William Makepeace Thackeray, “Vanity Fair” (1848) – Thackeray was, by most accounts, a prime bastard; those of Irish descent will never forgive him for his pro-genocide comments during the Great Famine. Great satirists generally are. The idea that satire only “counts” or is valid or funny if it solely “punches up” is a very recent idea and completely anachronistic as far as the history of the genre goes from Juvenal, another asshole and bigot, on down. Satire is supposed to be a mirror to society, and is as moral as mirrors ever are.
In that tradition of satire, Thackeray ranks high in the English pantheon, largely on the strength of “Vanity Fair.” One of the ultimate asshole power moves great satirists get away with isn’t casual bigotry or “punching down;” its having their cake and eating it too. Thackeray not only accomplished the satirist trick of ogling immorality whilst impugning it. He also played with the forms and conventions of literature between his time and the pre-Victorian period about which he writes. Moreover, convention and morality tie in with each other, then and now, so playing with one is playing with the other.
“Vanity Fair” has been subtitled “a novel without heroes,” and that’s an example of Thackeray’s spiteful playfulness, in this case seemingly targeted at his readership. There’s an obvious hero, as in protagonist: young amoral social climber Becky Sharp. There’s no novel without her. But according to the codes of Victorian propriety that Thackeray both upholds and critiques (the former more substantially), such a character, who uses charm and sex to climb the social ladder, cannot be a hero. But all the same, the readers are clearly there for her, not for her opposite number and frenemy Amelia Sedley, a simp and social faller. They’re definitely not there for any of the male characters, who are all comparative dullards, good, bad, and indifferent.
Becky Sharp establishes her bad girl cred right out of being a scholarship student at finishing school, where she throws a book by established moral authority Samuel Johnson out of a carriage window. Thackeray continually challenges his readers to judge Becky- does she truly do anything that awful? Is she really worse than those around her, from the simpering Amelia to the other social climbers to the horny, drunk, amoral lords on top of everything already? In part, this is answered by the title and theme of “vanity fair,” borrowed from Protestant preaching: where all is worldly, all is vanity, and who can especially blame (or praise) anyone within it? It’s also, I think at least, answered by the historical frame- Thackeray plays with the idea that morals were just worse in that pre-Victorian period, and invites his readers to the sort of self-congratulation that only reaffirms Thackeray’s diagnosis of universal vanity.
I, for one, don’t especially care whether Becky is good or bad, and see her only real crime as being bad to her kid. But Thackeray, with his contrast between Victorian family-centric morality and Georgian neglect and cruelty, may have coopted me into applying a possibly anachronistic judgment there. Altogether, I enjoyed the panoramic portrait of a scrambling, living society. His England (and Europe) are living, breathing places, more diverse than we’re used to thinking (and proof that including diversity — in this case, both wealthy and poor black characters and the presence of British imperialism in India — is any sign of authorial virtue). I loved the depiction of the ways in which imperialism and war abetted or foreclosed on the social climbing of the characters. The book is funny along with everything else. All told, a deserved classic. *****
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Lathe of Heaven” (1971) – George Orr dreams effectively- that is to say, some of his dreams come true, shifting reality behind them. That’s the premise of this Hugo Award winner from scifi legend Ursula K. Le Guin. Orr doesn’t want to do this anymore, and his attempts to self-medicate his dreams away lead to him being put in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Haber, who sees the potentialities of Orr’s ability when combined with Haber’s hypnosis chops. Haber soon has Orr dreaming up all kinds of things to improve their lot and that of humanity, generally leading to unintended consequences. Dreaming away overpopulation (this is the seventies, when people were worried about that) leads to a great plague obliterating much of humanity. Dreaming away war between nations leads to war between planets, and dreaming away racism leads to everyone being the same gray color (something tells me people would still develop something like racism, but hey, it’s a scifi novel). Orr, something of a natural Taoist, wants to stop getting in the way of the Way of things; Haber, almost a parody of the sort of scifi ubermensch Le Guin and the rest of the New Wave in scifi were trying to get away from (and their authors), insists on their (mostly his) ability to change the world for the better. Eventually, Haber’s faustian power grab does himself in and nearly destroys consensual reality while they’re at it. Short, effective, and moving, this one earns its place in the canon of speculative fiction. *****
Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad” (2016) (narrated by Bahni Turpin) – My campaign to read (or listen to, more often) the “great American novel” contenders of the last few years continues apace with this, voted best novel of the 2010s by at least one critical outlet (which seemed to only consider English language works, eliminating competition from Elena Ferrante, among others). This is a lightly magical realist fictional slave escape narrative. Cora flees her Georgia plantation and is dogged both by pursuing slave-catchers and by prevailing conditions in the places to which she tries to escape.
Wikipedia calls this “alternate history” and I suppose it is, in a sense, though not in the “Man In The High Castle”/Harry Turtledove sense that term usually denotes. Different racial regimes prevail in the different states Cora goes to, each distinct and discrete from the others. In South Carolina, white-managed “racial uplift” prevails, complete with medicalized terror against the quasi-free blacks. Fleeing that state ahead of the slave-catchers, Cora finds herself in North Carolina, which decided to go in for the elimination of slavery… and the genocidal destruction of its black population. Tennessee is, for some reason, burnt to a crisp. Indiana is peaceable at first but the free black population there is eventually terrorized into dispersal, too.
If there’s a logic between which state gets what fate, it’s an inner logic. I was expecting something like Orson Scott Card’s exaggeration of old regional traits and tropes that he used in the Alvin Maker books, a stupid notion on my part, I now see. What does the fictionalization of the historical conditions of the antebellum US offer? Well, one thing that leaps to mind is that it runs us through a (attenuated) catalogue of options available for black people in the US both before and after emancipation. Unlike a conventional slave escape narrative, there’s no real escape- only descent into a variety of states of insecurity and un-freedom. Also, unlike figures like Frederick Douglass or Olaudah Equiano (but like, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates), Cora is essentially an atheist. In this context, that means she flirts with cosmic pessimism- but in the end, keeps running. The ending is a happy-ish one, but muddled.
Whitehead appears to be in agreement with similarly lauded literary figure Coates about the intractability and overwhelming existential power of white anti-black racism. It’s hard to quibble much with that, all things considered, though I think in the end it’s imperative to push back against its implications. Among other things, it leads to the individualism we see in this novel. Like in a horror movie, sooner or later everyone Cora cares about, her team so to speak (fellow escapees, people who help her), are dead, and Cora alone has to mount her final escape. She creates her own Underground Railroad in lieu of the collective effort that failed her. This winds up not just dismissing any white agency in undoing racism (well-meaning whites are universally depicted as incompetent), which is an understandable enough pessimism, but any collective agency, including black collective agency. There’s no such thing as society, only men and women and their trauma. For a book notionally about the massive, multiracial liberatory undertaking that was the Underground Railroad, this is an odd way to go.
How much does all of that matter in judging this book? Some, I’d say. It flows reasonably well as prose. Whitehead handles perspective shifts, from Cora to various others, deftly. Character work does what it’s meant to do, I think. But if you’re going to have a magical realist epic about national themes, you need to have a vision. If nothing else, any magical realist element in any work demands a justification for its flights of fancy. I think Whitehead did half a job with that. He produces a decent pocket-sized selection of American racial hells. I wonder, in the hands of a more imaginative writer, what more might have done with it, and in the hands of a writer with more of a vision, what alternatives to chosen ones running like hell away might have come up. But I guess that’s where the zeitgeist is at, or anyway was in 2016. We’ll see how far the current moment can push it in a more useful direction, and what sort of literature it might produce. ***’
L. Sprague de Camp, “H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography” (1975) – Horror writer icon H.P. Lovecraft was obscure in his life, but is well-known today, and arguably products of his fruitful imagination outpace his name in recognition- he could hardly have foreseen the image of his terrible elder god Cthulhu becoming chibi-fied into dolls, for instance, or for his references to become so common in gaming culture. Perhaps, as a lifelong pessimist, he could have seen coming the way his name has become synonymous with racism in speculative fiction and nerd culture more generally. Ironically, if he didn’t become so well-loved by a fervent cult in the mid-twentieth century, no one would have published his voluminous correspondence, which contains much stronger and more persistent racist content than do his stories (which could be pretty racist but not much more than was common in pulps at the time).
I’m reading Lovecraft for my upcoming birthday lecture, which juxtaposes the writer with crime writer Dennis Lehane and discusses both as promulgators of a genre vision of New England. Truth be told, chain-reading Lovecraft stories gets pretty old, pretty quickly- he’s best taken one at a time. I also “knew” about him and his various reputations, good, bad and indifferent, from my previous immersion in nerd culture, so who knows how I would have taken to him without that background. This birthday lecture is why I sought out this biography, which was also recommended by a correspondent of mine (alas, Lehane is still among the living and has not been biographized outside of brief journalistic profiles, to the best of my knowledge).
If the first iteration of the Lovecraft myth was of a lone genius scribbling away his tales of cosmic horror unacknowledged in Providence, L. Sprague de Camp, a man of the golden age of science fiction, seems to be the author of the second iteration of the myth- Lovecraft, tragic victim of what made him great. Apparently, August Derleth, first and most dedicated votary of the first iteration of the Lovecraft cult, dropped dead before he could write this biography, and the contract passed to de Camp. De Camp makes heavy use of Lovecraft’s thousands of surviving letters and is able to follow the author’s career month by month, giving his opinions of the various projects Lovecraft pursued and generally giving a thoroughgoing picture… if one with a distinct framing.
De Camp’s writing is sprightly, irreverent, lightly swaggering in that way of scifi writers of his time. He was a man of the world, author of nearly a hundred books, and a major critical figure in scifi/weird-fiction circles (he also wrote a biography of Lovecraft’s friend Robert E. Howard, of “Conan the Barbarian” fame). In short, he was as different from Lovecraft as it was possible for another white, basically conservative, male speculative fiction fan of his time to be. And seeing as that was largely the ambit in which de Camp (and Lovecraft) walked in and wrote for, de Camp makes much of the implied difference.
De Camp doesn’t downplay what many modern readers will want to know about, Lovecraft’s bigotry, except by way of comparison with the amount of attention de Camp dedicates to Lovecraft’s distinctly type-B personality and unprofessional working habits and demeanor. Lovecraft’s dread of rejection, refusal to “lower” himself to self-promotion, blown opportunities for advancement, inability to type even, come in for de Camp’s disapproving notice. Lovecraft’s bigotry gets tied up in this- de Camp depicts his “ethnocentrism” (a term he seems to prefer to “racism” for some tired midcentury reason) as one of his many impractical attachments to outmoded ways of thinking and doing things, that kept him in Providence, cozened by older female relations, unable to keep the good wife he won in the person of Sonia Greene, and generally failing to be the sort of ubermensch de Camp saw himself and his fellow scifi golden agers — an impressive bunch, if with impressive failings — to be.
One of the more relatable things about Lovecraft, to me, is his disdain for life, from his horror at biological fact to his preference for the dreamed over the real. His participation in “amateur journalism,” which de Camp lightly chides as a waste of time, reminds me of the people I know who’ve gotten really into blogs and/or forum cultures, complete with wrangling and factionalization. I think Lovecraft resounds as much with nerds to this day in part because he was one of them, and one who transcended without selling out… by the expedient of dying before he could and having his devotees popularize his work.
But make no mistake- he was racist as fuck. De Camp keeps promising what amounts to a “face turn” in later life. He did marry a Jew, after all, though he kept making anti-semitic remarks during and after his marriage. He got less bad about white ethnics in his later years, even making a mob of Italians (led by a priest, natch) save the day in one of his better late stories. One of the reasons de Camp prefers charges of “ethnocentrism” to “racism,” it seems, is that Lovecraft had a great pride in his notional “aryan” ancestors, which he dampened some later on. To broaden out into the ways his worldview affected his work, later stories like “At the Mountains of Madness” show a certain sympathy with the alien other that rivals his earlier outbursts of horror at difference for their emotional charge. But he was still writing shit about black people basically until the end, died believing Mussolini was pretty good (and FDR, too, for what it’s worth), and really didn’t change that much. You get the impression de Camp wished Lovecraft would stop being racist in the same way he wished he would buck up and learn to type- because it was embarrassing.
How much does Lovecraft’s bigotry matter? Well, I think for the fandom culture it matters somewhat what they name their prizes et al for, in terms of being welcoming to the people Lovecraft scorned. I don’t bother with the old get-out of “separating art from artist;” I believe can and should appreciate and enjoy the works of artists of all kinds with their eyes open. It’s just a fact that a lot of innovative artists were lousy people and/or had rotten politics. If you understand art as something other than a set of interchangeable entertainment products, which I do but which it appears a troubling number of popular critics do not, you can’t just swap them out for nicer people and have yourself a nice, clean culture. If nothing else, the repressed has a way of returning… as it happens, I’m not sure if Lovecraft was that much of a genius in and of himself. But in some respects the proof is in the pudding: we’re still talking about him, he helped define the genre of horror, and Cthulhu isn’t going to leave our collective imagination any time soon. We’re into at least a third iteration of the Lovecraft myth — Lovecraft as monster — and arguably a fourth — Lovecraft as figure less than the sum of his works — and who knows where it’s going to go from there. There’s limits to how much I care — I’m only a horror guy incidentally, for projects such as this year’s birthday lecture — but it’s an interesting process to watch. ****
Ellen Wu, “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority” (2014) (narrated by Emily Zeller) – Growing up in very white surroundings in suburban Massachusetts, I got the model minority stereotype of Asian-Americans from both sides: from the right, either resentful of Asian-American success or wondering why black and Hispanic people couldn’t be more like Asians, and from liberals, who cited Asians as exemplars of successful diversity. Of course, minus some of the right’s (seemingly fading?) resentment, the two ideas rest on a lot of the same assumptions. Historian Ellen Wu attempts to get to the historical origin of the stereotype in this work of cultural history.
Wu chose to narrow her focus to Japanese and Chinese Americans, which makes a certain degree of sense on a number of levels. One is contrast- from having been treated quite similarly under the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century restriction regime, the two groups experienced the sea change of the Second World War drastically differently. Japanese Americans were, of course, rounded up and interned into what we only hesitate to call “concentration camps” because we (imprecisely) call Nazi extermination camps the same thing. Chinese Americans, on the other hand, were all of a sudden white America’s little buddies, allies in the war, and Congress revoked Chinese exclusion in 1943. Both suffered reversals, as Japanese Americans came to be associated with the heroic war record of Nissei combat units and the Chinese American community split over the results of the Chinese Revolution. In both cases and for well after World War II, American foreign relations played a major role in shaping the construction of an Asian American racial identity.
As the Cold War set in, American race relations became a foreign policy issue. The US’s massive race problems, especially their formal legal instantiations, posed a problem for American policymakers attempting to extend leadership in the decolonizing and developing world. This both opened opportunities and imposed limits on the black civil rights struggle, as historians have noted, and Wu points out it did much the same for Asian American efforts at full citizenship. On the one hand, especially when paired with martial patriotism, domestic anticommunism (pro-nationalist elements fairly firmly quashed pro-communist elements in most Chinese American communities), and thoroughgoing respectability politics, Cold War geopolitics opened doors for Asian Americans. The Hawaii statehood debate shows this- objected to for decades on the basis of Hawaii’s Asian population, it was in the late 1950s as concerns over American relations with the Pacific that consensus came around Hawaii’s admittance. On the other hand, this straitjacketed Asian American communities into a particular mold: ultrapatriotic, uncomplaining, devoted to the “American Way” as then understood, and as Wu puts it, “definitively not black.” This is when the comparisons between black and Asian communities by whites began, and not coincidentally, when the Model Minority stereotype really came into its own.
Wu emphasizes both Asian participation and opposition to this race-making process. Early chapters take the reader back to the forties, when far from being America’s richest ethnic group and a model of assimilationist success, Japanese American communities were mostly poor, farm or slum dwelling, and Japanese teens joined Mexican and black kids in “zoot suiting,” wearing outlandish clothes and refusing adult respectability. Numerous Japanese Americans, understandably enough, wanted nothing to do with the American war effort after having been interned, and the Japanese American community groups took an authoritarian stance towards their charges in encouraging them to enlist and otherwise conform. Even as the path to Asian assimilation became clearer, many Asians resisted the bargain, insisting on solidarity with the black freedom struggle and on pointing to the social contradictions within their own communities that community leaders covered up with feel-good model minority stories. This is a conflict that goes on to this day, as Wu and some of my Asian comrades would remind us and as both the model minority (especially as a parenting style) and the “Yellow Peril” from a resurgent China gain in cachet.
This is my first time listening to a history book that didn’t have at least one eye on a mass market, like Tim Snyder did with “Black Earth,” though clearly this one had enough crossover appeal to attract Audible’s attention. While I did miss being able to check endnotes, it was still a pretty good experience, testament to solid writing chops on Wu’s part. It’s a little “dissertation-y;” I would have liked to have seen more about what the model minority experience meant once embraced by the national consciousness, especially as, in the epilogue, Wu points to its adaptivity- starting as a product of Cold War liberalism, but adapting to the conservatism of the Reagan years and the War on Terror. But you can see why Wu would want to reign it in and stick to the origins of the stereotype, as promised. ****
Peter Gay, “Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider” (1968) – Peter Gay promoted a psychoanalytic history that I look at with mixed feelings, but he had a good eye for where to deploy his method. He wrote five volumes on the “inner experience” of bourgeois civilization during the Victorian period, which was Freud’s whole thing, and he wrote this book on Weimar Germany, a time and place caught up in psychodrama if ever there was one. He knew better than to try to analyze individual actors- it’s more he applied the ideas to a “spirit of the age,” which sounds gauzy because it is, but works better than one might think (especially given his aforementioned canniness about subjects). In a sense, Gay was the last of the old-school cultural historians ala Burckhardt or Huizinga, interrogating times and places and their “spirits” via their cultural artifacts, before the newer cultural history in its Foucault-inflected sense arose in subsequent decades.
For what it is, “Weimar Culture” is excellent, and I would argue transcends both psychoanalytic history and old-school cultural history to deserve its place as an enduring classic. Gay goes beyond stereotypes of decadence and cabarets (though giving them their due) to play on a few themes as he delineates what was distinct about the culture of those brief Weimar years from the rest of German history. As the subtitle promises, there’s the idea of the “outsider as insider,” the “revolt of the son” in the arts and in politics that challenged prevailing bourgeois norms, and the eventual “revenge of the father,” a return to a spurious version of “order” under the Nazis. Gay incorporates numerous instances of the “Weimar spirit” from the liberals and social democrats who attempted to practice a new (and precarious, and in the end failed) type of German politics, to the Bauhaus and expressionists in painting and film, to the more-than-once-cited legs of Marlene Dietrich (a psychoanalyst might have fun with Gay for that) into his schema in what is a short (fewer than 200 pages) book.
Probably my favorite part of the book is his discussion of the politics of poetics in Weimar, where poets and writers played an uncharacteristically outsized role in the definition of political space and action within it. This is exemplified in all of its glory and ineptitude by the person of Stefan George and his circle. In better times, George would just have been a popular poet surrounded by his groupie dudes and having a good old time. But times being what they were in the Weimar era, the George Circle and its concept of a “Secret Germany,” both beneath and far above the hoi polloi hue and cry of republican politics, became an important feature undermining the stability of democracy. Figures like Thomas Mann, his less-known brother Heinrich, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others take center stage in turn as they attempt to come to grips with the time… as the time soon enough came to grip them. All in all, a historical masterpiece, even if it’s far from a methodology I would pursue. *****
Dennis Lehane, “Mystic River” (2001) – This isn’t a hard one to review — I have plenty to say about it, as you’ll see — but it’s a strangely hard one to rate. I know you probably don’t read for the star ratings but I take them a little seriously. There’s a lot to dislike but a fairly sound structure and solid writing. This is the story of three men from “East Buckingham” (still not sure why Lehane made up a Boston neighborhood instead of using Dorchester or South Boston as is his usual wont). East Buckingham is Lehane-land, white blue collar Boston, incestous and besieged by the forces of change, in this instance rapid gentrification. The locals manufacture things and the locale manufactures childhood trauma. One of the men, Dave, is kidnapped by child molestors when he’s 11, in the presence of the other two, Sean and Jimmy, but escapes. Twenty-odd years later, Jimmy’s teenage daughter is murdered. There are Connections and it winds up being bloody and tragic before the end.
This was meant to be Lehane’s big cross-over novel, from crime to mainstream literature. One of the consequences of this is that the investigation of the crime, by Sean who’s a state cop and by Jimmy who’s an ex-con store owner with underworld connections, gets relatively short shrift compared to depictions of grief and trauma. Truth be told this is something of a dirge of a novel. It’s not done poorly, but a dirge it still is.
The depictions of the characters are decent, though I wouldn’t say necessarily realistic. There’s a certain cruelty to Lehane’s depiction of childhood as the necessary and unqualified determiner of adulthood that strikes me as wrong even as it is piquant. Dave is weak, a victim- that’s why he got in the car, that’s why he’s the person he is today. Sean had the advantages of a stable two parent home and some money, so he’s a hot shit investigator. Jimmy is a sort of tragic Southie ubermensch, always right in his instincts, and even when he’s wrong, as his wife assures him in the epilogue, is it really wrong if it’s the king of the neighborhood doing it?
Does it count as spoilers if the book is almost twenty years old and was made into a hit movie which was a pretty faithful adaptation? Well, in the spirit of niceness, SPOILER ALERT: the autistic kid did it. I was going through the book hoping Lehane had come up with something better than that, that Clint Eastwood was the asshole in this scenario for making that the plot of the movie, but nope. It’s right there on the page.
“Lazy,” “boring,” and “gross” are probably the three most overused terms in popular Millennial criticism and I do try to avoid them. But Lehane’s conviction that crime is basically an infection, a product of soullessness passed on via inflicted trauma or just blind chance (in the case of the autistic kid), leads him to a lazy, boring, and gross conclusion. The kid has an accomplice, an allistic kid who’s just depicted as an evil brat- this is Columbine era, remember, “Doom” and permissive parenting, both of which Lehane cites, was supposedly creating a generation of blank-eyed murderous sociopaths. But probably worst of all is his depiction of autism as soullessness. The kid is just a blank. Jimmy can see it, with his near-perfect antennae for evil, but doesn’t connect it up in time for him to not murder the wrong man (and you can probably guess who that is) for the murder of his daughter.
The infection model of evil is even more pronounced in Dave, who is depicted as having pedophilic feelings basically as a consequence of having been abused himself. Is there any science to back this sort of thing, or is it just bullshit? I guess it might qualify as a folk belief of Lehane’s people, and here I don’t mean the Irish or something dumb like that. I mean whites who fetishize blue collar authenticity even as it’s vanishing, even as it probably never existed quite like they think it did. The holders of a sort of stoic-cum-Catholic-cum-barstool-philosopher’s take on the problems of the world as being somebody’s unaccountable fault and everyone’s unaccountable fault. The sort of thing you see now that people are starting to criticize policing as a one-stop solution to social problems- “what about the sickos?” And no matter how often you patiently explain that van-diddlers are vanishingly rare next to child abuse coming from within the circle of trust, they saw on channel whatever just the other day about a weenie-waggler outside of a school so…
Well, channel whatever, for all it’s biased depiction of reality, doesn’t make stuff up out of whole cloth (usually) and there is the issue of bad coming out of good structures, killers coming from good families, etc. I guess it’s just a matter of what you choose to emphasize. Stories of making circles of trust less hermetically sealed, giving potential victims the ability to reach out and protect themselves, are less popular than stories of sickos getting theirs, for the time being anyway. So what to make of “Mystic River,” then? It’s not a simple story of a sicko getting his. It’s both less and more than that. So I’ll place it in a category of limbo, and have more to say about Lehane’s oeuvre come my birthday lecture this year. **’
Ross Macdonald, “The Moving Target” (1949) (narrated by Tom Parker) – Corruption and sex in the Southern California sunshine are the order of the day in this hardboiled detective novel. Ross Macdonald and Ray Chandler apparently didn’t get along- Chandler thought Macdonald a softie who couldn’t write, and Macdonald thought Chandler an unrealistic hardhead. That being said, to most readers, Chandler and Macdonald will read a lot alike. That’s a good thing, because both are excellent. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a chiller, less existential private eye than Chandler’s Marlowe, but takes plenty of chances to observe the philosophical and social quandaries of the milieux he finds himself in. In “The Moving Target,” this consists of a rich family, the Sampsons, whose patriarch Ralph has disappeared, and the lowlives with whom Ralph, a former oil wildcatter, was spending time to feel more alive. The latter included a tumbledown alcoholic movie actress, a sun-worshipping cult leader, and a British gangster (and importer of undocumented workers- Archer takes the workers’ side, but in a Chandler-esque too-cynical-to-really-challenge-the-structures way). Of course, the seediest milieu of all is that of the rich and depraved, so the problem came from inside the house, but Archer finds himself with more crimes than he knows what to do with. Money and a sickly sort of love drive things from disappearance to kidnapping to murder, leaving Archer to clean up the mess. All in all, a decent first episode for this long-lived detective series. ****
Isaac Deutscher, “The Prophet” (1954-1963) – Trotsky! The man, the myth… the maverick! You have to do a lot in life to justify a biography weighing in at nearly 1600 pages, and Leon Trotsky certainly did. A lot of people have had a lot of opinions about the man. Praise came from the bodies ranging from the crowds of Petrograd to liberals who thought him the great lost hope of the Russian revolution; condemnation as the devil incarnate from Stalin’s throne and these days, the altright spreads the meme that Trotsky invented the concept of racism to undermine the west. In short, he was kind of a big deal.
Isaac Deutscher went a long way to cementing the picture we have of Trotsky with the “Prophet” series. It consists of three volumes: “The Prophet Armed,” covering the period from Trotsky’s birth as Lev Davidovich Bronstein through the Revolution to his victory in the Russian Civil War; “The Prophet Unarmed,” concerning the period during which Trotsky struggled and failed to define the direction the nascent Soviet Union would take; and “The Prophet Outcast,” dealing with his exile and eventual death. He started in the earlier fifties, when Stalin was still alive and the world by and large saw Trotsky either as one or another kind of ogre — the ogre of revolution, too dangerous to allow sanctuary in most democratic countries, or the ogre of counterrevolution, the cause of all the Soviet Union’s ills — or as plain irrelevant.
Deutscher’s Trotsky is human- a grand human, massive in his abilities and in his failings, a classic tragic hero. Maybe this is just me in the current climate talking, but what impressed me the most about Trotsky was just his sheer energy. The man could get a lot done! This is true from early times, as the young Trotsky managed a harsh student career with all sorts of extracurricular learning and political activism in the fledgling Russian socialist scene of the end of the nineteenth century. It continued right through his first periods of exile, both internal and external- even shipped to Siberia, he’s still organizing, agitating, learning math and science, getting married, having kids, escaping and fleeing across the tundra, doing literary reviews- hell, sometimes getting these reviews out is all I can do!
Trotsky danced an intricate dance with Vladimir Lenin in the period before the Russian Revolution. He was a Menshevik — a believer that Russia had to go through a bourgeois revolution before a vanguard party could propel it to socialism — in all but name, while Lenin of course ran the Bolshevik side of things. Deutscher depicts Trotsky as ever hewing to classical Marxism, which at the time of the Second International seemed more Menshevik. But Trotsky and Lenin converged once the Revolution broke out in Russia- I don’t recall if Deutscher put it exactly this way, but one thing that could move Trotsky away from his attachment to the classical formulae was the action of the people. Detached from them, as he would eventually be… but in Petrograd in 1917 he was in his element, leading the workers, speechifying, outwitting the Cadets and Mensheviks and whoever else. Here, it’s well worth reading Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution,” because Trotsky was a capable historian on top of everything else.
Once the Bolsheviks established control with the October Revolution, it was time for the Civil War. Deutscher deals with this in a relatively short spread of pages, but it’s arguably Trotsky’s most impressive achievement. Entirely self-taught in military arts, he built up the Red Army from a collection of worker militia, trained and disciplined them, and fought a multi-front war against opponents with foreign (including American) backing and actual military experience, and beat them all. In the way of ideological civil wars, this one was bloody and brutal, with hostage takings and executions (for instance, that of the Czar and his family) on both sides. This has been called the “heroic” period of the Soviet secret police (the Cheka, in this incarnation), but I’m not sure I believe that to be a real thing. Maybe I’m just a soft touch, but even if necessary, I don’t see a lot of heroism in it. I’m not a heroism-seeker in any event, I guess.
With victory in the Civil War came that “oh shit” moment when the Bolsheviks had to govern their ravaged country and build socialism, and that’s where things started to come apart for Trotsky. While he was winning battles, his rivals in the Politburo were winning the war of position inside the bureaucracy. Trotsky had the keen ability to figure out what needed doing — concessions to the peasants, loosening of market restrictions, bootstrapping of industrial labor — just before the political winds shifted to make them possible. Stalin, with whom Trotsky shared a mutual distaste from the beginning that only curdled in time, again and again seized on Trotsky’s ideas after condemning them, and Trotsky, a few months or a year earlier. There’s a certain horror-movie element to the middle book, where you’re screaming at Trotsky to do something — mobilize the army, kill Stalin, just get out — but of course, he doesn’t do it. His confidence in himself and in the revolutionary process, his loyalty to the party of Lenin, and his underestimation of Stalin led him to stay in a situation where he and his allies were gradually maneuvered out of positions of power and influence and the public was rallied against them.
I never was good at following lines of doctrine. I mark Christian sects largely by their social following and aesthetic feel, and I get lost in the minutiae between leftoid groups- one of the reasons I’m in DSA (and not in any ideological caucuses therein), no need to follow a specific line. What I can make out is that Trotsky, Stalin, and Bukharin were the left, center, and right of the Bolshevik party for a while, and Trotsky’s left was weak and divided, dealing as he was with the likes of Zinoviev in his coalition. Before reading this book, many of these names were just names to me, but Deutscher deftly brings out their characters- Bukharin’s brilliance tempered by a certain arrogance, Zinoviev’s pusillanimity and overconfidence, looming behind it all Stalin, personality-less and ominous. Trotsky couldn’t ally with Bukharin’s right, which he saw threatening to reinstate capitalism, so he was isolated and forced out. As far as I can tell, that’s a decent capsule of what happened, but there was a lot of back and forth that Deutscher makes interesting, if not easy to encapsulate.
Finally, Trotsky is at loose ends, first in Turkey, then France, Norway, and finally Mexico. This part is just sad. He strives mightily to get some kind of opposition to Stalin off the ground, but within Russia Stalin is amping up the Great Terror and outside Trotsky was faced with fecklessness, division, indifference, and the issues caused by his own sometimes impossible standards. It proved an impossible balancing act, to criticize Stalin (as his cult of personality blossomed internationally) without condemning the Soviet experiment and the Bolshevik party. Even once he allowed, in the last few months of his life, that the Soviet Union wasn’t in any meaningful sense a “worker’s state” that needed to be defended to the last, he ran into bad timing- it soon did become imperative to defend the Soviet Union from fascism, even as Stalin undermined antifascism by treating with Hitler. Trotsky’s efforts to create a Fourth International were riddled by Stalinist spies and infighting, and continues to be a near-impossible organizing hobby horse to this day. His kids either committed suicide or were killed by Stalin’s agents. Finally, he himself was assassinated.
The end? Not quite. The fact that Stalin felt the need to have assassinated a man he had so thoroughly marginalized speaks to the power that Trotsky had as a symbol and as an organizer against all odds. With the help of the Deutscher biography, Trotsky had a revival after his death, and Trotskyite groups sprang up the world over. We’re little closer to international revolution or a Fourth International, but many of them do valuable organizing work all across the world- speaking as someone who has organized with (and occasionally been frustrated by) Trotskyite groups. More than anything Trotsky represented ideas and a vision of a way in which the people could take power. Both have experienced… it feels picayune to call them “setbacks,” massive body blows is more like it… but both continue to inspire. *****
Muriel Spark, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961) – This was a fun little novel. Taking place mostly in 1930s Edinburgh, we follow the lives of six young pupils of one Jean Brodie, an unconventional schoolteacher who, we are told often enough, is in her prime for the course of the novel’s action. She picks favorites; she eschews the typical curricula in favor of “truth and beauty” and the occasional nod at interwar fascism. She has an unfulfilled love affair with the art teacher and a fulfilled one with the music teacher. She has a lot going on.
Spark masterfully warps the narrative, taking us forward into the future when the girls are grown and back into the past again with flawless aplomb and great gusto. Notionally, what’s “at stake” is who “betrayed” Jean Brodie, that is, narced her out to the school administration and got her early-retired. But this is solved relatively early in the book and the rest of it goes to show the logic behind it. Spark observes the manners of middle-class Edinburgh pointedly and poignantly, and while I don’t know what it’s like to be an eleven year old girl, I do know what it’s like to be eleven, and I don’t think Spark forgot either.
I’m not entirely sure what “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is “about,” or if it needs to be “about” anything. If I had to put a spin on it, it would be about how adults project onto children, including the supposedly sensitive and intelligent adults, and what sort of trouble and loss of perspective that leads to. The last revealed actions of Jean Brodie are genuinely terrible, leading to trauma and death, and come from blurring the lines between herself and her students. But it’s all dealt with with a consummately light and deft touch. Highly recommended for those in to the art of fiction for its own sake. *****