the historian who first got me interested in the Civil War back when I was a teenager. His A Stillness at Appomattox and his young adult novel Banners at Shenandoah were among my all time favorites; and I rough;y recall reading about fifteen of his works in all.
Unfortunately, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition is not one of my favorites. It seems to be more of an extended outline than a serious biography. The best part is the middle, in which Grant is fighting the Civil War. The last section, about Grant's postwar political ambitions was a bit drab.
Lacking are quotes and instances which would lend color to the work -- something at which Catton was excellent in his Civil War histories. I guess he tried a little too hard to keep the book length under 200 pages. More's the pity!...more
Many years ago, I read Marguerite Duras's The Ravishing of Lol Stein, which, at the time, did not make much of an impression on me. Such was not the cMany years ago, I read Marguerite Duras's The Ravishing of Lol Stein, which, at the time, did not make much of an impression on me. Such was not the case with The War, which struck me as being more emotionally realistic than most Resistance literature. (After all, it seems that 125% of the French were actively involved in the Resistance.) I knew, when Duras used the term naphthalinés, "the mothballed ones," to refer to French army members who decamped and put their uniforms in mothballs rather than using them to fight the Nazis, that she was on to something real.
There is too much raw emotional honesty to make me think that Duras did not live through most of the events she described. This is an excellent book of autobiographical essays about the last year or so of the war in France and its immediate aftermath. Even the one fictional tale, the last in the book, fits in well, even though it is from the point of view of a little Jewish girl who was saved by a kindly German woman with the war flaring all around her....more
Let me begin by acknowledging one of my prejudices: I am in love with most things Icelandic. That includes the medieval sagas, the works of Nobel PrizLet me begin by acknowledging one of my prejudices: I am in love with most things Icelandic. That includes the medieval sagas, the works of Nobel Prize winning novelist (1955) Halldor Laxness, and now also Icelandic detective novels. I have read most of Laxness's work that has been translated into English, which is but a small portion of his total output. His plays, poems, and essays have not made it to the English-speaking world. But, while there is life, there is also hope.
Most authors' biographies depict people who are much snarkier than Laxness. I guess there is something about always being asked the same stupid questions by ignoramuses who don't read that turns many writers inward and encourages them to hand questioners the same old party line.
Laxness, on the other hand, had a strain of emotional nakedness about him that comes out particularly in his letters and essays, which are liberally quoted in this excellent biography by Halldor Gudmundsson. In fact, The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness is probably the best literary biography I have read for many years.
There were two major dead ends in Halldor Laxness's life. First, he was enthralled by Catholicism and spent some time at the Monastery of Clervaux in Luxembourg. That was replaced by another god, one that stayed with him until relatively late in his life, namely Communism. Although Laxness never actually joined the Communist party, he was regarded by many as being a fellow traveller. This caused his considerable pain during much of his life, especially when he was attacked by the Rightist press in Iceland, the United States, and elsewhere.
Curiously, in his declining years, Laxness returned to Catholicism.
In the end, in 1981, he told a Swedish interviewer, "I am a storyteller. God protect me from saving the world."
What kind of storyteller was Halldor Laxness? It is possible that some people who are reading this review have never heard of the Icelandic writer, whose years spanned all but a few years of the turbulent Twentieth Century. He is that rarest of contemporary writers, a crafter of epics. His Independent People (1934-1935), Iceland's Bell (1943-1946), and World Light (1937-1940) are among the greatest works of fiction written within the last hundred years. That tiny little island in the North Atlantic, situated somewhere between Norway and Greenland, has a thousand-year-old literary tradition that makes the inhabitants naturally turn to the epic mode.
Even if you do not have the burning interest in Iceland that I have, I urge everyone who loves literature to give Laxness a chance. So what if his books are long? Just give up reading some trashy genre novels for a few weeks, and you will not be disappointed....more
There is a distressing sameness to most biographies: They begin with their subject's birth, follow him or her through a (mostly) promising youth, untiThere is a distressing sameness to most biographies: They begin with their subject's birth, follow him or her through a (mostly) promising youth, until the apogee is reached. From there, it is all downhill. So it is with Lord Kinross in Ataturk. Its subject, Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. Kemal Ataturk, is the re-inventor of Turkey. What in his youth was a decrepit and moribund empire, he turned into a foward-looking republic (with the overtones of a benign dictatorship) that still reveres him some sixty-five years after his death in 1938.
I was of two minds about Ataturk. On one hand, he was a great military hero and a decisive, if not autocratic, political leader. On the other hand, I probably would not have fared terribly well under his rule.
But then, there is Turkey today. A hundred years ago, no one would have bet a dime that it would be today a relatively prosperous democracy. That was all Ataturk's doing....more
This is the first of five volumes tracing in exhaustive detail the influences working on Fyodor Dostoevsky during his literary career. It was by readiThis is the first of five volumes tracing in exhaustive detail the influences working on Fyodor Dostoevsky during his literary career. It was by reading David Foster Wallace's review of the series reprinted in his collection Consider the Lobster that I decided I would read the series and, along with it, the novels and stories of the great Russian writer as they came up in Joseph Frank's series.
Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 is excellent except for a sag several chapters long dealing with Dostoevsky's attendance at various political/socialist/Fourierist circles after the disappointment's following the publication of Poor Folk. Fortunately, Frank returns after his author's arrest by the Tsarist officials to the minor (but interesting) works he was working on during the period of his socialist venture.
Here, from "An Honest Thief," is a fascinating quote that was later eliminated by Dostoevsky because of one critic's stupidly negative response:
My Emelyan, if he had stayed alive, wouldn't have been a man but some sort of trash to spit on. But here he died from grief and a bad conscience and it's like he showed the world that, whatever he might be, he was a human being all the same; that a man can die from vice as from a deadly poison, and that vice, it must be, is a human thing, something you pick up, it's not born with you -- here today, it could be gone for good tomorrow, otherwise, if we were destined to stay depraved all through the ages because of original sin, Christ would never have come to us.
This is a magnificent book, and I can hardly wait to read the other four volumes in the series. But first, I have promised myself to read (or re-read) The Double, White Nights, The Landlady, and Netochka Nezvanova....more
There's nothing quite like an unreliable narrator to keep the reader on his toes. John Glassco was one of those North Americans (he himself was from MThere's nothing quite like an unreliable narrator to keep the reader on his toes. John Glassco was one of those North Americans (he himself was from Montreal) who flocked to Paris in the 1920s. As Michael Gnarowski of Carlton University in Ottawa wrote:
It used to be said of one of the painters in Montparnasse that, although he appeared to be well informed about world events, no one had ever caught him reading a newspaper. The same obersvation may be made of the people who inhabit Glassco's Memoirs. They seem to be cocooned against the outside world, and Glassco's own narrative is almost totally devoid of references to the times. If the young generation had come to Paris in search of freedom and pleasure, or some sort of spiritual enlightenment, it was clearly determined not to allow the world, as inhabited by their families, to interfere with their own restricted universe, defined by little magazines, eccentric art, personal relationships, and outré behaviour.
Despite the fact that the author has no great love of accuracy, Memoirs Of Montparnasse is one of those entertaining reads one could not easily put down. There are numerous encounters with famous writers (some of them who have their names slightly altered) and artists; and not everything said about them, or where they live, or in fact anything is necessarily 100% accurate. There is a lot of hooking up with persons of all gender combinations going on, yet Glassco does not take the Frank Harris route of describing overt sex acts. (And yet Glassco later wrote or "translated" various pornographic works). Even the half-hearted framing story of the Memoirs being written in a Canadian hospital where Glassco is recovering from tuberculosis, is not entirely true.
I recall an anecdote about a patient telling his psychoanalyst stories about his life, with the latter nodding sagely and saying, "That's interesting." Exasperated, the patients tells his analyst that everything he has said to date has been a lie. Without skipping a beat, the analyst says, in the same tone of voice, "That's even more interesting!" This is the genre that Glassco's work inhabits. Think of it as a vaguely reality-based fantasy about a footloose young man and his slightly sexually inverted friends and acquaintances in Montmartre in that short heyday between Lindbergh's solo flight to Paris and the Stock Market Crash of 1929. ...more
The career of William Cobbett has always appealed to me. Today, I took my old Penguin copy with me to a museum that my girlfriend wanted to visit, butThe career of William Cobbett has always appealed to me. Today, I took my old Penguin copy with me to a museum that my girlfriend wanted to visit, but I didn't. Instead, I holed up in the museum cafe and started to read this biography of the English journalist and reformer. I read half of it in the cafe and the rest at home the same evening.
Best known today for his Rural Rides, Cobbett is largely unknown to Americans (though he did much of his early work here) and relatively unknown in Britain, where, in fact, there is a lack of scholarly works on agricultural reform during the period of the Napoleonic Wars and the twenty years succeeding. For Cobbett was that strange admixture of conservative and radical. On one hand, he wanted to see British agriculture return to the glory days of the past, when farms were self-sufficient, and English yeoman were not taxed based on the killing load of the "tax-eaters" and other dead-weight that proliferated in the government and church beginning with the Napoleonic Wars and the ministry of Pitt.
Cobbett never pulled any punches -- a trait that got him in trouble with the government several times, culminating in a two-year sentence to Newgate. Following is a passage from Rural Rides in which he castigates the town of Cheltenham:
The Warwickshire Avon falls into the Severn here, and on the sides of both, for many miles back, there are the finest meadows that ever were seen. In looking over them, and beholding the endless flocks and herds, one wonders what can become of all the meat! By riding on about eight or nine miles farther, however, this wonder is a little diminished; for here we come to one of the devouring Wens; namely, Cheltenham, which is what they call a “watering place;” that is to say, a place, to which East India plunderers, West India floggers, English tax-gorgers, together with gluttons, drunkards, and debauchees of all descriptions, female as well as male, resort, at the suggestion of silently laughing quacks, in the hope of getting rid of the bodily consequences of their manifold sins and iniquities. When I enter a place like this, I always feel disposed to squeeze up my nose with my fingers. It is nonsense, to be sure; but I conceit that every two-legged creature, that I see coming near me, is about to cover me with the poisonous proceeds of its impurities. To places like this come all that is knavish and all that is foolish and all that is base; gamesters, pickpockets, and harlots; young wife-hunters in search of rich and ugly and old women, and young husband-hunters in search of rich and wrinkled or half-rotten men, the former resolutely bent, be the means what they may, to give the latter heirs to their lands and tenements. These things are notorious; and Sir William Scott, in his speech of 1802, in favour of the non-residence of the Clergy, expressly said, that they and their families ought to appear at watering places, and that this was amongst the means of making them respected by their flocks! Memorandum: he was a member for Oxford when he said this!
G. K. Chesterton also wrote a book on Cobbett, which fortunately is back in print and deserves to be read, though Pemberton refers to it as "not really a biography but an exhilarating and witty display of Chestertonian philosophy with Cobbett as a backcloth." No matter, I liked both Pemberton and Chesterton's treatments of Cobbett. Now I am hungrily eyeing my copy of Rural Rides and moving it to my TBR pile.
In this volume are two separate works: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and William Godwin's Memoirs of the AuthIn this volume are two separate works: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Woman’. I would rank the first of these two works with five stars, as Mary Wollstonecraft not only has a lively style but also a heart free of cant:
You have sometimes wondered, my dear friend, at the extreme affection of my nature—But such is the temperance of my soul—It is not the vivacity of youth, gthe hey-day of existence. For years have I endeavoured to calm an impetuous tide—labouring to make my feelings take an orderly course.—It was striving against the stream. I must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness.
The long severing of her relationship with her husband Gilbert Imlay lends a darkening aspect to her descriptions of the Scandinavian countries she visited, originally at the behest of Imlay. She continues: "At present black melancholy hovers round my footsteps; and sorrow sheds a mildew over all my future prospects, which hope no longer gilds."
The biography written by William Godwin, her last love, is colored by his wife's recent death in childbirth in 1797. It is a melancholy work in its own right and was much criticized as being inappropriate by critics who were aghast at things that were simply not discussed in polite company. Godwin might not have been polite company, but he had a loving heart and appreciated his Mary. ...more
The two feelings I got from reading Albert Camus's American Journals is that (1) the author really doesn't like to travel: In fact, he's something ofThe two feelings I got from reading Albert Camus's American Journals is that (1) the author really doesn't like to travel: In fact, he's something of a homebody; and (2) he traveled to the United States and South America under the worst possible conditions, being squired around by literati and embassy personnel and giving lectures. At one point in his South American travels, he complains, "Physically, I can no longer endure large gatherings of people."
The trip to the United States leaves Camus feeling alienated and rather disdainful of what passes for American culture, encompassing movies, cities, the countryside, and pretty much the whole shooting match. The trip to South America finds him more receptive, but it is still a horror of coming down with asthma and bronchitis and being dragged from place to place by locals who are impressed with his reputation as a writer. Still, he is more impressed by the lush South American landscapes:
And once again for hours I watch this monotonous naure and those immense spaces: one can't say they are beautiful, but they cling insistently in the soul. Country [Brazil] where the seasons are confused with one another, where the vegetation is so intertwined as to become formless, where bloods are so mixed up that the soul loses its borders. A loud splashing, the sea-green light of the forests, the varnish of red dust which covers all things, the melting of time, the slowness of the country, the brief and extravagant excitement of the big cities -- it's the country of indifference and blood explosions. Try as it might the skyscraper has yet to overcome the spirit of the forest -- the immensity, the melancoly. Sambas -- the authentic ones -- best express what I mean.
There are delightful moments amid all the discomfort, the forced association with mediocrities.
This is definitely a work in a minor key, but it tells me more about a writer whose work I love. And that's what makes it worth reading....more
This was a surprisingly good biography, by far the best biography of Balzac I have ever read -- even better than the one by Graham Robb, which I lovedThis was a surprisingly good biography, by far the best biography of Balzac I have ever read -- even better than the one by Graham Robb, which I loved. Gerson concentrates on Balzac's crowded love life and his many failed attempts to live frugally. As a novelist himself, the author does an excellent job of marshaling his material and presenting it almost as if it were excellent fiction in its own right.
Balzac has written hundreds of works, including novels, short stories, and plays. His best works are classified in his Human Comedy series, which includes some of the greatest novels ever written, including Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons, Eugenie Grandet, Lost Illusions, The Wild Ass's Skin, and Cesar Birotteau. (I could just as easily add another dozen titles deserving immortality). At the same time, as he was always deep in debt, he often spent up to twenty hours a day writing, destroying his health with endless cups of strong, black coffee. The result were many works that were slipshod, works whose composition sometimes took decades, frequently interrupted by other works. In a way, one could summarize his oeuvre as "The Great, the Bad, and the Ugly." But, at least, it was never mediocre.
The great irony of Balzac's life is that, for years, he pursued a wealthy Polish countess, Eveline Hanska, whom he finally married when he was at death's door at the age of fifty. At the same time that there was something magnificent about the man, he was also pathetic. All his investments failed. All the "antiques" he bought were expensive fakes. He died leaving debts of almost 400,000 francs, which his widow readily paid off. And, as Balzac's many books continued to pay royalties amounting to 50,000 francs a year, adding to her already large personal fortune.
If you want to read a single biography of Balzac, I recommend The prodigal Genius: The Life and Times of Honoré de Balzac. Unfortunately, the bio is not currently in print, but copies are available from used book dealers. ...more
The historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicThe historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicler of the secret police. Abd what greater mystery is there in Soviet history than determining who was responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the party chief of Leningrad and supposed friend of Stalin. On December 1, 1934, he was shot in the back of the neck just in front of his second floor office in the Smolny Institute.
As soon as he heard the news, Stalin rushed to Leningrad and personally took charge of the investigation. Surprisingly, Kirov's bodyguard, Borisov, died in a freak traffic accident on the way to be interrogated. (Hmmm.) Not surprisingly, Stalin claimed that the gunman, Leonid Nikolaev, was a tool of a conspiracy hatched by -- oh what a surprise! -- Stalin's main enemies, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, who were forthwith arrested to be reserved for the first big show trial to kick off the infamous purges that peaked a couple of years later.
Although Stalin publicly treated Kirov as his best friend, Kirov was under no such misapprehensions. At the Seventeenth Party Congress, Kirov came within an ace of beating Stalin in a popularity contest in which the latter garnered a large number of negative votes, which, not surprisingly, have been lost. Knight concludes that Stalin used Kirov as a pretext to formulate a vast conspiracy (which was born suspiciously soon after Kirov's death) to be used for ridding the party of anyone whom he felt opposed him or could even conceivably oppose him. As Knight writes:
The story of Kirov's murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov's assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin's, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.
I highly recommend Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery to anyone interested in the great purges that culminated some seventy-five years ago and more. ...more
I read this first volume of three of Isaac Deutscher's massive biography of Leon Trotsky for a discussion group on Russian history. It turns out thatI read this first volume of three of Isaac Deutscher's massive biography of Leon Trotsky for a discussion group on Russian history. It turns out that seeing the Russian Revolution through the eyes of one man -- perhaps the most brilliant of the early Soviet leaders -- gave me a unique perception of Russia's successes and failures in those critical early years.
Communism started out more or less as an international debating society with branches all over Europe. It was only the proto-revolution of 1905 that showed Trotsky and Lenin that the whole thing was possible. What they didn't expect, however, was that the whole rest of the world did not march in lockstep with them. They conducted their revolution in the middle of World War I, while under attack by the Germans, succeeded in an almost bloodless overthrow of Kerensky's Menshevik government, then had to deal with several years of civil war against the White Russian forces of Denikin, Kolchak, and Wrangel -- not to mention an invasion of the Ukraine by the Polish. At the end of this time, Russia was in the middle of a famine, industrial production was way down, and something new had to be done.
Trotsky was not only the major player in the October Revolution, but founded the Red Army to combat the Poles and the Whites. As Deutscher writes:
It was his clear, consistent, and swift logic -- the logic of the great administrator -- that defeated Trotsky. His mind fixed on his objective, he rushed headlong into controversy, impetuously produced arguments and generalizations, and ignored the movement of opinion until he overreached himself and aroused angry resentment. The self-conscious administrator in him got the better of the sensitive political thinker and blinded him to the implications of his schemes. What was only one of many facets in Trotsky's experimental thinking [namely, a monolithic state] was to become Stalin's alpha and omega.
The first volume ends in 1921, as Trotsky was still in his prime, but beginning to run into opposition from Stalin and others.
On a squib of the back cover of my edition, Graham Greene states, "Surely this must be counted among the greatest biographies in the English language." To which I might add that it is a sine qua non for understanding how communism emerged from a theory into a large and powerful state....more
This meditation on the life of Jefferson Davis is probably the best short work about the American Civil War. Both Davis and author Robert Penn WarrenThis meditation on the life of Jefferson Davis is probably the best short work about the American Civil War. Both Davis and author Robert Penn Warren were born in Todd County, Kentucky, where today there is a white obelisk commemorating the life of the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. (And, only about a hundred miles away, in a poor white's cabin, was born Abraham Lincoln.) As Warren wrote, "More than a contrast between Lincoln and Davis is involved. The contrast lay in the two societies -- one embracing antique values, the other in the process of developing new ones."
Why did the South lose the Civil War? Warren's explanation puts it as follows:
Once face to face with Lee, unconquerable at the chessboard of war, he fought a war of swap-out, knowing that only the balance sheet of blood could ensure victory. He [Grant] had an incalculable amount of blood to swap. And, to make certain that the swap system worked to the utmost, he refused after a battle any truce for the burial of the dead and the succor of the wounded. By the same token, he refused exchanges of prisoners, his theory was that a man could as well serve the country starving the Andersonville [the Confederate prison] as standing in the battle line. Unremitting pressure, at any cost, was the policy of a man who loathed the sight of blood but had come face to face with reality. He was purely logical, and after the war he stated the theory he had developed: "The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving."
At battles such as Cold Harbor, not a single wounded Confederate soldier survived.
So much of what has been written about the Civil War and its political and military leaders has been from the Yankee point of view. It is refreshing to read a thoughtful southerner such as Robert Penn Warren or Shelby Foote cover the same ground.
Jefferson Davis was a tragic figure who was foredoomed to lose the war and his reputation. After the war, what he wanted more than anything else was his day in court, to defend his decisions from start to finish. But he never received that opportunity.
This is the second biography I have read this spring about a Russian monarch, the other being Peter the Great. There is a kind of sameness to biographThis is the second biography I have read this spring about a Russian monarch, the other being Peter the Great. There is a kind of sameness to biographies of monarchs who have enjoyed long reigns -- as opposed to something like Tacitus's The Histories, about the Year of the Four Emperors in A.D. 69. The ruler comes to power, by fair means or foul, establishes himself or herself, issues numerous reforms, conducts several wars, weakens, dies, and is repudiated by his or her heirs. I think that is about enough for me for at least another year or so.
Simon Dixon does a creditable job marshaling his facts and footnoting his assertions. What he fails to do is step back and assess the contributions of his subject from his vantage point more than two centuries after Catherine's demise. There are some interesting illustrations, but no maps, which would have been helpful considering the many far-flung wars and royal visits to provincial cities.
A few weeks ago, I read George Bernard Shaw's short play Great Catherine, which, in its limited way, was as helpful as Dixon's 500-page biography.