§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: April 2009

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock

Although I had a number of gripes about this book, I ended up deciding that it was a pretty important book. First the gripes:

1. In the preface he suggests that the reason European nations chose not to participate with the US in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq was that, having experienced WWII on their own soil and recognizing the terrible price paid by those liberated (as well as the difficulty of the liberators), European countries had a more realistic (and “dark”) understanding of the task of regime change; they saw it as bigger and uglier than did the US. An intriguing thesis, but it was not in fact a thesis and the idea was never developed after its mention in the preface.

2. This may be inevitable in a book with such a subject, but Hitchcock narrates a truly endless tale of cruelty, neglect and, degradation, so much so that readers may be tempted to give it up and go on to something else in the same way they might choose not to watch films with endless violence. That would be a mistake because there’s an important message here, but I think Hitchcock could have organized more wisely and avoided this particular criticism.

OK. That’s out of the way. The message of this book—never explicitly stated until the conclusion—is that the “good war” wasn’t really so good and that the winners might have gone overboard not so much in making heroes and villains but in perpetrating the idea that some wars have clear outcomes and clean motives and even clean execution (except of course where the bad guys forced them into dirtier practices). In the US lately it’s been the “greatest generation” myth—when in fact American troops raped and pillaged and ran roughshod over civilians too. Earlier it was the “resistance myth” (particularly in France) when in fact, with the possible exception of Yugoslavia and Greece, resistance was materially ineffective.

Hitchcock starts in France and focuses on the sufferings of civilians through the Normandy invasions and the push into Germany and then moves on to Belgium and Holland focusing primarily on interactions between the military and the civilian population. It is odd that no one has as replayed these scenes; they are alarmingly reminiscent of the invasion of Iraq. Policies at the time forbad journalists to focusing heavily on civilian suffering, especially when it might cast doubt on the behavior of Allied troops and the decisions of Allied command. Since then, writers on the war have been busy building up the story of the “good war”, focusing on the military and its exploits, not on the civilians whose land they trampled.

In the process of rebalancing the view of WWII, Hitchcock sort of evens the score with respect to the behavior of British and American troops and those of the USSR. The latter are not whitewashed by any means, but troops on the Western front don’t sound like superhuman heroes either.

When Allied troops move into Germany itself, Hitchcock deals with fraternization issues. Initially US troops were forbidden to fraternize with German civilians, but ironically, they liked the German civilians more than those in France, Belgium and Holland. Even more ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, they identified with German civilians more than with those degraded humans they released from the concentration camps.

The real revelations of the book, as far as I was concerned, came when Hitchcock dealt with the problems of displaced persons immediately after the war: Jews—and others—liberated from the camps as well as civilians fleeing west to escape the Russians, plus prisoners of war or those transported to Germany to work were, in many cases, at loose ends as well. There were no plans in place to deal with them, the numbers were staggering and the problems almost insurmountable. Even defining who was entitled to what was problematic. Were Jews fleeing the Russians in the east (some bringing possessions and wealth with them) as entitled to help as those released from the camps? An early priority was returning people to their homes, but some had no homes and others didn’t want to go back to what was now the Russian zone. Soviet soldiers were returned to the USSR—where most ended up dead or in the Gulag (the result of a probably unwise agreement at Yalta), but there were civilians too. There was no solution except more camps, some without any more resources available to prisoners than had been the case in the German camps. DP camps--often built on the grounds of infamous death camps--housed “liberated” prisoners in a sort of limbo a year after the end of the war.

Other issues focused on the rescued Jews many of whom seemed hardly human after surviving the camps, most of whom were destitute, stateless and often debilitated. The liberators basically came from anti-Semitic environments and decried concentration camps and extermination, but didn’t want Jews living next door. Jews wanted to preserve memories of what happened to ensure the holocaust (it was not yet a capital letter issue) was never repeated; Western administrators wanted them to put the past behind them and move on. Large numbers of Jews with no home or families to return to wanted to start again in a Jewish homeland. Britain opposed letting Jews into Palestine, fearing clashes with Arabs they’d not have the ability to control. Other countries—including the US—didn’t want to take in large numbers of stateless, destitute, often debilitated, people.

Hitchcock doesn’t work through the problems to the end. His narrative, the theme of which is what happens to civilians in war, stops with the recognition that many of the liberated were still in camps 6 to 12 months after the end of the war. His conclusion—that we need to reevaluate our mythology about the “good war” and look at the disastrous effect of WWII on the European population—strikes me as a much-needed reevaluation. I do remember hearing about DPs and DP camps when I was a kid in the late 40s and 50s, but these days there has not been much focus on civilians (with the possible exceptions of those affected by the bombing in London which was not nearly as destructive as the wrath unleased on German cities at the end of the war).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Virgin in the Garden by AS Byatt

If the test of a great novel is that you want to read it again, or pick up the next one (this is the first of a quartet) then this is a good novel. If Still Life—the next title in the quartet—had been right here on the shelf I'd have started it right after I reread the Prologue.

The present time of the novel is 1953, the year of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and, in the world of the novel, of a verse drama about the first Queen Elizabeth enacted on the grounds of an old and elegant estate in Yorkshire. The story is that of a Yorkshire family: father Bill Potter who’s reputed to be a magnetic teacher at Blesford Ride, a public school, but we see him primarily as a dogmatic liberal who terrorizes his family while promoting his ideas on education (he’s for it) and religion (he’s against it). Winifred, his wife, caters and defers, of necessity becoming exactly the kind of woman he deplores and whose life her daughters (Stephanie and Frederica) seek to escape. Marcus, the youngest and his mother’s favorite, is inner-directed, even spiritual, awkward with just about everyone, observant of phenomena of his world--and becomes prey for a disturbed science teacher.

The novel, which in general is slow moving and highly allusive has a surprisingly dramatic closing sequence for a writer who says she didn’t think she could tell stories. I had to laugh, though, at the very end: the scene is between Daniel, the fat, unkempt priest who marries the elder Potter daughter against the wishes of her parents, and Frederica in the small flat where the pregnant Stephanie is comforting the very disturbed Marcus.

Here's the last paragraph: "Waiting and patience, of this inactive kind, did not come easily to him. Or to Frederica, he decided, without much sympathy for her. He gave her a cup of tea and the two of them sat together in uncommunicative silence, considering the still and passive pair on the sofa. That was not the end, but since it went on for a considerable time, is as good a place to stop as any."

I loved that ending and asked myself why:

1. It caused me to consider the title of the second book in the quartet, Still Life. Stephanie and Marcus were "still" in their way but that was not true of Frederica and Daniel about whom "stillness" is almost the last word that would occur in any description of their characters.

2. It sent me immediately back to reread the prologue where I rediscovered that Daniel was one of the guests at the celebration in the Portrait Gallery in 1968---long after the New Elizabethan Age furor is over. Alexander Wedderburn, who wrote the 1953 verse play as a budding writer teaching at Blesford Ride, is also there, signaling perhaps that these two, and Frederica who invited them are of most interest in the novel.

3. The implication that there's more to the history of these characters made me want to continue immediately with the next book. And that reminds me that I absolutely loved the way Byatt handled time in the novel, the constant references to what different characters would do or think in the future, often with a date attached, usually in the 1970s. So you know the story goes on beyond the 1968 prologue. That's not an end to the story. AND that Byatt must have had the sequence fairly well planned out.

4. It reminded me that I liked the third person omniscient narrator which since Henry James has been used less frequently in serious fiction. I think Byatt uses it brilliantly and this ending paragraph is an example. SHE knows what happens to them all and will tell you if you're patient. The ostensible third person narrative showcases the author’s extraordinary insight into so many different characters. Before the novel is over, we know all the Potters well, and even have some insights into the extraordinarily bad father. And 4 or 5 additional characters as well.

There is a narrator, though, in this novel and one who gradually makes us realize that Frederica is the main character. Some readers see Frederica as the narrator, and that is possible if one assumes a Frederica observing at some point in the future and if one assumes, as I do, that Frederica is capable of considerable detachment. But I prefer to think it's Byatt's re-incarnation of the 19th century 3rd person omniscient narrator who, as the novel goes on, focuses on the awkward, studious 17-year old ready to catapult herself into "real life". In addition, it's this narrator--definitely female--who provides the considerable humor in the novel.

My argument that the narrative is essentially (if not strictly) third person centers around the intimate (and convincing) inside view of so many different characters. What makes this a strong novel it seems to me is that Frederica is NOT Byatt thinly disguised, even though the family does seem quite similar (but then it also seems similar to the Bröntes, a point of view some in the novel espouse). In the "real" family she was the eldest and she even says that killing off Stephanie (which happens in another novel) seems, in retrospect, killing off herself. But she also says that she was shy and uncommunicative as a child, with interests in science—and that Marcus is in many ways a portrait of herself.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Four Freedoms by John Crowley

John Crowley’s Four Freedom’s takes its title from FDR’s speech to Congress in January 1941 in which he says, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms:
• “The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
• “The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way....
• “The third is freedom from want....
• “The fourth is freedom from fear….”
Crowley’s use of the term, however, doesn’t focus on a world made secure after winning the world war, but on specific segments of the US population for whom the war—and specifically the need to mobilize all available workers—brought access to freedoms they’d never known before: to women, to the handicapped, to minorities and to other marginalized citizens.

The nameless narrator begins the story with his childhood memory of playing in a derelict airplane near the Ponca City, Oklahoma, airport. (That got my attention because I played in a deteriorating WWII plane while my father was taking his flying lessons. It was parked at our small town airport, and the instructor’s son, who had made it his playhouse, wasn’t above inviting a girl to join in.) The narrator, who never really intrudes into the story, seems to be a Ponca City native “documenting” his city’s role in the war effort. He infuses the story with a certain enthusiasm and love of place that’s attractive.

Crowley creates a fictional aircraft plant—Van Damme Aero—building a fictional plane—the B30 Pax—outside Ponca City. The Van Damme brothers were early flying enthusiasts and Henry in particular had visions of building a “city of the hill” out of his factory, a self-sufficient town which came to be called Henryville where the workers who flocked to Ponca City for “war work” could live and work and be entertained. Everything was organized and ritualized, but Henry was no “big brother”, no profiteer bent on profiting from the government’s needs, but rather an aircraft enthusiast, interested in involving his employees in the great task entrusted to them.

Crowley obviously researched the WWII homefront—particularly “war work”—in great detail, and yet the novel doesn’t read like an historical novel pieced together out of tidbits of history. That’s largely because of the compelling characters who march through the novel, with the focus falling on several characters in different situations, rather than focusing exclusively on one set of characters. It starts out with the Van Dammes but the bulk of the novel focuses on Al and Sal Maas who are midgets, on Vi Harbison, who left a deteriorating ranch and had her moment of fame at Van Damme Aero using her softball skills, on Pancho Notzring, an idealist always planning the perfection of human society, on Bunce, who left his wife up North to get “war work” that would keep him out of the war but then found another woman to keep him company in Henryville, and on Connie his wife, who felt her way to independence and competence—first getting a job in a plant at home and then when that firm folded, following Bunce to Ponca City where she finds her way on her own skills.

If there is a “main character”, it’s Prosper Olander, whose spinal fusion operation as a kid left him completely unable to walk without braces and crutches. (The similarity of his disability—though not caused by polio—was extraordinarily like the President’s, though Crowley, rightly so, doesn’t push that.) Prosper’s father left when he was a child, partly because he couldn’t cope with a handicapped child, and his mother died while he was in the hospital. He’d been living a very restricted life with two aunts when the war brought possibilities for self sufficiency he’d never dreamed of. And possibilities for love (and sex) most people assumed he was incapable of. Damaged himself, he’s a healer for others, never sentimentalized though.

Speaking of which, the real danger of a novel like this would be falling into sentimentality, but it never does. Crowley’s characters have individuality and dignity where a less skillful writer might have created “typical examples” out of tidbits of history. In the end they’re all out of jobs, but not out of life or love or loyalty.

Finally, Crowley is an enormously talented writer, whose prose is dense and evocative with concrete details as well as ideas and concepts that widen the focus of even minor incidents and characters. Here’s one example that takes the reader right into the room with the big band:

That amazing rolling thunder a big band could make when it started a song with the thudding of the bass drum all alone, like a fast train suddenly coming around a bend and into your ear: a kind of awed moan would take over the crowd when they did that, and then all the growling brass would stand and come in, like the same train picking up speed and rushing closer, and the couples would pour onto the floor, the drumming of their feet audible in the more bon ton nightclub downstairs, where the crooner raised his eyes to the trembling chandelier in delight or dismay.