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 melod...moreI 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 primar...moreHalf 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.'
"In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, issued one hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and march...more"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."
"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...more"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, entranced by ferry traffic as night falls, 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."
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 incomplet...moreA 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. (less)
This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that illustrate Sartre’s remark that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from...moreThis 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. (less)
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? (less)
In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenc...moreCross-posted on http://soapboxing.net/
In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous author with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental reporter whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider a third Grant administration) with the honors Europe and Asia were showering on the ex-president. Young notes that while cruising between Malta and Naples on an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain's Innocents Abroad
This edition is an abridgement of the popular two-volume coffee table book – or parlor piano-top book – Young published after he got back. Around the World with General Grant was a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer that allowed Americans to glimpse exotic geography, culture and politics over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. In the engravings Grant is familiar and repeated, Gorey-like, talismanic; the beard, the cigar, and the frock coat, though his headgear varies: a bowler while strolling European streets, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.
“Smooth twaddle” is what Henry James would have called Young’s narrative. But Young’s glibness is overpowered by the interest of the historical moment - a moment in which Grant, as the voice of a young New World power whose recent consolidation and display of military prowess has stymied British and French designs, preaches anti-imperial idealism to Asians oppressed by European powers - and by the drama of the witnessed scenes, which show Grant discussing the cares of state with Bismarck; blushing before the dancing girls summoned by the Majaraja of Jeypore; mediating a Sino-Japanese dispute (the chapter on Grant in China is amazing); candidly talking shit about colleague and opponent generals in the American Civil War; and much more.Young’s account for the most part presents an officially masked, phlegmatic and platitudinous Grant, but there are glimpses of the spirited solitary and restless horseman later biographers have revealed:
We had an escort of lepers as we took our places in our wagons, and were glad to hurry away. We kept our journey, our eyes bent toward Jerusalem, and looking with quickened interest as Mr. Hardegg told us that the blue mountains coming in view were the mountains of Judea. Our road is toward the southeast. The rain falls, but it is not an exacting shower. The General has found a horse, and when offered the affectation of an umbrella and urged to swathe his neck in silk, says it is only mist, and gallops ahead.
It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are alw...moreDated? Not at all.
It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (less)
The Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a r...moreThe Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a revolt of slaves, “senseless and merciless” – and I sought out Explosion in a Cathedral hoping for something in that line. The novel’s scope is broader, embracing, as Carpentier writes in his afterward, “the whole area of the Caribbean” in a time of revolution, abolition, piracy and war. Explosion in a Cathedral (the original Spanish title is pointedly ironic: El Siglo de Las Luces – The Age of Enlightenment) definitely has its longueurs, but there are plenty of terrifyingly effective episodes, festive orgies of iconoclasticism, abortions of ideals.
And since the whole island must learn its lesson, the guillotine was removed from the Place de la Victoire, and began to travel, to go on journeys and excursions.
The scenes of re-enslavement, of expeditions to recapture runaways in their jungle strongholds, of reversion to the regional order despite the proclamations of the distant Republic, are especially fucked-up. Of the novel’s the fourteen epigraphs, thirteen are titles of etchings from Goya’s The Disasters of War, and one is a long extract from the book of Job. So that’s the kind of book this is.
And it’s right up my alley: little dialogue; casual violence; descriptive catalogues of frightful plants and beasts; mordant political reflections. The New World is seen not as a new start for humanity but the theater of Europe’s racist cruelty, its outsourced exploitation; its sweat shop, abattoir, lions’ den, “Rape Room”; the anus mundi, as a Nazi doctor called occupied Poland, where kidnapped peoples are exterminated or worked to death for small profit. The translation is occasionally entrancing, and suggests that behind it lies an interesting Latinate style, a morbid, tropically warped classicism, an incipient baroque, elegant and oppressive.
There were silent houses, hidden in the woods, where columns from some Greek temple rose up to meet pediments obliterated by ivy…
Halfway through I posted a status update recommending this to people who enjoyed the pace and texture of The Radetzky March, and I stand by that. Carpentier’s characters are not intricately conflicted – this is no Woolfian kaleidoscope of memory and desire – and they are defined by their relation to the French Revolution, as Roth’s three generations of von Trottas are defined by relation to the different stages of Austro-Hungarian decay. Especially read this if you’re interested in the revolutionary type of “hard man,” the rationalist who revels in the supposed necessity of his murders. The heyday of Robespierre and Saint-Just was short, but the orator of caustic blasphemy survived as a French style. More than a few times while reading I thought of this glimpse of Baudelaire in the Goncourt Journals:
Baudelaire had supper at the table next to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds.
The Wikipedia entry on Carpentier says that soon after reading Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), Garcia Marquez destroyed the first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and started anew. That entry also notes that Carpentier’s “magic realism” (a phrase Carpentier coined) is not fantastic, and his characters do not defy physical laws; the history and politics of the Caribbean are sufficiently surreal. I wonder if Garcia Marquez realized Carpentier had already made the history strange, and the only place to go was pure fantasy.
A staff officer’s readable and occasionally absorbing memoir of Grant’s patient, painstaking, year-long destruction of Lee's army. Porter says “Grant’...moreA staff officer’s readable and occasionally absorbing memoir of Grant’s patient, painstaking, year-long destruction of Lee's army. Porter says “Grant’s combativeness displayed itself only to the enemy” – a remark reflected in the book’s structure, in which anecdotes of Grant’s uxoriousness, easy relations with difficult subordinates, and courtesy to hostile Southern women alternate with accounts of his predaceous cunning in the field – the feints, the bluffs, the savage pounces! Porter is the source of many of the stories I’d read about Grant.
Edmund Wilson overstated things when he recommended Porter’s memoir as an essential supplement to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, the style of which Wilson found too sagely and imperturbable to admit much piteous blood-and-guts detail. Grant was incapable of the lurid Gericault manner in which Porter painted the aftermath of the battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse –
Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.
– but Porter isn’t always lurid nor Grant evasive. For instance, Grant acknowledges his disastrous mistake of ordering a suicidal second assault at Cold Harbor, a disaster Porter glosses over – though he helpfully clarifies that the strange name of the Virginia village, for me the spookiest Civil War battle/place-name after “Wilderness Tavern” and “Antietam” (which is Algonquian but sounds like a precinct of Milton’s Hell, a rebarbative Hebrew-Latin portmanteau coined by an learned Puritan divine), “had been taken from places frequently found along the highways of England, and means ‘shelter without fire.’”
At times comparison with Porter only shows how modern, how suggestive Grant’s style could be - the style that captivated Stein, Anderson, and through them influenced Hemingway. Quite often Porter takes two tedious pages to tell a story Grant compresses in an uncanny paragraph; Porter calls Grant’s dispatches “epigrammatic without his being aware of it." But the dated grandiloquence of Porter’s style, and his touching faith in White Anglo-Saxon cultural continuity (Buchanan Read’s poem on Sheridan’s ride to Winchester has made the exploit “famous for all time,” to quicken the hearts of schoolboys hence, etc.), have their own interest, at least for me, and are less conspicuous for the book’s period-ish printing. Campaigning with Grant was a volume of Century Magazine’s 1890s series Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Stephen Crane read many of them on a couch in a painter friend's studio above Broadway and resolved to supply the genteel lacunae with a story of his own) re-issued by Time-Life in the 1980s with gilt edges, red-ribbon markers, decorative endpapers, and original type and illustrations. The book is uncomfortably hefty. Carrying it down the street wearing shorts I felt like a youth group minister with his Bible. Grant's foremost lieutenants, Sherman and Sheridan, appear not in wartime photographs, with lean and hungry looks, but in reproductions of the official postwar portraits made when they were successively General-in-Chief, and both are bald, their chests hung with medals, their portly stomachs crossed by sashes. After destroying the Plains Indians, both retired to New York, became theater-going gourmands and banquet speakers, wreathed in cigar smoke and young actresses. In his quickie cash-in 1892 biography of Sherman, dead the year before, the ink-stained hack James Penny Boyd says that as a “raconteur and man-about-town” the general ranked with the likes of “Chauncey M. Depew and General Horace Porter.” That made me laugh. Appropriately, Campaigning with Grant opens a vista onto the Gilded Age Power Elite (Wikipedia tells me Porter was a vice-president at Pullman).
There are ten stories in this collection but I’ll only mention the five I’m still thinking about, or plan to re-read soon.
"C. Musonius Rufus"
Like “Mes...moreThere are ten stories in this collection but I’ll only mention the five I’m still thinking about, or plan to re-read soon.
"C. Musonius Rufus"
Like “Mesoroposthonippidon” and “On Some Lines of Virgil” in Eclogues, this story features an insular band of urban scamps – mischievous, bounding, randy, sometimes thieving, unpretentiously accomplished, living for the day, for the sweet taste of filched fruit and chance couplings, with the superbity of jeunesse dorée or of the purest outcasts – gathered round an ascetic philosopher, a provocative skeptic, their elective mentor. Elective affinities of the classical city; families formed peripatetically, out of doors, in Athens around Diogenes, in Rome around Musonius Rufus, and in Bordeaux around the wholly fictional pataphysician Tullio. Rufus taught Epictetus, and others more obscure. Banished by Nero and condemned to a chain gang digging a canal to Corinth, Rufus recalls his students:
Nero would never find the cobbler who was one of my best disciples, old Marcus who had a true flair for Pythagorean poetry of things and a noble grasp of stoic wisdom. Nor would he stumble upon the Senator who keeps his philosophy to himself, or the slavewoman Dorcas, whose dignity of mind I would place beside that of Cicero. More than likely he would ferret out, such is my luck, the scamp Fabricius who follows me for my knuckly rhetoric, as he calls it, and who spends half his time in the gymnasia ogling backsides and pretty eyes and the other half pumping his seed onto the garret ceiling or alley walls or the tiles of the public baths. But the boy has a mind and a lovely imagination…and when Nero throws him in the jug, he’ll take it like a man.
Rufus had been exiled before, to the waterless island of Gyaros (a penal colony as late as the 1970s, under Greece’s rightist junta) where he saved the exiles by locating a spring. In the arduous work of clearing the spring and banking it against the sea, Davenport gives Rufus a little fictional help in the form of Caepoculous, whom Rufus knew
when he ran a little theater on the Via Scortilla where he was to be seen in a beaked mask, tail feathers on his butt, castanets on his fingers, dancing in the street to music played by boy drummers and a fat whore with a tambourine who was so heavy that she had to be carried in a litter by slaves with gilded eyelids.
"John Charles Tapner"
1855. Victor Hugo on the Channel Island of Guernsey, his third stop during nearly twenty years of exile from the France of Napoleon III. The merry band of disciples is Hugo’s own family – daughter, son, wife, mistress. They raise eyebrows with raucous parlor performances of Shakespeare (Hugo’s son was then translating the complete plays; his daughter makes the crossing clutching the volumes beneath her cape). Hugo inspects the cell and visits the grave of the hanged murderer Tapner, whose life Hugo had urged Victoria to spare. His oblique commentary on the misery of the cells – the mad, mazy scrawls, the shivering girl thief destined for Australia – is lost on his officious guide. The story begins charmingly:
The lantern held to his face showed which of the exiles in the weave of the waves was the one who insulted the Queen. Their longboat had touched into the shingle and they jumped from her prow, wet to the hips, to hand out women and boxes and trunks with hummocked tops. They’d come across from Jersey in a fog, calling on a tin trumpet that had one flat ugly note breaking into the music of the gannets and gulls, the bells of the buoys, and the ruckus of windwash rolling the ocean at half dawn.
“The Antiquities of Elis”
Davenport imagines Pausanias the Geographer (c. AD 110 – AD 180) on one of the journeys of religious and topographic observation that make up his Description of Greece. Like Yourcenar, Davenport is seldom more bewitching than when contemplating the persistence of temples, the decay and revival of rites. (When I saw the supposed Troy I was bored by the mostly buried stretches of chronologically contrasting walls; but was elated by the remains of the last, Roman town to occupy the site, with its still-visible coherence of temples, theaters, altars and gates.) This story compelled me to move straight on to Invisible Cities.
"Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier"
So far in my reading his most ambitious story, or poem, or, say, poetically suggestive narrative organized in stanzaic paragraphs; in any case, a high-modernist midden of archaic ideograms and revived or refigured myth, featuring: Fourier – or, a hallucination of the inhabitants of his utopia – wasps, the Dogon trickster Ogo, Gertrude Stein, Lartigue, the Wright Brothers, Leonardo, Joyce, Picasso, and plenty else.
In Professor James the nineteenth century had its great whoopee, saw all as the lyric prospect of a curve which we were about to take at full speed…
“A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg”
Here Davenport ventriloquises Robert Walser, on the 1908 balloon journey from “the lignite-rich hills of Saxony Anhalt to the desolate sands of the Baltic” Walser took with his publisher Cassirer. I really have nothing to say about this story beyond telling you that it is amazing, and, despite coming at the end of this extraordinary collection, nothing I could have anticipated. For a few days I was happily stuck in a loop of re-reading. I must read Jakob von Gunten soon. (less)
#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no...more#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no good at all, vague, phoned-in, not-quite-there; boring. But from Patrick's point of view St Aubyn's prose rockets into Cioran-ish heights of nihilist lyricism. The "sardonic harmonies" of the stupid generations are ever more obvious to our extending lifespans and bored, self-devouring domestic over-analysis. Vistas of futility, illuminated further and further behind.
"Aren't you reading rather too much into those two words?" "What else is there to do but read too much into things?" said Patrick breezily. "What a poor, thin, dull world we'd live in if we didn't. Besides, is it possible? There's always more meaning than we can lay our hands on."
#5, At Last, isn't a high priority, but I do need to see where Patrick ends up. (less)
The essential points of The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, first published in 1929, have been packaged in more politically accessible prose by conte...moreThe essential points of The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, first published in 1929, have been packaged in more politically accessible prose by contemporary writers like John Keegan and Geoffrey Perret. But I was interested by the book’s datedness, the view it offers of the odd personality and ominous historical situation from which the reevaluation of Grant was launched. Major-General J.F.C. Fuller is a somewhat sinister and repellent figure – a disciple of Aleister Crowley; a mystic whose Futurism graded into Fascism; the maverick mastermind of British tank operations in World War I (and his skill at drawing elaborate occult symbols came in handy when the Tank Corps needed an insignia) whose theories of mobile armored warfare were ignored in interwar Britain but eagerly studied in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, the rival tyrannies destined to build thousand-tank armies and smash them together on the burning steppes of the East. Fuller attended Hitler’s fiftieth birthday party, in April, 1939, a celebration capped by a three-hour parade of tanks and motorized infantry. Afterwards Hitler asked Fuller if he was pleased with his “children.” “Your excellency,” Fuller replied, “they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognize them.”
Fuller’s Fascism is not integral to his specialist analysis of Grant’s campaigns, so I can understand why he persists as a reputable, endorsable historian - "the Clausewitz of the twentieth century." But if not integral, the Fascism does appear, in his closing rant on the future of Europe, and in the authoritarian asides that John Keegan had to repudiate when transmitting Fuller’s analysis in The Mask of Command. The divergences with Keegan are very revealing of Fuller. For instance, Fuller praises Grant’s deep awareness of his political responsibilities as a general-in-chief – his maintenance of public morale and of the fragile pro-war coalition, his modest subordination and disclaiming of immediate presidential ambition, for disgruntled Republicans hoped that if Grant won the war in summer 1864, he could replace Lincoln on the November ballot. But even as he praises the political tact of Grant’s generalship, Fuller cannot help but sneer at the Northern public, “the canaille,” and he calls Grant a reduced Hero, an instrument of democratic government rather than one of the towering Great Men, who make their own worlds. Fuller’s view of President Grant is characteristic:
The idol of the people, for eight years he was enthroned in the temple of their rascality…Had he been less obedient to his ideals, had he been more of the soldier who destroys to create and less of the man, the farmer he once was, who sows and waits on God’s goodwill to ripen his crops, he might have influenced his generation more than he did.
Keegan, in contrast, harbors no irony when he says that Grant’s “unheroic heroism” was “perfectly adjusted to the populism of the society he led to victory.” Keegan thinks it representative of the best of American democracy that the great general of the Civil War did not even flirt with warlordism – that he “resisted fantasy with republican sternness.” Keegan laments that such “republican sternness” – or call it “Washingtonian sternness” – was not transplantable to the Old World, where
the surrender to the appeal of the hero as leader, war chief and superman remained a possibility rooted in the subconscious of its traditional societies. In the mid-twentieth century, that possibility was to become a disastrous reality.
Such are the last lines of Keegan’s chapter on Grant, “Grant and Unheroic Leadership,” which immediately precedes and sets up his chapter on Hitler, “False Heroic: Hitler as Supreme Commander.”