Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
1914, 253 pp.

James Joyce is certainly the most notorious writer in English, if not the most notorious writer in any language anywhere. Probably Shakespeare is better known and more discussed, but most people have some actual exposure to Shakespeare, albeit only in school or in heavily padded adaptations. As The Guardian never tires of reminding us, Joyce is among the most-purchased but indisputably least-read authors in the world. Almost everyone has heard of him. It is practically a right of passage for all intelligent, solipsistic, arrogant, artistic-minded young men to take a crack at Ulysses and fail to get out of the Martello tower. It is a pity that the great legends of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have so thoroughly overshadowed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is an excellent and rewarding book.

Portrait consists of five chapters, moving forward through the early life of Stephen Dedalus, the sensitive poet and aesthete who also figures prominently in Ulysses. As Stephen matures and develops, so too does the book’s prose: the writing in each chapter reflects Stephen’s apprehension of the world at that time. Chapter One is therefore quite simple, with a bit of babytalk and little intellect or plot, only mood and sensation. This discouraged me the first time I picked up Portrait, many years ago. Do not let it discourage you!

Chapter Two is more complex, suffused with kindness and innocence. Here I think Joyce the Author is most clearly visible through the impeccably maintained persona of Stephen the Free-Indirect Style Narrator. Joyce shows great tenderness for the quiet, imaginative little boy who is sent off to school and who begins to experience the tensions which cut into his family. We learn about his father, witness an argument over politics at the dinner table, see what life is like at school. Chapters Three and Four are where Portrait really hits its stride. There Stephen is an adolescent, discovering Romantic poetry (indeed, when in Chapter Three Stephen gets beaten up by boys for liking Byron better than Tennyson, the reader realizes how many Byronic flourishes Joyce has layered into the chapter) and begins discovering women. Finally he discovers actual sex, and prostitutes, and the oppressive Catholicism of his upbringing seizes center stage.

Joyce treats us to two furious, frothing sermons on hellfire and eternity, easily rivaling Dante for the most persuasive depiction of the guilt and fear engendered by Christianity. The whole chapter is written in the blood-and-thunder cadences of ornate, Old Testament prose. This is prose that could beat up Cormac McCarthy's prose and take its lunch money. Stephen is racked with guilt, terrified by God and the enormity of his sins, in a pool of self hatred which would have drowned Raskolnikov. He sums it up:

“What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.”

Stephen confesses and repents and tries to become the most godly and pious person he can be. Like Saramago’s Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Joyce demonstrates here that taking Christianity seriously is the swiftest way out of religion. Stephen’s teachers expect that he will join the clergy, but his intellect rebels, tormented by the cruelty of a God which would create such a horrible place as hell, or such a horrible thing as eternity, and after a brilliant depiction of existential revolt, Stephen finally casts off the last remaining chains which kept him from apprehending his own abilities: in the final chapter, his voice is not that of a child, or of his family background, or of his favorite poets, or of the religion in which he was raised. It is finally his own voice. If this chapter had failed, the book would have failed. Luckily, it is by far the finest passage in the book. Stephen emerges as a wickedly intelligent, deeply read, endlessly sensitive and observant person. There is a splendid passage of reflection on all the things that he has learned in college: "but yet it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world's culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an aesthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in than the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry.” He won me over right there: I wanted to be friends with him, and I look forward to seeing him again in Ulysses.

In a review for the New Republic, H.G. Wells called Portrait “by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing.” I would go further: it is the most convincing picture of an intellectual and artistic development, of the stages by which a mind frees itself from tradition and superstition, and of the process of a keen and sensitive intellect finding its own particular voice. Here the unity of content and form is complete: by the final chapter, when Stephen comes into his own, Joyce is writing at the top of his form, in the voice that would later animate the entire world in Ulysses. Portrait is therefore a useful door into that giant masterpiece: it gets the reader over his preliminary terrors, provides some acquaintance with Joyce’s quirks and methods, and introduces the reader to a splendid character and Joyce as the author. And best of all, Portrait is simply a good book. It requires no interpretive machinery or “expert” commentariat. It can be picked up and read with profit and enjoyment by anyone. Afterwards, Ulysses begins to seem a vaguely possible undertaking.

Some writers are highly visual, particularly since the advent of film brought on an artistic grammar dictated by the necessities of visual storytelling and embedded it in our cultural unconscious. Others are auditory, with a great ear for dialogue and dialects, for the peculiar rhythm of actual speech. Joyce is an omni-sensual writer. He does not mention a sensation as a visual cue, but as an actual tactile experience, bounded by his character’s consciousness and perception. Portrait is packed with sounds and textures and smells and tastes, the memories they bring on, the emotions they provoke, and the digressions of thought which follow from their experience. This makes for slightly curious reading to a literary sensibility which is trained to picture a character and his environment in the mind’s eye. We are almost always conscious of what Stephen is experiencing, though not always where and when he is experiencing it, or what he looks like while doing so.

There is a lengthy section in which Stephen explains to a friend his elaborate Aquinas-inspired theory of aesthetics. He reaches, after many closely-argued pages, this conclusion: “To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand--that is art.” His full conception of art and beauty finally allows him a way to understand and appreciate the world, and the book ends with him self-confident, adult, and able to face the world. Joyce writes towards the end: “A soft liquid joy like the noise of many waters flowed over his memory and he felt in his heart the soft peace of silent spaces of fading tenuous sky above the waters, of oceanic silence, of swallows flying through the seadusk over the flowing waters.”

Knowing that Ulysses begins with Stephen some years later and deals (along with everything else it deals with, which may be the sum of human experience) with his relationship with Leopold Bloom, I was very tempted upon finishing Portrait to scrap my elaborate plan to prepare for reading Ulysses and simply jump straight in. It was difficult not to read the last page of Portrait, and with the closing of one cover open another and read the first page of Ulysses. Take this as a testament to how much I liked the book, how much I liked Joyce as an author and Stephen as a character. The idea of a further thousand very difficult pages spent in his company seemed to me a pleasure rather than a burden, and I eagerly look forward to beginning the endeavor.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Le Père Goriot

Le Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
1835, 238 pp.

At first glance, Honoré de Balzac is a daunting world to explore. His novel sequence La Comédie humaine comprises some 95 finished works, including novels, novellas, short stories, and essays, as well as about 48 unfinished pieces, ranging from nearly-finished stories to disjointed notes to works that exist only as titles. La Comédie humaine details the lives and experiences of a whole multitude of characters spanning the entire breadth of French society during the Restoration and the July Monarchy (about 1815-1848) as they prosper (or don't), fall in love (or out of it), have children, grow old, and often die. Where does one begin reading something like that? Is it best to read through them chronologically as they are written, or to attempt to follow the chronology of the stories themselves? Do you include the unfinished pieces? Should you simply buy the eighteen-volume Collected Works and plow through them in order? Or should you just skip him entirely and go with Zola instead? I quailed in front of this dilemma for months (Arthur Conan Doyle was apparently utterly defeated by it), but have finally found the solution. Begin with Le Père Goriot.

Goriot was the first novel in which Balzac hit on the idea of bringing back characters from previous stories and having them interact in the same coherent world. It is often called the keystone of La Comédie humaine, and it has been translated into English so many times that Balzac's biographer Graham Robb assures us that it can be safely read in translation without missing much of Balzac's writing. It begins the saga of the career of Eugène de Rastignac, the ambitious social climber who turns up in nineteen of the stories in La Comédie humaine, including as an old man in La Peau de Chagrin, which Freud obsessively read and re-read while dying of oral cancer. It also introduces the devious and dastardly Vautrin, a Moriarty-like criminal mastermind on the run from the police whose nefarious schemes will animate much of the La Comédie humaine. There are apparently 48 characters in the book who recur in other Balzac stories, where they emerge not from a void but from their own busy private lives which the reader only briefly glimpses. Goriot is therefore an excellent place to start, since these major characters will reappear like old friends in most of the other novels, and since it has the benefit of being chronologically early both in terms of the writing and the story. And, perhaps most importantly, it really is quite a good book.

The story concerns Goriot, a wealthy old merchant who sells everything he owns and sinks into abject poverty in order to provide for the expensive whims of his two feckless daughters, each of whom has married a rich man and who operate in very high society. Goriot lives in Maison Vauquer, a poor boarding house in the Latin Quarter, which is famously described in minute detail for about ten solid pages at the opening of the novel. Balzac sums it up like so: “There is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet is has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces." Also in residence is Rastignac, a law student who sets out to make a name for himself in high society, an assortment of mediocrities that allow Balzac to ridicule middle-class Paris, an ingenue who has been unfairly disinherited by her rich father, and Vautrin. The way Balzac handles Vautrin is rather brilliant: at first he is part of the scenery, like the other lodgers, then slowly begins to turn up in surprising places, behaving suspiciously. He reveals himself to Rastignac to be a ruthless social climber, and proposes a scheme of murder and manipulation to get Rastignac his fortune. Rastignac is ambitious and a trifle ruthless himself, but has a conscience (though he grapples with it) and rejects Vautrin's plan. It is not until about two thirds of the way into the book that we learn who Vautrin really is, and the revelation nearly prompted me to start the book all over in search of clues Balzac may have layered into his earlier appearances. At any rate, having rejected Vautrin, Rastignac meets and ingratiates himself with Goriot's two selfish, capricious daughters and begins his social climb.

Ridiculing high society seems to have been a requirement to be a novelist in the nineteenth century, and with good reason. Flaubert drew quite a few influences from Balzac (indeed, Rastignac is mentioned by name in The Sentimental Education) and I think there is profit to be gained by a comparison between their two styles. In my review of The Sentimental Education, I argued that Flaubert writes in the prose equivalent of the deep-focus lens. If the reader will humor me the extension of the cinema metaphor, Balzac writes in a tight, focused closeup which he slides in long, unbroken takes over people and places. Consider the opening shot in Hitchcock's Rear Window. The camera, in a reasonably tight closeup, pans across the walls of James Stewart's apartment, across his desk, and finally takes in the entire room. In doing so, we draw information from the pictures on the wall, the objects on the desk, the newspaper clippings. By the end of the shot we can construct quite a lot of information about his character and his character's recent past. Balzac uses the same technique with his conscientious descriptions, particularly of the Maison Vauquer. Flaubert seized on telling details from several simultaneous actions to draw them all into the same sharp focus; Balzac holds only one thing in his camera at a time, though in great detail and in context with what has come before and what will come after. He also has a sharp and cutting way with a crushing observation. Of the proprietress of the Maison Vauquer, he writes: "It is one of the most detestable habits of a Lilliputian mind to credit other people with its own malignant pettiness." I imagined Gore Vidal deploying this line over a cocktail.

Goriot is a relatively short book, with no wasted scenes, characters, or developments. It is therefore quite effective, and although Balzac is not shy with the melodrama, the closing scenes are emotionally gripping: old Goriot lies dying in poverty without even a penny to buy firewood while his daughters attend a fancy party wearing dresses he spent his retirement savings on, and Rastignac realizes the depth of self-centered cruelty on which high society as a whole is predicated. “Eugene did not wish to see too clearly," Balzac writes. "He was ready to sacrifice his conscience for his mistress…This woman was his, and Eugene recognized that till then he had only desired her, he did not love her till he had gained his happiness; perhaps love is only gratitude for pleasure.” But the price is too high, and Rastignac ends the book (and begins his career in La Comédie humaine) scarred by his introduction to the heartless ways of the bourgeoisie, but determined to succeed in Paris on his own terms, in his own way. It was a solid conclusion to a well-structured, efficient and effective book, populated by memorable characters in a fully realized simulacra of the real world, and it left me strongly considering that eighteen-volume purchase.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Idiot

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
1868, 633 pp. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

It is difficult to find something clever to say about Dostoevsky that hasn't already been said by Vladimir Nabokov. Somewhere around the The Idiot's ninety-seventh engagement scandal (page eighteen, in other words) I took a break and picked up The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, the delightful experience of which may have led me to the first original insight anyone has had regarding Dostoevsky since the publication of Lectures on Russian Literature. You see, Dostoevsky's books are always a certain proportion of time-filling social scandals (mostly revolving around engagements, marriages, affairs, and the like) weighted against a certain proportion of philosophical dialogue and melodramatic actions determined by the necessities of philosophical attitudes. In Crime and Punishment, the ratio is something like 40/60, in Demons, it is probably closer to 50/50. The Idiot is about 90/10, and consequently, it reads like a P.G. Wodehouse novel from hell, bloated to six times its normal length, perhaps written in a long, dark winter of the soul, under the influence of mystical Christianity and ineffective doses of Zoloft. Both books involve domineering matriarchs, preposterous and ineffectual noblemen, social scandals, manipulative friends, and protagonists who are idiots. I consequently spent four hundred pages wishing fervently that Jeeves would shimmer into the room and solve all of Myshkin’s ridiculous problems with the clever application of some purple socks and a rather noisy cummerbund.

The Idiot is the story of Prince Myshkin, who (as everyone who ever discusses the book is required to quote) is meant to be a "positively good man." He is epileptic and simple-minded, totally trusting and naive, and at the beginning of the book returns to Russia from a sanitarium in Switzerland. He promptly meets and has scandals with a variety of characters representing a cross-section of Russian society and opposing philosophical types. Most important of them is the dastardly Rogozhin (in typical Dostoevsky fashion, he has dark hair, dark clothes, dark features, dark eyes, and lives in a dark house) and the beautiful but difficult Nastasya Filippovna. These three form the love triangle of sorts which is at the ostensible center of the novel. The love triangle becomes sort of a love dodecahedron with the inclusion of the wealthy Epanchin family, whose youngest daughter Aglaya is sometimes apparently in love with Prince Myshkin. General Epanchin's clerk Ganya is of the poor Ivolgin family, and at the beginning wants to marry Nastasya Filippovna, who herself is the mistress of the vile Totsky, friend of General Epanchin. Will Myshkin marry Aglaya or Nastasya Filippovna? Will Nastasya Filippovna marry Myshkin or Rogozhin? Inquiring minds want to know.

Part One moves along at a decent pace. It establishes the characters and their relations to one another, and sets up a good bit of melodrama. Things looked promising, and I began to look forward to the murder: this is Dostoevsky, after all, so there must be a murder. In fact, as I read along, I began to formulate the theory that a given Dostoevsky book is only as good as its murder. I will venture to disclose to you that the murder is not committed until the gap between pages 606 and 607, some three hundred pages after my interest died a sad, lonely death. Nabokov wrote in his lectures on Dostoevsky that "[he] was more of a playwright than a novelist. What his novels represent is a succession of scenes, of dialogues, of scenes where all the people are brought together--and with all the tricks of the theatre, as with the scène à faire, the unexpected visitor, the comedy relief, etc." This is exactly true in The Idiot, at times in a sense that strains credibility well past the breaking point. At several points characters launch into monologues that last for ten or twelve unbroken pages, while about a dozen people apparently sit around watching. At parties people vanish into the background until Dostoevsky needs them again, and anyone can arrive from any distance away if it is convenient for Dostoevsky's purposes. If this was an occasional habit, it would be tolerable, but as the bulk of the book it is desperate stuff. It is also clear that once he'd completed Part One, Dostoevsky had no idea what to do. Parts Two and Three are a grasping, underplotted mess which not only fail to build tension and propel the plot, but instead provide a host of distractions and opportunities for the characters to behave in ways quite contrary to Dostoevsky's descriptions of them.

This last point is a fatal one. Like a playwright, Dostoevsky is in the habit of describing people and places once, at their introduction, then never again. There is no texture of sensation in his books, nor hardly any visual sense. His characters are defined by the ideas and social positions Dostoevsky wants them to represent, so when they behave in a contradictory manner, the reader has no sense of the human being to fall back upon (which would create a sense of complex and unpredictable characterization) but instead simply gets the sense that Dostoevsky is confusing himself. If his characters seemed to be evolving in some direction, a few strange actions would be understandable, but his characters rarely, if ever, evolve. At the end of the book Myshkin is still an innocent, well-meaning idiot, Rogozhin is still dark and treacherous, and so forth. We are told that both Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are beautiful and enchanting, and goodness knows Myshkin spends a lot of time falling in love with them, but they never behave other than as selfish, spiteful, cruel, damaged harpies. There is nothing lovable (or interesting) about either of them. Moreover, Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin spend the majority of the book offstage. Parts Two and Three and most of Four are dedicated to Myshkin's interactions with the Epanchin and Ivolgin families at various dachas outside of Petersburg. He spends much more time telling Aglaya he loves her (for unclear reasons, since she seems to enjoy humiliating and ridiculing him in public) than doing anything else, all of which is totally extraneous to the actual story. I am aware that the overall point is to demonstrate the corruption and cynicism of Russian society by holding it up to comparision with Myshkin's saintly behavior. Balzac did this quite effectively in Le Père Goriot thirty-three years earlier, and recognized that the best technique to employ was a loss of innocence. Myshkin does not evolve enough to warrant this theme, nor do we get a sense that the Epanchins and the nihilists are representative types instead of individuals who just happen to be a bit bitchy. And if this is the theme, the love triangle is a distraction. If the love triangle is the theme, the social criticism occupies too much of the book, is too fitful and unfocused, and does not seem to advocate anything save for a vague mystical Christian idealism.

The only really notable figure of the book's interminable middle stretch is Ippolit, a consumptive nihilist who has resolved to kill himself. His attempt ends in failure and public ridicule, but apparently Dostoevsky was interested enough in his character to revive him under a different name four years later in Demons, where as Kirilov he is one of the novel's most interesting characters. Dostoevsky seems to have reversed the Marxist dictum: for him, it is farce first, then tragedy. Here the point seems to be to ridicule nihilism, in Demons it seemed to be to warn of its dangers and perversions.

These structural flaws aside, it must be said (at the risk of being accused an inveterate Philistine) that Dostoevsky's prose is abysmal. It is possible that accurate translation is simply impossible, though I trust the Pevear/Volokhonsky team, having read their Crime and Punishment and Demons last year and enjoyed them both. I'm currently reading their translation of Bulgakov, and see no problems. Really, the failure is with dialogue, and since Dostoevsky is such a theatrical author, this is deadly. The example given below is a trifle unfair, since it deals with an absurd subject; however, it is at a serious moment of the book, and is meant to be taken seriously, so I consider it fair game. Imagine the voices of actors trying to deal with this material, or read it out loud and see if it sounds at all passable:

“Did you receive my hedgehog?” she asked firmly and almost crossly.
“I did,” the prince replied, blushing and with a sinking heart.
“Then explain immediately what you think about it. It is necessary for my mother’s peace and that of the whole family.”
“Listen, Aglaya…” the general suddenly began to worry.
“This, this is beyond all limits!” Lizaveta Prokofyevna suddenly became frightened of something.
“There aren’t any limits here, maman,” the daughter replied sternly and at once. “Today I sent the prince a hedgehog, and I wish to know his opinion. What is it, Prince?”
“You mean my opinion, Aglaya Ivanovna?”
“Of the hedgehog.”
“That is…I think, Aglaya Ivanovna, that you want to know how I took…the hedgehog…or, better to say, how I looked at…this sending…of the hedgehog, that is…in which case, I suppose that…in a word…”
He ran out of breath and fell silent.

If only Fyodor Dostoevsky had been given a hedgehog.

Would we put up with this from anybody else? It may be that this is Officially Classic Literature, and that it is a relic from a different place, time, and literary tradition, but somebody somewhere once defined a classic as a work which can stand up to criticism indefinitely. This is not such a book. And, to add insult to 633 pages of injury, at the end it turns out that the entire book was pointless. The perfectly good, Christ-like prince accomplishes nothing except making a lot of lives worse, and returns to his sanitarium, having witnessed a murder of a character we have not seen enough of to care about and who has behaved so badly that it is impossible to imagine him caring either.

Pevear and Volokhonsky seem to have translated all of nineteenth century Russian literature into English. The Double was Nabokov's favorite of Dostoevsky's work, and James Wood thinks that The Eternal Husband is excellent. Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated both. There's a whole world of Turgenev, Gogol, and Pushkin they've brought into English, not to mention vast swathes of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Chekhov. There is so much in the world to read, life is so short, and The Idiot is so very, very long.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Brave New World

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
1932, 384 pp.

There have been times in which I felt I was the only person on earth never to have read Brave New World. I have long considered Orwell's 1984 to be among my favorite books, and I have an affinity for dystopia in general, but cannot prosecute a conversation on the subject without somebody bringing up Brave New World. It seems everyone read it in high school, while I was swimming through the collected works of John Keats and some very trashy novels involving super-vampires and a person who could talk to all dead people. Indeed, Brave New World tends to be held up alongside Orwell's book as the staunchest pillar of the genre, standing proud on the foundation of Evgeny Zamyatin's We, slightly above and to the right of Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, and perhaps (depending on your political and aesthetic sensibilities) in the company of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (decent) Jack London's The Iron Heel (less decent) and Ayn Rand's Anthem (nonsense on stilts). Finally I could bear my ignorance no longer and read the damn thing.

The very first sentence of the book lacks a subject, and I nearly stopped reading right then and there. But (regrettably!) my mother raised no quitter, save where matters of exercise are concerned, so I forged ahead. Three sentences later I was confronted with this malodorous beast:

"Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory."

I honestly assumed there was some mistake. I consulted another copy of the book, and felt my brain begin to cry when my fears were confirmed. There was no mistake, no disaster of translation. A human being, a natural English speaker, actually wrote that sentence. How can a shape be pallid, when pallid refers to color? How can something shine "bleakly"? What exactly is a "draped lay figure"? Does that distinguish it from a draped clergy figure? Was that clause some sort of horrific accident involving what was meant to be a transitive verb? What does the first clause refer to? I put down the book and poured myself a drink, for courage.

Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Award? Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, the First Baron Lytton, who I am delighted to report that I am not making up, wrote novels that actually began with sentences like "It was a dark and stormy night" or "A shot rang out". San Jose State University gives out an annual prize for "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Here's a good example: "Gerald began—but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash—to pee." As I folded myself around my reinforcing whisky, I began to wonder if there was an honorable mention for Worst First Page Ever.

I went out for a walk, and looked at the clouds, pondering the immense incomprehensibility of the universe. Perhaps, I reasoned, by the time I got back, the book would have done the decent thing and read itself. But when I returned, there it was, glittering malevolently, and perhaps shining bleakly. I took a running start and tackled page two.

I'm sure you are familiar with the story of Brave New World, since you probably read it in high school. In brief, it depicts a future in which genetic engineering, systematic use of pharmaceuticals, and subliminal messaging during sleep has created an endlessly stable, endlessly boring hierarchical society. Nobody is born, but instead everyone is grown through clever scientific techniques and bred for specific tasks: from the smartish, beautiful, tall, and competent Alphas, to the hideous dwarf Gammas. Probably less well known is that it was written as a satire on H.G. Wells' hopeful Men Like Gods. The tongue and cheek satire of H.G. Wells shows up pretty quick, and the book contains a surprising amount of jokes and sly humor for something ostensibly considered a dystopia. Lumping it together with 1984 strikes me as rather like classifying The Producers with Schindler's List, on the grounds that both involve Nazis. There's quite a bit of sex stuff, though a lot of it seemed rather prurient, with the sort of juvenile sensibility that assumes that women spend a lot of time getting naked together in showers and hitting each other with pillows when men aren't around. I'll give Huxley some credit here: he is fairly encyclopedic in his satire, and seems to have come up with a clever and slightly amusing take on virtually every recognizable aspect of everyday life. The satire never breaks character, which would have been immediately fatal.

However, he has some serious structural problems. The plot is animated by the discovery and return of John Savage, which is the ancient fish-out-of-water scenario, with all the obligatory misunderstandings. Huxley's habit of setting up four simultaneous scenes and then cutting back and forth between them in a sort of montage gets annoying quickly. It builds momentum and at times even tension, but it also repels coherent thought and reflection. That he uses it at critical points for exposition and character development is instructive, and is worth comparison to Orwell, who sustained his scenes almost past the point of tolerance. Consider the moment when Winston Smith finally begins reading Goldstein's book: that excerpt goes on and on and on and has been the defeat of many an ambitious young contrarian. Orwell wants you to think and reflect and have a sustained thought process; Huxley's montage technique prevents this, and prevents taking him seriously.

Huxley's dystopia also does not stand up to much consideration. It is a very precarious sort of tyranny, based on the suppression of human nature, and one gets the sense that one day without narcotics would end the whole affair. I was also a bit murky on why the strict hierarchy was exactly necessary. Apparently Alphas would be unhappy if forced to do menial Gamma work (though that leaves open the question of why Beta through Delta is necessary instead of just two classes) which does not seem to add up with how heavily medicated and conditioned everyone is. There seem to be captains of industry and pillars of civil society, though their organizations are unclear, their relations are unclear, and the extent of their status is unclear. There is apparently a Deputy-Governor of the Bank of Europe, for instance. How does one get to be in that position? Did he have a better education? Is he richer than everyone else? What are his views on monetary policy? The one member of the elite we do get to see is quite underwhelming, and rather than the pitiless evil of the functionary in 1984, he's sort of a sympathetic, affable chap. There is no organized violence (the police use narcotic gas and water pistols filled with anesthetic) no paranoia, no poverty, no real persecution. And if (as the Controller concedes) Shakespeare is better than their empty synthetic rhetoric, why not steal it and say they invented it? Then Savage would not be a danger, and their prose would improve.

Nor do the personal relations carry much credibility. If Savage is meant to be a sensitive Shakespeare-reader with a real concept of human relations and genuine, why does he love Lenina? She's an idiot and he knows it, and he dislikes everything about her. Is it just because she's beautiful? If so, that's a pretty shallow motivation for an ostensibly thinking and feeling person, and apparently incorrect because he turns her down when she propositions him. Why does he like Bernard Marx, and why does Marx begin the book a brilliant individualist contrarian and end it a mindless apologist? While we're on the subject, why does Huxley set up the Bokanovsky process at the beginning, allowing for genetically identical clones of people, but not exploit it as a plot device? If Bernard Marx and, say, the Controller had been genetic twins, there could have been some interesting exploration of the concepts of self and identity, nature vs. nurture, and so forth. An opportunity entirely missed, in favor of a pseudo-philosophical climactic conversation which reads like an over-bright but under-experienced college freshman who annoys you by raising his hand and blathering out his opinion on Kierkegaard in your 8 AM microeconomics class. That the conclusion seems to be in favor of an eternal and loving God with a dash of Catholicism only makes the conclusion all the more intellectually bankrupt. There is also a twinge of "savage is savage, civilization is civilization, and ne'er the twain shall meet" philosophy which turns up in the closing scenes, and the way Huxley just refers to "civilization" rather than the one particular dystopia seems to suggest a neo-Luddite, slightly pastoral anarchist vision, instead of functioning social and economic democracy, the very concept of which Huxley apparently finds abhorrent.

So I didn't like the book. Then I made a terrible, terrible mistake. I turned the page, and saw Brave New World Revisited. An inveterate completest, I forged ahead, to my eternal regret. This review is already too long. The rest of it is going to consist entirely of furious spittle-flecked vitriol. Stop reading here, go outside, and read a book.

"The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought they would," Huxley begins. Revisited was written in 1958, which is a notable year for its total absence of genetically engineered castes, cloning, mass-hypnosis, subliminal messaging during sleep, or systematic, government-mandated drug use. Fortunately, Huxley was kind enough to organize his essay to inform me about how thoroughly correct he was about everything. He begins with "Overpopulation."

Any time an intellectual other than Amartya Sen begins holding forth on the issue of "overpopulation," you can be entirely certain that you are about to receive unadulterated Mathusian fallacies which have not been updated or amended by any knowledge produced since 1830. There will be no discussion whatsoever of the enormous body of knowledge which has arisen in the field of population growth, demographics, family planning, food production and distribution, and the role of population in development. You will not hear about the Harris-Todaro Model, I assure you. Huxley does not disappoint: "[Birth control] must be practiced by countless individuals, from whom it demands more intelligence and will power than most of the world's teeming illiterates possess," he writes. "In parts of Asia and in most of Central and South America populations are increasing so fast that they will double themselves in little more than twenty years. If the production of food and manufactured articles, of houses, schools and teachers, could be increased at a greater rate than human numbers, it would be possible to improve the wretched lot of those who live in these underdeveloped and over-populated countries. But unfortunately these countries lack not merely agricultural machinery and an industrial plant capable of turning out this machinery, but also the capital required to create such a plant. Capital is what is left over after the primary needs of a population have been satisfied."

Oh dear. Those silly, stupid, lazy brown people! They’re much too stupid to understand how condoms work, which is obviously why they choose to be too poor to have access to them, and choose to live in tradition-bound patriarchic societies in which women have no say over their reproductive health and family planning decisions, promote the high infant mortality rates that engender high birth rates, and continue to select repressive demagogues as their leaders to tell them that condoms cause AIDS. That certainly is what prevents us (whoever that may be) from creating more houses than people (because everyone needs their own house, plus some extras) and creating teachers faster than people (because everyone needs their own teacher, plus some extras, and teachers are not part of the population, but instead are grown in orchards near Atascadero). If only Huxley could properly define what capital is, then perhaps he would see that everything he thinks is goddamn stupid. It gets worse. Why, pray tell, is it dangerous for there to be so many poor brown people? Well, I'll tell you:

"Communism has been invented. Given this fact, the probability of over-population leading through unrest to dictatorship becomes a virtual certainty. It is a pretty safe bet that, twenty years from now, all the world's over-populated and underdeveloped countries will be under some form of totalitarian rule -- probably by the Communist party." Twenty years from 1958 makes 1978. In 1978, Ethiopia had just gone communist, Vietnam and Laos were communist, and Yemen had gone communist in 1970. Mozambique and Angola were nominally communist, but engaged in terrible, long-running civil wars. That makes six out of a hundred and twenty-odd “underdeveloped countries,” though none of them is or was particularly overpopulated. And their Communist parties were of a variety of stripes, instead of one ever-present monolith of over-populated rabble-rousing. Of course, any thinking person knows that over-population does not "lead" to dictatorship, nor are all dictators communists, so perhaps these details skewed Huxley’s highly scientific prediction. And since communism, for all its faults and permutations, at least is correlated with a very low birth rate, if over-population really is his worry, Huxley should have breathed a sigh of relief had he been correct. He does not. Instead he delivers this little gem:

"In this second half of the twentieth century we do nothing systematic about our breeding; but in our random and unregulated way we are not only over-populating our planet, we are also, it would seem, mak¬ing sure that these greater numbers shall be of biologically poorer quality." Up until this point I had been struggling manfully to take Huxley as a serious, if misguided and uninformed thinker. In retrospect, I was reading the reputation, not the writer, and biting into a mouthful of eugenicist gristle was enough to bring me back to reality. At this juncture I threw the book across the room. I was in the cafeteria at work, so this provoked some controversy, principally from the large woman I hit when I threw it. I took the book outside and threw it again across the courtyard, and was marching over to kick it a few times when somebody stopped me.

How anyone could sustain this argument with a straight face after the Second World War is utterly beyond me. I am aware that Huxley comes from a long line of wealthy white eugenicists, so perhaps bigotry and dribbling pseudo-scientific stupidity ran in his family. I am aware that he is considered by many to have been brilliant, and that lots of people think Brave New World is one of the best books in the English language. I want very much to find where Aldous Huxley is buried, to dig him up, and to throw stones at him. Had he simply been a lone bigot, a sad crank in a corner somewhere obsessively filling notebooks with this sort of unexamined detritus of an exploded ideology, that would be one thing. But no, he is considered a genius and read by everyone in high school. He is worse than a garden-variety bigot filled with juvenile self-righteousness and narcissistic hatred for the unwashed masses who clutter up his planet and breathe his air: through some terrible mistake, he has been taught to generations of blank-minded youngsters. The only thing worse than a bigoted idiot is one who is the cause of bigotry and idiocy in others. Slogging through his self-congratulatory remarks as to the superiority of intellectuals and their imperviousness to lies and government propaganda, I began to think of all the other asinine eugenicists the world has endured, trumpeting their vulgarized Nietzsche and perverted pseudo-science. It made me consider the old refrain of the Allied Expeditionary Force: the only good person with a world-view like this is a dead one. Now if only Mr. Huxley’s influence would die.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Regeneration, by Pat Barker
1991, 250 pp.

I would suggest that someone write a survey of modern female British writers who have an obsession with the First World War, had Terry Castle not already beat me to it in the London Review of Books. Of them Lyn Macdonald’s documentary histories are indispensable, but Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is certainly the best known. This is the first volume, released in 1991 to great acclaim; the third volume won the Booker. With these three books Barker vaulted herself into the tiny ranks of universally admired contemporary female novelists.

Regeneration is about equal parts fact and fiction. The catalyst is a declaration written by Siegfried Sassoon protesting the continuation of the war, and his time spent at Craiglockhart mental facility as a result. Sassoon was one of Britain’s great anti-war poets, and he really did write that declaration and spend time at Craiglockhart. He really was treated by the brilliant psychiatrist named Rivers, really was friends with Robert Graves (who wrote the famous anti-war memoir Farewell to All That and several antique military historical novels of which I, Claudius is the most famous but Count Belisarius is probably the best) and really did meet Wilfred Owen while in the hospital. All of this is true, and Barker took quite a risk in adopting these famous and famously articulate men as her characters. This gambit succeeds brilliantly: indeed, for my money the book’s greatest strength is Barker’s command of her characters’ voices. Each has his own distinctive diction and tone, with never a wrong note. They sound exactly how educated, refined, sensitive people under tremendous social pressure who have been through horrible experiences and are now in psychological torment ought to sound. As you can imagine, this is quite a feat. This skill extends even to minor characters, who are drawn with speed and efficiency. Look how quickly she defines the limits of one character's world:

"In her world, men loved women as the fox loves the hare. And women loved men as the tapeworm loves the gut."

There is also a character named Prior, who is fictional, and therefore allows Barker to escape the confines of the mental facility. Prior adds a dash of romance and a female character when he meets a winsome factory worker in Edinburgh; regrettably, this affair ends with a passage which ought to have won Barker the coveted “Bad Sex in Fiction” award.

Aside from Barker’s control of voice, the sections (all too brief!) in which Sassoon and Owen collaborate on their poems are excellent, if for no other reason than that it is inherently fascinating to watch people be good at something.

Despite being a good book overall, I confess I often felt that it was one which lacked motivation. There is no conflict between Sassoon and Rivers, nor even is Sassoon particularly the main character, since Prior gets at least as much attention, and his conflict is of a very genial sort. We do get a sense of the nightmares and flashbacks these soldiers experience, but since they are well-mannered, well-spoken, and well-educated, there’s never any moments of real emotional torment. Nor is there any doubt that Sassoon is quite sane and will ultimately be sent back to the front, all of which adds up to very skillfully drawn characters having very skillful conversations but to no real emotional purpose. Even the final pages in which Sassoon is discharged lack gravitas: he wants to go back, and he does. It is not a defeat, or a death sentence. I assimilated the themes of mental anguish and slow recovery, of undercurrents of social stratification and masculinity, but themes cannot drive a narrative alone. Perhaps I expected a darker and more wrenching book. Barker certainly has a disparaging view of English society during the war, and of the platitudes that demographic produced and consumed in volume. After a prayer, for instance, she writes: "The congregation, having renounced reason, looked rather the happier for it and sat down to await the sermon." Good stuff, that, but hardly a driving fury. Regeneration is certainly good, it just didn’t particularly tell me anything about the experience of war and post-traumatic stress that hasn’t already been dealt with extensively in fiction. I wondered why Pat Barker decided to write such a calm and restrained book. Surely the only reason to write about the First World War, especially about the mental damage of the soldiers who fought in it, is due to some overwhelming passion. I felt no such passion, only considerable skill. Skill is in rather short supply these days, so it is welcome when it is found, so I therefore consider Regeneration well worth reading (indeed, I will happily read the other two books in the trilogy) but nothing more.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Patagonia

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
1977, 204 pp.

To this day, the more remote and exotic parts of the world are crawling with unshaven backpackers clutching Moleskine notebooks, desperately trying to be Bruce Chatwin. This is understandable. After reading In Patagonia in about two sittings, I too wanted to be Bruce Chatwin. You should go read it right now, and then you can join me in wanting to be Bruce Chatwin. You won't regret it.

In 1974, Chatwin was the art and architecture writer for the Sunday Times. He flew to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to do research, and promptly quit his job with the following telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." This book is the product of his months spent walking, riding, hitchhiking, and generally browsing around Patagonia, the vast and desolate southern triangle of Chile and Argentina. He claims to have been driven there by a childhood curiosity brought on by a small patch of skin ("brontosaurus skin," his mother tells him) sent home by his great-uncle, who was briefly consul in Punta Arenas. More broadly, he appears to have been fascinated his entire life by the most distant parts of the earth and by the nomadic lifestyles of the people who inhabit them. To this end, he wrote a couple of volumes of essays, a couple novels, and In Patagonia, which secured him immortality and which stands as the antithesis to Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar in the founding pantheon on modern travel writing.

Theroux's book was a linear, almost claustrophobic narrative of an endless, virtuoso train journey. Its skin and bones were details of cabin comforts, meals, stations, tickets, and the other banal details of travel. Theroux's account of the London to Paris stretch differed only slightly from the Madras to Sri Lanka passage, and his glacial indifference to local people, history, culture, and specific stories made any given piece of the book as closely centered on Paul Theroux's personal comfort as any other given piece. When In Patagonia came out two years later, Theroux gave it a bad review, complaining that Chatwin never explains how he gets from one place to another, what he eats there, or how he pays for it all. And quite rightly. Chatwin recognized that those things are only interesting to the people who actually experienced them. To everyone else, they just sound like monotonous whining. It may be that the central experience of your vacation was the bus breaking down and you getting ameobic dystentery, but nobody else wants to hear about that. It was probably subjectively important, but it is objectively tedious. Instead Chatwin alternates his short, punchy chapters between travelogue and encounters and full stories explaining the background of the subjects he's investigating. So (for example) there are a couple chapters about his progress finding one specific cabin high up in the mountains and trying to determine who built it and when. Eventually it becomes clear that it was built by none other than Butch Cassidy, so we get a chapter about the Cassidy gang staging heists and running from the law. Chatwin tells a hell of a good story, and treats us variously to rousing sea adventures, an anarchist uprising, the origins of the Welsh exile community, meditations on Darwin, a connection between a book about Magellan and the origin of Caliban in The Tempest, and a 19th century European lawyer who convinces the local Araucanian Indians to elect him King of Patagonia. It is true that Chatwin never dwells for very long on these things and presents travel as too neat, too comfortable, and too romantic an experience. He also never wastes your time, talks down to you, or tells you something boring or obvious. He works his way down the coast, cutting back and forth from the sea to the mountains, from Argentina to Chile, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, to the most southern city in the world. Along the way he investigates every story and legend of interest, always on the trail of his great uncle, the sailor and diplomat, and the origin of that "brontosaurus skin."

It helps that Chatwin is a splendid writer, with a confident, clipped, laconic voice and a keen eye not just for startling visual descriptions, but for emotions and relationships. Theroux is good at exotic absurdity; Chatwin is just as good, but recognizes pathos as well. Consider this description of a dying exiled poet in an empty, run-down cabin:

"She was waiting for me, a white face behind a dusty window. She smiled, her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark-auburn. Her legs were a mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had the tatters of an extraordinary beauty."

A mesopotamia!

Or consider this description of a little crossroads town:

"The city kept reminding me of Russia--the cars of the secret police bristling with aerials; women with splayed haunches licking ice-cream in dusty parks; the same bullying statues, the pie-crust architecture, the same avenues that were not quite straight, giving the illusion of endless space and leading out into nowhere."

And this:

"The cliffs were a lighter grey than the grey of the sea and the sky. The beach was grey and littered with dead penguins."


I trust by now that I've made my point. I've never read a book quite like In Patagonia, despite being a great aficionado of travel writing. Chatwin comes across like the most grizzled, fascinating, taciturn fellow in a dark expat bar, and it is a pleasure to have spent 204 pages with him. That his life ended so prematurely is a tragedy, and I lament that he left us so few books. Had he written only In Patagonia, though, his immortality would probably still be assured. It really is a splendid read for anyone with an interest in anything: at once exotic, romantic, erudite, lapidary, fascinating, and totally unique, it cannot be too highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
1975, 379 pp.

Paul Theroux has probably seen more of the world at ground level than any other person alive. He has gone by train from Cairo to Cape Town, from Boston to Argentina, and twice from London to Southeast Asia, to Japan, then across Russia back to London. He has spent a year on trains in China, and kayaked in the South Pacific. He has walked the coast of England, been a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda and taught in Singapore. He's written something like 20 novels and ten travel books, and he apparently knows everybody. The Great Railway Bazaar, about his first circuit of the Asian continent by train, is the book that made him famous. It's something of a classic of the travel genre, though it is unlike most travel books I've ever read.

Theroux seems to embark on his four-month odyssey not exactly out of a love for travel or curiosity about new places or due to the sort of slightly mystical wanderlust that possessed Bruce Chatwin. Instead, as he makes clear in the opening sentence, he just really likes trains. Indeed, the book is less of a travelogue and more of a description of sitting on trains. Theroux gets out periodically to sniff the air and complain, but most of his time is spent ensconced in his cabin. He gives a few defenses for this mode of travel, ranging from the highly persuasive (trains are comfortable and never spill your drink) to the dubious (train travel lets you see a country "with its pants down") to the rather self-righteous (a lengthy passage about how an experienced traveler can accurately tell everything about a given country just by looking at it out of the windows for a few minutes). He meets eccentric characters on the train, of course, though most of them are fellow travelers rather than locals, and even the locals tend to be wealthy, odd, and English-speaking. He is not particularly interested in the history or culture of the places he visits, though he is perfectly willing to dispense sweeping generalizations from his sleeping car. "Afghanistan is a nuisance," for instance. "The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent." In Burma he gets into an argument when he "questions one of the cardinal precepts of Buddhism, the principle of neglect." Burma, he explains, "is a socialist country with a notorious bureaucracy," but a Buddhist bureaucracy which demands the patience and piety of a monk who is used to a life of suffering. "Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen." Sometimes these seem fairly accurate, like his impression that modernization in Turkey stopped "with the death of Ataturk, at 5 minutes past 9 on 10 November, 1938." Other times, like when he blames all of the problems in Sri Lanka on the natural laziness of the people, he just seems like a fat, obnoxious, wealthy, white man who cannot understand how the poor have failed to read Weber on the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism and why they have therefore chosen to remain in abject poverty.

But now I have given the wrong impression. It is certainly an interesting book, but it is interesting in direct proportion to the reader's interest in two things: Paul Theroux and the world of 1975. I think I have already dealt with the first; the second is more interesting. Theroux crosses Iran before the Revolution, Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, Burma before the democracy crackdown, and Vietnam during Kissinger's "decent interval." He crosses the Sea of Japan in a rusty trawler, has a run-in with the Burmese police, and seems to start losing his mind in Japan. This is all good stuff, and he is frequently a good writer. Consider these examples:

"The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far end of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers."

Though some of the misanthropy which characterizes his later work is certainly present, on the whole he seems urbane, well-read, well-traveled, and well-spoken, just certain he knows everything he needs to know and immensely disinterested in everything else. He has few experiences which would qualify as "adventures" in the normal sense of travel-book adventures, nor does he travel in the sort of low-to-the-ground semi-poverty which is the current vogue in travel literature. Theroux seems to be more of a quantity over quality traveler, and though he is gifted with a keen eye for sharp descriptions of places and people, his overwhelming interests are trains and Paul Theroux. Still, it is a fascinating account of the sort of journey only a handful of people have ever made, one which is largely impossible today, and as a book it is an important pivot point in the genre of travel writing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
2006, 287 pp.

Ten years after some undescribed global calamity, a man and his son follow the road south and try to survive. The world is dark and cold, covered with billowing ash. The cities are destroyed, all the animals are dead, and the human survivors have long since become roving bands of murderers and cannibals. Together the man (called only "the man") and his son ("the boy") walk south to the ocean. The Road is a stark, desolate book, a minimalist modern take on the old post-apocalypse genre, and a surprisingly intimate story of paternal love.

The book consists of short paragraphs and episodes lasting a page or two. The man and the boy walk along the road. They hide from roving bands of cannibals. They search ruins for food. They get hungry, they get cold, they get wet. They camp under a tarp and make a small fire. This is the book. Much of it is given in barren passages of dialogue, full of repetitions, okays, yeses, and nos, devoid of quotation marks or commas. This is a representative:

"Did you have any friends?
Yes. I did.
Lots of them?
Do you remember them?
Yes. I remember them.
What happened to them?
They died.
All of them?
Yes. All of them.
Do you miss them?
Yes. I do.
Where are we going?
We're going south.

McCarthy is known for his thick, gnarled prose with its Biblical cadence and peculiar antique diction. Here he is mostly quite restrained, grudgingly giving up very few sparse words on big empty pages. He gets a lot done with very few words, almost entirely nouns and verbs which do a lot of heavy thematic lifting. His descriptions are terse and efficient:

"The grainy air. The taste of it never left your mouth. They stood in the rain like farm animals. Then they went on, holding the tarp over them in the dull drizzle. Their feet were wet and cold and their shoes were being ruined. On the hillsides old crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and black in the rain."

He delivers several simple, but apt descriptions, mostly of the endless dark and cold, sometimes both. "That cold autistic dark" for instance, or "the ancient dark," or one of McCarthy's favorite images conflating the shoulder blades of someone starving with razors. One readily forgives the Ptolemaic error in the lovely description of how "the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." This is a case study in the unity of content and form: McCarthy sketches a barren, empty world, with barren, emaciated prose. It is true that his usual tropes are not far away: as James Wood pointed out in the New Republic, he still has “a reliance on gnomic utterances by cameo prophets” and his habitual bursts of sudden horrible violence punctuate the narrative. At times he does wind himself up into a passage of rhapsodic, frothing prose, like this one:

"By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond."


But aside from the craftsman’s impressive fashioning of the mechanics of his art to suit his purposes, The Road has a few interesting structural nuances. It could most obviously be classified as an entry into the post-apocalyptic genre, but it resolutely defies most of the conventions of that dubious category. Most post-apocalyptic books have the actual calamity as a centerpiece, since that allows an easy before/after dichotomy, some noisy set-pieces to get through the middle stretch, and a bit of moralizing about the cause of the disaster. The Road takes place ten years later, with the apocalypse itself barely explained. The man has memories of the world “in that long ago,” but the boy does not, and the man is unable to communicate his memories, because the world is so different: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world’ he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.” Most post-apocalyptica is created for the purposes of social commentary. It is designed as an allegory for contemporary problems, a reductio ad absurdum argument against the author’s pet fears. The Road is nothing of the sort. Like the great prison literature, The Road is purely material, concerned only with how one would live in a world without people, commerce, production, infrastructure, organization, social groups, safety, or a future. This is the really affecting core of the book: the man is totally devoted every moment of every day to survival, and we are carried along with him through the hard details of that struggle, but he has no answer for the struggle against the last problem. Survival may be the only thing that matters, but why bother surviving in such a world? Why bother keeping your child alive, if you know that his only future is to continue living in such suffering? We learn in flashback that the boy’s mother killed herself rather than live only to be killed and quite probably raped and eaten.

With the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre stripped away, what remains is that quintessential American motif: the road or river novel. Transit down a road or a river has been a stirring metaphor since at least Mark Twain, and seems to be deeply ingrained in the American psyche. I’m certain Joseph Campbell had all sorts of theories about it. It remains here, when all the rest of civilization and culture is gone, and it works as an animating force to push the novel along.

All of that said, the end is a problem. Throughout we get a deep emotional sense of the man’s commitment and devotion to his son. “If he is not the world of God God never spoke,” the man thinks early on, and as the book continues, he gets increasingly theological. The man kills several people and refuses to help several more out of the necessity of survival, but the boy always objects, wanting to help anyone he can. The boy increasingly takes on a sort of child-saint aspect, including a passage in which the man tells one of McCarthy’s “cameo prophets” that the boy is a god, the last god on earth. The prophet takes this a bit humorously, but the point remains whether the boy is meant literally to be seen as a redemptive godly figure, or if the man’s monomania has proceeded to such an extent that he really believes it and is effective at persuading the reader. The final pages strike an incongruous note of religious consolation, with solemn talk about the fire of God being passed from person to person and even a bit of downright deus ex machina which casts much of the rest of the novel into an entirely different light, opening up interpretations in which the man was far more paranoid and violent than previously considered and the world not quite so badly off. Many reviewers found the last pages uplifting and hopeful. I found them false and disingenuous, and had McCarthy not been quite so fortunately terse with them, they could have ruined the novel entirely. Instead it is a good book with a false ending, but still well worth reading, particularly for aficionados of Cormac McCarthy or of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great, by Gerhard Ritter
1968, 201 pp. From a series of lectures given at the University of Freiburg in 1933-1934.

Much is popularly known about the Third Reich; amongst people familiar with European history at least a little is known about the Second, but the First is by now entirely ignored. This is particularly true in the United States, where the global conflict known elsewhere as the Seven Years War is known as the "French and Indian War" and where all history is framed as the teleological production of American exceptionalism rather than the Great Power struggle for dominance in Europe. This is unfortunate. There is quite a lot to be learned from the age of so-called "enlightened" absolutism, from the practitioners of calculated diplomacy and limited wars, and specifically from Frederick the Great. For the interested non-specialist, Gerhard Ritter's brief biography is an excellent introduction.

Professor Ritter is probably best known, to the extent that he is still known at all, for his participation in the postwar debate over the sonderweg interpretation of German history. Ritter was a German nationalist, a conservative, and a devout Lutheran, who fought as an infantryman in the First World War and was a strong supporter of the old monarchy. He was not, however, a Nazi, and he argued his entire life for a form of conservative German nationalism separate from the perversions of National Socialism. (This is, incidentally, why arguments that Hitler was purely conservative and not in his own sick way a revolutionary are nonsense: there were genuine German conservatives who ardently wanted a return to the limited aims and stability of the monarchy. Ritter was one of them, Hitler was not.) He was against the Nazi regime and its brutality towards the Jews, and participated in the July 20 Plot and survived, though he did argue that Jews should be stripped of civil rights. Ritter's professional career was limited to works on German political, military, and cultural history: he wrote on Bismarck, Luther, the Schlieffen Plan, and Carl Goerdeler. He was effectively the dean of conservative German historians, and this is probably his best-regarded book.

Ritter packs quite a lot of information into these 200 pages. As a biographer of Frederick, he hits all the major points with admirable concision and illumination. Frederick's father Frederick William was a domineering tyrant and a big, blustering, violent man. We get a good sense of how his antagonism towards Frederick shaped Frederick's personality and style of governance: Frederick William once had his son imprisoned and forced to watch his best friend being executed. When Ritter says that Frederick set out to be a new, tolerant, cultured sort of monarch, we believe him. The two Silesian Wars and the Seven Years War get their due, as does Frederick's administrative, military, and economic reforms, but really this book is less a biography and more of Ritter's consideration of what he knows of Frederick's life. As Peter Paret, the translator, notes in his introduction, the book is "less the product of its author's archival research than of his reflections on the history of political ideas." Therefore we get only a brief discussion of what Frederick did but a strong, considered examination of why he did it and why it mattered. Ritter seems to have absorbed everything there is to read about Frederick, including Frederick's own writings, and considers it all in light of the documented historical facts. This gives him leverage to evaluate Frederick as a leader: "Almost simultaneously with the anonymous appearance of his Anti-Machiavel in 1740, its author outraged Europe by his particularly ruthless use of force," Ritter writes. Was Frederick then really the humanitarian monarch he considered himself to be, or were his writings purely cynical? Ritter considers the matter and concludes that Frederick was concerned with the well-being of his people, but only because it served certain ends.

And here Ritter's book is the strongest, when it focuses less on historical narrative and more on its central thesis. Ritter argues that Frederick recognized that "the unselfconscious kingship of earlier times was a thing of the past...No longer was the state dynastic property, nor was the royal dignity any longer granted by the grace of God" and therefore set out to update and perfect the absolutist system pioneered by Louis XIV. His deep historical studies and voluminous correspondence with leading thinkers led him to some interesting conclusions. "Frederick found it possible to demonstrate dispassionately the theoretical advantages that republican or parliamentary forms of government enjoyed over the system of royal absolutism. If the monarchy was to retain political authority in this completely altered intellectual climate, it must constantly prove itself by supreme achievements in politics and war." To that end, Frederick established total legal security for all, restricted the power of the monarchy, protected against arbitrary governmental power, and reformed the military. He instigated and won three wars against superior forces allied against him, attacking from all sides, and took territory integral to the maintenance of a viable, contiguous Prussian state. "We have suggested," Ritter writes towards the end, "that Frederick's military policy relied on the methods of the absolutist state, which it perfected until they attained their highest possible effectiveness."

Ritter is clear about how this project developed, and how Frederick learned along the way. His youthful impetuosity during the First Silesian War and his total misreading of the diplomatic situation after the death of Charles VI taught him important lessons about Great Power diplomacy, and his early attempt at reforms taught him about the need for unitary power in the monarchy. He learned quickly on the battlefield and pioneered a new tactic of rapid flanking maneuvers. He never emerges as much of a diplomat, though, especially in the run-up to the Seven Years War in which he was constantly and hopelessly outmaneuvered by Kaunitz. But considering that, as Ritter rightly notes, "personal rule driven to such extremes was made possible only by constant, intense activity, and an almost unlimited versatility," the fact that the same man could win the Battle of Leuthen and also write a theme for a composition by Bach is extraordinary.

It is clear from this book that Ritter is interested in Frederick as a military leader first, as a diplomat second, and as a domestic reformer a distant third. The portions of the book dedicated to each subject can equally be ranked by quality. There are a few annoying formatting issues, unfortunately. Since this book is derived from a series of lectures Ritter gave in the mid-1930's, there are no footnotes and no bibliography, so it is impossible to track down the origin of an interesting story (say, Frederick's stirring personal bravery during the great defeat at Kunersdorf) or to verify a quotation from his letters or diary (say, when he writes about his depression to his sister). It also makes the book useless as a tool for further research. A map would have been most welcome, since nobody remembers where Wolfenbuttel was. Since it requires passing familiarity with the 1730 English marriage plot, and with the subtle diplomacy of Kaunitz, it is not particularly accessible to the general reader, so it is difficult to determine who the book is for, exactly. Me specifically, perhaps. Whatever the case, there is probably no other volume which so precisely conveys the essential details of Frederick's life along with such informed consideration on their importance and historical context.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Herzog, by Saul Bellow
1961, 416 pp.

I tend to take notes when reading non-fiction or large trade paperbacks which can comfortably accommodate a sheet of notepaper as a bookmark, but with smaller mass-market paperbacks I have an annoying half-system: I dogear the bottom corner of a page which has something I want to remember or quote, then at the end of the book I go back through to all the dogeared pages with a notepad. I tend not to mark the specific passage, out of a visceral and terminal distaste for marking up books, so I spend a lot of time re-reading these pages wondering what the hell I wanted to remember. It doesn't help that I mark pages that have both good passages and bad, so when returning to any given page, I have no idea what I'm looking for. By the time I finished Herzog, the book was thick with folded corners, sometimes three or four pages in a row. I was tempted to tally the good passages against the bad. I think it would have come out about equal.

There is little story to speak of in Herzog. The title character is a middle-aged ex-professor undergoing his second acrimonious divorce. The action of the book takes place over a few days or perhaps a week, but is laced with flashbacks and memories, and most notably, Herzog's little letters he writes to people he knows or has read about. Bellow sums it up on the third page: "Late in the spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends."

These letters are given in italics, sometimes interspersed with un-italicized passages which seem to be Herzog's own thoughts, although they continue rather than interrupt the flow of the italicized letters. Some of them are fairly amusing: "Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall of the quotidian.' When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?"

The narration veers between third-person omniscient and free-indirect style, with no clear distinction between what Herzog is thinking, remembering, or experiencing and the narration. Perhaps this is meant to reflect the fragmented and disoriented state of Herzog's mind. If so, I notice little improvement over the course of the book: indeed, as far as I could tell, Herzog's mood improves, but he does not grow or change as a character, so we are left with 416 pages of whining which goes nowhere and does nothing. It's like reading the script for a four-hour Woody Allen movie without any jokes.

Herzog is a damnably uneven book. There are several sections of about fifty to seventy pages which are magical, inevitably followed by thirty or so pages of unmitigated dreck. A few patterns emerge. Yes, as everyone on earth knows, Bellow is terrific with the precise, unique, lapidary descriptive phrase. Thus we have the "thick brick document" of Queens, and the interesting reversal of the usual order of listed adjectives: "soft big nose" instead of "big soft nose," and so forth. Bellow is excellent at applying bizarre but somehow perfectly applicable adjectives to otherwise banal things, and these phrases stick happily in the memory long after the book has ended. But as near as I can tell, that is his only strength. His dialogue is stilted and false. Try reading this out loud and see if it sounds like actual human beings having a conversation:

"'Phoebe,' he said. 'Admitting you're weak--but how weak are you? Excuse me...I find this pretty funny. You have to deny everything, and keep up a perfect appearance. Can't you admit even a tiny bit?'
'What good would that do you?' she asked sharply. 'And also, what are you prepared to do for me?'
'I? I'd help...' he began."

And sometimes his peculiar phrases go disastrously wrong and it becomes clear that instead of tossing off bits of gleaming, beautiful prose as though it were child's play, it is in fact quite a lot of work which sometimes doesn't succeed. When Herzog notes his lawyer's "long fingers, like a hunchback," the reader is left wondering what the hell kind of hunchbacks Saul Bellow knows. Dexterous ones, apparently.

Careful readers of this platform will recall that some months ago I reviewed Bellow's final novel Ravelstein. I did not like it, though in retrospect the review is harsher than I'd intended. Perhaps I was unfair to an 85-year old man who had just undergone food poisoning of such severity that his entire nervous system had to be effectively rebuilt from scratch. I was at pains to review the book rather than the reputation, though I admit I expected nothing short of excellence from a Nobel laureate and favorite author of everyone from Martin Amis to Roger Ebert. In my review I noted what I took to be a few glaring errors, and I considered them fatal to a book which revolves around the vast intellect of its subject. A music writer for the New York Times caught a couple other mistakes that I missed, but he had a different interpretation. The most egregious error is a reference to a recording of Palestrina "on the original instruments." But Palestrina wrote only vocal music, making "original instruments" a trifle difficult to record on. But the writer suggests a different interpretation: perhaps the error was not Bellow's, but his narrator's, who was meant to be constantly in awe of the far more intellectual title character. "If so," the writer concludes, "the 'error' represents the highest level of literary virtuosity." Of course, it seems like the narrator heard the recording and must have been able to tell five human voices from 16th century musical instruments, and if he was astute enough to learn that it was Palestrina specifically, not just some old recording, surely he would know that Palestrina wrote only a capella music. But how else to explain such a mistake? The other howler is the narrator's placing of General McAuliffe at Remagen, which is well inside Germany and was captured by the 9th Armored Division in 1945 instead of at Bastogne, which is Belgium, and where McAuliffe was in command of the 101st Airborne and famously said "Nuts" to the German demand for surrender in December of 1944. This is the most well-known story about the Battle of the Bulge, and it is impossible that a copy-editor could have missed it. Could it be that Bellow, with his fame and reputation, gets leniency from his copy-editors, or could it be that the mistakes are meant to illustrate the failings of his narrator character and were therefore left in? I don't know, but the other bits of repetition and occasionally awful prose did not inspire me to err on the side of Bellow. It is true that there were occasionally excellent descriptive phrases, but not enough to outweigh the mistakes, just to make it an uneven rather than a bad book.

And I must conclude that Herzog is similar. Take this example. On page 85, in a mental letter concerning a distasteful politician, Herzog writes, "The general won because he expressed low-grade universal potato love." This is a good phrase, and particularly resonant in ways Bellow could not have anticipated: "potato love" has notes of both Dan Quayle (who will forever be associated with tubers) and Bill Clinton's "feel-your-pain-literally-touchy-feely-empathy" and provokes the reflection that yes, all of our politicians exactly peddle low-grade universal potato love. Perfect.

But then the phrase reappears thirty pages later in the midst of a dreadful, interminable stretch of flashback about Herzog's brief stay with his utterly unbelievable, ostentatiously Jewish, frequently incoherent lawyer. Here it is in some context:

"Forming his lips so that the almost invisible mustache thinly appeared, Sandor began to sing, 'Mi pnei chatoenu golino m'artzenu.' And for our sins we were exiled from our land. 'You and me, a pair of old-time Jews.' He held Moses with his dew-green eyes. 'You're my boy. My innocent kind-hearted boy.'
He gave Moses a kiss. Moses felt the potato love. Amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love.
'Oh, you sucker,' Moses cried to himself in the train. 'Sucker!'"

Herzog is staying with this guy at a real low point, just after his wife has left him for his best friend, and we're meant to be feeling (as far as I can tell) some sense of his wrenching, disoriented, betrayed loss. It's given to us in flashback, though, so we have the added counterpoint of his disgust and bitterness at how this lawyer treated him at the time. But I defy anyone to read "He gave Moses a kiss. Moses felt the potato love" and not burst out laughing. In its first incarnation, it was the perfect phrase. When it is dragged out again, it hits exactly the wrong note. The phrase appears four other times that I counted, though never quite so badly. It works as a shorthand, though it increasingly becomes a condescension as the butt of its fatuous posturing shifts from those who peddle it to those who receive it. Clearly in the first mention, and even in the second, it is used to express Herzog's disgust at fraudulent empathy; in the last four uses, he looks down on unnamed passersby for accepting it. The emphasis shifts from one of commiseration to one of superiority.

Bellow is also given to quasi-philosophical rambling, which tends to go on for a page or two, coming from nowhere and leading to nowhere. This happens a lot in Herzog, since the title character is a professor who wrote a book about Romanticism and Christianity, and who (as either a theme or a running joke) hopelessly intellectualizes all of his life's problems. These passages almost never work. Here's an example, using our old friend, Mr. Potato Love:

"Trust her, she'd find comfort while he was away, not be despondent in 'desertion' as he would have been--his childish disorder, that infantile terror of death that had bent and buckled his life into these curious shapes. Having discovered that everyone must be indulgent with bungling child-men, pure hearts in the burlap of innocence, and willingly accepting the necessary quota of consequent lies, he had set himself up with his emotional goodies--truth, friendship, devotion to children (the regular American worship of kids), and potato love."

That just might mean something profound, but it sounds goddamn ridiculous. When he manages to reign himself in, it sounds much better, like this lovely sentence from earlier in the book: "Truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion, and not truth." Better, and it's given in free-indirect style, so we know where to place it amid the other sentences on the page. It is not a pearl of sui generis philosophizing which has dripped at random from Bellow's mind into the midst of Herzog's life and my reading experience.

That's how the book is. There'll be seventy very good pages covering two or three flashbacks and about six philosophical arias which are good, then thirty pages that are nigh unreadable. One of these latter was an extremely distasteful courtroom scene which seemed to exist in order to establish that gay people are absurd sex maniacs and black people have big lips, drive badly, talk funny, and commit crimes. Considering that I noted early on that Moses Herzog seems to be a dear reflection of his creator, and that Herzog's world is populated entirely by upper-middle-class Jewish men, his few encounters with different segments of the population are universally repellent. Perhaps this was more acceptable in 1961. Perhaps it is just a trait of the character, not the author, although Martin Amis teaches us that the difference between the two can be measured by how much contempt the latter has for the former. But Bellow seems to have infinite sympathy for Moses Herzog, and he did not succeed in making me share it. Herzog seems to have a lovely, caring girlfriend (we hear quite a lot about how nice her breasts are, and her shrimp remoulade) and seemed to ignore his children while still married to their respective mothers, so I didn't particularly buy his obsession with his manipulative ex-wife or obtaining custody of their daughter. It seemed to me, much like the entire book, to just be an indulgent exercise in male narcissism. One of Bellow's overarching themes is that all of Moses Herzog's learning and erudition is useless to him when he needs it most, when his life is coming apart. It's a curiously anti-intellectual argument, but it only works insofar as Herzog's learning is useless because he can only relate to the world through the carapace of his narcissicm. Had he actually learned from all the accumulated knowledge and experience of the world, I am quite certain he'd find something useful.

Do the frequent beautiful phrases make up for this? I say that they do not: Bellow's prose is a blunderbuss of hit-and-miss verbiage instead of the precise crafting of les mots justes. A badly organized book with little plot, little character development, terrible dialogue, offensive racial caricatures, a narcissist for a protagonist, and an anti-intellectual argument is not redeemed by an occasional and statistically unreliable ability to produce good descriptive phrases. His gift with words can take him far, but not this far.