A Backward Glance: An Autobiography takes readers up to 1934, but Wharton's account of the years post-1918 barely amount to an epilogue. She is not deA Backward Glance: An Autobiography takes readers up to 1934, but Wharton's account of the years post-1918 barely amount to an epilogue. She is not desolate, she still draws from her usual sources of joy. Writing, reading, the conversation of a circle of brilliant though fast-dwindling friends, travel, especially yachting the Aegean and motoring in far reaches (given her identification with the French elite, I found it perfect that her exploration of Morocco was smoothed by none other than General Lyautey). But, she says, life is not the same, many have died, much is ended. Her account of Henry James' decline and death during the war, in a nightmare of empathetic anguish, is hard reading:
I have never seen any one else who, without a private personal stake in that awful struggle, suffered from it as he did. He had not my solace of hard work, though he did all he had strength for, and gave all the pecuniary help he could. But it was not enough. His devouring imagination was never at rest, and the agony was more than he could bear. As far as I know the only letters of mine which he kept were those in which I described my various journeys to the front, and when these were sent back to me after his death they were worn with much handing about. His sensitiveness about his own physical disabilities gave him an exaggerated idea of what his friends were able to do, and he never tired of talking of what he regarded as their superhuman activities. But still the black cloud hung over the world, and to him it was soon to be a pall. Perhaps it was better so. I should have liked to have him standing beside me the day the victorious armies rode by; but when I think of the years intervening between his death and that brief burst of radiance I have not the heart to wish that he had seen it. The waiting would have been too bitter. ...more
The first meeting of Inez Christian and Jack Lovett at the ballet - the beginning of Lovett's "grave attraction" that would last over twenty years - iThe first meeting of Inez Christian and Jack Lovett at the ballet - the beginning of Lovett's "grave attraction" that would last over twenty years - is the sexiest scene I've read in a while:
Cissy Christian smoking a cigarette in her white jade holder. Inez, wearing dark glasses...pinning and repinning a gardenia in her damp hair. This is our niece, Inez, Dwight Christian said. Inez, Major Lovett. Jack. Inez, Mrs. Lovett. Carla. A breath of air, a cigarette. This champagne is lukewarm. One glass won't hurt you, Inez, it's your birthday. Inez's birthday. Inez is seventeen. Inez's evening, really. Inez is our balletomane.
"Why are you wearing sunglasses," Jack Lovett said.
Inez Christian, startled, touched her glasses as if to remove them and then, looking at Jack Lovett, brushed her hair back instead, loosening the pins that held the gardenia.
Inez Christian smiled.
The gardenia fell into the wet grass.
"I used to know all the generals at Schofield," Cissy Christian said. "Great fun out there. Then."
"I'm sure." Jack Lovett did not take his eyes from Inez.
"Great polo players, some of them," Cissy Christian said. "I don't suppose you get much time to play."
"I don't play," Jack Lovett said.
Inez Christian closed her eyes.
Carla Lovett drained her paper cup and crushed it in her hand.
"Inez is seventeen," Dwight Christian repeated.
"I think I want a real drink," Carla Lovett said. ...more
Carter hasn't made Sade a pressing priority, hasn't propelled his books any higher up my to-read list, but her readings, especially of Justine; or, ThCarter hasn't made Sade a pressing priority, hasn't propelled his books any higher up my to-read list, but her readings, especially of Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), are full of striking passages. These are perfect summaries of a very familiar type:
...in the character of Justine Sade contrived to isolate the dilemma of an emergent type of woman. Justine, daughter of a banker, becomes the prototype of two centuries of women who find the world was not, as they had been promised, made for them and who do not have, because they have not been given, the existential tools to remake the world for themselves. These self-consciously blameless ones suffer and suffer until it becomes second nature; Justine marks the start of a kind of self-regarding female masochism, a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity.
Justine’s virtue is not the continuous exercise of a moral faculty. It is a sentimental response to the world in which she always hopes her good behavior will procure her some reward, some respite from the bleak and intransigent reality which surrounds her and to which she cannot accommodate herself. The virtuous, the interesting Justine, with her incompetence, her gullibility, her whining, her frigidity, her reluctance to take control of her own life, is a perfect woman. She always does what she is told. She is at the mercy of any master, because that is the nature of her own definition of goodness.
For Justine is extraordinarily single-minded. This single-mindedness makes her rebel against that Fate that mistreats her; she is in revolt, even, against human nature itself, or, rather, against a view of human nature as irredeemably corrupt. Justine would say, as all good revolutionaries have said: ‘Even if it is so, then it should not be so,’ and, though she is far too pusillanimous to do anything about it, she never deviates from her frail and lonely stand, from the idea that men and women need not necessarily be wicked.
Fitzroy Maclean, SAS, Yugoslavia, in Eastern Approaches:
"With a jerk my parachute opened and I found myself dangling, as it were at the end of a strinFitzroy Maclean, SAS, Yugoslavia, in Eastern Approaches:
"With a jerk my parachute opened and I found myself dangling, as it were at the end of a string, high above a silent mountain valley, greenish-grey and misty in the light of the moon. It looked, I thought, invitingly cool and refreshing after the sand and glare of North Africa. Somewhere above me the aircraft, having completed its mission, was headed for home. The noise of its engines grew gradually fainter in the distance. A long way below me and some distance away I could see a number of fires burning. I hoped they were the right ones, for the Germans also lit fires at night at different points in the Balkans in the hope of diverting supplies and parachutists from their proper destinations. As I swung lower, I could hear a faint noise of shouting coming from the direction of the fires. I could still not see the ground immediately beneath me. We must, I reflected, have been dropped from a considerable height to take so long coming down. Then, without further warning, there was a jolt and I was lying in a field of wet grass. There was no one in sight."
Patrick Leigh Fermor, SOE, Crete, in Abducting a General:
"The sierras of occupied Crete, familiar from nearly two years of clandestine sojourn and hundreds of exacting marches, looked quite different through the aperture in the converted bomber's floor and the gaps in the clouds below: a chaos of snow-covered, aloof and enormous spikes glittering as white as a glacier in the February moonlight. Then, suddenly, on a tiny plateau among the peaks, were the three signal fires twinkling. A few moments later they began expanding fast: freed at last from the noise inside the Liberator the parachute sailed gently down towards the heart of the triangle. Small figures were running in the firelight and in another few moments, snow muffled the impact of landing. There was a scrum of whiskery embracing, a score of Cretan voices, one English one. A perfect landing!"
Maclean's passage is an old favorite, but he yields the palm of eloquence.
Abducting a General consists of three parts, progressively arcane: his ninety-page account of the abduction and getaway, written in 1965 and here published in full for the first time; a selection of his official reports for SOE Cairo, jaunty and humorous little pieces penned by torchlight in various hideouts, over a span of two years; and a guide to western Crete written by two current climbers, for the true cultists who might wish to hike the abduction route. ...more
Never off my coffee table. This book reminds me what Lindergh is capable of--capable of when he's not photographing, for Harper's Bazaar, whatever medNever off my coffee table. This book reminds me what Lindergh is capable of--capable of when he's not photographing, for Harper's Bazaar, whatever mediocore actress has a romantic comedy coming out this month. Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones get the watered-down, occasionally color-film (blasphemy!) version of the style he forged in the editorial pages of Paris Vogue: gritty, dark-toned, noir-ish, Rodchenko-like, perfect for studies of a ferocious-looking Helena Christensen's tanned, coppery nakedness. ...more
"In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, issued one hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and march"In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, issued one hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and marched on, to the next stop of what O’Connell aptly calls the 'roadshow' of emancipation. Sherman’s culminating performance was the Grand Review of the returning armies, May 23 and 24, 1865. Two hundred thousand troops paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the boxed dignitaries of Washington and seventy-five thousand cheering citizens. Sherman’s forces marched on the second day. Whitman, then clerking at the Indian Bureau, noted that divisions were preceded by pioneer battalions of 'real Southern darkies, black as tar,' marching smartly with shouldered axes. They had felled forests and laid the log roads on which the army had crossed the Carolina swamps. And taking up the rear, the families of freed people who had followed Sherman’s army out of bondage, and into an uncertain future. Black residents of Washington would also trail President Grant’s second Inauguration Day parade, and be jeered. With Lincoln killed, these generals were their hope."
A disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incompletA disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incompletely rendered. The book never quite rose above the level of those “Nostalgia” columns that run in US Vogue wherein the children of forgotten icons share bittersweet memories of their parents' lives off-stage. These brilliantly twisted people deserve a better biographer than their daughter. Worth skimming, though, if you’re obsessed, as I am, with stories of aristocratic Russian émigrés, traumatized but proud, making their way in the literary, artistic, and fashionable circles of the West, dazzling and scandalizing with their weird erotic verve, severe manners, hermetic emotional privacy, and strong, archly accented opinions. ...more
Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that tiRe-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”
This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.
Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.
As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places (published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.
I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War
betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.
There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.
On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.
On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.
On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…
On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.
As a reviewer, I couldn't possibly do better than this:
"The enlightening, progressive force of liberalism has carried us far from slavery, we like toAs a reviewer, I couldn't possibly do better than this:
"The enlightening, progressive force of liberalism has carried us far from slavery, we like to think. We are not those people and never could have been. In River of Dark Dreams, we are reminded that between the slave empire and our own age lies only a handful of generations. Johnson shows the historical meaning of this proximity. We are connected not just through the shortness of time but through the persistence of the liberal capitalist tradition itself. The form of freedom fantasized by the slaveholding South, in turn, is the freedom of our own society: ensuring a standard of living sufficient to confirm our self-image and limit domestic conflict; built upon ecological degradation, the conquest of darker nations by international bureaucracies, their enslavement by debt, their forcible integration into a global commercial network; enforced by our own armies of the night, surveilling, killing, torturing without oversight. The myth of our great distance from slavery—of the old South’s fundamental illiberalism—exists precisely to give us a way of managing our experience of this continuity, and to let us continue to enact it."
This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that illustrate Sartre’s remark that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable fromThis half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that illustrate Sartre’s remark that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, probably damaging the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.
Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.
As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a keen military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable - number of dead men. ...more
This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think manyCross-posted on Soapboxing.net
This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think many times of Memoirs of Hadrian - especially the short opening section in which the emperor begins to discern, after a life of warfare and perilous travels, his quiet, domestic death, and in which he describes the abdications of his failing body:
To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still…if the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of a centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man? ... My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and perhaps better than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will.
“Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” said his mother, perhaps hinting only horses could. From his cadet years he was acknowledged the finest horseman in the army, and the mastery of large, spirited, unmanageable-looking mounts was one of the few personal demonstrations this shy man allowed himself. Tellingly, he chose to smoke his doctor-decreed last cigar with a Hudson Valley horse breeder, on a fine autumn day, while they were out having a look at the colts.
Flood’s book is blandly written and strangely organized, but the latter chapters quote a wealth of contextual detail. The get-well letters from schoolchildren, the condolence telegrams from former rebel generals and lodges of Confederate veterans, all the funereal logistics of Manhattan crowd control and mourning fashion (by 4:00pm on the day Grant died Bloomingdale’s was sold out of black crepe; the New York Times noted that “in the narrow streets and the tall crowded buildings where the poor make their homes the sign of grief is nearly on every door post…in many cases it is nothing but a narrow strip of cheap black cambric fluttering in the breeze from the topmost story of some tenement house or a small flag bordered with a piece of folded crepe from a wornout bonnet”) allow the reader to sense the nature and magnitude of Grant’s fame in the twenty years he lived after the war. He was the foremost living symbol of peaceful unity – the nation was locally fraught, but generally at peace; its unity mocked, beset, but not fatally endangered by labor strife in the North, racial terrorism in the South, and, out West, amid the piecemeal settlement, sporadic warfare and nigh-genocidal dispossession. A society traumatized and confused but mostly functional, its injustice and inequality somehow borne, its ideals regularly betrayed but still vital enough to inspire immigrants and the young, its citizens ever-hopeful of adapting, rising, overcoming; a country always, said Bernard DeVoto, in the process of becoming something it had not been; a welter of souls strangely channeled, by force, by whim, and deposited somewhere. The semblance of community, and frequently the substance.
The national tributes Grant received in his illness, especially those from old rebels, gave a calm to the “Conclusion” of his Personal Memoirs. “The expressions of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people.” A prospect of felicitous integration – what he called “a commingling of the people.” The styles of Grant and Yourcenar’s Hardrian intersect at a lyrical legalism, a civic sublimity:
Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers …This is all changed now … The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that…the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.
I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveler might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture…
Yourcenar said that in her wartime hiatus from work on the novel, the emperor, “the most official yet the most hidden form of all,” had gradually emerged from Hadrian’s other selves – “The fact of having lived in a world that was toppling all around us taught me the importance of the Prince.” Grant’s memory was for a long time obscured in his nation’s era of general peace, when unity was assumed, order assured, and rebels romantic; what does his memory mean for us now that the Federal political system of the United States is again broken, again at an impasse? ...more