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
It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are alwDated? 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. ...more
The Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a rThe 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.
#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#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. ...more
"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the comi"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the coming campaign would go, "it all depends upon that article whether we do the business or not." He had seen a private soldier of one of the infantry regiments enter the park, gaping about at the statues. "Give me enough of it," he went on, "and I am sure." (John Keegan)
The Mad Minute was a pre-World War I term used by British Army riflemen during training at the Hythe School of Musketry to describe scoring 15 hits onto a 12" round target at 300 yards (270 m) within one minute using a bolt-action rifle (usually a Lee-Enfield or Lee-Metford rifle). It was not uncommon during the First World War for riflemen to greatly exceed this score. Many riflemen could average 30+ shots while the record, set in 1914 by Sergeant Instructor Alfred Snoxall, was 38 hits. During the Battle of Mons, in August 1914, there were numerous German accounts of coming up against what they believed was machine gun fire when in fact it was squads of riflemen firing at this rate. (Wikipedia)...more