Books

Stanley G. Payne and the Road to Revolution

If you've read my ongoing discussion of the Spanish Civil War, you know one of my favorite authors is Stanley G. Payne.

He now has a article up at First Things which provides an excellent and concise account of Spain's slide into civil war.

It is a serious read, but well worth your time.

It also dovetails with the misgivings I expressed in November, which have not in any way been assuaged. 

In one sense, it is comforting that a historian with Payne's stature seems to share my sense of deja vu, but it is also deeply alarming.  I don't know Payne's politics, but his work has always been scrupulously neutral, carefully noting the excesses of the Spanish Right but also providing appropriate context within the environment and balancing them with the behavior of the Spanish Left.

This isn't false equivalence, but necessary information.  Similarly, his article offers no analogies, draws no modern parallels because it doesn't have to.  The modern left is purposefully using the exact same slogans and tactics.  To merely quote them is to expose this.

Maybe my book was driven by a premonition or subconsciously intended as a warning.  In any event, it's uncomfortably relevant.


Taking time out with Livy and the History of Rome

Things being the way they are, I'm staying away from the news and digging into some long-term reading projects.  At the top of my list is reading straight through Livy's History of Rome.  I got the books in high school and college and they were a bit tough going.  I'm making much faster progress than last time.

Even though Livy is prone to airbrushing history and highlighting Rome's virtuous past, there's plenty of skullduggery, treachery, mayhem going on.

One element that stands out is the almost constant efforts of people to turn the rules to their advantage.  For each champion of honor, there are ten examples of people twisting the rules to their advantage - and often getting lavish praise for their cleverness.

It stands in stark contrast with the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.  I've written before that Game of Thrones was a wonderful (if unintentional) advertisement for Christian civilization.  Livy's work is another.

 


Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.

 


Heart of Darkness vs Apocalypse Now

As part of my revisiting the works of Joseph Conrad, last week I read Heart of Darkness, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of his tales.

Based on Conrad's experiences as a river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, it takes the reader on a physical but also spiritual journey in to the center of what was once called The Dark Continent.

It's structure is unique.  While Conrad once again uses Marlow as the first-person narrator, in this work he is both a participant but also an observer.  That is to say the centerpiece of the drama is the attempt to retrieve a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz and Marlow's role is simply to repair a damaged steamboat which is then used to reach Kurtz's remote trading post.

Conrad's musings on human nature and the ease with which 'civilized' people can revert to savagery of the worst kind made it an instant literary classic.

Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Conrad's story, with the setting changed from colonial Africa to Vietnam.  This is not as ludicrous as it seems, and roughly the first half of the movie does a good job of drawing parallels between the breakdown of discipline and morality the farther one gets from organized institutions.

The problem is that near the midpoint, Coppola loses the plot and starts a meandering tale packed with lame tropes highlighted by inexplicably stupid behavior on the part of the characters.

I'm by no means the first person to observe this, and I'm sure lots of people have pointed out that it would not be difficult to recut the film to bring it into line with Conrad's story - and also provide a more satisfying ending.  As it stands, the film builds up energy until instead of a climax, it just sort of grinds to a halt and everyone goes home.

For a fleeting instant I thought of writing the alternate ending out, basically giving the film the Man of Destiny series treatment, but the definitive take has already been written - by Joseph Conrad.

To my knowledge, this is a story that has yet to be fully realized as a movie.  There was a TNT attempt some years back that was abjectly awful.  Go look it up if you want, I'm not even going to link to it.

Heart of Darkness is a significant work and also something of a litmus test because it's a great example of how people can value a story enough to make a movie while missing the whole point of the thing.

See also: the hideous movie disfigurement of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  Ironically, the craptastic adaptation of a cynical book about Hollywood is altogether appropriate.


Vampires of Michigan: Pandemic

The title of this post is a teaser for a sequel I've been mulling over for a while.  I know, I know, I keep announcing my next project only to bail a day later.

The problem of course is twofold.

The first issue is not knowing how things will turn out.  That's a pretty tough position for a novelist to be in, especially if one wants an intricate plot. 

Then there's the problem that writing about reality cuts into the escapism that is part of why I write.

I suppose I could go all-in on wishcast/Mary Sue type work, but I like to think I'm above such things.

Still, I've got a notion how it would work, so maybe once the vaccine and election work their way through, I'll get to work.  Though it sold less than some of my other books, Vampires of Michigan did get some of the strongest fan response I've seen.  I'm pretty sure people would read it.

Maybe next year.


Getting deeper into Conrad

I initially only wanted to re-read Lord Jim, but I'm now taking a deeper dive into the collected works of Joseph Conrad.  I might even add a few books to my library.

While Lord Jim was something of a disappointment in the way that the action stalled from time to time, his other stories are more focused and gripping.  Typhoon is marvelous, both in its foreshadowing, action and overall style.

I'm currently reading, uh, hmm.  I'm not sure how one presents the title in this day and age, but it's The [Blank] of the Narcissus.

Even knowing how it twists and turns, it is still an addictive read.  The description is first-rate, and the characters sketches of the sailors is stark and memorable.

There is a lot of pain and misery to be found this Christmas, and one way I'm holding it at bay is by reading quality work.  Conrad is by no means an optimist, and many of his stories take a dark turn, but the man can write.

 


This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for all the corrections

The title of this post may seem ironic, but I'm completely sincere. 

I know some authors are very sensitive about their work (and I can be at times), but what we all want is reader engagement, and nothing I've written has gotten a response like Long Live Death.

Much of that comes from people noting errors or typos, and I'm fine with that because it means people are paying attention.

It's a wonderful thing.

This is a strange year in many ways, not the least of which our family had our 'feast' three days ago so that we could all be together (one of my kids has to travel), so today we'll eat turkey soup and finish off the leftovers.

For all that, I'm grateful for so much, and I hope you and yours enjoy this day in a spirit of true gratitude.


Lord Jim and other thoughts

I'm most of the way through Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which I haven't read in 20 years.  Conrad is more long-winded than I remember, but when he picks up the pace, he's great.  I see why he and Ford Madox Ford got along so well: they both really groove to long-form ruminations in their work.

Once I finish, I'll start reading Conrad's Eastern World, a detailed look at the sources for his writing.  My annotated copy of Lord Jim has lots of references to it, so I figured I'd grab a copy.  It's out of print, but I got a very new-looking copy.

I've always found Conrad evocative and getting back into him is a respite from the endless turmoil we're going through.  I'd like to write something soon - if only for the escape it provides.  Our household is currently in a state of transition (one kid moving back in, another moving out) so when the dust finally settles I might be able to write again. 

I've also started a gaming project which will get its own post later.


Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End series followed by Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.  I had already read both works, but doing so in rapid succession really drove home how closely the two are related but also how significant their differences are.  Here are a few of my observations.

Writing Style

Ford was 30 years older than Waugh and his writing style shows it.  Ford is considered one of the first “modern” writers, and he does demonstrate some unique flourishes (and a willingness to take on hitherto forbidden topics), but his prose is very much of the Victorian era.

He goes into detailed descriptions that sometimes read like an inventory.  He can also be florid in the extreme when setting a scene, particularly when he blends this with the internal stream of consciousness of the characters.

Waugh is capable of beautiful and evocative descriptions, but most of the time he focuses on only the most crucial details, and works them into the text.  Whereas Ford might go in depth over every knick-knack on a library shelf (and highlight the titles thereon), Waugh would bring up only a couple, and do so in a such a way as to let the reader know that the rest is emblematic of this selection.

Ford is particularly fond of moving back and forth in time and also in diving deep into the characters’ inner thoughts.  This can be an interesting device, providing sort of a reverse foreshadowing, but it is also disorienting and bogs down the flow of the story.  He seems to have a particular problem with the character of Valentine Wannop, whose extended internal monologues are breathless and repetitious.

Waugh also uses internal monologues, but only when no other vehicle is available to advance the story.  He much prefers to show his characters’ motivations through action and rapid-fire dialogue.  It is much easier to “see” Waugh’s story and this is likely why there are more film adaptations of Waugh’s work.  It’s simply more accessible in a visual medium.

Dueling Protagonists:  Tietjens vs Crouchback

Ford’s creation was the archetypal Yorkshire Tory: stoic, stubborn, socially awkward but ruthlessly competent in his own way.

He is the youngest of five children and the fourth son of a landed aristocratic – and wealthy – family.  This was a unique combination for the time, since many of the great old estates were collapsing under the strain of the Industrial Revolution and changes to the tax code.

In an age where much of the English nobility was compelled to add an American heiress to the family tree, the Tietjens family stood aloof, holding considerable estates that also encompassed valuable coal fields.  They are not extravagant and there is also no lack of money.

When he is first introduced, Christopher is an analyst at the Department of Statistics, and we swiftly learn that he has an incisive if somewhat pedantic mind.  He edits encyclopedias as a hobby. 

As the story unfolds we learn that he is thrifty and has a gift for trade, particularly in antique furniture.  The crucial takeaway is that the Tietjens family is that rare bird among fictitious Edwardian landed aristocrats in being in an enviable financial situation.

When war breaks out, Tietjens obtains a commission in a Welsh regiment and serves as a transport officer, marshals replacements and also commands at the front.  He sees plenty of time in the trenches, where his lungs are weakened by exposure and gas.  He’s also “blown up” by concussive shock of a nearby shell, which leaves him physically unharmed but mentally impaired for some time.

Tietjens is aloof from his family, who seem to emerge only gradually as the story progresses.  Two of his brothers are never seen, having gone of to India with the Army before returning to the Western Front where they are killed on the same day.  His eldest brother, Mark, emerges from obscurity to become the main character of the fourth book, but there is nothing approaching affection between him and Christopher.  Their father commits suicide early on and their mothers (Christopher is the child of a second marriage) have deceased before the story begins and are rarely mentioned.

There is a sister, but she is spoken of in the text rather than spoken to.

All of this leaves Tietjens alone and aloof.

Guy Crouchback is also of a noble family, but a Catholic one, steeped in the history of their persecution in Protestant England.

Guy is also the youngest son.  His elder brother, Gervase, was killed on the Western Front early in World War I.  His next brother, Ivo, went mad and starved himself to death.  His sister is married to an indifferently religious MP, and has three daughters and a son, who is an officer in a Guards regiment.

Guy’s father is living as the story begins, and is an important influence in his life, particularly his spiritual development.

Like Christopher, Guy will seek to enlist at the start of the war, but Britain’s manpower situation in 1939 was very different from that in 1914.  During the First World War, Britain had a tiny all-volunteer army backed up by a small militia force.  The demands of total war required a massive influx of personnel.  The British had an innate dislike of conscription, and so volunteers were highly encouraged to join up as soon as possible.

By 1939, Britain had adopted conscription as its wartime method of recruiting, and while volunteers were welcome in some cases, Guy is too old (36) to be an attractive recruit. 

What this means is that the wartime experience of Ford and Waugh differed right from the start – Ford worked briefly writing propaganda, and then had no difficulty in obtaining a commission, despite being 41.  Waugh had no interest in propaganda, and was only able to get into the Royal Marines through political string-pulling because like his character, 36-year-olds with no prior military service were not considered good recruits.

Another difference is that Crouchback has no real occupation at the start of the war.  He has certain skills (speaking Italian and French), but nothing to set him apart.  He’s mentally adrift and sees war as a chance for personal redemption.

As noted above Tietjens is confident to the point of arrogance about his place in the world.

The Women:  Sylvia vs Virginia

Both men have complicated romantic relationships.  As his tale begins, Tietjens’ wife Sylvia has left him for an adulterous romp.  We swiftly learn that she is remarkably loose around men.  In fact, she tricked Tietjens into marrying her by seducing him after she thought she had become pregnant by another man.

The ruse is revealed, and Tietjens is filled with a cold fury towards her, mingled with shame at the thought that his son and heir is another man’s child.

This particular element of the plot – the paternity of ‘the child’ (his name is rarely spoken) – recurs throughout the books to the point of tediousness.  Eventually (and this is no particular spoiler), Tietjens accepts that the boy is likely his and in the oddball fourth book, this is pretty well established when the kid finally appears in person.  He looks like his father, case closed.

But it keeps coming up as point of doubt and wrath, along with musings about how much of the English aristocracy’s leaders are cuckolds.

Even in the restrictive legal environment of the time, Tietjens could divorce Sylvia, but he refuses out of pure Tory stubbornness, and thus there is a constant back and forth between him and the endlessly beautiful Sylvia, who alternately lusts after and hates her husband.

This isn’t as obnoxious as it seems, because Ford does a wonderful job of showing how English social conventions end up blaming Tietjens for everything his harpy of a wife does, even to the point where Christopher’s own kin and allies come to agree that the best thing for everyone would be for him to be killed at the front.

Guy Crouchback’s love life is much simpler.  As a Catholic, he believes marriage is an indissoluble union, and when his wife Virginia leaves him, he accepts the fact of civil divorce, but regards his chance at happy marriage as at an end. 

He still harbors some residual love for her, however, and their paths cross repeatedly.

Virginia is a familiar figure in Waugh’s other writings – beautiful, vivacious, flighty and utterly irresponsible, she the epitome of the modern "smart set" woman.  At the start of the story, she has separated from her third husband, a wealthy American who stays well clear of England.

Spirit vs the Flesh: Valentine Wannop

A key difference in the two stories is the existence of The Other Woman in Parade’s End.  This is Valentine Wannop, an intelligent, athletic Suffragette who nevertheless falls in love with Christopher and seeks to become her mistress.  Much of the story centers on if, when and how this romantic relationship can be consummated.  The title of the first book, Some Do Not-, highlights the importance of this question.

In fact, the core issue of Parade’s End is whether people should let their personal happiness be dominated by social convention.  Christopher is trapped by both an unhappy marriage and the burden of his familial responsibility.  Being a younger son, this should not have happened, but because his elder brother Mark never produced an heir and the others are deal, the weight now falls on him.

It’s just not fair.

Ford himself felt similar constraints.  After converting to Catholicism and getting married, Ford himself launched a series of adulterous relationships with literary-minded young women.  This naturally brought scandal on himself, but Ford simply moved to France and later the United States, brazening it out.

It is interesting that Sylvia Tietjens is a Catholic, and while portrayed as wanton and cruel, at one point she wishes to patch up her relationship with Christopher, only to be rejected.  Naturally this makes her even more vengeful.

One can’t help but see the similarities between this situation and that of the Marchmain family in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The fictitious Lord Marchmain was close to Ford in age, and likewise a convert to Catholicism.  After the war he abandons his responsibilities to take up with a mistress and he lives happily abroad, indifferent to the collapse of his family.

At one point, Marchmain explains himself by saying that the war was about fighting for “freedom,” and that’s what he wants – freedom from obligation; freedom to put himself first.

Waugh stridently disagrees with this viewpoint.  Like Ford, he also was a convert to Catholicism, but unlike him, the conversion “took.” 

While Waugh remained capable of vicious satire (and does not spare the Church), his later works are steeped with questions of faith and duty.

Guy Crouchback epitomizes this, and though an observant Catholic throughout the trilogy, it is only in the final book that he truly grasps the need for self-sacrifice.  His decision almost exactly parallels that of Tietjens, but in the reverse.  I cannot believe this is a coincidence.

Indeed, while both books have moving as well as wickedly funny takes on military service, there is a spiritual void at the heart of Parade’s End.  Tietjens regards God as a distant and stoic figure, finds church stuffy and conventional and essentially creates his own Tory religion that guides his actions.

Guy Crouchback personal journey arguably goes through even darker places, but in the end he understands that larger issues are at stake than whether he’s personally happy.

I believe this, combined with the far more accessible writing style, is why Waugh continues to be read while Ford remains something of a curiosity.

Final Thoughts

Parade’s End is often considered to have four books, but the last one in the series, The Last Post, is very different from the others.  It is essentially an extended experiment in stream of consciousness writing that purports to finish the tale by giving a post-war update to the story.

It is not an easy read and there is reason to believe that Ford himself was unhappy with the result.  When Graham Greene commissioned a reprint after Ford’s death, he purposefully omitted the final volume and declared the work to properly be a trilogy.

The first book in the series is the longest, and it is very difficult at times because it dives deep into social commentary and digs into a number of minor characters.  The next two are shorter and more focused. 

Of the three, No More Parades is arguably the best, being a pure wartime story of Teitjens’ life at the front.

Though written over a much longer span of time, Sword of Honour works well as a cohesive whole and reads quickly.  As one would expect, the tone darkens as the war drags on and England suffers from hunger and bombing, but this is offset by Guy’s spiritual journey and also Waugh’s amusing take on how people ‘make out’ during the war.

There is no question that Waugh's is the superior work, but the first three books of Parade's End provide valuable insight into the Edwardian mentality and wartime Britain.


Leaving Ford for Waugh

Over the last several weeks I've been re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.

I've now reached the final book, The Last Post and it is just as disappointing as I remember.

Ford's series follows the pre-war and wartime experiences of Christoper Tietjens, a Yorkshire aristocrat with an unhappy marriage and outdated scruples.  He's an amusing, well-drawn character and the books are chock full of amusing social commentary.

The first book, Some Do Not- is a bit long-winded because Ford tends to jump back and forth in time and indulge in lavish description punctuated by lengthy internal monologues.

The next two books - which center on World War I itself - are much better.  They are focused, funny but also poignant.

Taken as a trilogy, it's an excellent work, which is why some critics (apparently including Graham Greene) cut the fourth book out of the series.

I agree with that assessment.  The Last Post is nominally about what happens to the characters after the war, but it is told from the point of view of Christopher's eldest brother Mark, who has grown so disgusted with the world that he has faked a stroke and now lies mute in bed, moving only his eyes.

He thinks a lot, though, and we get to follow his thoughts, which loop back and forth, and repeat themselves in a very tedious manner.  The whole book could have been condensed into a short story, but Ford is indulging himself, introducing the perspectives of Mark's wife, the gamekeeper, handyman, maid, etc. 

All of which is painfully detailed and rendered into various dialects.

I simply can't get into it, so I'm quitting early and turning back to one of my favorites, the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh.  I intend to write a lengthy comparison between the two books because they are very similar.

Given my work and family schedule, I've abandoned serious writing for the time being.  I've begun a series of pieces for bleedingfool.com that will run on a weekly basis and I'll let you know when they go live.