Posts from May 2011
May 30th, 2011
Our book today is Eric Ambler’s 1977 thriller The Siege of the Villa Lipp (the typically better British title was Send No More Roses) which comes festooned with exclamatory praise along the lines of “The Greatest Spy Novelist of All Time!” and “the tension of Ambler’s suspense mounts almost unbearably.” The list of Ambler’s previous books confirms a suspenseful pedigree, certainly: Epitaph for a Spy, Judgment on Deltchev, The Schirmer Inheritance, etc. – since bigger-name authors like John le Carre have asserted that Ambler pretty much created the modern spy novel, perhaps it’s wrong to call these titles derivative; maybe all the countless “affairs,” “covenants,” “ultimatums,” “judgments,” and “inheritances” that have flooded bookstores in the 20th century in fact derived from Ambler, not vice versa. It’s an unholy legacy, if so, just as the espionage thriller in its fullest and most brainless form is the legacy of the Cold War. Oh, there were secret operatives galore in the days of the Elizabeth I, and the Great Game spawned more than its share of intrigues and intriguers. When Sherlock Holmes eventually confides to Dr. Watson that it wouldn’t be too much to say his brother Mycroft is the British government, there can be no doubt what he means: the secret British government … the world of spies and agents.
But it was only with the Cold War that espionage fiction (as opposed to actual espionage) came into its own, and this is natural: two enormous superpowers, unable to square off militarily for fear of nuclear annihilation, have to find other avenues for staying fit – the two alternatives that come most readily to hand are a) manipulating brush-wars in backwater third-party nations and b) spying on each other in places like Monte Carlo, Brussels, and Nice. The latter lends itself to stories of individual human heroism and villainy – and so a sub-genre was born.
There’s always a murder at the heart of that sub-genre, like its close kin the murder mystery, but in espionage thrillers there is no quaint elevation of deduction and clue-sniffing: spy thriller characters don’t usually care all that much who done it – they’ve got more important things to deal with. And more centrally, all such characters had to excise the parts of themselves that even cared about things like petty little individual murders – they had to give up that kind of softness in their first week at spy-school. Instead of ratiocination, there’s just revenge; instead of doing what’s right, there’s doing what’s necessary to survive, drink, and fornicate another day. Spy thrillers are murder mysteries refined to weapons-grade perfection, where the crimes and solutions themselves are reduced to just so many more clues to even bigger puzzles – international puzzles in which, unless the author is being lazy, World War Three is always a more or less present threat.
As in the typical murder mystery, the writing in the typical spy thriller tends to be brickishly atrocious. But in the thriller genre, an added element of gruff-old-man sententiousness (old bullet wound scars, scotch for breakfast, the omnipresent trench coat, collar worn up to partially obscure the facial features, a rude disbelief in the existence of Santa Claus, etc.) casts an unintentionally funny back-light on proceedings. Ambler is as guilty of this as anybody – more so, really, since in so many ways he was the first. Time and again, the reader is presented with truly impenetrable passages like this:
When war travels slowly and devastatingly from one end of a country to the other, it is obvious that in its wake a multiplicity of legal problems, few simple and many highly complex, are going to have to be solved. Most, of course, will concern damaged property, often, except for the land it once stood on, totally destroyed. Who used to own it? What has happened to him or her, or, if the owner was a corporation, it? If the one-time owner is now defunct, does a known successor exist?
The Siege of the Villa Lipp exhibits enough originality to vary its focus just slightly to the left, from the straight-up world of national espionage to the even murkier world of high-finance espionage (pretty much the novel’s only source of interest in 2011 is the fact that one of its main characters comes off as a less imaginative, less evil version of Bernie Madoff), but all the other elements Ambler trusted for the decades of his very successful writing career are all firmly in place. Action sequences are done well, of course, but characters are varied mainly by the different kinds of exposition they spout, and for the length of the novel, nobody at all is every allowed to speak like any normal human being you’d ever meet would speak. Instead, everybody talks like they know they’re in a thriller:
“Well, then, this was the kind of operation in which success can only be won by immaculate preparation leading to the achievement of tactical surprise. A note delivered to your room, or left in your mailbox downstairs here, would not have worked. You would have had time to think, time to investigate and prepare defences, possibly time to make arrangements for my discomfiture. Or even,” he added colyly, “not knowing the precautions I had taken to safeguard myself, time to organize my removal from the scene.”
I looked suitably offended by the insinuation. “For a criminologist, you have a somewhat lurid imagination, Professor.”
Thrillers like the ones Ambler wrote are exclusively intended for men, and considering how poorly they’re plotted, how shoddily they’re paced, and now preposterously they always conclude, it’s doubtful if a woman has ever managed to restrain her irritation long enough to reach the end of a book with a title like The Gandalfi Confrontation or The Waldmann Memorandum. And since such books aren’t meant to be encountered as books even by the men who buy them, it’s worth asking just what function they are meant to serve. Wish fulfilment must certainly play a big part, the vicarious enjoyment of outrageous violence and heartless femme fatales before turning off the light at night. But maybe there’s an element of sympathy too, since spy thrillers are by their very makeup depictions of emasculation – direct confrontations are discouraged, you can’t just bomb things like General Patton could, and weak-kneed bureaucrats are always in control back at headquarters (and they’re usually worse than the bad guys).
Whatever the cause of their appeal, spy thrillers served Ambler very well in the course of his writing career, although all of his novels now read like period pieces, not only in their depictions of politics and technology, but most especially in their levels of violence and perversity. The silence of lambs and the girls with tattoos are now the order of the day, and imaginations come in lurid, extra lurid, and super lurid.
May 29th, 2011
Our book today is a tiny little gem from 1912, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s My Robin, about the friendship she struck up one year with a small robin who came to visit her at her writing-table in the garden. The book is a tiny confection, probably dashed off as a kind of coda or meditation on her wildly successful The Secret Garden of the previous year, but its speed is its savior: it avoids a great deal of the gloppy, quick-drying sentimentality that makes so much of her other writing so beloved by certain sappy portions of the reading populace. My Robin gets in the requisite mentions of souls and pixies and what-not, but they’re quick mentions, more like author tics than author exhortations.
What’s left instead is the brief, beautiful story along the themes that animate the best nature classics: the intersection of two completely alien worlds, the naked and vulnerable bridge between two vastly different species. We’ve seen such natural history classics here before, and this book, starting as it does with the quintessential nature-book assertion (“He was an English robin and he was a person – not a mere bird”) deserves a place right beside those other books.
That species-specifying gets curiously strident:
An English robin differs greatly from the American one. He is much smaller and quite differently shaped. His body is daintily round and plump, his legs are delicately slender. He is a graceful little patrician with an astonishing allurement of bearing. His eye is large and dark and dewy; he wears a tight little red satin waistcoat on his full round breast and every tilt of his head, every flirt of his wing is instinct with dramatic significance. He is fascinatingly conceited – he burns with curiosity – he is determined to engage in social relations at almost any cost and his raging jealousy of attention paid to less worthy objects than himself drives him at times to efforts to charm and distract which are irresistible. An intimacy with a robin – an English robin – is a liberal education.
Almost to the point where the reader feels like defending the American robin, which, in ornithological terms, is much akin to defending the Yankees. A nature enthusiast of even fifteen minutes’ experience will see at once that American robins, with their straight-line ground-scooting and their earthworm-decapitating, and their pump-action tail-feathers, are the a-holes of the lawn-bird set. English robins are much smaller and frailer – adorable twee little things with irrepressible inquisitive streaks, as our author rapidly discovers:
He began to perch on twigs only a few inches from my face and listen while I whispered to him – yes, he listened and made answer with chirps. Nothing else would describe it. As I wrote he would alight on my manuscript paper and try to read. Sometimes I thought he was a little offended because he found my handwriting so bad that he could not understand it.
There’s a liberal amount of anthropomorphising going on here, and Burnett is pleased to fancy that her robin has taken a proprietary, even mating interest in her (there’s a jokingly-described scene where her robin furiously drives off an intruding robin seeking to gain her attention, for instance). At one point a friend of hers tells her this flat-out: “That is his little mating song. You have inspired a hopeless passion in a robin.”
Burnett is of course a supremely effective writer at all points in her long career, so My Robin will inspire some passion in its human readers likewise. The book ends as stories must when love’s denied – with tears and a journey – and just like that, in a mere 30 minutes of turning stiff, heavy-papered pages, readers have been shown a brief, fragile little moment that happened and then disappeared except for its echo here. The best nature books can do that, and finding this one buried in a pile of books on a warm summer afternoon felt right enough to be contrived, perhaps by pixies.
May 28th, 2011
I’d planned on delving a little further into the world of Moontusk today, but I get emails! Responding to my recent post about Penguin’s Pelican line of titles, several readers enthused about their memories of those titles, reminisced about favorite volumes, and basically urged me to go to my bookshelves and take down another handful of gems. Reading those emails served as one more little reminder to me about just how much sheer enjoyment I myself have taken from Pelican books over the years – the quality of design, the vast variety of subjects, and most of all the strength of the writing involved. The editorial powers that be at Penguin clearly intended these books to become the classics of the future – so many of these old, forgotten titles just pulse and leap with life when you read them today. Re-exploring them for Stevereads is certainly no hardship, even when one factors in the absence of telepathic woolly mammoths.
So here are five more wonderful items from an enormous back-catalogue!
We can start with a euphemism: Bruce Bliven’s slim, lively 1964 volume The Battle for Manhattan, which began life as a series of New Yorker articles and tells the story not so much of the fledgling American army’s ‘battle’ for possession of Manhattan during the American Revolution as its near-headlong retreat from that possession, harried and nearly overwhelmed several times by oncoming British forces. Bliven’s book – a virtually perfect example of the military monograph – consistently reminds readers that these are not distant and alien battlefields he’s talking about; indeed, this is ground thousands of New Yorkers now commute across without a second thought – most certainly including the location of one of the only actual battles in the ‘battle’ for Manhattan, the sudden and fierce slug-fest of the Buckwheat Field, on 16 September 1776 in what is now known as the Battle of Harlem Heights:
By this time, which was approximately noon, the engagement had grown far larger than anything Washington had contemplated. A real battle had developed. And although the opposing forces were small, it had become a head-on clash between two formal lines drawn up in regular array. The American line, held by a total of about two thousand men, extended, in terms of present-day landmarks, from the Riverside Church to Teachers College just north of 120th Street. Nixon’s brigade was on the right, Sargent’s, Beall’s and Douglas’ men held the center, and Knowlton’s and Leitch’s party was on the left. The block between 120th and 119th streets, between the two lines, was a kind of no man’s land. The British were strung out along 119th Street, or slightly to the south of it.
Euphemism comes into play in our next choice as well: it’s The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers, a 1954 compilation of his hit Plain Words from 1948 and The ABC of Plain Words from 1951 – combined and sensitively updated by Sir Bruce Fraser. Sir Ernest was of course aghast at the rising tide of euphemisms in his own day, and Sir Bruce sensitively updates the aghastment:
Or a vague word may be preferred to a precise one because the vague is less alarming; or the natural word may be rejected because it has acquired unpleasant associations. The poor have become the lower income brackets, poor countries are developing countries, unsuccessful teachers (and others) are described as coming from the lower end of the achievement range. Even a prison is now sometimes a correctional facility. There are no stupid, backward, or troublesome children; they are intellectually ungifted or maladjusted or disturbed – and as like as not underprivileged and socially disadvantaged as well. There are contexts in which we cannot use the word race because of its overtones of racial discrimination or colour prejudice; we have to use ethnic origin instead. Black is coloured, mad is sub-normal, war is armed conflict. This sort of substitution may be natural, and sometimes useful, but it has its limitations. If the unpleasantness, or supposed unpleasantness, attaches to the thing itself it will taint the new name; in course of time yet another will have to be found, and so ad infinitum. Homosexuals are working their way through our vocabulary at an alarming rate: for some time now we have been unable to describe our more eccentric friends as queer without risk of misunderstanding, and we have more recently had to give up calling our more lively ones gay.
The political resonances of that passage become far more explicit when one is enjoying a piece of straightforward political writing, and one such work, Sir Ivor Jennings’ 1954 handbook The Queen’s Government, is a fine specimen of the kind of slightly dorky, explicitly didactic little volumes Pelican was addicted to producing. Naturally, these volumes are the ones that show the greatest vulnerability to becoming dated, as political realities shift and change. When writing this passage on the limits of governmental authority, for instance, Jennings couldn’t foresee how cravenly his countrymen (spurred on by their American allies) would sacrifice their liberty in order to gain a little temporary safety in only 60 years:
The Crown and its officials have vast powers, but those powers are closely defined by law. Even in time of emergency, though there are special powers, there are limits beyond which the Queen’s Government may not venture without express parliamentary authority. On the war memorial in Lincoln’s Inn is inscribed the maxim, ‘Inter arma silent leges.’ That maxim is bad law. It comes from The Case of Shipmoney, where the decision of the majority was declared by Parliament to be wrong. In time of war the Queen has wider powers, but the laws are not silent; they still determine what her powers are, and any of her subjects can take legal proceedings if they are exceeded.
Warfare is necessarily also on the mind of Nora Chadwick in her seminal 1970 study The Celts, since that ancient people were often characterized by their earliest ethnographers as particularly violent. Chadwick’s study (which, like so many Pelican volumes, is absolutely ubiquitous in the bibliographies of later works on the subject) was one of the first for a general audience that challenged such a view, making the case – with an effortlessly comprehensive command of all the available evidence at the time – that the Celts weren’t so much warlike as they were energetically quarrelsome:
The ‘warlike’ tendencies of the Celts, which appear to have been thought significant by classical writers, might be better classified as ‘non-essential’ in that territorial aggrandizement was less frequently involved. This type of warfare had characteristics more akin to those of hunting than to true wars of aggression or defence. This was the world of Tain Bo Cualnge (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley), that of the Celtic raids in the Balkans and Greece and the employment of Celtic mercenaries in these areas.
And ‘energetically quarrelsome’ certainly describes our last pick of the day, Hamish Swanson’s 1978 jewel, In Defence of Opera, which has something pricelessly quotable on virtually every page. Swanson was a passionate amateur opera fanatic, and even in the long and storied sub-genre of ‘opera books,’ his tart and snarky volume stands apart for its nerve and understanding, as when he begins to talk about the always-tenuous intersection of opera and common sense:
An audience’s serious attention to the significance of Schonberg’s work, cannot, therefore, be taken as a paradigm of the relation of composer to audience even now. There are many in the house who have come precisely to escape ‘the real world’ of aunts and mortgages and galoshes. They want a night ‘out’ of such a world. They expect the curtain to open upon a wholly fictitious and irrelevant amusement. People are so contrarily demanding that the charge of absurdity is often made still. But it is not so damaging as the charge of boredom.
All of these books and so many more (studies of type-fonts, neo-classical sculpture, window-gardening, Jungian imagery, etc. etc.) sit on second-hand bookshop shelves gathering dust while their words burst and laugh and admonish with life. That’s a familiar complaint here at Stevereads, I know, but it stings a bit extra in the case of so much cheerful erudition being ignored by a reading public in such sore need of cheerful erudition. Who knows – maybe we should re-visit all of those old volumes. ‘The autobiography of my reading’ would certainly cover the indulgence!
May 25th, 2011
Marvel Comics in the last couple of months has been running a very entertaining story through a few of its titles, “Escape from the Negative Zone,” in which Steve Rogers, Cyclops, the sarcastic Nazi-buster Doctor Nemesis, a young mutant girl named Hope, and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner have all found themselves trapped in the Negative Zone and fighting the evil Blastaar. In this “Namor” annual, writer James Asmus and artist Max Fiumara conclude the story at a break-neck pace. Namor, deprived of water and screwed up by the odd physics of the Zone, has gone berserk and can’t tell friend from foe – including Steve Rogers, who fought alongside Namor in the Invaders during WWII. Hope is injured in the fracas, and it’s left to Steve Rogers and Cyclops to try to contain Namor until they can think of some way to get him – and themselves – back to Earth, and water. Blastaar doesn’t want to contain anybody – he just wants to kill all the Earth-heroes.
What follows is page after page of rock-em-sock-em battle sequences, drawn with weird kinetic virtuosity by Fiumara and scripted by Asmus toward one wonderfully simple conclusion: if Namor, one of Marvel Comic’s oldest and best characters, goes berserk, practically nobody this side of the Hulk will be able to ‘contain’ him. Cyclops’ super-powerful eye-blasts won’t do more than slow him down a bit, and as for super-soldier Steve Rogers, the man who used to be Captain America – well, he’s Marvel’s best and most-experienced fighter, but against Namor he doesn’t have much of a chance.
The issue puts everybody through their paces (Blastaar joins the fight and stars getting his Negative Zone ass kicked by Namor just like everybody else), and of course eventually a desperate ploy returns our heroes to Earth, and water, and Namor comes back to his senses. And that brings us to our Great Moment in Comics for the week
Everybody’s in the hospital recuperating, and Namor blusters up to Steve Rogers in order to … well, he stops himself from using the a-word, but then Asmus gives him words that fans of these characters have been waiting a long time to read:
You saved me … brought me back from the worst parts of myself. Which, I suppose, is what you’ve always done for me. But what I all too often fail to say is … I am humbled by your friendship, and I thank you.
That’s perfect, quintessential Namor: a haughty jerk, but redeemed in the end. Bravo to Asmus for nailing that – and bravo to Marvel for keeping the character that way for almost a century.
May 24th, 2011
Our book today is Presidents and Pies, which Isabel Anderson wrote in 1920 about her years spent from 1897 to 1919 as the foremost member of that fiercest and most rarefied of all sub-species of human: the Washington hostess. The archetype of the breed was the mighty Elsa Maxwell, and one of her great predecessors was Isabel Weld Perkins Anderson, the wife of Larz Anderson, who was attached to the diplomatic services under President Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft (he eventually rose to the rank of ambassador in 1912 – just about in time to lose the job when his appointer lost the White House). Larz Anderson came to Washington with a very large fortune in his possession, but his wife Isabel – spirited, outspoken, hilarious, genuinely curious about everything – was a Weld of Boston, and her own fortune dwarfed his many times over. As a team, they were unbeatable, and Anderson House, their palatial spread in Dupont Circle, quickly became the hub of the busy Washington social season.
Kings, ministers, and potentates frequented the gorgeous rooms and sumptuous banquets of Anderson House, and it wasn’t the rooms and food that created the popularity: it was the effervescent personality of the hostess. The first decade of the 20th century was the glittering pinnacle of the nation’s Capital, a time when it could cast a spell even over disgruntled transplants from the Deep South or the East Coast (President Taft, for instance, had both such transplants on his staff, and both of them came to love the place)(for that matter, both President Taft and President Roosevelt were also radical transplants, and both of them also came to feel that old familiar prickly addiction to the place). It was a fairy-tale time, when the murderous heat of the day turned dreamlike and strangely soothing at night, when even the most hard-fought political battles on the Senate floor were forgotten at sundown when the week’s round of parties and horsing around began. It was, as Isabel writes, “a place of handshakes and welcomes and cheerful greetings, unhurried and unworried. There was always time to smile, and one always felt like smiling.”
Not quite always, of course. Our author herself here paints some accurate and effective portraits of how trying a time it was to live in the Capital, for instance, during the First World War, and there were other crises, many of them detailed in this wonderful, bittersweet book. It’s an unabashedly personal book (containing, as Isabel puts it, “more I’s than pies”), but when a person is as well-connected as the Andersons were, that hardly counts as a defect. Time and again in Presidents and Pies, an account will begin with “I had a little chat with the President,” or “the King of the Belgians made that same comment to me once …” And Isabel, already a much-published author by the time she wrote this book (which is her best), displays an unerring eye for the perfect detail, the true note of conversation, and the occasional poetic flair for description, as when she describes the magnificent setting of Senator Dupont’s New Jersey home: “The dogwood trees were laden with flowers, pink as well as white, like drifting snow in a sunset.”
And naturally, there’s politics all over the place; Washington hostesses have been recognized as political power-brokers for 200 years – often far more powerful than their husbands, as was certainly the case here (though the two eventually came to love each other and would therefore have been tempted to deny it). It’s the curse of the true Washington hostess that although she can take sides, she must never play favorites – hosting is supposed to be above that, outside of politics, a respite from it. So when the Capital was torn apart by the split (political and then personal) between Roosevelt and Taft in the run-up to the election of 1912, Isabel felt it acutely, having known and liked both men. Like most powerful hostesses, she was often animated by a kind of noblesse oblige that prompted her to favor the sitting president, as in her comment about the Republican Convention of that year:
Against all this turbulence was set the candidacy of President Taft, with his quiet patience, his hard work, his able and conscientious record, his deliberate speech, and thoughtful argument. It was logic versus noise, but the brains were on the Taft side and Roosevelt was outgeneraled.
Her fondness for Taft was also personal – she herself was a kind, hearty woman, so she responded instinctively to President Taft, who was the kindest, heartiest person in the world. Despite being caricatured in the press as leisurely (after Colonel Roosevelt, pretty much anybody would have seemed so), Taft and virtually everybody else in Washington at the time worked hard during the day – which made the evenings’ perpetual festivities all the more necessary and satisfying. At big establishments like Anderson House, larks, frolics, games, and amateur theatricals were always happening, and the whole town prized an atmosphere of spontaneous gaiety. The President very often took part in that gaiety, usually accompanied only by a driver and an “aide” (who was drawing his salary from the embryonic Secret Service, and who often had to badger the President into including him in these excursions). Our hostess has many such stories to tell:
Once when we were right in the midst of one of these lively frolics a bell rang and a White House aide appeared with the information that the President was outside in a motor and would like to come in. So L. and I went to the door, aprons and all, to receive him; he gave me his arm and walked straight out to the kitchen, where everybody set to work to make special dishes for him while he kept us in gales of laughter with his funny anecdotes. I wonder who ever had a President in her kitchen before?
She more than once points out that Taft had a quality about him – a great mountainous shiver of sheer lovable mischievous mirth – that really did evade capture in words (commentators at the time always made this point specifically about his laugh, which one hard-bitten New York reporter characterized as “quite simply the best sound there is”):
One enthusiastic admirer wrote to him to ignore the slings and arrows of his enemies as history would accord him a place second only to Washington. With an expansive smile that cannot be reproduced in words, the President inquired, “Why lug in Washington?”
Isabel Anderson and her husband traveled quite a bit, and they had many stately homes at their disposal (their mansion in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, had a lovely, inviting library with titles carefully chosen by a local bookseller who – in typical Weld fashion – was paid a king’s ransom for simply doing his job), but both husband and wife looked back at their Washington years with the special fondness we always reserve for eras that have disappeared completely. Presidents and Pies, a shining addition to that small shelf of ‘hostess memoirs,’ brings that era to happy, bustling life again, if only for an hour’s reading.
May 23rd, 2011
Some Penguin Classics aren’t Penguin Classics at all, except through a rather dubious ornithological connection. Of course I’m referring to the “Pelican” line Penguin published from 1937 until 1990, which were dedicated to nonfiction titles most often by living authors, as opposed to the Penguin Classic line, which was dedicated to fiction titles by writers who were good and dead. Sir Allen Lane, the genius behind both imprints, obviously came up with ‘Pelican’ through a quick jump-to-the-left from ‘Penguin’ by way of ‘aquatic bird,’ but the two imprints, unlike their bird-world avatars, are quite similar: scrupulous editorial standards, inviting variety, and a vast array of incredibly sharp minds at work. Penguin published thousands of Pelican volumes on hundreds of subjects, and it’s a testament to those editorial standards that so many of those volumes still make fun, fascinating reading today.
No single entry could possibly hope to do justice to those thousands of titles (and we’re certainly not starting another regular feature! We’re up to our clavicles in them as it is!), but likewise any random handful of volumes will amply demonstrate the wonders these musty old paperbacks hold for the enterprising thrift shop explorer. Take, for instance, David Lack’s 1943 The Life of the Robin, one of the first full-length natural history monographs ever published for a popular audience. Lack studied the birds of the Dartington region for many decades, and he prosecutes his book with the zeal and vaguely childish enthusiasm of a Gussie Fink-Nottle:
The fact proving that some Dartington robins must migrate had confronted me for some time (as it likewise has the reader!) …
Robins die throughout the year, but breed only in spring, hence there must be more of them alive in autumn than in spring. But at both Dartington and Enniskillen there are only about the same number present in late autumn as there are in April. Hence a proportion must migrate for the winter. As regards the sex of those that migrate, at least most must be females. This is indicated by the differences in behaviour between males and females already described, and is also born out by a study both of the times of pair-formation and of the sex ratio in autumn.
Lack’s book became one of Pelican’s unexpected bestsellers (and a classic in the sprawling, competitive world of bird-book classics), but even volumes that flew at a lower pitch sold well enough to earn their meager keep, as with Principles of Shakespearian Production by the great G. Wilson Knight, who made a life-long career of making interesting, challenging points about the Bard. This 1936 book is chock-full of such provocations:
The whole [of Henry VIII] is impregnated heavily with a ceremonial, ritualistic grandeur and a noble, orthodox Christianity.
That is not strange. Christianity has all the time been implicit in Shakespeare’s work: and the two today form a necessary and most fertile commentary on each other. Each of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is a miniature Christ. That is why I have urged the importance of Romeo’s tragic ascent, his little Calvary …
Even the Pelican books whose goals were the most modest still had glittering moments, as in prolific popularizer Michael Grant’s Roman Literature from 1954, which features one little fling against the prevailing academic biases at the time (an ineffectual fling, since those biases still reign supreme, but you have to give him points for trying):
It is largely because of the Romans, and through them, that Greek thought has survived at all. This is because so much Greek thought is admiringly preserved in the Latin writings that have come down to us. It is also because of the actual preserving and copying of Greek manuscripts – an activity which could only take place and bear permanent fruit in the peaceful conditions, and with the widespread educational facilities, of the Pax Romana.
And despite the different nomenclature, sure enough some Pelican books are indeed classics, so much so that it feels odd seeing them in these slightly down-market scuffy little paperbacks. One of these is Nikolaus Pevsner’s magnificent 1943 masterpiece An Outline of European Architecture, which hides a world of passion underneath that nondescript title – passion, and also daring, as when he discusses the evolving floor-plans of Christian churches in a way the Church might not endorse:
… a central plan is not an other-worldly, but a this-worldly conception. The prime function of the medieval church had been to lead the faithful to the altar. In a completely centralized building, no such movement is possible. The building has its full effect only when it is looked at from the one focal point. There the spectator must stand and, by standing there, he becomes himself ‘the measure of all things.’ Thus the religious meaning of the church is replaced by a human one. Man is in the church no longer pressing forward to reach a transcendental goal, but enjoying the beauty that surrounds him and the glorious sensation of being the centre of this beauty.
Equally powerful, equally popular and reprinted, is Eileen Power’s landmark Medieval People from 1924, which glows with her lifelong enthusiasm for making history come alive, as in this brief passage (more than any of these five authors, she tempts to quote at book-length) about the young Marco Polo:
And so Marco, kicking his heels upon the quay, caught sailor-men by the sleeve and asked them about those wild horsemen with their mares’ milk and their magicians and their droves of cattle; and as he asked he wondered about his father and his uncle, and whether they were dead and lost for ever in the wilds of Tartary. But even while he asked and wondered and kicked his heels on the quay, while the Doge Tiepolo was watching the procession of the gilds and the clerk Canale was adding up customs dues or writing the ancient history of the Venetians, at that very moment the two Polos were slowly and wearily making their way across the heights of Central Asia with a caravan of mules and camels, drawing near to golden Samarkand …
It’s saddening to think Penguin stopped publishing Pelican volumes due to vanishing sales, but it’s not surprising: the reading public in America and the UK is notoriously growing dumber and dumber, less and less interested in being challenged or unsettled by its David McCullough-tinged history and its Bill Brysonized science. The Pelican line was phased out just as the Brainless ’90s were beginning, so the whole imprint was long gone when the Angrily Stupid Aughts dawned on the reading world. There are slight glimmers of hope that the reading world might be staging a timid little comeback for the Troubled Teens (there is, after all, the New York Review of Books reprint series … and Open Letters Monthly), but it would be too much to hope for a return of these great flocks of Pelicans. Still: hunting them down in used bookstores is a very good use of your time.
May 21st, 2011
It’s such an unassuming little thing, a slim new graphic novel collection of five individual comic books, published by DC Comics this week with no fanfare whatsoever. It’s an entirely no-frills production: no new Introduction, no new cover-art, no “P.S.” from one of the creators involved, revealing some behind-the-scenes secret, no page of rough pencil-sketch outlines from the artist. Instead, it’s just titled “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years,” and prospective readers are given no more help than that. Of course, 99 percent of those prospective readers will be that particularly obsessive subspecies of comic book reader known as ‘Legion Fans,’ so they’ll hardly need any help. And to Legion fans such as myself, this unassuming little volume is a cause for almost unmitigated joy. Not just because the whole thing is written by Paul Levitz, one of the three greatest Legion authors in the entire history of this extremely venerable comic book franchise – although Levitz’ presence here is certainly a wonderful thing; he has a feel for the interpersonal dynamics of the Legion’s many characters, and although his forte is the grand epic storyline (which he doesn’t do here), he’s almost equally fine with smaller tales like these.
No, the real cause for celebrating this volume is its mere existence. What a long and torturous road those poor Legion fans had to travel, to get to the simple beauty of this issue’s sex-bomb cover (Scott Clark and David Beaty team up to produce a lean and supple roster of original Legion characters who virtually drip with a sullen sensuality we haven’t seen since the infamous Dave Cockrum costume-redesigns of forty years ago)(and dead center is that most natural of all paradoxes: a super-sexy Superboy – not the non-threatening Walter Cronkite the adult Superman has become over the course of nearly a century, but just exactly what a corn-fed farmboy teen from Kansas might be if he were also the most powerful being on Earth … gone is the baby-fat of the Curt Swan/Kurt Schaffenberger Superboy from decades past – this Teen of Steel sports a coral-sharp eight-pack and an inscrutably hungry dead-eyed stare. No comics writer has ever written that Superboy, and that certainly includes Levitz in this collection!).
Long-time comics readers (or, for that matter, long-time Stevereads readers) will recall the source of the problem: “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the mega-event to start all mega-events, the continuity-reboot DC did some thirty years ago in which the entire fictional reality of all its characters was reset in an attempt to dump lots of cumbersome back-story and lure new readers. As a result of that reboot, Superman never adopted a “Superboy” identity as a teenager – as with the character’s earliest appearances in Action Comics, he took on the identity of Superman as an adult.
Legion fans felt like they’d been kicked in the knee. If Superman was never Superboy, where did that leave the Legion of Super-Heroes, that super-team of 30th century teens who looked to the historical legend of Superman as their inspiration and used their time-travel machine to enlist Superboy as one of their members? Legion fans had been reading “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes” stories for decades, and now, with a mere mini-series, DC was saying none of those stories ‘really’ happened.
Years passed, and other writers stepped in and monkeyed around with that clean new continuity. The Legion returned – a Legion without Superboy, or with substitute Superboys of one kind or another. Legion fans adapted as best they could, but it wasn’t easy: nothing was really the same as Superboy, the adventures of Superman when he was a boy. Gradually, very gradually, that “Crisis” revamp was inched back and back and back, until finally, at the end of some damn mega-event or other, the door was left open to the possibility that Superman HAD had adventures – in costume – when he was a teenager … and that maybe he’d been mind-blocked from remembering it, or some such thing. Legion fans forced themselves not to be picky: any way back to the glory days was fine by them.
2010 saw the final fulfilment of that dream – with a bittersweet twist. The “Legion of Three Worlds” mini-series established two things: first, that Superman had indeed donned the familiar costume as a teenager and had many adventures as Superboy with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and second, that the Legion then did the unthinkable: it grew up. The new ongoing Legion comic-book would feature that adult Legion, not the kids whose adventures fans had been following for decades.
But there was a silver lining: for a while, DC also resurrected “Adventure Comics” and used it to feature ‘lost’ tales of that younger, teen Legion. It’s five of those issues that are reprinted here: five stories featuring the original teen Legion in their original dorky costumes – with a teenage Clark Kent plucked from the 20th century and adventuring right alongside them as Superboy. The original formula, restored almost 100% complete, after an ill-advised series of detours now best forgotten (although true to Legion form, every one of those ill-advised detours spawned its own sub-cadre of fanatically devoted fans).
These new stories are fairly tame. There’s the obligatory retelling of the Legion’s origin, how the three founding members – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – spontaneously team up to save the life of galactic squillionaire R. J. Brande, who rewards them with a nifty clubhouse and a hefty bankroll as the brand-new Legion of Super-Heroes. There are well-done battle-issues featuring some solid artwork by Kevin Sharpe (whose Superboy is more the beefy-sexy high school football star than the slinky sex-droid of those covers) – and featuring a small portion of the Legion’s overwhelmingly gigantic cast of characters (including the usual scenes with Ultra Boy punching through the metal hulls of spaceships, even though such a thing should be impossible – Ultra Boy possesses an array of super-powers: super-speed, super-strength, super-invulnerability, etc. … but he can only use one power at a time. So if he were strong enough to rip apart metal, the very act of doing so would shred his hands … and if his hands were tough enough to withstand the force, his muscles wouldn’t be strong enough to exert it, and so on). To a Legion fan of long standing, the sight of these old familiar characters romping around in new, non-retooled stories is mighty damn pleasant.
These are fairly simple stories – no doubt intentionally kept that way by Levitz, who only drops small hints here and there of what he might do if the DC powers that be weren’t watching. For instance, in these five issues it’s pretty clear that the women of the Legion (and perhaps one or two of the men? Statistics suggest it, but so far no Legion boy has come out of the 31st century closet)(should that day ever come, the smart money would be on Element Lad)(although there was one wowser of a panel once, involving Brainiac 5) all view Superboy’s presence among them as a major historical turn-on … they’re forever hanging all over his broad shoulders and mussing his inky black hair. Levitz never delves into the extent to which Superboy’s Legion teammates might be simply using him – or the extent to which he knows it and maybe resents it. Those would make excellent ‘the early years’ stories to tell, but we may never see them, and with good reason: DC has made this mistake a couple of times before. There is no good way to have two ongoing Legion titles set in different time-periods of the Legion itself. ‘Lost’ stories of the early Legion never work – for the simple reason that they lack any kind of dramatic tension … we know the characters all live, we know the older Legion happens.
Instead, the approach DC should take is obvious, and for once they seem to be taking it: now that they’ve established the older, adult Legion as the ‘real’ or ‘definitive’ one, that Legion can be slowly, gradually ‘de-aged’ until it’s in roughly the same semi-eternal late-20s age-bracket as Superman and Batman, that wonderful limbo in which the characters have loads and loads of back-story (or, in Batman’s case, generations and generations of Robin) but never get any older themselves. A monthly Legion of Super-Heroes comic done right would be yet another dream come true, even though it wouldn’t feature Superboy.
Of course, in any graphic novel collection, you take the bad with the good. In order to re-live these delightful issues, I had to re-live the terrifying Eduardo Pansica panel in which a disguised Brainiac 5 not only is suddenly about eight years old but is also being creepily fondled by a sharkishly leering Ma Kent, causing the boy-Brainiac to have an obvious sexual reaction even his level-12 intellect can’t understand. Needless to say, such a travesty-panel hardly deserves the second shot at life it’s getting by being reprinted in this collection – but the rest of it compensates.
May 18th, 2011
Some Penguin Classics are deceptively stuffy-looking – in fact, a great many of them are, disguising thunderous detonations with sedate black spines and static, tastefully-chosen cover illustrations, so that the unsuspecting reader often couldn’t possibly guess at the wonders that crowd within. Certainly those oh-so-common readers would balk upon seeing our Penguin Classic today, which features a medieval illustration of a monk sharpening his writing-quill and which goes under the title of A History of the English Church and People. Even the hardiest reader could be forgiven for blanching a little at first sight of a title like that, and that reaction wouldn’t be helped any by learning that the book’s author has for many centuries routinely been referred to as ‘The Father of English History’ and even worse: ‘The Venerable.’ Visions of cloying piety come to terrify.
Those visions are precisely correct – for all the rest of TVB’s work. He wrote his Historia ecclesiastic gentis Anglorum relatively late in his life, toward the end of a writing career almost exclusively characterized by cloying piety, and TVB himself fits the bill:
“If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to Him Who created me out of nothing when I had no being. I have had a long life, and the merciful Judge has ordered it graciously. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.”
So wrote Bede’s fellow monk Cuthbert describing the day of TVB’s death in 735, and so wrote many others throughout TVB’s life, which seems to have been saintly to an excruciating degree. Luckily for us, in addition to being a saint TVB was also a work-horse: he was probably born around 673, made deacon at nineteen, and divided the rest of his life between his devotions and his writing, both of which (but, one suspects, more the latter) gaining him far-ranging fame even in his own lifetime.
He was in every sense a working man of letters – usually quite literally, writing sometimes dozens of long, closely-reasoned, brightly-written letters a week to recipients all over England and the Continent. He wrote many ‘open’ letters as well, and he made energetic use of the sturdy little library of his monastery at Jarrow in order to turn out a prodigious amount of books on almost every intellectual subject of his day. What that library couldn’t supply he got in the tried-and-true method of humanist scholars throughout Western history: he used the Internet – which in his day consisted of writing letters to a network of like-minded scholars at monasteries and libraries all throughout Christendom, asking if they could lay their hands on volume X or Y and make some much-needed copies of pertinent passages.
Bede’s History was the last major work of his life, done when all the long journeys of his youth were over, when all the literary and ecclesiastical controversies in which he’d taken such vigorous part were behind him. No doubt the coronary condition that would eventually kill him had already made itself known to him (in the early morning hours, or at the top of a flight of stairs he used to take two at a time), and we can imagine that his lifetime of scholarship had done what it usually does: created yearnings for new paths, for definitive attempts, for truth, however elusive. He turned to the history of the Church that had given his life all its meaning, and he decided to conceive of that history in a powerful new way. Instead of merely transmitting storied accounts, TVB decided to dig, to line up sources against each other, to cross-examine timelines. He decided – he was one of the first Western writers in 500 years to decide – to interrogate history. In his attempts to make it accountable, he made his story unforgettable, as Leo Sherley-Price, the translator of this wonderful little volume, ably appreciates:
So any readers who take up this book for the first time can rest assured that they will not find it a dreary chronicle of events and dates; on the contrary, a rich living tapestry will unfold before them, and they will discover a source of interest and enjoyment that may well be lifelong, and stimulate them to learn more about the storied past on which our present and future is built. Such is the interest of the subject-matter and the vividness of Bede’s characteristic style that the scenes and folk of long ago live again.
Like so many authorities Penguin enlisted to its cause (this particular translation was done in 1955 and revised by R. E. Latham in 1968), Sherley-Price isn’t afraid to express his imaginative love of his subject – and he’s scholar enough to give some very modern credit where it’s due:
And it is easy to visualize the ageing Bede himself, wrapped in a sheepskin cloak, busily working away under such conditions with a pile of documents on his desk, and rising from time to time to beat his frozen limbs into restored circulation. But it is noteworthy that despite the many difficulties under which it was written, Bede’s History contains relatively few errors, and modern research has confirmed the accuracy of most of his statements.
Reading TVB’s History is every bit as fascinating as Sherley-Price says it is. In addition to the pieties that circumscribed his life (and spoke to his reading audience), Bede is also careful to serve up good stories – in fact, after you’ve read a few of them, you become convinced that was his main priority. In a clear and curly Latin whose game little flourishes Sherley-Price captures perfectly, TVB narrates battles, domestic scenes, and miracles galore, expertly shifting from broad-scale to intimate and back, keeping his eye on his larger story (the spread of Christianity throughout England) but never forgetting to add ‘local color’ along the way. Some of those colorful details have taken on added hues over time, as in the story of the exhumation of Queen Etheldreda of saintly memory. She died of a tumor just under her jaw, and one of the people on hand at her exhumation (at which she was found miraculously preserved from decay) was her old doctor, the physician Cynifrid, whose account Bede judiciously quotes:
There I saw the body of the holy virgin taken from its grave and laid on a bed as though asleep; and when they had uncovered her face, they showed me that the incision I had made had healed. This astounded me, for in place of the open gaping wound with which she was buried, there remained only the faint mark of a scar.
TVB’s audience would have been concentrating on the glory of the miracle here, but modern readers will probably also note that ‘gaping wound’ used as a horrifying synonym for ‘incision.’ Time and again throughout this book, darkly illuminating little details like that open a window straight to the days of the 8th century, when life was hard even for saints. As our learned translator pointed out half a century ago, Bede’s History brings those days to life again – a spectacular feat even the not-so-pious can enjoy without a guilty conscience.
May 16th, 2011
Our book today is the extra-sized deluxe treasury edition of The Mighty Thor that Marvel Comics put out way back in 1974, back before comic shops and mylar bags and collector conventions. The treasury edition (this is the first – there actually was a second Thor treasury edition, but it reprinted a story we’ve already examined here, so we can safely skip it) is an oversized paperback (the owner of Trow’s Variety, where I bought my copy, had no idea where to put the thing when he unpacked that week’s comics shipment … he’d ordered it thinking it was normal-sized and would fit in his metal spinner-racks; he eventually decided to put it in the normal magazine stand, nestled right next to Life and Variety and The Saturday Evening Post) featuring a gorgeous cover illustration by John Romita and reprinting the epic storyline with which Thor at last got his own title – the first issue reprinted here is “Journey Into Mystery” #125, and through a bit of comic book sleight of hand that has since become well-used, the second issue reprinted here is “Thor” #126 (it didn’t occur even to the enterprising brain of Stan Lee to goose sales by re-numbering “Thor” so it would begin with an oh-so-collectible first issue). Some of us had been sending letters for months back in 1966 urging just such a change, since Thor had been a star in his own right for quite some time already. Lee exercised his usual flair for showmanship by making the transition story one of the biggest and most robust he’d ever done: Thor versus Hercules! Thor Defeated! Odin Defeated! Asgard Betrayed! Hercules Betrayed! Rip-Snorting Battle on Every Page!
In 1974, reprinting the six issues of this story-arc in a larger-format treasury edition was a bit of a gamble for Marvel. After all, the original issues were only a decade old – it stood to reason most fans would remember how the whole thing turned out and likely still own the individual issues, and the $1.50 price-tag was astronomical. But Marvel went ahead anyway, trusting that the size of the stories would justify the size of the format.
We’ve seen some pretty big Thor stories in a few previous posts of Stevereads, and this one is no disappointment. The story opens with Thor in bombastic battle with a jumped-up mortal villain whom he easily dispatches (this is the recurring problem this character shares with a certain super-strong red-caped fellow over at DC: how do you keep him busy?). Thor then returns to Asgard where – surprise, surprise – his father Odin is furious with him for wanting to spend any time at all on Midgard (that’s Asgardian for Earth), especially hanging around an insipid mortal woman like Jane Foster (she’s just a nurse in these dark days of Thor continuity, not a mouthy scientist, as in the spec-tacular new movie). And Odin does here what Odin almost always does when he’s being written by Stan Lee: he goes absolutely psycho. He rants and raves at Thor, orders Balder the Brave to smite Thor, calls out the warriors of Asgard to pummel Thor, stations Heimdall the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge to stop Thor from leaving Asgard, then … lets Thor leave Asgard.
And leave Thor does. He returns to Earth, only to find Jane Foster getting all cozy at the soda fountain (you young people will just have to Google that) with none other than … Hercules! The son of Zeus is portrayed here as every bit as powerful as Thor but far more impulsive and conceited (shortly after this story, Lee would portray him the same way to extremely good effect over in “The Avengers”) – and nowhere near as bright. Hercules is miffed that Thor would so rudely interrupt his swaining of Jane Foster, and quick as you can say “Clash of the Titans,” the two of them are duking it out all over Lower Manhattan (the sheer amount of property damage Kirby so wonderfully draws them so negligently doing is justification enough for a dozen Super Hero Registration Acts from Marvel’s “Civil War” story of a few years ago).
While this is going on, two sinister developments are taking place off-stage: Pluto, the nefarious god of the underworld, is planning to trick Hercules into signing a mystic contract that will consign him to the underworld forever, and Odin, still – surprise, surprise – fuming over Thor’s defection, is planning to strip his son of half his godly power, by way of punishment. Pluto has the decency to wait until the fighting stops, but not Odin, oh no! But at the last minute he finds he just can’t blast Thor right in the middle of his fight with Hercules – not because such rapid de-powering might get his son killed, but just because it doesn’t feel right. So Odin summons his Odin-force … and gives it, lock, stock, and sceptre, to his assistant Seidring the Merciless, who promptly fires off a bolt of energy that strikes Thor on Earth and instantly rips away half his power. Thor valiantly fights on against Hercules, who pounds the stuffing out of him and leaves him in a heap (in a truly psychotic twist, Odin telepathically contacts none other than Jane Foster and urges her to go and comfort his son! Yeesh).
After about fifteen minutes, Odin regrets his action and orders Seidring to give him back the Odin-force so he can make things right with Thor – and Seidring refuses (in his Introduction to the whoppingly huge new Thor Omnibus in comics shops now, Walter Simonson makes a good crack about how Odin probably should have been tipped off by the name “Seidring the Merciless”), blasts Odin into submission, and takes over Asgard.
Meanwhile, after some thought, Thor has decided to return to Asgard and confront Odin about all this banishment business. Only when he gets there (how he gets there, shorn of godly power as he is, we never learn), he finds the Eternal City frozen by unholy power, and when he confronts Seidring he once again gets the stuffing beaten out of him. In agony, he manages to make it to our old friend the Odin-Sword, the unsheathing of which would cause the entire universe to implode. Rather than face annihilation, Seidring restores the Odin-force to Odin and flees. Odin gathers his unconscious son in his arms and vows to be a better parent.
There follows a rather charming sequence (broken up with scenes of Hercules fighting for his life, since – surprise, surprise – he was indeed successfully tricked into signing that contract … he makes a thumb-print, presumably because, like Xena the Warrior Princess, he’s illiterate) in which Thor slowly convalesces in Asgard. At one point he and Balder bundle up in furs and go armored beast-fish-hunting on the frozen seas, but Thor’s still too weak to make his shot (Lee would have been bombarded with protest-mail if he’d done that scene in today’s more eco-conscious atmosphere; as far as I know, he only received one single letter protesting this armored beast-fish-harvest, back in 1967 – and that letter was probably from a crank).
He regains his full fighting strength just in time to save Hercules from being dragged down to the underworld by the forces of Pluto. There’s a neat little moment here too: as Thor is leaping into combat, Hercules, thinking his weakened state during their fight is normal for him, cries out a warning that said forces are too strong for the likes of Thor. And Kirby follows this up with a fantastic little panel that conveys speed and power without covering itself in either speed-lines or sound-effects. Little moments like that show Kirby as the absolute master of dynamic action-sequences – it’s a talent that’s all but missing from the latest crop of comic book artists, so it’s all the more pleasing to see it here.
Between them, Thor and Hercules manage to wreck enough of the underworld so that Pluto rather peevishly tears up the eternal contract and lets Hercules off the hook. The two heroes shake hands and go their separate ways, and so the epic ends, and Thor’s own titled comic is launched, and Marvel’s third deluxe treasury edition comes to an end. I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve re-read my own overized copy – but even after forty years, it holds up remarkably well. And true to form, Marvel threw in a little something extra: a two-page poster of the current, 1970s-style Thor cast of characters, drawn by the mighty John Buscema and available only in this volume:
The contrasts are unconsciously striking: this visual take on our cast (in addition to featuring poor Hildegarde, at the time being featured in Thor but soon to be completely forgotten)(and in addition to featuring Loki, even though the ‘Clash of the Titans’ story-line is one of the few Thor mini-epics that in no way involves Thor’s evil half-brother) is noticeably older – Buscema’s Odin is almost elderly, and his Thor shows no trace of the youth Kirby often gave the character. Plopped right in the middle of halcyon Lee-Kirby antics, it encourages the reader to speculate on how much different the saga of Seidring the Merciless would have felt if Buscema had done the artwork.
It’s a neat little addition to the volume, which is all-in-all a feast fit for the gods … and for lesser mythological creatures …
May 16th, 2011
Our book today is Michael Shaara’s 1974 masterpiece The Killer Angels, the best American Civil War novel ever written (and it beats out a very, very crowded field, with honorable mention going to Stephen Becker’s When This War Is Over). This is by far the best thing Shaara ever wrote, the rest of his prose tending to settle into the bloatedly self-congratulatory mode of “Now I shall regale you fellows with a tale, though you scantwise deserve it.” In The Killer Angels, Shaara achieves his much-needed balance by taking on one of the seminal myths of the American story: the Battle of Gettysburg. And he approaches that story in a way very much at odds with the standard practice of his day (and our own) for writing historical novels: after immersive research, he tells his story entirely through the viewpoints of actual historical characters. There’s no Phillip Charboneau or Amber St. Clare in these pages; instead, Shaara’s narration flits bumblebee-style from one fully-realized historical personage to the next. And looming over all of them is the reader’s awareness of the fate that awaits them all – playing on such awareness is one of the keys to really good historical fiction, and in this book Shaara is an absolute master of the trick. On the first proper day of the battle, he has two Union men groping toward certainties about what’s coming:
“Hey, General. That was quite a scrap.”
“How are your losses?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all. We were dug in pretty good. We got ’em right out in the open. Really got a twist on ’em. Arrogant people, you know that? Came right at us. Listen, we got some prisoners. I talked to ’em. They’re Harry Heth’s Division, of Hill’s Corps. That’s what I’ve got in front of me.”
Buford nodded. Gamble was talking very quickly, head moving in jerky twitches.
“Sir, as I remember, Heth’s got near ten thousand men. They’re all within sound of the fight, back that road, between here and Cashtown.”
Buford squinted. The rain had quit but the sky was still low and gray. He could see a long way off through the trees, and there were ragged bodies in the fields, groups of men digging, cutting trees for cover.
Gamble said, “Sir, he’ll be back with all ten thousand.”
Shaara limits his cast to about a dozen main characters, and he concentrates on two main figures: on the Union side, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the bookish Maine professor who comes into his own as leader of the 20th Maine:
The Regiment sat in an open field studded with boulders like half-sunken balls. Small fires burned under a steam-gray sky. Chamberlain wandered, watching, listening. He did not talk; he moved silently among them, hands clasped behind his back, wandering, nodding, soaking in the sounds of voices, tabulating the light in men’s eyes, moving like a forester through a treasured grove, noting the condition of the trees. All his life he had been a detached man, but he was not detached any more. He had grown up in the cold New England woods, the iron dark, grown in contained silence like a lone house on a mountain, and now he was no longer alone; he had joined not only the army but the race, not only the country but mankind.
And the solid, taciturn James Longstreet, who at one memorable point is startled out of his usual laconic silence by an English observer’s comment that the “devious” General Lee will win the coming battle through his superior tactics:
“God in Heaven,” Longstreet said, and repeated it, “there’s no strategy to this bloody war. What it is is old Napoleon and a hell of a lot of chivalry. That’s all it is. What were the tactics of Chancellorsville, where we divided the army, divided it, so help me God, in the face of the enemy, and got away with it because Joe Hooker froze cold in his stomach? What were the tactics yesterday? What were the they today? And what will be the blessed tactics tomorrow? I’ll tell you the tactics tomorrow. Devious? Christ in Heaven. Tomorrow we will attack an enemy that outnumbers us, an enemy that outguns us, an enemy dug in on the high ground, and let me tell you, if we win that one it will not be because of the tactics or because we are great strategists or because there is anything even remotely intelligent about the war at all. It will be a bloody miracle, a bloody miracle.”
This kind of thing will only work if you’ve done research sufficient to let you breathe and walk around in the very skin of your characters, and Shaara’s success at it is why this book has been so phenomenally popular since it first appeared. I’ve lost count of the number of copies I’ve handed out over the decades, lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended this book especially for readers who don’t think they like historical fiction. The author’s son has gone on to build an entire career as a historical novelist using exactly his father’s methods but virtually never his father’s skill; the poetry of his prose is everywhere sacrificed for exposition, although his novels set in the Second World War come into something of their own. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels feel like the biggest disappointments – because readers who have marvelled at The Killer Angels (and I’ve never met a reader who didn’t) want it to keep going.
But there’s nothing else quite like it in the long roll of historical fiction. And here I get to recommend it virtually, which feels extra-efficient … although I doubt my days of mailing out second-hand copies are over!