Antoine Bloyé, by Paul Nizan

· Excerpt
· Introduction by Richard Elman
· Other Comments
· Locate a Copy


Cover of Monthly Review Press reissue of 'Antoine Bloyé'Antoine left with two stretchers, their bearers silent. They went on foot. In the depot at night you have to watch where you put your feet. The ground is full of traps and pitfalls, switch heads, ditches, and engines under steam, a tiny wisp of smoke coming from their stacks. Antoine was thinking. He did not take such deaths very easily. People said, “Accident at work.” And they tried to make you believe that work is a field of honor, while the company provides the widow with a pension, a niggardly pension, it parts with its pennies like a miser, it thinks that death is always overpaid; later it hires the sons of the dead and all is said.

Nothing is said. Every morning Antoine still saw on his arm the scar made by the explosion of a water gauge when he was an engineer. It dated from yesterday, this severing of a radial artery. He was “off the foot plate” too short a time not to feel close to men who die on their job from the blows of their profession. Engineers, people who give orders from afar, administrators, die in their beds more frequently than do the men of the train crews, firemen, conductors. General staffs rarely fall on the fighting line. How does one get reconciled to these things? Already there were so many stretchers in his memory, smashed chests, figures mangled like charred wool. He knew the life of the men who run the trains, their joys, their work, their code of honor, and their death, and now he was going to announce the final episode. It was a boss’s mission, the bosses announce the deaths and injuries. The bosses send messages of condolence. The bosses sometimes experience the uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

The stretcher bearers and Antoine arrived before the engineer’s house and then before that of the fireman. Antoine climbed their dark stairs, stifling his breath and muffling his tread as though to wake each new-made widow as late as possible, to delay the moment when he had at last to face the cries, the stammering of a woman blinded by the pepper of pain, befuddled by the coils of sleep. It was nevertheless necessary to knock and await the woman’s cough, the shuffling of her slippers, her fumbling with the latch. The door opened and all the warmth and security of the rooms evaporated. He entered the quiet semi-darkness as a thief, as a demon. And he spoke at first of wounds; he said, “We have brought him home.”

Then of severe wounds, then at last — and the wife had understood from the beginning — of death.

“Be brave, madame. It is a fatal accident.”

It left an unforgettable impression on his memory — the hastily lighted lamps, the plates on the oilcloth beside the wine bottle, the rigid bodies heavily borne to beds still warm from the women’s bodies, a dazed child standing in a corner, the widow’s wrath.

“You take away our men from us, you bring them back in pulp. Company of murderers!”

That night, Antoine discovered death. A certain death that he could not forgive himself.

To lay out the driver’s body on the bed, he had taken it in his arms. What terrible weight a dead man is. Besides the seventy-five or eighty kilos of his flesh, bones, and blood and all his fluids there is the weight of death itself, as though all the years the man had lived had suddenly accumulated in his body, weighing it down, coagulating like lead grown cold. A wounded man still knows how to make himself light; he has the magic warmth of his breathing, of his blood circulation, but this dead man was as rigid and motionless as marble. This dead man no longer looked like a man. Only his clothes were like all other clothes. Antoine held him tight, he embraced this body fraternally. Living men do not clasp each other thus, their bodies do not come into contact save through their hands. Embraces are decently reserved to love; men scarcely venture to touch each other. So it needed death for him to embrace this man.

Antoine could do nothing for him save stretch him out, and the weight of the dead man drew him toward the bed. He felt like saying to him, “Come on, old boy, help yourself a bit.”

He wanted to ask for forgiveness as though he had killed him with his own hands.

Introduction by Richard Elman

From the 1973 Monthly Review Press edition of Antoine Bloyé:

Paul Nizan never reached middle age. He died in 1940, aged thirty-five, with the French army at Dunkirk. He wrote six complete books: the novels Antoine Bloyé, La Conspiration [English title The Conspiracy, and Le Cheval de troie (translated in England as The Trojan Horse); two polemics, Les Chiens de garde (American edition, The Watchdogs) and Aden Arabie; and Chronique de Septembre. He had been a philosophy student of the idealist academician Leon Brunschvig at the Ecole Normale, a writer for L’Humanité and Le Soir, a Communist who broke with the party over the Hitler-Stalin pact. According to his former schoolmate Jean-Paul Sartre, he enjoyed the company of women. Nizan’s was a short though not an ordinary life and Antoine Bloyé is a major novel of such great intensity and compassion that its strength is still available to us. It is one of the truly great Marxist novels I know of, a work that incorporates the imagination of Marx to treat of the alienation of ordinary men from their fellow and their work, yet does so without once becoming scolding, combative, or sneering. It’s a thirties book that has not become time-locked.

This edition of Antoine Bloyé uses a translation that was published in the Soviet Union in 1935. Edmund Stevens, then Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, found a way to make hard, clear, intelligent English out of Nizan’s precise thoughtful French with its meditative echoes of Pascal. Published only a year before the Great Purges of Stalin, it must have had the force of novelty in party-hack Moscow literary circles. Nizan had been a Communist but, in literary matters, never a Sovietist. His literary inclinations were gravely modernist and French, and English publication of a novel such as this in the Soviet Union had to be something of an anomaly, explained perhaps by the fact that it was issued by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R..

… The power of this artist, she [Tilly Olsen] observed, had only once been expressed — in Antoine Bloyé, a book which she said had been important to her life. Tilly’s gift of mind was shortly thereafter followed by Nizan’s text.

The feelings aroused by my first encounter with Nizan’s funereal moral fiction remain with me even know, like a hurt one cannot forget. Tilly spoke of Bloyé in the reverential way that one reserves for masterpieces, although, as with any true masterpiece of this century, its language and feelings are understated, and much of the force of Nizan’s work derives from his ability to transform an ordinary life into a drama of suffering without redemption, of failure without pathos.

Antoine Bloyé’s terrible death in life was to manage his existence so that, in fact, he had never lived. Sartre tells us Nizan was obsessed by his father. All his life the man had cheated himself. He had led a life that denied his own humanity, his feelings. But within this parable of the career of the railway functionary is the choice each of us confronts, almost daily: to remain vivid and in touch with one’s experiences, to grow, to be one with one’s comrades, brothers, friends, and lovers; or to withdraw into oneself and bitterly await death, to suffer the slow, wasting passing of the timid, the intimidated, the encapsulated, the bourgeois whose life is wrapped “in cotton wool” (to use Nizan’s phrase), those whose selves have been shrunken into the deals they have made with their own lives. It is this constant test of humanity which Bloyé so plainly fails….

Antoine Bloyé is a child of the working class, a locomotive engineer who seeks to better himself by becoming petty bourgeois. He joins the bosses: he marries his boss’s daughter. At moments throughout his life, he is seized by a certain dull anger and regret. For he has given up everything in his life that was vivid for certain smug assurances. As Nizan puts it, “All his work only served to hide his essential unemployment…. There were times when he would have liked to quit the life he was leading and become someone new, a foreign someone who would be more like his real self….”

Time and again Nizan wants us to see Bloyé’s defeat as our contemporary defeat. It is the sort of life, Nizan tells us, that one could sum up in two brief obituary paragraphs in one of the provincial papers; that is just what he refuses to do. He treats Bloyé’s promise and vividness and yearnings empathically. He is able to make us accept, like breathing, the subtle social and political corruption of youthful spirit, that cruel banalization through marriage and getting on that our culture imposes on so many men as their rite of passage. He forces us to know this nobody — but never abstractly, as Camus might do, or with Sartre’s contempt. Bloyé is an authentic man set loose on a course of death, who lives in a world of schedules and trains, of honest accomplishments, domesticities, and occasional celebrations. He seeks to improve himself. He becomes declassed. He becomes a traitor. He dies alone, with only a wife to look after him, their pretense at love and sharing long a waste. His education has been to be selfish. He has been encouraged only to be isolated, greedy, and resentful, a mere atom, or monad. His oppression is the cultural — finally political — oppression directed against so many males; because they have been told they must get on, they must choke themselves emotionally….

… He wrote a book that is as current as the slogans of the best of our young people. It is a Marxist book: not only, or simply, because it sometimes incorporates into its analysis the language of Marxist economics as diction and metaphor with which to dramatize Bloyé’s betrayal; nor because its central event is a workaday life, its action the precise way in which the illusion of well-being is manipulated to imprison most of us and, in turn, to make us exploit our wives, our so-called friends, our mistresses, our children; but also because, as in most of Marx’s finest work, its instincts are poetic, its seeming prosiness is about a way of feeling that is materialist; and its expression is by psychological insight.

Other Comments

Karl Miller, New York Review of Books, 15 November 1973

There are those rare novels — Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is one — for which the label of masterpiece always seems slightly beside the point. Both Antoine Bloyé
and Call It Sleep suffered the similar fate of being lost literary classics that had to wait a generation or so after their publication before being restored to their rightful literary place. Antoine Bloyé, although of an entirely different literary tradition than Call It Sleep, has the same obsessive, wounding power.

Chicago Daily News

Its revival is a gift to modern literature. No one writes this way any more: Nizan tells a story that can be read on many levels and is expressed with a classic use of language. Antoine Bloyé is in the tradition of the great novels … it concerns a man, a class and a society…. This is a profound book, profoundly moving and profoundly sad. It makes the reader examine himself; it causes him to look again at the world he lives in, at the life he has chosen…. It is not a long book, but it is beautiful, satisfying and unforgettable…. This masterpiece will spur many readers to fill their lives, to search for the secret….

James Atlas, The Nation, 22 October 1973

Now, what distinguishes Paul Nizan’s Antoine Bloyé from the work of his fellow writers in France is the manner in which it illustrates the character of dialectical materialism–from the inside–without sacrificing the aesthetic possibilities of realism….

… It is a matter of real importance, then, that we have this translation of his best novel, not only, because Antoine Bloyé is a brilliant example of modern European literature but because it can serve to refine our awareness of the life and work of a significant literary figure….

What makes Nizan,s chronicle of a wasted life so vivid is the author,s awareness of Bloyés human possibilities. Writing from within the mind of an “ordinary” man, he was able to depict the circumstances, emotions and desires, the consciousness of which is necessarily diminished in those whom labor has robbed of the abillty to reflect. School, sexual adventures, marriage into a bourgeois family, the death in early childhood of a daughter; the birth of a son, promotions, vacations: these are mere events, and their qualities as lived experience he buried beneath obligation and blind will. Nizan tells us that Antoine Bloyé wasn’t “meditative,” that “events rolled past without his taking notice.” But the texture of Nizan’s prose, viscous and laden with sensation, imitates the world through which Bloyé moves. While his own life is crushed, “caught like an insect in this quivering web of railway lines,” the richness of the natural world surrounds him like a penumbra of unrealized hope. And that is what is most remarkable about Nizan’s achievement. Despite Antoine Bloyés docility, he sees, through the lens of Nizan’s sensibility, the world’s possibilities: the heaviness and indolence of Sunday, summer evenings on the waterfront, the memories of childhood whose atmosphere settled over the dinner table on visits to his parents’ home.

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Antoine Bloyé, by Paul Nizan
Translated by Edmund Stevens
First English publication: Moscow: Co-operative Publishing Society Of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1935
Reissued: New York, Monthly Review Press, 1973

Winds of Morning, by H. L. Davis

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Clallum Jake was a Columbia River Indian by residence, though he was heavier-built and more dignified than river Indians generally were. He lived most of the year on an Indian allotment sand spit that stuck out into the Columbia a few miles above the mouth of the Camas River, where he operated a seining ground during the salmon run, with the help of four or five squaws of varying ages and uniform homeliness. He was a hard-working old buck, and usually hung up from ten to a dozen tons of salmon in a season. He was also a sharp trader. Instead of selling his salmon to the cannery at some starveout price, he preferred to home-dry and peddle it to the upper-country Indians for such raw material as deer hides and the pelts of winter-killed sheep, which his squaws tanned and converted into genuine Indian-beaded buckskin gloves, moccasins, belts and handbags. Knickknacks of that kind found a ready and profitable sale at tourist stores and curio shops around the country, besides supplying the squaws with something to do so they wouldn’t be tempted to start fighting among themselves.

Nobody knew anything precise about the relationship subsisting between Clallum Jake and his squaws. Some public-spirited people in town had tried to find out about it from the squaws a few times, but the squaws knew only a few words of English, all brief and forceful, so the investigation had never got far. Clallum Jake had escaped it himself, being too dignified in appearance to be questioned about his domestic eccentricities by a set of town busybodies who might not have stood up very well under any searching inquiry into theirs. He could understand English moderately well when there was anything in it for him, though he usually professed ignorance of it to be on the safe side. He had no language of his own, or none that anybody could pin him down to, having wandered into the plateau country in the early days from somewhere down on the Coast, where all the native languages were different. In his trading with other Indians, he relied partly on his squaws and partly on a scattering of English mixed with Chinook jargon, the simplified mixture of mispronounced French, Indian, Russian and Eskimo that had once been the universal trade lingo among the western tribes all the way from the Bering Straits to the California line.

One Coast Indian trait that had stayed with him was clumsiness with horses. In spite of the fifty-odd years he had been riding, he still rode like a shirttail full of rocks, but with an air of weighty deliberation that made it look as if he was doing it in fulfillment of some plan too deep and far-ranging to let the general public in on.

Editor’s Comments

Thirty years ago, the University of Chicago Press quietly released a collection of three pieces of short fiction by a retired professor of English, Norman MacLean. Purely through word-of-mouth, A River Runs Through It became a best-seller and nearly won the Pulitzer Prize. More than anything, it was MacLean’s remarkable voice — spare, ironic, experienced but never claiming to be wise, with a soft-spoken good humor — that distinguished the book from anything else published in a good number of years before it. You had the sense that there was nothing the least bit fake in this book — as well as the sense that in waiting so long to tell his stories, MacLean was able (to turn Pascal’s quote around) to make them as short as possible.

I was often reminded of A River Runs Through It while reading Winds of Morning. The two books are set in roughly the same time and place — the Northwestern U.S. in the 1920s. Aside from that, they don’t share much else in common, at least on the surface. The stories are quite different. Winds is a little bit about unraveling the truth behind a murder, more about a young man and an old man herding some horses to a new pasture, and mostly about people and a place in the midst of changing from one era to another. What really reminded me of A River was the voice of Amos Clarke, H.L. Davis’ narrator.

The book is Amos’s recollection, told from a distance of thirty years or so, of one particular experience from his time as a sheriff’s deputy, back when he was barely twenty. Out delivering a summons, he stumbles onto a shooting that looks to be accidental. A ranch hand, Busick, has killed an old Indian, and Amos dutifully takes him into custody. Although it’s an open-and-shut case of manslaughter, Busick gets off — mostly through the collusion of a jury of local businessmen who’d rather have him working and paying off loans that stewing away in prison. Busick gives up his rights to a small patch of grazing land, however, and this sets off the main story in the book.

The sheriff instructs Amos to round up Busick’s horses and lead them up to public pasture with the help on an old man, Hendricks, left to look after them. Hendricks was an early homesteader in the area who built up a healthy estate, but who left under a cloud of rumors after one of his daughters accused him of molesting her. The big story percolating in the background as Amos and Hendricks head north with the horses is the hunt for a murderer. A wealthy rancher married to one of Hendricks’ daughters has been shot dead as he stood in the doorway of his house. In the sheriff’s mind, though, Amos’ job has nothing to do with that.

As it turns out, however, Amos and Hendricks find themselves getting closer, rather than further, from this murder. They stumble across a few threads that Amos’ curiosity and Hendricks’ knowledge of the area and the people in its enable them to follow and, ultimately, solve the case. But this is not the real story in Winds of Morning.

Though horses and wagons are still the main ways of getting around for most people, railroads, cars, and trucks are also regular fixtures. The first wave of homesteaders has receded, leaving a few successful big ranchers and businessmen, more struggling farmers and hired hands, and a lot of abandoned places. Power has shifted, subtly and permanently, from the hands of the rugged individualists like Hendricks to those with money and influence. Although still a wild and beautiful but potentially dangerous land, this West is full of signs that life is changing. Literally, in this passage:

There were some printed signs, mostly faded and weatherbeaten, scattered among the stumps. An old one proclaimed the area to be a part of the Prickettsville municipal water district, and carried a caution against trespassing that didn’t appear to have had much effect, since it was shot full of holes. A newer one from the government printing office stated that the territory thereto adjacent had been stocked with poisoned bait against predatory animals, and advised against permitting sheep does to run loose on it, which, since the buzzards always ate all government poisoned bait and scattered it over half the sheep ranches in the country before the predatory animals got near it, was a way of insuring that there would be enough to go around among the sheep dogs, and they could all poison themselves right at home instead of having to walk miles out into the timber to do it There were smaller signs of varying ages forbidding hunting, fishing, camping, or building fires without a suitable permit, cutting trees or pulling wild flowers, or picking huckleberries except in duly posted and assigned areas and under properly authorized supervision. None of them were supposed to mean anything till summer. They were put up to draw city vacationists, to whom such things gave a pleasantly excited feeling of being the objects of somebody’s attention.

Clarke suspects the change he sees going on aren’t for the better. At one point, he muses:

In old Hendricks’ younger days, there had been more value set on people. Nature had been the enemy then, and people had to stand together against it. Now all its wickedness and menace had been taken away; the thing to be feared now was people, and nature figured mostly as a safe and reassuring refuge against their underhandedness and skullduggery.

But Davis refuses to settle for a simple polemic against progress. This is not the Wild West of good guys versus bad guys, white hats versus black. From the very first scene, it’s clear that Amos is more inclined to try to understand than to judge the people he encounters, and he finds Hendricks shares much the same disposition. “A man can’t tell what’s layin’ around inside of him. There’s too many corners, and things reach out from ’em sometimes that you’d thought was all dead and buried.”

In part, this is because Hendricks is struggling with his own demons. Though innocent of his daughter’s charge of rape, he still took off and lost himself somewhere for a few years before returning to the Columbia River valley. He had his own sin he was trying to escape. One hard winter when most homesteaders were losing whole herds, he had taken up with an Indian squaw for the sole purpose of getting the use of some sheltered pasture, and he kept up the arrangement until he no longer needed the help.

“I couldn’t see how it hurt anybody much,” he tells Amos.

“You can’t tell what will hurt people sometimes,” Amos responds.

“I was out to pile up money in them days,” Hendricks reflects. “Gittin’ ahead in the world was what we called it. nobody ever figured out what they was gittin’ ahead of, I guess. There’s more things than that for a man to git ahead in, anyway. It’s took me a hell of a long time to fin it out….”

Though the pair spend much of the book piecing together the truth about the murder, this is never viewed as a matter of justice or punishment. The culprit, it turns out, is a young Mexican boy traveling with them. His motivation proves to have been his own misguided sense of justice, and they agree to let things rest at that.

“You can’t make up for what you’ve done,” Hendricks tells Amos. “When you do it, it stands against you. You pay for it, no matter what you do afterwards. Good and bad don’t cancel each other out. It don’t lighten a twenty-pound load on one end of a pole to hang twenty-one pounds on the other end. The pole’s got to carry ’em both.”

I hesitate to call this a Western for grown-ups, because that usually just means the sexual element isn’t completely repressed. But Winds of Morning is certainly written from a more mature and morally, economically, even ecologically realistic perspective than just about anything I’ve ever come across that had the label “Western” applied to it. Several dozen characters pass across the stage in the course of the book, and not one gets less than a fully-rounded treatment.

Even the landscape gets a fully-rounded treatment — and what book could qualify as a Western without plenty of landscape:

The river had changed color a little; it was not blackish, as it had been when we looked at it from the hillside, and not roily, as lowland rivers always were after a hard rain, but milky green, like snow water that has thawed too fast for the air to separate from it. The current was swift, but it held to its ordinary level as if the torrents of rain flooding into it had all been beneath its notice.

And, of course, there have to be horses. Amos and Hendricks have both spent their lives caring for, and relying on, their horses. The horses have come to command a certain amount of respect:

It was useless trying to ride the horses down such a place; they had enough work merely to keep their feet under them and keep going, so we dismounted and followed along behind. Halfway down, the slope steepened so we could hardly stand up on it, but the horses by then had discovered how to manage it without wearing themselves out. Instead of trying to walk with the rocks moving and shifting underfoot, they merely started a patch sliding, set back, and coasted on it till it stopped, and then moved on and started another one to coast on. Not many animals are smarter than a range horses, when he is left free to figure things out for himself.

There’s a limit to this respect, though. In fact, we find that horses may have formed a bit too much of Amos’ perspective:

Horses and women. Leave either of them alone with only a man to depend on for company, and they could develop an intelligence so quick and sensitive that it was uncanny to be around. Herd them back with others of their species, and they dropped instantly to a depth of dull pettiness and mental squalor that made a man wonder how he could ever have credited them with intelligence at all….

Personally, I haven’t met many women who’d say that being left alone with a man raises the net IQ. And though Davis tosses a romance in to top Winds of Morning off, it’s the weakness element in the novel, and the most expendable. Men, horses, landscapes, and weather are already enough to make this a rich, intelligent, and thorough enjoyable piece of writing.

A Book-of-the-Month Club selection at the time it was first published, Winds of Morning sold well, but vanished after one paperback run. The Greenwood Press reissued it for academic libraries in 1972 and a small Western press, Comstock Book Distributors, reissued it in hardback in 1996, but these editions are harder to find that the original Morrow release. Fortunately, there are plenty of used copies to be found on Amazon for as little as 99 cents, so there is no excuse for letting this terrific book gather dust. Heck, I’ll even offer to buy your copy if you’re not satisfied after reading it.


Manas Journal, 13 February 1952:

Once in a while — once in a very great while we find the temerity to comment upon what is commonly called the “artistic value” of a novel or drama. Having so long championed the view that ideas and ideals are always the Real, and that even the most impassioned recounting of experiences is valueless unless it points a way toward realization of an ideal, a reviewer cannot help but feel a bit of a turncoat if he first stakes out claims for a piece of writing chiefly because he warms to the way it is written. Yet H. L. Davis’ Winds of Morning tempts such extravagance, despite the fact that it is a Book of the Month selection and that BoM reviewers have praised it for much the same reasons.

Davis does have a marked sort of idealism, however, even though it is not addressed to any particular social or psychological problem. It is felt, for instance, in attitudes toward the creatures of nature and the beautiful land which supports them. It is present in the form of compassion and understanding when the subject is crime and criminals, and it emerges most of all in the respect shown for those who are courageously independent. Perhaps good writing always does something of this nature, if it is really good writing, at all.

Winds of Morning is not, in the usual meaning of the word, an “exciting” book. Being so well done it needs none of those emotional injections which often are made to reinforce the efforts of even skillful writers to convey a point of view or an interpretation of experience. Instead, without in the least giving the impression of trying, Mr. Davis helps the reader to feel that each moment of common, everyday life may hold a further awakening of the mind.

Time magazine, 7 January 1952

The story begins with a young deputy sheriff who is sent out to herd an old hoss-wrangler and his strays through the wheat country and into open territory. On the trip, by a series of stumbling inadvertencies, he runs down a murder story and falls in love. He chews over old times and old ways in dozens of small passages of talk with the oldtimer, and with himself. He also takes a deep breath of the wilderness around him, and the reader breathes it with him.

“The noise of a late-lingering flock of wild geese going out to its day’s feeding in the wheat fields woke me the next morning,” Davis may write, with a mildness that is really intensely restrained affection. “The sky was already beginning to fill with light, and there were a few cold yellow sun streaks on the high ridges…”

Such passages give Davis’ prose, and his story too, a quality of imminence—as though at any moment they might break out in crashing event. They never do. The action of the book, though now and again it holds some excitement, has no importance; it rises quietly out of the big land, and sinks quietly back into it. The natural world, in fact, is the only real character in Winds of Morning; the people in the book appear chiefly as traits of that character. Ordinarily, this would be a fatal flaw. The measure of Novelist Davis’ success is that he will almost certainly make a great many readers decide that his favorite country deserves the affectionate priority he gives it.

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Winds of Morning, by H. L. Davis
New York: William Morrow & Company, 1952

Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

UW librarian translates classic Slovenian novel

from University Week, Vol. 22, No. 8, Thursday, November 18, 2004 :

It’s a novel about the founder of a sect of assassins driven by an extreme interpretation of Islam. His fanatical followers, who have a cult-like attachment to their leader, are trained to become “live daggers” in a holy war, and are promised an afterlife in paradise as a reward for their martyrdom.

The location of this tale? Eleventh century Persia. And the novel itself, a fictionalized account of a real historical personage (sometimes called the world’s first political terrorist), was written in 1938 by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol. Now, thanks to the work of a UW librarian, the novel, titled Alamut, is available in English for the first time.

Michael Biggins, Slavic and East European librarian and affiliate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, spent the last 18 months translating the nearly-forgotten novel that in the past 20 years has been recognized as a classic in Slovene literature….

Bartol’s work was written as Slovenia saw the rise of totalitarianism in three of its neighbors, Italy, Germany and Russia. “The novel,” Biggins says, “is sui generis, unlike anything else published in Slovenia up to that time. It is an exploration, in novel form, of the nature of totalitarianism, and the ways that political power can manipulate the public’s consciousness,” and, he said, “resonates with 20th and 21st century experience in many ways.”

The main character is portrayed as sympathetic, a well-read man with great humor and intelligence. “The novel doesn’t supply any ready answers or snap refutations of totalitarianism,” Biggins says. “In fact, the trappings of totalitarianism are portrayed as quite appealing.”

Even after examining the novel at the microscopic level of a translator, Biggins still finds it “delightful. It is well crafted, and being that close to it was a pleasure.”

The publisher is Seattle’s Scala House. The publisher’s representative walked into Biggins’ office one day looking for the Slavic Studies librarian, to see if Biggins knew a suitable translator. Biggins, who has many book-length translations to his credit as well as numerous poems and short stories, jumped at the opportunity. “I’d known about Alamut for at least 15 years. It had become a cult classic in Yugoslavia in the 1980s.”

Note: You can find out more about Alamut at the Scala House Press website:


First published sixty years ago, Alamut is a literary classic by Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol, a deftly researched and presented historical novel about one of the world’s first political terrorists, 11th century Ismaili leader Hasan ibn Sabbah, whose machinations with drugs and carnal pleasures deceived his followers into believing that he would deliver them to a paradise in the afterlife, so that they would destroy themselves in suicide missions for him. Flawlessly translated into English (and also published in eighteen other languages), Alamut portrays even the most Machiavellian individuals as human – ruthless or murderous, but also subject to human virtues, vices, and tragedies. An afterword by Michael Biggins offering context on the author’s life, the juxtaposition of his writing to the rise of dictatorial conquest that would erupt into World War II, and the medly of reactions to its publication, both in the author’s native Slovenia and worldwide, round out this superb masterpiece. An absolute must-have for East European literature shelves, and quite simply a thoroughly compelling novel cover to cover.

Midwest Book Review

This novel is loosely based on the life of 11th-century Ismailite Hasan ibn Sabbah, whom some credit with masterminding the idea of suicide missions and whose very name, by some accounts, has given rise to the word “assassin.”

Before tackling this novel, Bartol engaged in a decade of research. He offers interesting insights into the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, and — writing as he was during the ascension of totalitarianism in Europe — he also conveys broader meditations on the nature of fanaticism.

For all of its provocative ideas and sometimes eerily prescient incidents, “Alamut” is also successful simply as an entertaining yarn.

Bartol devises a shifting collage of passions, adventure and sacrifice. The book’s exotic settings are sumptuously described, and the characters are charismatic and complex — despite the fervent aims of some of them to subscribe to single-minded devotion.

The Seattle Times

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Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol
Seattle: Scala House Press, 2004

The Great American Novel, by Clyde Brion Davis


In my year as a newspaper reporter I have interviewed several other prominent men, but they were as chaff blown in the wind. Probably the most famous of these was Admiral George Dewey, hero of Manila Bay.

Admiral Dewey was here to make a speech and I interviewed him at Hotel Lafayette. He is scarcely taller than I, but quite bulky. He seemed pompous and imperious. I did not like him.

I tried to talk to him about the destruction of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

“Everybody knows about that,” he blurted. “Happened eight years ago. Every school child knows all about it. Silly to write anything more.

“What the papers need to print is that Admiral Dewey says we need a bigger navy. Write that. Write that Admiral Dewey says we need more ships and more men. We’re rich and we can afford it.”

I said, “Admiral, don’t you think we have a pretty good navy now?”

He twisted one prong of his big white mustache and glared at me. When he is thinking about something else Admiral Dewey is a rather placid and comfortable-looking man. But he fancies himself as a fierce old sea dog. So he looked fierce at me and growled, “Pretty good! Fellow, I’ll have you understand the United States has got the best navy in the world.”

“Well,” I asked, “why, then, do we need a bigger navy?”

He shook his head in disgust. “We’ve got to have a still bigger navy because we’re the richest nation on earth. The whole world is healous of us. And we’ve got to keep them afraid. But one of our American ships is equal to two of most nations’. Take our enlisted men. They’re all young Americans. You know what that means?”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose–”

He interrupted me. He hadn’t asked the question to find out what I thought. He wasn’t a bit interested in what I thought about anything. He made that quite plain.

“It means,” he said, “that if all the offiers in the fleet were killed the enlisted men could fight the ships and do it successfully. The United States navy takes only the cream of the nation’s youth.”

He looked me up and down pointedly. “The navy will take no skinny, undersized men. A man lacking in bodily vigor is usually lacking in mental vigor. The navy wants only those young men who may work up to command. A man has got to be well-nigh perfect physically before he even gets by the recruiting officer.”

Of course I was there to meet a great man and to get an interview, but it seemed to me he was making a deliberate attempt to affront me because of my physical limitations. So I looked him up and down pointedly also. And I said, “I presume, Admiral, that must be a rather recent ruling?”

My sarcasm was lost. “Not at all,” he said, “not at all. That ruling has been a tradition with the United States navy. It used to be iron men and wooden ships. Now it is steel men and steel ships.”


Great American Novel is the journal of a newspaper reporter and editor over the course of nearly 40 years. Early on, he falls in love with a girl in his neighborhood, but through a silly misunderstanding, comes to think she has spurned him and takes off for another town in spite.

He never does reunite with her. He ends up marrying and having children, but continues throughout his years to fantasize about the love that might have been. In the end, he learns that she has died, having married after–probably–giving up hope for his return.

Davis tries to make an ironic point about his protagonist living the Great American Novel through all the years that he kept meaning to sit down and write one. And he does manage to convey a pretty vivid account of American life from the 1900s to the late 1930s. But there isn’t much beef to the Homer, his lead character, so perhaps Davis’ joke is on us as much as on the protagonist.


Time, June 6, 1938:

A solemn sap, scrawny, cartoon-faced Homer Zigler was a 23-year-old, $1-a-week cub reporter on a Buffalo newspaper when he decided to become a novelist. But first, said Homer, “to the purpose of preparing myself for that career,” he would keep a journal. “The Great American Novel—” is the journal—a satire that starts off by tagging after Ring Lardner, turns off on an oily road marked Irony-&-Pity, skids into caricature, and comes to a happy halt as the June choice of the Book-of-the-Month Club—as did Author Davis’ first novel, The Anointed, a bare ten months ago.

Homer’s dogging muse is his blonde sweetheart, Fran, who “is sure I shall become a novelist of the Irving Bacheller type—which is exactly the goal at which I am aiming.” When the next best-seller type appears, he aims at it (“I can learn much of style from David Grayson,” he writes). In 1936, 30 years later, his aim is still waving around, but he hasn’t fired a shot. He just goes on filling his journal with fatuous, trite, sentimental, philistine, ingenuous, graphic practice notes: about newspaper jobs in Cleveland, San Francisco, Denver, everything from news happenings to a synopsis of his novel (a stupendous family chronicle from Jeremiah I to Jeremiah IV), from election returns to querulous data on his wife’s raising the baby on candy, from denunciations of automobiles and airplanes to pompous credos favoring Democracy. Typical of his talent is his alibi for hanging around his Kansas City landlady’s daughter: “When a man denies himself all feminine companionship,” reflects Homer, “he is likely to warp his cosmos.”

The really important entries in Homer’s journal, recurring about once a week, are his dreams of his old sweetheart Fran. These dreams start soon after he runs away from Buffalo, jealous because she talked to another boy. Homer believes his visions are mystic bulletins telling in exact detail what happens to her; he is, of course, 100% wrong. When, in one of them, Fran’s clothesline breaks, Homer writes severely: “I should think Clark [her dream husband] could at least put up a wire clothesline for her.”

Toward the last third of the journal, when Homer is in his 40s, he begins reading Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Hemingway, confesses that his “whole attitude toward literature is undergoing a renascence.” When, despite his sobered new outlook, he continues right up to his sudden end to be almost as dumb as ever, most readers will call his story a libel on even the most fatuous of would-be novelists.

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The Great American Novel, by Clyde Brion Davis
New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1938

The Bottom of the Harbor, Joseph Mitchell


from “The Rivermen”:
There are six or seven large factories in Shadyside and six or seven small ones. The Aluminum Company factory is by far the largest, and there is something odd about it. It is made up of a group of connecting buildings arranged in a U, with the prongs of the U pointed toward the river, and inside the U, covering a couple of acres, is an old cemetery. This is the Edgewater Cemetery.
Most of the old families in Edgewater have plots in it, and some still have room in their plots and continue to bury there. The land on which Edgewater is situated and the land for some distance along the river above and below it was settled in the seventeenth century by Dutch and Huguenot farmers. Their names are on the older gravestones in the cemetery–Bourdetts and Vreelands and Bogerts and Van Zandts and Wandells and Dyckmans and Westervelts and Demarests. According to tradition, the Bourdette family came in the sixteen-thirties–1638 is the date that is usually specified–and was the first one there; the name is now spelled Burdette or Burdett. Some of the families came over from Manhattan and some from down around Hoboken. They grew grain on the slopes, and planted orchards in the shelter of the Palisades. In the spring, during the shad and sturgeon runs, they fished, and took a large part of their catch to the city. The section was hard to get to, except by water, and it was rural and secluded for a long time. In the early eighteen-hundreds, some bluestone quarries were opened, and new people, most of whom were English, began to come in a settle down and intermarry with the old farming and fishing families. They were followed by Germas, and then by Irish straight from Ireland. Building stones and paving blocks and curbing for New York City were cut in the quarries and carried to the city on barges–paving blocks from Edgewater are still in place, under layers of asphalt, on many downtown streets. Some of the new people worked in the quarries, some worked on the barges, some opened blacksmith shops and made and repaired gear for the quarries and the barges, some opened boatyards, and some opened stores. The names of dozens of families who were connected with these enterprises in one way of another are on gravestones in the newer part of the cemetery; Allison, Annett, Carlock, Cox, Egg, Forsyth, Gaul, Goetchius, Hawes, Hewitt, Jenkins, Stevens, Truax, and Winterburn are a few. Some of these families died out, some moved away, and some are still flourishing. The enterprises themselves disappeared during the first two decades of this century; they were succeeded by the Shadyside factories.

The land surrounding the Edgewater Cemetery was once part of a farm owned by the Vreeland family, and the Aluminum Company bought this land from descendants of a Winterburn who married a Vreeland. As a condition of the sale, the company had to agree to provide perpetual access to the cemetery.
To reach it, funerals go through the truck gate of the factory and across a freight yard and up a cement ramp. It is a lush old cemetery, and peaceful, even though the throb of machinery can be felt in every corner of it. A part-time caretaker does a good deal of gardening in it, and he likes bright colors. For borders, he uses the same gay plants that are used in flower beds at race tracks and seaside hotels–cannas, blue hydrangeas, scarlet sage, and cockscomb. Old men and old women come in the spring, with hoes and rakes, and clean off their family plots and plant old-fashioned flowers on them. Hollyhocks are widespread. Asparagus has been planted here and there, for its feathery, ferny sprays. One woman plants sunflowers. Coarse, knotty, densely tangled rosebushes grow on several plots, hiding graves and gravestones. The roses that they produce are small and fragile and extraordinarily fragrant, and have waxy red hips almost as big as crab apples. Once, walking through the cemetery, I stopped and talked with an old woman who was down on her knees in her family plot, setting out some bulbs at the foot of a grave, and she remarked on the age of the rosebushes. “I believe some of the ones in here now were in here when I was a young woman, and I am past eighty,” she said. “My mother–this is her grave–used to say there were rosebushes just like these all over this section when she was a girl. Along the riverbank, beside the roads, in people’s yards, on fences, in waste places. And she said her mother–that’s her grave over there–told her she had heard from her mother that all of them were descended from one bush that some poor uprooted woman who came to this country back in the Dutch times potted up and brought along with her. There used to be a great many more in the cemetery than there are now–they overran everything–and every time my mother visited the cemetery she would stand and look at them and kind of laugh. She thought they were a nuisance. All the same, for some reason of her own, she admired them, and enjoyed looking at them. ‘I know why they do so well in here,’ she’d say. ‘They’ve got good strong roots that go right down into the graves.'”

Comments–from A Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin

“Mitchell [was] a North Carolinian who became a New Yorker. He went straight from the University of North Carolina to a New York newspaper [The New York Herald Tribune–ed.]. First a reporter, he quickly turned into a feature writer, and then he became an essayist, the best in the city. [He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1938 and remained with the magazine until his death in 1996, although his last piece for the magazine was published in 1965–ed.]. Some think he was … the best in the country. Others, more temperate, put him in a tie for first with John McPhee.

Before he ceased to publish, Mitchell brought out five books. At least two of them are masterpieces: McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon and The Bottom of Harbor. I love them both, but I love The Bottom of the Harbor more. I’ve reread it every three or four years for twenty-five years, and my opinion of it is still climbing.

The book contains six long essays, all connected with the waterfront. One–the only one some lesser person might have written–is abouut rats: the three varieties that inhabit New York, spread plagues, come and go on ships. That piece is merely brilliant reporting.

The other five are a kind of writing for which there is no name. Each tells a story, and is dramatic; each is both wildly funny and so sad you can hardly bear it; each tells its story so much in the words of its characters that it feels like a kind of apotheosis of oral history. Finally, like the Icelandic sagas, each combines a fierce joy in the physicality of living with a stoical awareness that all things physical end in death, usually preceded by years of diminishment. One winds up admiring Mitchell’s characters (all real people), loving them, all but weeping for them, maybe hoping to live as gallantly.

… Mitchell, who has a genius for finding real-life metaphors, tells you early on about an old graveyard in the lower part of the town. It’s quite a large one, and it’s still in use. It is entirely surrounded, however, by a modern factory–a huge one, belonging to the Aluminum Company of America. The cemetery forms a two-acre garden in the middle. Funerals go in an out through the factory gate, as do people visiting graves or people who simply want to picnic in the beautiful old graveyard. That was part of the agreement when the company bought part of what was once the Vreeland farm.

Not only that, there are rosebushes in there, descended from a rosebush that came from Holland in the 1630s. Or so, at least, Mitchell hears from an old woman whom he meets (and naturally gets to know) while she is gardening in the graveyard.

Mitchell himself could be called a gardener in a graveyard, if that didn’t make him sound much more lugubrious and much less fun to read than he actually is. … I do know that Mitchell has the gift of making roses bloom in the darkest and most unexpected places.”

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The Bottom of the Harbor, by Joseph Mitchell
Boston: Little, Brown, 1959

The Evolution Man, by Roy Lewis

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


The entire horde, we saw with relief, was at home and sitting round the fire, which was, however, spitting, sizzling and crackling in a most extraordinary manner. Every now and then an aunt arose, stuck a green stick into the embers and drew it forth again with a chunk of burning material on the end.

“Why, that’s a shoulder of horse,” gasped Oswald.

“And that’s a loin of antelope,” I replied. We took the last mile at a run, and, with our mates hotfoot behind us, burst into the family circle.

“Welcome home, my dears,” shouted Father, starting up.

“Just in time for dinner,” cried Mother, and there were tears of joy on her dear, soot-streaked face. Then there was such a shouting, hugging, sniffing, embracing and laughing. “Clementina? Oswald is a lucky man!” “And who is Miss Bright Eyes? Griselda? Just what Ernest needs, my dear!” “Petronella? but her figure is superb–who’s have thought our Alexander could get a girl like that to look at him!” “And Honoria? Well, well, how nice–and what is this you have brought us? A lovely big rock? But how thoughtful of you, dear, to bring us anything,” and so on, until I made my voice heard.

“Mother! Why on earth are you using good meat for firewood?”

“Oh, Ernest, I quite forgot my joint in all the excitement; I’m afraid it will be dreadfully overdone–” and she hastily disengaged herself from the mêlée and pulled a great, smoking hunk of antelope from the fire.

“Oh, dear,” she said, inspecting it. “This side is burnt to cinders.”

“Never mind, my love,” said Father. “You know I like a bit of crackling. I’ll take the outside with pleasure.”

“But what are you talking about?” I implored them.

“Talking about? Cooking, of course!”

“What’s cooking?” I inquired patiently.

“The dinner,” said Father. “Oh, of course, now I come to think of it, your mother hadn’t invented it before you boys went away. Cooking, my sons, is–well–is a way of preparing game before you eat it; it’s an entirely novel method of reducing–er–ligaments and muscles to a more friable form for mastication–and–er–”

He frowned, and then a happy smile broke on his face. “But after all, why am I trying to explain it? The proof of the roast is in the eating. Just try some and see.”

My brothers and our mates were crowding round the strange, aromatic piece of meat which Mother now proffered to us. The girls who had already shied at the fire, backed timidly away; but Oswald boldly seized the joint, raised it to his muzzle, sank his teeth into it and tore away a piece. Immediately his face went crimson; he spluttered, choked, gasped, swallowed violently, dropped the joint (which Mother neatly caught) and writhed in agony; water ran out of his eyes and he madly pawed his mouth and throat.

“Oh, sorry, Oswald,” said Father. “Of course, you didn’t know. I ought to have mentioned it’s hot.”

Editor’s Comments

The Evolution Man is one of my favorite things in the world: a superbly well-crafted joke. A well-crafted joke wastes not a word, yet usually manages to encompass some fundamental flip of logic, twist of phrase, or shift of perspective, such as:

Two atoms are walking along when one cries out, “I’ve lost an electron!”

The other atom asks, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m positive.”

In The Evolution Man, Roy Lewis tells the story of “the greatest ape-man of the Pleistocene era”–at least, in the view of his family. Now, when most novelists approach the problem of writing a modern novel set in prehistory, they quickly have to confront a rather ugly practical fact: how do you write about something that took place before there was such a thing as writing? And how on Earth do you write dialogue when, as far as we know, it was all a matter of grunts and shrieks?

The default answer seems to be to create some crude subset of modern English loosely related to what the Indians speak in Hollywood westerns: “Antelope run from great noise. White man carry big fire stick.”

Lewis dispensed with such artificial devices. To him, the tale of prehistoric man could only be told in his own tongue. The fact that it turned out to be purest Oxbridge English was simply a lucky accident:

We were often hard put to it to keep up the supply of fuel for a big fire, even though a good edge on quartzite will cut through a four-inch bough of cedar in ten minutes; it was the elephants and mammoths who kept us warm with their thoughtful habit of tearing up trees to test the strength of their tusks and trunks. Elephas antiquus was even more given to this than is the modern type, for he was still hard at it evolving, and there is nothing that an evolving animal worries about more than how his teeth are getting along.

That prehistoric man also grasped concepts such as the measurement of time and distance, the classification of species, and evolution also goes a long way towards eliminating many of the discomfiting aspects of having to understand the situation of beings related to us through only genetics and deeply-buried instinctive psychology.

Thus, instead of fumbling around at several removes from the characters, we are blessed with an eloquent and perceptive narrator–Ernest. A likable chap just on the cusp of manhood, Ernest is one of a band of ape-men and -women struggling to survive near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in the days when “the great ice-cap was still advancing.”

Ernest’s father, Edward, is the head of the band, and it is Edward’s ambitions that fuel the central conflict of the novel. Edward and his brother, Vanya, carry on a running argument: “Each went his own way, firmly convinced that the other was tragically mistaken about the direction in which the anthropoid species was evolving….”

The argument escalates suddenly when Vanya drops out of the trees to confront Edward’s latest discovery: fire.

“You’ve done it now, Edward,” he rumbled. “I might have gueesed this would happen sooner or later, but I suppose I thought there was a limit even to your folly. But of course I was wrong! I’ve only got to turn my back on you for an hour and I find you up to some freshy idiocy. And now this! Edward, if ever I warned you before, if ever I begged you, as your elder brother, to think again before you continued on your catastrophic course, to amend your life before it involved you and yours in irretrievable disaster, let me say now, with tenfold emphasis: Stop!”

Edward himself is skeptical of Vanya’s premonitions: “I mean, is this really the turning point? I thought it might be, but it’s hard to be quite sure. Certainly a turning point in the ascent of man, but is it the?”

For Vanya, however, fire is the first step down a slippery slope that can only lead to mass destruction: “This could end anywhere. It affects everybody. Even me. You might burn down the forest with it.”

Control of technology, it turns out, has been an issue for quite some time. Fire proves a lovely innovation, enabling the family to wrest a cozy cave from a band of bears, but it takes quite some effort at first. Each time the fire goes out, Edward has to hike up to the top of the nearest volcano to light a new torch and convey the flame, stage by stage, back to the cave.

The family is happy to enjoy the comfort and safety of the cave and fire, but Edward is ever restless. He sees only one direction in which to move: forward. He is ever mindful of the evolutionary imperative:

“The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilization of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realize that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.”

This zeal for progress eventually leads Edward to gather his older sons, including Oswald, and lead them away from the cave. After a trek of many days, he brings them to a halt, announcing to the boys, “It is time you found mates and started families of your own for the sake of the species; and that is why I have brought you here. Not twenty miles to the south there is another horde…”

The boys protest: “People always mate with their sisters,” one cries. “It’s the done thing.”

“Not any more,” responds Edward. “Exogamy begins right here.”

Edward sets his sons in search of mates, at the threat of a run-through with his trusty spear. Off they head, each chasing an ape-girl over hill and dale, until they encounter “one of the very greatest discoveries of the Middle Pleistocene”: love.

Cheerfully mated, the brothers head back to the camp with their women, and in the scene excerpted above, find the family yet further evolved through the invention of cooking. Eating cooked meat brings unexpected benefits, including healthier teeth, better digestion–and leisure.

The family masters group hunting, and celebrates its new members with a great feast of elephant, antelope, and bison, sauced with berries, blood, and aepyornis eggs. Edward rises to offer an after-dinner speech brimming with hubris: “To every other species we cry: Beware! Either you shall be our slaves or you shall disappear from the surface of the earth. We will be master here; we will outfight, outthink, outmanoeuvre, outpropagate and outevolve you! That is our policy and there is no other.”

“Yes there is,” Vanya retorts. “Back to the trees.”

As ever, pride goeth before the fall. A few days later, Edward and one of his sons discover the magical combination of flint and lodestone. They make their own fire, and run back to the family bursting with pride: “We’ve done it! Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ve done it!”

Unfortunately, Edward lacks the foresight to envision the cautions of Smokey the Bear. Vanya’s direst predictions come true, and the family finds itself on a forced migration in search of new hunting grounds. Perfectly wonderful new grounds it does eventually find, but these, inconveniently, already have occupants. This leads to the dilemma: to share the secret of fire or not?

Edward the booster’s reaction can be expected, but how the family resolves the dilemma is not. And therein lies the great twist in this joke. Progress, it turns out, is not inevitable. (I would leave it at that, but the title of the French translation of The Evolution Man telegraphs the punchline: Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père).

Despite his hand in Edward’s demise, Ernest does note, with respect, “that in his passing he helped to shape the basic social institutions of parricide and patriphagy which give continuity both to the community and to the individual.”

Plato’s parable of the cave may predate The Evolution Man by a few thousand years–but Roy Lewis’ version is inifinitely funnier.

Note: The Evolution Man was recommended on Crooked Timber’s “A different book list.”

Other Comments

· Review of The Evolution Man by novelist David Louis Edelman:

While Roy Lewis’s The Evolution Man is filled with Cro-Magnon humor, the book has much more simmering in its prehistoric pot than gags about stone tablet typewriters. Beneath its mammoth-skin covering, the book wrestles with the very idea of technology and how far humanity should take it, from the point of view of a culture where turning back to all fours was a tangible possibility.

· Terry Pratchett on The Evolution Man, from “Close Encounters: Eminent writers, editors and critics choose some favorite works of fantasy and science fiction”, The Washington Post, Sunday, 7 April 2002:

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done. It concerns a few hectic years in the life of a family of Pleistocene humanoids. They’ve learned to walk upright and now they’re ready for the big stuff — fire, cookery, music, arts and the remarkable discovery that you shouldn’t mate with your sister. Because it’s too easy, says Father, the visionary horde leader. You can’t get a head of water without damming the stream. In order to progress humanity must create inhibitions, frustrations and complexes, and drive itself out of an animal Eden. To rise, we must screw ourselves up. Nonsense, says his apelike brother Uncle Vanya. Get back to the trees, it’ll all end in tears! And so the debate rages under the prehistoric sky until, one day, someone invents the bow and arrow. . . . And we know what happened next. The debate continues. But never has it been put so well as in this insightful book.

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The Evolution Man, by Roy Lewis
London: Penguin Books, 1963

First published as What We Did to Father
London: Hutchinson, 1960

Also published as Once Upon an Ice Age
London: Terra Nova Books, 1979

House of All Nations, by Christina Stead


The only political shadows were the first great Japanese attack on Manchuria and the terrifying rise of Hitlerism in the May, 1932, elections. All those who had been depending on German Social-Democracy, and on a return to liberalism or monarchy financed by Germany’s creditor states, were bitterly disappointed; at this moment the wing of terror spread its shadow over Europe, and the governing classes, in despair since 1929, began to see that Fascism was not simply an expedient to be used on a lackadaisical southern people, but a real salvation for their property. At this time the socialist friends of Alphendery began to tremble; the wisest predicted a hundred years of domination. Jules even became captious and cruel and couldn’t bear Alphendery to mention socialism or to wish the comfort of it all….

“If the stock exchange is abolished,” said Jules, “men like me will always set up a black bourse: it will come back. What you dream of are opium-den dreams, and besides you’re wasting time … You can make money … That’s what I want you to do … none of yur communist friends has ever made money, and so what brains have they? Forget them. You’re working for me!”

Alphendery laughed with contempt. “Jules, don’t worry. You’ve got time. There are plenty of tricks they can and will pull yet: every measure designed not for economic recovery but to put up the market, as if that were the first reality of economics, not merely the mercury of the middle classes…. This is the period of effrontery of capitalism and you think right, Jules, you’ve got the general line!”

“Yes,” said Jules, cooling. “I know it won’t last long, and I won’t last long; my three sons will be engineers, don’t fret! This is the day of the short-play heroes. No more Rhodes and houses of Rothschild!”

Comments from Michael Upchurch’s essay in Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman

“It was an odd sensation, more than two decades after first encountering House of All Nations, to look again at a book that had shaped me in such serious and absurd ways, for it unerringly revealed how much one can’t know, or can’t remember, about one’s own reading and writing.

“In House of All Nations, it is this very lack of judgment that in collusion with her giddy, caustic humor, allows Stead to probe so deeply. The book may feel like an indictment, but it’s not an indictment of particular characters–it’s an indictment of a society in economic anarchy that is heading inexorably toward war. Her characters, as they see it, are just making the best of a bad hand….

“A second reading confirms how well assembled the book is, how deftly Stead juggles her vast cast and her many narrative strands, and how clearly she keeps a subplot’s pivotal details before the reader over a stretch of five hundred pages or more. A second reading also reveals a vein of the book that somehow escaped my notice the first time around, or else had faded from memory: the finely shaded and loving tribute it pays to European and Levantine Jewry. … More than half the main characters in House are Jewish, and they compose a rich mosaic of personalities and types–some rascally, some generous, some observers of their faith, others ebulliently cynical.

“Everywhere there is a sense that an intrinsic part of European character is being squeezed into an impossible corner. Stead had no way of imagining the particulars of the death-camp horrors in store. Yet she, like her characters, sensed something awful, just over the horizon, with a conviction approaching clairvoyance….

“Clearly, House of All Nations does plenty of things I’ll never be able to do. For a start, it catches me up passionately in a subject matter that, on the surface, I have no interest in as a reader and no talent for as a writer. (Surely this is one definition of a great book.) It shows me that in the right hands, even the most unpromising topics–wheat shipments, letters of credit–can give rise to fictional wizardry.

“For the longest time, I have to admit, the book misled me. It was a holy grail, a talisman, a reference point, and I embraced it the same way I’ve stepped aboard the wrong train, eager to begin my journey but headed in the wrong direction. I remain in awe of House of All Nations, knowing I’m not likely to pull off anything like it.

“But after all, there’s no need; it’s already been done.”

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House of All Nations, by Christina Stead
First published New York: The Viking Press, 1938

Fables in Slang, by George Ade


The Fable of the Caddy Who Hurt His Head While Thinking

One Day a Caddy sat in the Long Grass near the Ninth Hole and wondered if he had a Soul. His Number was 27, and he almost had forgotten his Real Name.

As he sat and Meditated, two Players passed him. They were going the Long Round, and the Frenzy was upon them.

They followed the Gutta Percha Balls with the intent swiftness of trained Bird Dogs, and each talked feverishly of Brassy Lies, and getting past the Bunker, and Lofting to the Green, and Slicing into the Bramble–each telling his own Game to the Ambient Air, and ignoring what the other Fellow had to say.

As they did the St. Andrews Full Swing for eighty Yards apiece and they Followed Through with the usual Explanations of how it Happened, the Caddy looked at them and Reflected that they were much inferior to his Father.

His Father was too Serious a Man to get out in Mardi Gras Clothes and hammer a Ball from one Red Flag to another.

His Father worked in a Lumber Yard.

He was a Earnest Citizen, who seldom Smiled, and he knew all about the Silver Question and how J. Pierpont Morgan done up a Free People on the Bond Issue.

The Caddy wondered why it was that his Father, a really Great Man, had to shove Lumber all day and could seldom get one Dollar to rub against another, while these superficial Johnnies who played Golf all the Time had Money to Throw at the Birds. The more he Thought the more his Head ached.

MORAL: Don’t try to Account for Anything.


from Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin:

There was no way I could talk about George Ade without beginning by quoting him. He is irresistably quotable. And not just to casual reviewers, but to Serious Novelists. For example, when Theodore Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie, he wanted to describe the traveling salesman that Carrie meets on the way to Chicago in terms that would make instantly clear how deft the fellow was at picking up girls. It was the work of a moment to lift about a page from Ade’s “Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer” and insert it in his text as if written by him. (He did remove most of the capital letters. Sister Carrie is written in normal orthography, and the passage would have been Extremely Conspicuous if he had not.)

I don’t blame Dreiser for a second, and I understand why he was so hurt when he was accuseed of plagiarism. What he said in substance was that no one ever had described a fast operator so well, and no one ever would describe one so well, so it made every kind of sense to use these marvelous words, and he was simply paying George Ade the sincerest of compliments. Besides, they were both from Indiana….

George Ade was a famous man from a few days after Fables in Slang was published until around 1920. Rich, too. He made so much money that he bought up most of his native county in Indiana to have for a hobby–and that was just one way of spending it.

Then he gradually dropped into obscurity–though as late as 1927, some of the fables were being syndicated as a comic strip. There are two reasons, I think. One is that success spoiled him. He published ten volumes of fables in all, and the second five aren’t nearly as good as the first five….

The other is that his vein is a very narrow one. The best hundred or so of his fables are nearly flawless–and they would be even without the capitals, just as e.e. cummings would still be a good poet with them. But in any other form of writing he was just a competent if remarkably prolific writer….

It is irresistable to quote George Ade. If there were more room, I would probably quote the entire fable of the Stuffer family, prosperous farm folk who move to town and attempt to continue eating in the heroic style to which they had been accustomed–and since it is one of Ade’s longest fables as well as one of his funniest, I would wind up seriously unbalancing this book. Instead I’ll merely urge you to find out what happened to the New York Person who had them trembling in Fostoria, Ohio. It’s not what a complacent eastener might suppose. There is a Turnabout of the most satisfying sort. Ade was good at that.

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Fables in Slang, by George Ade
New York. Duffield & Company, 1899

Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger


The Theatre francais advertised the first public performance of The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro by Monsieur de Beaumarchias. Admission free. The cost would be met by the King.

This announcement was greeted with astonishment, laughter, exultation. That Beaumarchais shuld produce his famous comedy, which the King had vetoed, on this crazy day and at the King’s expense was a master-stroke, and the performance was looked forward to with far greater excitement than was the royal procession through the streets of Paris.

The management of the Theatre francais had its hands full. The people of Paris had been invited, the people of Paris would come, the people of Paris were numerous. No more than an infinitesimal proportion of the thousands who would clamour for admission could find accomodation in the theatre, and thousands of others were asking for tickets–aristocrats, courtiers, relatives of the actors, writers and critics. It was decided to reserve a quarter of the seats for these distinguished applicants and to throw the remaining eight hundred places open to the populace.

When the doors were opened at five o’clock there was a wild scrambling in which men and women struggled with one another and many were trampled underfoot. The well-schooled police of Paris had the utmost difficulty in preventing women and children from being crushed to death.

At last all had taken their seats, shouting, lamenting, laughing. Then the guests of honour made their entrance. According to an ancient tradition, at these free performances the best seats were reserved for the ladies of the halles and the coal-heavers. As guests of honour they arrived, as was only fitting, after all the rest of the audience was assembled. The attendants cleared a path, and the other spectators greeted them with cheers as they were escorted to their seats, the coal-heavers to the King’s box, the fishwives to that of the Queen.

Never thad the Theatre francais seen such a queerly assorted audience for a premiere. Side by side sat ladies of the Court and glove-stitchers, fermiers generals and chair-menders, duchesses and women from the halles. Academicians and butchers’ assistants, in short, the people of Paris. The actors were in a fever of excitement and most of them were already regretting their rashness. Monsieur de Beaumarchais’ comedy had not been written for such an audience. This was not Athens, and it was hardly to be expected that the salted wit of Figaro would be appreciated by this motley gathering.

The three thuds were heard and the curtains parted. The audience blew their noses, cleared their throats, and went on chattering for a time. Figaro-Preville had to start three times, until eventually, after cries of “Hush! Hush!” and “Really, Madame, don’t you think you might finish your conversation at home?” the spectators setteled down to listen in silence. There was some perfunctory clapping after a moment or two, and a voice asked, “What did he say? I didn’t understand,” while others shouted, “Repeat! Repeat!” but the audience was evidently in a good humour.

Gradually the people began to grasp who these gentlemen and ladies on the stage were and what they wanted and what it was all about, that was to say that this aristocrat wanted to sleep with the bride of this nice fellow who, by the way, was one of their own class. That was nothing unusual and not much to bother about, but the aristocratwas particularly arrogant, and Figaro, who was one of themselves, was particularly engaging and had his good brains, and it was amusing and heartwarming how he told the aristocrat off. It became evident in the first half-hour that Pierre, with his sure sense of the theatre, had written a comedy which could stand the test of any audience.


Proud Destiny was German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger’s first work written after his rescue from occupied France by American journalist Varian Fry. The German title of the book was Waffen fur Amerika, or Arms for America, and its subject is the effort of supporters of the American revolution–first the playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais and later the American envoy Benjamin Franklin–to convince King Louis XVI of France to fund arms and other supplies to the revolutionaries.

The line from an absolute monarch to a group of revolutionaries could never, willingly, be a straight one, and it takes Feuchtwanger nearly 600 pages to get from Beaumarchais’ first audience with the King to Louis’ commitment of millions of francs to the colonial cause. Along the way come many twists, turns, and diversions through the many personalities and competing interests in the French court and society.

Some, such as Franklin’s struggle to restrain his jealous and combative co-envoy, Arthur Lee, or Beaumarchais’ maneuvers to avoid his creditors, can get a bit tedious, but Feuchtwanger manages to keep the reader’s interest with superb episodes of characterization such as the visit to Paris by the Austrian Emperor Joseph, Queen Marie Antoinette’s older brother.

Proud Destiny suffered from over-selling when it first came out. Picked up as a Book-of-the-Month Club featured title, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which is why you can find dozens of copies for under three bucks at and eBay. Time‘s reviewer complained that “the novel smells faintly of the Hollywood atmosphere in which it was composed. The period sets are painstaking, the main characters are photogenic.”

Feuchtwanger himself said that the real hero of the novel was “that invisible guide of history: progress.” Although he’d started work on the book before leaving France, he felt it was only in the freedom of America that his characterization of Franklin could ring true. Critically, Proud Destiny is considered one of Feuchtwanger’s lesser works, but it’s a rich and entertaining read. The book certainly holds up now much better than many other best-sellers from 1947. Even Time admitted that “the reader can savor from one large dish a thousand tidbits of 18th Century custom & morality that he would otherwise have to root for in the garden of biography and memoirs.”

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Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger
New York: The Viking Press, 1947

Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman

Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952


If a visitor, familiar with the appearance of the Cabinet Room on an ordinary day, were to have looked into it, say about midnight of February 21, 1942, he would have been quite startled.

All the lights were burning. But there were black curtains pulled across the windows now; we were at war, and it was blackout time. The shining surface of the large table was hardly visible, for it was covered from one end to the other with papers, books, telegrams, letters. At one end of the table was a large tray; on it were a big thermos pitcher of coffe, two piles of sandwiches covered by a damp napkin, a large number of bottles of beer, Coca-Cola, ginger ale, and plain charged water, some cups and saucers and large glasses, a bowl of cracked ice, and a bottle of whisky.

Seated around the table were three men. They were all in their shirt sleeves and were obviously tired, for the had been working all day on a speech. They had just said good night to the President in his study in the White House, and then walked over to the Cabinet Room to do some more work on the speech. The tray of food and drinks had come over from the pantry of the White House at the direction of the President.

Robert E. Sherwood poured himself a whisky and soda; Harry Hopkins helped himself to a cup of black coffee and a sandwich; I took a bottle of Coke and two sandwiches. I phoned upstairs to the four stenographers who had been asked to report for duty at 11:00 PM to work with us….

Whatever the speech, the general pattern of our collaboration was always the same. When Bob had finished, he would silently pass to me what he had written; and Harry and I would read it together. We might say, “OK” or “fine” and clip it in the right place; or we might say “try again–that’s too complicated or too oratorical for the Boss”; or we might suggest a few changes here and there. The same thing would happen with what I had dictated to Grace, and with what Harry had written.

The inserts the President himself had dictated got the same close scrutiny. We changed his language and often cut out whole sentences. Where there was some dissent among us, we made a note to talk to the President about it the next day.

There was no pride of authorship; there was no carping criticism of each other. We were all trying to do the same thing–give as simple and forceful expression as possible to the thoughts and purposes and objectives that the President had in mind. Whatever language and whoever’s language did it best was the language we wanted.

“Here is a suggestion from Berle which is OK and one from Marshall which is a peach,” I said that evening, passing them around. By common consent, they went into the next draft, each marked as an insert clipped to the right sheet.

After a few pages of the carbon copy of draft five were corrected and added to in this way, I pushed a button in the table near the Presiden’ts chair. It was a bell connected with the messenger room. A messenger came in and took the pages to the girls upstairs to make six copies. This draft would be number six. From then on we sent the new draft up page by page, so that almost as soon as we were finished they could sent it down retyped, and we could immediately begin working all over again on the seventh draft–polishing, correcting, adding, deleting.


When the US invaded Iraq, I was moved to reread Working with Roosevelt, Samuel Rosenman’s memoir of his years as FDR’s speechwriter. It’s a terrific book that’s pretty much been out of print since it was first published in 1952 or so. Rosenman essentially takes the reader through FDR’s career from 1928 on by, using key speeches that he worked on as milestones.

What I recalled from first reading it, and was particularly struck by in contrast with Bush’s rhetoric the second time around, was how sensitive FDR was to the mood and temperament of the public. He wasn’t a guy who made his decisions by polling, as Clinton was sometimes accused of doing. His genius was in understanding when and how to move the country forward on an issue and when to back off and let people figure things out. Faced with a decision like invading Iraq, FDR would certainly have taken a much longer-range perspective and put a lot more work into building a case that had public and coalition support that would last more than 90 days.

Rosenman also shows throughout the book how positive and sympathetic FDR was on a public and private level. He could have his fits of pique, but he certainly wouldn’t have engaged in the kind of “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” crap we’ve had to endure from the Bush administration. When, as in the famous “Martin, Barton, and Fish” speech, he did choose to strike back at his opponents, he did so with humor, not vindictiveness.

I’ve read a number of Roosevelt biographies, as well as first-hand accounts from people like his secretary, Grace Tully, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and even the head of his Secret Service detail, but Rosenman’s is by far the most illuminating when it comes to capturing how FDR balanced the public and private worlds of the presidency. I find it interesting that several Republican presidential speechwriters (including Peggy Noonan and Stephen Hess) single out Rosenman’s book as “a classic,” “wonderful,” and “one of my favorites.” President Carter himself is reported to have read and appreciated it–although, in his case, he certainly failed to learn from FDR’s example.


This is, in fact, basically not a partisan but a technical book. It is a detailed and authoritative account of how the public utterances of a President of the United States are put together. … The particular value of the Rosenman account is that it deals with a President who was conspicuously successful in his employment of the method. It is all the better because it carefully describes the errors, as well as the triumphs. The book admits that Roosevelt made mistakes, and points them out. Indeed, it goes further–it admits that Samuel Rosenman made mistakes, and points them out, too. This makes it admirable as a textbook for aspiring politicians.

G.W. Johnson, New York Herald Tribune Book Review

An engrossing study of the late President in one of his less familiar roles–that of man of letters.Judge Rosenman, who helped write a great many of Mr. Rossevelt’s speeches from the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1928 until his death, believes that the President was more of less propelled into authorship by the fact that in the very early thirties “there were few boks and no national precedents for the philosophy or legislation that came to be known as the New Deal. He had to write his own books in the form of speeches and messages, and then create the precedents himself to carry them out.” In his survey of this twofold creative process, which of necessity grew more and more complex as Mr. Roosevelt’s burdens multiplied, Judge Rosenman–an admiring but by no means purblind biographer–conveys an excellent idea of the development of both the content of and the philosophy behind most of Roosevelt’s major addresses, and analyzes, as far as possible, the literary contributions made by the President’s collaborators. Although Judge Rosenman gives full credit to these assistants (especially to Stanley High and Robert Sherwood) for their labors, he makes it abundantly clear that in his opinion they merely added graces notes to compositions that were the President’s own.

New Yorker, 31 May 1952

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Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952

Strange Conquest, by Alfred Neumann


They pushed through the roadblock and ran along the houses in two columns without losing a single man. They received fire, but it was irregular, inaccurate, and seemingly hesitant. Two men were lost at the next roadblock and here it became apparent that the enemy took poor aim, fired too high, and couldn’t face a frontal attack, especially when the attackers yelled. The Falange got through.

But then there was yelling behind them in their own tongue, terrible in its agony. Now they knew that one of the two who had gone down before the roadblock had not been dead, but would be soon. They wanted to go back.

“Keep going!” roared Kewen, brandishing his pistol.

They got a few paces further, then drew fire from every window, and behind them the road block closed like a cattle gate.

“Keep going!” Kewen yelled, and they snarled at him like angry dogs. He dropped his pistol, stunned by their mutiny.

They crawled into the two nearest houses on their right and left and, roaring with rage, cleaned them of five snipers each. They cleaned them out with their bayonets.

They didn’t budge from those holes. Five of them now lay outside, between the two houses, and two lay back by the roadblock. That made seven. Jonny Felice lay in the outskirts of the town. That made eight. In Tola under the rattling coconuts lay Crocker. That made nine.

Achilles Kewen was still around. He popped back and forth between the two houses, made speeches, insulted the troops, wasted his luxuriant stock of Kentucky curses on them. They didn”t budge from their holes. Every time he skipped across the street, he was fired on, and finally it got too much for him, or he lost his head. He planted himself in the middle of the street and yelled: “You yellow bastards! You yellow bastards!” He yelled it only twice. Then he ripped his mouth wide open as for a huge laugh, and only when he pitched forward did anyone see the hole in his forehead. Now there were ten gone.


This is one of the few books discussed on this site whose publisher seems to have deliberately set out to keep it neglected. First published in German in 1949 as Der Pakt, it was translated by Ransom Taylor and published by Hutchinson in 1950 as Look Upon This Man. Unable to find a major publisher in the U.S. for the book, Alfred Neumann settled for its release by the fledgling paperback publisher, Ballantine Books. Ballantine sat on the book for several years, at a loss for how to market this fictional account of William Walker’s invasion and takeover of Nicaragua in 1855, decided to treat it as a Western. That any serious reader ever discovered the book after that was close to miraculous, and any fan of Westerns would have given up after finding it had nothing to do with sheriffs and cowboys.

Neumann himself faded from critical and popular attention even before the book was published. Once considered an equal of Arnold Zweig and Hermann Broch, Neumann saw his star peak in the late 1920s. His medieval tale of courtly intrigue, The Devil, was a best-seller in the U.S. and Ernst Lubitsch directed an Oscar-nominated film of his play, “The Patriot”.

Within a few years, however, he found himself worse off than when he started. His magnum opus, a trilogy about the life of Napoleon III, was panned by most critics as overwritten and tedious. His books were among the first to be banned by the Nazis, who also pressured Mussolini to force Neumann to leave Italy, where he had settled in the 1920s. Like Brecht, Mann, and other less famous German writers, he eventually found refuge in Hollywood, where he got occasional work as a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Story for “None Shall Escape” and his novel, The Six of Them, the earliest account of the White Rose resistance movement in Germany, was well received. But Neumann had little luck finding work or publishers from then on, and he died in 1952, a self-exile in Switzerland like Mann.

Influenced by Laurence Greene’s 1937 biography of Walker, The Filibuster, Neumann wrote Der Pakt quickly, hoping to regain his former popularity with German readers. While the novel failed to win more than passable sales, its narrative and style clearly benefits from Neumann’s haste. In contrast to his rather verbose historical novels of the late 1920s and 1930s, in Strange Conquest Neumann’s writing is lean, fast-moving, and, at points, almost telegraphic in its brevity.

Yet he manages to squeeze an almost panoramic view of Walker’s career into less than 200 pages. Much of the novel is related in vignettes of three to five pages, most of them dramatic set-pieces like the retreat of Walker and his 36 men from their abortive attempt to form an abolitionist republic in Baja and Sonora, Mexico in 1853, or the destruction of Granada as Walker’s rule in Nicaragua collapses. Walker himself remains something of an enigma, yet Neumann manages to suggest how the appeal of power ultimately led Walker to turn from abolitionist to dictator, even reinstating slavery in an attempt to maintain his power.

Neumann also sketches in a wide cast of supporting players, from his officers–an idealistic socialite from San Francisco, a gambler of murky French origin, a Prussian baron–to the scoundrels and saintly figures he encounters in Nicaragua. One might go so far as to argue than Strange Conquest prefigures the magical realist style of later Latin American novelists such as Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, and Vargas Llosa. Take the author’s name and date of publication off Strange Conquest and it could easily be taken as the work of one of their contemporaries. Whatever the case, it certainly deserves a better fate than to be lost forever in mouldering stacks of Westerns in a few scattered bookstores in the U.S..

In Print?

Strange Conquest, by Alfred Neumann
New York: Ballantine Books, 1954

The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

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“Atomics is a very intricate theorem and can be worked out with algebra but you would want to take it by degrees because you might spend the whole night proving a bit of it with rulers and cosines and similar other instruments and then at the wind-up not believe what you had proved at all. If that happened you would have to go back over it till you got a place where you could believe your own facts and figures as delineated from Hall and Knight’s Algebra and then go on again from that particular place till you had the whole thing properly believed and not have bits of it half-believed or a doubt in your head hurting you like when you lose the stud of your shirt in bed.”

“Very true,” I said.

“Consequently and consequentially,” he continued, “you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?”


“When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this and what happens?”

“That is a hard question.”

“Ask a blacksmith for the true answer and he will tell you that the bar will dissipate itself away by degrees if you persevere with the hard wallops. Some of the atoms of the bar will go into the hammer and the other half into the table or the stone or the particular article that is underneath the bottom of the bar.”

“That is well-known,” I agreed.

“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.”

I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.

“And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.”

Editor’s Comments

The works of Flann O’Brien are not neglected at all–at least in Ireland. All of his books can be found on the shelves of any major Dublin bookstore, as can a number of compilations and critical volumes. Flann was a pen-name of Brian O’Nolan; under another, Myles na Gopaleen, he was for years a popular comic columnist for The Irish Times. A drinker himself and a resident of Dublin all his adult life, O’Nolan/O’Brien would likely win a popularity contest over that expat James Joyce any day of the week.

Outside of Ireland, however, his works surface intermittently and with few witnesses, rather like the Loch Ness Monster. Some of it is understandable. His best-regarded novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, is perhaps too full of talk and Guinness not to seem a bit like a wound-up Irish drunk to more Puritanical minds.

There’s no good excuse for The Third Policeman not being a fixed feature of undergraduate courses on the modern English novel. It’s got plenty enough symbolism and message to make it teachable, and you can’t argue that going to Hell isn’t a serious enough subject for the book to hold its own with any other English novel since the 1920s.

What’s more, it’s also a hell (no pun intended) of a lot of fun. First off, you have the talk, which starts with the narrator’s own recounting of his tale. As Myles na Gopaleen, O’Nolan/O’Brien wrote his column in English, Irish, Latin, and sometimes a mixture of all three or a new language of his own resembling none. He would offer, as a didactic exercise, elucidations on words from the Gaelic:

Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m.
Act of putting, sending, sowing, raining discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, the setting or clamp in a rick of turf, selling,addressing, the crown of cast iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers suet, the luminence of glue-lice, a noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachauns denture, a sheep biscuit, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump….

Another recurring feature was the “Catechism of Cliche,” which poked fun at the language of the very newspaper that printed him:

“What can one do with fierce resistance, especially in Russia ?”
“Offer it.”
” But if one puts fierce resistance, in what direction does one put it ?”

” Up.”

This was a writer who could go on a word bender for days longer than just about any other word drunk except Joyce. His newspaper columnist side could never let himself stray too far away from the point of keeping the reader entertained. So while we witness a brutal murder and gradually realize, along with the narrator, that what makes Hell Hell is that there is, in the words of Satre’s play, no exit, there are also plenty of superbly odd and funny moments. O’Brien/O’Nolan admitted it himself in a letter to William Saroyan: “When you are writing about the world of the dead–and the damned–where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.”

Many of these come in the form of comments on the subject of one or another theory of a nineteenth century scientist (or sorts) named de Selby. Night, for example, he conceived of as “an accretion of ‘black air'”–i.e., volcanic ash. The noise of a hammer striking an object came from the bursting of “atmosphere balls” (air being composed of millions of such balls). There are too many choice de Selby theories not to quote at least one:

Human existence de Selby has defined a “a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief,” a conception which he is thought to have arrived at from examining some old cinematograph films which belonged probably to his nephew. From this premise he discounts the reality or truth of any progression or serialism in life, denies that time can pass as such in the accepted sense and attributes to hallucinations the commonly experienced sensation of progression as, for instance, in journeying from one place to another or even “living.” If one is resting at A, he explains, and desires to rest in a distant place B, one can only do so by resting for infinitely brief intervals in innumerable intermediate places….

… Whatever about the soundness of de Selby’s theories, there is ample evidence that they were honestly held and that several attempts were made to put them into practice. During his stay in England, he happened at one time to be living in Bath and found it necessary to go from there to Folkestone on pressing business. His method of doing so was far from conventional. Instead of going to the railway station and inquiring about trains, he shut himself up in a room in his lodgings with a supply of picture postcards of the areas which would be traverse on such a journey, together with an elaborate arrangement of clocks and barometric instruments and a device for regulating the gaslight in conformity with the changing light of the outside day. What happened in the room or how precisely the clocks and other machines were manipulated will never be known. It seems that he emerged after a lapse of seven hours convinced that he was in Folkestone and possibly that he had evolved a formula for travellers which would be extremely distasteful to railway and shipping companies.

There is more than sublime silliness going on here, though. Note that almost parenthetical “or even ‘living’.” This is precisely what the narrator, in effect discovers to be his situation. Although he has a succession of experiences, he finds in the end that his sense of being alive is genuinely only a hallucination. Hell has no exit, which means he is doomed to keep walking around in circles, repeating the same bizarre experiences, but each time in some subtly different way. The narrator and Divney meet again right at the end and find themselves walking into a police station. The same enormous policeman greets them and with the last line of the book brings them around for another lap:

“Is it about a bicycle?” he asked.


Howard Moss, The New Yorker, 28 September 1968

Starting out as a realistic novel, The Third Policeman rapidly changes into a book of magical deeds and transformations. Divney and the narrator kil a rich old man, Phillip Mathers, in order to get their hands on a black box containing three thousand pounds. The narrator is finishing off Mathers with a spade when Divney disappears, taking the black box with him; he returns, empty-handed, a few moments later. He eludes the narrator’s questions about its whereabouts for months, then finally leads him to Mathers’ house, where the box has been hidden under the floorboards. Divney remains outside, and the narrator enters the house, but when he reaches in under the floorboards to get the box it slips out of his hands. (We learn later that Divney has sustituted explosives for the pounds.) Immediately, the narrator becomes aware of Mathers’ presence in the room–a ghost, the narrator thinks, though, unknown to him and the reader, he is now a ghost himself….

Complicity in Mathers’ murder leads the narrator to a kind of Hell dominated by a surrealistic police barracks–one-dimensional from one point of view, three-dimensional from another–the governing center of a countryside populated by people who are in part bicycles. An exchange of atoms between a cyclist and his machine produces various percentages of man-bike or bike-man, and it is one of the chief tasks of the policemen to keep track of the percentages from moment to moment….

The Third Policeman is a comic but sinister invention: on the one hand, a regional farce in which a criminal struggles with an entrenched rural bureaucracy, and, on the other, a mysterious allegory of universal pitfalls. It is a metaphysical comedy in which tricky camerawork and fleet ballet maneuvers of style bear the stamp of a technical master who has an occasional Irish weakness for blarney. Wit sometimes descends into whimsey. Completely original, it paradoxically brings to mind, as so many less original works do not, the world and tone of other writers, and of Joyce and Finnegans Wakes in particular. (A one-legged man who first tries to murder the narrator and then befriends him is named Finnucane.) Though O’Brien’s book makes no claim to the grandeur and sweep of Joyce’s epic, its hero is dead, Joyce’s asleep. Both books are circular in construction, slyly erudite in a similar fashion, and depend for a good deal of their force and comedy on linguistic invention. The outsize, cardboard caricatures of the three policemen suggest Kafka’s “assistants” in managing simultaneously to appear both innocent and forbidding, and their cryptic dialogue owes more than a little to Alice in Wonderland.

O’Brien belongs to a school of fiction more interested in archetype than in character and in metamorphosis than in action. His puppetlike figures do not suffer as individuals in any ordinary sense; they suffer for everyone in some general amusement park of the soul while confronting their unexpected fates. In O’Brien’s Hell, guilt is a moral implication, not a matter of psychological anguish, and intimidation is the major terror, not humiliation. O’Brien mines and transforms; he takes the weather of other writers and creates a climate of his own. The Third Policeman, written in Ireland in 1940 and published here a year after the author’s death, is both sui generis and the product of a literary convention. And for no reason one can definitely point to, it is as strangely emotionally affecting as it is funny.

Charles Foran in Lost Classics

I believe it is a novel charged with the same weird energy as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Both deal with the aftermath of a bomb. In Pynchon, the consequence is social derangement; all changed utterly by humanity having bitten into the apple of mass destruction. In The Third Policeman, the consequence is a narrator transported from his own familiar but deeply strange world into a parallel one that is strange but deeply familiar. O’Brien invest slapstick and lowbrow comedy–a blowhard cop, gags with bicycles and dogs–with overtones of menace. Tall tales turn swiftly dark; the “crack,” as the Irish call good banter, starts to crack up. Where we are is Ireland, the book infers–pace Marlowe’s Faustus on hell–and must ever be.

The Third Policeman is about how our subconscious propels us where our conscious selves wisely refuse to go. It is definitely a parable. It definitely heads down a narrow and dark thematic road. But the novel is also a first draft by an author who shows signs of being disconcerted, perhaps even scared, by what he is creating. (The use of footnotes, supposedly to mock academic pomposity, is a clear hedge.) When I read the book as a graduate student in Dublin I thought it an amazing piece of writing. Few agreed with me. When I did my thesis on the novel, I kept finding more and more there: layers and fears, dares and cop-outs. I couldn’t believe so few scholars took the work seriously. In the end, I doubt I convinced many to reconsider.

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The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1967

The Lake, by George Moore


He turned into the woods and walked aimlessly, trying to escape from his thoughts, and to do so he admired the pattern of the leaves, the flight of the birds, and he stopped by the old stones that may have been Druid altars; and he came back an hour after, walking slowly through the hazel-stems, thinking that the law of change is the law of life. At that moment the cormorants were coming down the glittering lake to their roost. With a flutter of wings they perched on the old castle, and his mind continued to formulate arguments, and the last always seemed the best.

At half past seven he was thinking that life is gained by escaping from the past rather than by trying to retain it; he had begun to feel more and more sure that tradition is but dead flesh which we must cut off if we would live. . . . But just at this spot, an hour ago, he had acquiesced in the belief that if a priest continued to administer the Sacraments faith would return to him; and no doubt the Sacraments would bring about some sort of religious stupor, but not that sensible, passionate faith which he had once possessed, and which did not meet with the approval of his superiors at Maynooth. He had said that in flying from the monotony of tradition he would find only another monotony, and a worse on–that of adventure; and no doubt the journalist’s life is made up of fugitive interests. But every man has, or should have, an intimate life as well as an external life; and in losing interest in religion he had lost the intimate life which the priesthood had once given him. The Mass was a mere Latin formula, and the vestments and the chalice, the Host itself, a sort of fetishism–that is to say, a symbolism from which life had departed, shells retaining hardly a murmur of the ancient ecstacy. It was therefore his fate to go in quest of–what? Not of adventure. He liked better to think that his quest was the personal life–that intimate exaltation that comes to him who has striven to be himself, and nothing but himself. The life he was going to might lead him even to a new faith. Religious forms arise and die. The Catholic Church had come to the end of its thread; the spool seemed pretty well empty, and he sat down so that he might think better what the new faith might be. What would be its first principle? he asked himself, and, not finding any answer to this question, he began to think of his life in American. He would begin as a mere recorder of passing events. But why should he assume that he would not rise higher? And if he remained to the end of his day a humble reporter, he would still have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he had not resigned himself body and soul to the life of the pool, to a frog-like acquiescence in the stagnant pool.


I picked up The Lake inspired by Kay Boyle’s comments about it in Writer’s Choice:

The Lake, which I first found in Paris in 1923 among the tattered second-hand books on one of the stalls along the Seine, gave me the courage then, and through the years, at least to attempt to live and to take action without moral or physical fear. The young Irish priest, whose story this book is, spoke to all my uncertainties, and I came to see his love story not only as metaphor for his country’s long political and religious conflict, but metaphor as well for the condition of all mankind.

A powerful claim to make. The Lake tells the story of Father Oliver Gogarty, who has spent his whole life around the large Irish lake of the title. Coming to the priesthood at first from a sense of mission, as he comes into his thirties he finds himself in great distress over his treatment of the woman who was his organist and choirmistress.

Rumors begin to spread around the small rural parish about the woman–that she has been meeting an unknown man, that she is pregnant with his child. Father Oliver confronts her and she admits it. Mistaking his jealousy for righteous indignation, he condemns her at the next mass, and she is forced to leave the parish.

Within a few months, he begins to regret his actions and becomes distraught over the thought of her plight as an unwed mother. Eventually, a priest in London writes to say that she has given the child to be raised by a farm couple and is making her way giving music lessons. The priest chides Father Oliver that his “responsibility is not merely local, and does not end as soon as the woman has passed the boundary of his parish.”

The woman, Nora Glynn, is clearly strong and independent, and when Father Oliver writes to beg her forgiveness, she is far more ready to move on than he. He first tries to entice her back to the parish with the offer of a job teaching music at a nearby convent and girls’ school, then stoops to telling her that she must save him from an eternal damnation for allowing her soul to be lost.

Nora finds a job as secretary to an agnostic writer working on a book about the historical roots of Christianity, and travels with him around Europe and the Middle East conducting research. Father Oliver continues to torture himself over her situation, long past the point where it’s clear she no longer needs or cares about his anxious attention.

In the end, Father Oliver realizes that his feelings for Nora were intimate, not religious, and with that, he comes to accept that he must let her go. But this realization also forces him to confront his reasons for staying in the priesthood, serving a parish he’s known since childhood. He has to decide if he will stay in hopes of someday recovering his faith, or go and risk taking his chances in a larger world without the familiarity and structures of the priesthood and the lake he’s lived beside every day of his life. I leave it to the reader to learn what he decides.

Most of The Lake is told through the thoughts of Father Oliver, along with the letters he exchanges with Nora and Father O’Grady, the priest in London. Moore is particularly effective in capturing the changing features of the landscape around the lake, the woods and fields that Father Oliver often walks among to escape from his parishioners. He sees not only the life of the plants and animals around the lake, but also its history–the Welsh castles, an abandoned abbey, a mill town passed over by the Industrial Revolution.

The result is a highly effective balance between the exterior and interior worlds, which keeps The Lake from becoming morbidly introverted. The love story is really just the mechanism through which Moore brings about Father Oliver’s awakening, and he never tries to make it anything else. Even though The Lake was written over a hundred years ago, it’s a remarkably fresh and alert narrative, very much to be recommended to any fan of Irish literature. W.B. Yeats considered it, along with A Drama in Muslin, one of Moore’s two masterpieces.

Although Amazon lists The Lake as out of print, it is still available from Colin Smyth Publishers, Ltd. in the U.K..

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The Lake, by George Moore
First published 1905

Sweet Dreams, Michael Frayn


There’s always a bad moment, Howard knows, after the porter’s unlocked your room, switched everything on, drawn the curtains, and gone away with a huge tip because you had only a folder of fresh banknotes in your pocket, when you sit down helplessly and think, well, here we are, this is it, I’ve arrived. Now what? Shall I go down and eat in the hotel restaurant, or shall I go out? And if you’re not careful you sit there blankly in the one armchair, with the curtains drawn and your bag on the stand, until it’s too late to do anything.

But just before this moment arrives, as soon as the door closes on the porter, Howard notices the writing-table, and all the little giveaways which the management has arranged under the lamp–books of matches, a long-stemmed rose in water, writing-paper, and picture postcards of the hotel. The postcards absorb him at once. They show (for instance) guests dining in the hotel’s famous Oak Room, with the celebrated choice of 142 dishes from all over the world, to the accompaniment of a three-piece Mariachi band. If you tilt the card back and forth a little, the picture appears to move. The hands of the Mariachi players strum their guitars. The forks of the diners flash from plate to mouth and back. Sommeliers reach discreetly forward to refill glasses. The waiters’ spoons dig up down up down in the great trifle on the world-famous dessert trolley. Gentlemen’s jaws chomp, ladies’ smiles flash. A couple in one corner kiss discreetly over the brandy.

Howard tilts the card back and forth until he has seen the couple in the corner leave, and the manager quietly coping with a customer who refuses to pay the bill, then puts it carefully into his pocket to save for his children, who love this kind of toy. He puts four books of matches into his pocket as well. These are for his wife, who smokes. For himself he will take a handful of the pencils they always leave out for you … But here he makes a surprising discovery. At the top of the blotter, where the pencils should be, is a pencil-case. It’s made of red plastic, and there’s something familiar about it which he can’t quite identify; something about the feel of its grained texture, and of the shiny red popper button on the flap … He pulls it open. There’s something even more familiar still about the contrast between the grained texture on the outside, and the red smoothness of the inside.

Then for some reason, he smells it–and at once he knows. It’s his first pencil-case, that he had for his sixth birthday. For nearly thirty years it’s been lost. And now it’s been lovingly found again by the management of the hotel to welcome him. It has its new smell still–the perfect red plastic smell, the smell of writing numbers in arithmetic books ruled in squares; the smell it had before it got mixed up in the dust and Plasticine and tangled electric flex in the toy-drawer.


There are very few books I’ve ever read a second time. For me, the bigger problem is what not to read. There is only one book, however, I’ve read a third, fourth, and, recently, fifth time: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams.

Frayn’s name is considerably better known now than when I first read the book in the late 1970s. At the time, the US paperback edition I bought compared him to Vonnegut, guaranteed bait for a geeky undergrad like me. In reality, Frayn’s writing is not that much like Vonnegut’s, but by the time I’d reached the fourth page, I no longer cared.

Sweet Dreams opens as the protagonist, Howard Baker, a thirty-something Englishman, is sitting at a stop light. A dozen different thoughts flash through his head while he waits to proceed onto what he thinks is Hornsey Lane. But when he puts the car into gear and accelerates, he finds it’s not Hornsey Lane: “It’s a ten-lane expressway, on a warm mid-summer evening, with the sky clearing after a day of rain.”

The highway approaches a great metropolis. Neon signs flash against the pale sunset and the black clouds in the north. “He recognises some of them–the Pan-Am symbol, Dagens Nyheter, the Seven Names of God.” Over the car radio, St Juliana of Norwich tells him, “And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The city proves to be a marvelous place, the best of all cities blended into one. He checks into a wonderful hotel, where the porter shows him that he can fly–if he wants to. Frayn’s limpid prose–and if any writing deserves that adjective, it’s the writing in Sweet Dreams–is perfect for capturing this heavenly place. Take this description below of Howard’s first night’s sleep in the city.

He goes to sleep with the feeling that things are going to go right for him in this town.

And enjoys a perfect night’s sleep–deep, clear, and refreshing, like gliding down through sunlit water on a hot day; such a perfect night’s sleep that he is entirely unconscious of how much he is enjoying it, or of its depth, clarity, and refreshingness, or its resemblance to gliding through sunlit water on a hot day; so perfect that from time to time he half wakes, just enough to become conscious of how unconscious of everything he is.

As you may have guessed by now, Howard has, in fact, gone to heaven, even though he never quite realizes the fact. Heaven turns out to have all the same problems Howard ran into on Earth. Still, Howard has such sincerity and wonder that these problems seem somehow new, fresh, and full of possibilities, not difficulties.

I think that spirit is what brings me back to Sweet Dreams. Frayn achieves such a delicate balance between innocence and cynicism that he leaves you optimistic, light-hearted, but not naïve. The tone of this book is comic but not boisterous; satirical but not biting; affectionate but not cloying. It’s one of the most perfectly realized books I’ve ever read–and perhaps the only book I’ll read a sixth time.

Frayn himself once remarked on the book,

Sweet Dreams is an ironic examination of the illogicality of the idea of heaven. I feel the same way about the idea of an ideal society on earth–they all fall to pieces logically. You can improve society piecemeal, of course, but I think the awful thing about changing anything is how many other changes that one change must necessitate. You can’t make one thing better without making other things worse…. Sweet Dreams is the best book, and the prose there is as good as I’ll ever write. But I don’t like what it reveals about me.

Sweet Dreams was long out of print, but it seems to be back on the shelves again thanks to the success of Frayn’s Spies. Anthony Burgess put it on his list of the best 99 English novels since 1939, and it deserves to be kept in print and widely read from now on.


Margaret Drabble, New York Times Book Review, 13 January 1974

Frayn has a most unusual talent. His books see, so deceptively simple, but they linger in the mind for years, and can be re-read with the greatest pleasure. “Sweet Dreams” is no exception. … The novel is a satire on modern fashions–clothes, houses, jobs, attitudes, beliefs–but it’s more than that. It’s an account of growing older, it’s a comment on the nature of man. … The accuracy of Frayn’s observation is dazzling; in a few words, he creates a man, a room, a dinner party. What he does, he does precisely. … Most satirists and writers of Utopias dislike people profoundly, but Frayn’s work is informed with the most beautiful goodwill.

New Yorker, 14 January 1974

Frayn, as he must be to carry off this sort of thing, is an impeccable writer. He is not a science fictionist but a moralist, and his novel is a kind of Candide–a vividly contemporary Candide, full of the most serious high comedy and the most enormous belly laughs

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Sweet Dreams, by Michael Frayn
London: Comstock, 1973

Frank Harris, by Hugh Kingsmill

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To keep the Fortnightly subdued and reassuring in tone was comparatively easy. But to lower himself to the temperature necessary to the comfort of his guests in Park Lane taxed Harris sorely. Yet, with a Royal Duke at his table, some measure of restraint was obligatory.

Once, he writes, he gave a lunch with the old Duke of Cambridge on his right and Russell Lowell, the American Ambassador, on his left; and the guests included Beerbohm Tree and Willie Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), John Burns, the firebrand agitator, the poet George Wyndham, and Alfred Russel Wallace–all listening spellbound to the humour and eloquence of Oscar Wilde.

The authenticity of this list of guests is corroborated by Sir Sidney Low, in an obituary notice in the Observer. Harris, Sir Sidney writes, had at this time a charming little house in Park Lane, where he entertained a great many of the people best worth knowing. Calling one afternoon on Mrs. Harris, Sir Sidney found a Royal Duke taking tea with her. “Peers, politicians, poets came to the Park Lane luncheons and dinner-parties. Oscar Wilde would toss up scintillating epigrams, countered by the host with fiery thrusts of savage criticism and biting satire.”

It looked just then, Sir Sidney Low says, as if Frank Harris were to be one of Fortune’s favourites. The Conservative party-managers had their eye on him, and people were saying that he might do anything.

But his old uneasiness ran strongly below the surface. He felt restless, out of the picture he had framed so expensively with his wife’s money. The unobtrusive self-assurance of his new acquaintances exasperated him; he noticed with surprise that among these gentle-folk the untitled were as sure of themselves as the titled. What was the secret of their complacency? It couldn’t be brains! He had more brains in his big toe that the lot of them in their united skulls. And what under the mask of polished manners, did they really think of him? If he was good enough to know now, why hadn’t he been good enough to know earlier? Or was it the husband of their own set, the editor of the Fortnightly, the coming man in politics?

Lunching in the house in Park Lane with the Duke of Cambridge, and a half dozen people of good position, taught him, he says, that he would always be an outside, alien to them in imagination and sympathy. And yet, he adds, in a sentence which perhaps throws more light on his handicaps as a social climber than on his assets, he had certain advantages: “I had had an English education and knew how to dress, my table manners, too, were English of the best.”

Editor’s Comments

If he hadn’t worked so strenuously on his own notoriety, culminating in his long-winded but often fascinating autobiography, My Life and Loves, Frank Harris would be long forgotten by now. And even the autobiography is more often remembered for its pornographic than its literary merits. So why bother reading an account of his life?

I had utterly no interest in Frank Harris before reading this book. Neither did I know anything about Hugh Kingsmill. I bought Frank Harris solely on the basis of its mention by Michael Holroyd. So I think I can fairly say that I approached this book with no preconceptions, asking only that it proves its own merits. Having devoured it in an afternoon, I will argue that these are considerable. This is one of the most striking examples of the art of biography I’ve ever read.

This is not a conventional life. Kingsmill first came to know Harris as a youthful admirer, remained in close contact with him as part of the London literary world of the early decades of the twentieth century. He lost that contact when Harris fled to France to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy and fraud, then visited him again years later, when Harris was in elegant but unmistakable decline on the French Riviera.

Although Kingsmill does recount the essential facts–which, in the case of a pathological liar like Harris, was no simple feat–of Harris’ life, what makes this book worth reading is its remarkable power as a study of a deeply flawed yet powerful character.

When Kingsmill first wrote the book, in the 1930s, Harris’ literary reputation still had a few remnants intact, and his notoriety as a pornographer was peaking. The scandal value of the book no doubt guaranteed healthy sales, and many of the literary figures whose careers Harris influenced in one way or another–including Shaw and H.G. Wells–were still active. Harris’ defenders could still be found, even if they were subdued in public fora.

What credibility Harris might have had at the time is calmly and completely destroyed by Kingsmill. His ammunition is simply Harris’ own words and deeds. As Kingsmill demonstrates so effectively, there was never any need to mount a vendetta against Harris–he was his own worst enemy. His accuracy derives from the clarity of a youthful admirer become middle-aged realist. For the first third of the book, Kingsmill shows how Harris haphazardly, but relentlessly, constructed a career as a man of letters–and politics, in aspiration at least–of materials of dubious origin.

Harris’ ascent is a striking illustration of the momentum a forceful personality can generate from the slightest of talents. On the strength of a few stories and articles and a great many boastful stories loudly related, Harris managed to gain the editorship of a series of weekly magazines. At a time when newpapers and weeklies were the predominant mass medium, this put him in a position of great influence, and he cultivated the aura of power and insight people naturally associated with an editor of an influential journal.

This aura was about the only thing Harris ever successfully cultivated. As Kingsmill shows, to call Harris a creative talent would be overstretching the truth. He was not so much a writer as a producer of words. His chief creative concern was the building–and propping up–of his own facade. For nearly everything else, his was a destructive energy.

He ran newspapers and magazines from solid reputation and financial standing into near-ruin. In the words of an old Bob and Ray routine, he firmly believed he could build himself up by knocking other people down. Although he supported rising talents, like Wells, he also attacked and denigrated others. What might at the time have seemed critical judgment seems more like random choice in retrospect. None of this kept Harris from maintaining a high opinion of his own talents: “I am, really, a great writer” he once remarked. “[M]y only difficulty is in finding great readers.”

If Harris genuinely deserves to remembered for anything of literary consequence today, it is for The Man Shakespeare, which, at the time, saved the Bard’s reputation from reverent mummification. “To many of the ‘professors,’ as Harris always calls his colleagues in Shakespearean criticism,” Kingsmill writes, “Shakespeare was a substitute for experience…. Harris, hastily scanning a play between an afternoon in the city and an evening with a girl, had none of this cloistered diffidence.” Despite the book’s undeniable vitality, however, Kingsmill finds it very much a reflection of its author:

To bring order into this chaos is impossible. It is the hasty impressionistic criticism of a man with no coherent outlook on like, who writes as the passing mood prompts, alternating without any uneasiness between envious depreciation and melting worship.

Nonetheless, The Man Shakespeare gave Harris some legitimate status as a critic, and he relished the band of young admirers–Kingsmill among them–attracted by his status and celebrity. “He talked always,” one of them later said, “as if he held the key to Life–with a big L. As if only with his help could one pass into the kingdom of experience.”

What delight Harris must have taken in holding court. Any listener–suitably in awe–would do. As Kingsmill recalls of his many strolls with Harris, “During these walks I seemed rather to be overhearing a soliloquoy than lending my attention to talk directly addressed to me.” Whether this was a reflection of Harris himself or of the image he wanted others to have of him is hard to tell. Harris believed “a deep bass voice and a ruthless disregard of everyone’s feelings” were “the two main attributes of a man of action.”

Eventually, Harris ran out of fools to underwrite his wrecking of magazines and fled–to France, then to America, then back to France. He managed to beg, borrow, charm, or steal sufficient funds to maintain a semblance of gentility. His final attempt to regain his audience and substantial profits, if not his respectability, with his long-winded and scandalous memoirs, was undermined by a proliferation of pirated editions.

Though he provides ample evidence to justify one, Kingsmill refuses, however, to make this book a hatchet job. Instead, this is first and foremost a study in character. If all Kingsmill did was to reveal the flimsiness of the props with which Harris bolstered his public facade, this book would be as forgettable as its subject. It is the sensitivity with which Kingsmill traces Harris’s personality that make this such a remarkable book. Harris’ energy may often have been misdirected, but the intensity of that energy is undeniable. Harris may had little reason for holding himself to be something more than he was, particularly after his flight from England, yet Kingsmill recognizes what tremendous willpower it must have taken Harris to maintain that facade when its artifice was so obvious.

Harris never did as much damage to others as he did to himself. In the end, Harris comes to seem rather like another minor figure Kingsmill mentions, “one of those men who owe their reputation among their contemporaries to what they might have achieved, and who would perhaps have had less reputation had they done more to earn one.” Yet, as Kingsmill shows so persuasively, it was also solely by his own efforts that Harris earned what reputation he had, and Harris kept up those efforts long after the point when lesser men would have crumbled.

Frank Harris deserves a prominent place, on an admittedly short shelf, alongside Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret as a classic portrait of the pathos and pathology of a constructed reputation. It wouldn’t be an entirely unjust ending if we came to remember Frank Harris because he happened to have been the subject of Hugh Kingsmill’s book.

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Horace Gregory, Books, 18 September 1932

Mr. Kingsmill’s biography of Frank Harris is not the first, nor will it be the last, for the Frank Harris legend shows signs of growth and possibly immortality, yet I believe that he has written the perfect story of Harris’ life. Something of the fascination that Harris must have had is reproduced in Mr. Kingsmill’s version. From the very start one catches the excitement, the vicarious adventure of knowing Harris and knowing him a shade too well.

Joseph Wood Krutch, Nation, 2 November 1932

It is possible that more facts will be brought to light if anyone cares enough to search for them, but it is not likely that we shall get a more convincing portrait of the picturesque and exasperating scoundrel who remains strangely pathetic despite his manifold sins.

Alexander Armstrong’s review of Frank Harris from the Frank Harris page at

The great virtue of this book is its consistent humanity, both towards Harris itself and those whose lives he touched. It is this quality, as well as its readability, that have made this one of my long-term favourite works; indeed it was this book more than any other that set me on the path which has led to the creation of these pages.

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Frank Harris, by Hugh Kingsmill
London: Jonathan Cape, 1932

Other Ranks, by W. V. Tilsley

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Close on now —must be. they’d be getting tea ready at home. Had they his field card yet? Fulshaw’s eyes were brilliant with excitement. The first birthday he’d missed at home. They’d send him some of the cake in his next parcel. Must stick near Jack. One up the spout … make sure his safety catch was off. What an uproar. Good job they didn’t know at home exactly what was happening.

The burden of shells lifted, the absence of racket stinging his ear-drums. He heard a whistle, a way off. Fulshaw swept his arm upwards, climbing the parapet. “Come on, lads!”

Bradshaw experienced a moment of indecision. Should he jump over the parapet first, risking getting marked down, or hesitate till the others climbed out? Jerry’s machine-guns would rake the parapet; many got pipped in the head in the act of climbing out. Like that film. He found himself on top, enormously magnified and exposed, and joined in the cramped forward walk of the irregularly formed line. Two others between him and Jack. Better leave it at that. When would that empty feeling in the stomach go? He felt afraid to look in front, and kept his eyes down. They saucered with wonder at seeing a sun-baked face peering up at him from one shell-hole. It smelt. He saw another; a green-white face pressed into the side of the hole, the remainder a limp, ragged bundle of khaki. Some other battalion had been over the same ground.

He raised his eyes slowly over the dry pot-holed surface of No Man’s Land; saw in front what might have been an indistinct row of heads and shoulders, some distance away. Impossible to go straight. Some holes had things to avoid in them. They plodded blindly over the innumerable gougings towards the crackling machine-guns and rifle-fire. The impetuous Fulshaw fell first, in Bradshaw’s path. The little private bent down on one knee, forgetting the order that nobody had to stop with wounded. His officer waved him on, groaning; other hand to groin. Bradshaw had a desire to stay.

“Shall I get the stretcher-bearers, sir?”

The officer’s face grew drawn with pain.

“No, no! Carry on!”

Bradshaw looked round and espied a dud shell. He pulled it up, surprised by its weight, and set it upright on its base near the officer.

“Just to mark the spot, sir. I’ll tell the stretcher-bearers where you are as soon as I see them.”

He passed on, a dozen yards behind the thin, extended line. They looked pathetically ineffective. As he caught up, the back of Corporal Dawkins’ head fell out; upraised arms sagged to earth. Bradshaw slipped in beside Driver without a word. Dawkins killed. He was post corporal at Bouzincourt–handed Bradshaw his mail.

They were men in front there. Germans. Patches of green further behind; unshelled fields. Sergeant Todd called out,

“Don’t bunch up, there …”

Bradshaw saw a wide gap on his right, moved right to lessen it. The next man closed towards him, the unaccountably dropped flat. He crouched lower, an attitude that gave a false impression of grimness and determination — men ready to strike. They were merely trying to minimise their bodily targets.

The spasmodic crackling rippled, then sharply cracked in its sweeping arc. Above it Bradshaw head a choking sob. Somebody fell. The sergeant staggered but kept on. Another sob. Wounds … exhaustion? He didn’t know. But he no longer wondered why men walked to attack, even in broad daylight. The ground was abominably loose and uneven. No real surface. A series of craters and holes, with nothing to walk on but the loose rims.

The line thinned mysteriously; became little bunches of twos and threes. They stumbled on exhaustingly, throats dry. He looked up again. No mistaking them this time; less than a hundred yards away. He prayed for something to happen before he got that far. Chick was right, then? The Germans were safe in their dugouts whilst the ground was writhing under our barrage; ready to nip up when it lifted and catch us coming across?

No shells came to aid them now. They were targets. Sweating gunners would be saying:

“Well, if the bloody infantry don’t do something after that lot, that God we’ve got a Navy!”

The last seventy-five yards might well have been seventy-five miles. They would never get there. Every decent-sized shell-hole clung to Bradshaw’s feet, saying, “Get down to it, you fool. Get down to it! Pretend you’re wounded!” Driver was still there, to the left and slightly ahead. He wanted to draw nearer, but felt that, closer, one or the other would be hit. He knew that the slightest swerve or stumble could put him either in the direct track of a bullet or out of its line of flight. To the end of his days the picture of those stumbling men would remain with him; floundering into shell-holes; climbing out. Faltering, dropping, reeling on. Bent figures stumbling forward with distressful gasps; falling, often remaining down.

Fifty yards from the German trench the struggling remnant expended its last ounces of diminishing energy. It gathered, too scattered and demoralised to go farther, into two huge craters, like the sheep that soldiers are.

Their first attack, a washout.


I first stumbled across Other Ranks while taking Prof. Don Emerson’s course on the First World War at the University of Washington. I was in the habit of roaming the stacks of Suzzallo Library, particularly the long aisles of old fiction that sat in a neglected corner of the fifth floor. As a break from studying, I would browse the shelves, inspecting titles that seemed interesting. Even then, I hoped to find lost treasures among those forgotten books.

I recognized the title phrase, used to described the enlisted men in the British Army, from the course, but I didn’t recognize Tilsley’s name. I did, however, know Edmund Blunden, who’d written the Introduction. Blunden’s Undertones of War was one of the memoirs on our reading list. His name suggested this might be something worth reading, so I checked Other Ranks out and read it over the next weekend.

I had already become fascinated by the breakdown in class structures that resulted from the meatgrinder of trench warfare, but I found Other Ranks unique among the remarkable British memoirs of the Western Front. Blunden’s own book, along with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality, Siegfried Sasson’s trilogy, and other well-regarded first-hand accounts, were all from the perspective of educated, upper-class officers. Until oral histories of ordinary soldiers began to be published in the 1960s, hardly any corresponding accounts could be found to speak for them.

For that alone, Other Ranks would be worth remembering. But this is more than just an authentic memoir of the life and deaths of men in the front line: it is a powerful piece of prose. Tilsley’s style is careful, economical. Nothing is overstated. His sentences are often short, almost telegraphic. The poetry is between the lines.

Although written as a novel, Other Ranks opens with a brief disclaimer: “None of the characters in this chronicle is fictitious.” We can assume, then, that Dick Bradshaw, from whose viewpoint the story is told, represents Tilsley. If so, then Other Ranks is all the more remarkable for its success in portraying the evolution of Bradshaw’s outlook from naive draftee to seasoned veteran.

In the very first paragraph, Bradshaw imagines “an inspection, when some great general would stand before him and say: ‘Fight for England–you? Run away, boy, and come back when you’re a man!” Still too young to shave, Bradshaw is a quiet, respectful lad, probably from the family of a clerk or shopkeeper. He and his buddy, Jack, watch guardedly as the older men in their company of Lancastershire draftees indulge their vices: drinking, gambling, smoking, whoring–and, most of all, boasting. Both fear being shown up as unfit to be soldiers.

The book opens as Bradshaw’s “C” Company leaves the depot at Etaples and heads for their first engagement at the front: a late and futile attack in the Battle of the Somme. The excerpt above describes climactic moment of going over the top, the infantry assault across No Man’s Land, a tactic that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties in the course of the war and almost never succeeded.

Over the next fourteen months, “C” Company carries on, alternating between stints in the front line and carrying out tedious chores at bases “down the line.” As Tilsley writes, “down the line,” “up the line,” and “in the trenches” “were elastic phrases. To the infantry, Poperinghe [ten miles from the front] was down the line; to non-combatant units, up.”

The unit experiences the miserable and perilous lot of what was known as the P.B.I.: the Poor Bloody Infantry. A wounded Highlander Bradshaw encounters near the end sums up their unenviable lot:

And of all the lousy jobs in this bloodstained war is anybody so mucked about as the P.B.I.? You exist like a pig for weeks on end, grovelling and nosing and snivelling for rations. Your constitution is steadily undermined month after month by insufficient grub. Your body is lousy and dirty, and covered with disgusting sores. The hair on you is a nesting and breeding-place for chats and crabs, and has to be shaved off. You’re unclean; degraded. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry from the R.E.s [Royal Engineers] can muck you about. You have the most dangerous, tedious, monotonous, and thankless job of all, and you get less pay than anybody else.

Though he proves a worthy soldier and earns promotions to corporal and sergeant, Bradshaw loses any illusions he had about the war and his leaders. He goes from thinking of “great generals” who will size him up to referring to virtually everyone above the rank of subaltern as “The older men who use, and misuse, us….” As he writes in his diary at the close of the book,

So now, after nearly two years in the army and fourteen months overseas, I am returning as a wounded Tommy who has done his bit. The irony of it! I came here with a duty before me–to kill Germans. For months I received instructions on how to drive home into my adversaries’ bodies the long pointed blade of steel recently discarded. There has never been blood upon its surface; only a little mud and dust. Hardly more potent has been my rifle–and both have been carried many wearisome miles. My service has been a washout; undistinguished. Yet I have seen many dead men and boys–so many that the sight ceased to shock. Not normal dead, but cruel mutilations that were never on God’s earth meant to be.

Published in 1931, Other Ranks was late and lost in the wave of war memoirs and novels. The Times Literary Supplement gave it a brief, polite review. Never released in the U.S., it soon vanished. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory missed it, as did other studies of war literature by Bernard Bergonzi and Samuel Hynes. Aside from a rare copy that pops up now and again for hundreds of dollars, it sits collecting dust on the shelves of scholarly libraries like the one where I found it. If I could choose only one book from this site to be reissued and rediscovered, this would be it. Not only in recognition of its exceptional balance of honesty and discretion, but in tribute to the sacrifice of a generation of Other Ranks.

Other Comments

· Times Literary Supplement, 16 April 1931

Mr. Blunden remarks that Mr. Tilsley “misses nothing.” He has, indeed, a very keen eye. Like most “other ranks” who have written of their experiences in the War, he had had an upbringing and an education superior to that of his fellows. He was one of those who believed that the Army could not make soldiers of his kind, and admits that when he saw a German raiding party approaching he forgot in his excitement to take off his safety-catch. Perhaps for this reason he displays at times a pessimism regarding the respective qualities of British and German troops which is at war with his pride in the 55th Division…. Mr. Tisley’s description of an attack on the Somme is as vivid as anything of the sort that has been written.

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Other Ranks, by W.V. Tilsley
London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1931

Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets:

Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney


I soon learned that variety is not the spice, but the very stuff of life. We need the constant ebb and flow of wavelets of sensation, thought, perception, action, and emotion, lapping on the shore of our consciousness, now here, now there, keeping even our isolation in the ocean of reality, so that we neither encroach nor are encroached upon. If our minds are thus like islands, they are of many shapes, some long and straight, others narrow and bent, impervious to the sea and belching from deep unapproachable cones the unversial warmth which lies beneath us all. We are narrow men, twisted men, smooth and nicely rounded men, and poets; but whatever we are, we have our shape, and we preserve it best in the experience of many things.

If the reach of experience is suddenly confined, and we are left with only a little food for thought and feeling, we are apt to take the few objects that offer themselves and ask a whole catalogue of often absurd questions about them. Does it work? How? What made it and of what? And, in parallel, when and where did I last see something like it and what else does it remind me of? Andif we are dissatisfied at the time, we repeat the series in the optative mood, making each imperfection in what we have to had evoke a wish or an ideal. So we set in train a wonderful flow of combinations and associations in our minds, the length and complexity of which soon obscure its humble starting point.

The objects in my cell were few and bare; I have enumerated them all in the last chapter, except the gamelle, or mess-tin, and spoon with which we ate our soup. There was neither comfort nor company in any of them, but they served a brief term of slavery to the orgy of speculation to which confinement drove me. My bed, for example, could be measured and roughly classified with school beds or army beds, according to appearance and excepting the peculiarity of its being hinged to the wall. Yet it was a bed with a pronounced difference from any other. The broad lattice-work of iron laths, which took the place of springs, was unique and almost supernatural in its torment. If I lay on my back, at least one vertebra was wedged in a sharp corner; if I lay on my side, a hip or shoulder-blade or elbow found itself pressed against an edge; and if I lay on my stomach, my nostrils were filled with straw-dust. Yet this bed retained a quality of bedness which summoned all my associations with all the beds I had ever known. In it my fears, joys, sorrows and relief were those of bed, not to be found in haystacks or ditches or on the floor, but common to every bed from canopy to canvas.

When I had done with the bed, which was too simple to intrigue me long, I felt the blankets, estimated their warmth, examined the precise mechanics of the window, the discomfort of the toilet (perversely, for its very presence was an unexpected luxury), computed the length and breadth, the orientation and elevation of the cell.

There was also some decoration to be seen, for my predecessors had evidently been better equipped than I. There were smears of oilpaint on the walls and a great deal of pencil work, raning from signatures and salutations to lewd sketches derived from interrupted love-lives. Some had also counted the days, but the longest line of pencil marks was fifty-six, so either their patience or their imprisonment had been short. The first case would have been natural and the second desirable, for it the physical nature of this cell was only to be described by understatement, its spirit or atmosphere defied all words.

The adjectives which sprang to mind were those which might properly be used of stagnant pools, although the place was dry and not obscure; there was an obscenity in this calculated degradation of a human dwelling-place which chilled the heart as no fungoid squalor could. There was no filth, generally no vermin: only the diabolic essence of perversion and the smugly spruce technology of a stockyard.


Solitary Confinement is Christopher Burney’s account of the 526 days he spent in Fresnes prison, outside Paris, after being captured by the Germans as a suspected spy in 1942. Contrary to what you might expect, though, this is not a Wooden Horse/Escape from Colditz book of British derring-do and ingenuity. Escape was never a serious consideration for Burney, something he chides himself for rather late in the narrative.

Instead, he fully expected something worse than solitary confinement, and even pictured the firing squad he’d face if his real identity as a spy were found out. What makes Solitary Confinement stand out among war and prison memoirs is that Burney focuses, to the exclusion of almost all extraneous details, on the mental and emotional experience of his long stretch in solitary.

With no distraction but a mid-day serving of watery soup and a chunk of bread, and with only a small patch of sky to see through the high window in his cell, Burney had to devise ways to fill the hours between waking and sleeping. He slowly ran through old memories, recalling walks taken and meals eaten. He rehearsed and perfected alibis to tell his interrogators–that he was an escaped prisoner of war, that he was a special operations officer–that could avoid implicating the French members of his support network.

And he spent a great deal of time remembering bits of the Bible and other religious teachings from his youth, and puzzling over their meaning. The notions of the two extremes of good and evil, in particular, troubled him, for he found it difficult to resolve the notion that evil opposed good, that evil resulted from the sins committed by men, with his immediate experience. Had the information he gave in his interrogations led to the arrest and execution of members of the French resistance, they would, through no fault of their own, come to suffer for his sin of confessing.

At the same time, he also struggled to understand what it meant if God is love:

I did not hate my enemies. I would do what I could to furstrate their schemes against me, but I would not be savage with them. If the Toad [one of the more brutal prison guards] would go back to Germany and leave my door open, he could go in peace; I would try to neutralize his unpleasantness, but I would not harry him to hell. But the Toad and love seemed to be incompatible terms. It would be easy enough to couple them in church, especially in the general proposition, an exhortation given in peculiarly suitable circumstances where outright refutation or even doubt would be unlikely. For in those peaceable surroundings the vision of enmity recedes. But does the vision of love advance? Do we know what we are talking about?

Left to explore these thoughts, Burney eventually comes to decide that he must “replace this old polar system of value–the good of every kind faced with its evil opposite–by a scale which would all be positive degrees of good”:

There is no critical mark to the right of which is Good and to the left Evil,” he decides. “Life is not a gloomy and impossible grey, as moralists would have it, to be sorted into black and white: all its aspects form a spectrum, of which the greater part is hidden to a single pair of eyes, but all which originates from a single source. To suppose that there are contrary principles of light and darkness, or good and evil, is as presumptuous as to deny the existence of infrared light on the grounds of its invisibility.

When it becomes clear that he will be moved to collective confinement in a camp in Germany, Burney admits that, “I was reluctant to leave.” His time in solitary has, in a way, been an opportunity:

I knew that so many months of solitude, though I had allowed them to torment me at times, had been in a sense an exercise in liberty. For, by absolving me from the need either to consider practical problems of living or to maintain the many unquestioned assumptions which cannot conveniently be abandoned in social life, I had been free to drop the spectables of the near-sighted and to scan the horizon of existence. And I believed that I had seen something there. But it was only a glimpse, a remote and tenuous apprehension of what lay behind the variety and activity of life, and I was afraid toturn my attention back to my immediate surroundings.

To go from abrupt capture and interrogation by the Gestapo to this revelation is a remarkable journey. Frank Kermode was moved to write of Burney, “The courage and the intellectual integrity of this writer are far beyond what most of us would expect of ourselves….” The author’s interior journey, as it were, comes to overshadow even the drama of his physical adventures. And his sensitive, thoughtful, yet always self-deprecating account makes Solitary Confinement a truly exceptional book. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it “certainly of classic quality. . . . a wonderful little book,” and it’s among the most memorable I’ve come across in the course of editing this site.


This is a beautiful, simple, and moving book. To my mind it deals with a question more important than even the war and intrigue, which are its setting–how a man may find and build his own self.

Rollo May, New York Times, 1 March 1953

This is a story of great courage and steadfastness, and it is all the more impressive as proof that men of integrity can stand on their own under the greatest pressures without creeping to the shelter of superstitions and orthodoxies. It is as powerful a justification of intellectual freedom and of the intellectual as one could wish to have.

Anthony West, New Yorker, 11 April 1953

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Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney
London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1952

View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante


The comandante gave him a story to read. In it a man would go into the bathroom and spend hours locked inside it. The wife worried about what her husband was doing in the bathroom for such a long time. One day she decided to find out. She climbed out the window and walked along the narrow ledge that went around the house. She slid up to the bathroom window and looked in. What she saw stunned her: her husband was sitting on the toilet and had a revolver in his hand with the barrel in his mouth. From time to time he took the barrel of the gun out of his mouth to lick it slowly like a lollipop.

He read the story and gave it back to its author without further comment or perhaps with an offhand comment. What makes the story particularly moving is the fact that its author, the comandante, committed suicide seven years later by shooting himself in the head. So as not to wake his wife, he wrapped the gun in a towel.


Best known for his masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera Infante described View of Dawn in the Tropics as “a personal statement of the strategies of history.” This short book, barely 140 pages long, comprises approximately 100 vignettes drawn from the history of Cuba. Cabrera Infante’s approach is similar to Eduardo Galeano’s magnum opus Memory of Fire, but distilled to a piercing intensity.

The theme of virtually all of the vignettes is violence. The violence of the first Spanish masters against the natives, the violence of slave rebellions, the violence of colonial wars, the violence of coups and counter-coups, the violence of Castro’s revolution, and the violence of its repressions. Many of the vignettes end in death.

Violence, Cabrera Infante seems to suggest, is endemic to the presence of humans on the island. Whether repressive or liberating, the violence continues, in contrast to the qualities of the island itself:

And it will always be there. As someone once said, that long, sad, unfortunate island will be there after the last Indian and after the last Spaniard and after the last African and after the last American and after the last of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.

Writing from his chosen exile in London, Cabrera Infante seems to draw some hope from this perspective. If violence is the legacy of humans on Cuba, it’s a legacy that will last only as long as there is human memory. As he writes in one vignette (quoted in entirety): “In what other country of the world is there a province named Matanzas, meaning, ‘Slaughter’?”

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View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978
First published in Spain in 1974 as Vista del Amanecer en el Tropico

The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson


The Salient Now — and Then
Flatness of green fields, no tall trees anywhere, clusters of red-tield, red-bricked farms and houses, and a dim village-line on the far horizon, only very slightly higher, it seems, than the green flatness everywhere–that is the Salient to-day. Yet for years these few square miles were shapeless as the ingredients of a Christmas pudding while being stirred. Not even worms were left after the bombardments–all blasted to shreds, with the bricks of ruins, stumps of trees, and metalling of roads. We used to say it could never be reclaimed: that in fifty years it would be the same dreadful morass.

Mankind suffered over a million casualties within the dish, double-rimmed with inner and outer “ridges,” of the Salient. It had the outline of a skull, the teeth trying to crack Ypres–so the Germans, with grim humour, drew it during the War. A fit man can easily walk round the skull’s outline in a day; but in ’17, could he have walked without human interference, he would ahve dropped, exhausted, before he had floundered a hundredth part of the way, and been drowned with his face under the thin top mud. The bombardments broke the bekes, or brooks, draining this land, which was once covered by the sea; and the pudding became porridge, a-swim with icy water.

The only way over the morass was by the wooden tracks that serpentined over the mud–baulks of teak and beech laid side by side, looking like the sloughs, cast by monsters of the primeval slime. Always at night the tracks glowed and glared with fire and smoke and dreadful crashes; sections would rise splintered into the air, wagons, horses, mules with them; the mud bordering the tracks was piled with old broken and swelled things. The young German gunner cadets were trained in night-firing on these tracks, which were visible along their ribbed and winding lengths by day. Now if you would recall 1917 to your memory, you must stay away from this fine agricultural district.

The Genius of the Salient
Near St. Julien, opposite Triangle Farm, at a place called Vancouver, stands the most beautiful thing in the Salient. People call it the Canadian Memorial, but for me it is the memorial for all the soliders in the War. It faces towards Ypres, not towards a vanquiched enemy, as do so many of the war memorials to be seen in France to-day, such as the Gallic cock crowing triumphantly on a broken cannon at Roclincourt, or the caribou roaring eastwards from Beaumont Hamel, or the defiant artisan-soldier standing firm and fierce at Lens.

Do the dead feel cock-crowing triumph over the dead? The crowing is for the industrial magnates, the Lens or the Ruhr mine-owners, not for the poor unknowing working-men who fell in the Great Horror, and became part of it.

No; the colossal head and shoulders of the soldier with reversed arms emerging from the tall stone column has the gravity and strength of grief coming from full knowledge of old wrongs done to men by men. It mourns; but it mourns for all mankind. We are silent before it, as we are before the stone figures of the Greeks. The thoughtless one-sided babble about national righteousness or wrongess, the cliches of jingo patriotism, the abstract virtues parasitic on the human spirit, fade before the colossal figure of the common soldier by the warside.

The genius of Man rises out of the stone, and our tears fall before it.


The Wet Flanders Plain is truly an exceptional book. Of the many–and good–books written about the First World War, this is the only one I know of in which a soldier returns to the scene of his battles–or at least, until Michael Kernan’s The Violet Dots came along over fifty years later. Considering the enormous number of men who served on the Western Front between 1914-1918, and the depth to which the experience shocked and wounded many of them, it seems odd that there aren’t more like it.

But after reading The Wet Flanders Plain, the absence becomes understandable. Returning to the scene of their worst traumas is hardly something that would have been undertaken lightly. Williamson returns to the area of the Western Front in hopes of ridding himself of what he calls his “wraiths”: the memories of the many young men he served with and killed or saw killed in his time at the Front. As he describes in the moving introduction, “Apologia Pro Mea Vita,” these wraiths haunt him even ten years after the War, and drive him to seek refuge in the belfry of his village church, where only the deafening tolling of the bells can drown out the rush and noise of his memories and nightmares.

The fact that Williamson survived the War is in itself miraculous. Arriving in France in the fall of 1914 with the first wave of volunteers that followed the Regulars, he served on the Ypres Salient and the Somme throughout much of the next four years. The numbers of fellow soldiers he saw killed and wounded would certainly have left any with at least a few “wraiths” to haunt his dreams and memories.

In 1928, Williamson and another unnamed veteran journeyed back to Flanders and Northern France to revisit the places they served. Much of The Wet Flanders Plain comes from the diary he kept during the trip. They travelled on the cheap, staying in estaminets and eating at workers’ cafes, and expenses are a constant concern throughout the book.

As the excerpt above describes, they find, to their surprise, that the land has been quick to recover the calm and order it knew before the War. The sodden battlefields are all productive farmland, and birdsong–unknown during the War–can be heard everywhere. Williamson–best known as a nature writer–notes a dozen different types of song birds, and remarks on the similarities between the natural environment here and at home in England.

What remains from the War are the man-made scars: mostly German machine gun emplacements, so well-built and extensive that now sledgehammers are having to do the work millions of British shells failed at. And there are new scars as well: the many orderly cemeteries for the War dead. Even for the German dead, although these, he observes, are given cast-off bits of land, out of sight and begrudged.

The local people show little nostalgia for the soldiers who overwhelmed their land for four years. The money the battlefield tourists bring is accepted, but not as recompense for their losses. Instead, their interest seems in restoring the way life was before the war, when small matters of money, property, and neighborhood jealousies were the main concerns of everyday life.

In summary, what Williamson finds is that energies of both nature and man are devoted to recovery, not carrying on the conflict.

The dug-outs of Y ravine had subsided, the dry-rotted timbers broke with a touch; the pistons and mainshaft and cylinders of the aeroplane rusted in the grasses–I remembered the charred framework on the ridge above Station Road–with rifle barrels and holed helmets and burst minenwerfer cases. Those dreaded oil-drums of the minnies! Rust and mildew and long tangled grass and frogs. The Ancre flowed in its chalky bed, swift and cold as before, gathering its green duckweed into a heaving coat as of mail, and drowning the white flowers of water crow’s-foot. Only one thing of all our work remained–the wooden military bridge over Mill Causeway. “Out work?” a voice seemed to say, a voice of the wan star. “What you seek is lost for ever in ancient sunlight, which arises again as Truth.” The voice wandered thinner than memory, and was gone with the star under the horizon.

With the exception of the Canadian memorial described above, the cemeteries and statues seem more designed to reassure the living than to commemorate the dead. The memories of Williamson and other veterans are the truest memorials. In the end, Williamson finds “the wraiths were fled,” and himself “filled with longing for my home.” His journey has allowed him to move forward, at last, to “the new part of myself, overlaying the wraith of that lost for ever.”


Herschel Brickell, New York Herald Tribune, 1 December 1929

One of the best written of all the books on the war. It is slight in size and unpretentious, but worth putting aside to read again when the next storm threatens.

Frances Bartlett, Boston Transcript, 30 November 1929

Among the books of today marking the recrudescence of a general interest in stories of the Great War–also the growth of an abhorrence of all wars, and the determination to avoid them by every honorable means–Mr. Williamson’s is uniquely notable. It is epic in prose; elegaic for the most part, yet in certain of its nuances possessing a delicately lovely pastoral quality.

F.L. Robbins, Outlook, 27 November 1929

Unheralded by fanfare of advertisement, The Wet Flanders Plain emerges from the mass of War books as the most beautiful and the most terrible. Henry Williamson, the English prose writer and nature mystic, had revisited the scenes of his War years, and in a diary weaves the past and present into a series of scenes, pure and strange and deeply stirring.

Harold King, Saturday Review of Literature, 21 December 1929

The book is a series of vignettes, done with that delicate skill of which Mr. Williamson is master. It is deep and tender and moving, and will probably rank with the few really great books of the war.

Locate a copy

The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson
London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1929

Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets:

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman


David watched the door close: gently, smoothly, as though drawn by a magnet, the steel door drew closer to its steel frame. Finally they became one.

High up, behind a rectangular metal grating in the wall, David saw something stir. It looked like a grey rat, but he realized it was a fan beginning to turn. He sensed a faint, rather sweet smell.

The shuffling quietened down; all you could hear were occasional screams, groans and barely audible words. Speech was no longer of any use to people, nor was action; action is directed towards the future and there no longer was any future. When David moved his head and neck, it didn’t make Sofya Levinson want to turn and see what he was looking at.

Her eyes–which had read Homer, Izvestia, Huckleberry Finn and Mayne Reid, that had looked at good people and bad people, that had seen the geese in the green meadows of Kursk, the stars above the observatory at Pulkovo, the glitter of surgical steel, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, tomatoes and turnips in the bins at market, the blue water of Issyk-Kul–her eyes were no longer of any use to her. If someone had blinded her, she would have felt no sense of loss.

She was still breathing, but breathing was hard work and she was running out of strength. The bells ringing in her head became deafening; she wanted to concentrate on one last thought, but was unable to articulate this thought. She stood there–mute, blind, her eyes still open.

The boy’s movements filled her with pity. Her feelings towards him were so simple that she no longer needed words and eyes. The half-dead boy was still breathing, but the air he took in only drove life away. He could see people settling onto the ground; he could see mouths that were toothless and mouths with white teeth and gold teeth; he could see a thing stream of blood flowing from a nostril. He could see eyes peering through the glass; Roze’s inquisitive eyes had momentarily met David’s. He still needed his voice–he would have asked Aunt Sonya about those wolf-like eyes. He still even needed thought. He had taken only a few steps in the world. He had seen the prints of children’s bare heels on hot, dusty earth, his mother lived in Moscow, the moon looked down and people’s eyes looked up at it from below, a teapot without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by holding their front feet–this world still preoccupied him.

All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands. He didn’t feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind. He had been killed; he longer existed.

Sofya Levinton felt the boy’s body subside in her hands. Once again she had falled behind him. In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the bird and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

“I’ve become a mother,” she thought.

That was her last thought.

Her heart, though, still had life in it; it still beat, still ached, still felt pity for the dead and the living. Sofya Levinton felt a wave of nausea. She was hugging David to her life a doll. Now she too was dead, she too was a doll.


If War and Peace had never been written, it might have been easier for Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to win an audience. To compare Life with War is so obvious and instinctive it’s almost an autonomic reflex. They’re both big, thick novels about Russia at war with enormous casts of characters, real and fictional.

The comparison does Life and Fate a disservice on two counts. First, any reader put off by the bulk or subject of War and Peace would hardly think twice of giving Life and Fate a try. And second, although Life is a superb novel, it is not quite on the level of what is arguably one of the pinnacles of the novel as an art form.

Still, the comparison is inescapable. Like War and Peace, Life and Fate is a tapestry, with numerous narrative threads, many of them dealing with members of an extended family: Alexandra Shaposhnikova, her three daughters–Lyudmila, Yevgenia, and Marusya–and her son Dmitry. There is Viktor Shtrum, Lyudmila’s second husband, is an ambitious physicist who encounters an early version the post-war campaign against Jewish intellecturals but is saved by Stalin’s deus ex machina intervention. Yevgenia struggles with the deprivations of home front life, falls in love with a maverick Army officer who leads a crucial tank assault at Stalingrad, and puts herself at risk by sending a parcel to her ex-husband, a commissar fallen from favor, in Lyubyanka Prison. Dmitry’s son Seryozha fights in the ruins of Stalingrad, part of a small group of soldiers isolated and holding out in house 6/1.

But the cast ranges far wider than just the Shaposhnikovs. Stalin, General Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad, and Adolf Eichmann all make appearances. Robert Chandler’s excellent English translation provides a seven-page list of characters at the end of the book. The categories alone give an indication of the scope and diversity of Life and Fate:

  • The Shaposhnikov Family and Their Circle
  • Viktor’s colleagues
  • Viktor’s circle in Kazan
  • In the German concentration camp
  • In the Russian labour camp
  • On the journey to the gas chamber
  • In the Lubyanka prison
  • In Kuibyshev
  • At Stalingrad power station
  • Getmanov’s circle in Ufa
  • Members of a Fighter Squadron of the Russian Air Force
  • Novikov’s Tank corps
  • Officers of the Soviet Army in Stalingrad
  • Soldiers in House 6/1
  • In the Kalmyk Steppe
  • Officers of the German Army in Stalingrad

Despite this scale, the action in this novel is on a small, intimate level. A young girl fantasizes about her lover. The tank commander, Novikov, removed from his post for diverting ever so slightly from the official plan, waits in a room to be questioned and probably beaten. Viktor Shtrum bickers with his wife and agonises over minor incidents of office politics. Lyudmila fights to make her way by tram to see her wounded son. Krymov, the commissar, listens to his interrogator chat on the phone about cottage cheese and a dinner invitation “as though the creature sitting next to the investigator were not a man, but some quadruped.”

Grossman’s capacity for getting inside the minds of his characters is not limited to the Russians:

… The brain of the forty-year-old accountant, Naum Rozenberg, was still engaged in its usual work. He was walking down the road and counting: 110 the day before yesterday, 61 today, 612 during the five days before–altogether that made 783 … A pity he hadn’t kept separate totals for men, women and children … Women burn more easily. An experienced brenner arranges the bodies so that the bony old men who make a lot of ash are lying next to the women. Any minute now they’d be ordered to turn off the road; these people–the people they’d been digging up from pits and dragging out with great hooks on the end of ropes–had received the same order only a year ago. An experienced brenner could look at a mound and immediately estimate how many bodies there were inside–50, 100, 200, 600, 1000 … Scharfuhrer Elf insisted that the bodies should be referred to as items–100 items, 200 items–but Rozenberg called them people: a man who had been killed, a child who had been put to death, an old man who had been put to death. He used these words only to himself–otherwise the Scharfuhrer would have emptied nine grams of metal into him….

One of the most moving of these small stories is that of Anna Semyonova, Viktor’s mother, who, like Grossman’s own mother, is trapped in the town of Berdichev with thousands of other Jews when the Germans sweep through the Ukraine. Grossman’s mother was shot and buried in a mass grave outside the town. After months of captivity in a ghetto, Anna is packed onto a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz. Along the way, she befriends an orphaned boy, David, and, in the excerpt above, they are herded into the chambers and gassed.

Before leaving the ghetto, however, she composes a letter to Viktor, knowing she will never see him again:

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bak honey-cakes and goose-necks–this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished–just as the Aztecs once vanished.

This letter is easily one of the finest works in the literature of the Holocaust. The filmmaker Frederic Wiseman was so affected by this chapter that he adapted it into a play, “Last Letter,” which he filmed in 2003.

Life and Fate also reflects Grossman’s own development, his disillusionment with the Soviet state and his acceptance of his Jewish roots. Born in Berdichev in 1905, Grossman was raised as a secular Russian. Educated as a chemist, he started writing while still attending Moscow State University. After working for a few years in the Donbass mining region, he switched professions.

By the time Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman was a member of the Writer’s Union and a popular journalist. He spent much of the war as a frontline reporter for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, including during the battle for Stalingrad, which forms the centerpiece of Life and Fate. He also witnessed the liberation of Treblinka and other concentration camps, and wrote some of the earliest coverage of the extermination of the Jews to be published anywhere.

The strength of Life and Fate’s depiction of combat, destruction, and its effects on soldiers and civilians stems directly from his wartime reporting, which has been collected and published in A Writer at War. The collection was edited by Luba Vinogradova and Anthony Beevor, who openly acknowledges his debt to Grossman for much of the descriptive power of his own account of the battle, Stalingrad.

During the war, Grossman wrote a great deal of propagandist material proclaiming the victory of the liberating Soviet state over the fascist Germans. In the novel The People Immortal, a realistic account of the demoralisation and panic of Soviet troops before the onslaught of the Wermacht in 1941 turns into a socialist fantasy in which a heroic commissar organises a successful counter-attack that routs the enemy. The Germans, “accustomed to victory for seven hundred days, could not and would not understand that on this seven hundred and first day defeat had come to them.” The soldiers celebrate not only their victory, but also the courage and leadership of their commissar: “The Commissar was in front, the Commissar was with us!”

In fact, Grossman’s loss of idealism began before that, starting with the mistaken arrest of his wife, Olga Guber, during the purges of 1937-1938. In Life and Fate, the war is portrayed as a contest between two equally ruthless states, two forms of totalitarianism differing only in ideology and technique. What heroism there was to be found was only as isolated, individual acts.

In the latter stages of the war, Grossman, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others compiled documentation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews–and instances of Jewish resistance–in The Black Book. The Soviet authorities refused to publish it, however, and Grossman watched Stalin turn to persecuting Jews himself in the late 1940s.

Grossman condensed many of these experiences into Life and Fate, which he worked on through much of the 1950s. The purges, the persecution of Jewish scientists and engineers, the Holocaust, the battles, Stalin’s manipulation of all aspects of Soviet life all come to play in the novel. It developed into a very unfavorable and unapologetic account of the state’s power and corruption. It was all too realistic to pass as socialist realism. When Grossman submitted the novel for publication, a Politburo member told him it was unpublishable and would remain so for the next 200 years. As Vladimir Voinovich later pointed out, the most telling part of that remark was the certainty that the book’s merit would easily survive that long.

Grossman died without seeing Life and Fate in print–believing, in fact, that every copy in existence had been confiscated. Fortunately, his friend, the poet Semyon Lipkin, was able to photograph the manuscript, and passed a copy to Andrei Sakharov, who in turn provided it to Voinovich, who smuggled it to Switzerland in 1980.

Although the book was highly praised when first released, its bulk and grim subject put most potential readers off, and it soon passed out of print. Harvill Press reissued it in 1985 and 2003, and New York Review Books announced it would be released as part of its Classics series in May 2006.

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Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
New York: Harper and Row, 1980