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.
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."
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
I love The Age of Innocence but I wonder if that love is a fluke. I never finished The House of Mirth because of its coincidental encounters and melodI love The Age of Innocence but I wonder if that love is a fluke. I never finished The House of Mirth because of its coincidental encounters and melodramatic confrontations, and I was able to pass over similar faults in The Custom of the Country only because the often clunky dramatic scenes are separated by long stretches of brilliantly measured descriptive prose, acerbic dissections of manners and motivations. Also, I wanted to know how it would end. There’s a page-turning fascination to the adventures of Elmer Moffat and Undine Spragg, middle American rustics respectively backed by self-made and second-generation fortunes, who are shown in their intermittently coinciding devastations of the historiated sanctums of Washington Square and the Faubourg Saint Germain. Opening The Custom of the Country, the last thing I expected to find was a premonition of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Wharton’s ear for Western speech is perfect; Moffat sounds exactly like Martin Sheen as Kit; the same simple words in the same spare rhythm. “Say…” Elmer and Undine’s first meeting is just like Kit and Holly’s: a boy from the wrong side of the tracks asks the local flower of what passes for gentility to take a walk with him. Elmer and Undine in Europe made me think of Kit and Holly taking hostages in that rich man’s house – the house full of delicate things the scion is too delicate to defend from intruders. And in their careers of despoilation there’s the same strange mixture of rapacity and innocence, obscenity and prudery, deadly violence and childish reasoning. Comparison of James and Wharton is usually invidious, with James coming out ahead; and yes, her dialogue rarely attains the nuance and suggestion of his – but when it comes to American types, she sure nailed us hinterlanders.
Half of this went right over my head - his glosses on the Vedas and Das Kapital, etc. - but what a style!
[the true historian's] desired prey is primarHalf of this went right over my head - his glosses on the Vedas and Das Kapital, etc. - but what a style!
[the true historian's] desired prey is primarily what has eluded memory and what has had every reason to elude it. After lengthy training in this struggle with the opaque, he will be able to test himself against Plutarchan figures, who are, in contrast, obscured by an excess of testimony - that thick carapace history secretes to keep them remote from us. And the end of his arrogant rise, the historian wants to meet Napoleon as if the latter were a stranger. At this point he becomes part visionary, and can muster the insolence to begin a book as Léon Bloy did: 'The history of Napoleon is surely the most unknown of all histories.'
"The bravura passage we miss is a description of Istanbul – a capriccio of Constantinople's ruins...I like to imagine him taken up by the trilogy's cu"The bravura passage we miss is a description of Istanbul – a capriccio of Constantinople's ruins...I like to imagine him taken up by the trilogy's culminating noctambulistic smart set, the highest-spirited and most sensuously erudite of the entire journey. After a day lazing in the host's library, hungover yet casually assimilating the corpus of orientalisme, especially relishing Gautier's and Nerval's accounts of the city, he joins and exhorts whiskey-sprung, lantern-lit hijinks in the spooky corridors and vast vaulted magazines of the ruinous seaward walls. He drinks raki with boatmen and learns their songs. Watches a yalı burn to the ground. Dines standing at a fish vendor, loiters on the Galata Bridge, leans from the rails as night falls, entranced by the ferry traffic, and Süleymaniye silhouetted on its hill. And I imagine the purple patch he might have based on that unearthed stretch of mosaic pavement – a mythological bestiary, griffons, centaurs, mixed with touching realistic scenes of hunting and husbandry – that once linked the ruined Seaside Palace to the unreachably buried Great Palace (it's under the Blue Mosque). Or the prose poem he might have made of the church of the Holy Savior in Chora, the jewel of Byzantine churches, its interior a glorious mosaic cinema of the genealogy, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it was the repository of the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, which monks carried along the Land Walls during the final siege, to inspirit defenders. Neither the pavement nor the church had been excavated in 1935 – but this was a flight of fancy anyway."
"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
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