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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR OCTOBER 2006

October  30,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Hitler tried to placate us by speaking of National Socialism as ‘not for export,’ a product, he said, ‘made in Germany,’ using the last words in English. One imagines him, who fancied himself as the acute political psychologist never failing to make a calculated impression on simple souls, chuckling to himself over these words: "That will strike an answering note in the black commercial hearts!" With that peculiar inanity typical of the man knowing only his own language, Hitler imagined he was conferring a pleasure on Englishmen in treating them to three words of their own tongue atrociously pronounced.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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October  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Everything of that which was foolish, childish, wicked, caddish, hypocritical or openly deceitful in the centuries’ long dealings between man and man, between group and group, faith and faith, nation and nation; every half-truth, insincere insinuation, veiled threat, concealed brutality, mere heartlessness masquerading as stern purpose and long view; every mental reservation, vanity, priggishness, small measure, petty larceny, bullying, strutting with the chest out and throwing about of one’s weight, which has burdened the earth since after it had cooled to life, here paraded unashamed as bright scoundrelly virtue which hitherto had been decently hooded, not openly admitted, or, if admitted, tactily understood as things that must shun the light of day.  But here came homunculus, the product of mere chemistry, the Son of Ape in Man who could deduce anything he liked and turn to personal account everything he wanted from available data in the history of human behavior, but who had no soul, and therefore no conscience.  Here came the morose mad scoundrel, as indeed Napoleon, the bright scoundrel, had come before him, who, too, had had no difficulty in abstracting duplicity from the befuddled ethics of both Church and State and turn it profitably to his own account, while enjoying his consummate acting in the role of benefactor of the human race, its sublime, its heaven-sent teacher.

Here indeed was Napoleon brought up to date, made transparently absurd – humanity’s greed and self-seeking standing naked and exposed and, this time, glorying in its shamelessness. Whatever you may reproach him with, that he will fling back into your face.  When we sent missionaries with Bibles to convert black natives to Christianity, was it really the Gospel of Love or of profit we had in mind? The white man’s burden?  A sack of the black man’s gold!  Then kill and rob to glory and cut the cackle.  When we advertised the use of sundry tooth-pastes as the sole alternative to contracting pyorrhea, were we, or were we not, cashing in on human fear?  Then why not the propaganda of frightfulness, the war of nerves? When advertising beauty creams with pictures of our lovelies nobly sporting coronets, were we not deliberately preying on the snobbish weaknesses of the ignorant and the credulous?  Then why not flatter a whole nation with their imagined Nordic purity and superiority of race on which, to defend, they will expend their life’s savings?

[N.B.: Has anyone delivered such a devastating denunciation against the Littlest Corporal (since Gerhardie rarely deigns to mention his name, I won’t either)?  Keep in mind that this was written in 1940, long before the pernicious doctrines built up by this tin-pot tinker came to rotten fruition (there’s an apt oxymoron for you—then again, the spittle-flying woolgatherer was a walking oxymoron).  But Gerhardie already had him pegged as the foul, slouching Beast—and mocks him. Who else would belittle the ridiculous doctrine of racial purity with a comparison to tooth paste?  And thanks to the pox of copyright, Gerhardie still lies a moldering in his literary grave.  Get me a shovel!]

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October  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Yet we may inquire—what was the precise nature of this timeless joy? What, apart from the realization of immortality, conditioned it? Proust’s answer in effect is this: In those rare moments, those entirely fortuitous moments which the conscious will could do nothing to evoke, our being, momentarily released from the one-dimensional Time to which in actual life it is tied, was ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.’ Proust had experienced nothing less than a glimpse of himself in eternity. He had touched a point in the fifth dimension. He had re-lived an isolated moment in its crystal purity, free from the strain of anxiety and the blight of habit which had dulled the actual instant and made it nebulously unreal. He had re-lived it, this time, with insouciance because his being recognized it as real and ideal. Utterly real, with noting in it to abstract from simultaneous realization, the moment was also the ideal of contemplation. Man no longer stood in his own shadow. The duality had been bridged.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

[N.B.: Not only is this a profound description of Proust’s "Madeleine moment," but, I think, it also aptly describes that sense of being lost in a good book where time seems to drift off with one’s own consciousness as the story strangely, wonderfully, creates a new, timeless reality. My own recommendation for such a time machine: Henry James’s Princess Casamassima. As they say in the trade, "a thumpin’ good yarn."]

 

Fact, Fiction or God’s Fifth Column?

I’ve been threatening to blog about William Gerhardie’s extraordinary book, God’s Fifth Column; and now I’m finally going to knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.  But first, before I praise it, let me give my due to another extraordinary writer, soon to be forgotten (alas!—curse ye, copyright gods), John Lukacs, who wrote a mostly negative review of the book.  Lukacs is a historian who has devolved from a historian of ideas (á la Isaiah Berlin) to one of World War II (á la Stephen Ambrose).  Lukacs, though, at his best, is also capable of cranking out the quirky, indefinable work—such as A Thread of Years, a history of the 20th Century told in fictional short chapters for each year of that tumultuous, tragic time-period (well, almost each year).  Indeed, A Thread of Years can be seen as Lukacs’ riposte, as a historian, to Gerhardie’s explanation, as a novelist, in God’s Fifth Column, to the Big Stumper:  How did the 20th Century go so awry?  I’d recommend reading these two odd-ball books back-to-back. A twisted two-fer.

It’s interesting to see a noted historian like Lukacs take a turn at fiction as a way to illuminate certain ineffable changes in the cultural fabric that are otherwise difficult to capture through a review of the mere documentary—as opposed to the undocumented, but, arguably, more important, emotional and intellectual phenomena (which Dawkins—being literal-minded and so, so limited—misnames "memes," as if naming something somehow establishes one’s dominance over it (do you hear me, string-theory theoreticians?))—evidence.  And so, the reader is treated to a variety of fictional vignettes concerning the lost mores and cultural assumptions of various personages—grand or not so much—who slowly lose the veneer of civility built up over the centuries as Europe madly whirls towards the bonfire.  A Thread of Years is one of those fault-line books that supports my thesis that there is no difference in kind between fiction and non-fiction, just a matter of degree upon the fictional continuum.  And God’s Fifth Column is another.

Gerhardie felt that the historian’s craft, as typically practiced, led to a kind of moral myopia that could be rectified by the novelist steeped in the knowledge of the good and the evil that men do. As explained in the insightful introduction to the book by Michael Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky:

The historian, Gerhardie wrote, in one of the discarded drafts of this book, is "like a butler, absorbed by his duty of rating the events he announces in the order of their conventional importance, while keeping any private thoughts . . . to himself." He is "too busy ushering in his facts, too replete with his ceremonious virtue" to "dwell on the disparity between their conventional and their human values." Gerhardie wanted history to be "morally accurate—accurate in the relation of what has been done to what has been suffered." It should be "by implication, a moral indictment of the crime against humanity." The italicized phrase is important: history’s moral lessons were to be conveyed through art, not through preaching; through humor, irony, wonder and incredulity. As an epigraph to one of the versions of the book, he had quoted Horace: Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat? (And why should the truth not be told humorously?). To Gerhardie the clairvoyance of the comedic vision was a searchlight through the fog of earnestness generated by historians to hide the lunacies perpetrated by rulers. His humor was not a refuge, but an illumination of reality, rooted, as Hugh Kingsmill observed in his introduction to Gerhardie’s Resurrection, "in a perception not of what is socially incongruous, humor’s usual subject matter, but of what is spiritually incongruous."

Gerhardie, unlike Lukacs, directly addresses this false dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction. But let’s save those insights for another post.

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October  19,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Proust’s style assumes in the reader an intellectual breeding equal to appreciating his own which debars him from pausing to ram down your throat, as a vulgarian would do, an analogy, to Proust only valid collaterally, to be taken in your stride, while never losing sight of the goal he has set out to reach when he opened his sentence. In this he is most akin to Chopin, of whose method and style his matchless description of the ‘beauté démodée de cette musique’ is perhaps the most perfect example of his own. The peculiar merit of this ‘description,’ which is nothing less than a translation of musical into literary terms, is that it eschews all metaphor and symbol, strictly confining itself to movement and stress. The effort to render into English such a sentence of unalloyed lyricism, common to both poets, Chopin and Proust, is a labor of love to which one might with pleasure devote a year of one’s life. I spent months in perfecting it; and if anyone can better it, I shall be pleased to receive suggestions. Here it is:

In her youth she had first learned to fondle those long-necked sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free and flexible and tactile, which begin by essaying their steps outside and out of reach of their starting place, wide of the mark at which one might have hoped that they would attain their consummation, and that whirl away on their truant’s flight of fantasy merely to return with more deliberation, a recoil more premeditated, with more precision, like some crystal bowl which will ring till you could scream, as they beat against your heart.

It is essential to remember that the complexity of Proust, reflected in his style, is the complexity of a modern, erudite spirit commanding a wide field of reference, but, like Chopin, never losing sight of the lyrical consummation of his opening phrase, while impatient to encompass the zest of life and commentary there and then, before he passes to his next sentence, with all the fullness he cannot curb poured into that. It is inevitably an orchestral style, writer and reader alike finding themselves in the situation of a practiced conductor of orchestra so proficient in musical notation, the intellectual idiom of the culture of this age, as to take in at a glance all the simultaneous but separate instrumental parts.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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October  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

A national war develops like a personal quarrel, with that important difference that those who are called to face the greatest danger, to perform the most unpalatable, the most gruesome tasks, to suffer the most wracking pain and galling mutilation, or to mourn the heaviest loss, carry the most poignant memories, do not easily synchronize their felling with the more impersonal body of opinion that places its consistency of principle above the suffering of others.

And, of course, they all paid their visit to the Western Front to see the sights. Margot Asquith came, lodged with the King and Queen of the Belgians, ran up and stood excitedly on the top of a hillock, exchanged cigarettes for a Belgian soldier’s cartridge-belt and lanyard. Dear Arthur came gazed wondrously through his pince-nez at the shells bursting in the distance, remarking on their aesthetic aspect. Curzon came, expressing casually his incredulity, as he observed some Tommies bathing in a pool, that "the lower orders should look almost exactly like ourselves."

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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October  17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

He also has the politician’s trick of eliding the last word of one sentence to the first of the next, while stressing both words, in order to close a gate against interruption.

--He Knew He Was Right by Ian Parker (a profile of Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker).

 

Which Hitch?

Let us now praise famous Falstaffs, to wit, one Christopher Hitchens, who manages to have, ironically enough, an Orwellian profile in the October 16th issue of The New Yorker.  He is profiled by gimlet-eyed, glitterati-guttersnipe, Ian Parker, who does not like green Hitchens, the Ham, he does not like him, Hitch the Man.  Now, as far as Hitchens’s views on all matters sundry from domestic politics to international imbroglios, I am in sympathy with Parker that there is little to find agreeable.  But Hitchens—Hitch to his old Brit buddies—writes like an angel, an angel with a dirty halo, granted, but an angel, nonetheless.  Just like the good folks at The New Yorker, I find myself sputtering with rage as Hitchens recites one contrarian position after another—indeed, he has written a little book, Letters to a Young Contrarian–but, unlike those stuffy New Yakkers, I still love the Hitch and don’t mind if he spews at the mouth (there’s a very unflattering cartoon of him by Ralph Steadman at the start of the article doing just that) because the spew, although always pungent, is so rich, so full of literary and historical allusions, and, above all, so witty.  And, according to The New Yorker profile, so effortless, too (folks used to place bets on how quickly Hitchens could churn out a column). Unlike Ian Parker, though, I am not so green with envy as to engage in a hatchet job on the Hitch-meister.

I started this little post with a reference to the Orwellian nature of the profile—and it’s irony. The irony stems from the fact that Hitchens a couple of years ago published a little book—the lessons from which were not appreciated by good apparatchik Ian—titled Why Orwell Matters.  The book is about, in large part, how the abuses of language today are just as rife as under the stern fist of the communist commissars. Ian provides a few choice examples of his own. Here’s a good one:

Such performances of masculinity don’t appear exclusively on the page.  Not long ago, in Baltimore, I saw Hitchens challenge a man—perhaps homeless and a little unglued mentally—who had started walking in step with his wife and a woman friend of hers while Hitchens walked some way ahead.  Hitchens dropped back to form a flank between the women and the man, then said, "This is the polite version. Go away."  The man ambled off. Hitchens pressed home the victory.  "Go away faster," he said.

Note that weasel-word, "perhaps."  Suppose one changes just one word so that phrase set off in hyphens reads something like this: "perhaps a groper and a little unglued mentally."  Hmmm, that changes the whole tenor of the little anecdote.  t’s just as true, or not, as Ian’s choice.  I could have put in "rapist," "murderer," "serial killer," "solicitor," "census-taker," "preacher"—all just as true . . . or false.  I suspect that most women would appreciate the chivalry displayed by Hitchens on this occasion.  Not eel-like Ian.

Here’s another example showing that Orwell’s Masters of Grammatical Misrule are still alive and spittle-licking:

Hitchens helped arrange a meeting between Rushdie and President Clinton in 1993.  But he had by then taken a position on the President, derived from policy difference and suspicion of Clinton’s characters (but also, possibly, from awareness of the gap in political potency between two Oxford contemporaries, one of them being the leader of the free world).

Note again the weasel-word, "possibly."  Once again, one could just as well substitute instead of "political potency," "sexual potency" (that’s probably what eenie-wienie Ian means to imply anyway).  Or choose whatever slander one wishes to insert here.  Again, how Orwellian!  It’s an homage manque.  Again, I sympathize with The New Yorker regarding Hitchens’s views. But he’s a great writer.  One is reminded of the dyspeptic Samuel Johnson.  Sure, Johnson was a curmudgeon, and, on literary matters, almost perversely pigheaded and wrongheaded (Hitchens can be the same way, in the current issue of The Atlantic he has a glowing profile of Jessica Mitford  and claims she’s a better writer than her sister, Nancy—hence the reason I’m currently reading Poison Penmanship, a workmanlike collection of Jessica’s journalism which is mercifully out of print; it goes without saying that Hitchens is dead wrong on his literary choice—Nancy is simply divine).  So what—that curmudgeon lives forever; and we’re the better for it. So here’s two cheers for Hitchens—and a nasty round of razzes for the The New Yorker.

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October  16,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The difference between men and sheep seems to be that men, unlike sheep, need not be led to the slaughter but are carried there on the wings of their own enthusiasm.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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October  13,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

A recluse from society, Proust, after carefully weighing arguments for and against such a venture, decided that he would go to an afternoon party at the Princesse de Guermantes. In her courtyard he had his first of several revelations of unconscious memory as the fulcrum of the lever of immortality and of art. He was strolling into her courtyard when a carriage, driving up at that moment, caused him precipitatedly to seek the refuge of the asphalt. The sensation suddenly plunged him, with extraordinary intensity, into a moment resurrected from the past, when as a youth he had paid his first visit to Venice, and in the Baptistery of St. Mark he had experienced the same effect of treading on the curb worn down to the level of the thoroughfare. This sensation, for a timeless moment, flooded his whole being. He felt himself back in the body of the youth of Venice. In his childhood he had conceived a magic idea of Venice and had cherished the thought of a visit which, however, had not sustained his illusions. On a subsequent visit, trying consciously to recollect the Venice myth of his childhood, he had not been successful. But now, in that Paris courtyard, thirty years later, he re-lived the authentic fragrance of a moment of his youth in Venice, fully and lustily, as he had not done at the actual time of his visit, because then he had been preoccupied with irrelevant considerations which now, free of their irksome and timely quality, merely certified the authenticity of a timeless moment of youth. The sensation was so overpowering that, for an instant which seemed eternal, the image of himself as a youth in Venice disputed the actuality of his standing, a sick and ageing man, in a Paris courtyard. If he but yielded to the timeless reality of the Venice scene hovering before him and flooding him with happiness, he would die. Then the Paris courtyard veered round into focus, and complacently he turned his steps towards the house.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

[N.B.: There might be some connection between today’s lagniappe and yesterday’s—although the two quotes appear in different sections of the book.  As you might guess by now, I love God’s Fifth Column and will blog about it once I find some time.  Suffice it to say that on every page there is some witticism, some anecdote, some distilled drop of wisdom that makes the reader—or, at least, this reader—grab for a yellow sticky to note the precious nectar.  It’s a shame that the copyright pox has also killed off this book, and everything else written by William Gerhardie.  But do not fear, I’ve ordered all his works and will, someday perhaps, begin the lonely task of preparing the ground for his resurrection—they shall not crucify author-kind on their copyright cross of gold.]

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October  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

If there were no such thing as time, eternity would perpetuate a state of coma. Eternity acquires meaning only in the living moment, each of which it catches on the wing. Without eternity time runs into the dustbin. Without time eternity would contemplate a handful of dust. Time, not to succumb to the tedium of repetition inherent in its succession of staccato moments, resorts to fluctuation. Sorrow must be followed by joy, joy by sorrow; wars by peace, and peace by war, to provide eternity with a rich variety of spontaneous gesture to snap in motion. There is nothing more pure than eternity’s unalloyed love of fleeting time, nothing more ardent than time’s nostalgia for eternity: of like nature is the love of God for man, and the love of man for God.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

On Finishing The Decline and Fall

Since, oh, the last century or so, I’ve been nibbling on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I zipped through the first five volumes, but the last two presented monumental difficulties—not the least being that I didn’t want the work to end.  And so I tarried over the declining fortunes of the Byzantine Empire as it was successively ravished by various and sundry would-be conquerors, crusaders, invaders, Mongol hordes, assorted hordes, Tamerlane, old-what’s-his-name, Janissaries and Februaries, not to mention ne’er-do-wheries, and, finally, Mehmed II who, in 1453, brought Constantinople tumbling down. And now I can breathe a huge sigh of relief and glance about my book shelves, not feeling a twinge of embarrassment as those once-unread-but-now-put-to-bed volumes of Gibbon sullenly stare down at me.  So, how is The Decline and Fall?

As I have blogged about before, there are no barriers between fiction and non-fiction, certainly not at the upper reaches of the literary heavens.  Everything, ultimately, is fiction.  And, so, the knock against Gibbon that his work is biased and out-of-date is, at least for me, irrelevant.  The criteria I concern myself with, at least with respect to lasting literary value, is whether the work is beautiful and complex. Truth tends to be both beautiful and complex, but so does artifice which wears the mask of truth. There is no greater mask wearer than Gibbon.  His prose is hallucinogenic and infectious (both, in a positive sense).  I can never aspire to those long, sinuous ropes of comparative clauses that loop themselves one over the other in his prose. But I can still dream of sailing to Byzantium (The Decline and Fall is no country for old men—or old readers).  Thank you, Gibbon, for adding a pinch of pixie dust to this reader’s less-than-majestic existence.

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October  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Proust sat at the hostess’s own table and dominated it with his conversation, while everybody showed a special interest in him. He was just beginning to unfold the detailed mental evolutions and vicissitudes in society of a group of people of whom, though it is boring to read, one cannot stop speaking whenever a few Proustians gather together.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

An Update on the Best Novels in the Last Quarter Century

A few months ago, I—and the rest of the blogger community—let out a collective guffaw over the recent poll in the New York Times naming the alleged greatest work of American fiction in the past 25 years (it was Toni Morrison’s Beloved—that’s right, second-rate Faulkner).  The list did not include such works as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest which Claire Messud plugs in her new novel, The Emperor’s Children, and ranks right up there with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Melville’s Moby Dick (I don ’t think I’d go that far, but you get the drift).  Now, the Guardian comes along and crowns the best novel (in English, excluding America) for the years 1980-2005.  And you know what?  I don’ t have any complaints.  Not even regarding the runner’s up.  Being Irish, I’m the last to defend the English, but, dagnabbit, when it comes to matters literary, it’s a fair cop.  Here’s the start of the list:

First place

Disgrace (1999)
JM Coetzee

Second place

Money (1984)
Martin Amis

Joint third place

Earthly Powers (1980)
Anthony Burgess

Atonement (2001)
Ian McEwan

The Blue Flower (1995)
Penelope Fitzgerald

The Unconsoled (1995)
Kazuo Ishiguro

Midnight's Children (1981)
Salman Rushdie

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October  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Hugh and Robert, like most Cecils declared to be incredibly brilliant from their first birthday, disappointed the high expectations aroused by their political debuts, not so much in capacity as in subject, both brothers developing an absolutely unrivalled technique for arguing about the equity of marrying your deceased wife’s sister, some point of dogma around the Authorized Translation of the Bible, the omission of a line from the marriage services, or a verse from the Prayer Book.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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October  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

King Edward had the reputation of being a great gentleman, who, to spare the feelings of the maladroit, adopted his own table-manners to synchronize with theirs. Legend has it that, when a guest of his ate peas with a knife, the King, rather than embarrass his companion, did likewise. And since the Edwardians ate more than was good for them and the King’s nerves were overstrained by the demand on his graciousness, his composure and affability bear out the impression that his sins were not mortal sins of the heart. On the surface he was irritable enough. One day at dinner he seized a melon and threw it on the floor to relieve the shock to his nervous system caused by Prince Edward, eventually Duke of Windsor, dropping a fork. Another night, inadvertently staining his shirt with a streak of spinach, he plunged his hand into the bowl and smeared a fist-full all over his starched front, watched with keen interest by the future Edward VIII. The King, a moment later, rationalized his action: he would have had to change his shirt anyway, he explained.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

The Lost World War II Masterpiece: The Party by Rudolph von Abele, Part IV

The Party, is, at bottom, concerned with one of the most basic questions connected with humanity—and humanitarians: theodicy (why does evil exist?).  Evil exists because it’s fun, it’s a party.  But such a party has consequences.  And the rest of the book explores what those consequences may be.  Even if evil is ludic and creates a kind of cocoon for the evil-doers, such a cocoon is fragile and, at any moment, is likely to unravel:

Steinbaum, glancing round once more before leaving, saw only a couple he did not know, standing at the far end of the table while the tall-hatted chef prepared them two orders of crêpes suzettes. The woman was leaning back against the table, supporting herself on the palms of her hands, while the man, whose face was invisible, stood toying with a long necklace which, at that distance, appeared to Steinbaum to be wrought in gold. The woman’s dress being cut quite low, the necklace lay entirely against her bare skin; and as Steinbaum watched, the man began to twist it, at first slowly and then more rapidly, until it seemed as though he wanted to strangle her with it. Looking straight at Steinbaum, she tilted back her head and broke into laughter, narrowing her eyes and looking at him out of pupils nearly sunken behind her lower lids. Fascinated, Steinbaum involuntarily paused in the doorway to continue watching this tableau vivant, only to come close to being made a participant. The woman interrupted her laughter to say something that caused the man to look over his shoulder at Steinabaum; his horsy face took on the threatening expression of someone discovered in a compromising situation; he made a surreptitious movement with one hand—the other still firmly grasped the woman’s necklace—which Steinbaum interpreted as a demand that he should go away; but before he could comply, the woman spoke again, and the man’s hand came up and struck her twice, with a slap distinctly audible. The chef, just then lacing his crêpes suzettes with Cointreau, stopped work to observe, with a faintly cynical smile.

Evil knows no limits—not for the victim nor the victimizer, both bound by evil’s bonds.  A sign for privacy may, in a nonce, turn into a slap.  The world of evil is malleable, like a nose of wax.  Steinbaum quickly retreats from the scene, while musing:

But then, as he had noticed several times—the altercation he had witnessed in the dining salon had been merely the last item in a series—this atmosphere was fragile, tenuous, precarious; it had the impermanence of any communally accepted falsehood; out there, beyond the Air Police and the crumbling grey stone walls of the Chateau, the world went on; the women slept three to a broken bed in the labor camp, and one—a case Steinbaum had heard of from the Commandant’s Adjutant—dying in the early hours of the morning, unable in her agony to get up and squat over the brimming tin bucket "like a civilized human being," as the Adjutant had put it, had soiled the bed and her two companions with a stream of blood-streaked excrement, and died with her fingers violently tearing at their faces; while they, too tired to move or call for help, had lain four hours in that stinking bed with the slowly cooling corpse, too tired even to push her fingers from their cheeks.

I repeat, evil knows no bonds—it breaks all barriers and drives on and on and on like that horrible sentence quoted above.  Abele, like Conrad before him, uses the form of the actual grammar—the syntax—to create a mold that supports, in tone, the literary substance he wishes to convey.   This is the work of a master artist.  It is a shame he has been smothered by the hundred-year copyright pox.

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October  4,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

He had no birth, no breeding, no education. So he said, "I’m for race." Ignoring his mother’s Slav origin, born on the wrong side of the Austro-German frontier, he cried to the four winds that he was a GERMAN, and clamored for the beginning of a new pure-blooded aristocratic race. But he had no class to boast of; so he said, "Abolish class distinctions"; all Germans from now on were to be equal. He had no acceptable nationality; so he said the country of his birth was to join the country of his adoption to make him a German. "I have brought," he said, "my home home." He had no race—and, he recognized there was no such thing; so he said, "Let there be race! From now onwards!" He had no profession; so he invented one, made a place for himself right at the very top of eighty million Germans. He had no culture; so he invented his own brand. He had no mind, no intellect; he was practically illiterate; so with his secretary’s assistance he wrote a book to say that he despised education, and forced everyone to buy and read it—which, incidentally, solved his other handicap of having no money. In his attempt to be an architect he failed in his entrance examination; so he placed himself in a position where he could get palaces built for himself to his own design. He had no sense of accuracy or of history; so he decreed that his own accession to power was henceforward to be the chief study of every school curriculum. He had no well-founded right even to his name, his father having but tardily been adopted by his grandfather whose illegitimate child he had been; so he decreed that his name should be on every lip as a greeting.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

The Lost World War II Masterpiece: The Party by Rudolph von Abele, Part III

Of all the lessons forgotten by modern authors, perhaps the most important is the need for a memorable antagonist. To remember the two great pillars of English writers—William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens—is to remember an immortal troupe of villains: Iago, Richard III, Caliban, Macbeth, Scrooge, Quilp, Miss Haversham, Fagin. The modern literary villains derive from pulp fiction, literature itself being too desiccated to support such flesh-and-blood monstrosities. Hannibal Lector is the figment of a slick suspense-thriller’s imagination, with little dollar signs merrily clinking in his head—the same for that idiotic albino monk from the author of Let’s Do the Van Gogh-Gogh and Picasso’s Peculiar Pickings.

Rudolph von Abele, in The Party, has not forgotten this important lesson. The Marshal is a larger-than-life sybarite and amoral pragmatist. He’s up for whatever: racial ideology, women, slaughter, cake and ale. Of course, he is surrounded by a coterie of lesser villains, the chief of these being the repugnant Commandant, who runs the labor camp. Other than a brief exchange in the party’s receiving line, we are first introduced to the Marshal in an oblique manner through the Commandant who is used to illustrate the blood-thirsty policy of the Party which the Marshal embodies. The occasion is a sequestered dinner at the party, the Marshal at the head of the table and Colonel Steinbaum at the foot. Steinbaum is allowed to vent his humanitarian feelings regarding the Commandant, also seated at the table, explaining, in ironic tones, the philosophy of the labor camp:

"You probably also know the kinds of persons these laborers are—stateless persons, Jews of various nationalities, political prisoners, Slavs, and so on. We have been taught to regard these persons as undeserving of our regard as human individuals. The Commandant will tell us—he has told me on several occasions—that they are only human on the surface, that they look human but that underneath they are simply animals. They have no feelings, no real values,--they can be cunning but they can’t be intelligent, and they are every one of them contaminated from within. No decent person, knowing all this, could bear to touch them or be touched by them, except for the most necessary purposes, such as punishment. Am I right, Commandant?"

The Commandant agrees, noting that Steinbaum, although reciting this litany "like a parody," understands the underlying concepts—which is further grounds for condemning Steinbaum because he knows the path of righteousness but perversely rejects it anyway (a nice twisting of the Bible). The Commandant then explains why the proper course, even on economic grounds (since there are no moral grounds as elucidated above by Steinbaum), is to work the labor-camp inmates to death; and it is an error to let them live:

"It is an error . . . only if one assumes as we do, and as you do not, that the camp laborer is expendable. That is exactly why I tell you, Colonel, you are a humanitarian. You do not think that the camp laborer is expendable. You want to save him, but that is your mistake, mon cher confrere—politically, psychologically, and economically, that is your mistake. Politically, because it has been decreed otherwise by the state; psychologically, because it is not the nature of the types we deal with to understand humane considerations; economically, because as long as we can draw upon a practically endless supply of raw labor, it’s cheaper by far to exhaust the individual than to conserve him."

Throughout this exchange, the Marshal, the master of all he surveys, remains unruffled, noncommittal. He does not find Steinbaum’s conversation distressing—not even when he relates a horrific story of the Commandant’s abuse of three elderly laborers at the camp—but instead regards Steinbaum with an air of amusement, as if he were a capering clown amusing the Marshal (who, by the bye, is likened to a clown given his penchant for white makeup and rouge—an evil, deranged clown). The Commandant even has a justification for this barbaric behavior:

"Like all humanitarians, Your Excellency," he said in a peculiar tone, which affected Steinbaum like the flesh of an overripe plum, "the Colonel is suffering under the delusion that the necessary can be accomplished with velvet gloves. He is incapable of understanding the logic of exemplary discipline. I can only add that I’m happy to see him in a relatively—harmless post."

"The logic of exemplary discipline,"—those are the words of a great literary villain. And the Marshal has yet to burst upon the stage in his full horrid efflorescence. Just like Shakespeare and Dickens, who in the same work, will have different orders of villains, from the lesser to the greater, so, too, does Rudolph von Abele. And also, just like Shakespeare and Dickens, each is memorable in his own wickedness.

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October  2,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

If for men of genius writing were not so exhausting a race between them and their creditors, they might survey with a wider benevolence the whole field of contemporary artistic output, subscribe to all current reviews in every part of the world, and keep abreast of all the latest publications in every branch of art. The subtle torture of writing stories on time! Is there a calvary more absurdly uncalled for?

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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