I began reading Amy Bloom’s Away based primarily on recommendations: Carrie Frye’s, for example, which also conveniently links to positive reviews. I disagree with them: over 70 pages, Away didn’t capture my attention; I never cared about the main character, and while the writing was strong it was also pedestrian. Carrie says, “The novel was as psychologically acute as I expect from Bloom — as a writer, she is both so comprehending and tender about the human animal — but the prose seemed more charged than anything I’ve read of hers previously.” If Away is charged, I won’t be reading the others. A few sections of Away were funny, but not funny enough to sustain the whole, and next to a vastly more powerful novel like A Simple Plan, Away wilts. It’s being sold at a small loss at Amazon, and I’m on to whatever is next from the shelf, which will, I hope, provide more lasting pleasure. The time I might’ve allotted to it is gone, and part of my (early) New Year’s resolution is to not waste time on unworthy books when there are plenty of better ones.

(If you’re looking for something about the Jewish immigrant experience, try Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, a superior if stranger novel.)

A Simple Plan

James Fallows reminded me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a novel that is anything but simple and about a deceptively easy opportunity for huge money. Taking the cash, however, cascades into hell like a modern version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, published nearly 400 years earlier.

A Simple Plan follows societally unimportant men as they squabble for money each thinks will give him a place in the larger world. I don’t know whether Smith thought of the legend of Faust—which has also been covered by Goethe and Thomas Mann, but it is hard to miss the parallels, with power in the form of money coming at the expense of spiritual and moral well-being, ultimately leading toward an end that, as we are told early, is unlikely to be good. Within 30 pages, Hank says he might’ve turned the money in to Sheriff Jenkins “before it had a chance to unravel and entangle us all,” but his choices toward dancing with the devil eventually leave him with nowhere to go but forward into darkness.

Modern literature doesn’t necessarily need a literal manifestation of the devil to present his offer. Hank begins succumbing to the metaphorical lure even before encountering Jenkins, saying: “The dynamic of [the] relationship [between him and Jacob] had shifted, I realized. I was in control now; I was the spoiler, the one who would decide what happened to the money.” A page later, the vague sense of the supernatural is invoked when Hank says the find is “like a gift from the gods.” But the gods don’t often give gifts unencumbered by strings. This interplay among fate, power, and choice plays throughout the novel, with each choice making it harder to give up the money until finally Hank feels he can’t, leading inexorably to the end. This end is different than Marlowe’s Faustus but still a study in the ways of power, this one not from a pygmy rather than epic point of view.

A Simple Plan also implicitly argues that three can keep a secret if two are dead, as Benjamin Franklin said. Corpses pile up early and eventually to tragic proportions, leading one away from the real (how can cops miss so many?) and toward the traditional forms of tragedy. This interplay between old and recent literary developments, as well as the greed and compassion of the characters, gives A Simple Plan lasting resonance, as does Smith’s direct, understated, and mostly excellent writing (an exception: “My heart was beating thickly in my temples”). Most often, though, the prose never impedes and usually enhances the story, with Hank’s pathos mingling with monstrousness as he chooses a path that is at first horrifying and then, to the reader, more horrifying still as consorting with the devil becomes more normal.

Last post on North Korea

Christopher Hitchens writes a condemnation of North Korea that lambasts the current U.S. approach or lack thereof without proposing exactly what should be done. It complements this post about the New York Philharmonic’s plan to give a concert there and this post about the Nazi economy.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Finding a book that lives up to expectations and ecstatic reviews is too rare, as many books don’t. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an exception, telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.

Many of his Ross’s descriptions about musical culture could as much be about literature as music; in Weimar Republic of Germany, he writes: “every violent act or image seems to foreshadow the catastrophe to come. But it is too easy to write the story of German culture from 1918 to 1933 as the prelude to the next chapter.” Elsewhere, the same point is made about modernism, about audience acceptance, about difficulty, and about politics. One point in particular can be said about literature, and it’s a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno: “[…] modernism can bring forth its own kind of kitsch—a melodrama of difficulty that easily degenerates into a sort of superannuated adolescent angst.” That’s especially true if you can stretch modernistic tendencies of the ones Adorno describes out to today, as A Reader’s Manifesto attacks exactly this idea.

The critical acclaim I mentioned is real: see, for example, Steven Johnson and Maud Newton’s excerpt. I think The Rest is Noise inspires praise because it is learned but not pedantic, historical but not dull, even-handed in its descriptions of musical stylistic and political warfare, and, above all devoted to music itself, rather than to numbing ideology. In an early section, Ross writes about Richard Strauss’ Guntram, the hero who, at the end of the opera, leaves his order, his beloved, and “the Christian God.” Strauss’ mentor was alarmed, but Ross describes why Strauss wrote the opera as he did: “Guntram’s order […] had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art. This was Wagner’s mission, too, but for Strauss it was a utopian scheme that contained ‘the seeds of death in itself.'” The theme of extremes goes on toward the middle of the book, when composers accused each other of fascist tendencies in each others’ music, and by the end Ross shows examples of modern critics who berate pop or classical music for pop’s supposed emptiness or classical’s supposed beauty. But if Ross has a main thesis it is that music is music, regardless of labels or dogma.

Throughout The Rest is Noise, Ross almost shudders at the divisiveness in all its manifestations, from the beginning when he writes that “Fin-de-siecle Vienna offers the depressing spectacle of artists and audiences washing their hands of each other, giving up on the dream of common ground,” to the masterful first sentence of the epilogue, “Extremes become their opposites in time.” Instead Ross unifies common themes and idea while still being able to judge, making a strong case that in music, as with all art, ceaseless miscegenation strengthens rather than weakening the end product.

EDIT: Alex Ross visited Seattle, which I wrote about here.

An unusual cinematic occurrence

I saw two movies on two consecutive weekends both of which I enjoyed. It feels like years since two somewhat proximate movies that were any good have even been in theaters, let alone run on consecutive weekends. Atonement captures the spirit of Ian McEwan’s book (we’ll see if they try On Chesil Beach) and Charlie Wilson’s War manages to be fun, engaging, political, and probably not too inaccurate. It’s based on George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, a book in my Seattle Public Library queue. Not being the only person to have done this in response to the movie, I’m somewhere around 50, meaning the wait is going to take a while.

Now that I’ve mentioned movies, go read Caleb Crain’s The science of reading and its decline to make yourself wonder about the decline of the world and such:

[… T]here is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

This concerns the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent “To Read or Not to Read,” covered here by the New York Times, with more background material in a July by me. This can’t be good for the clerisy.

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

Adam Tooze describes the inner workings of how Nazi Germany came to be in The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, a book detailing the trade-offs Germany made and the unprecedented extent to which Germany’s entire economy was reshaped intentionally and solely into a war machine. Tooze clarifies the enormous amount senior leadership knew and understood about the economic problems facing Germany and, in response, their willingness to feed people into the war machine in return for manufactured products. In addition, The Wages of Destruction shows the extent to which Hitler gambled on so-so odds in France and won, briefly, and then further gambled and lost. The win came from an extraordinary combination of the military’s skill in invading France and the inept allied response to it, while the loss came from trying to apply the same thinking to the Soviet Union. The German and occupied territory economies simply lacked the production and resources to fight multiple-front wars. All this is demonstrated with copious detail—the book’s strengths are its weaknesses in that it is relentlessly technical, and what I write by necessity lacks the evidence Tooze presents to make his case.

Recent history is largely a history of Germany’s aggressive wars, which shaped and continue to shape the world; it is hard not to see the offspring of World Wars I and II in many guises, from the current problems in the Middle East to international relations to art (the book to read is David Andelman’s A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today). In looking back, it is easy to read earlier art in terms of later developments: in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross gives this description of Wotan, the protagonist of Wagner’s Ring cycle: “He resembles the head of a great bourgeois family whose livelihood is destroyed by the modernizing forces that he himself has set in motion.” This is not far from what happened to Hitler, who oversaw the linking of primal fears, modern technology, and nationalism, creating what can only vie with Communism as the worst disease of the century.

This book has been part of my larger history kick, as The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815, A Farewell to Alms, and From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present show. All three, like The Wages of Destruction, synthesize an enormous amount of the ideas and events that have wrought the world, from attitudes to culture to politics to technology to art. I say “art” intentionally because so much is caught up in the struggle of individuals against societies, the effort to retain individuality in the face of history, and the struggle of nations (it is also hard not read the larger world into art). Historical fiction rests on these ideas and often occurs at these turning points, where we know that the hero of a novel cannot change the historical event which is about to occur. Although individuals destinies might be shaped in such narratives, grand historical sweeps cannot be altered by such characters. To me this causes many narratives to be unsatisfactory and thus demands that they must focus on the small to succeed, or the world of the individual. Yet the appeal is continual, as the idea of the past is reshaped through the present and through additional evidence in both fiction and nonfiction. The Wages of Destruction is the latter and puts World War II into the larger context of economic systems.

Most of all, The Wages of Destruction is an exploration of the most fundamental idea of life and economics: we all face trade-offs at every level of existence, from the personal in a minute-by-minute sense to the national and world levels. The Nazis made numerous trade-offs favoring war and military spending, and despite their extreme ideology they could not escape from history or from the reality that they could not destroy large parts of German society and simultaneously do their utmost to defeat their enemies. Some commentators have noted that the primary world power of virtually any age is marked chiefly by its pluralism and willingness to provide tolerance, especially tolerance relative to others; by that standard, the U.S., Britain, and Rome before it have done relatively well. The numerous counter-examples toward plurality are well-known, as all three societies practiced slavery and numerous other horrendous practices, but at least two of the three trended toward liberalism, while Rome reached its zenith thanks to its republican beginnings. By contrast, Nazis tremendously damaged their economy by expelling and imprisoning large numbers of people and causing other nations to stop trading with the Germany bloc, and while Tooze shows the extent to which slave and imported labor helped the regime, it could not make up for the enormous disruptions it caused.

This common theme of slavery differs in that the Nazis moved towards it long after Britain and the United States had repudiated it. All three relatively liberal societies—Rome, Britain, the U.S.—were able to succeed in large part because they did what the Nazis would not: choose for the material betterment of their people and choose to incorporate more of their people into their economies and societies. Germany chose the opposite and paid, giving up living standards that Tooze demonstrated were already lower than most of Western Europe and the United States, a chance at real victory, and much more to their ideology of death and racial purity. Still, without ideology the Nazis would not have launched their attacks on Europe and the world. The United States and Britain chose pluralism. The Nazis faced trade-offs in their hatred for Jews; although the regime actively tried to convince Jews to emigrate in the 1930s, it made actually leaving difficult by forcing Jews to abandon their assets—especially hard currency—behind. This occurred because Germany had an enormous balance of payments problem, meaning the country paid out more money every year for imports than they sold in exports, constraining their financial system and their ability to implement their racial purity goals. Consequently, the Nazis prevented Jews from leaving thanks to their hard currency problem, as Tooze explains in the “Breaking Away” chapter detailing the financial crises during the early part of Hitler’s administration.

These financial crises made rearming all the more expensive, forcing consumer trade-offs, which were extreme, particularly in light of Hitler’s rhetorical striving for parity with the United States. The lives of most Germans were close to what we would associate with the nineteenth century; food and textiles consumed much of the population up through the middle of the war, when a massive amount of imported and often slave labor supplemented the tight German market. A massive portion of the population suffered from the lack of an export market combined with Hitler’s ceaseless redirection of money toward armaments. Germany was not particularly mechanized, either, and its army also wasn’t, and the demolition of these ideas about the modernity of Germany make this a fascinating and revisionist book. One section notes that “the rate of attrition amongst their motley collection of vehicles [tanks and supply trunks] had been high” in 1939 and only accelerated afterwards. Germany’s auto industry before the war was not particularly well-developed, and the overarching theme in Germany’s war planning from the late 1930s onward was fear of the United States’ industrial power. Germany also lacked raw material, particularly steal and oil, and Tooze shows that steel in particular limited production, as the necessity of armaments production brought their economy ever closer to the Soviet Union’s, despite Hitler’s antipathy toward Communism. This makes his alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union all the stranger given the Nazis’ fixation on ideology, and demonstrates further the paradoxical nature of the regime. The Wages of Destruction focuses on these numerous paradoxical aspects, their relationship to the Nazi economy, and their effect on the war, ultimately leading to the effects that still reverberate in the world.

The New York Review of Books has a good if characteristically lengthy essay about The Wages of Destruction here, although it is in a walled garden. Richard Evans is not as enthusiastic as some other reviewers:

Tooze is saying nothing very new [about Nazi civilian employment efforts]; and his claim to be overturning an entrenched orthodoxy that puts civilian job-creation at the center of the Nazi economic recovery has to be taken with a pinch of skepticism. Similarly, although he suggests that the evidence he presents for the recovery beginning in the late summer of 1932 […] “contradicts all subsequent portrayals of the German economy under National Socialism,” the fact is that economic historians have long known that the Nazis were lucky in their timing, taking over the German economy just as it was beginning to come out of the Depression.
What his book does offer is a mass of evidence that finally puts these arguments beyond dispute. Hitler’s drive to rearm was so obsessive, so megalomaniacal, that he was prepared to sacrifice almost everything to it.

Note the phrase “a mass of evidence”—the dense notes cite numerous sources, and this is a book more likely to be cited than read, given its pounding if necessary detail. The synthesis and conclusion sections may be slightly too short because of Tooze’s details, but such issues do not mar an otherwise good book.

After reading this, take a look at this short post about the modern monsters in North Korea, where the New York Philharmonic says it will play.

The New York Philharmonic consorts with the enemy

As long as I’ve hit music once, I might as well again: Terry Teachout wrote an excellent column on The New York Philharmonic’s decision to play in Pyongyang, North Korea:

For three days earlier, Zarin Mehta and Paul Guenther, the president and chairman of the Philharmonic, had shared a platform with Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, and announced that America’s oldest orchestra would be playing in Pyongyang next February. It horrified me — no other word is strong enough — to see them sitting next to a smirking representative of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of a brutally totalitarian state in whose Soviet-style prison camps 150,000 political prisoners are currently doing slave labor.

This column is particularly salient because I’m going to post about The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy shortly, and if Hitler has a modern heir he is Kim Jong Il. Camp 22 in North Korea is a modern descendent of Hitler’s “work” camps.

EDIT: The promised post is here.

Faint Praise and good readers

I noticed that Greg Harris linked to my post about Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Better still, he quotes approvingly from Robertson Davies on the subject of the clerisy (according to the Oxford American Dictionary, “a distinct class of learned or literary people: the clerisy are those who read for pleasure“), a word I had to look up too:

Who are the clerisy?…. The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime, but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

Finding the word you’ve been needing for a long time without realizing it is a wonderful sensation and one that Word Court often tries and fails to elicit.

The rest of Harris’ post is here. Its major weakness is propagating the tendency to divide bloggers and critics, amateurs and professionals, into an “us” versus “them” dynamic, which I continue to find silly. To be fair, Harris might just be reflecting his subject matter.

Read and understand: Doris Lessing on books

Doris Lessing‘s Nobel Lecture is up at The Guardian:

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

This would also be a good time to go back to Orhan Pamuk, Seamus Heaney, and J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel lectures. Notice the four have in common: a reverence and love for books, and their underlying power, knowledge.

(Hat tip to The Elegant Variation.)

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