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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR SEPTEMBER 2006

September  29,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Chekhov, whose influence was not realized until the nineteen-twenties, was head and shoulders above the Shaws and Ibsens who called shapes into being, not to be, but to prove something. On Shaw’s own confession, intellect was a stick to beat anyone with that you might fancy. Like history books, Shaw’s plays were adapted to prove a case. Ibsen’s dramas, while also constructed on a mechanistic causal pattern, yet exuded some nostalgia for an elusive beauty suggested even in a title—like The Lady from the Sea. Slow, cumbrous, prosy, the causal levers chug and clink their utilitarian message, which, if it is an art, is but a pious fraud. Yet something faintly beautiful is disengaged, some feeling of a northern shore and a yearning—for what? What Nora or Dr. Stockmann won in their fight against the family or society is of a merely utilitarian interest. Literature, though Shaw was of the opinion that the character of the combat forged its own weapon of style, is not a scuffle. Literature is not an argument, but the physiognomic charm of phenomena. It is the scenting of a world-secret contained, not in the Absolute presumed to hide the meaning of existence, but rather in the noumenon, the subject of the object. "Do not, I beg of you," Goethe pleaded, "look for anything behind phenomena. They are their own lesson."

By that he certainly did not mean the Zola kind of realism, taking a pride in the detailed knowledge of its organization, like the regulations of a hospital or factory—"This is how we carry on here"—an initiation into the routine of an accepted self-contained life, inartistic, unchristian and unmystic. That was not Chekhov’s kind of realism, which, side by side with what was, suggested that which all hearts yearned for as the real life. "If is not sufficiently considered," said Doctor Johnson, "that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed." Despising the causal logical method borrowed from our ripest and strictest science, physics, which historians and would-be scientific novelists use with a superficiality that is an outrage to science, Chekhov, with all his medical training, sensed the secret of literature, which was the quest for the poetry of life. Chekhov neither dissected living corpses, nor probed the meaning of life. He neither despised human nature nor conceived it as his duty to pay compliments to his characters. With an unerring instinct he knew that the motive-force of literature was to express the spirit of the object by pressing the fulcrum of the lever—a tiny movement releasing enormous forces. That was art.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Visited one day by an elegant woman, apparently unable to draw the natural inference that a writer capable of seeing through his own characters must also be able to see through a simulacrum modelling herself on one of them, [Chekhov] listened to her as she ranted, "Life is so boring, Anton Pavlovich. Everything is so grey: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me grey, grey . . . and I have no desires . . . my soul is in pain . . . it is like a disease."

He considered her, keeping a straight face. "It is a disease," he said with conviction, "it is a disease: in Latin it is called morbus fraudulentus."

What perhaps Chekhov hated most was earnestness masquerading as seriousness of purpose. The earnest is an unsuccessful attempt at being serious: unsuccessful because of a missing ingredient—the comedic vision. To try to be serious in earnest is like putting a coin in a pocket with a hole in it. Of all the snares that simpletons most readily fall into, earnestness may claim the most victims. The grimly unhumorous has a lot to answer for, Hitler being a morbid example.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  26,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Finding the imperial government of Russia unsympathetic to his ideas involving its liquidation, Lenin went abroad, notably to Switzerland, where he urged the Swiss workers, lamentably deficient in class hatred, to throw over their government. It is strange that political fugitives, such as Lenin and later Mussolini, having the unrivalled opportunity during their stay in Switzerland to learn how the exemplary inter-racial, supra-national State is run, not only learn nothing but, after attempting without success to wreck the model State which has given them refuge, are also impatient to get home with a view to wrecking their own.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

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

At its heart, The Party concerns the disconcerting attractiveness of evil even when it has lost its first bloom, so to speak.  To recap, The Party takes place in the Marshall’s (a stand-in for Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermans Göring’s) chateau at the end of 1943, which, by this late date, signals the looming end of the Nazis, that is, the Party. Colonel Steinbaum, the titular protagonist and weak-kneed humanitarian, knows that the end is near, but, for some, the end is beside the point:

"I," said the Stationmaster, abruptly veering, "regard the war as essentially lost. I may be accused of defeatism, but I say it is better to admit the truth and put an end to all this senseless slaughter than to go on and on until everything is destroyed." He squeezed his mustache again. "Pardon me," he added. "I know I have no right to be dogmatic, but nevertheless, those are my feelings."

The Commandant slowly swiveled his gaze. "You are quite wrong," he said. "First of all, the war is not lost. Second of all, even if it were, we would not be excused from continuing to fight to the last man. I mean that literally, my friend—the last man." The Stationmaster attempted to say something; the Commandant went on, very slightly intensifying his tone: "Pardon me: you speak like a civilian, just as the Colonel here is in the habit of speaking like a humanitarian. Civilian, humanitarian—it’s al the same in the end. Yes, you are a defeatist. We are fighting for our life, our right to exist and to purify ourselves of the accumulated filth of hundreds of years. Assuming that we believe—"

It is telling that the Commandant—one of the most odious characters in the book—is unable to complete this sentence since he believes in, well, nothing.  He is a null, a void, not even worthy of a human name.  He is no humanitarian; no civilian; no nothing.  So, why do such automatons continue to creak along as they slowly, ever so slowly, wind down?  The answer is supplied by Colonel Steinbaum’s friend, the nameless Superintendent, who is also lost due to his position as supervisor over the Commandant’s forced labor camp which he tries to forget, along with everything else that might make him human, through drink.  The Superintendent provides Colonel Steinbaum with the Chateau’s history.  It was recently built by a man who made his fortune in Vienna selling chocolates—the Chocolate Man.  He had forced his son into the cavalry where, in despair, his son had killed himself. This drove the Chocolate Man’s wife insane. She was locked up where, for several years, she composed bad poems imagining they came from her dead son—and then she died herself.  The Chocolate Man tried to escape this sad history by taking on an opera singer as a mistress and building the Chateau.  But, nonetheless, "he had become very bitter.  The people had talked, you know, and talk hurts worse than anything—except poverty.  Poverty hurts worse."  And then the mistress turned against the Chocolate Man:

"She collected little dogs, and slept with them—dozens of them. And she began treating her lover like a dog, Colonel, literally. At dinner time, or rather after dinner, in the dining room, she liked to have him crawl around the table, on all fours, barking, while she threw him bits of gnawed-off bone, scraps of fat, and things like that. The servants stood by, watching this performance, and when he caught a tidbit in his teeth, they were all supposed to applaud and pat him on the head."

The Colonel then abruptly interrupts the story and asks if such fantastic anecdotes can actually be true.  The Superintendent finds this idea—whether something is true or not—irrelevant: "What if they are all, as we say, just stories?" Even so, the Superintendent reasons, "[t]hey reflect some truth about something, Colonel, do they not? Truth of the imagination, anyhow. But why should they not be true?  Does anything you have seen out there . . . dispose you to think well of mankind?"  The Colonel then reflects on the horrors he has witnessed in the labor camp and then asks the Superintendent to continue:

"Of course, he died. No man could survive such humiliation for very long, even if he might tell himself—which he did not, you may be sure—that it was only what he deserved for his sins. . . . He moved into a small room in the back part of the Chateau—nobody knows whether he went of his own free will or whether she exiled him. I am inclined to believe he went of his own accord, for he had seen the handwriting on the wall. He sat in that room for a few years—his meals were brought in to him—looking out the window maybe, maybe even reading a book or two, Colonel, who knows? Books are consoling things under circumstances like those, they take us out of ourselves. And then he died, and they buried him somewhere on the grounds, with a plain unmarked stone over his carcass. After all, he died like a dog, so why not be buried like one too?"

In this retelling, it is clear that the Superintendent identifies with the Chocolate Man, and sees his life, too, as a dog’s life.  Further, the Superintendent is self-aware enough to know that, like the Chocolate Man, he would rather not think on the implications of his life because such thoughts might require a change of heart—and the Superintendent would rather drink. Because, in the end, "[e]ven if it isn’t true, it’s true, Colonel, it’s true in spirit. You do not tell me much about your life, whey I don’t know, but I don’t care either, for that is your business—I supposed your life has been more or less good. I see it in your face.  Wait till you have been here a little longer.  You will see how ‘good’ life can be.  And if you ever are lucky enough to go back home, and sit in a café, and tell stories of what you did during the war, how many people will believe the things you tell them, eh?   How many, Colonel?"

The Colonel, too, by the end of the book, will be treated like a dog at the hands of the Marshall’s mistress, Leni, who seduces him in the same room where the Chocolate Man exiled himself.  This scene contains one of the saddest, most despairing, descriptions of sexual congress that I have read. E ven an act that is supposed to be an affirmation of life is corrupted into its opposite: a null; a void; a nothing.

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September  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Perhaps no one of his contemporaries quite equaled Tolstoy in his ability to communicate that sense of destiny which clings to childhood, the feeling that you, and not the pious fraud of utilitarian abstractions barking at you from lectern and pulpit, are the meaning of what is to happen; that feeling of significance in the surrounding world when the infant thinks the cupboard breathes at him, only caught in later years by the perennial youth whose other name is genius, still basking in the poetry of life, a penumbra glowing with significance around the wondering soul in a still miracle of being.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

The Lost World War II Masterpiece: The Party by Rudolph von Abele—A Digression

Before continuing the discussion on Rudolph von Abele’s wonderful novel, The Party, I would like to stumble about in the brambles of a digression. I was fooling about on the internet trying to find something of substance about The Party and came across this laughably bad review of Abele’s book by Time magazine.  It’s comforting to know that Time didn’t turn rotten just in my lifetime, but, instead, has been pursuing a course of rottenness for well-nigh fifty years.  Is the Publisher’s Sweepstakes the only reason that this tabloid still exists for the otherwise vanishingly small niche of ill-informed-yet-wish-to-appear-informed airport readers?  Then again, one still sees the newspabulum, U.S.A. Today, still in business—yet another of life’s impenetrable mysteries, one of the saccharine sacraments.

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September  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Were there a hierarchy of literary value visible to all, readers and critics alike would not so readily fall dupes of mere prestige values—that is, reputations themselves in constant fluctuation in an erratic reputation-market.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

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

In 1963, the worst year to publish anything that might last by an unknown author (given the national shock engendered by the JFK assassination—indeed, what famous literary figure died on that same day? Give up? None other than Aldous Huxley), Rudolph von Abele came out with his remarkable work, The Party. Although highly modernist in execution, it’s characters and plot—what little there is of it—hearken back to the realism of the Nineteenth Century.  First off, the book is a blending of the lessons of Henry James and James Joyce (no surprise, given that Abele was a Joyce scholar).  Like Joyce’s Ulysses, it concerns a very short period of time, less than half a day—or, more accurately, night—during which the Marshall (an obvious stand in for the odious Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command of the Third Reich) has a party at one of his Chateaux somewhere in the back waters of Eastern Germany near the end of 1943 [N.B.: the title, The Party, is an obvious double entendre for both the party at the chateau and for the Marshall’s ruling unnamed Party, i.e., the Nazis].  Also like Joyce—and James before him—the novel is filled with highly intelligent characters and their stream-of-consciousness musings.

Some of these highly-intelligent and well-rounded characters are also morally repellent and thoroughly evil. There’s the unnamed Commandant, who is the immediate superior of the novel’s protagonist, Colonel Steinbaum. The Commandant is in charge of the local labor camp and is, if anything, more disturbing than the labor camp commandant, Amon Goeth, who appears in the movie, Schindler’s List.  Here’s a sampling of his remarks at the beginning of the party to the Stationmaster concerning the deterioration of the military situation in Italy and the unreliability of Mussolini:

"A few selected hangings," remarked the Commandant, "beginning with his son-in-law, might have done some good a year ago. Now . . . Who knows?"

"Exactly," the Stationmaster said, nodding. "A few selected hangings—that’s very good, Herr Commandant! I’m not a bloodthirsty man, you understand; but there are times when nothing but a little bloodletting will do the trick!"

Ah yes, just a little bloodletting between friends.  Interestingly, Abele gives names to just a few of his characters, such as Colonel Steinbaum; his mistress—since transported to a concentration camp—Eleonora; his friend and conspirator against the Ruler, Heinz vom Opfer; and the Marshall’s somewhat-rebellious mistress, Leni.  Going back through the book to confirm their names, I noticed that in a long stretch near the end, when Steinbaum is tempted to go over to the Marshall’s "dark side"—please forgive me for the banal movie references—Steinbaum is referred to simply as the "Colonel" or "he" and the same is true for Leni who becomes by the end of the book the indistinct "she," as if the characters, when they lose the power of redemption, lose their names as well—indeed, the other characters named all appear to be virtuous, or, at least, redeemable.

This concern with identity is highlighted at the beginning of the book when Colonel Steinbaum arrives at the soiree sans identity papers:

Without invitation or identity papers, how could he be admitted? What did it matter that he was well known to dozens of the guests, who would be more than glad to corroborate his assertion that he was in fact himself? He had had too much experience with military bureaucracies to hope for admittance on the basis of information merely personal. For it was documents that bureaucracies demanded—forged if necessary, irrelevant, dubious, but of talismanic, necromantic power nonetheless.

Indeed, one’s entire identity—one’s name—has a "talismanic, necromantic power," even if it is "merely personal." For what does it mean for one to assert "that he was in fact himself"?  The rest of The Party is a Jamesian experiment of subjecting the imperfect personal substance of Colonel Steinbaum to the crucible of the Marshall. It is The Portrait of a Man With Some Qualities.  Are those qualities sufficient to save Colonel Steinbaum?  Ominously, it is the Commandant—well aware of the Colonel’s personal distaste for him—who vouches for the Colonel’s identity so that he may gain admittance to the Marshall’s seductive presence.  And then the game begins.

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September  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Winston Churchill, who took to rhetoric as other men take to the bottle, was puzzled by Arthur Balfour’s fastidiousness in groping with the pen after the mot juste. As soon dawdle over the wine list! The spoken word, flown in a second from his lips, irretrievable, reported, recorded, printed and bound in Hansard, had no terrors for Balfour, who seemed to speak without preparation, conscious that, given any argument, he could develop it with precision and elegance. But when it came to writing, he was overcome by self-consciousness, or perhaps by the knowledge that, time being of no account, there was always room for improvement. He deleted, transposed and rewrote every paragraph and sentence. "He entered the tabernacle of literature," says Churchill—a sentence not without unconscious humor, coming as it does, from one who identified literature with the churning out of metaphor and bombast—"under a double dose of the humility and awe which are proper."

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

That [Queen Victoria] was every inch a queen as compared with her guest in the royal box at the Opera, the Empress Eugénie, was clear from a detail, small but significant. Reared for a throne, the Queen sat down without looking to see whether there was a chair or not to sit down on, convinced, as unshakably as that she reigned by divine right, that a seat would be duly pushed up for her. The Empress Eugénie, every other inch an empress, rather than take the risk of finding herself sprawling in an unqueenly attitude on the carpet, first glanced around to make sure.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  13,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

What they did not know was not worth knowing. This Boston was the spiritual home of Henry James and William James. There was something in its atmosphere which denuded men and women of their zest for life. Unlike the earlier New England stock, who sought the lakes and forests for refreshment, the new generation crossed the ocean to spend its cash and leisure in the casinos and hotels of Europe, while the learned hierarchy sought and found nutriment for its depleted strength in visiting the ruins of Italy and Greece, or traced the literary by-ways around Fleet Street or the Latin Quarter and returned, refreshed, to their Boston royalism, Boston Anglo-Catholicism, to their scrupulous fingering of Donne, a hyperaesthetic partiality for this or that Elizabethan dramatist or poet, a few choice lines from Laforgue or Rémy de Gourmont, a quotation from Dante inserted in an essay, a dip into Sanskrit, to dissolve once more in a sad sterility, a melancholy irony, pending a new trip.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Now came Tolstoy who, having just gorged himself with sixty books about art, propounded stolidly that art had entered a blind alley and must retract its steps, going all humble and rudimentary to please the simple rustic, who, to tell the truth, would far rather read tales of urban vice. Nor was there anything very new in Tolstoy’s conversion to apocalypticism. Old men approaching the end of their days had always been prone to see the end of the world, had always declared that morality was degenerating, art growing feeble, the world going to blazes. One might just as well propound that the desire to eat and drink had outlived its day. Of course, hunger was an old story. In the desire to eat we had certainly got into a blind alley. Still, eating was essential, and we would go on eating, painting, composing and writing, however much philosophers and irate old men might moralize away.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

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September  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

That Oscar Wilde was himself largely to blame for the predicament into which he had got himself was not so clear to him as it is to us who do not share his tastes. Had he not scared the British public by elevating his homosexual private paradise into a philosophy of life, but merely taunted them, like Shaw, with their social hypocrisy, he would in the end have earned their respect. But the British public, imagining that Wilde’s aestheticism aimed as substituting sodomy as the foundation of English home life—not to say finance—rose up at him in a solid wall because it seemed to them—merchant, bishop and costermonger—that the family institution, though under fire from Bernard Shaw, was not to be reformed, so far as they could see, with any permanent advantage to the nation, upon a homosexual basis. The unimaginative infer that any new set of ideas presented with vivacity is aimed at overthrowing the existing order, oblivious of the truth that it is itself but a reaction against uniformity, and constitutes, at most, a certain corrective: as such, contributing to the richness and variety of existence. Respectability in any case has a lead-weighted bottom: however you may upset it, it will always right itself.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

[N.B.:  Keep in mind that God's Fifth Column was written in 1940--although not published until decades later after the author's death.]

The Lost Masterpiece About World War II, Part II

Before I put forward my candidate for the lost masterpiece about World War II, let me identify one work (well, actually, a trilogy) that is generally recognized as an enduring work about that conflagration.  I’ve been discussing works by American authors, but the one I’m thinking about now is by a veddy, veddy British one.  That would be the divine Evelyn Waugh who penned The Sword of Honour Trilogy with its memorable protagonist, Guy Crouchback, and a supporting cast of Dickensian misanthropes led by Guy’s indomitable, yet abominable, commanding officer, Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook.  This is fine writing by one of the towering literary talents of the Twentieth Century.  As the decades pass, Evelyn Waugh continues to emerge as one of the lasting greats.  But let’s quickly move on after tossing yet another laurel upon Waugh’s towering heap to that promised lost masterpiece.

The work is by a native American, albeit of German extraction, with the exotic name of Rudolph von Abele.  Who he?  He was an English Professor for many years at American University and according to one of his colleagues I emailed who taught with him, he was affectionately known as "Rudi" and considered "a wonderful teacher, writer, thinker."  Further, "[h]e was a Joyce scholar and would teach a single line of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce for an hour or two and it was totally fascinating."  Besides being a Joyce scholar, Abele also wrote one of the great works about World War II, the lost masterpiece: The Party.

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September  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

 

And there, [Oscar Wilde’s] case having gone against him, he stood in the drizzling rain, handcuffed to a warder, at a railway junction, awaiting a train which was to take him to Wormwood Scrubs. Here was the man who had defined the artist as the creator of beautiful things, who had counseled a fellow-author, complaining that his book had met with a conspiracy of silence, to join in it, who had scintillated and been a lord of language, had wronged no one, but had suddenly become the target of an entire nation’s spite. There he stood on the open rain-drenched platform, hatless, a convicted felon manacled like some tethered beast, when a Victorian gentleman, momentarily forgetful of Jesus’s maxim about casting the first stone, or perhaps considering that he had never sinned, came up and, to acquit his debt to decency, spat in the poet’s face.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

[N.B.: What an amazing paragraph! William Gerhadie, this master prose architect and grammatical stonemason, this subtle emotional tone painter who, like a literary Cezanne, dares to place vermillion humor next to silver-grey despair, is now not even a name, but another of the countless victims buffeted by the Dantean winds of the raging copyright hurricane which disperses all before it except for those few lucky works which hover precariously in its unstable eye. I’ll write more on William Gerhardie, by and bye—his like will not be seen again.]

 

The Lost Masterpiece About World War II

One recurring topic for late night chatter concerns why the Second World War failed to produce any great literary masterpieces. The First World War, of course, is awash in first-rate literature.  There’s the whole Great War Poets faction: Graves, Sassoon, Blunt, Owen, Gurney, Rosenberg, etc., etc. And then you also have a number of literary works (many by the above poets) that are of lasting value such Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Further, let’s not forget that little trifle by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.  Plus, on the German side, one has Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel and, the granddaddy of all Great War works, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.  Anyway, you get the idea. But what do we have that’s comparable for the Second World War?

Now, that question is a stumper. Usually, the knee-jerk reaction is Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. But, given that Norman Mailer’s lasting reputation is looking deader and deader, perhaps it’s time to revisit this accolade (really, the only one he still has—with the slight exception of his kooky, drug-addled, Vietnam-era reportage such as Armies of the Night).  Does The Naked and the Dead hold up?  It does have excellent pacing. Set in a remote Pacific island, the scenes regarding the platoon out on patrol prior to the invasion our absolutely riveting.  I’ve also read some early short stories by Mailer and thought they were excellent examples of pacing and suspense.  Unfortunately for Mailer, he wasn’t satisfied just to write a war novel.  His was a burning ambition and he was consumed by it: the book has a Marxist dialectical superstructure (by his own admission) which is very clumsy—not to mention extremely dated by this point—and bulks up the volume well beyond the patience of this reader (there’s a reason this book is more praised than read).  Ultimately, this is not the—or even, a—great novel of World War II.

There’s a few other works that are mentioned from time to time.  For example, there’s James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.  Younger readers will instantly remark: who he?  He be the author of great promise whose first book, Tales of the South Pacific, was a promising collection of inter-locking short stories about American naval involvement in the South Pacific during World War Two (shades of Mailer).  It was later remade into a very popular musical and Michener himself was remade into a very popular purveyor of middle-brow pabulum consisting of warmed-over fictionalized retellings of great bloody chunks of history—the books had titles such as Poland, Texas and Outer Mongolia (just kidding about that last one, although it would have been funny to see a Michenerized Genghis Khan: "Genghis, with a burning flame illuminating his eye, shot a smoldering glance at his serried ranks of toughened warriors as he bellowed: ‘We shall ride, and ride, and ride!’").  Next!

Okay, we now come to a novel that is certainly a minor classic: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, first published in 1961. It’s not a particularly good novel, as recognized by this spot-on review from the New York Times written at the time of publication. Indeed, Heller has not written anything of note since then, which gives you a hint as to his literary quality. But Catch-22 has undoubtedly entered the national literary consciousness and Yossarian, the novel’s comic protagonist, is probably one of those characters—like Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek—that will long outlive the book he sprung from.  The basic problem, though, with Catch-22, is that it’s theme concerns the absurdity of war.  That may be true, some might argue, regarding conflicts such as the Vietnam War. But such a theme falls flat concerning, of all conflicts, World War Two.  Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan may have embodied many things, but a war fought to eliminate these governments was anything but absurd. As we continue to learn the horrendous details about the Shoah and such atrocities as the Bataan Death March the argument that World War Two was absurd becomes more and more offensive.  In the final analysis, Catch-22 is a deeply repulsive book whose cynicism is misplaced and, ultimately, self-destructive.

Another book worth considering is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  It’s a work of science fiction, so that automatically disqualifies it from entering the magic circle of acknowledged classics (the only work in this genre that I can think of as being generally recognized as a literary classic is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—which, as I have noted before, is very poorly written, although admittedly it does contain an important iconic character (like Yossarian)).  The portion of the book, though, concerning the fire bombing of Dresden at the end of World War Two, is extremely moving.  Not surprisingly, the author was there when it happened.  This is an incredible piece of writing. Unfortunately, as I noted, it’s in a work of science fiction; a classic in that genre no doubt, just as The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is a classic in the detective-fiction genre, but not an enduring literary masterpiece.

So what are the great works of fiction about World War Two? Let’s wait with bated breath until I figger that one out.

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September  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

What was the brunt of Christ’s teaching? Simplicity of living which left one with a surplus store of energy and goodwill, which it was sheer joy to harness in the service of others who, on their side, were particularly placed in regard to you.

And the alternative? The swelling of your own little ego into a prickly pear of touchiness, whose pricks were two-edged swords wounding yourself as much as your foe. The Christian idea of immortality was buried in the very folds of a paradox: that he only regained eternal life who had divested himself of the last shred of that ego which could desire its own perpetuation.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

More Deliciousness

As I noted a few days ago, A. N. Wilson has been on the receiving end of one of the cruelest (and yet, funniest) literary hoaxes in ages. It now turns out that his John Betjeman-biographer arch-rival, Bevis Hillier, has now fessed up as the practical joker.  Ahhh, it’s just too, too . . . delicious.

 

And More of It’s a Small, Small World

Sticking with last week’s New York Times Book Review, I see that one full-page review is devoted to a new book by Amy Wilentz, I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen. The regular lead reviewer for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, also reviewed this book and slapped it with a thumping negative review.  No surprise, given that the title alone is a classic clunker.  The contents also sound less than promising: a supposedly humorous memoir about the hardened black-coffee New Yorker who moves to granola-crunchy Los Angeles. Oh, that hasn’t been done before. Green Acres, anyone?  Anyone?  Can I get a giant yawn out there?  Thanks.  The NYTBR review, by the bye, is a classic example of that common, de-clawed and de-fanged, house-broken sniveler, the synopsis review, which I’ve written about before:  when you can’t say something nice, don’t offer any opinion at all but instead just provide a description of the book.  Even the description sounds dull.  So why does a book which has D.O.A. written all over it (if nothing much else of interest written in it) merit not one but two big reviews from the New York Times? Well, Ms. Wilentz’s a contributor to the New York Times . . . and it’s a small world after all.

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September  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Tolstoy] had simplified his own needs to the mere rudiments of existence. He wore a peasant shirt, a long shaggy beard, and made his own boots. But, burdened with a large family, an exacting wife, he could not give up his large manor house in the midst of an old ancestral estate, and the inconsistency of his outward circumstances of his life with his inner convictions saddened the old man, who preached that it was the duty of men of goodwill to give everything away.

There lived on his estate a big loud-mouthed peasant who whenever he encountered ‘the great writer of Russia’s soil’ [FN: So Turgenev on his death-bed had designated him: " . . . believe me, my friends, great writer of Russia’s soil."] strolling deep in thought on his solitary walks, taunted him with his inconsistency; after which Tolstoy, considering him with gloomy thoughtfulness, put his hand in his purse and handed the drunkard a rouble. Far from thanking the novelist, fast qualifying as a martyr, the peasant derided him by alluding to the inconsiderable proportion the rouble formed of Tolstoy’s accumulated royalties, and staggered off to the village inn, imprecating aloud as he went against the hypocritical rich.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

It’s a Small, Small World

Perusing this week’s New York Times Book Review ("NYRBR"), I began to think of the unholy union between the very small, small world of publishers and book reviewers and how the natural inequities that inevitably arise when some area of commerce is dominated by a small clique is insensibly worsened in the present instance due to the new and draconian copyright law.  I’ve written on the copyright law before. It’s also known, in its current iteration, as the Mickey Mouse law—since it has the dual pernicious effect of not just bestowing copyright on all new works created after its passage for the time period of the author’s life plus 70 (yep, you read me right, 70; well, in some cases, it’s actually 95 years) years, but that same state of grace was also bestowed retroactively on all works not yet fallen out of the old copyright period (which, of course, covers Mickey Mouse).  In other words, authors have not some how gained Exxon-sized clout in the solemn halls of Congress. Rather, the holders of copyrights, such as Mickey Mouse, have managed to extend their monopoly into, presumably, the perpetual future, and have dragged all the helpless authors behind them.  Isn’t this a favorable development for authors, since now they (well, or least their estates and heirs) will receive royalties forever and ever, amen?  Nope.  Because, it’s a small, small world, and the vast majority of works penned by those authors will disappear as quickly as a stone cast into the sea with no hope of a resurrection in the ages to come because those works, although in the void, will not be revived precisely because someone, somewhere, will be due royalties thanks to the perpetual dictatorship of the copyright laws.

And just how small a small, small world is the world of book reviewers?  Just take a gander at this week’s cover story for the NYTBR featuring an unqualified hosanna to Thomas McGuane’s new collection of short stories, Gallatin Canyon. Who he?  According to the reviewer, he’s "our poet-philosopher of the arm’s length," whatever that is. And, according to his publisher's bio, he’s just a regular cow poke punching cattle out at a ranch somewhere in the middle of Montana.  A regular cow poke, that is, who, according to this student essay, went to Cranbrook School, a boarding school outside of Detroit, and graduated from the Yale Drama School before going to Hollywood where he made his fortune writing scripts and directing movies. In other words, he’s just another example of the consummate insider outsider.

I’ve never read any of Mr. McGuane’s work, so it might truly be the best thing since sliced Brand (Max Brand, that is).  But it certainly can’t rate this kind of ham-handed praise by the reviewer: "Here, may I please break with reviewerly decorum and insist that you buy this book?"  That one execrable word, "reviewerly," stopped me in my tracks; and I couldn’t finish the review.  With just a moment’s thought, one can come up with a much more felicitous sentence: "I insist—all quaint notions of a reviewer’s decorum aside—that you buy this book."  I added the notion of "quaint" by the bye, which can easily be excised.  I guess even Homer’s editor nods from time to time.  But what a tin ear for prose!  Anyone who is capable of writing like that has nothing to say to me regarding literary taste.  Then again, it’s a small, small world.

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September  1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Results similar to Swiss, of a predominant conservatism, would have manifested themselves under universal suffrage in late Victorian England, this nation desiring nothing so much as to be a totalitarian State of natural aristocrats freely acknowledged as such by those already arrived, the whole divided into two parliamentary groups tossing elegant persiflage across the floor of the House on sundry parlour-game questions, prior to dining out delightfully at each other’s houses. "I dined last night," Arthur Balfour writes to his friend Lady Elcho, "with the Asquiths, and as the fortunes of debate would have it, A. and I had rather a sharp passage in the House after dinner. Asquith was the challenger; but I felt a mild awkwardness in replying to a man in the strength of his own champagne! I did it all the same, and with considerable vigour." A far cry from the concentration camp of totalitarian politics. Party politics were a game of squash designed to ventilate the mind by opening the mental pores through a resort to vigorous exercise in the hope of postponing as long as possible the fatty degeneration of the brain.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

Delicious

A personage I once knew who affected a certain demeanor required of all connoisseur mandarins of his profession would, when made aware of one of his colleagues having "jumped the shark" and begun their [N.B.: Z.S.] precipitous Icarus-like plunge towards this dull mud ball would murmur the one word, "delicious."  And, indeed, what could be more delicious than the fall from grace of the British writer and critic-mandarin, A. N. Wilson, who was duped, almost certainly by his rival biographer of the life of John Betjeman, Bevis Hillier, into publishing a faked steamy letter in Wilson’s biography of Betjeman, the first letter of each sentence of which spells out: "A. N. Wilson is a sh*t." And who delivered this letter to the august A. N. Wilson? Eve de Harben, of course. Unfortunately, Miss, Ms., Mrs.—or, perhaps, Her Royal Highness—de Harben does not exist. However, an anagram of her name produces the witticism: "Ever been Had"?  Well, now Mr. Wilson has been decidedly—one almost wishes to say, definitively—been had.

A. N. Wilson, wishing to capitalize on the centenary of the birth of England’s favorite modern poet, rushed out a short life of Betjeman, without, obviously, checking all of his sources.  This was at the same time that Mr. Hillier, who had written a three-volume—and, one again wishes to say, definitive—biography of Betjeman, was publishing a one-volume condensation of his massive work. Mr. Hillier had devoted over a quarter century to writing his work. A. N. Wilson squirted his squib out in less than a year.  And, to further add insult to injury (a cliché, yes, but so appropriate here), Mr. Wilson reviewed Mr. Hillier’s work and found it to be, well, to be charitable, lacking—actually, he called it a "hopeless mishmash"—much like Mr. Wilson’s literary reputation, now.

This dust up reminds me of the forgery which laid low Hugh Trevor-Roper some years ago when he authenticated certain bogus documents alleged to be Adolph Hitler’s diaries.  Yes, it was unfortunate that he was duped.  But it did not lessen the luminescence of his brilliant prose and his delightful works of history ranging from The Last Days of Hitler to the Renaissance Essays.  I disagree with Mr. Trevor-Roper’s point of view (much as I do with Lord Macaulay’s) but I still find him a wonderful writer and will lick up every last word that drips from his honeyed pen.  The same is true for Mr. Wilson. I love his prose style and will continue to read him . Even though, as I posted many eons ago (in internet time), he scribbled out a quick biographical screed condemning the fellow writer, Hillaire Belloc—one of my personal favorites. Perhaps that scurrilous work is also a hoax. In any event, it is delicious.

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