While their foul subject was fresh, the first post-war English historians, in early before the smoke had cleared, smelt the Devil. (Clive James)
I likeWhile their foul subject was fresh, the first post-war English historians, in early before the smoke had cleared, smelt the Devil. (Clive James)
I liked reading The Last Days of Hitler (1947) much more than I liked watching Downfall. Trevor-Roper’s reunion of English historical styles—Gibbon’s irony, Strachey’s titter, Carlyle’s bilious verve, if not his love of strongmen and Germany—makes even the flatulent fug of the Führerbunker, its Sardanapalan delirium, enjoyable to read about:
Pacing up and down in the Bunker…he would wave a road map, fast decomposing with the sweat of his hands, and explain to any casual visitor the complicated military operations whereby they would all be saved. Sometimes he would shout orders, as if himself directing the defenders; sometimes he would spread the map on the table, and stooping over it, with trembling hands he would arrange and rearrange a set of buttons, as consolatory symbols of relieving armies. In the tropical climate of a court, emotions and beliefs quickly change their direction. No one except Hitler still believed in Wenck’s army, but no one disagreed with his reassurances; and in a moment of time the chorus which had been chanting lamentoso, the dirge of despair and suicide, would suddenly break out allegro vivace, with a triumphant welcome for the army of Wenck.
Trevor-Roper was a young Oxford don given wartime leave to assist the intelligence services. He studied radio intercepts and tracked the turf wars of German Army Intelligence and the SS. After the war, to forestall a posthumous Hitler cult, on one hand, and to refute Soviet claims that Hitler was alive and being secretly rehabilitated by the Western Allies for a renewed anti-Soviet crusade, on the other, Trevor-Roper was assigned, in September 1945, to establish the facts of Hitler’s last days and death. His mission entailed the pursuit, arrest and interrogation of fugitive members of the Fuhrer’s entourage; he also dug up a copy of Hitler’s will buried in a garden, and shadowboxed with the stony Soviet authorities who had recovered Hitler’s corpse but kept mum on Stalin’s orders. “Conceivably,” he writes in the introduction to the 1956 edition, “when we remember the narrow and recondite fronts upon which inter-Bolshevik struggles are fought, the question of Hitler’s death, and the official doctrine about it, may have been the symbol of some deeper tension in Russian politics.” Part of what I like in this book is its origin as an intelligence report, the survey of a world in which Hitler wasn’t yet a memory; even the 1956 introduction is far from confident that Nazism will never rise again. Trevor-Roper sees the Soviets sharing the West's fear of Nazi revival, but dispelling Hitler’s ghost with a distinctive political exorcism. For instance, even when the Soviets did admit Hitler’s death, they mentioned only the poison-taking, denying his “soldier’s death” by pistol:
Why then did the Russians expurgate the revolver from their version of Hitler’s death? There is a perfectly rational explanation which, though conjectural, may well be true. The Russians may well have concealed the manner of Hitler’s suicide for precisely the same reason for which Hitler chose it: because it was a soldier’s death. I myself suspect that this was their reason. After all, it is in line with their general practice. Previous tyrannies of the spirit have sought to crush defeated but dangerous philosophies by emphatic, public executions: the gibbet, the block, the bloody quarters exhibited in terrorem populi. But such spectacular liquidations, however effective at the time, have a habit of breeding later myths: there are relics of the dead, pilgrimages to the place of execution. The Russian Bolsheviks have therefore preferred in general a less emphatic method: their ideological enemies have slid into oblivion in nameless graves at uncertain dates and no relics of them are available for later veneration. I have already suggested that it was for this reason, and in accordance with this philosophy, that they concealed the circumstances of Hitler’s death, hid his bones, and destroyed the scene of his suicide and Nordic funeral. It may well be that when such total concealment was no longer possible and they decided to admit the facts, there was one fact which they thought it expedient to alter. The soldier’s death might seem to the Germans heroic. Suicide by poison might well seem to the Russians a more expedient version.
If this is so, it raises an interesting general question. For my book was also written, in the first place, for exactly the same reason which made the Russians frown on it: to prevent (as far as such means can prevent) the rebirth of the Hitler myth. It would thus seem that we and the Russians, in this matter, seek exactly the same end by diametrically opposite means: they by suppressing the evidence, we by publishing it. Which of these two methods is the more effective is arguable. I will only say that I personally believe in my own. For when has the suppression of the truth prevented the rise of a myth, if a myth is wanted? When has the absence of genuine relics prevented the discovery of false relics, if they are needed? When has uncertainty about a true shrine prevented pilgrimages to a false one? And besides, there seems to me in the Russian argument, if I have correctly described it, a somewhat sinister implication. If they fear the truth, does it not seem that they believe in its power: that they think that Hitler’s reign really was inspiring, that his end really was glorious, and that secrecy is necessary to prevent the spread of such a view? It is a view which I do not share. It seems to me, having perhaps too naïve a faith in human nature and human reason, that Hitler’s reign was so evil, his character so detestable, that no one can be seduced into admiring him by reading the true history either of his life or of his melodramatic and carefully stage-managed end.
In a review of the Selected Stories that functioned as herald, Updike spoke of “a well-mediated complexity and multiplicity of plot, an intense claritIn a review of the Selected Stories that functioned as herald, Updike spoke of “a well-mediated complexity and multiplicity of plot, an intense clarity of phrase and image, an exceptional psychological searchingness and honesty,” “a grittiness…and a bold reach”—promises of pleasure I retained, and recalled over time, until circumstances (fatigue with the fiction I was reading, ambitious browsing in a store that carried a quantity of Munro) placed The Beggar Maid in hand. And it’s wonderful. These stories show a Woolf-like stylistic ambition: the point and swiftness of good prose, with a fineness of verbal texture, poetic sentences to savor. I love writers who try to prove Valéry wrong: you can walk and dance at the same time. To the Lighthouse just ascended a few rungs of the to-read.
Flo and Rose are stepmother and stepdaughter. In chronological order (though the stories do not really obey that order, they glimpse backwards and forwards, poignantly), the settings are: the Depression-poor rural Ontario town, (West) Hanratty, where Rose is a schoolgirl and Flo a storekeeper; university; a Vancouver suburb; “a town in the Kootenay Mountains”; professorial parties in Kingston; then back to Hanratty, and the melancholy stations of senescence (Flo’s), the Legion hall, the County Home. I preferred the six (of ten) stories set in Hanratty. Munro has a genius for the constitution of the small town: the jealousies, the watchfulness, the fine parsing of status; also, for even the most humdrum community’s violent sur-reality of rumor, legend, and whispered-over past infamies. The middle stories of Rose’s aimless, peripatetic, vaguely metropolitan career as a determinedly free spirit did less for me. I found her most interesting as a young woman first feeling her difference:
Flo was his idea of what a woman ought to be, Rose knew that, and indeed he often said it. A woman ought to be energetic, practical, clever at making and saving; she ought to be shrewd, good at bargaining and bossing and seeing through other people’s pretentions. At the same time she should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs…
…So part of Rose’s disgrace was that she was female but mistakenly so, would not turn out to be the right kind of woman. But there was more to it. The real problem was that she combined and carried on what he must have thought of as the worst qualities in himself. All the things he had beaten down, successfully submerged, in himself, had surfaced again in her, and she was showing no will to combat them. She mooned and daydreamed, she was vain and eager to show off; her whole life was in her head. She had not inherited the thing he took pride in, and counted on—his skill with his hands, his thoroughness and conscientiousness at any work; in fact she was unusually clumsy, slapdash, ready to cut corners. The sight of her slopping around with her hands in the dishpan, her thoughts a thousand miles away, her rump already bigger than Flo’s, her hair wild and bushy; the sight of the large and indolent and self-absorbed fact of her, seemed to fill him with irritation, with melancholy, almost with disgust.
The themes of Rose’s adulthood—manners complicated by mobility, the composite self-creation of the “disowned [and] prayed for”—draw from Munro a treatment gentler and less emphatic than I think I like. But who knows, further reading of Munro, or rereading of The Beggar Maid, may disclose something subtler and more interesting, in this line, than grim Yates’ futile puppet strivers, or Edmund White’s self-inflicted autobiographical ironies. In the Rose-only stories I may have just missed Flo. Not because I think Flo "what a woman ought to be," but because she's just a great character. I like Munro's presentation of her grim hilarity, her store of lurid local anecdotes, her worldview peopled from the nickelodeon villainies and tabloid panics of the 1910s and 20s:
Flo said to watch for White Slavers. She said this was how they operated: an old woman, a motherly or grandmotherly sort, made friends while riding beside you on a bus or train. She offered you candy, which was drugged. Pretty soon you began to droop and mumble, were in no condition to speak for yourself. Oh, help, the woman said, my daughter (granddaughter) is sick, please somebody help me get her off so that she can recover in the fresh air. Up stepped a polite gentleman, pretending to be a stranger, offering assistance. Together, at the next stop, they hustled you off the train or bus, and that was the last the ordinary world saw of you. They kept you prisoner in the White Slave place (to which you had been transported drugged and bound so you wouldn’t even know where you were), until such time as you were thoroughly degraded and in despair, your insides torn up by drunken men and invested with vile disease, your mind destroyed by drugs, your hair and teeth fallen out. It took about three years, for you to get in this state. You wouldn’t want to go home, then, maybe couldn’t remember home, or find your way home if you did. So they let you out on the streets.
Some reviews on this site mention Taylor’s “leftist bias,” allege a soft-pedaling of Native American violence and environmental impact. I don’t reallySome reviews on this site mention Taylor’s “leftist bias,” allege a soft-pedaling of Native American violence and environmental impact. I don’t really see it. Sure, Taylor has his moments of passionate phrasing, but a work of this scope and synthesis (all colonial experiments in North America, and most in the Caribbean, from Columbus to the California missions) is a poor vehicle for agitation; the reading, and perhaps the writing, of any lofty historical survey insinuates an abstraction, a detachment, invites a vast indifference. This book can no more take a side than a time-lapsed film of mold spreading on a sandwich can sway one to the mold or to bread. Reading Taylor’s descriptions of the genocidal microbes explorers unwittingly carried, the livestock breeding feral packs that devoured unfenced Indian crops, the hardy Old World weeds that spread in the over-grazed landscape, I begin to think of the Europeans as simply the most sentient and motivated organisms of a rapacious ecosystem, their mastery of navigation just a transit of creatures.
It’s an immediate humanitarianism, without aims of conclusions, that overwhelms me now. I feel a tenderness as if I were seeing with the eyes of a god. I see everyone with the compassion of the world’s only conscious being. Poor hapless men, poor hapless humanity! What are they all doing here? I see all the actions and goals of life, from the simple life of the lungs to the building of cities and the marking off of empires, as a drowsiness, as involuntary dreams or respites in the gap between one reality and another, between one and another day of the Absolute. And like an abstractly maternal being, I lean at night over both the good and the bad children, equal when they sleep and are mine. (The Book of Disquiet)
What a panorama of enslavement and extermination the New World presents! Barbados was almost totally deforested and planted with sugar cane “even to the very seaside.” (From the trees that remained recalcitrant slaves were suspended in cages, for slow exemplary deaths from thirst and hunger; a practice called “hanging a man out to dry.”) Food, livestock and lumber had to be imported from New England. As in Brazil, the planters found it cheaper to work slaves to death and purchase replacements, rather than invest in diet and housing. Of the 130,000 Africans brought to the island between 1640 and 1700, only 50,000 were alive in 1700. And it didn’t get any better. During the eighteenth century, at least one-third of slaves died within three years of arrival. Infant mortality hovered around 50%, a figure containing an unknowable number of desperate, Beloved-style infanticides. Suicide is another theme. An English slave ship captain noted that “the Negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of the canoes, boat, and ship; they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we can have of hell.” Successful planters, Taylor writes, “sought to escape the profitable but troubling world they had made.” Perhaps justly, most died before they could return to England, felled by tropical fevers and an evil-sounding array of pathogens introduced by their slaves—“yaws, guinea worm, leprosy, and elephantiasis” “Parish registers from the 1650s for the white population list four times as many deaths as marriages and three times as many deaths as baptisms.” England; gentility; a green estate…ambitions nearly achieved, flickering finally as the figments of a deathbed delirium…while outside: the sweltering, shade-less island of mass graves!
The holy wars of the New England Puritans and the Pequot, Wampanoag and Narragansett make a grim old chronicle—carved boards, metal clasps and corners, massacrous woodcuts. The Plymouth and Connecticut colonists won the Pequot War of 1636-38 with a massacre whose curt decisiveness fits my image of a more than usually self-righteous people. Guided deep into Pequot territory on the Mystic River by Mohegan allies, the colonists ringed a major fortified village with ranks of musketeers, set the wigwams alight, and cut down anyone who came fleeing out of the flames. Only five of the village’s four hundred inhabitants survived. Plymouth colony governor William Bradford saw his god working in the Puritan victory:
It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.
The heavy death toll from epidemics, defeats like the Mystic River Massacre, and the steady westward encroachment of the colonists discredited tribal shamans and convinced many Indians they were forsaken by their gods. So it was an experience of renewed spiritual power for Wampanoag and Narragansett warriors to wipe out entire settler families and torch their farms when King Philip’s War broke out in 1675. Roger Williams recorded a Narragansett as boasting that “God was with them and Had forsaken us for they had so prospered in Killing and Burning us far beyond What we did against them.”
The New England colonists could not have won King Philip’s war without the aid and instruction in “the skulking way of war” provided by Indian allies, particularly the Mohawk, one of the Iroquois Five Nations. The Five Nations are central to the transformation of intertribal politics and warfare wrought by European guns and germs. In the 1630s, over half of the Five Nations died from European diseases. Dutch-allied, they attributed the epidemics to the sorcery of the Huron, their French-allied rivals in the fur trade. The Huron were also Iroquois-speakers who had insultingly resisted becoming a Sixth nation. Well-armed by the Dutch, the Five Nations launched a “mourning war”—kill the adult males, absorb the women and children, who would take the names and join the families of disease victims—which wiped out the Huron. In the 1650s the war widened to a general rampage around the Great Lakes. A Jesuit priest thought they meant “to ravage everything and become masters everywhere.” The remnants of some Great Lakes tribes withdrew far north, putting a depopulated buffer zone between them and the Five Nations, whose tireless war parties nevertheless periodically erupted out of the wasteland in search of more scalps and captives. Some fled south. One group of refugees, the Westo, who had dwelt near Lake Erie, trickled down to Virginia. Colonists there, mindful of the unconquerable bands of escaped slaves that menaced the Jamaican hinterland, armed and paid the Westo to capture African runaways. In time the Westo drifted to the Carolinas. There they found a profitable niche raiding southerly tribes for captives to sell to Virginia slavers, and later to the transplanted Barbadians who ruled Carolina. “In their violent displacement, new identity, and devastation of other natives, the Westo represented the power of European intrusion to send shock waves of disruption through a succession of Indian peoples living far beyond the colonial settlements.” A jealous faction of Carolina colonists, rivals of the patrons of the Westo, recruited the Shawnee to destroy and enslave them.
The Shawnee, the Creek and the Yamsee were next to ride the tiger of alliance with the whites. This was a Hobbesian nightmare in which, Taylor writes, “victimized peoples desperately sought their own trade connection to procure arms for defense; but to pay for those guns, they had to become raiders, preying upon still other natives, spreading the destruction hundreds of miles beyond Carolina.” In 1702, warriors from the three tribes formed the private army Gov. James Moore led into Spanish Florida. That force destroyed thirty-two villages, enslaved ten-thousand mission Indians and tortured most of their priests to death. Having run out of Indians on which to prey, Shawnee soon fell behind on their debts to the Carolina traders, who hired the Catawba to attack and enslave them. The Yamsee, too, fell behind on their debts; when traders started seizing their children, they revolted, and were soon joined by the Catawba and the Creek; allied, they killed four hundred colonists in 1715, before being crushed by Five Nations Iroquois, who, as in King Philip’s War, hired out their war parties to desperate colonists. The Five, soon Six Nations became a crucial to the balance of power in the New World, playing the French and English off one another, and acting as hired enforcers for use against other tribes. In 1746 the royal governor of New York was sagely advised, “On whose ever side the Iroquois Indians fall, they will cast the balance.” The devastated native world over whose northeastern corner the Iroquois held sway is disturbingly evoked:
Scholars used to assume that nineteenth-century Indian nations were direct and intact survivors from time immemorial in their homelands. In fact, after 1700 most North American Indian "tribes" were relatively new composite groups formed by diverse refugees coping with the massive epidemics and collective violence introduced by colonization.
In The Hunters chastened prose is never more than a few steps from religious lyricism. Salter will begin a scene with the naming of parts, the spare pIn The Hunters chastened prose is never more than a few steps from religious lyricism. Salter will begin a scene with the naming of parts, the spare poetry of function, and wind it up with an epiphany, or talk of grace, or comparison of a preternaturally skilled MIG driver to “a heavy angel come down to test the valor of men.” It makes me think of the abrupt gaudiness of nose art on a sleek aluminum fuselage.
The Hunters (1956, rev. ed. 1997) is Salter’s first novel, published the year he resigned from the Air Force, chose writing over flying. The 1958 movie, with Robert Mitchum starring, goes with a blond love interest (the future Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr., May Britt) instead of the book’s Tokyo prostitutes, and tacks on a sequence in which Mitchum and the alcoholic husband of his love interest are shot down over North Korea; with pistols drawn, they must evade the Commie Hordes while Working Out Their Differences…pretty hilarious given the comparative inactivity, lulling routine and spacey contemplativeness of Salter’s novel. (The Hunters is the novel Joan Didion would have written, had she flown fighter jets in the Korean War.) I’ve read that the exacting Salter thinks Light Years (1975) his first fully achieved work; but still, The Hunters more than brings the goods:
You lived and died alone, especially in fighters. Fighters. Somehow, despite everything, that word had not become sterile. You slipped into the hollow cockpit and strapped and plugged yourself into the machine. The canopy ground shut and sealed you off. Your oxygen, your very breath, you carried with you into the chilled vacuum, in a steel bottle. If you wanted to speak, you used the radio. You were as isolated as a deep-sea diver, only you went up, into nothing, instead of down. You were accompanied. They flew with you in heraldic patterns and fought alongside you, sometime skillfully, always at least two ships together, but they were really of no help. You were alone. At the end, there was no one you could touch. You could call out to them, as he had heard someone call out one day going down, a pitiful, pleading “Oh, Jesus!” but they could touch you not.
They flew with you in heraldic patterns...man I love that! I did not want this novel to end. I'm looking forward to his memoir Burning the Days, especially the Korean chapters, as well as to everything he's written that I've not read. Salter at the controls: