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In 1961 Russian writer Vasily Grossman went to Armenia to work on the “translation”—actually the editing of the literal translation – of a popular novel from Armenian into Russian. Two years later Grossman was dead of cancer and An Amenian Sketchbook (Dobro vam) was not published during his lifetime, too many cuts having been demanded. As the Introduction explains, “By then Grossman had come to feel deeply ashamed of the many compromises he had made in the course of his life…” Grossman was also angry. Life and Fate, his great novel of the Battle of Stalingrad and of World War II had been “arrested” by the KGB and all known copies destroyed.
Vasily Grossman traveled to Armenia and he describes it: the houses of stone, the people – who respected their own Armenian writer much more than any visiting Russian – and even a village wedding. I don’t think what Grossman put into this book is Armenia; what Grossman puts into this book is himself. He tells us what he thinks. In Chapter 4 of this edition, a chapter which was entirely deleted by the censor, he writes of nationalism and national stereotypes. He concludes that seeing only the glories of your own people or nation is to harm yourself.
Whether or not Tunanyan really is finer than Pushkin, or Garni finer than the Acropolis, is of course beside the point. What is sadly apparent from these claims is that poetry , architecture, science, science and history no longer mean anything to these people, They matter only insofar as they testify to the superiority of the Armenian nation. Poetry does not matter; all that matters is to prove that Armedia’s national poet is greater than, say, the French or the Russian national poet.
But Grossman sees more to the problem.
But I understood that this excessive sense of self-importance could, for the main part, be blamed on those who throughout long centuries had trampled on Armenian dignity.
Grossman’s great strength, just as in his novels and in his war reporting, is to tell us what he sees, and he sees with a knowing eye. In Yerevan, Soviet Armenia’s capital, he finds the obligatory statue of Stalin.
Stalin wears a long bronze greatcoat, and he has a forage cap on his head. One of his bronze hands is tucked beneath the lapel of his greatcoat. He strides along, and his stride is slow, smooth, and weighty. It is the stride of a master, a ruler of the world; he is in no hurry. Two very different forces come together in him, and this is strange and troubling. He is the expression of a power so vast that it can belong only to God; and he is also the expression of a coarse, earthly power, the power of a soldier or government official.
Stalin was dead by then and in many places they were pulling his statues down, as they did eventually in Yerevan. Grossman foresees this probability. He is hopeful, for times have changed, but he is also depressed because he knows his great book – his depiction of a brave and resilient people – may never be read by those who could understand it.
Jane Gardam has written three novels with the same cast of characters: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends. They narrate the lives of Edward Feathers, Betty Mackintosh and Terry Veneering – their loves, their marriages, their friends and acquaintances, including the “last friends.”
By pure happenstance I did not read the books in order, but it doesn’t matter very much, and I believe I saved the best for last. The Man in the Wooden Hat is the middle book of the series and told mostly from the point of view of Betty Mackintosh, married to Feathers (Old Filth) and in love with (at times) and loved by (always) Veneering. Not the simple triangle you might imagine; these people have standards and regard for commitments made.
This is a story of a world that used to be. Britannia ruled the waves – until she did not any longer – and English law ran in many places where it runs no more. Betty, Feathers and Veneering are intelligent people who have status and money, which did not come to them automatically, but were based on that world. They have known many places and many cultures. They understand it’s all over for Britannia and for them, but that doesn’t change where they came from and who they presently are.
If not always a good world, it was always a small one. From Hong Kong they take a trip into China. When the bus stops,
A very old English couple held hands, without looking at each other. “We were born here,” they said. “We’ve been away a long time.” “I was born in Tiensin,” said Betty. “I grew up in Shanghai.” They looked at her and nodded acknowledgement. “We are displaced people,” said the old woman and Filth said, “I suppose you don’t know Judge Willy?” “What, old Pastry? Of course we did,” and they all smiled.
Nancy Mitford’s humor depends on exaggeration for its effect. Wigs on the Green is no exception. So why was this 1935 never reprinted during her lifetime? The book features the activities of a group of Union Jackshirts, modeled on Mosley’s British fascists and two of her sisters who were in cahoots with Hitler and with Mosley. According to Charlotte Mosley, in her Introduction to my Vintage Books edition,
The main reason for her refusal, apart from the jokes about Nazis, was that the book had caused such furious reactions within the Mitford family. Unity threatened never to speak to her again and Diana, who had recently divorced her first husband for Mosley, more or less broke off relations until the end of the war.
If Nancy Mitford portrayed me as she portrays local fascist Eugenia, I wouldn’t speak to her again either. Eugenia is deluded, bombastic and totally un-self-aware. She proclaims “Heil Hitler” in total innocence. Maybe this was possible in 1935, but we know too much now to find it funny. Still, Eugenia comes across as an adolescent (which she is) playing at having grown-up authority.
Eugenia regarded him with lowering brow. “Union Jackshirt Forster,’ she said sternly, ‘beware, I have had to speak to you once before. If you continue to be facetious at the expense of our Movement I shall be obliged to degrade you before the comrades. In fact I will cut off all your buttons with my own dagger.’
Also, to be fair, Mitford makes fun of the non fascists as well. Noel and Jasper are two well-connected young men who, because they have little money and even less desire to work, have withdrawn to the country to find an heiress, a solution to their financial difficulties to which they feel entitled. Eugenia’s grandmother is wonderfully conventional.
Lady Chalford, who vaguely supposed that Eugenia must be referring to the Deity, looked embarrassed. Religious fervor was, in her eyes, almost as shocking as sexual abandon, and quite likely to be associated with it…. She went to church herself, of course, feeling it a patriotic duty so to do, but she had no personal feelings toward God, whom she regarded as being, conjointly with the King, head of the Church of England.
The title, Wigs on the Green, refers to a grand community pageant, the culmination of the novel, which brings all elements together – the fascists and non fascists, the royalists, the mad aristocrats, the local gentry, the arty crowd, and the impecunious young gentlemen.
Most of the novel is vintage Mitford and fun to read but, now and then, you can’t escape the obliviousness of the English upper classes to the situation to those who make up the great and, to them, unperceived majority. Here is a sample of Mitford’s dialog, funny and true, but leaving me just a shade uneasy. Yes, these people are ridiculous, but they are also very dangerous.
‘Is your husband an Aryan?”
‘I really don’t quite know what an Aryan is.’
‘Well, it’s quite easy. A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
‘How about Siamese cats?” said Jasper.
‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic value of faithfulness.’
‘Indeed they don’t,’ said Poppy. ‘We had one last summer and he brought back a different wife every night. Even Anthony was quite shocked.’
Eugenia was in no way put out. ‘I know they may not be faithful to non-Aryan cats,’ she said, ‘why should they be? But they love their Nordic owners and even go for long walks with them.’
‘So your definition of an Aryan is somebody who will go for long walks with other Aryans?’
I like to have several books going at a time. If one is serious, depressing even, the other needs to be somewhat lighter. I messed up big time with Three Soldiers and An American Tragedy.
I’ll start with Three Soldiers. I read it on my Kindle during my almost-daily walk on the treadmill. The Kindle works very well, but I now realize the book can’t be hard going – that’s what the treadmill is for. Elizabeth and Her German Garden did very well in the treadmill environment, as did Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate.
John Andrews, the central figure in Three Soldiers, is desperately unhappy in his environment, the U.S. Expeditionary Force in France during and after World War I.
And all the flood of bitterness that had been collecting in his spirit seethed to the surface. They had not treated him right, He felt full of hopeless anger against this vast treadmill to which he was bound. The endless succession of the days, all alike, all subject to orders, to the interminable monotony of drills and line-ups, passed before his mind. He felt he couldn’t go on, yet he knew that he must and would go on, that there was no stopping, that his feet would go on beating in time to the steps of the treadmill.
My print copy of Three Soldiers has a Reading Group Guide which says, “Some critics have written that John Andrews is the most fully realized character. Do you agree?” I emphatically agree: he is the only fully realized character. Fuselli is from San Francisco where he watched the liners enter the harbor. Now he thinks only of drink, women (including the girl back home), and getting promoted. Chrisfield is a farm boy. He thinks about drink, women, and doing violence on those who offend him. All the men speak some rudimentary French from time to time, but when Fuselli and Chrisfield do, it is crudely written as, for example, “bonswar”. Only Andrews is permitted a correctly written “bonsoir” in the text. Dos Passos also attributes slang and at attempt at dialect (Mark Twain did it better!) to the other two soldiers, but not to Andrews.
Now as to Andrews himself, he is a sensitive soul. He went to Harvard, an important fact we do not learn until halfway through the book, although he is seen to be educated above the level of the other men. He thinks about The Illiad, for example, although he does not take its point that there are human feelings on both sides of a conflict. (Funny thing about Harvard, because we never learn how he financed it, and his family is not mentioned.) He is an aspiring musical composer who wants to flee the army and write music. He is also his own worst enemy, refusing to salute and not displaying even rudimentary common sense when he desserts.
I have read a number of excellent novels depicting World War I, including A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Regeneration. If you want to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, read one of them, and skip Three Soldiers.
When I got off the treadmill and went to my reading chair each evening, I read some of the 800+ pages of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I like Dreiser – not everybody does – but was wary of committing to such a long book. It is indeed long, and I wanted to shorten it, but its cumulative effect is like that of a long opera. It builds and builds until, at the end, you are not sure what part of the experience you could leave out. The novel is the story of Clyde Griffiths and his tragedy is a particularly American one. He is poor, but striving. He wants to advance in wealth and status. He sees this as a calling, just as he parents see evangelical religion as a calling.
And all this as a revealing flash after all the years of walking through the streets with his father and mother to public prayer meeting, the sitting in chapel and listening to queer and nondescript individuals – depressing and disconcerting people – telling how Christ has saved them and what God had done for them. You bet he would get out of that now. He would work and save his money and be somebody. Decidedly this simple and yet idyllic compound of the commonplace had all the luster and wonder of a spiritual transfiguration, the true mirage of the lost and thirsting and seeking victim of the desert.
Clyde has strong desires and they are most stimulated by a woman who values herself highly because she is much sought after or herself has wealth and status. Even if you have not seen the movie, the title suggests that matters end badly for Clyde. Whether he is a murderer or whether he is an accident-causing fool, Clyde, like Andrews, is his own worst enemy. Both want what they cannot obtain within the rules, and so they break the rules. Dreiser’s uses his skills as a reporter to show us all the details of Clyde’s fall, as he takes us inside a collar factory, to Adirondack lakes and resorts, a trial, and the New York State death house. Two novels, two protagonists, two tragedies, but The American Tragedy is the one which is fully realized.
John McPhee, Table of Contents. This is a collection of eight pieces by McPhee, all from the early 1980s — and all just as relevant and just as much fun to read today as they were then. Topics include New Jersey bears, the practice of family medicine in Maine, entrepreneurial efforts to use old dams and millponds to make hydropower, and exploring wild Maine with the other John McPhee.
Elizabth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Elizabeth has money, a place in the country, three lively daughters, a husband (the Man of Wrath) and a garden which constitutes her principal joy in life.
D. J. Taylor, Derby Day. Taylor must have read a lot of Trollope because, in this novel with its Victorian setting, he gets the tone just right. The story is only peripherally about a horse; it is very much about the characters and conniving which revolve about a horse who will run on Derby Day.
Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire. A writer professes desire, except when he doesn’t feel any and then he professes his desire for desire. The novel is insightful, but sometimes rather juvenile. Or is that the Professor’s problem and this novel just reflects that?
The Journals of Arnold Bennett, Selected and Edited by Frank Swinnerton. Interesting and wide-ranging excerpts from the journals Bennett kept from 1896 to 1929. We learn about literature and the struggles of a writer. Bennett was compulsively hard-working and he tells us a great deal about that, but very little about his personal life or what drove him.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence. In which an aspiring artist rejects his conventional life and seeks to paint in Paris and Tahiti. Very loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.
John Matteson, The Lives of Margaret Fuller. This biography of the famous female intellectual and writer sets her firmly in her times and tells not only her story, but also the stories of her family and friends.
I’ve discovered I don’t know what evil is, or goodness either.
My confusion started with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she describes “the banality of evil.” The book is very good – the account of the trial, what Eichmann actually said, the exploration of his psychology – but banality of evil irritated me. What is this evil? Is it some sort of cloud which descends on a person? Is it an inborn trait like lefthandedness?
I turn it the other way and also ask, what is goodness? Does it have any separate existence out there somewhere? To say that an act is good or a person is good is a metaphor. When we say that food is good, we identify a property of the food. It may be good in the sense that it is not poisonous or is nutritious. It may be good because eating it gives us pleasure. Nutrition is testable and the taste of the food is a sensory experience, so our assignment of goodness to the food is based on an outcome. It is not a separate, discrete quality of the food.
Similarly, we may speak of a good deed. In the case of the deed, is its goodness intrinsic, so that a certain act is always good, or is it situational? It is good to feed the hungry, but when the survivors of concentration camps were fed, some died because their systems could not handle the sudden food. Those who gave the food had good intentions and the food itself was good, but the consequences were bad. Can there be any deed that in inherently good? It is always good to tell the truth, except when it is not. When the Gestapo asks you where your Jewish friend is hiding, is it good to tell the truth?
If the result of a deed may be good or bad, then deeds are situational. But how about bad deeds – the banality of evil? The consequences of Eichmann’s deeds were good for him, in the short term at least. He fulfilled the requirements of his job and was praised and promoted. The consequences were bad/evil only for others, not for him. Perhaps that is what Arendt means by banality: the day-by-day performance of what you conceive to be your duty has terrible effects on other people. Where is the property of evil here? Is in the deed, which might be innocent or even “good” if it had a different outcome? Is it in the doer, who does not consciously desire to do harm? Is it only in the result?
Eichmann did not claim to have no knowledge of the result; he said that the result was not his choice or his responsibility. If Eichmann was correct, then he was not evil and his deeds were not evil. It is a familiar ethical dilemma and brings me no closer to understanding whether evil is banal, or even it if has any separate reality at all.
I went on the second day of the big book sale in Southport, Connecticut. That’s the Pequot Library behind all the tents — a wonderful Richardson-Romanesque building which looks as good inside as outside. Any traveller coming this way should save time for an amble through the Southport historic district. It is a veritable museum of 19th century domestic architecture, from simple Federal through Greek Revival and Second Empire to Stick and Shingle, all well and expensively preserved. I can’t afford to live there, but I can certainly enjoy.
- Bruce Page and others, The Philby Conspiracy. With new books coming out about British upper class spies, I want to look into the subject.
- John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man. I thought I had read them all, but must have missed this one.
- Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green. Supposedly “lightheartedly skewers the devoted followers of British fascism.” Lighthearted? We’ll see.
- Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Since reading Old Filth a couple of years ago, I am working my way through Gardam’s novels, in no particular order.
- Ivan Doig, Heart Earth. After a recommendation by a fellow blogger I read my first Doig, devoted to the building of the Fort Peck Dam. He knows the West and takes you there. Time for more.
- Penelope Lively, Cleopatra’s Sister. I don’t think I have read this novelist before, but she comes highly recommended by people I respect.