Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Splendor of Greece by Robert Payne

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Robert Payne's The Splendor of Greece takes the armchair traveler back nearly fifty years to a time when writers of travel books came to their subjects with different intentions than their modern counterparts seem to do. Modern books recounting the adventures of an eager pilgrim in Paris, or romantic rural Spain or hidden and lovely Portugal, tend to focus on the private and the problematic. How I coped with a flat tire in this or that charming, dusty town; how my five-year-old learned to curse in patois while I grew fresh basil and got over my divorce.

Payne, a hugely prolific writer who seems to have had a penchant for seeing and describing the whole world (The Splendor of Persia, The White Rajahs of Sarawak, and Forever China are among his 110 titles), keeps to another tradition. In sixteen chapters, each set in a different part of Greece, he takes the reader on a tour of the most noteworthy parts of each stop, sketches some of its history and myth, adds perhaps some information about the archaeology done there, and then discusses -- sometimes over-rhapsodizes about, really -- its art and makes note of what its contemporary inhabitants are doing. With him we visit not only Athens, Crete, and the bigger islands of the Aegean like Rhodes, but smaller places which we feel slightly mortified at not knowing about before, because it turns out they were the sites of famed mythic tragedies (Mycenae, where Agamemnon's wife did not welcome him home from war happily), or divine communication (the island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the book of Revelation), or even the birthplace of Apollo (the island of Delos).

Payne's prose is the prose of a man who is going to pay attention to art and myth and history, to something other than himself, and yet who fully intends that we will see what he sees. Here he is on page one, describing the light in Greece: it "is a light that can be drunk and tasted, full of ripeness, light that filters through flesh and marble ... that fumes and glares, and seems to have a life of its own." The Splendor is a travel book with a thesis, in other words -- the book's subtitle is A Journey Into the Sunlight -- and the thesis is a simple one. Most Western ideas about freedom, beauty, and truth come from ancient Greece, and in the exhilaration of winning their liberty from the Persian empire in 480 BC, the Greeks knew this thesis to be true even as they shaped it. (Last year's movie 300 tells a part of this story.) Victory over Persia ushered in the classical age with all its art, its drama, learning, and science; human achievement became akin to holiness. As Payne tells it, "holiness must come again, for it has been too long from the earth."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sherman: Fighting Prophet by Lloyd Lewis

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

A few small facts stand out in this great biography of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman -- he really was given the first name Tecumseh by his parents, he married his foster sister, he did indeed say "War is all hell" in a speech in Ohio in 1880 -- but at the close of its last page, the reader is left with one question. What is it that sometimes makes war, not a hell, but a heart-wrenching joy that old soldiers never feel about anything else again?

Sherman, born in 1820, came from pioneer parents and grandparents, people for whom Ohio was "the northwest," and for whom the passions and experiences of the Revolutionary War and of Indian fighting were ordinary dinner-table talk. As a little boy, the orphaned "Cump" went to live with a neighboring family, where he was baptized a Catholic and given the name William, and where he met his future wife, Ellen. After graduating from West Point, he tried many professions all over the country, including banking, law, and railroad management, but none of them suited. By 1861 Cump was a brooding, nervous, brilliant man, a husband and father back in the army and worrying himself "almost to lunacy" about the fate of the innocent farm boys he would soon lead into the battles of the Civil War.

Sherman's fame rests on his three campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864: the fight for Atlanta, the march from Atlanta to the sea, and the winter march from Savannah through South Carolina to Columbia. Reviled in the South for generations for burning cities and cutting swaths of destruction through the land, in fact his troops did not have the reach to bring lasting privation to anybody. What Sherman intended, and accomplished, was to prove to Southerners that their Confederate government and army could not prevent a 60,000-man force from marching at will among them. He wanted them to understand, at firsthand, that the Confederacy's leaving the Union had been, in his words, " 'folly and madness.' "

And yet for him and his soldiers, 1864 was "the great year." It was not that ex-farm boys killed wantonly, or enjoyed being killed or dying of wounds and disease. But there was something about youth, danger, hardship, the feeling that the country's fate rested on how well they could serve a commander who spared them textbook drills but drove them through enemy forest and swamp finally to root out treason in enemy capitals, that cemented these men together. Ever afterward, they were "Uncle Billy's" veterans; no peacetime life behind the plow or the shop counter -- or, for him, as a social lion kissed and fluttered over by lots of pretty girls -- would ever be the same.

General Sherman packed several lifetimes of service, thinking, writing, traveling, and family responsibilities into his 71 years. He wrote his own epitaph: Faithful and Honorable. It was true.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jane Austen: a Life by David Nokes

This beautiful thick book with its ecru-lace artwork on the jacket is going to look lovely on your parlor table, beside a roaring fireplace with, preferably, the snow falling outside. It amounts, really, to a seventh Jane Austen novel, being a long, lovingly detailed chronicle of her family life, her visits, and her relations' adventures in colonial India or revolutionary France. Jane writes her novels and dies at the end, at the age of forty-one.

The foregoing will seem the most smug of backhanded compliments, and it isn't meant to be. The book is superbly written, wonderfully atmospheric, and most intelligent. Here, in two sentences, Nokes gives the best summation of an Austen plot I have ever read: "At the end of all her novels, the heroine always married the man she loved, whose comfortable income was a symbol of his frank and manly instincts, rather than a substitute for them. Only the minor characters were condemned to suffer the cynical misfortunes of an adverse providence" (p. 257).

And David Nokes has done his research painstakingly; it must have been a joyous experience to hold Jane Austen's (clergyman) father's parish register in his hands, and to see the corrections and updates she penned herself, including the names of otherwise anonymous Hampshire countryfolk which she then lifted for characters in her books. He must also have had great fun in deciding to begin his biography in an unlikely way, in Bengal in 1773, with the problems of a colonial official who turns out to be -- if I understand this -- Jane Austen's father's brother-in-law.

The trouble underlying all the atmospherics and the fine writing is that, as I remember reading about authors once, most writers lead uneventful lives. This is what gives them time to write. In Jane Austen: a Life we see confirmation of this remark. Her relatives sailed the seas, married French counts, went to gaol briefly for theft, and had a dozen children. She wrote books. There isn't much more to expose about her; if she had wanted to provide a subject to probing biographers (and maybe we all do), she might have done other things besides write the books which are freely available for all to read anyway.

Early on, Nokes says that he does want to expose new things about her. Her sister Cassandra burned many of her letters, and her first biographers were her own nephews and great-nephews, who lived in a different time. He wants to make it clear that Jane was not a Victorian sugar plum, but rather a child of the eighteenth century, in all its eating, breeding, and farting glory. Also she was a bit of a snip. Unmarried herself (she turned down two proposals, one of which would have set her up for life) she spent a lot of time acerbically noting all the pregnancies and births going on among the dull neighbor women -- Mrs. Digweed's eighth or ninth, can you imagine! Comparatively poor until Pride and Prejudice gave her a little money and quite a bit of fame, Jane also heartily resented the good fortune and fine houses that seemed to come effortlessly to all the Austens except Cassandra and herself. No gouty uncle remembered them in a legacy.

But all in all, there wasn't much she did. She lived and wrote, so to speak, transparently: there seems little to investigate or ponder in her writings, as there is -- and this will sound comically innocent, but here goes -- in the Iliad or Shakespeare. Perhaps she didn't write -- perhaps women tend not to -- about life's whys. (As in: why do her novels still fascinate, even though they are all about women trying to get married in rural Regency England? It may be because Jane, and her characters male and female, occupied a strange, tense place in their world. Neither rural farmers nor urban shopkeepers, neither peers with tenants' income nor completely impoverished dependents, they were a class who faced three choices in the scramble for money to live on: for the men, there was military service or the Church, for the women, marriage. Jane and Cassandra contemplated schoolteaching as a last resort, but the idea loomed as sheer hell. The career girl of the future steps timidly upon the stage, almost before the career man ... and yet this was still a class which could not do without servants.)

Her novels all written and four of them published, Jane Austen died of some one of the complaints which seemed to carry off people for no reason in the days before modern medicine. Before antibiotics, of course, any illness or injury could be quickly fatal. But is also seems that in those days, you died very much because any illness, especially if it was puzzling and lasted more than a month or so, prompted your relations to expect you to die. Everybody exchanged pained looks, and they propped you up on the sopha, and talked of a journey to somewhere more healthful. Jane suffered languor, and fevers, and pains in her back. If it was something recognizable like cancer, Nokes does not say so. ("In this biography I have sought to present each moment of Jane Austen's life as it was experienced at the time, not with the detached knowingness of hindsight.") After months of this, her " 'final struggle' " -- and that was what people called it and were ready to call it -- occured between 6 pm and 4:30 am over the night of the 17th to the 18th of July, 1817. Ten and a half hours is a long time to be about the work of dying, especially when, as Cassandra recalled, the body is still strong. (It still shocks that Jane was forty-one.) "I perceived no material diminution of strength," she wrote, and Jane "complained of little fixed pain." She simply lay with her head off the bed on someone's lap, until it was over.

A beautiful, snowy-day book. Unless you really wildly want to know exactly when and how often Jane Austen visited Manydown or Godmersham in 1811, and what was the third ship her brother was posted to after his promotion but before he got married, then I suggest this is a book to dip into, not necessarily to assault from page one.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Attorney Paul "Polly" Biegler knows from day one that his client, army Lieutenant Lawrence Manion, has shot and killed hotel owner Barney Quill hardly an hour after Quill raped and beat Manion's wife. There is no mystery about that, and Biegler is not a detective. The mystery in Anatomy of a Murder lies, for the reader, in watching Biegler defend his client in court, and try to convince a jury to come to the verdict that must be one of the most difficult to persuade a jury to accept: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

As the plot unfolds, Biegler and an avuncular old lawyer friend do some digging around the crime scene, and interview interested parties who may or may not know more than they are ready to admit about the dead man's drinking habits and his gun collection, and about the lieutenant's behavior and state of mind on the fatal night. But most of the book is a courtroom drama, one that may perhaps get a little wordy for readers plunging into that genre for the first time. The two lawyers, Biegler and his nemesis, the nearly Satanic and ferociously talented prosecutor "little" Claude Dancer, orate with an elegance (and a lung capacity) that is hard to credit as realistic, unless we know from experience that lawyers really do talk this way, or unless we understand that everybody in the 1950s had longer attention spans and better vocabulary than we do now.

The greatest interest of the book lies in its almost loving depiction of the Anglo-American legal tradition in action. The law might be considered the most important character in the book. Author Robert Traver acknowledges ordinary people's occasional mystification before the law; an uncomfortable witness on the stand complains about " 'smart lawyer's tricks,' " and early on, someone quotes the character in Dickens who blurts out " 'The law is a ass.' "

But as we watch Paul Biegler defend a client whose violent deed is unquestioned and whose truthfulness he sometimes suspects, we remember the discussions he had with his avuncular friend. For all its confusions and imperfections, law is the only alternative to constant violence as any society's governor. And Anglo-American law, which insists life and death questions shall be decided by a jury of ordinary people and not by kings or judges only, at least helps guarantee that the outcome of a trial will not be a foregone conclusion. A trial is not pretty, however. It's a dog fight, as Biegler admits, couched and controlled in fine old medieval English words, but ultimately a "savage and primal" human battle for survival.

At the end, the reader is firmly in the jury's shoes. We have received the judge's instructions and we know what we must do, according to the law, depending on what we think of all the truths we have heard. We have a hugely difficult decision to make.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Come Tell Me How You Lived by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

This Agatha Christie Mallowan is indeed the Agatha Christie of billion-selling, mystery novel fame. Married to the British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, she was, in her other life, Lady Mallowan, assistant and recorder of his work in the Near East. In Come, Tell Me How You Lived -- "this meandering chronicle," she puts it -- she describes several years' worth of experiences aiding her husband in his excavations, circa 1940, in the border lands where northern Syria, southern Turkey, and northwestern Iraq meet. The book is therefore much relevant today. I read it, and learned from it about the Iraqi religious sect called Yezidis, in the same week that the horrifying murder by stoning of a Yezidi girl was laid across the front page of national newspapers.

Agatha Christie was an intrepid traveler to say the least. In the book she copes with desert heat and winds, flooded wadis turned to car-engulfing mud in a few hours, with mice- and roach- infested village homes, and with illness. Meanwhile Max and his team take their pick of the Tells dotting the landscape, each one the remains of an ancient busy city from five thousand years ago. They dig for beads and clay fragments with the help of local workmen. When the work is over for the season, the finds are divided into two groups, and representatives of the Syrian government come and choose which group is to remain in the country and which can be released to British museums and universities. Christie then goes thankfully to Aleppo for "a shampoo!"

Christie's eyewitness portraits of local people remain the most intriguing parts of the book. These men and women are mostly Moslem Kurds, Moslem Arabs, and Armenian Christians, mostly all convinced it is their duty to persecute one another (and the Yezidis). Local sheikhs govern local matters, under titular French rule. Poverty does not begin to describe conditions, and to poverty Christie adds a general fatalism, an observation that to "the Oriental mind" neither life nor death matter very much. Since all will happen as God wills, there is no hurry, say, for a sheikh to get his wife to a doctor for her blood poisoning. The sheikh will consider it. Yet Christie claims that because these people own almost nothing and do not fear death, they also live free of Western anxieties and the Western work ethic. They know, she says, a simple joy in life.

Although she is an eyewitness, the reader can't help but wonder if she really guessed what the natives were thinking all around her. Joy in life did not prevent workmen from planting forgeries in the Tells, so they could show them to Max for a cash bonus. One day a fatal accident on a dig so inflamed tempers everywhere that the English had to flee for their lives on the spot. The "season," and the book, ends there. " 'It was,' " she writes, " 'a very happy way to live ....' "

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Queen Christina by Georgina Masson

Queen Christina of Sweden was one of the extraordinary personalities of seventeenth century Europe. The daughter of the hero King Gustavus Adolphus, champion of Protestant freedom, she made up her mind apparently in her late teens not only to abdicate the throne of Sweden as soon as she decently could, but also to convert to Catholicism and live at Rome into the bargain. Everyone was agog.

What a disappointment, then, that Georgina Masson's biography of her (1969) should be so dull. Perhaps Miss Masson was too assiduous in the collecting of all possible information, and the putting it into perfect, and perfectly dry, order, to remember to write a story. Not a horse moved his hoof in a single royal procession in Stockholm, but Miss Masson chronicled it. But where is Christina?

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Cactus Throne: the Tragedy of Maximilian and Carlotta by Richard O'Connor

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

An early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has Rob giving Laura a huge, ornate necklace once belonging to the Empress Carlotta. Laura is appalled, but copes politely with Rob's awful taste. There is a kernel of history in this episode, which it seems the show's writers expected an early 1960s audience to grasp.

The Cactus Throne is an excellent introduction to that history. The Emperor Maximilian and the Empress Carlotta were, respectively, an Austrian prince and a Belgian princess, married young and shipped off to become the rulers of Mexico at the behest partly of the Mexican upper classes, but mostly of the French government, who hoped in this way to collect an outstanding debt owed by a disgraced Mexican regime to several powerful French banks. (The Mexican president, Miramon, who had signed off on the loan, had decamped to exile in Cuba.) All this was in the middle 1860s, while the United States was too busy fighting the Civil War to keep jumped-up European monarchs from settling south of the border. " 'I'm not exactly skeered,' " Abraham Lincoln said, " 'but I don't like the look of the thing.' "

Of course, the thing was absurd and impossible. Maximilian and Carlotta lasted a little more than two years on their throne. Mexico had another president at the time, Benito Juarez (Miramon's opposite number) who had been recognized by the United States and whose mass-supported guerrilla army was partly funded by American money. While the Emperor and Empress hosted receptions and handed out medals and ribbons in their palace in Mexico City, a French army harried Juarez' thousands as efficiently as it could, and French officials patrolled the ports, collecting import taxes to pay both the debt and the occupying troops. Cinco de Mayo, in fact, celebrates a Mexican victory over French troops won at about this time.

Maximilian saw himself as an enlightened liberal prince whom the Mexican people would soon come to love, and Carlotta seems to have seen herself simply as an Empress in a bejeweled cloud. But the Civil War ended, leaving the United States free to deal with Europeans to the south. Acute homesickness, the climate, marital problems, and the terror of living under siege among a hostile armed population took their toll on the couple. Maximilian's signing of the "Black Decree," an order condemning to death all Mexicans who helped "the bandit" Juarez, doomed him.

The French began to withdraw their army. Carlotta returned to Europe to rally support for the pointless adventure, but the two young rulers had already been hung out to dry. Carlotta went insane at twenty-six, and was locked up for the next sixty years in a Belgian castle. Maximilian, believing that a prince does not flee, stayed behind in Mexico and was captured and shot by Juarez' troops a year after his wife's departure. They were only two casualties among thousands who fell around the Cactus Throne.