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Book Reviews

Stages of Hillary as a star player wins over rivals

My review of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published in The Australian on March 22:

Hillary Clinton deftly steps down from the plane, her blonde hair pulled back, her face behind outsize sunglasses. Beaming star power, she declares it’s wonderful to be in Perth.

Wonderful? It has been 35 hours with three stops to get to Australia for annual talks, part of her 1.5 million kilometres notched up as US secretary of state, visiting 112 out of 193 nations. Later she tells me she sleeps on planes and, yes, she believes in vitamins. At our dinner she shows no fatigue, handles all with breezy grace.

When we last saw her in the pages of a book it was in Game Change (2010) by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. They captured her in June 2008 in her Senate office after her defeat in the Democratic primaries. She declared: “We had the entire press corps against us, which usually Bill and I could care less, but this was above and beyond anything that had ever happened.” She seemed punch drunk, dazed.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s HRC, which covers Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, takes up the story at this point, with her staff putting together a list of traitors who had to be punished for swinging to Barack Obama. Later, a Clinton aide would see divine justice in the downfall — one after the other — of these miscreants, as the authors record: “ ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down … Ted Kennedy,’ the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’.”

Despite the sulphur in the air, it was impossible for her to say no to the job offer from the President. And Obama handled her adroitly, overruling his staff to let her have her loyalists on the payroll, including as chief of protocol, a position usually chosen by the president.

Early manoeuvres between Obama and Clinton were as delicate as a merger of two corporations, recalls one adviser. Obama’s deference allowed this team of rivals to fall into place. When Clinton suffered concussion in 2012 he was to say of her: “I love her, love her … I love my friend.” He’s expected to support her over Vice-President Joe Biden if (or when) she announces for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

In this career shift she displayed the adaptability she had shown in inventing herself as a Senate candidate from New York in 2000 and, after her win, as a member of the Senate club. It’s “stages of Hillary”, one insider says. You start by dreading working with her, then begrudgingly start to respect her; then outright respect her because of her ferocious work ethic. Then, you actually come to like her “and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging”.

Secretaries of state can be overshadowed by the national security staff in the White House. One Clinton response, however, was to build strong alliances with defence secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus. It was this alliance with the Pentagon that in December 2009 persuaded the President to favour a surge of troop numbers in Afghanistan, a policy battle captured in yet another of Bob Woodward’s lugubrious books, Obama’s Wars (2010).

Nobody can audit Clinton’s four years as secretary of state without reference to the recklessness of the preceding Bush years. Today, George W. seems locked up in what looks like house arrest in Preston Hollow in Dallas, and his swivel-eyed advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are held accountable for two trillion-dollar wars that only demonstrated US weakness and enlarged its enemies.

The first Obama administration had to absorb the cost of these adventures. It was plain as day America could not shape events in the Middle East. The US has no more influence in what happens in the Crimea than it had over Russian invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively.

In an era calling for policy proportionate and measured, it was right to lead from behind on Libya, right — after agonising — to decline support for Syrian rebels. It was right to ­accede a Russian role on Syrian chemical weapons and to talk to Iran. It is what the war-weary US public wants anyway.

I record in my diaries how an Australian businessman suggested I needed to pick more arguments with the US to demonstrate our independence to China. I said apart from any other objection this would be hard when it came to the Obama administration and secretary of state Clinton. When they seek to conserve and not squander the US’s smart power, to engage with the Islamic world, or to elevate the rights of women and girls in developing countries, their stance reflects what most Australians would want to see in their American partner.

The authors argue Clinton had no spectacular “marquee achievements” such as a heraldic peace agreement. They might have added, no new architecture for global consultations. But in a book devoted to beltway gossip, they are at least wise enough to see Clinton’s success should not be measured in these terms anyway. She was a success in nurturing relationships, handling crises such as Gaza, and saying no to the draining adventurism of the previous administration.

There is a view in Southeast Asia that the American commitment to our region — the rebalance to Asia — is not something anyone can rely on. I have heard this from foreign ministers, diplomats, think tankers. They could argue this book supports their case. Its 440 pages include two chapters on Benghazi but no mention of the pivot to Asia, of Clinton’s hard work in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the deep feel for Asia of her assistant, Kurt Campbell. If a pair of Washington insiders can entirely overlook US commitments to our part of the world, then a future administration can easily forget they were ever made.

Hell’s road and good intentions: Wilson (A. Scott Berg)

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald (January 11, 2014)

The entrenched view of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States from 1913-1921, is that he was a prophet who wanted to make the world safe for democracy, his vision repudiated by a war-weary American people.

I have a different view. I believe Woodrow Wilson was incontestably the worst president in US history. The worst, because the damage he did outweighs that of any other. This includes George W. Bush, who in response to September 11 started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2005 I talked to Scott Berg, who had written biographies of Samuel Goldwyn, Katharine Hepburn and Charles Lindbergh. He told me he was starting a life of Wilson. I recall saying something like, ”A new book on Wilson? Hope you’re tough on the bastard!” Especially on Wilson and World War I.

After 5 million deaths, the British naval blockade was forcing German mothers into the streets to demonstrate with empty cooking pots. The French army was in mutiny. Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, was collapsing. The combatants were sinking into a peace of exhaustion, peace without victors, a retreat to 1914 borders.

But in 1917, just re-elected president on the slogan ”he kept us out of war”, Wilson declared war on Germany. Two million American troops plus tonnes of munitions inflicted a crushing defeat on the German empire, enshrined in the savage Treaty of Versailles.

Without this massive defeat provided by US power: no Hitler, no World War II, no 60 million deaths, no Russian occupation of Eastern and Central Europe. In this indictment, Wilson is nothing more than that most dangerous of creatures: an intruding idealist on the loose. Worse, one imbued with the certainty that with his education and religion, he knew best.

This view of Wilson and the war is not idiosyncratic. Professor Kendrick A. Clements, in a study of Wilson and World War I, argued that earlier historians had too easily accepted Wilson’s contention there was no other way to protect US interests. Wilson had tilted American neutrality to the British as early as the autumn of 1914. In the 1930s the US Congress was to surrender the right of American ships to pass through a war zone. In 1914, the same policy would have entailed a warning to Americans that they travelled in a war zone at their own risk, which is what was sought by William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s secretary of state.

And why, asked Bryan, should the US be shocked at Germans sinking British ships misusing the American flag when Wilson entered no objection to a British blockade of Germany that was starving a whole nation? Flawed policy and instinctive bias to the British Empire allowed a drift to war.

For a full account of Wilson’s blundering idealism at the peace negotiations in Paris I commend Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919 (2001). The US Congress was never going to accept a League of Nations and a league was never the key to preventing another war. Wilson made it his passion and allowed fatal decisions about populations and boundaries to be made by others. By the way, that book includes an anecdote about how Mrs Wilson said she would not take her maid to London with her because the British treated their black servants too generously. (That anecdote does not appear in the Berg biography.)

Race needs to weigh heavily in any Wilson study. He was the first Southern president since 1869. A hallmark decision – one of his first – was to segregate the public service, to end the ”indignity” of white postal clerks sharing desks and washrooms with African Americans. He refused to allow black combat troops to fight alongside white Americans in the war, instead placing them under French command. It could be objected that Wilson was only expressing the prejudices of his time. If so, why was racial segregation of the public service reversed by his Republican successor Warren Harding? And why was Harding, in 1921, able to go to Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in the South, and make a plea for black Americans to be given full civil rights?

Scott Berg told me how once, on his way to sign copies of his biography of Katharine Hepburn, he walked into the queue waiting to buy it, even before the bookshop was in view. He’s a best-selling biographer, not a burrowing, sceptical scholar. As a result there is too little critical analysis, too much reverence in his biography of Wilson. Berg writes, ”… no student ever arrived in Princeton more determined to find a place and make a name for himself”.

We learn ”humility tempered his ambition” and ”more than charm he had charisma”.

These virtues governed all his life: ”Once out of bed, Wilson conscientiously attempted to maintain a balanced schedule.”

No wonder the Almighty was moved to part the clouds at Wilson’s first inaugural address, something of a trope in dutiful presidential lives.

I’m weary of presidential biographies that accumulate virtues like these, all leading to the denouement that, for example, John Adams was ”a good man” (David McCulloch) or Abraham Lincoln’s personality was the secret weapon of the North in the civil war (Michael Burlingame). My interest is sparked and heightened, my appetite whetted, when a biographer dwells on flaws, darkness, colossal errors, criminality; for example Conrad Black discerning in F.D. Roosevelt ”an insatiable vindictiveness”. Caro on Johnson. Anything on Nixon. My interest in Wilson would have been deepened by a book analysing the apartheid character of his Southern upbringing and his infatuation with British government and empire for which he would sacrifice 126,000 American boys. His is a story of the evils of idealism run amok, and therefore more fascinating than any life and times civics lesson.

Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World

I met Margaret MacMillan, the author of this book at a dinner in April hosted by Henry Kissinger in New York. Some years ago I had bought her book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2002) which is about the Versailles Conference but hadn’t got round to reading it. She told me over dinner she’s now writing a book dealing with the most fundamental challenge of modern historiography: the causes of World War I. “What do you think caused the war?” she asked me. “Certainly not the ‘economic, political and social’ factors we were taught in high school,” I said. “More likely the Kaiser’s hatred of his mother.”

I enjoyed Nixon and Mao (2007), her account of America’s opening to China. Of particular value is her canvassing of the different considerations about whether it would have happened anyway without the personal contribution President Nixon brought to it. She sums it up: Nixon and Mao often took credit but the times were ripe for ending the absurd stand-off.

There’s a lot of good global trivia in the book like the reminder of the strained relationship between the White House and the State Department in the Nixon years. “Strained” is too mild a word. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, was no match for Kissinger who was from the start the principal source of advice on foreign policy for the President. And indeed Rogers had been a weak choice for Secretary of State. His proudest achievement before in his legal career had been to fight product liability suits on behalf of Bayer Aspirin.

The best story in the book is Mao’s resolution of a deadlock over wording. With Kissinger negotiating President Nixon’s visit, the Chinese and Americans stalled over who sought their historic meeting. Did the Americans come as supplicants? Or did the Chinese throw out a request? There seemed no way to settle this issue for the communiqué. The Chinese took it to their ailing General Secretary and Mao instantly declared: no one asked for the meeting, both sides asked for the meeting. In the end, the communiqué read, “Knowing of the President’s deep desire to visit China, the Premier issued him an invitation…”

As Mao said in his poem, quoted by Nixon:

So many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently…
Seize the day, seize the hour.

MacMillan’s pace is steady, almost solemn. While I thought I couldn’t be won over by a story so familiar, I ended up reading it – despite many distractions – with keen interest, and completed it on flights to and from China on my first visit as Foreign Minister.

Now a Cult: The Novels of Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939) is now a cult. I’ve nibbled at a couple of his novels such as the Radetzky March without being drawn in. But I devoured this 120-page paperback with enormous pleasure. It’ll drive me to read more of him. I will revisit the Radetzky March.

The narrator checks in to the Hotel Savoy in some nondescript and unidentified East European city. World War I has ended. Everything is impoverished, makeshift, seedy. The protagonist has returned to stand at “the gates of Europe” after three years as a prisoner of war in Siberia and a long time wandering through Russia.

The Hotel Savoy is seven stories, has a gilded coat of arms, a uniformed porter and 864 rooms. Its mysteries deepen. I guess this is the oldest of plots, a stranger comes to town. In this version we see things through the stranger’s eyes, in particular – again, an old ploy – some of the habitués of this increasingly dubious hostelry. Here the poor people live among the smells of laundry steam and overflowing toilet pots in the upper stories and the wealthy and the favoured live below.

In the city, there is an alleyway where Jews stand about carrying umbrellas or walk ceaselessly to and fro:

Silent as shadows, people pass each other. It is an assembly of ghosts and the long dead gather here. For thousands of years this race has been wandering in narrow alleys.

The city has a grotesque architecture of warped gables, fragmentary chimneys and broken window-panes patched with newspaper. There are poor hovels. The slaughterhouse at the city’s limits has factory chimneys on the horizon and workers’ tenements are brown with white roofs and pots of geraniums. The wind blows grey soot from the factory area. It was a bleak place:

The town, which had no drains, stank in any case. On grey days, at the edge of the wooden duckboards, one could see in the narrow, uneven gullies, black, yellow, glutinous muck out of the factories, still warm and steaming. It was a town accursed of God. It was as if the fire and brimstone had fallen here, not on Sodom and Gomorrah.

God punished this town with industry. Industry is God’s severest punishment.

Everyone in town speculates about a famous migrant who will return, having become fabulously rich in America. They speculate not only about this Bloomfield, but about the equally mysterious owner of the hotel, Kaleguropulos. Meanwhile there are guests who have pawned their luggage to the lift man and who are trapped in this Hotel Savoy for life.

As if to heighten the despair of this down-at-heel Europe, a sea of returning soldiers suddenly appear. The whole town waits for the return of Bloomfield. Only he is capable of transforming the place and the despair of its people.

There are premonitions of Kafka in this book, or of Samuel Beckett – this business of waiting for Bloomfield. The town, the hotel, stand as symbols of a wrecked, worn-out, post-WWI Europe as confirmed by this description of the flood of soldiers:

They go on through the thin, slanting rain. Russia, mighty Russia, is shaking them out. There is no end to them. They have all travelled the same road in their grey clothes, the dust of the wandering years on their feet, on their faces. It is as if they belonged to the rain. They are as grey and as enduring.
They are an endless river of grey in this grey town. Their canteens rattle like the rain in the runnels. A great home-sickness emanates from them, a longing which drives them onward, the overwhelming memory of home.

I like this so much that just writing this review has persuaded me to read it again and then get on with his other books. Better at being Kafka than Kafka, was one of my responses.

Giving a Dog a Soviet Voice: Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Dog’s Heart, Penguin Classics (trans. 2007)

“I think every Russian has read this book,” said a Russian film director speaking to me 10 years ago, brought into my office by Phillip Adams. He was referring to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a fantasy located in Moscow of the 1930s. Bulgakov wrote it before his death in 1940. It remained unpublished until 1967. It is about the Devil making mischief in contemporary Moscow and could easily be read as a fable about Stalin, but all the experts tell me that is not in fact the case.

Since reading The Master and Margarita, I have visited Bulgakov’s flat in Moscow – Russians love house museums for their famous writers – and witnessed his cult status. In London over Christmas, I found it impossible to get tickets to The Collaborators, a play that has fun with the relationship of Stalin and Bulgakov. The Sydney Theatre Company last year revived his play The White Guard, which was a hit in Moscow in the 1920s. Stalin apparently saw it 15 times, able to appreciate that while it rendered these middle-class anti-communists sympathetically, it made the case for Soviet power all the more urgent. Stalin and Bulgakov then fell out, it seems, this novel is one of the reasons.

To appreciate Bulgakov’s A Dog’s Heart you have to be, first of all, interested in this writer and, second, enchanted or amused by the Russian cultural scene of the 1920s – by the interplay of a creative avant-garde and a one-party dictatorship pursuing utopia. The book was read aloud by Bulgakov to his supporters but not published. Its satire of Soviet aspirations was too clever.

In its pages, a stray dog is collected and befriended by a surgeon who performs experiments on it, giving it a human heart and other organs. That is, Soviet science is attempting to create its new man. The result is a hominoid who can stand on his legs, giving the impression of a small man with a poorly developed physique with an artificial and unpleasant smile. The new man can pronounce the word “bourgeois” and can swear.

His obscenity is methodical, continuous and apparently entirely devoid of meaning. It has a certain phonographic quality: as if this creature had heard the swearwords somewhere before and recorded them in its brain automatically and unconsciously, and now it is spewing them out in bundles.

It seems that the heart and other organs have been transplanted from a working-class lout. The result is a nightmare.

There is satirical treatment of Moscow in the 1920s, the breakdown of civil society and its conventions, as the regime sought to elevate the proletariat. The surgeon, Filipp Filippovich, lives in a spacious apartment building but a committee of workers is trying to appropriate his rooms. There is satire directed at Pravda and at various social experiments. Laments Filippovich:

Let us take, for example…the galosh stand. I’ve lived in this house since 1903. And in all that time, until March 1917 there was not a single case – let me underline that in red pencil – not a single case , even though the communal door downstairs was unlocked, of even a single pair of galoshes going missing from our entrance. And note, there are twelve apartments, and I receive patients here. One fine day in March 1917, all the galoshes disappeared, including two pairs of mine, as well as three sticks, a coat and the doorman’s samovar. And since then the galosh stand has effectively ceased to exist. My dear fellow! I’m not talking about the steam heating now. Never mind that. I accept that. If there’s social revolution, who needs heating? But I am asking: why, when all this business began, did everyone start walking up the marble staircase in dirty galoshes and felt boots? Why, to this very day, do galoshes have to be kept under lock and key, and a soldier assigned to stand guard so that nobody can make off with them? Why did they take away the carpet from the main staircase? Where did Karl Marx write that entrance number two of Kalabukhov House on Prechistenka Street should be boarded up so that people have to go round to the back entrance? Where’s the need for it? Why can’t the proletariat leave its galoshes downstairs, why does it trail mud across the marble?

I only recommend A Dog’s Heart if, having read The Master and Margarita or seen a simulcast from the National Theatre in London of The Collaborators, you want to explore more of this writer, or if the period interests you. This is grounds apart, and the appeal is slight. My time might have been better invested re-reading The Master and Margarita.

A Victim Speaks: Hope Against Hope (Nadezhda Mandelstam)

We don’t want to believe that history can turn so viciously against decent people.

I got something of the same feeling from this book as I did from Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. In my book My Reading Life I commended Levi’s as the greatest book of the last century because of the power of the testimony against twentieth century totalitarianism. As with this book. Mandelstam’s is an account of how a couple experienced the Marxist tyranny in Russia in the 20s and 30s. The wife survived, to write this book published in 1970; her husband died in a camp.

The life of Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s most eminent poets, was snuffed out because of a poem. He anticipated this when he famously said, “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”

His offending poem was one he composed in his head and recited to a group of friends. He never wrote it down. It was a poem about Stalin:

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer
The murderer and peasant slayer

His fingers are thick as slugs,
The words fall from his lips, final as dead weights…
His cockroach whiskers leer,
His boot tops gleam…

Russian society in the 20s and 30s was permeated with informers. They were among friends and colleagues. One might be the religious pilgrim who knocked on the door and asked to say a night in your tiny apartment, or your electrician, or students who pretended to be devoted to your writing. As Nadezhda writes in this memoir:

We lived among people who vanished into exile, labor camps or the other world, and also among those who sent them there.… [T]here was no point in trying to pick out informers, because we knew that everybody “wrote.”

That is, wrote for the secret police.

Osip Mandelstam

The book starts with their little flat being raided by secret police. They searched all the papers – looking for the poem about Stalin. It had not been committed to paper. Still, Osip was arrested and sent into exile with his wife. A lot of the book is devoted to describing what exile means. Very largely it meant scraping together a life in a remote and impoverished town, begging for accommodation in a back room or a flea-infested boarding house, seeing starving peasants sleeping in the streets because collectivisation had uprooted vast hordes of people and these peasants were roaming the country, desperately searching for somewhere to live and still sighing for their boarded-up huts.

The sheer wickedness of Maxism-Leninism crackles on the page.

There are pen portraits of other writers, pre-eminently their devoted friend Anna Akhmatova – whose flat in Petersburg I visited last month ( see below ). She was sitting with them in their Moscow flat when Osip was arrested. Nadezhda describes how some of their friends decided to accept the tyranny. They rationalized that the revolution was not going to go away, it was doing terrible things, but the rest of the world was going to follow Russia. This was, after all, the new order. Besides, it might get better. No, said Osip, this crew are only getting “warmed-up.” He was right: the Great Terror was soon to be unleashed.

Their circle of friends included Bukharin, one of the Bolshevik leaders now on a downward path because of the hostility of Stalin. He had been demoted to being editor of Izvestia:

Bukharin’s path was quite different. He clearly saw that the new world he was so actively helping to build was horrifyingly unlike the original concept. Life was deviating from the blueprints, but the blueprints had been declared sacrosanct and it was forbidden to compare them with what was actually coming into being. Determinist theory had naturally given birth to unheard-of practitioners who boldly outlawed any study of real life: Why undermine the system and sow unnecessary doubt if history was in any case speeding us to the appointed destination? When the high priests are bound together by such a bond, renegades can expect no mercy. Bukharin was not a renegade, but he already felt how inevitable it was that he would be cast into the pit because of his doubts and the bitter need which one day would drive him to speak out and call things by their real name. [My emphasis]

There are incidental reminders of what Stalin’s tyranny involved. The small encounters, as in the Primo Levi book. Here is one example. In exile and confined to a hospital, Nadezhda spoke to nurse called Niura. Her husband had worked at a flour mill. Once he had brought home a handful of grain for his hungry family. He’d been sentenced to five years. Meanwhile the nurses in this hospital greedily ate anything the typhus and dysentery patients left on their plates. They were always talking about their misfortunes and poverty. A nugget of information like that about life under Stalin reminds us of two things about this Marxist state: one, it impoverished, it did not lift people up economically despite the myths. And second, it was, as Martin Amis noted in his book Koba the Dread, built on systemic failure. The system didn’t work. Not even at the most basic tasks of producing and distributing food.

Nadezhda Mandelstam

It’s a story that points to the bigger revelations of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that appeared in The Gulag Archipelago written between 1958 and 1968 and published in 1973. In the 30s evidence of collectivisation was seeping into the cities. Don’t forget Stalin, in Osip’s poem, was cast as “the peasant slayer.” It was a society where the beneficiaries of the regime – those who had the big flats and the special rations – could believe it would last a thousand years. But as Mandelstam reminds us, the rest “just sighed and whispered among ourselves, voices going unheard.” As Mandelstam said in his fatal poem, “Ten steps away no one hears our speeches.”

The true believers had inflicted the horrors:

The true believers were not only sure of their own triumph, they also thought they were bringing happiness to the rest of mankind as well, and their view of the world had such a sweeping, unitary quality that it was very seductive. In the pre-revolutionary era there had already been this craving for an all-embracing idea which would explain everything in the world and bring about universal harmony at one go. That is why people so willingly closed their eyes and followed their leader, not allowing themselves to compare words with deeds, or to weigh the consequences of their actions. This explained the progressive loss of a sense of reality – which had to be regained before there could be any question of discovering what had been wrong with the theory in the first place. It will still be a long time before we are able to add up what this mistaken theory cost us, and hence to determine whether there was any thought in the line “the earth was worth ten heavens to us.” But, having paid the price of ten heavens, did we really inherit the earth? [My emphasis]

I highly recommend this book largely because it gives us the grimy day-in-day-out reality of life under Stalin.

After the exile Osip Mandelstam was arrested in the Great Purges and died in a labour camp in 1937, just as he had expected.

Why did a poet have to be murdered? Mandelstam puts it well. Simply because of an idea. So much for the Marxist notion that the prime mover of history is economics. In fact, ideas shape the minds of generations, win adherents and impose themselves on the consciousness, and these ideas form new forms of government and society, rising triumphantly and then slowly dying away and disappearing.

I would be grateful if every believing Marxist would ponder her argument:

The idea in question was that there is an irrefutable scientific truth by means of which, once they are possessed of it, people can foresee the future, change the course of history at will and make it rational.

For this idée fixe millions had to die. A few survived to tell their stories and we are in their debt.

Peter the Great: His Life and World

This book appeared in 1981 and may in fact show its age. It is an old fashioned, somewhat leisurely biography. That, however, is its charm. If you want to dive deep into Russian history, perhaps anticipating a trip to Petersburg, I recommend it very highly.

It clarified for me many of the themes of Russian history. One was the nature of the tsars’ rule: ecclesiastical, symbolic, almost robotic until this six foot, seven inch demon of pent up energy seized the throne. Reigning from 1682 to 1725, he was Russia’s last tsar and first emperor. It clarifies the story of his accession and dramatises a visit to the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow where his half-sister Sophia was imprisoned after Peter’s supporters edged her off her position as regent in 1689. It explains the Streltsy, the warrior-traders who acted as a Praetorian Guard around the tsar, and like the Praetorian Guard in Rome intruded on the imperial succession until Peter had them brutally executed. It explains the imperial thrust of Russia to the Black Sea – they reached it under Peter’s leadership with the second Azov campaign in 1696 which gave them control of the Sea of Azov as a result of rolling back Turkish power. This encroachment of Russia on the Ottomans, besides expanding southward, was to be thematic for over a hundred years. The book also explains the Great Northern War that ended Sweden’s dominance of the Baltic. The founding of St Petersburg in 1703 is part of this story.

The unique journey Peter as a young tsar made to the west, travelling for 18 months through German states, Holland, Britain and Austria is a great comic adventure. But it had at its heart the tsar’s determination to turn Russia into a European power and to brutally modernise it.

And until this book I never appreciated an obvious story, namely the entire absence of a Russian navy until Peter recruited Dutch boat builders and sailors in Archangel to give him the first Russian fleet.

The biography is a gateway to the splendours of 18th century Russian history, and I expect will lead me into the world of the empress Elizabeth (reigned 1741-62), Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the emperor Paul (1796-1801).

As my friend Peter Crawford pointed out to me, there was barely an execution under the empress Elizabeth and this presents a very depressing comparison with the Russian story in the 20th century.

Massie’s prose makes this a very comfortable journey. If you expect the length – 928 pages – to defeat you, I think you’ll be surprised at how you glide into this narrative. Yes, narrative history at its old fashioned best.

The Perfect Crimes

No ranking is implied in the lists. They are all very good.

Individual Books:

Killshot by Elmore Leonard ( I love all of his stuff.)

Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy ( The LA Quartet is great. White Jazz is stunning.)

Truth by Peter Temple

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Equation for Evil by Philip Caputo

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

The Big Enchilada by L. A. Morse

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow


The Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series by Rex Stout

The Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke

The Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly

The Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon

The Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series by Rober Crais

The Inspector Rebus series by Ian Rankin

Other crime writers I think are worth reading include George Pelecanos, Ken Nunn, Jim Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and early Harlan Coben. There are always new writers to discover which makes life interesting.

I hope you may find some of these as much fun as I did.

The Sincere Comrade Stalin

In the first part of the 1990s, Yale University Press sent Jonathan Brent to Moscow to negotiate rights to the secret Soviet archives. Which is to say, I guess, the Soviet archives. Even those of the KGB, the Politburo, other organs of the state. In this book he gives a memoir of those visits to a Moscow where people sold used toothbrushes on the street and the stench of socialist decay was everywhere. Nobody knew what shape this new Russia would take. Stranded in dismal government offices were scholar-squirrels who had tended these archives. Brent had to negotiate with them to strike a deal and allow this material to be published in the West.

Over the past 15 years or so, their revelations have become part of our understanding of Communism. For example, in 1995 the university published the first volume in the Annals of Communism, called The Secret World of American Communism. It demonstrated that the Communist Party USA was engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. It confirmed the testimony of Whittaker Chambers about the activity of the party. It strengthened the case against Alger Hiss. It even reopened discussion of Joseph McCarthy. Much of the documentation was in the form of memoranda between the NKVD and the Commintern that proved that Western communism was totally dependant on the Soviet and totally loyal to it, and that Western communists had in fact performed espionage functions.

All this is known, all part now of conventional wisdom.

So this short book is a bit of a travelogue through the corridors of the state and the party while outside in the streets Communist Party power was vanishing.

Brent reminds us of some sweet revelations like the conversation between Sergei Eisenstein, Stalin, A. A. Zhdanov and Molotov about the second part of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible. The meeting took place on February 26, 1947 at the height of the post-war repressions and confirms how deeply involved Stalin was in cultural policy, telling Eisenstein how he wanted Ivan the Terrible portrayed:

Ivan the Terrible’s wisdom consisted in the fact that he insisted on a national point of view and wouldn’t allow foreigners into his country, fencing the country off from the penetration of foreign influence… Ivan the Terrible’s remarkable enterprise was the fact that he was the first to introduce a state monopoly on foreign trade. Ivan the Terrible was the first to introduce it; Lenin was the second.

Brent gets to see Stalin’s own library and comments:

To see the works of this library is somehow to be brought face-to-face with Stalin. To see the words his eyes saw. To touch the pages he touched and smelled. The marks he made on them trace the marks he made on the Russian nation. Not mediated through the Central Committee or proxies, these marks preserve the vehemence of his hand as it touched the paper through his pen, his impatience and exasperation with his enemies, his expressions of approval at finding the right turn of phrase or the correct formulation written by those he admired.

He is dumbstruck. Not a single work he inspected was not read by Stalin, not a single work “not copiously annotated, underlined, argued with, appreciated, disdained, studied.” In particular, Brent opens two books by Lenin and finds Stalin underlying passages which concern dictatorship of the proletariat, underlining a forceful description of the dictatorship:

The dictatorship is power depending directly on force, not bound by any laws.

The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws. (My emphases)

This would tend to support the argument that Stalinism grew out of Leninism. Stalin’s Great Purges – the slaughter of literally millions of people – was the implementation of Leninist theory: the use of force “not bound by any laws” against the class enemy. Stalin was not a madman. Moreover, as Brent notes, he was not impotent or afraid of women, he didn’t hate his children, he was not a delusionary fanatic, he did not have syphilis or epilepsy, he was not the only man whose wife tragically committed suicide and he wasn’t more paranoid than Richard Nixon. He was simply ideologically committed to dialectical materialism. As Brent notes, “it was the power of these ideas that crushed Sofia Petrovna into madness and brought Anna Akhmatova to understand ‘No, this is not me, this is someone else who’s suffering.’” It was the power of these ideas – the ideas of Marx and Lenin – that explains the famines and purges, the deaths of tens of millions.

I found this a somewhat disappointing book, less than what I expected. I’m not sure why you would read it if you’ve read Simon Sebag Montefiore or Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen. Except for that last very insightful observation: Stalin was not an insane murder, he was sincerely implementing Marx and Lenin.

Molotov’s Magic Lantern

Molotov and Stalin

On my one visit to Moscow I never made it to Romanov lane. If I did I am sure my attention would have been caught by the luxury of the apartment block at number three with wrought iron balconies, tendril-wound columns, sculpted faces looking over the street – a façade that emphasises the extreme thickness of the outer wall and the mystery of its interior, according to Rachel Polonsky.

When the British journalist investigated this solid old building looking for a home for her and her banker husband she came across the library of Stalin’s foreign minister and foundation Bolshevik, Vyacheslav Molotov, who had lived here after Stalin’s death and the assumption of power by Nikita Khrushchev.

Indeed one could ask who didn’t live in No. 3 Romanov. Alexei Kosygin who was to replace Khrushchev and Khrushchev himself after his 1964 downfall; in this bastion of privileged nomenklatura even Trotsky found a home for a period; as did great Russian generals Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Timoshenko; Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies” lived there as well.

Many of the lawyers, doctors and academics in No. 3 were to be sent off to labour camps or shot in the 1930s. Polonsky finds traces of their lives in old issues of the All-Moscow Telephone Directory and in the “scattered annals of their professions.” Today the apartments are owned by well-off descendants of Red Army generals and Communist Party magnates.

But above all it was Molotov’s home and he is a sinister and curious motif through the pages of this part travel book, part reflection on Russian culture.

The facade of No. 3 Romanov.

When Polonsky visits other Russian sites – even remote ones in Siberia or the north – there are reminders of the Great Purges of 1936-8. Molotov seemed to sign as many politburo orders against “anti-Soviet elements” as Stalin. Indeed in the early winter of 1938 Molotov signed the greatest number: 373. Not names, not 373 names, but 373 lists of names. They bore the names of 43,569 people. On one day in December 1937 Molotov, Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov signed away 2,274 lives. Indeed it was Molotov who suggested the policy of sentencing by list. On some lists he personally changed verdicts from imprisonment to death.

In his long life of retirement in Moscow, Polonsky says, he showed an indifference to his role in monstrous Marxist totalitarianism. “I’m not interested in who said what or where, who spat on whom…” he retorted when asked why he did not write a memoir.

Polonsky looks at this man’s library, the library of an autodidact, a self-taught polymath, a passionate pursuer of books, even when he was a revolutionary on the run or an exile.

Polonsky even looks up ‘Molotov’ in the ‘M’ volume of the Soviet encyclopedia in Molotov’s apartment. She writes:

The encyclopedia related that he was born in 1890 into the family of a shopkeeper and joined the Party in 1906. Then the prose began to swell and roll in waves of hypnotic totalitarian cliché: all Molotov’s strength, knowledge and vast experience had been dedicated to the great aim of building communism in the Soviet Union; as faithful disciple and comrade-in-arms of the great Lenin and comrade-in-arms of Stalin, he had faithfully served the cause of the workers, the cause of communism, all his life long, earning through his fruitful work for the good of the socialist Motherland the ardent love and respect of the Party, the workers of the Soviet Union, strugglers for peace, democracy and socialism, and so on and on. [My emphasis]

Polonsky goes to Staraya Russa, south of Petersburg where Dostoyevsky based his The Brothers Karamazov; to Novgorod where she tells the story of local intellectuals who worked to save the religious heritage of this, Russia’s major religious centre (more stories of lives lost and years wasted in the gulag); to Rostov-on-Don, telling the story here of Isaac Babel; and Taganrog where the dominating spirit is that of Chekov and where in the local museum she finds archival records of museum workers, librarians and school teachers arrested and sent into exile in Kazakhstan and Siberia “for imagined crimes against Stalin’s state.”

Author Rachel Polonsky

Here a local teacher wrote, “I do not consider myself as guilty, but the inexorable Article 58 had stuck to me like smallpox.” One librarian from this town sent into Central Asian exile said the only thing that alleviated his sorrow was the knowledge that he had loved “everything beautiful in mankind, in art, and in nature and remained sure of a source of all beauty.”

This is travel writing with a literary and artistic focus. Fine writing, even good enough to make me contemplate travelling to Murmansk and Archangel, where Polonsky finds echoes of Molotov’s life and fascinating historical detritus about Russians from the generation that witnessed the revolution and the horrors of the 20s, 30s and 40s.

A book for all who have got the bug for Russia. It is charmingly and lucidly written, full of stories about people, lives, revolutions and suffering that are now fading away, all bearing out the notion that “…all ideas have their origin in our idea of place…”

American Adulterer

Author Jed Mercurio

During my recent tour of John F. Kennedy material – see my review of the miniseries, The Kennedys and also my investigation of Kennedy assassination theories under “America” – I became much more admiring of the 35th President. As president John F. Kennedy passed the ultimate test: he saved the planet from nuclear war – or at the very least, from a military clash with the Soviet Union over Cuba which his military advisers seemed intent on. He may have cut short the American adventure in Vietnam, although the evidence is limited and disputed.

He did contemplate an end to the Cold War. That happened in his famous Peace Speech of June 10, 1963. At the recent US Studies Centre conference a former US diplomat, Nick Burns, told me he begins the course he teaches at Harvard on the Kennedy Presidency with the Peace Speech. It deserves more attention.

When I looked down from the Sixth Floor Museum on Dealey Plaza where the President was assassinated I thought of his achievements in avoiding a war and his commitment – at the cost of much personal popularity in the south – in taking a stand for black civil rights.

So I have come to admire him more than ever. Yet I do not find at all objectionable the conceit of Jed Mercurio’s novel, American Adulterer (Vintage Books, 2010). And this might surprise some.

Mercurio approaches Kennedy’s presidency through his sex life with the assumption – this is the author’s conceit – that the President was driven by his medical condition to seek frequent promiscuous sexual activity. He released his toxins with these encounters, says Mercurio. In other words, his confession to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that he needed a woman every three days or he got a headache was not self parody.

Probably no book I’ve read on Kennedy has emphasised his chronic illness more. At his Inaugural without a coat he appeared impervious to the weather, in contrast to the “chilled bones of old men who surround him.” But Mercurio notes, “In truth his furnace is fired by shots of painkillers, steroids and amphetamines.” In the end only his wife knew the complex extent of his infirmities while even other members of his family failed to quite grasp “the whole story of this body lurching into premature decrepitude.”

Mercurio has one of the President’s several doctors study the President’s medical records relevant to his back problems and tick off the clinical history:

[A] ruptured lumbar disc playing college football, exacerbated by a severe impact against the bulkhead of his patrol torpedo boat when rammed by a Japanese destroyer, followed by osteoporosis as a side effect of steroid ingestion, leading to collapse of the fifth lumbar vertebra, which necessitated internal fixation by means of a metal plate, the postoperative course being complicated by septicaemia – the future President went into a coma and was given the last rites – only to recover and be diagnosed with an infection in the internal fixing plate, which had to be extracted in a second operation, damaging the bone and cartilage into which the plate had been screwed, this damage being only partially repaired by bone grafts.

As a result the President in Mercurio’s historical novel cannot bend or straighten his back, cannot lift his left leg more than the few degrees necessary for walking, cannot put on his own shoes or socks, cannot turn over in bed and cannot sit in a low or reclining chair. His bowels, prostate and urethra are in constant turmoil and the medicines react violently with one another, swelling his face and sending him to the toilet. The medicinal steroids have obliterated his adrenal glands, ulcerated his stomach and eroded his spine.

One of the few pictures of Marilyn Monroe and the President together

It’s the medical condition in this novel that compels him to high risk adulterous flings with junior White House staff, Washington prostitutes, a Washington society lady, Marilyn Monroe and other girlfriends of the Frank Sinatra circle. Mercurio elaborates the speculation that in a second term these events would have brought the President down. He even plays with the idea that a special investigator starts to gather evidence, asking President Kennedy whether he has ever had sexual relations with a particular woman, while FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover presses in for the kill by pursuing the idea that one young woman at the President’s regular pool parties was working for the Warsaw Pact:

“What evidence have you gleaned she’s a spy?” the President demanded.

“That investigation remains ongoing, Mr. President,” the Director said.

The President said, “It’s merely a tenuous supposition, isn’t it, Mr. Hoover?” and in their initial silence he saw vindication.

Then the Director continued, “With respect, Mr. President, Bowtie demonstrates that the potential for a security breach is equally damaging as an actual breach.”

Mercurio has a mordant style as shown in this account of a contribution by CIA Director Dulles to debate on the Bay of Pigs:

The Director describes how the invasion will lead to a popular uprising, yet the President treats his argument with the same suspicion he regards the term “military intelligence,” the most mordant oxymoron in the idiom of government, because the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are cut from the same cloth as the men who killed his elder brother, a pilot blown to smithereens flying a mission carrying an explosive payload primed with a hair trigger that could be tripped by a bump of turbulence, who equally resemble the generals and admirals who prosecuted the war in the Pacific, safe ashore, pursuing strategies that caused thousands upon thousands of needless casualties, among them the crew of the President’s own command, a torpedo boat ripped in half by a destroyer, ruining the President’s back and drowning two of his men. [My emphasis]

This is hard, gripping writing.

My admiration for the President surges, as Mercurio reminds me how often this youngest elected President, with his military background, stood up to the Joint Chiefs. How he distrusted and disliked them. The President faces strong calls for air strikes and invasion of Cuba and the Air Force Chiefs of Staff suggest planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. He rejects their advice. He is furious to find out about B52 practice flights over Soviet territory.

There are clever touches. The President officiates at a medal ceremony on the South Portico with an astronaut who this fictional Kennedy thinks looks down on him, not just because he’s flown further and longer in space but because he can control his hungers and drives as well as he does the switches and levers of his space capsule. The President concludes he’s a man “who’s prepared to risk his life in a rocket ship but not slip the surly bonds of monogamy.” [My emphasis]

In 1963 the Kennedys lose a baby boy born prematurely. Yes, perhaps there are things only a novelised treatment can convey.The President looks down on the struggling infant in his neo-natal crib :

He gazes at the fragile scrap of life clinging to existence and feels pride in his struggle. His son shows in his few hours of life what every human being should. He seizes every breath. Like his father, he suffers a life of pain but he never surrenders.

Mercurio structures a 1963 visit by the President and Jackie to the President’s lobotomised sister, Rosemary, in institution deep in the Wisconsin woods run by nuns. In that entirely sad encounter the President tells the uncomprehending Rosemary he is President of the United States. She looks blankly. He adds, “But I’m the same old Jack.” In the limousine coasting over the prairie to the airport he whispers to Jackie “I’m not.” She whispers back “Not what?” He says the “Same old Jack.” And changed by the death of their son and the encounter with his lost sister, they hold hands in the car.

When Oswald’s first bullet wounds him, with pain exploding in his back and throat, the hard, heavy brace does what is built to do – holds him straight. It stops him slumping forward and missing the second shot:

This man wrecked his back saving a wounded comrade, but this is only part of the story; the condition was exacerbated by his philandering in a hotel room in El Paso, and for these two inseparable reasons he wears a brace that holds his head high when otherwise he would be able to duck the next shot.

We live with contradictions.

He deserves the revival of his reputation that has seen him ranked just after Franklin Delano Roosevelt among modern Presidents.

The Brothers Ashkenazi: A Pitiless Yiddish Story from Old Poland

A less restrained, later edition cover.

This book was recommended to me by a Jewish friend. She had argued that I J Singer was a better writer than his brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short stories I love and which I had praised in My Reading Life. They came form a family of Yiddish writers that had migrated fromPoland to the United States, their works translated.

I placed an order for a first edition with my favourite American book dealer and I reverentially opened it when the package arrived: published in 1936 by Alfred A. Knopf Borzoi Books, translated from the Yiddish by Maurice Samuel, in immaculate condition, with a restrained dust jacket, one of 550 copies signed by the author. Alfred A. Knopf wrote on the cover:

In 20 years I’ve published a number of European novels that have become part of the classic literature of our times – such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, and Ladislas Reymont’s The Peasants. I think Mr. Singer’s novel belongs in their company. I am not using the words masterpiece lightly… For this is a monumental novel, a history not only of the twin brothers Max and Jacob, but of the rise and fall of the city of Lodz…

The author, Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944)

The book is an old-fashioned family story, an epic and a clear-eyed one with no deep well of compassion for the little people struggling out their lives in the polluted, make-shift, fast-growing Polish version of Manchester. Don’t expect the sentimentality of Fiddler-on-the-Roof : this is an urban novel and a tough-minded one. There aren’t many characters you will wholeheartedly like.

This novel explains a great deal about the lost world of Polish Jewry, about Poland as a whole and, uncannily, about the Holocaust which at the time of the book’s publication was five years off. Lodz, the setting for the novel, had a population one third Jewish and was to house the second biggest ghetto in Poland, holding Jews until they could be dispatched to Auschwitz Birkenau. In one day in 1944, 40 000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto were killed. Therefore, to us, there is a terrible and eerie premonition in these pages.

The story begins in the mid-19th century with the city in a fever of expansion, growing street by street as Germans, Russians and English settlers, merchants, agents, buyers, engineers, chemists and draftsmen poured in to what was becoming the Polish Manchester, a dynamic centre for the textile industry, servicing all of eastern Europe, and the sprawling Russian empire. Textiles were produced here, using the techniques introduced by immigrant Germsn weavers. This feverish growth in turn began to transform the closed, fanatically- worshipful, Hasidic Jewish culture:

The young Jews of Lodz, who had never before come in contact with these worldlings, were quickly open to their influence; they discarded the traditional Jewish gaberdine in favour of the short coat of the west, they shaved off their beards, they began to look like modern Europeans. Restaurants, hotels, cabarets gaming houses sprung up in Lodz, and they were always full. Hungarian dancing girls smelled from afar the rich odour of the city and came in troupes. Actors and circus performers came down from Warsaw, Petersburg, Berlin and Budapest. Russian officers and officials gathered in a far harvest of bribes from all sorts of illegalities and joined in the revelry.

Into this world, and to a studious Jewish father who worshipped a favourite rabbi, were born the twin brothers Simcha Meyer and Jacob Bunin. This sets us up for thrust of the story – who will they marry, how will they break with their parent’s world, hownill they force themselves forward in pursuit of wealth. It is Simcha who becomes obsessed with rising in the business world, with a passion for owning his own textile plant, cheating his lazy business partners and grinding his Jewish workforce into the dust by reducing their wages a rouble a week at the first opportunity. In an arranged marriage he is aligned with a wife, Dinah, who is both horrified and resigned at having forced on her a husband small, thin, bent, with long curls and a straggly beard and traditional Jewish dress. For her part, she saw in her father’s traditional Hasidic culture “a ritual of witchcraft and a fellowship of malevolent demons. She feared them just as much as she loathed them.” She was proud that at school she’d been told that she did not look a bit Jewish and had dreamt of marrying a Nordic knight, not someone from her family’s culture.

It would be hard to imagine this account of Jewish life appearing after the Holocaust. It feeds the anti-Semitic stereotypes that we now see as having paved the way for the genocide. No Nazi theorist would have seen an advantage in banning this novel; they would have publicised it. Singer’s portrayal of a still-medieval Jewish culture is pitiless. The Jewish population “swarms”, rabbis rule theocratically, a social gathering is full of crude snobbery, the poor Jews are full of superstition, their religious leaders indifferent to the suffering of the weavers. To a large extent the story is about the forces of modernity that overtake Hasidic Jewry as the steam-driven factories recruit their Jewish laborers from the villages.

The two brothers sunder themselves from Jewish ways and traditions, discarding the long gaberdine, the hat and the ear locks of the pious Jews.

In part the book is a Marxist view of the world. We are introduced to characters from the Jewish industrial proletariat, recruited to the expanding mills. We see Feivil, a rag dealer, who reads about the Enlightenment and the literature of class conflict. WE see the Jewish capitalists in their mansions and we see the Jewish revolutionaries in theirnhovels. We see Max Ashkenazi – the name taken by the scrawny, ambitious Simcha Meyer – begin to trick his way into ownership of a factory he is paid to manage by the family of indolent Germans. His rise and rise, while locked in a tense loveless marriage, is the bulk of the story. God, Nazi propagandists would have relished some of these characterizations.

In the story of Lodz there are strikes and recessions. At one point Singer writes:

The city was like a hoggish gormandiser who goes on stuffing himself with food long after he has eaten all the needs, who goes on eating with the aid of artificial stimulants to his appetite, until he reaches the point of exhaustion and immobility and can go no further before the stomach pump has done its work.Lodzhad the indigestion of overproduction.

There were also waves of anti-Semitic agitation and officially sanctioned purges. They are manipulated and brought on by the Tsarist authorities –Poland in the nineteenth century being part of the Russian empire – to break revolutionary protest. Agitate the Polish working class against the Jews and the Polish workers will stop mobilising for higher wages and veer off to rampage in the Jewish sections of the city, attacking synagogues in the time-honored way.

Nissan, a young revolutionary, son of an impoverished rabbinical scholar, is challenged by this:

But he refused to believe that there would always be pogroms. The road of liberty was a thorny and tortuous one; there’d be set backs and disgraces; but the goal would be reached in the end. He knew the history of other revolutions; they, too, had been marked by these treacheries. There were hooligans, stool pigeons, agents provocateur, who stirred up the lowest instincts among the masses, working always among those who had not yet become class conscious and did not understand who their enemies were. They had been the ones to switch the attention of the strikers from the bosses to the Jews. He knew all this. He could not believe that this enmity towards the Jews lay in the nature of things.

Nissan’s tragedy is that as a professional revolutionary he will be in St Petersburg in 1917 and witness the democratic revolution get captured at bayonet point and turned into a coup d’état by the Bolshevik vanguard. When the Bolsheviks take over the Constituent Assembly he is one of those dispatched, his dream of a workers’ revolution completely broken.

The central disaster in the story is that of World War One. I never knew that the First World War visited such a tragedy on Poland, with a cruel German occupation forcing massive starvation and hunger. Max Ashkenazi, leaving his family behind, has shifted his wealth to Petersburg where, bribing Tsarist officials, he replicates his huge textile and clothing manufacturing operation producing uniforms for the war effort. But the 1917 revolution traps him as well. It is his kindly brother who he had despised who rescues him from prison and brings him, bribing guards at every point, back to Lodz. The city will never recover its economic strength as the Russian markets are now closed, locked up in Bolshevism.

This is a very original work, summoning up a short-lived world and the people who drove it or were driven by it. The world and all of them now destroyed, in a way the author and they could never, even in a nightmare, have imagined.

John Brown’s Body Foretold The Civil War: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (Random House 1998)

This is an historical novel, to sit there on the shelves with works of US history. It amplified my feel for America in the decade before the Civil War.

By the late 1850’s, many Americans opposed to slavery believed that they had lost. Slavery had grown stronger, legally and economically. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 runaway slaves could be arrested in the North and hauled back to the plantation. The Supreme Court had endorsed slavery in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Their value at slave auctions was soaring. Slavery was speeding Westward. It was possible to imagine a slave empire embracing Mexico and the Caribbean.

When John Brown and his family saw these things it was if they saw Satan settle comfortably into his seat and gather his slave holding minions in to serve and honour him. Slavey was evidence of Satan’s power in America. That’s how this fiery religious farmer viewed it and taught it to his family.

These are the words that novelist Russell Banks puts in the mouth of Owen Brown, one of the sons of John Brown:

      …the slave holding South like a gigantic serpent, slowly wrapped the rest of the Republic in its suffocating coils….I needn’t recount these highly visible public events, although I do wish you to know how, over time, they made us believe that our entire government and even our nation’s destiny itself had been stolen from us,

as if we’d been invaded and all but conquered by a foreign, tyrannical power.

      (My emphasis).

Owen Brown

Despair was overtaking the Abolitionists by the late 1850’s. They saw leaders like Senators Douglas and Webster sell them out for political office, accommodating the slave-holding South. They saw one of their heroes, Senator Sumner clubbed to the point of death by a South Carolina Senator in the Capital building itself during a meeting of the Senate. Oppose slavery in the Senate … and get clubbed to death?

These outrages turned John Brown and his family into fighters and insurrectionists. That despair sparked their heroic raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. That futile raid inflamed the South. One more provocation and they would secede. The next provocation was Lincoln’s election in 1860.

Brown found in The Old Testament all the advice on military tactics he would need in Kansas and in planning his raid into what he described as ”Africa”, the American South. One measure of his charisma is that Owen Brown notes that he ceased to chastise or enforce his will when his adult children disappointed. He simply “withdrew from the offender the shining light of his trust”. He also notes:

He did not require that we share with him his deep, unquestioning Christian faith, as long as our every act was a reflection of our belief in the rightness of the Golden Rule and our love of the Truth. ‘If you cannot be a believing Christian but will nonetheless do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and if you will obey the first commandment of Jesus Christ and only substitute the word ‘Truth’ for God, then I swear that I shall not disavow you.” That was his pledge to us.

Everything that could go wrong for a 19th century farmer did go wrong for the Browns, their story one of business failure after business failure, even a trip to England to tie up a market in merino wool. The failures might be taken as a sign that God had filled with wrath against him, that the Lord despised him. Reading this I am struck again by the capacity of religion to render people deeply, deeply miserable. Or to motivate them to ferocious acts of good.

When the family is settled in Timbuctoo in Upstate New York they support the underground railway to assist slaves to flee along the Hudson and Champlain Valleys and into Ontario by way of Niagara and Detroit. There’s a heavy presence of those vast American forests in this book, through which Brown and his sons help escaped slaves flee to freedom, somewhat reminiscent of Cold Mountain. Moving through wilderness at night, their little parties can hear the coughing of bears. They stumble across mountain lions. Occasionally they’d see a trapper slipping across the track into the deep woods to check his lines, “as solitary as a wild animal himself.”

They were always in fear of a slave trapper employed to intercept blacks with a warrant, using the power of the Fugitive Slave Act to haul them before the authorities and have them returned to the South to be whipped and branded by their masters.

What the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 meant for abolitionists like Brown is this:

A Negro human being was like a wandering cow, identified by color and all too often by the owner’s brand, returnable when and wherever found. And free Negroes, too, were terrified for their lives, for the new law turned every white citizen of every Northern state into an unpaid agent of Southern slaveowners and gave no legal protection to free Negro men, women, or children, any one of whom could be instantly transformed into an escaped slave merely by a bounty-hunter’s say-so and hauled off to the South and sold as chattel.

John Brown

There’s the ever-present reality of slavery. When Owen and his old man visit England in a futile pursuit of mercantile wealth he reflects:

This was the first time that I had been out of my native land, and therefore the first time that I’d walked the streets of a country where slavery had been banished, and I felt cheerfully liberated by it. England was then, as now, of course, an antique monarchy, not a modern republic. Nevertheless, it was a freer country than ours, for no man could legally buy and sell another, and for that reason alone, as soon as we stepped ashore, the air we breathed seemed cleaner, fresher, more energizing, than ours at home. I think Father felt the same exhilaration as I.

Slavery had tainted their homeland, poisoned it.

The novel is in part a story of Owen’s relationship with his father, also a story of how he became a murderer in a good cause, that of liberating America’s slaves. This is the essence of John Brown’s troubling presence in American history: he was a terrorist but a vindicated one, vindicated by the military mobilisation of the North in the cause of removing slavery that came after his hanging in 1859.

Blacks trusted Brown. They trusted his rage which he’d come to direct entirely against slavery. He’s a study in how a white in a racist society could register race as a central fact of his life. Brown disliked William Lloyd Garrison and the anti-Slavery societies or “anti-Slavery Socialites”, as he called them. He was a believer in violence and direct action. Owen, his son and Bank’s narrator, is Aaron to the Moses that his father represents, the man of the Lord who could inspire and lead God’s chosen people out of Egypt. He sees his father as a clan leader, a tribal elder.

This is one of those historical novels where there are a handful of real characters walking on to act out their parts, pre-eminently the former slave Frederick Douglass who calls on the Browns when they are in Ohio.

As Owen sees it, his father did “the great, good things and the bad.” Much of what he did, at bottom was “horrendous, shocking”. It was “holy evil”. The evil is committed during the war in Kansas when – if Russell Banks is to be believed – the Brown clan elevated the guerrilla fighting in a way that dragged the North into this fighting. Kansas was to enter the Union a free state because the Brown clan slaughtered pro-slavery whites with cleavers and produced a bloodthirsty war. The terror and the rage that they caused with murders ignited the flame of war across Kansas:

We turned Kansas bloody with a single nights work, we Browns made the whole territory bleed. The Missourians came flying back across the river determined to kill every abolitionist in Kansas…which was exactly as Father and I and, to a lesser degree, the rest of us Browns wanted…

Let me insist again, there was no optimism at this time that slavery would be gradually ended. Indeed, the reverse applied, as I began by arguing. People thought slavery was getting economically and legally stronger. Hence the increasing desperation of the warfare waged by Brown and his family, this decisive resort to violence. After all, if Kansas had been captured by the slavers it would have become a slave-holding state in a Union that would be governed in Washington by a slave-holding majority of states; and as a result three million Americans and their descendants would remain probably enslaved. That would force the North itself to secede, perhaps to join Canada.

Russell Banks

At over 600 pages this is a large book. It is about a father-son relationship: about an ambiguous and troubling presence in American history, an American terrorist in a noble cause. It is about the hatred of African Americans that runs like a strand through all American history. It is about History, about how John Brown might have been regarded had there been no Civil War; how he came to be regarded after the Civil War. He was the figure who looked over Lincoln’s shoulder, the prophet who insisted slavery was wrong and must be extirpated.

Russell Banks brings him alive, this “stray ghost-walker with a ghostly gun” as Stephen Vincent Benét described him in his poem (see below Rendezvous with Destiny). The bygone South ends up being buried with John Brown, and with it, the America that might have been – a sprawling slave empire.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber and Faber 2010)

The ultimate piece of Soviet nostalgia, this is a novel about that moment in the history of the Soviet Union when serious, sane people might have believed it was going to beat the capitalist west at economic growth. It is set in the rule of the post-Stalin Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1955 to 1964) when economic planning seemed to be driving it towards an era of plenty – Red Plenty, making Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. Spufford reminds us, in one of his informative notes, of Karl Marx’s vague idyll, “a soft-focussed gentlemanly idyll, in which the inherited production lines whirring away in the background allowed the humans in the foreground to play, ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…’”

The characters in this fairy tale – this is what Spufford insists on calling his book – are people whose lives are committed to this experiment. Nikita Khrushchev is one. We enter his head as he slouches in the lumbering TU-114, the Tupolev aircraft transporting the Premier down the Canadian coast towards Washington for the first-ever visit of a Soviet leader to the United States.

This is what he thinks, what any Soviet leader might have thought in 1959:

  • No one gave us this beautiful plane. We built it ourselves, we pulled it out of nothing by our determination and our strength. They tried to crush us over and over again, but we wouldn’t be crushed. We drove off the Whites. We winkled out the priests, out of the churches and more important out of people’s minds. We got rid of the shopkeepers, thieving bastards, getting their dirty fingers in every deal, making every straight thing crooked. We dragged the farmers into the twentieth century, and that was hard, that was a cruel business and there were some hungry years there, but it had to be done, we had to get the muck off our boots. We realised there were saboteurs and enemies among us, and we caught them, but it drove us mad for a while, and for a while we were seeing enemies and saboteurs everywhere, and hurting people who were brothers, sisters, good friends, honest comrades. Then the Fascists came, and stamping on them was bloody, nobody could call what we did then sweetness and light, wreckage everywhere, but what are you going to do when a gang of murderers breaks into the house? And the Boss didn’t help much. Wonderful clear mind, but by that time he was frankly screwy, moving whole nations round the map like chess pieces, making us sit up all night with him and drink that filthy vodka till we couldn’t see straight, and always watching us: no, I don’t deny we went wrong, in fact if you recall it was me that said so. But all the while we were building. All the while we were building factories and mines, railroads and roads, towns and cities, and all without any help, all without getting the say-so from any millionaire or bigshot. We did that. We taught people to read, we taught them to love culture. We sent tens of millions of them to school and millions of them to college, so they could have the advantages we never had. We created the boys and girls who’re young now. We did the dirty work so they could inherit a clean world.

Francis Spufford

    There you have it: the case which might, at that time, be made for the whole Soviet experiment.This chapter which recreates the Khrushchev visit to the US is very funny, shown for example in Khrushchev’s thoughts on mass production:
      Of all the capitalist countries, it was America that was most nearly trying to do the same time as the Soviet Union. They shared the Soviet insight… Take the hamburger: so neat, so easy. It had been created by someone who had made it their serious mission in life to imagine a food you could hold in your fist while you rushed thought the busy city. And this was not exceptional for America, it was characteristic. If you looked into the windows of their shops, if you looked at the advertisements in their magazines, you saw the same practical passion at work everywhere. Coca-Cola bottles exactly fitted the average person’s hand. Bandages came as a packet of pink patches with a glue just strong enough for the human skin already applied to each one. America was a torrent of clever anticipations. Soviet industries would have to learn to anticipate as cleverly, more cleverly, if they were to overtake America in satisfying wants as well as needs. They too would have to become experts in everyday desire.

In this era the Soviet Union was achieving annual growth rates of 10 percent, but within years it would become clear these were based on massively increasing inputs – more iron and coal, more felled trees, more sweated labour “slung into the maw of industry” – but not on increasing output per head. Meanwhile a heretical view had grown up among Soviet economists: to start experiments with prices and use computers to drive a system of shadow prices.

This gave rise to the notion the Soviet would achieve the old Marxist ideal of plenty, specifically solve the old economic problem of unlimited demand but limited supply. And do it, according to the draft party program of 1961, within 20 years. Yes, by 1980. By that time the Soviet Union would confer plenty on its people. Red Plenty. They would enjoy what the party described as “the universal abundance of products.” And, with the Sparrow Hills on the edge of Moscow one huge building site and new boulevards marked out with sticks and string, it looked feasible. A giant banner rippled and flapped six storeys high against the blank wall of an apartment block celebrating Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, a Soviet astronaut.

Spufford audaciously enlists as a character the only Soviet economist to ever win a Nobel prize, Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich (1912 – 1986). Shadow pricing is his idea. He has come to understand as early as the 1950’s that the economy cannot work without price signals. Meanwhile another character, Maskim Mokhov, makes an appearance in the office of Gosplan, his whole life dedicated to the idea that within the files of his organisation it is possible to direct and control every economic relationship, especially with the tantalising arrival of computer technology. For a few years hope bubbled that cybernetics might rejuvenate centralised planning:

By 1963, almost all the elements seemed to be coming together in Academician Nemchinov’s scheme to reform the Soviet economy mathematically. New cybernetics institutes and departments had sprung up right across the Soviet Union, and were hurrying to complete pieces of the puzzle; or perhaps of several different puzzles. Mathematical models were being built for supply, demand, production, transportation, factory location, short-term planning, long-term planning, sectoral and regional and national and international planning.

By 1965 when the sly and erratic peasant Nikita Khrushchev had been replaced it was becoming clear, in the West at least, that the Soviet Five-Year Plan was now registering no growth: at most, a 0.5 percent upward blip during the plan of 1966 to 1970. The CIA put it even lower. “The growth machine was grinding to a halt,” writes Spufford, “The leviathan’s gears had jammed.”

From the introductory notes he provides for one of his chapters:

      The gap with American living standards widened again, precipitously. It became clear by any measurement that the Soviet Union was not going to overtake and surpass. All talk of full communism was abandoned, and in its place Brezhnev’s government promoted the idea of ‘developed socialism’, as an era in which the USSR could comfortable announce it had already arrived. Developed socialism was due to last a nice long time, with no awkward timetable. There only remained the problem of the 1961 Party Programme. Convenient official amnesia engulfed it. It was buried in silence, never to be dug up again.

This is a pretty weird novel – sorry, fairy tale. The detail in the footnotes for each chapter is riveting. This work is anchored in comprehensive reading in the scholarly sources. But the characters never move forward and drive the action. Most appear in a chapter and disappear. The most consistent is Khrushchev who we get to meet in retirement, after he has been replaced by Brezhnev, sitting on a bench reflecting on the experiment with communism, toying with memoirs. It’s just the story is so great, so fantastic – remember Spufford’s conceit that he is presenting us an old Russian fairytale – and the story so crucial to what has happened to the world, that one reads on. Again from those notes:

      The Soviet economy did not move on from coal and steel and cement to plastics and microelectronics and software design, except in a very few military applications. It continued to compete with what capitalism had been doing in the 1930s, not with what it was doing now. It continued to suck resources and human labour in vast quantities into a heavy-industrial sector which had once been intended to exist as a springboard for something else, but which by now had become its own justification. Soviet industry in its last decades existed because it existed, an empire of inertia expanding ever more slowly, yet attaining the wretched distinction of absorbing more of the toal effort of the economy that hosted it than heavy industry has ever done anywhere else in human history, before or since. Every year it produced goods that less and less corresponded to human needs, and whatever it once started producing, it tended to go on producing ad infinitum, since it possessed no effective stop signals except ruthless commands from above, and the people at the top no longer did ruthless, in the economic sphere. The control system for industry grew more and more erratic, the information flowing back to the planners grew more and more corrupt. And the activity of industry , all that human time and machine time it used up, added less and less value to the raw materials it sucked in. Maybe no value. Maybe less than none. One economist has argued that, by the end, it was actively destroying value; it had become a system for spoiling perfectly good materials by turning them into objects no one wanted.

Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich - mostly referred to in the book as ‘Leonid Vitalevich’ - is the intellectual hero of Red Plenty.

The best chapter maybe that dealing with the operation of Chekuskin, one of the tolkachs or “pushers” who linked the criminal world and the world of factory managers with “favour trading”, always putting deals together and tolerated by the party because they played an indispensible role in solving shortages. I also liked the chapter that had Komsomol (Communist Party Youth Organsation) members visiting the 1959 American exhibit in Moscow, modernist consumer luxury displayed under a Buckminster Fuller dome. That nothing works as self propelled fiction didn’t smother my delight at finding such an original treatment of such a tantalising subject: the moment in time when this fairytale might have come off.

The experiment crashed. Socialism just didn’t work. You need prices, markets, supply and demand, boom and bust

Can it be otherwise?

      Leonid Vitalevich is sitting by himself, optimising the manufacture of steel tubes. Five hundred producers. Sixty thousand consumers. Eight hundred thousand allocation orders to be issued per year. But it would all work out if he could persuade them to measure the output in the correct units. The hard light of creation burns within the fallible flesh; outshines it, outshines the disappointing world, the world of accident and tyranny and unreason….

No. It just did not work. The planned economy crumpled and fell. Markets, thousands of years in the making, resumed themselves.

      “And the wind in the trees of Akademgorodok says: can it be otherwise.”

Grand couple who changed America

Hazel Rowley, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, Melbourne University Press, 2011

I put on a CD of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speeches and hear that resonant, aristocratic, voice declaim, “I see one third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

I thought how derisory are the attempts to elevate Ronald Reagan, that reader of cue cards, to Roosevelt’s status: president from 1933 to 1945, leader in Depression and war, the only president to be elected for a third, and then a fourth, term.

Beat that.

Meanwhile his wife Eleanor, born into the world of Edith Wharton, was the champion of those in the mines, factories, slums. Adlai Stevenson eulogised her as “this great and gallant human being.”

This alliance of theirs was – I grope for an adjective but settle on Franklin’s favourite – GRAND.

But it has to pass the Mrs. Nesbitt test.

Who? The trivia night can be yours. Henrietta Nesbitt was the Roosevelts’ housekeeper in the White House. Her cuisine was consistently awful. Runny porridge. Canned fruit. Watery soup. Gelatin salad with marshmallow.

Franklin might have dismissed her, fed up with beans and boiled liver. But he would have overthrown “the First Couple’s hard won balance of power” according to Eleanor’s biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, who wrote in 1999 that Mrs. Nesbitt was part of Eleanor’s “passive-aggressive tendencies” towards her husband.

Passive-aggressive? Balance of power? From Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin (1971) to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time (1995) historians have picked over their complex relationship. In Hazel Rowley’s book there is no new material, no cache of revealing letters like those found in a battered suitcase in 1991 under the bed of a deceased 99 year old, Daisy Suckley – a treasure trove that revealed a deep romantic friendship with the president and was reproduced in Closest Companion by Geoffrey C. Ward (1996). Nothing like this in Rowley’s book but for readers coming to this couple for the first time, a sound narrative.

In the 1930s the White House was a rackety old southern boarding house, with lumpy beds and dust on the drapes, where guests quietly poured the president’s potent cocktails into pot plants and, yes, suffered Mrs. Nesbitt’s cuisine.

Between Franklin and Eleanor hovered the 1916 to 1918 affair between him, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor’s young and graceful social secretary Lucy Mercer. As president, after Lucy had been married and widowed, they revived the relationship. She was to be there at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945, when his head fell to one side and a stroke took his life, 82 days into his fourth term.

Missy LeHand, the president’s stenographer, acted as his second wife. In the 20’s, he would spend up to three months with her in a small cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, a retreat to revive his diminished legs with the hot minerals. Meanwhile, back in New York, Eleanor ploughed progressive Democratic Party politics.

In 1940 Franklin was dazzled by Princess Martha of Norway, welcomed as a White House guest. He was later to visit her in the Virginian hills – untroubled by press scrutiny – for whole afternoons. Rowley confirms his polio had not eliminated his sexual function.

It was biographer Conrad Black who settled on the words “insatiable vindictiveness” to describe one side of Franklin’s character. The aborted romance with Lucy Mercer might have fed a resentful sense of what might have been. He lived with the bitter knowledge polio meant an early death. Increasingly sick, he would suffer as Eleanor nagged about the Yugoslav resistance. He craved lightness, she was never without an agenda.

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of “the incompletions” in their marriage, Arthur Schlesinger Jnr of its “complex reciprocity.” When Blanche Wiesen Cook confirmed in the first volume of her biography that the First Lady had enjoyed a physical relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok and possibly with bodyguard Earl Miller – each was to destroy letters with the First Lady – the reaction of admirers might have been, “Good for Eleanor.” Rowley, by the way, accepts the Cook thesis.

She was a tough old bird. When in 1939 Marian Anderson, the black contralto, was banned by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall, Eleanor resigned in protest from the organisation. This was Jim Crow America, that is, fiercely segregated. The gesture from the president’s wife was eloquent and brave.

Early in the book Rowley describes the fateful summer holiday at Campobello Island in 1921. After swimming with his youngsters, Franklin had retired with a fever and woke up with polio. In the weeks that followed he and Eleanor projected smiles and calmness, the same calmness he put on display after Pearl Harbour. He resumed politics, to struggle to podiums in braces and the grip of his sons, always liable to crash face-first to the ground.

But they mastered it. Thus in 1932 when Depression settled on America, the people had a champion who would build dams to soak up the unemployed and force through social security and rights for workers; and then in 1940 save England with 50 destroyers while he manoeuvred US entry into the war; all with the support of Eleanor, who was often referred to as her husband’s eyes and legs.

Champions of freedom! Even this modest work had me lapping the narrative all over again. (This book review was published in The Sydney Morning Herald March 5-6)

Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis, a Max Liebermann Mystery (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2009)

It’s an enticing possibility, this idea of setting a murder mystery in fin-de-siecle Vienna. The Vienna of Freud and Mahler, of the last days of the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Habsburg house, of a Jewish population bursting the seams of Leopoldstadt as arrivals stream in from the frontiers of the Empire. It is a Vienna of seething anti-Semitism, where the young Hitler breathed in a hatred of what he called kaftanjuden and imbibed the opportunistic anti-Semitism of Vienna’s populist Christian Social Party Mayor, Karl Lueger.

A rich, seamy setting for murder mystery.

But once again we have a writer drawn to a locale and a conceit but failing to deliver the requisite sophistication in plotting and character.Here I am at page 287 with a 100 pages to go and I can barely motivate myself to find out who’s responsible for these brutal deaths alongside the plague monuments that stand outside Vienna’s baroque churches. I can’t find the time to plough further to solve the riddle. I don’t especially care whether a golem from Prague is committing these offences or there’s a more pedestrian explanation.

Nor am I especially interested in finding whether Doctor Freud will make another appearance talking about dreams and the unconscious or whether the kid from Braunau is going to get off a train at the Sudbahnhof with an easel under his arm and a newly cultivated square moustache riding his upper lip.

What I admired in the three great Los Angeles thrillers produced by James Ellroy is now all the clearer after I struggle with lesser works of crime fiction. First, the elaborate plotting. Think of Ellroy’s masterpiece The Big Nowhere and how the two seemingly unrelated plots – one about the exotically deformed corpses of murder victims and the other about Red Scare activities in Hollywood unions – finally crashed together in a galactic explosion at around the middle of the novel. In Frank Tallis’ Vienna Secrets, by contrast, there’s only the steady slow plod of a single plot without any tantalising overlay of complexity. Second, depth of character – there’s none of it. Not in Doctor Max Liebermann, the physician with an interest in psychotherapy; or in his good friend Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, the protagonists.

Recall how Ellroy feeds the reader with the sinister atmosphere of art deco Los Angeles. Tallis makes a flaccid attempt with something comparable, mainly in references to the Hasidic community and its Kabbalistic beliefs but he never leaves you with anything other than the impression that he’s going through the motions.

As I said in writing about Olen Steinhauser’s The Bridge of Sighs (see below) it’s not enough to summon up an exotic locale to bring a murder mystery to fever pitch and to have us turning the page till midnight. Flesh and blood characters, not cardboard cut-outs, need to drive the action forward along a complex route of labyrinthine or at least complex plotting.

Don’t pick up Frank Tallis’ Vienna mysteries expecting anything like this.

Don’t pick them up at all.

The Great Hatred : Gladstone and Disraeli

I told you in this column how impressed I was one third of the way into Richard Aldous’ 2007 account of the legendary rivalry between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, a competition that shaped British politics for four decades. Finishing the book in Hong Kong on my way back to Australia, I can say it is one of the best books on British politics I have ever read. The author – Head of History and Archives at University College Dublin and a political analyst for Irish television – renders it a human account, firmly based on sound scholarship, lively and well-paced.

It has stimulated me to order a neat pile of books on nineteenth century British politics.

“Never complain, never explain”, was a Disraeli aphorism. And the unspoken third injunction was: always attack. That the Conservative party should have settled on a Jew and a novelist (he had no other profession) says something about the devastating power of his performances in the House of Commons. On becoming Prime Minister for the first time in 1868 he panted, “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole”. He said he lived for “fame and affections”.

Disraeli’s biographer Robert Blake – and I recommended his biography in my book, My Reading Life – concluded his 1966 biography with the observation that Disraeli was a romantic worshipper of England’s traditions and institutions and grandeur. But, on the other side, he was a slightly mocking observer, “surveying with sceptical amusement the very stage upon which he himself played a principal part.” It is a canny observation.

A contemporary political cartoon. Note the chuckling Disraeli (left) and the grim and dignified Gladstone (right)

William Gladstone was, as Lord Elgin was to comment, the mirror image of this. He displayed a “melancholy intensity” that contrasted vividly with the “Mephistophelean nonchalance” of his adversary. For a time Gladstone was as interested in Anglican politics as parliamentary. Nothing would stop his steady march towards delivering justice for Ireland, from liberating their universities and disestablishing its official taxpayer-funded Protestant church to, finally, wanting to give it Home Rule, or self- government.

In his account Aldous does not lose the reader in the profound public policy questions that separated the two men. And they were weighty questions. Agricultural protection, specifically the Corn Laws, was the first – the issue that allowed Disraeli to shine in the Commons as he turned on Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel to the cheers of Tory squires in 1846. He became their unlikely spokesperson, opposing the importation of foreign grain. He reflected that they were lucky to have him because they could say so little on their own behalf and he could argue it so brilliantly.

The second great issue was tax. Gladstone defeated Disraeli’s budget and in 1852 became Chancellor of the Exchequer himself and got to introduce his own budget. Here was the very distillation of parliamentary politics: one government losing confidence and another being formed on the floor at the parliament.

Then came reform of the parliamentary franchise in 1867 which enabled Disraeli to defeat Gladstone only to be defeated himself within ten months.

Next, the so-called Eastern Question. It was a foreign policy dilemma echoing down to our time: what should Britain do about atrocities being committed overseas, in this case by by the Ottoman Turks against the Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria? In other words, was there a case for humanitarian intervention in 1876? Gladstone demanded it, the champion of an ethical foreign policy; Disraeli deprecated intervention, adhering to the argument that Britain’s national interest required a continuation of Ottoman power in the east to limit the opportunity for Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. A right to intervene to prevent massacres? Or an obligation to pursue the permanent national interest?

Gladstone relaxing (note the axe by his leg)

Then came Ireland, an issue that enables Gladstone’s greatness to shine through to this day. The fiercest of evangelical but high-church Anglicans (if that’s not a contradiction) Gladstone perceived the injustice of discrimination against Irish Catholics. The injustice of protecting an established Anglican Church in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

Throughout the contest over these grand issues one of the two floundered, the other rode in the ascendant. Their reputations see-sawed, Disraeli as opposition leader was to be cheered in the streets of London as he arthritically struggled with his ailing wife down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral after a royal service. “Dizzy, Dizzy,” came the calls from the crowd as they recognised him in his tell tale white coat through the windows of his carriage. Gladstone was to be cheered by huge crowds of unenfranchised working men – acclaimed as “The People’s William” – for his role in lowering import duties and thereby the price of the goods that working families needed (note this well, supporters of protection: he supported free trade because it eased cost of living pressures on struggling families).

On each side their backbenchers boiled with discontent. Gladstone was seen by Liberal MPs as aloof, dogmatic, irritable, dictatorial. Passing into opposition in 1868 Disraeli went into torpor, correctly concluding that activity would be a waste of time and he had to allow the internal contradictions between Whig aristocrats and Radicals to bring Gladstone’s government down. His backbench thought his time and usefulness had passed. When Gladstone stumbled with a raft of too-ambitious reforms, Disraeli was able to round on him, attacking the Liberal Government for “plunder and blunder”. Always Disraeli was an inspired oppositionist, able to renew his leadership in 1874 with a riveting performance.

The book gives us a great sense of the ebb and flow of public opinion, both elite and mass public opinion, which is why I acclaim it as an insightful book on the political process. Insightful particularly about the party system which was to be clarified and defined through the leadership of these two extraordinary figures.

Extraordinary? Gladstone could withdraw from politics to write a paper on the meaning of a single Greek word. Disraeli in opposition could spin off a best selling novel and be paid more than Charles Dickens. Each could File:Benjamin Disraeli by Cornelius Jabez Hughes, 1878.jpgrevive his flagging fortune by another pulverising speech in parliament or a grand tour of Scotland speaking to packed halls and filling newspapers with their speeches.

Aldous captures the flavour of 19th century politics. In 1866 Gladstone, as party leader, escaped for four months to Italy, needing to replenish his energy. His summer relaxation was a daily 20 mile walk in the Welsh mountains on an afternoon chopping down trees. Disraeli would “saunter in the library and survey his books”. For months each year the political system would close down and government would be conducted by correspondence from country houses. In summer the Commons was insufferable, the smell of raw sewage from the Thames wafting into the parliamentary chamber.

For most of their careers Gladstone and Disraeli were seriously ill. Disraeli suffered frequent influenza, rheumatism, heart problems, insomnia, acute gout, debilitating headaches. Gladstone from spinal pain, lumbago, fevers, bouts of diarrhoea, nervous breakdowns. Disraeli’s marriage to Mary Anne started as one of convenience driven by his desire for her money but blossomed into one of unadulterated love. After a big success he and she danced a jig in their hotel room. Gladstone’s was a tense marriage and historians have now concluded his powerful nature found relief in the arms of prostitutes who he secured in nocturnal walks through London streets – even as Prime Minister – under the guise of talking to them about religion and redemption; he also had two well known affairs with socially prominent women.

It was Gladstone who was the more serious figure. If his policies had been adhered to Britain would have conferred Home Rule on Ireland in 1886 and avoided the poisoning of its politics, the crippling of Ireland, a civil war, whole battlefields of sectarian conflict. Disraeli who died in 1881 before this great battle would have played the issue for party political advantage alone, and done so with pyrotechnic brilliance. He would have been wrong. As Robert Blake, his biographer, concluded on the last page of his magisterial biography, “He was never a grave statesman”.

“No words can express my hatred of that man or my admiration of his genius,” Gladstone is reported to have said. He need not have bothered, his was the superior public service.

Michael Cunningham: By Nightfall (Fourth Estate 2010)

I reached for this novel on the basis of strong reviews in The New York Review of Books and because I want to give contemporary fiction a chance. Perhaps because it promised to be a nervy, clever look at Manhattan life through the eyes of Peter Harris, a 44 year old art dealer. I polished it off in London on Christmas day – New York would have been better. It certainly delivers on middle-class Manhattan, seen through the eyes of a Soho loft-dwelling dealer who fears he may never going to be dealing in the first rank.

…the bitter pleasure of New York City? It’s a mess, like Courbet’s Paris was. It’s squalid and smelly; it’s harmful. It stinks of mortality.

It is a novel about family. Peter makes assumptions about his own marriage to Rebecca, editor of an arts magazine, that are dislodged in a final scene that pays tribute to James Joyce’s The Dead. There is a reference to Ulysses on page one and a mid-novel suggestion that Peter’s peregrinations through the city may resemble Leopold Bloom’s through Dublin. Yes, it’s a literate novel, loaded with references to art too, but the family theme is the connecting thread: the peculiarities of his own mid-western upbringing and the burning loss of his brother Matthew through AIDs, his wife’s eccentric Virginian family and their own alienated daughter, all “…wised up enmity and bitten-nails”, a drop- out from college serving in a bar in Boston with a gripe that her father thinks her unattractive:

…her body had abruptly at puberty, activated a hitherto-slumbering strand of DNA (mine, Bea, it’s not your mother who’s descended from dairy maids and lumberjacks) that said with terribly, fleshly finality: solid, earthbound, big womanly breasts and child-rearing hips, well before your fourteenth birthday. Your parents are slim and attractive and you, by some trick of genetics, are not.

I make you feel ugly. It’s terrible for you to so much as speak to me on the phone.

The special testing of family is brought to bear when his wife’s brother Mizzy comes to stay, young, attractive and – romantically, self-destructively – hooked on drugs and resisting any pressure from sisters to do rehabilitation. For Peter he evokes his wife’s younger self, his first love – a girl back in the mid-west- and, at the same time, his dead brother . He becomes unhinged, fearing he will behave like Aschenbach:

No. This is my life, it’s not Death in Goddamed Venice…

Meanwhile there is the steady hum of Peter’s life running an art gallery for artists who just fall short of the first rank while mysterious processes determine whether one artist rises and another falls, “impossibly intricate responses to a billion tiny shifts in the culture, in politics and in the ions of the goddamned atmosphere…” He is an art dealer who thinks, “Please, God, send me something to adore.”

He lives in hope there may be a works of art he can bring forward, things so good he would reach into the fire for them. That he may be going to connect with “some genius, unknown, unknowable, some Prometheus who is now a child in Dayton, Ohio, or an adolescent in Bombay or a mystic in the jungles of Ecuador.” Peter thinks, “Look at the Biennial list from ten years ago. You won’t recognize a single name.”

The two sharpest scenes may be Peter calling on a sculptor who he hopes to collect for his gallery – the politics require that neither can seem too keen – and the scalpel like description of a rich client’s home in Greenwich, Connecticut and the politics of placing art with her. Carole Potter knows about art and has the confidence to correct her dealer. Peter knows that to her, he is hired help.

The Potter house, as he describes it, “is a perfect imitation of itself”. He describes it clinically.

Tom Wolfe wouldn’t get social context more acutely right than these episodes. Cunningham writes lean, cunning, electric prose. I haven’t read The Hours or Specimen Days but from now anything with his name has premium attached.

Bruce Feiler : Abraham A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (Harper Collins 2002)

The Hebrew testament was written down by scribes 500 years before Christ during and just after the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. Writes Feiler:

As arresting as the stories of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac are today, they were almost totally unknown to the Israelites who wandered for forty years in the desert, then conquered the Promised Land around 1200 BCE.By the time David overtook Jerusalem in 1000 BCE and became king of a united Israel, Abraham was probably familiar to only a few leaders through oral wisps passed down through the generations.

In other words, the historical David did probably not know about Abraham.

Half way through Feiler’s book, which I was stimulated to read by a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem – the retaining wall of Herod’s temple built on the site of Solomon’s – this clarification hit me. And it made Feiler’s worthy goody-goody Sunday school excursion into the legend of Abraham a bit more hard edged and worth while.

According to the myth Abraham was 70 when an unidentified voice (important – unlike Moses 700 years later Abraham did not have God identify himself) told him to leave his home and family and go to a new land. It’s there in Genesis: “Go forth…” And Abraham put his trust in what Feiler calls “an a-physical, indiscernible, unprovable god.” He is to become God’s proxy on earth, according to Feiler and thus the founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – a transforming rupture in the human narrative, the launch of monotheism.

Feiler quotes a rabbi who says Abraham is the best model for Christianity and its Feiler’s demand for obedience (Abraham obeyed a God who has never been mentioned to him) and Islam, which admires acquiescence. Jews may put more emphasis on the Abraham who later argued back to God (about God’s hard-hearted determination to let even the innocent citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah perish).

Feiler allows a sceptical tone to enter his pages. He admits the biblical story of Abraham is a triumph of literary ellipsis. In other words the text has not only been concocted as recently as 2500 years ago but there are big gaps in it. The motivation is to personify the clash over land, the struggle for control of the Promised Land, a fertility battle in the cradle of fertility, a story needed in the years after the Jews had returned from their exile knowing how vulnerable they were located between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires. The story is one in which God tells the Jews through Abraham, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

Feiler says Abraham is as much a model for fanaticism as moderation. He writes, “He nurtured in his very behaviour – in his conviction to break from his father, in his willingness to terrorize both of his sons – the intimate connection between faith and violence.”

Unless you know it already Feiler’s book is an easy way to read yourself into the world of the Old Testament, into some of the questions of Jewish history. The best parts are the conversations with scholars of the three faiths, what Gore Vidal calls the “great sky god religions” invented by desert peoples in the Middle East and capable of incinerating the world today in their attempts to settle whose secret friend is the best.

Feiler concludes that the Abraham we need is one who would be both God-fearing but also God-not -fearing – that is, I’m guessing, prepared to argue with God, like a Jew more than a Christian or a Muslim. An Abraham who is a wanderer, a frontiersman, a bridge between the human and divine, not a Jew, Christian or Muslim but “the best vessel we’ve got, the father of all.”
Thus like other believers Feiler works overtime to squeeze more out of bronze age mythology.
Seeing the ultra-orthodox swarming around Jerusalem a week ago and hearing of the latest Muslim-on-Muslim violence I’m tending in the other direction: give the stories of the desert peoples a rest. Thousands of years after they were made up there’s little evidence they’re doing more good than harm and little evidence they have shifted the human species from its inherent violence. The Story of Abraham may have given us all it could, its mysteries now best set aside while we try other things. Some benign neglect rather than another round of religious over-interpretation and agonizing is now the best way, I think.

Martin Gayford: The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (Penguin 2007)

In London a few days ago I was very impressed by the Gauguin exhibition at The Tate Modern and bought Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House which is an account of the nine weeks that Gauguin spent living with van Gough at Arles. It describes the different trajectories that each was committed to, members of a self conscious avant garde in the move beyond Impressionism to something else (Gauguin was already talking of abstraction, of paintings devoted to feelings and dreams not appearances) but were divided in a host of ways.

For example, Gauguin admired Cezanne as the great painter of southern French landscape and admired his disciplined, rational approach, “a way of working ruled by the head.”

Vincent dismissed Cezanne’s parallel brush strokes as “almost timid” and “conscientious.”

Yet here they were to be together, sharing house-keeping, visiting the local brothels, for nine weeks. It was to go so wrong it climaxed in van Gough’s self-mutilation. I feel that as a gallery visitor I must know this history.

During his year and a bit in Arles van Gough was to produce some 200 paintings, around a third of what Gauguin produced in his entire lifetime. Says the author, “It was one of the most astonishing sprints in Western art.”

A slice of the life of these two artists will heighten the gallery experience. The more one knows about context and personality the more the artist’s canvas comes to mean. Gayford writes in simple, unadorned words and I’m eager to pick it up again.

Fintan O’Toole: A Traitor’s Kiss the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Granta 1997)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, famous playwright and theatre owner, won himself the seat of Stafford in the House of Commons in the usual grand 18th century manner. He paid 250 burgesses five pounds each for their votes, bought beer and meals for all and promised working people jobs in his theatre, Drury Lane. Within weeks a large, angry delegation appeared at his London townhouse asking about those jobs as doormen, lamplighters, box-openers, decorators and scenery painters. In his foyer Sheridan gave a little speech about how the working class were the backbone of the country and with enchanting bows and elaborate courtesies, using his dark flashing eyes and charming accent, moved through the throng and into his carriage. With a kiss of his hand and a wave he ordered his coachman to Carlton House, the palace of the Prince of Wales.

Ah, the 18th century.

This is a political biography, of a life lived in tumultuous argument over things that mattered, mainly to do with the British empire and the power of its monarchy. It enters a world of dark and seditious conspiracies, pursued in London clubs with deep draughts of claret.The author’s a prominent Irish journalist and his goal is to place the playwright’s life in the context of Irish history, making sense in this way of Sheridan’s ambiguous place in English life .

Sheridan had a fierce attachment to the country, Ireland, his family had left when he was eight and this attachment shaped his thinking, making his among other things a Whig and a supporter of The American Revolution. Even the polished comedy School for Scandal (1777) had deep political resonance. Sheridan can’t be understood without this.

He was an advocate of an independent and – this important – non-sectarian Ireland, the solution to Ireland’s British problem – namely, home rule or self-government – that was lost in his time and then in the 1880s in Gladstone’s.

This is what makes it different, apparently, from other biographies (I’ve half read one). I polished off the book over Christmas, as prep for a Peter Hall production of his first play, The Rivals (1774) in London’s Haymarket Theatre . The production turned out to be terrible.( See theatre reviews ).

Sheridan, the second son of a well-known actor and educationist, launched into playwriting to get into politics. The success of The Rivals rendered him a lively figure in Whig circles and his Drury Lane Theatre was seen as a Whig-aligned institution which George III was less inclined to visit than Covent Garden. Yes, theatre was that political.

I persist with O’Toole even though I found the performance of The Rivals a disappointment and not just because of the lack of zest in the acting. In a sense it doesn’t matter if his plays don’t work today: as this biography confirms Sheridan succeeded at using theatrical fame to launch a political career. He led, for example, the 1788 impeachment of Warren Hastings for crimes against Indians in his administration of the East India Company. Giving speeches of four hours duration in Westminster Hall before the House of Commons Sheridan anticipated nothing less than our own era’s view of international human rights law. He was attacking the behaviour of The Empire by elevating human rights. So he savaged his own country:

This was British justice! This was British humanity!

It was the greatest show in town and Drury Lane revived School for Scandal and Covent Garden his opera The Duenna to capitalize on the trial’s publicity. Reading these chapters I am struck by the strength of anti-imperialism, some flowing of course – and this is O’Toole’s big motif – from Sheridan’s Irish nationalism. I’m struck by the modernity, too, of the Foxite internationalism: here was an 18th century political party, the Whigs, supporting the American Revolution and condemning the spread of British imperialism in India and, driven by this logic, even sympathizing with the French Revolution.

As the above makes clear, this is an 18th century political life and requires some background knowledge of the England of Pitt and Fox, of George III and the Prince of Wales. Reading it in London around a performance of The Rivals (which I won’t want to see a second time) was an extra stimulus. The scholarship is solid and the judgments well-based. O’Toole captures the tone of these times so adroitly he leaves me nostalgic for an era I never lived in. Yes, I would have liked to have heard Sheridan speaking in that trial or been at an opening night at Drury Lane in the era of his ownership. Or, even better, seen him on the hustings. Ah, the grand 18th century.

A Reconsideration of the Above

I think I have been too flippant. I think I am wrong to leave you the impression he was an elegant 18th century opportunist. In his last days when he desperately needed a paid ministerial job he declared:

I will never give my vote to any administration that opposes the question of Catholic Emancipation

And after 32 years in the Commons he told it : “Be just to Ireland, as you value your own honor;- be just to Ireland as you value your own peace.”

He consorted with those who wanted a revolution in England like the early stages of that in France. In that sense he was a traitor to the monarchical order and the English tyranny over Ireland. His adornment of English letters and parliamentary life was the kiss of a traitor.


It has long been my view that contemporary fiction is wildly overpraised. You see a contemporary novelist on the shelves; you read him or her, praised to the sky by critics. Then you open the book and wonder what is going on. I had this experience with Paul Auster, the author of 40 books and a well known name. I threw one of his novels down in anger. The characters were plain uninteresting, and their circumstances as well.

In the October 2010 Atlantic B. R. Myers makes this point about Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom, which it seems everyone is reading. It’s a devastating review beginning with his observation: the characters are boring nonentities. Writes Myers, “the result is boredom.”

In this critic’s view Franzen doesn’t take his own story very seriously “but the irony is indiscriminate and directionless.” Perhaps the cause is that the style itself is boring – to match the characters. Writes Myers:

Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family “typical” enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.

Like DeLillo who has a book hailed as important even before it is read. This is now happening with Franzen.

“Language vies with content to be as ugly as possible,” says the critic and by this point I am dissuaded from joining the rest of you in being frogmarched towards buying Freedom. And if I were still tempted, this observation by Myers would argue me out of it:

Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work.… American novelists never tire of the student-don romance – they just dress it up in different clothes.

A relief, I think, to see the critics finally telling the truth about overinflated contemporary novels.

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

Indispensably good, McGregor’s book goes to the most important institution in China: The Communist Party.

As he puts it, the party is everywhere even where it can’t be seen. It has laid out a line of succession until 2022. It has given effect to the most ambitious economic restructuring of modern times – the reorganisation of state-owned corporations into competitive trading enterprises. It will brook no challenge to its control or to the sovereignty of China.

McGregor describes the most important party departments that outrank government ministries such as the Central Organisation Department which is responsible for personnel appointments and the Central Propaganda Department which controls news and information and the “keeper of the files”, that is, the Central Organisation Department which occupies an unmarked building in Beijing near Tiananmen Square without any identifying sign or listed telephone number.

McGregor says it’s like “the human resources arm of the Party…it is empowered to penetrate every state body”. No, you can’t understand China without reading this work.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

This is one of the finest historical novels I’ve ever read. It is set in Nagasaki Harbour in 1799, in closed Shogunate Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a toehold, a tiny harbour island of Dejima crammed with warehouses. It is the Japanese empire’s single port, the only entry point for foreigners with a handful of Dutch traders stranded with dreams of getting rich. Jacob Zoet, a young Dutchman has managed to smuggle his family Psalter and dreams that making a private fortune will enable him to marry back in Holland.

David Mitchell’s style is pretty near magical especially in evoking enchanted countryside and dense townships of Edo-period Japan:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books…

Among the Dutch is a Doctor Marinus whose bookshelves include Francis Bacon, Goethe, Voltaire, Newton, Juvenal and Dante – one of Mitchell’s most interesting characters:

“I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark…So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove…”

The novel is long and dense and at times I wondered whether the mystery at the heart of it was big enough to justify the structure. But if the test of writing, especially of historical fiction is to create an alternative universe then Mitchell succeeds and deserves the high praise he has won.

One of the few works of contemporary fiction I can recommend.

Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History (The Miegunyah Press, 2008)

We miss his scholarly and lucid speeches, his zest for exposition in the Parliament and to the party conference. We miss the commitment to social justice and in particular his commitment to the underserviced, underprivileged new suburbs of Australian cities. We miss the unabashed, unapologetic internationalism and the enthusiasm for big reforming programs.

Read Graham Freudenberg’s wonderful A Certain Grandeur. But you should also read Alan Reid’s The Whitlam Venture to appreciate the chaotic aspects of his 1972 – 1975 government and the huge failure in economic policy making that was the essence of its downfall. But to know where Whitlam came from you have to read this tightly sourced but eminently readable story of Whitlam’s family background and parliamentary career up till he became Prime Minister. If there’s a theme it’s the ferocious battle Whitlam had to wage with the anti-deluvian ALP left to get the party ready for government.

The story’s all here. I understand Gough’s very happy with it.

1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon (Union Square, 2008)

A fairly mediocre attempt at revisiting one of the most exciting presidential elections of the century, but just good enough to sustain interest.

It opens on January 2 1960, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy announces his candidacy in the Caucus room of the U.S. Senate office building.

The author justifies revisiting this over-familiar contest by casting it as – yes, you can see it coming – “the epic campaign which forged three presidencies”. In other words, a story of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Yet it works, mainly because no matter how often it’s told the brazen improbability of a rich Catholic kid outspending his way to the Democratic Party nomination and doing so with eloquence and charm is just an unsurpassed political story.

Journalistic, anecdotal history but at the upper end of the genre.

The Bridge of Sighs (St Martin’s Minotaur, 2003)

Look at the crime or thriller section of any good bookshop. Notice this conceit: that every second writer thinks he or she has got a hit by settling on an exotic location for a mystery.There’s Ancient Rome, there’s the Third Reich, there’s Republican China and so on. What all the authors fail to understand is that the exoticism is not enough. You need to have a plot full of surprises and a plot driven by character and you need to avoid cliché.

So I give Olen Steinhauer full marks for creating the atmosphere of a late 1940’s people’s democracy, created somewhere out of the debris of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a setting for a novel described as part police procedural, part political thriller. Sad that there’s no depth to the characters and no sense that a shocking secret lies in wait for you. I gave up at page 137 of the 278 pages, feeling cheated.

Alas, there are no more Le Carres around.

What Hath God Wrought (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The most important book I’ve read in a long time is Bill McKibben on Eaarth. I’m also reading with enormous pleasure Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815 – 1848, a narrative history of America that clarifies a great deal of history for me, especially the nature of the pre-Civil War Democratic party and its presidents. Howe also dissects the policy of Indian removal which deeply stains the Presidency of our erstwhile hero Andrew Jackson (the first Democratic party President, and the only two-term President between Monroe (1817-25) and Grant (1869-77); Jackson was President from 1829-37). Very good on the economy and religion as well as the political contests and the underlying political movements.

Howe emphatically rejects Arthur Schlesinger Junior’s view of Andrew Jackson. In The Age of Jackson (1945) Schlesinger had portrayed Jackson as an agent for the spread of democracy through class conflict spearheaded by the industrial workers, No, insists Howe – the Jackson era was about the spread of white supremacy across America and cannot be understood without its vehement support of Indian removal and subsequent spread of plantation slavery. Howe elevates technology, in particular the spread of the telegraph and the growth of canals, roads and railways, as the defining feature of America 1815 to 1848. It is the most favourable account of the Whig party I have encountered in any general narrative history and helps me understand why Lincoln was a Whig. Howe likes the Whigs, especially Henry Clay, for their reservations about slavery in contrast to the Democrats who were unabashedly pro-slavery. In his finale Howe opens with an account of a gathering of women in New York in 1848 issuing a declaration of sentiments, adapted from the Declaration of Independence, about the rights of women. None of the old, traditional histories would have elevated this little story. You’ll understand why I find Howe’s volume so refreshing.

Spies of the Balkans (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010)

For a guide to the spy novels of Alan Furst – all set in the lead-up to World War Two and the war itself, see Chapter Six of my book, My Reading Life. Some of them you can’t put down: The Polish Officer and Dark Voyage are certainly in that class.

But the latest Alan Furst is a disappointment. The hero, Costa Zannis, is a detective in Salonika with “special branch” responsibilities who gets drawn into helping Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the lead up to the March 1941 German invasion of Greece. But he is indistinguishable from just about every other hero in Furst’s previous 14 novels. He’s drawn to the same mechanical affairs with the women adrift in increasingly desperate pre-War Europe. Don’t expect any biting suspense or – here’s a heavier condemnation – many revelations about spycraft.

There is one nervous Hungarian border crossing, one flight from occupied Paris (“trite and broken, cold and damp, the swastika everywhere”), one run-in with the Gestapo and a final (unlikely) escape by rail to Turkey.

The atmosphere and somewhat exotic setting may get you drawn in…but, in the end, it’s not enough.

Cruiser: The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and her Crew(Random House, 2010)

I devoured this book and consider it a great achievement. It’s the biography of an Australian warship manufactured in the early 1930s for the Royal Navy and purchased by Australia in 1939. Mike Carlton takes up the story with the departure of the crew from Sydney Harbour to meet their ship in Portsmouth. He holds the tension all the way to the bitter, disastrous sinking of the ship in combat with the Japanese in the Java sea in February 1942. He places the reader on Perth’s deck with Australian sailors as they fill the air with anti-aircraft flak during 8000 kilometres crisscrossing the eastern Mediterranean, surviving 257 air attacks all linked to the battle for Greece and the debacle of Crete. Carlton has woven together the personal stories of crew members which he has diligently tracked down. One of them, Charlie (Jock) Lawrance, was a neighbour of mine as I grew up in Oxley Street, Matraville. He’s the eldest survivor. I was honoured as the local member of parliament to march with him in ANZAC Day celebrations, but not until reading Carlton’s pages did I realise what a hero he was.

There are funny human stories in this book, like that of Prime Minister Robert Menzies being barged out to give a speech welcoming the Perth back to Sydney after its Mediterranean service and receiving the catcalls of the blunt sailors who were desperate to get ashore and join their families.

With all guns blazing under the captaincy of Hec Waller – another hero – the ship was sunk in a terrible confused fight with the Japanese invasion fleet side by side with the United States Ship Houston, Hec Waller going down with his vessel. That’s not the end of Carlton’s narrative. He tells about the survivors and their imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese and some being plunged into the sea again when the hell ship carrying them off to slavery in Japan, the Rakuyo Maru, was sunk by American submarines, with 543 Australians being lost. Ninety two Australians survived in what was apparently the word’s greatest rescue at sea.

I told Carlton he had written an Australian Odyssey. He was a little nonplussed by my praise. The book took over my life and converted me to maritime history.

Write another, Mike.

Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861-1865 (Yale, 2010)

Mark Geiger’s book is a very scholarly re-examination of the American Civil War in Missouri. Here the war involved civilians, huge atrocities including the worst outrages against civilians in America’s history. And here the Civil War resulted in the entire elimination of the planter class, something which has shaped the state to this day. I was honoured to launch the book at the United States Studies Centre and spoke about my high regard for Mark Geiger’s scholarship as he – a former accountant and banker – turned banking and court records upside-down to offer a new interpretation.

In short he argues the Civil War was vicious in Missouri because when the Northerners grabbed the state they refused to continue the bank loans that Southern planters had secured for themselves in return for raising militia. This resulted in outright impoverishment. It represented an appropriation of the wealth of this class. Hence the horrendous bloodshed as a desperate people fought for their survival against total financial ruin.

What a relief to have a historian who doesn’t just go through newspapers and the Congressional record but actually mobilises his financial literacy to pursue a money trail. How few historians are capable of doing that? And how much history we miss as a result!

Wildlife (Vintage, 1990)

A character in Ford’s 1990 novel talks about flying his private plane above Montana inspecting wheat crops and running into a V-shaped formation of geese flying down from Canada. “And do you know what I did?” he asks.

“I opened back my window,” he said, “and I turned off the engine…Four thousand feet up. And I just listened. They were all right up there around me. And they were honking and honking, way up in the sky where no one ever heard them before except God himself. And I thought to myself, this is like seeing an angel. It’s a great privilege. It was the most wonderful thing I ever did in my life. Ever will do.”

Ford’s novel is set in Great Falls, Montana in 1960. It’s a simple story about a crisis in a marriage seen through the eyes of 16 year old Joe Brinson a single child in the context of a season of great forest fires on the edge of America’s plains and the Rocky Mountains. It is really an extended short story.

I managed to complete Wildlife sitting in a café in Virginia City, a gold rush town in Montana during our recent tour of US National Parks.

Shiloh (Vintage, 1991)

Another short book, originally published in 1952, written by the author of a three volume Civil War history, The Civil War: A Narrative (and a star in the Ken Burns documentary series The Civil War). This is a novel about the April 1862 battle seen through the eyes of five soldiers. It is a simple and very effective dramatisation of a clash that witnessed the death of both commanders, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and Union General W. H. L. Wallace. It was the biggest early success of U. S. Grant and, in the manner of the Civil War, cruel carnage. It also produced the heroics of Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. Shiloh is easily devoured and will enhance your feel for the battle on the heights of the Tennessee River.

Foote has one of his fictiopal characters say:

… I remembered what my father had said about the South bearing within itself the seeds of defeat, the Confederacy being conceived already moribund. We were sick from an old malady, he said: incurable romanticism and misplaced chivalry, too much Walter Soctt and Dumas read too seriously. We were in love the past, he said; in love with death.

Churchill and Australia (Macmillan, 2008)

Graham Freudenberg is a small man with a great appetite for beer and books and an aversion to eating vegetables and giving up smoking. He is one of the best prose stylists in Australia from 1961 to 2005, an advisor and speech writer to two Prime Ministers and three Premiers of NSW. His political memoir, A Figure of Speech, is a beautifully written account of his life from Brisbane origins to his work for Hawke; not to be overlooked are A Certain Grandeur, about Gough Whitlam in politics and Cause for Power, the official history of the NSW Labor party.

This account of Churchill and Australia is one of the finest recent works of Australian history. There’s the account of Robert Menzies and his pursuit of a position in an Imperial War Cabinet in 1941. Freudenberg, as no other historian, is able to extrapolate from this strange episode an explanation for the fall of Menzies as Prime Minister and the advent of John Curtin’s Labor government in October 1941. But he begins his story with Churchill as a media hero in the Boer war, media hero and self promoting opportunist. The young Churchill could already be described by Australian poet Banjo Patterson as “the great Winston Churchill.”

The book becomes the definitive account of Curtin’s clash with Churchill over the return of Australian troops to the Australia in the face of Churchill’s determination that they be flung into Burma (and devoured and destroyed by war as Churchill had done with an Australian army at Gallipoli, Australian army at Greece and an Australian army at Malaya – Singapore).

Keep writing Graham. Nobody wields a pen to better effect.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2012 1:16 pm

    I am surprised at you Tiberius.
    The correct term is “antedeluvian” (like antebellum) not “anti-deluvian”
    However, Since you have chosen sides, I recommend you apply some of your scepticism about Marxism-Leninism to the great jihad to which you have hitched your star.
    Meditate upon this
    –Marcus Aurelius


  1. Australian Politicians May Learn from the Masters: Disraeli and Gladstone « Thoughtlines with Bob Carr

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