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J.M. Coetzee: The Master of Cape Town

South African-born writer John Coetzee is one of the most decorated and celebrated living writers. He has won the Nobel Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and was the first two-time winner of the Booker Prize. He has written 13 novels, 3 fictionalized autobiographies, and numerous essays and translations. Every one of his works from his first novel, Dusklands (1974), to his most recent novel, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), is uniquely compelling, difficult, ambiguous, and, for me and many other readers, richly intellectually rewarding.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 to white, liberal, middle-class Afrikaans parents who insisted on speaking English at home and sending him to English, rather than Afrikaner schools. He was a sensitive, poetry-loving child in a land of ruddy, big-boned, bullying brutes who maintained violent separation of blacks and whites, all of which gave him a life-long sense of being a foreigner in his own land. It is no wonder that one of the most ubiquitous themes among the many to be found throughout his works is the solitariness of the outsider, and the need for individuality to resist powerful systems of government or societal control.

Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

He has long had a reputation in the literary world as a writer of austere, inscrutable, almost Platonic prose, and as something of a recluse with no sense of humor. Always a moderately experimental novelist, since approximately 1999, when he won his second Booker Prize for Disgrace, he has adopted a confessional, highly metafictional style of writing which has revealed an intriguing portrait of a renowned author who is wrestling with his legacy, his mortality, and his place in the literary pantheon, while also subtly hitting back at critics and giving academics much more to analyze and debate.

Coetzee is himself an academic, with a Ph.D. in literature (written on Beckett’s novels), and decades of university lecturing in America, South Africa, and now Australia. He is the namesake patron of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at his current position at the University of Adelaide, and he is well-respected, studied, and taught in the academic world (he has inspired as many monographs and research papers as any living writer). Coetzee once ruminated on his critics by writing that he consoled himself for many years of his early teaching career by telling himself that he was actually a novelist; once he became famous it was frequently claimed that he was just an academic pretending to be a novelist. Either way, his work is indeed steeped in the history of literature and ideas, with widespread intertextuality a key feature. His most important influences are Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett.

The two phases of Coetzee’s career can be roughly divided based on his relationship to South Africa; the first phase lasting through the last years of apartheid and the presidency of Mandela, culminating in the publication of Disgrace in 1999. The second phase is ongoing since his move to Australia, where he has been a citizen since 2002. It seems apparent that Disgrace is the final novel that derives most of its ideological and narrative intensity from the need to resist colonial violence and the pressures of the apartheid state. The “Australian” phase novels and autobiographies are much more focused on literary and ethical concerns. Coetzee was always an opponent of apartheid and the National Party in general, but he chose to deal with politics in his works obliquely, unlike other South African writers and intellectuals, such as Nadine Gordimer. The key quote to help understand this perspective was given in a 1987 interview, during the death throes of apartheid. “In times of intense ideological pressure like the present when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry.” For Coetzee, the role of literature is too important to allow it to merely supplement politics (which is present history, temporary, and changeable). In his eyes it is necessary for novelists, and artists in general, to create their own reality and history that challenges real-world events on its own terms, and, one assumes, striving for universality and timelessness that are beyond the province of merely history or politics. Coetzee’s first-phase works, often enriched by the reader’s awareness of the landscape of contemporary South Africa, do in fact surpass local politics, reaching the level of literary allegory or fable (I’m thinking especially of the two most important works of this phase: 1980’s Waiting for the Barbarians and 1983’s Life & Times of Michael K), though they still suggest complicity in the systems of violence that are often present in these books.

The second, Australian, phase is characterized by more metafictional experimentation, and a preoccupation with physical mortality and literary immortality. In Elizabeth Costello (2003) the title character is a quintessential Coetzean (he has attained nominative adjectival status) creation: an aging Australian novelist with a prickly personality, a problematic relationship with her surviving relatives, and a set of strong, contrarian opinions despite inner uncertainty.  She first appeared in the short campus novella The Lives of Animals (1999) which presents her two speeches at an American university to accept an award, all within a narrative frame involving her son and daughter-in-law’s reluctant hospitality, and the various (skeptical) reactions to her speeches afterwards. Interestingly, these two speeches were really delivered by Coetzee at Princeton before this book was published, and the whole of this novella was later subsumed into Elizabeth Costello. The most memorable and controversial part of these speeches is when the character compares the modern system of factory farming and the suffering it imposes to the Holocaust. Coetzee is himself a longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist. In a break from his usual fictional renderings of his own ideas, he has written essays and editorials under his own name arguing for the immorality of factory farms and abattoirs, and his concern for animals has featured in some of his other fiction (such as the treatment of dogs in Disgrace). The second novel gives much more substance to the character of Elizabeth Costello’s life and travels, with each chapter featuring other speeches she gave on different continents (and all of which were actually given by Coetzee in real-life, which could be considered an example of literary performance art). Coetzee’s fictionalization of his own life for novelistic ends is an ongoing project (or joke) of his. The last chapter of Elizabeth Costello is a direct homage and appropriation of a Kafka story, where the protagonist finds herself in the afterlife trying to express her inexpressible beliefs before a tribunal in order to gain access to the golden gates. The meta-character of Elizabeth Costello also appeared in Coetzee’s following novel, Slow Man (2005), as well as a short story in which the author’s alter-ego visits her daughter in Nice. Elizabeth Costello is probably my favorite of all Coetzee’s novels due to its fascinating ideas presented with great literary craft and exceptionally intelligent dialogue.

Another recent novel, his most autobiographic, is Diary of a Bad Year (2007), featuring another thinly disguised authorial doppelgänger known as Señor C. The main character, an author whose life and works almost totally align with Coetzee’s, is working on a collection of serious essays about politics and other things called Strong Opinions to be published in a German magazine. One of the most powerful and recurring arguments deals with his horrified reaction to the Iraq War and the use of torture by the Bush regime. The range of the essays is broad and reminiscent of Montaigne. He discusses the relative merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and also reaches the conclusion that the music of J.S. Bach may be “the best proof we have that life is good.” The most interesting part of the book is the almost Bach-like contrapuntal narrative in which each page of the essays is shared by the story of author’s working relationship with his beautiful, part-Filipina secretary who lives upstairs with her sleazy investment banking boyfriend. Two threads of narrative strands are woven in simultaneously with the essays–the conversations between C. and the woman, and also between the woman and her boyfriend. It is another complicated self-conscious metafictional gambit that Coetzee somehow pulls off successfully, in the end revealing personal stories and opinions that are deeply revealing and anything but banal.

His two most recent novels, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), both tell the ongoing story (I’m sure we can expect a third part in a few years) of a young boy named David, his guardian Simon, and his adoptive mother, Ines. The setting is an unnamed Spanish-speaking country (or afterlife) where everyone arrives by boat with no memory, everything seems to be vaguely socialistic, and people go about their daily routine with no real problems but also no real passion. These inscrutable novels are highly open to interpretations in what message they may be conveying from the author. This is exactly the point, to my mind. Coetzee in these latest works seems to be trying to set up a stage for universal questions that have always been present in his work, but which results in the raising of even more questions than answers. At its heart, the questions are what is truth, what is happiness, what does it mean to be an individual in a rule-based society, what would a post-historical society look like? Coetzee has apparently drawn heavily on his literary influences with a Beckett-like stage and Kafka-like mysteriousness and inexplicability.

The three novelistic “autre-biographies” of late Coetzee also introduce a fascinating way to subvert a well-worn literary form. Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009) are all narrated in third-person, present tense, and they all present the author in the harshest possible light. The first deals with his time growing up, attending school, and visiting the family farm in rural South Africa in the 40’s; the second covers three years from finishing university in Cape Town to working as a computer programmer for IBM in London in the early 60’s; the third acts as a posthumous series of interviews by a researcher talking to four women and one man the author was close to in the mid-70’s. None of the books say much at all about any of the published novels or even ideas of the great writer; rather, they detail an endless series of personal shortcomings and character flaws, especially his emotional immaturity, selfishness, and sexual ineptitude, of the young man to an almost uncomfortable degree. Of course, it is highly fictionalized and it’s hard to know how much to take seriously and how much is some sort of dark humor, but they make for fascinating reading. The first two books are clearly Künstlerromane in the mold of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Another obvious precursor is Tolstoy, who also wrote self-criticizing autobiographies called Boyhood and Youth. The confessional spirit of Rousseau and especially Dostoevsky seems ubiquitous in these and all Coetzee’s later works. In all three autobiographical works, it is clear that Coetzee’s holds consistently to his devotion to literature and art as rivals to history even when it is his own personal history.

Dostoevsky’s influence on Coetzee is very overt in one way: he wrote a novel about him. The Master of Petersburg (1994) recounts (mostly invents, actually) a few turbulent months of the Russian writer’s life in 1869, three years after Crime and Punishment was written, and during which time he was writing the lesser-known novel Demons (aka The Possessed). The story is that Dostoevsky returns from exile in Germany to Petersburg to investigate the apparent suicide of his 20-year-old stepson, Pavel. The author stays in his Pavel’s lodgings, starts a relationship with the landlady and (possibly) her young daughter, and interacts with police authorities and the leader of an anarchist group with whom his son was involved. The novel is very evocative of 19th-century Russian literature, and there seems to be some attempts at dry humor or irony that is part of Dostoevsky’s style (he was a great admirer of Gogol). The novel’s style is occasionally reminiscent of the Russian’s work, in the later scenes with the landlady and her daughter, and with the anarchist leader, Nechaev. While real-life Dostoevsky did lose his newborn son with his second wife around this time, the stepson story is wholly invented. Real-life Coetzee, on the other hand, lost his 23-year-old son to a mysterious accident similar to Pavel’s four years before this novel was published. Knowing that fact helps explain how this is one of the darkest and difficult, but also most moving, novels in Coetzee’s oeuvre.

One way in which the common critique of Coetzee as an academic, austere, even pedantic writer rings true is in another of his major influences: poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory. As a lifelong literary scholar and academic himself, Coetzee is obviously steeped in these theories that have more or less dominated university humanities departments since the 60’s. Various themes that can be found in many of his works include the limitations of language, the paradoxes of post-colonialism (including Coetzee’s common theme of awareness and complicity in violence carried out for the sake of others), the subversive role of the author, and the impossibility of locating unambiguous objective truth or semantic meaning. There are entire monographs dedicated to poststructural deconstructions of Coetzee’s work. The French philosophers of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault figure prominently, as usual. As an example, the novel Foe (1986), a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, is overflowing with poststructural ideas. A woman named Susan Barton lands on Crusoe’s island where she finds the old castaway living with Friday, a mute ex-slave who had his tongue cut out by slavers (or possibly by Crusoe). Crusoe dies en route to England, and Barton hires the writer Daniel Defoe to make the story into a best-seller. It is very easy to see Barton as a representation of feminist critique, and Friday as representing postcolonial theory. The somewhat duplicitous character of the writer Defoe is also interesting; at various points he says things like: “you must ask yourself, Susan: as it was a slaver’s stratagem to rob Friday of his tongue, may it not be a slaver’s stratagem to hold him in subjection while we cavil over words in a dispute we know to be endless?” Curiously, Coetzee returned to this theme in his 2003 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he read a short story called “He and His Man” also questioning the nature of fiction by way of the conflicting authorial relationship between Defoe and Crusoe (and Coetzee).

Another novel that is ripe for poststructural analysis is the Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K. The hero is a very simple (or perhaps autistic, or just severely uncommunicative) black South African (though there are only the faintest explicit references to location or race in the novel) who journeys from the city to the country to help his mother find her childhood farm. She dies en route, and Michael finds himself adrift in a confusing and unforgiving world. He spends a lot of time living rough outside an abandoned farm, before being taken to a camp, where he stops eating and eventually escapes by floating away and walking through the fence. At one point towards the end a medical officer at the camp imagines addressing Michael directly saying: “Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word. It was an allegory—speaking at the highest level—of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.” This is a reference to Derridean deconstruction in the apparent lack of any final meaning to the words that comprise the novel. The novel also plays off the story of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial, where the search for knowledge is always elusive and incomplete. Michael K.’s personal agency and continued survival on his own terms is also paradoxical and subversive of such merely intellectual constructs as deconstruction.

The effects of violence, especially in colonial and imperial societies, is the last major theme I will discuss that runs through many Coetzee novels, figuring most prominently in all throughout the “South African” phase. One of the questions he also raises, and struggles to answer, is how the writer, qua artist, can represent violence and torture without supplementing or becoming complicit in it. This is most apparent in Waiting for the Barbarians. An unnamed magistrate represents an unnamed Empire in a small provincial town at the Empire’s northern edge, beyond which lie nomadic barbarians. The question of torture and its psychological effects is explored in great depth here. In an essay, Coetzee wrote that the writer’s duty is to “establish one’s own authority to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms,” and to refuse to “play the game by the rules of the state.” Resisting the regime is not only the job of real-life dissidents (in apartheid South Africa; the martyred Steve Biko, for example), but also writers by way of their characters’ actions, and how the state-sanctioned violence and torture is dealt with in narrative form. Though the magistrate (and Coetzee) resist the violence and torture of empire, Coetzee always acknowledges the complicity of “ordinary” citizens that make state terror possible. The novel, whose title is taken from a poem about the Roman Empire by Constantine Cavafy (“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.). It also evokes the Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony.” This is a powerful allegorical masterpiece that I would recommend as the best place to begin for first-time readers of Coetzee.

I will briefly touch on three other novels from Coetzee’s first phase whose narratives all feature varying types of political (imperial and colonial) violence and implied resistance to it. His first novel, Dusklands, a fusion of two thematically-related short novellas, features his most unsettlingly explicit verisimilar representation of violence; he refined his allegorical and distancing technique in subsequent novels. The first is a tale of a psychological warfare analyst writing a report about effective propaganda in the Vietnam War, involving the campaigns of terror that characterized much of the American effort, and who ends up going mad. In this harrowing excerpt, the narrator ponders the use of the torture and prison camps by Americans in Vietnam: “These poisoned bodies, mad floating people of the camps, who had been–let me say it–the finest of their generation, courageous, fraternal–it is they who are the occasion of all my woe! Why could they not accept us? We could have loved them: our hatred for them grew only out of broken hopes. We brought them our pitiable selves, trembling on the edge of inexistence, and asked only that they acknowledge us…But like everything else they withered before us. We bathed them in seas of fire, praying for the miracle.” It is worth mentioning that Coetzee was arrested, but never charged, for participating in an anti-Vietnam protest while a faculty member in SUNY Buffalo; this is apparently the reason why his permanent visa was later denied, forcing him to return reluctantly to South Africa in 1971. The second tale is of a brutal Dutch colonizer named Jacobus Coetzee who marches inland from Cape Colony on an elephant hunting expedition in the early 18th century. As the first white man in these parts, he “discovers” the giraffe and the Orange River, ends up being humiliated by a “Hottentot” tribe, and returns later to exact vengeance (I am reminded of an ice-cold line from the scientific Vietnam report in the book’s first part: “Atrocity charges are empty when they cannot be proved. 95% of the villages we wiped off the map were never on it.”). In these two stories of imperialism, the theme of complicity (by way of awareness and complacency) in violence becomes personal since one of the characters is an actual, though completely fictionalized, ancestor of the author.

Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country, is the story of a white Afrikaner woman on an isolated farm in the Karoo desert. She first imagines her father bringing home a young wife and murdering them both; later, she does commit patricide after her father begins an affair with the young wife of the black farm worker. Afterwards the power relationship between the black worker and the white woman reverses when they are left to survive unaided on the remote farm. It is narrated in numbered paragraphs representing the main character’s lonely and disjointed thoughts.

The final novel I will discuss is Age of Iron, in which an old white South African woman who was a classics professor becomes terminally ill. The novel takes the form of a letter to the woman’s daughter in Canada. She is completely alone and allows a homeless black man to live with her, drive her around, and listen to her one-sided conversations (he rarely speaks). Two young black men, the son of her housekeeper and his friend, are murdered by the police, and the woman protests vehemently but ineffectually (even this harmless, liberal old woman concedes that the system was designed to protect “people like her”, thus conceding her own complicity in the violence) against the state of affairs in the country. It is Coetzee’s most explicit political commentary on South African politics. It is a powerful and thought-provoking meditation on mortality, which also features Coetzee’s first attempts at the confessional style he will later perfect.

Albert Camus said that “the whole of Kafka’s art consists in compelling the reader to re-read him.” This is high praise that can only be applied rarely, though subjectively, in the canons of literature. Borges, Chekhov, perhaps, for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, the universality and depth of human experience captured by Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy makes them the undeniably strongest precursors to their literary inheritors. Below this holy trinity, the slopes of the literary Olympus become more and more populated the farther down one goes. John Coetzee will never be as re-readable as Kafka, nor does he reach the rarified heights of the summit (or of one of his heroes, Dostoevsky); nevertheless, by great imaginative skill and intellectual tenacity he has climbed higher up the mountain than any of his coevals. That is a significant achievement, and a gift to readers like me.

What I Read in 2016: 100 Books

In spite of the seemingly endless bad news that pounded us into submission this year, one great personal satisfaction for me is that I enjoyed by far the best and most inspired year of reading of my life, in terms of quality and quantity. This is the third edition of my project to catalogue and publish my annual reading list. You can see the 2014 list here and the 2015 list here. An unforeseen benefit of this project is that my reading has become more focused, more planned, and more thoughtful. I would recommend to everyone to try keeping a reading list with notes and see if it makes a positive difference of any kind. This year’s reading was heavy on post-war and contemporary Anglophone literature, including plenty of Booker Prize candidates and the like; also, I continued deeper into African and African-American literature that I started exploring last year; also, classic French literature (after which, I can say that all in all I prefer the Russians). Not included on the list are a handful of academic works regarding ESL teaching for my ongoing Cambridge Delta diploma. Without further ado, here are the 100 (or so) books I read this year, nearly all of which I greatly enjoyed, and many of which were truly outstanding:

Full-Length Books (Paper or Ebook)

1. Lucky Jim—Kingsley Amis

2. A House for Mr Biswas—V.S. Naipaul
3. In a Free State—V.S. Naipaul
4. A Bend in the River—V.S. Naipaul
5. Age of Iron—J.M. Coetzee

The last of these is just as great as his Waiting for the Barbarians or Disgrace, and should be more acknowledged. Between Naipaul and Coetzee, the latter is more compelling to me.

6. Mountolive—Lawrence Durrell
7. Clea—Lawrence Durrell

I finished these last two novels of the Alexandria Quartet after reading one book each of the last two years. This work is absolutely magnificent writing and a hugely underrated classic.

8. Midnight’s Children—Salman Rushdie
9. The Siege of Krishnapur—J.G. Farrell

These two complement each other nicely; the latter should be more well-known.

10. Memoirs—Giuseppe Garibaldi (with Alexandre Dumas)
11. Autobiography—Giuseppe Garibaldi
12. Garibaldi and the Defense of Rome—George Trevelyan
13. Garibaldi: A Life in Brief—Denis Mack Smith
14. Cavour—Denis Mack Smith
15. Mazzini—Denis Mack Smith

All of these historical and biographical books focus on the Italian Risorgimento as part of ongoing research for my own writing project.

16. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919—Mark Thompson

I reviewed this book here.

17. Billy Budd—Herman Melville

18. In Patagonia—Bruce Chatwin

19. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind—Yuval Noah Harari
20. Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?—Alan Weisman

I reviewed these two books here.

21. The General in his Labyrinth—Gabriel Garcia Márquez
22. Autumn of the Patriarch—Gabriel Garcia Márquez
23. Pedro Páramo—Juan Rulfo

24. Why Does the World Exist—Jim Holt
25. What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge—Marcus du Sautoy

I reviewed these two books here.

26. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn—Nathaniel Philbrick
27. Why Read Moby-Dick?— Nathaniel Philbrick
28. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—Dee Brown
29. Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas—Mari Sandoz

I discussed these books in my essay Crazy Horse and the Legacy of the American Indian Genocide

30. The Social Conquest of Earth—E.O. Wilson
31. The Meaning of Human Existence—E.O. Wilson

I reviewed these two books here.

32. Stoning the Devil—Garry Craig Powell

This is a fantastic “novel in stories” set in United Arab Emirates. Very moving and memorable, and a unique piece of work.

33. The Road Ahead—Adrian Bonenberger, Brian Castner (editors)

This is a collection of 24 short stories set around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by veteran writers. I am the author of one of the stories, “Hadji Khan.”

34. Green on Blue—Elliot Ackerman

Incredible and powerful novel set during the ongoing Afghanistan war (where I also spent two years) by one of the authors in The Road Ahead (above).

35. Society Ludvika: Separatists of Smith, Sorcery, and Sea—Hugo Hennegau

This is a debut poetry collection, self-published by one of my friends (using a nom de plume). I am highly unqualified to comment on poetry, but this has to be one of the most original, sophisticated, and enigmatic works in recent years.

36. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question—Sarah Bakewell
37. How Proust can Change Your Life—Alain de Botton

Two similarly fascinating books discussing the lives of works of two of the greatest French writers. Related to my essay Philosophy as the Art of Dying.

38. The Remains of the Day—Kazuo Ishiguro
39. An Artist of the Floating World—Kazuo Ishiguro
40. Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
41. The Buried Giant—Kazuo Ishiguro
42. The Unconsoled—Kazuo Ishiguro
43. When We Were Orphans—Kazuo Ishiguro
44. Nocturnes—Kazuo Ishiguro

I read basically everything by this writer in one go. I will say more about these in a future review, but he is well-worth reading.

45. Snow Country—Yasunari Kawabata

46. The Sense of an Ending—Julian Barnes

Incredibly crisp style.

47. Flaubert’s Parrot—Julian Barnes
48. The End of the Affair—Graham Greene

After reading The Heart of the Matter last year, I happened to read this directly after Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (above) and noticed that the plots were very similar.

49. Money—Martin Amis

I actually did not enjoy this book very much, and will be slow to read more from this writer. It is surely a useful a relevant book to keep in mind during the upcoming Trump administration (readers will probably understand why, as far as it is thematically related to American Psycho).

50. Amsterdam—Ian McEwan
51. Atonement—Ian McEwan
52. Saturday—Ian McEwan
53. On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
54. The Child in Time—Ian McEwan

Another very talented contemporary British writer that I leaped into all in one go. Atonement will surely be a classic, and Saturday was also excellent.

55. The Sellout—Paul Beatty

I reviewed this book here.

56. The African Svelte—Daniel Menaker

Funny little book by the former The New Yorker editor discussing how interesting misspelled words can be in subtle (almost Freudian) ways.

57. The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Unique and haunting book that lingers in one’s mind.

58. Love—Toni Morrison

This novel is fantastic, and should be as celebrated as her Song of Solomon.

59. The Thing Around Your Neck—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A collection of short stories all involving women living in Nigeria or America. Not a single average story in the book, and many of them are excellent. I previously reviewed her novels here.

60. Arrow of God—Chinua Achebe

His third novel which I would controversially suggest is as good or even better than Things Fall Apart. The dialogue and abundance of Igbo proverbs are wonderful.

61. Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood

Speculative apocalyptic tale of humanity’s downfall from a combination of corporate greed, climate change, and genetic engineering; full of very creative and ironic details. I will finish the last two books of this trilogy next year.

62. Chronicles—Bob Dylan

Fascinating partial, non-chronological autobiography of a singular artist, whom I praised after the Nobel award here.

63. Open City—Teju Cole

Profound and philosophical novel of a psychiatrist walking around Manhattan and Brussels, beautifully written. One of my favorite books of the year.

64. The Fishermen—Chigozie Obioma

Moving story of four brothers in a Nigerian village.

65. The Underground Railroad—Colson Whitehead

This inventive and cathartic novel is absolutely required reading for Americans. Here is a great review of the book in The New Yorker.

Audio Books

Starting last year I changed jobs and house and now I drive much more than ever. These are the books I listened to during my commuting and walking. Librivox.org is the main website I got them from. (If anyone thinks audiobooks are somehow “cheating”, this article explains the science showing that listening to books is just as effective as reading.)

66. Of Human Bondage—W. Somerset Maugham
67. The Moon and Sixpence—W. Somerset Maugham
68. Eugenie Grandet—Honoré de Balzac
69. Père Goriot— Honoré de Balzac
70. The Peasant Story of Napoleon— Honoré de Balzac
71. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—James Joyce
72. A Sportsman’s Sketches—Ivan Turgenev
73. Sevastopol Sketches—Leo Tolstoy
74. The Cossacks—Leo Tolstoy
75. Sons and Lovers—D.H. Lawrence
76. The Rainbow—D.H. Lawrence
77. Women in Love—D.H. Lawrence
78. Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed)—Alessandro Manzoni
79. Don Quixote, Part One—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
80. Madame Bovary—Gustave Flaubert
81. Salammbô—Gustave Flaubert
82. Three Short Tales—Gustave Flaubert
83. The Education of Henry Adams—Henry Adams
84. Confessions—J.J. Rousseau
85. The Social Contract—J.J. Rousseau
86. Candide—Voltaire
87. Zadig—Voltaire
88. The Sincere Huron—Voltaire
89. Lord Jim—Joseph Conrad
90. The Secret Sharer—Joseph Conrad
91. The Secret Agent—Joseph Conrad
92. Kim—Rudyard Kipling
93. The Man who Would Be King—Rudyard Kipling
94. The Good Soldier—Ford Madox Ford
95. Penguin Island—Anatole France
96. The Hunchback of Notre Dame—Victor Hugo
97. Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe—George Eliot
98. Ball of Fat—Guy de Maupassant

Short Stories

99. The Old Chief Mshlanga—Doris Lessing
100. Zawalahbi—Naguib Mahfouz
101. L’Anguille—Jon Trobaugh
102. Yellow Woman—Leslie Marmom Silko
103. The Rooftop Dwellers—Anita Desai
104. Stories—Lucian of Samosata

Some of his assorted stories are the only things this year that were rereadings for me. My favorite writer from the Greco-Roman world.

105. Stories—Anton Chekhov

For the third year in a row, I gradually worked my way through more of his stories, which are endless (in a good way).

Books Partially Read, Unfinished or Abandoned

106. The Old Devils—Kingsley Amis
107. The Satanic Verses—Salman Rushdie
108. The Museum of Innocence—Orhan Pamuk
109. The Matisse Stories—A.S. Byatt
110. The Sense of an Ending—Frank Kermode

Famous work of literary criticism, obviously picked up after Barnes’ novel named for it.

111. The Wings of the Dove—Henry James

This is the only one from this final section that I will not come back to. I am actually finished with James for the foreseeable future, if not a whole lifetime.

Goodbye to Christmas Truces

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

We have recently passed the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which has occasioned a fair amount of press coverage looking back at the so-called (and ill-named) “Great War” or “War to End all Wars”. I intend to join this chorus with some of my own thoughts. For many people interested in history, the Second World War is the more interesting one due to its grander scale and its relatively clearly-defined moral force. For me, the First World War holds more interest since it was what I consider a “highly preventable” war that preceded and directly led to the next “necessary” or “just” war (if such a thing does exist, per Saint Augustine, then World War II is surely its closest reification in modern history). To be honest, I would rather consider both wars merely two parts of the same dance of death, punctuated by a short interval of instability (not unlike a modern and truly global version of that first “world war” reported by Thucydides — the Peloponnesian War). In any case, the causes and aftermath of the First World War would be laughingly stupid and unbelievable if they were not already tragically stupid and unbelievable. I am reminded of a quote by Jorge Luis Borges about the 1982 Falklands War, “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb.” In a similar way, we could say that the First World War was a fight between a bunch of spoiled children over who got to use the playroom. Though they all had their own toys, sharing and cooperation were unlearned traits. There is something profoundly important to remember about this tragedy, though sometimes the easiest way to deal with tragedy, if not outrage, stoicism, or escapism, involves a disarming sense of humor and irreverence. All four issues will be dealt with in this essay, in which I will focus on Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, his memoirs of early life in England up to and after his participation in the trenches of WWI. Graves was a highly prolific poet and author most famous for his fictional rendering of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and of the Byzantine general in Count Belisarius (which I reviewed here). He was born in 1895, making him 19 years old when the war began–a typical age for new officer and soldier recruits. His mother was German and his middle name was von Ranke, which was no small problem considering the bullying nationalistic anti-German hysteria before, during, and after the war, and was one that caused suspicion from bullying schoolmates and later even from fellow soldiers despite his proven competence in battle. This was a smaller version of the same problem faced by fellow writer D.H. Lawrence, a pacifist married to a German who was under de facto house arrest for the entire war.

Goodbye to All That, published 11 years after the Armistice in 1929, was Graves’ second work of non-fiction after a biography of his friend T.E. Lawrence called Lawrence and the Arabs. By this time, Graves had already published many poetry collections, including poems written before and during the war. The publication of his memoirs came at a time in which the young author had apparently only recently recovered from years of emotional trauma that today we would call PTSD (often called “shell shock”), and the title references what he calls his “bitter leave-taking of England”, including its war, its politics, its society and education, and even many of his own family and friends. Here is a representative quote about his post-war experience: “Very thin, very nervous, and with about four years’ loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone’s orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.” After publication of Goodbye to All That, Graves moved to the Spanish island of Majorca were he remained for the rest of his life, except for a long stay in America to escape the Spanish civil war.

The book is important for its ability to capture, from the point of view of a single individual rather than a comprehensive historian, the passing of one epoch to another that occurred with the First World War–from what has been called the “long 19th century” (or the “belle epoque” if you like) to the “modern age” of which we are still living (or transitioning out of to a still-undefined age). These are mere historical categories, but they tend to capture the turbulence that saw many of the changes to an old world system dating from the French Revolution, or the Middle Ages in some cases, to a new world where possibilities for progress and destruction both expanded exponentially. Graves serves as a paradigm of a certain type of young person (by definition well-educated and middle-class), especially in England but also throughout the West, after the First World War who saw personal shifts in thinking towards more radical ideas like socialism, atheism, feminism, and pacifism based on their first-hand experiences in the trenches, as well as in their jaded view of a society which they discovered to be neither as civilized nor as progressive as they had thought (I think Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, captures this sense from the German perspective).

Graves opens with an account of his family history and early years, with the first line stating his acceptance of the autobiographical convention of starting with earliest memories: witnessing Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee, in his case. He spends some time in these chapters detailing his visits to his aristocratic German relatives in their Bavarian castles and against whom he would later take arms.

He attended many public schools (what Americans would call private or prep schools), with the longest tenure at one called Charterhouse. Several anecdotes are given regarding the severity and hypocrisy of the education system he went through. Outdated but still powerful Victorian standards of morality accomplished little more than to stifle emotional development and foster “immorality”. One such case is his description of the rampant homosexuality in these types of all-boys boarding schools, going so far as to detail his own platonic infatuation with a younger schoolmate. He dwells on his friendship with George Mallory, the famous alpinist who was an older mentor at Charterhouse and later best man at Graves’ wedding. Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924 after possibly being the first person to reach the summit, was mentioned as one of the only people who treated students like humans, which puzzled everyone according to Graves. Also at this time Graves took up boxing as much to defend against bullies as to keep fit, and would later prove useful in proving his manliness (and, thus, his worth) in front of soldiers and superiors alike.

The heart of the book comes in the middle chapters detailing Graves’ time spent on the Western Front. At the outbreak of war, he deferred his matriculation to Oxford University in order to join the army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Welsh Regiment since his family home was in Harlech in northwest Wales. Like so many other young men, he was eager to join in the fighting before the war ended (how many times it is said at the beginning of every war that it will be over “by Christmas”). While the war obviously did not end by December 25, 1914, Graves witnessed the famous Christmas Day truce soon after joining his regiment on the Western Front (he refers to it as the Christmas 1914 fraternization, of which his regiment was among the first to participate). This event, the likes of which are rare in the annals of war, saw the belligerents, German, French, and British, come out of their trenches and join in an unarmed singing of carols and exchange of greetings and gifts. More than anything else, this short-lived sense of shared humanity and brotherhood can be interpreted as soldiers losing the martial spirit and wanting to take back control of some part of their lives, however small or temporary. I spent two Christmases in Afghanistan and well understand the sentiment of soldiers that comes at times like Christmas in which all that is desired is a temporary break from the stress and trauma of war.  Even in 1914, the truce was obviously resented by the generals and politicians, who ensured there would not be a repeat of such non-warlike sentiment the next Easter or following Christmases, as well as by the Press in the involved countries, where no mention was made for at least a week after the event that hundreds of thousands laid down their arms to hobnob with the enemy. The press coverage also distorted and minimized the truce in order to make it seem more freakish and less peaceful than it actually was. The Christmas Day truce lives on in popular memory and culture, however, and this year the British supermarket Sainsbury’s went so far as to make a television commercial reenactment of it in which a German and British soldier swap chocolate and biscuits.

One of the central events in the book is the Battle of Loos, a British and French attack on German lines in September 1915 in which a few kilometers of ground changed hands and almost 100,000 men died. It was the first use of poison gas by the British, and also the battle in which Kipling’s son went permanently missing in action, prompting that writer of The Jungle Book to write the sad poem “My Boy Jack.” Graves describes how the gas was euphemistically referred to “the accessory”, and how everyone was highly skeptical of its efficacy because its supervisors were university chemistry professors brought in to administer it. Sure enough, “the accessory” was deployed with a headwind coming into the Allied lines, causing the gas to harm the British more than the Germans it was intended for. The battle itself was also an all-around disaster. Graves mentions how, much later in the war when he had been sent home to recover from his wounds, he was asked to give a speech to 3000 incoming Canadian soldiers. “They were Canadians, so instead of giving my usual semi-facetious lecture on ‘How to be Happy, Though in the Trenches’, I paid them the compliment of telling the real story of Loos, and what a balls-up it had been, and why – more or less as it has been given here. This was the only audience I have ever held for an hour with real attention. I expected Major Currie to be furious, because the principal object of the Bull Ring was to inculcate the offensive spirit; but he took it well and put several other concert-hall lectures on me after this.”

A key feature of Goodbye to All That is the farcical and probably invented dialogue, which reads like short theatrical set-pieces. It seems like almost every occasion of reported speech involves a back-and-forth rhythmic dialogue that ends in someone laying a punch-line. Along with the stock characters, this shows the fictionalized nature of Graves’ memoirs (a feature which recalls Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, or Robert Byron’s travel writing masterpiece The Road to Oxiana).

One of the most important characters in Graves’ book is Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow “war poet” who joined Graves’ Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment in 1916 and struck up an immediate friendship. Sassoon published his own three-part fictionalized autobiography in the 1930’s with the middle book, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, covering the war. Like Graves, Sassoon had not published any poetry when they met, and Graves’ realistic (as opposed to romantic) style influenced his friend. They both published collections before the end of the war. Sassoon was described by Graves as being one of the most courageous men he had ever seen or heard about in his time in the trenches. He tells one story in particular about how Sassoon single-handedly attacked and took control of a German observation trench, then enraged his superiors by not telling anyone about it. He was found two hours later sitting in the German trench reading a book of poetry. Sassoon, like Graves, later suffered a type of nervous breakdown and wrote his famous 1917 “Soldier’s Declaration” denouncing the war and the government’s incompetent prosecution of it. In this, he was encouraged by anti-war activists like Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Sassoon threw his Military Cross for bravery into a river, though he escaped a court-martial, with Graves’ help, and was sent to a hospital to recover from “shell shock”. There he met Wilfred Owen, another war poet hugely influenced and encouraged by Sassoon, and who was himself killed on the Western Front one week before the Armistice. I find it worth mentioning that Sassoon and Owen were both gay. Another gay soldier was the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein who, like Sassoon, volunteered for service at the outbreak of war and demonstrated repeated bravery in battle on the Russian Front to the point of being thought suicidal (which he also was). Such examples make one wonder why gay soldiers in the American military have until recently been considered unfit for service.

One of the most tragic, and understated, events of the book is when three officers of Graves’ battalion, and three of his closest friends, were all killed in the same day by shelling and sniper fire. David Thomas, the third member of the trio of poet friends in the battalion, was among the dead. Graves states: “I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was acting transport-officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.” Soon thereafter, he writes: “My breaking-point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the breakdown come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.”

Graves finished his time in the trenches during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, being injured so gravely as to be reported dead. He spent the rest of the war convalescing in hospitals, helping train new volunteers to his unit, and even being posted to Ireland where the English garrison was trying to stop (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the burgeoning Irish uprising. The rest of the book talks about his marriage to a feminist activist, their move to the country near Oxford, setting up house, opening a general store (“The moral problems of trade interested me. Nancy and I both found it very difficult at this time of fluctuating prices to be really honest; we could not resist the temptation of under-charging the poor villagers of Wootton, who were frequent customers, and recovering our money from the richer residents. Playing at Robin Hood came easily to me. Nobody ever detected the fraud”), and having four children in eight years (possibly the most amazing fact of the autobiography; he mentions at this point how sometimes he would only scrape out half an hour or so of writing a day in between his fatherly and household care taking duties–we can well imagine).

In this later part he also deals at length with his friendship with T.E. Lawrence, whose biography he wrote just before Goodbye to All That. Here are, in my opinion, two of the most important quotes from that chapter: “I knew nothing definite of Lawrence’s wartime activities, though my brother Philip had been with him in the Intelligence Department at Cairo in 1915, making out the Turkish Order of Battle. I did not question him about the Revolt, partly because he seemed to dislike the subject – Lowell Thomas was now lecturing in the United States on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and partly because of a convention between him and me that the war should not be mentioned: we were both suffering from its effects and enjoying Oxford as a too-good-to-be-true relaxation. Thus, though the long, closely-written foolscap sheets of The Seven Pillars were always stacked in a neat pile on his living-room table, I restrained my curiosity. He occasionally spoke of his archaeological work in Mesopotamia before the war; but poetry, especially modern poetry, was what we discussed most.” And the other: “Lawrence’s rooms were dark and oak-panelled, with a large table and a desk as the principal furniture. There were also two heavy leather chairs, simply acquired. An American oil-financier had come in suddenly one day when I was there and said: ‘I am here from the States, Colonel Lawrence, to ask a single question. You are the only man who will answer it honestly. Do Middle-Eastern conditions justify my putting any money in South Arabian oil?’ Lawrence, without rising, quietly answered: ‘No.’ ‘That’s all I wanted to know; it was worth coming for. Thank you, and good day!’ In his brief glance about the room he missed something and, on his way home through London, chose the chairs and had them sent to Lawrence with his card.” I find these scenes moving and relevant.

The book ends in 1929, though shortly after he divorced his first wife, and got married and had four more children with his poetic muse, Laura Riding, with whom he established a publishing company at their base on Majorca. He was runner-up to the Nobel Prize in Literature won by Steinbeck, and he died at the age of 90 with 140 published works.

The whole of Graves’ memoirs is filled with stories of understated and cynical humor, and pathos. In one case, he describes the last time he attended church which was during his Easter 1916 visit home. He tells a story of having to push his mother uphill in an heavy bath chair, since the only available wheelchair in town was taken by “Countess of-I-forget-what”, and then sit through a three-hour service despite being ill himself. About the ordeal he writes: “I forgot my father’s gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart to pull their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate happiness.” During the sermon the “strapping” young curate, one of four men present–compared with 75 women–was “bellowing about the Glurious Performances of our Sums and Brethren in Frurnce today. I decided to ask him afterwards why, if he felt like that, he wasn’t himself either in Frurnce or in khurki.” His father then took him to meet War Secretary (and future Prime Minister) David Lloyd-George, who Graves says “was up in the air on one of his ‘glory of the Welsh hills’ speeches. The power of his rhetoric amazed me. The substance of the speech might be commonplace, idle, and false, but I had to fight hard against abandoning myself with the rest of his authence. He sucked power from his listeners and spurted it back at them. Afterwards, my father introduced me to Lloyd George, and when I looked closely at his eyes they seemed like those of a sleep-walker.” It is worth mentioning that Graves’ book angered so many people that even his father, one of the offended, felt it necessary to write his own memoirs as a rebuttal to his son’s entitled To Return to All That.

While I have enjoyed and profited from reading “big” history, Goodbye to All That is a great example of the importance and edification of reading individual accounts of history. I always find autobiographies of great and famous people illuminating for the perspective it helps give to their time period. Though I have studied history and literature, I am no scholar and seek mostly entertainment and self-improvement in my reading. I will leave it to others to argue more convincingly the faults or short-comings of books like Graves’ or Sassoon’s memoirs (Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory comes to mind, which Mike Carson has already discussed at length here), but I personally find such personal accounts interesting and instructive.

Regarding a sense of humor towards destructive war declared by elites and suffered by the common man, I think it is not only in bad taste but can do more harm than good by normalizing the illegality and immorality of the war. Thus, I agree with this quote by Bertrand Russell, a pacifist who spent the last year of World War One in prison for speaking against involuntary military service for conscientious objectors: “Alas, I am that extremely rare being, a man without a sense of humour. I had not suspected this painful fact until the middle of the Great War, when the British War Office sent for me and officially informed me of it. I gathered that if I had had my proper share of a sense of the ludicrous, I should have been highly diverted at the thought of several thousand young men a day being blown into tiny little bits, which, I confess to my shame, never once caused me to smile. I am reminded of a Chinese emperor, who long ago constructed a lake made entirely of wine, and then drove his peasants into it only to amuse his wife with the struggles of their drunken drownings. Now he had a sense of humor.”

Regarding a sense of humor, which can only be “dark” or cynical, by veterans against their war which may be a way to ease the personal trauma and represent, even fictionalized, the collective tragedy in which they played a part, I look up to Graves and his successors such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, who have highly influenced the field of war literature.

Regarding the causes of destructive (and self-destructive) wars like WWI, I will leave it once more with the wise and quotable Bertrand Russell, writing here in his book Education and the Social Order about the innate violent sense of retributive justice that is easily awakened in humans: “I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: ‘The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.’ In these words he epitomised the history of the human race.” One of the things that makes us human is the ability to laugh in the face of the tragically absurd, and continue living in spite of it. Graves in this book has done just that, making his book a classic not only in the genre of war literature but in modern literature as a whole.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Review

Shortly after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Booker Prize was awarded to fellow American Paul Beatty for his novel The Sellout. It seems Americans are having a moment in the world of literary prestige, maybe to counterbalance the current political nadir. Dylan was the first American to win the Nobel in 23 years, and Beatty is the first American ever to win the Booker Prize, the pre-eminent prize in Anglophone letters. Originally the Booker Prize had been limited to British writers, then eventually to English language writers from the larger British commonwealth, now to any writer in English. I have read a few handfuls of the past winners and candidates, and I can say that Paul Beatty’s win is well-deserved and ranks among the best of them.

The Sellout is a satire on race in America. It is not only one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read about race in America (a relatively limited number for me), but one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read, period. The novel is told by a Black urban farmer with the surname Me in a fictional South-Central Los Angeles slum called Dickens. This impoverished locality, “the murder capital of the world”, was an embarrassment to L.A. and the U.S.A. and was disincorporated by the authorities. One of the central plans of Me is to reconstitute and delineate his hometown of Dickens. He also begins to slyly reinstitute segregation, first on his girlfriend’s bus, then in shops, the library, and the school. After this gambit, crime plummeted and student test results skyrocketed.

The main character was raised and home-schooled only by his father, a prominent psychologist and intellectual who made his son’s life into one long racial sociological experiment. The farm they inhabit takes on Garden of Eden-like qualities, with an impossibly wide-range of exotic fruits that are well-known around town, and delicious enough to make rival gang members put away their Glocks to lick up watermelon juice. One of the members of the local donut shop intellectual club is a Black media impresario named Foy Cheshire, who steals Me’s father’s best ideas to get rich, and calls the main character “the Sellout” for most of the book.

The funniest and most controversial character by far is an aged television actor named Hominy Jenkins, who played a minor role in the old Little Rascals TV series of the 1920-40s. Hominy rejoices at all signs of overt racism, and happily enlists himself as the Sellout’s lazy and unwanted slave. The eventual discovery of this relationship and the resegregation scheme puts the main character behind bars, and eventually in front of the Supreme Court.

There are numerous mentions of real-life African-Americans, often unnamed for legal reasons, throughout the novel, including Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Dave Chappelle. The novel makes use of the author’s detailed knowledge of Los Angeles, as well as Black pop culture, intellectual culture, language, film and TV, and literature. The plot is very engaging from the first page to the last, as well as being chock-full of new ideas in almost every paragraph. The author never seems to run out of interesting and funny new formulations about race and life in America. It is a very difficult book written with frankness and irreverence, not worried about upsetting any sacred cow or offending overly sensitive readers.  It appears at a time when just such blunt discussions of race are needed.

One instance of how biting the book can often be is this passage about all of the miserable cities of the world that rejected Dickens as a potential sister city. The last of these is the Lost City of White Male Privilege:

“The Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolano’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.”

In the final anecdote in the novel the main character tells about a long-ago visit to a local comedy club featuring open mic night for black comedians. Halfway through, a white couple walks in and begins joining in the laughter. The comedian confronts the white couple and asks them to leave. “This is our thing,” he says. The main character then expresses regret that he did not stand up for the couple’s right to be there. It’s a serious end to a powerful, nuanced, and funny book. As all satire, it punches up at an entrenched system of power–racism and bigotry, in this case. Most of the blows landed. In “post-racial” America, though, it will take a lot more people punching to topple the system in question. And a lot more people reading and writing and engaging in open dialogue with each other, and defending each other’s rights to live and laugh freely.

The Italian Front in WWI: Bad Tactics, Worse Leadership, and Pointless Sacrifice

During this ongoing centenary of the First World War, interest in “The War to End All Wars” has returned, especially in the form of articles and essays. In the English-speaking world, this is almost always focused on the Western Front and the battles featuring Britain or the USA (I contributed to this phenomenon with my essay discussing Robert Graves, Goodbye to Christmas Truces). The contributions of nations on other fronts are largely forgotten in this context. How many people even know which side Romania or Bulgaria fought on, or where Galicia is? The Italian Front is also largely unknown in the Anglosphere, except perhaps to note that it is the setting for Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. After reading Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 (Basic Books, 2010), I learned a great deal about this important historical chapter, and strongly recommend this book to all readers of history.

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The charnel-house of Pasubio, towering over the Venetian plain

I have lived in Italy for 10 years, during which time my passion for history and mountains has served me well. I have hiked up dozens of alpine peaks still crisscrossed with trenches, tunnels, and artillery positions. The World War I front is ubiquitous in northeast Italy, stretching over 400 miles across the Dolomites and Julian Alps from Lake Garda to the Isonzo River in Slovenia. When I was in the U.S. Army I participated in a battalion staff ride to the Asiago plateau north of Vicenza to study the battlefield. As an artillery officer myself I was responsible for researching and giving a presentation to the group about the nature of indirect fire during the war. There are many enormous, Fascist-era charnel-houses along the front holding the mortal remains of tens of thousands or more of fallen soldiers–I have visited these monumental tombs at Asiago, Pasubio, Monte Grappa, and Caporetto several times each, and it is always a sobering experience. Every town in Italy displays a plaque in the public square with the names of those native sons who died in the wars, a dozen or less in the case of the smallest villages. Unlike America, which has not seen war on its own soil since the 1865, the memories of the two world wars live on in a much more profound way in Italy and all the countries of Europe. In Italy’s case, the ostensible “victory” of the First World War make it the source of a continuing myth of heroism. Here’s the truth: Italy’s participation and conduct in that war was a total disaster that led directly to its two decades of Fascist rule, and subsequent defeat in the next world war.

Bad Tactics

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Alpini, mountain soldiers still revered today in Italy, climbing up a steep slope to their positions

One notable recent exception to the general lack of English-language recognition of the Italian front is this fantastic journalism by Brian Mockenhaupt in Smithsonian Magazine. In this article the author mainly discusses the extreme winter hardships of the high mountain fighting in the Dolomites and the feats of engineering by both the Italians and Austrians. Despite repeated offensives, almost all by the Italian side, the front throughout the war stayed remarkably stable in something resembling an even more inept version of the trench warfare of the Western Front. The two main sectors were the high mountainous border between the Trentino and Veneto, especially around the Asiago plateau down to Monte Grappa, and the line of the Isonzo (now Soča) River which nearly aligns with the current border of Italy and Slovenia and is characterized by a plateau called the Carso. The first sector is rightly famous for the unprecedented extremes I mentioned before. Indeed, Mark Thompson says in The White War: “The mountain units had to endure fantastically severe conditions. War had never been fought at such heights before, up to 3,500 metres. Fighting in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and more recently in Kashmir occurred at even greater altitudes, but the soldiers’ experience on the Alpine front remains unmatched.” As for the feats of engineering, this was probably the single strong point of the Italian war effort from 1915-1918, and one has left traces all over the mountains today from the 52 tunnels carved up into Mt. Pasubio, to the cable cars, vie ferrate, trenches, and explosive mining under enemy positions. Otherwise, both sectors of the front still suffered from the same massive errors of strategic and tactical planning and execution that doomed both belligerent countries to such a brutal and dismal struggle.

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The blue-green waters of the Soča (Isonzo) as it flows peacefully through the verdant valley of Kobarid (Caporetto)

For anyone who has never been in close proximity to artillery shells landing or machine-guns firing, it is hard to imagine the destruction these modern weapons can cause on unsuspecting or unprepared human beings. Imagine men moving up exposed and difficult terrain into unbreachable barbed wire entanglements, then you will have an idea of the fundamental tactical problem of World War One that led to the stalemate of trench warfare. On the Isonzo Front, the Italians fought 12 large battles along the exact same lines over the course of over two years, involving over a couple million soldiers, a million casualties, and absolutely no change of tactics to face the artillery, machine-guns, and barbed wire. The Austro-Hungarians defended this front extremely well for over two years, very undermanned and under-equipped, giving up very little territory, and inflicting more casualties on their enemy than they received most of the time. In The White War, Thompson writes: “The Italians kept coming, wave after wave, across open ground in close-order formation, shoulder to shoulder, against field guns and machine guns. To one Austrian artillery officer, ‘it looked like an attempt at mass suicide’. Those who reached the deserted Austrian line met flame-throwers, tear gas, and machine-gun and rifle fire emanating from hollows and outcrops on the crumpled Carso. When dusk fell, their only significant gain was a hilltop, wrested from the Polish infantry of the 16th Division.”

The 12th Battle of the Isonzo of October 1917, often called the Battle of Caporetto, was the first and only offensive by the Austrians on this front during the war. It was also a massive and unexpected defeat for the Italians that took back a part of the territory ceded to Italy in 1866 and nearly succeeded in forcing Italy to sue for a separate peace treaty. Superior German forces participated and led the way in this victory, including a vanguard company led by a young Lieutenant Erwin Rommel whose initiative caught much larger Italian forces unawares and helped break the poorly defended Italian lines west of the Isonzo. Thompson writes: “Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organization, one of the most hidebound in Europe. The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed.”

The disaster of Caporetto for the Italians led to the long overdue replacement of the inept  Supreme Commander Luigi Cadorna, and the consolidation of Italian forces along a much more compact and well-defended line of the Piave River north of Venice. This allowed the Italians to bide their time and build up forces for one last offensive against the by-then completely exhausted and hopeless Austrians. This last battle, with the auspicious name of Vittorio Veneto, supposedly washed away forever the stain of Caporetto and the Isonzo (which seem to have been traumatically erased from Italian memory immediately after the war).

Even for someone who spent two years in combat and is well-versed in military history, the stupidity and callousness of the Italian generals is enraging. Sending millions of courageous young men into uphill attacks without effective artillery backup, aerial support, intelligence, or even wire-cutters for the barbed wire is a way to earn the absolute contempt of your own soldiers, as well as the enemy, as well as posterity. Thompson described the front in this way: “Italian losses were increased by sheer carelessness, born of inexperience and also ideology. Many officers disdained to organize their defenses properly because they thought the Austrians did not deserve the compliment. Only tragic experience would expunge this prejudice.”

And again here: “The troops were unprepared, in every sense, for the conditions they faced. Lacking weapons, ordered to attack barbed wire, struck down by typhoid and cholera, poorly clothed and fed, sleeping on wet hay or mud, the men began to realize that they were ‘going to be massacred, not to fight’. Hardly Garibaldian warriors, rather cannon fodder in a new kind of war.”

On the living conditions at the front that never improved in nearly three years: “Sweat, dust, mud, rain and sun turned the men’s woolen uniforms into something like parchment. Their boots often had cardboard uppers and wooden soles. Lacking better remedies, the men rubbed tallow into their cracked feet. Helmets were in very short supply. The wooden water bottles were unhygienic. The tents – when they had them – leaked. The wire-cutters were almost useless, and unusable under fire: ‘mere garden secateurs’, as a Sardinian officer wrote disgustedly in his diary. Ration parties were often delayed by enemy fire. The only hot meal was in the morning, and so poor that soldiers often rejected most of it. The pervasive stench could, anyway, make eating impossible. The effects of such poor nutrition were evident after three or four days in the trenches, and some units sent out raiding parties for food and clothing in trenches that the enemy had abandoned. The soldiers slept on straw pallets, but there were not enough to go around. Even in the rear, before proper hutments were built, the men lived in tents that quickly became waterlogged and filthy. Abysmal medical care led to ‘a good number of avoidable deaths due to inhuman treatment’. Wounded men were routinely ‘shipped on 20 or 30 km ambulance runs on vile roads and then kept waiting for hours outside hospital’.”

Worse Leadership

How did things get so miserable for the Italian side? The answer is an utter lack of political and military leadership. The only person of leadership during this war who comes out well in reading The White War is General Armando Diaz, who replaced Luigi Cadorna after Caporetto and injected basic competence and caution into the war. I cannot recall in any historical period a supreme commander who combined such unchallenged authority and staying power with such complete incompetence. In any other situation, a leader such as Cadorna would have been quickly killed, replaced, or forced into surrender. The less said about this character, who somehow still has streets named after him in Italy, the better.

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Luigi Cadorna

I’ll leave him with two succinct descriptions from Thompson’s book: “Worst of all, Cadorna had discovered a knack for abandoning offensives when Boroević [the very capable Croatian general of the Austrian Isonzo forces] had committed his last reserves. The steely exterior concealed a vacillating spirit.”

“Cadorna’s and Capello’s [another inept general] actions in the Eleventh Battle were so careless and self-destructive that historians have struggled to account for them. In truth, the two men acted fully in character. Cadorna’s battle plans always tended to incoherence, his command often slackened fatally in the course of offensives.”

The other, more complex side of the leadership vacuum was political. Cadorna was only able to consolidate such unchallenged power for so long because he answered only to the monarch, still a position of great power in Italy at that time. The monarch was a figure known as Vittorio Emmanuele III, the grandson of the first king of unified Italy, and a weak-willed and morally suspect character. This king nevertheless enjoyed a long reign from 1900, when his father Umberto was assassinated, to 1946, when he finally abdicated in a quixotic bid to save the institution of the monarchy for his son and for Italy. Fortunately, Italy voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic, and finally vindicating the true fathers of Italy, Garibaldi and Mazzini. Victor Emanuel was so short (4’11”) that he could not wear a real sword, and so his nickname was “Little Sabre”. Italy engaged in at least five foolish wars during his reign, and he was instrumental in allowing Mussolini’s Fascist regime to violently take control of the government and hold it for 22 years.

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Mussolini and D’Annunzio in 1925: architects of the “anti-Risorgimento”. Mussolini paid the poet a yearly stipend from 1922 to his death in 1938 for not interfering in politics.

Before Mussolini, there was the fascinating and nauseating character of Gabriele D’Annunzio, a Decadent poet, for a long time the most famous person in Italy, and a bloodthirsty proto-Fascist. Thompson spends an early chapter explaining the importance of D’Annunzio in making the blustery rhetorical case for Italy’s involvement in a war most Italians did not care about. The poet at least backed up his words with actions, as he was given an army commission and entered himself into many battles on his own authority, seemingly getting a rise out of the abundant bloodshed falling for Italy’s sake. This disturbing character does not come out well in Thompson’s account, and rightfully so, I think.

The last aspect of failed political leadership that needs mentioning is the shameful way Italy’s representatives behaved both before and after the war. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister before and during most of the war, Salandra and Sonnino respectively, ensured that neither its allies nor its enemies respected Italy’s shameful conduct. Italy was actually a member of a secret defensive alliance with Germany and Austria before the war. Italy did not support its allies at the outbreak of war because Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia was not defensive in nature. The Italians stood on the sidelines for almost the first year of the war, playing both sides to get a better deal for its aggressive territorial claims. Everything about the beginning of World War One was tragically absurd, but Italy ended up being the most unnecessarily and nakedly opportunistic of all the belligerents. It wanted Austria to give up large parts of its territory in Trentino, South Tyrol, and Friuli (including Trieste) in return for Italy’s honoring its alliance. When Austria (who was still Italy’s historical nemesis despite this dubious alliance) balked, Italy obtained a secret deal with the England and France called the Treaty of London that guaranteed it would get all the territory it wanted after the war. In the end, Italy’s disastrous human cost of participation in this war can be placed fully in the hands of just three people, according to Thompson–Salandra, Sonnino, and D’Annunzio.

Pointless Sacrifice

Italy’s total number killed was 689,000, the total number of wounded was nearly 1,000,000, and prisoners and missing in action was also 600,000. A huge majority of them occurred on the 55-mile Isonzo front, and Italy, almost uniquely in this war, was only fighting one enemy. The total casualties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were over three times higher than Italy’s, but that includes the much larger front against Russia as well as Serbia and Romania. For further comparison, Italy suffered more casualties during 3 1/2 years along its only front than both sides of the entire U.S. Civil War, which was the bloodiest in American history.

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The War Memorial of Asiago holds the remains of 55,000 soldiers

Again and again, the numbers of men slaughtered in each and every battle was much higher than it should have been given even modest improvements of tactics or basic respect for human life by the officers. At one hilltop near Gorizia, whose importance was only symbolic, Thompson writes: “The conquest of San Michele had cost at least 110,000 Italian casualties over 14 months, including 19,000 dead, on a sector only eight kilometers long.” At one outcropping defended by the Austrians in the Dolomites, wave after wave of Italians were sent into machine-gun fire and “more than 6000 Italians had died on Col di Lana for precisely nothing.” After one of the endless offensives on the Isonzo, Thompson writes of Cadorna: “As for his actual gains on the Carso, they amounted to several villages and a couple kilometers of limestone, won at a cost of 80,000 casualties.” In another nameless struggle: “Five regiments were launched against the lone Habsburg battalion on Hill 383. Outnumbered by 15 to 1, the Austrians still inflicted 50% casualties on the attackers before succumbing.” All of this bloodshed was obviously mind and soul-numbing, not only to the millions of soldiers who were called up, but also for the entire nation, most of whom did not want or care about this war and did not even know why it was being fought.

After the war, Italian politicians once again played disgraceful diplomacy to the abhorrence of allies and enemies alike. Prime Minister Orlando and Foreign Minister Sonnino made absurd claims to places like Rijeka, the Dalmatian coast, Albania, and even Turkey, in order to justify their sacrifice, apparently forgetting that every other country “sacrificed” at least as much, and that Italy’s position on the “winning” side of the war still did not exactly give it the moral high ground. As Thompson writes: “Orlando’s and Sonnino’s zero-sum strategy in Paris dealt a fatal wound to Italy’s liberal system, already battered by the serial assaults of wartime. By stoking the appetite for unattainable demands, they encouraged Italians to despise their victory unless it led to the annexation of a small port on the other side of the Adriatic, with no historic connection to the motherland. Fiume [Rijeka in Croatian] became the first neuralgic point created by the Paris conference. Like the Sudetenland for Hitler’s Germany and Transylvania for Hungary, it was a symbol of burning injustice. A sense of jeopardized identity and wounded pride fused with a toponym to produce an explosive compound.”

D’Annunzio’s thirst for violence and aggressive nationalism was not quenched at the end of the war, and he laid the blueprint for the next several decades of fascist dictators by seizing the port of Rijeka with a small militia and declaring it an independent Italian Regency. After he declared war on Italy itself the Italian navy placed a well-aimed shell in D’Annunzio’s palace, which led to the poet’s quick surrender and flight from the city. Furthermore, the combination of a destructive war and the economic hardships it imposed laid the foundation for future political upheaval. “This enduring sense of bitterness, betrayal, and loss was an essential ingredient in the rise of Mussolini and his Blackshirts.” Thompson further comments: “For many veterans, Mussolini’s myth gave a positive meaning to terrible experience. This is the story of how the Italians began to lose the peace when their laurels were still green.”

An outside observer such as Hemingway, barely 19 years old and on the front for only one month, was able to see the war as “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery.” Somewhat incredibly, from my experience and what I’ve read, the general opinion about the First World War in Italy is either of forgetfulness or buying into the heroic myth-making of the Fascist regime that wrote the history books in Italy for over a generation. Even if that regime is mostly discredited now (pictures of Il Duce still adorn the mantelpieces of at least a few rustic houses around the peninsula–I have even seen it with my own eyes twice!), the history involved before and during the world wars is too tragic to be accepted. The heroism of the Alpini, rugged mountain soldiers, lingers in the national consciousness more than anything else. Thompson comments that, for all the destruction, World War One was Italy’s “first true collective national experience”, one whose exorbitant cost only led its victims to embrace it even further. It may be that every symbolic “birth of a nation” always only truly comes about through a horrific spasm of violence.

I think this is where the history of one front of one particular war becomes something more universal in the human experience. War is the worst thing humans do. Based on our biological and social development, it is also one of the most complex and psychologically conflicted. The lessons of history always point to the folly of war, but that has rarely stopped opportunistic politicians and greedy businessmen from precipitating the next one, even against the wishes of the majority. In Italy, as Thompson meditates: “The Risorgimento [the national unification movement led by Garibaldi and Mazzini] was libertarian, patriotic, democratic, enlightened, and still unfinished, forever wrestling with its antithetical twin: authoritarian, manipulative, nationalistic, conspiratorial, and aggressive. From 1915-1944, the anti-Risorgimento had the upper hand. Perhaps the two still contend for mastery of Italy’s dark heart.” I would venture to say that in all countries at all times, these two antithetical notions always vie for control of political power, using emotional calls to arms, for the purpose of either the enlightened betterment of all, or the greedy enrichment of a few. We must always heed these two irreconcilable ideas, and always come out on the side that seeks to end whatever war we are in, and oppose the next war.

 

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