Category Archive 'Book Reviews'
02 Dec 2020

“Just Passing Through, Minding His Own Business”

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Michael Robbins has a little fun upon the occasion of the publication of “The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher blood-curdler.

You know how, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?

OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town in the first book of the best-selling series, 1997’s Killing Floor, and he goes on to find trouble with a capital T in sleepy flyover hamlets across America—“tiny polite dots” on the map, as 2019’s Blue Moon has it—in eleven of the subsequent novels, including The Sentinel(Delacorte Press, $29), the first to be cowritten with the author’s brother, Andrew Child, who will take over the series after this installment. …

No one in the history of the world has randomly stumbled onto as many kidnappings as Jack Reacher, who once again thus stumbles, wanting only a cup of coffee, at the beginning of The Sentinel. Implausible, sure. A radioactive spider’s bite bestows spider powers on a teenage boy; a woman unweaves a burial shroud every night for three years without any of her suitors getting suspicious. We tell ourselves stories in order to tune the fuck out, sometimes.

So there Reacher is, fresh in town after hitching a ride from Nashville with an insurance agent, when he sees some heavy operators trying to force an ordinary schlub into a Toyota sedan. Except he doesn’t see them. Being Reacher, he senses the plan unfolding before it happens, apparently drawing on genetic memory. He’s headed for the coffee shop as the schlub, one Rusty Rutherford, leaves it:

    Reacher didn’t pay him much attention at first. He was just a guy, small and unremarkable, holding his to-go cup. . . . But a moment later Reacher’s interest ratcheted all the way up. He felt a chill at the base of his neck. A signal from some ancient warning system hardwired into the back of his brain. An instinctive recognition. Pattern and movement. Predators circling. Moving in on their prey. Two men and a woman. Spread out. Carefully positioned. Coordinated. Ready to spring their trap.

What chance do the heavy operators have against Jack Reacher’s hardwired spider-sense? No more chance than a complete sentence has against Reacher’s free indirect discourse.

And then we’re off to the races. …

It doesn’t matter that we’re not exactly dealing with John le Carré and George Smiley here. Child has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for readers who have to get up in the morning. He knows that we know that Reacher will yet again prevail against impossible odds, so it’s the details of each confrontation that matter. With what displays of brio shall our hero sally forth this time, deploying what forms of efficient brutality?

Reacher may lack the self-questioning complexity of Smiley or the queasy nuance of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Child makes his simplicity a virtue. Reacher is Jason Bourne without the Sophoclean psychology and heroic quest. He’s just real good at getting there first, whether “there” means anticipating an opponent’s moves or deducing the nature of a conspiracy from the scantest of clues. …

RTWT

15 Nov 2020

A Classic Case of British Madness Combined With Gallantry

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Ian Birrell*‘s Spectator review of Ed Caesar’s new book, The Moth and the Mountain (to be released November 17) placed it immediately on my own must-read list.

It recounts WWI veteran Maurice Wilson’s doomed 1933 attempt to solo climb Everest by crash landing a de Havilland Moth biplane on the mountain’s upper slopes and then ascending on foot to the top.

Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 of the planet’s peaks higher than 8,000 meters, is probably the finest high-altitude mountaineer in history. His list of astonishing achievements on dangerous ice-clad crags includes the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without use of oxygen. Yet as he sat exhausted at 26,000 feet with two days still to go on that pioneering ascent, he thought of an eccentric Englishman ‘tougher than I am’ who had set out before him with one crippled arm and no crampons, let alone knowledge of some basic climbing techniques. ‘Do I understand this madman so well because I am mad myself?’ he wondered.

[T]he writer Ed Caesar, similarly captivated by the crazed early assault on Everest by the Yorkshireman Maurice Wilson, has told the extraordinary story of this intrepid ‘madman’ in an engrossing biography. It is a tale well known in the mountaineering community, not least since his frozen corpse has emerged five times from its glacial tomb on the slopes where he died; yet it remains clouded in as much mystery as those mists that cling to the great peaks. Was he a naive climbing legend, a mystical sage, a disturbed war veteran or even someone running from his gender fluidity, so unacceptable at the time? Or possibly all four of these things? …

The backdrop, as with so many things in the 1930s, was the legacy of savage trench warfare that tore apart a continent. Wilson fought with distinction, winning a Military Cross, but lost the use of an arm and saw one of his three brothers turned into a shambling wreck. His own efforts to win compensation were repeatedly rebuffed, leaving him with a loathing of officialdom.

It seems his traumas led him to trek the world aimlessly, dumping women and jobs in his wake. So was his bid to climb Everest an attempt to find glory or inner peace? …

Wilson began to read widely about Everest in 1932, hatching his plan despite the cruel details of terrible deaths in avalanches and blizzards. He was not deterred by the failure of four British expeditions, comprising the best climbers in the country aided by teams of porters carrying huge supplies. He began training his mind and body through fasting and prayer. He flirted with the idea of parachuting onto the lower slopes. Then he decided to fly there, so took lessons and bought a Tiger Moth; yet he was such an inexperienced pilot that when he left (looking ‘like a man going to a fancy dress party as an aviator’) he nearly crashed by taking off in the wrong direction with the wind.

RTWT

Maurice Wilson’s Wikipedia entry.

* Outline frequently lists the wrong author’s name for articles decrypted from behind paywalls.

25 Oct 2020

A Fine Read

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Members of the Baby Boom generation like myself are the product of WWII. Our parents typically met during the war, and the ultimate American victory led to their reunion and our post-war arrival.

We grew up in the post-war world of American political, military, economic, and cultural pre-eminence that they built.

My father served in the Marine Corps through the Pacific Campaigns, and I grew up familiar with the names of Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo Jima. I was, as a boy, eager to hear war stories, but like most veterans my father didn’t like to talk about it.

“Did you ever kill anybody?” I once demanded. And my father dismissively replied: “We were all shooting at them, and they were falling down. You couldn’t tell who hit anybody.” That was as far as he’d go.

Another time, I asked him if he had been afraid. He just laughed, and said: “We never saw them, but they were running away.” He mentioned that, on one island, they ran all the way to some cliffs on the far side, and jumped off.

My father never joined any veterans groups. He never used veteran hospitals, and he despised the kind of men who were always looking for veteran benefits. He had his last fist fight at age 78. He was in a barber shop on Mount Vernon Street in Shenandoah and some other old WWII vet was complaining that the government wasn’t doing enough for him. My father disagreed, and asked where the guy had served. He admitted that he’d never left the United States. My father laughed at him, and he got belligerent, so my father hauled off, hit him in the jaw, and knocked him down. The young people in the neighborhood were horrified at men of such age descending to fisticuffs.

When my father passed away, I became obsessed with the desire to understand where he had been during the war and what he’d gone through. I bought every history of the Pacific Campaigns, read them all, and contacted the Marine Corps to get his military records and to figure out what awards he was entitled to. I found that he was entitled to four stars (for combat service) on his Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal along with the Presidential Unit Citation (awarded long after the war to Marines from the Third Division who served on Iwo Jima).

Recently, I came across very positive references to the publication of the third, and last, volume of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific Theater Campaign histories. I bought the kindle versions, and I’ve read all three now with great pleasure.

Ian Toll does by far the best job I’ve found of elucidating and dissecting the perspectives, plans, strategies, and decisions of both sides, and he takes the reader through the individual battles and campaigns with a compelling narrative and a lot of technical insight and details that even a reader well acquainted with the same actions will find new.

Frankly, I think his three volumes put Samuel Eliot Morrison’s magisterial 15-volumes in the shade, and that is really saying something.

I recommend them in the strongest terms.

They are:

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

01 Sep 2020

“Bro!”

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Here we have a classic representative production of contemporary elite culture delivering a rather remarkable mixture of admirable learning thoroughly polluted with repulsive left-wing ideology.

Jo Wilkinson, in the course of reviewing a new “femininist” translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley, exhibits a thorough understanding of the poem’s origin, scholarship, and cultural significance. This tidbit was news to me:

There is only one historical “fact” (a word of debatable meaning) in the poem: when Beowulf explains how the Geatish lord Hygelac died in battle. Using the spelling Chlochilaichus, the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours attests to the same event in his chronicle.

But you also get some of the worst kind of old-fashioned middle-brow Freudian crap:

Why does the blade melt? On the surface, it seems as though some enchantment is undone by the monster’s foul blood. But this is also the final extermination of an ancient, albeit monstrous, lineage, and there’s something anticlimactic about that final, cruel thrust. The sword melts away, leaving Beowulf with nothing to do but go home. As with every other apparently triumphant moment in the poem, it just doesn’t feel like a triumph.

A lecturer once told me she was sure the blade is a phallic symbol and that its melting represents Beowulf’s manhood going limp after finishing with the woman in the cave.

Along with lavish doses of Toni Morrison references, contemptuous hostility to appropriation of the poem by “white supremacists,” and the now traditional left-wing inversion of values. The new translator, Maria Dahvana Headley, previously published a Grendel-and-his-Mom’s-point-of-view retelling, The Mere Wife.

The last Beowulf translation was a very loose version by the Irish pansy Seamus Heaney. Now, we get an inner-city vernacular version, in which “Hwaet” [more or less: Hark, Listen, or Attend!] gets translated as “Bro!”

As he armors up to attack Grendel’s mother, the Beowulf-poet writes that he does not mearn for his ealdre—mourn for his life. In her version, Headley translates those words to mean Beowulf “gave zero shits.”

Jo Livingstone relishes Headley’s female us-versus-them approach:

Headley’s boyish narrator wraps his story in colloquial language almost as a trick, a flashy come-on to lure readers into a story that turns out to be full of dark lessons about traitorous soldiers and the inevitability of old age. Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. It’s as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength.

Depressing and annoying as all the vulgarity and left-wing politics are, I still think this is a book review worth reading. I’m of two minds about actually buying the Headley translation, but I did buy one of her novellas on Kindle.

WT

01 Jul 2020

Nobody Thinks Much of Bolton’s Book

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One of the kindest reviews comes from John Lloyd of the Financial Times.

[M]illions of words and images produced over the course of the Trump presidency all converge on a contemptuous assessment of the White House incumbent. So yet another volume—even one written by a person whose leadership of the NSC meant a great deal of face time with Trump—may seem otiose. Indeed, some reviewers have concluded it is exactly that. Bret Stephens, a conservative Trump opponent and columnist for the New York Times, sums up Bolton’s book as one which “tells all, yet somehow manages to say nothing.” The litany of stupidity, ignorance, vanity, and bluster it reveals only causes Stephens to think “knew that” or “not surprised.” A fellow Conservative, the former editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Gerald Baker, wrote in the (London) Times that Bolton was generally “ineffective,” and should have known better than to join Trump’s administration in the first place. Stephens’s New York Times colleague Jennifer Szalai, meanwhile, is dismissive in another way. Attacking the author rather than his work, she reminds the paper’s largely liberal readership of Bolton’s strongly hawkish views, and finds him deficient in style, organisation of material, and ability to mark out large issues from “a stew of detail.” David Ignatius in the Washington Post and Graeme Wood in the Atlantic are less reproachful, and indeed at times complimentary, but both agree that this is not a significant piece of work.

I think it is, but I should first concede some agreement with the above. It’s not as badly written at Szalai says, but it’s clunky, and certainly overly detailed. Bolton particularly likes to highlight the compliments he receives, even when they come from people he despises or thinks are evil. Trump, we are told, said “I like John”; Russian President Vladimir Putin described Bolton as “very powerful and specific” in argument; and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, offered a compliment dressed as a curse: “Death to Trump, John Bolton, and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo.” However, Bolton never provides even the most minimal of introductions to the world leaders he meets and with whom he often speaks at length. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson, who was then British Foreign Secretary, all drift in and out as mere appendages to his narrative, when a better writer would have provided a brief character sketch to help us locate them as individuals.

RTWT

27 Jan 2020

“Profiles in Corruption”

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Roger Kimball reviews Peter Schweizer’s timely new book, Profiles in Corruption.

[Schweizer’s] real subject, however, is not this unsavory lot of so-called “progressive” politicians. Rather it is a truth of human psychology summed up in Milton Friedman’s observation that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

All the figures that Schweizer discusses are known as “progressives” of one stripe or another, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the heavy-handed redistributionist, socialist end, to Joe Biden in the gabbling senile establishment middle. They all talk about helping the little guy. They are filled to the brim with “good intentions.” But the scare quotes are intended. What they are really all about is increasing the power of government, and hence their own power and perquisites, under cover of noble-sounding progressive nostrums.

This brings us to the core of Schweizer’s important book. “What makes so many people angry at Washington,” he notes, “is the fact that those with political power get to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us.” That’s it in a nutshell.

As one compares the treatment accorded to Hillary Clinton, say, or Biden and his sons and brothers with the treatment accorded to General Mike Flynn or a host of other people outside the charmed circle of progressive piety, one is tempted to suggest a change to the inscription on the U.S. Supreme Court.“Equal Justice Under Law” is so out of date; “Unequal Justice Under Law” would be a more accurate slogan, one that accorded better with actual practice if not rhetoric.

Schweizer is right. Such people “use their own levers of power to protect their family and friends from the scales of justice; bail out their failing businesses; steer taxpayer money to them. When they misstep, they are excused or it is covered up. While those with little or no power have to pay for the consequences of their actions, the political class often does not. The power elite—the people who grease the wheels for themselves—are the most disconcerting and dangerous ones.”

Despite the conspiracy of silence imposed by a compliant media on these facts, the truth is leaking out bit by Biden bit. It is one reason that we now have President Donald Trump, not President Hillary Clinton. It is a reason, too, that, come January 2021, President Trump will embark on his second term. We all owe Peter Schweizer an enormous debt of gratitude for his enormous and effective labors in bringing sunlight to these tenebrous and mephitic climes.

RTWT

25 Aug 2019

The American College Dormitory

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My own college dormitory, one of “James Gamble Rogers’ sublime Yale residential colleges.”

Anthony Paletta reviews a recent book on college dormitories in America.

Hotels have received plenty of architectural attention, but unless you’re Howard Hughes or Coco Chanel you probably haven’t spent four years living in them. One space where most readers have likely spent just that long in residence–and that hasn’t attracted a fraction of that kind of attention—is the old-fashioned college dormitory, now ably addressed in Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.

The dormitory is an interesting space, intrinsically transient but often designed to serve as a social aggregator, edifying home environment and cocoon from baleful influences, once loose morals and religious nonconformists, lately Halloween costumes and Republicans. It’s a building type represented virtually everywhere in the United States—Yanni notes early on that there are likely more than thirty thousand dormitory buildings in the U.S.

The first unusual thing about American dormitories is simply how widespread they are. You don’t actually need to house students on-site: this happens for a very small minority of students in secondary and boarding schools, and a minority in graduate education. Living on campus is not remotely as common in a number of other societies, and wasn’t the standard even in some European societies that provided inspiration to American universities. A prime task is to explain “why Americans have believed for so long that college students should live in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories. This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary.”

The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and its fictional Harley College—“The local situation of the college, so far secluded from the sight and sound of the busy world, is peculiarly favorable to the moral, if not the literary, habits of its students; and this advantage probably caused the founders to overlook the inconveniences that were inseparably connected with it.”

RTWT

I’ll bet the Yanni book overlooks the story of the Yale undergraduate of the 1850s who was expelled for shooting a deer on the New Haven Green from his dormitory window on the Old Campus.

20 Jan 2019

Ernst Jünger: Wartime Diaries

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Alex Colville, in the Spectator, rather ungenerously reviews the new Columbia University Press publication of the wartime diaries of Ernst Jünger.

Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998, aged 102, is now better known for his persona than his work. A deeply confusing and controversial figure who loathed democracy and glorified German militarism, yet despised the Nazis, he not only bore witness to the industrial flesh-mangles of two world wars, but almost the entirety of the 20th century. His writings and insights have long earned him sage
status in Germany. This, the first publication in English of his diaries from 1941–45, heightens his complexity but also makes him a more rounded figure.

This will come as a surprise to those who know him as the ruthless young warrior of the infamous Great War memoir, Storm of Steel, in which Jünger narrates one mass slaughter after another with calm detachment, even coldness — comrades repeatedly blown to bits or shot in the head. The book bristles with militarism, with no room for individual suffering. Men are briefly sketched and swiftly killed, to be replaced by new faces indistinguishable from those before.

Critically wounded 14 times leading raids on British trenches for the Fatherland, Jünger earned the highest military honour in Germany, Pour le Mérite, aged just 23. He becomes a romantic hero, willing to lay down his life for a just cause that bonds men in a firm camaraderie: ‘Battle brings men together, whereas inactivity separates them.’ A bestseller in 1920, it was said to be one of Hitler’s favourite books.

But by 1941 times had changed. Jünger abandoned German nationalism after 1933, forbidding Goebbels to use his work for propaganda purposes, and the Gestapo raided his Berlin flat. He despised the Nazis’ implementation of violence to eliminate the weak, chivalrously believing in its use to protect them — a constant theme of Storm of Steel. He was convinced that women and children at home would benefit from his sacrifice.

RTWT

14 Jan 2019

Xenophon’s Anabasis

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Bronze horse and rider, found in the sea off Cape Artemision. Late Hellenistic sculpture, National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, 150-125 BC.

Eve Browning recommends reading Xenophon’s Anabasis, an all-time great military memoir coincidentally set in much the same territory that US troops also recently traversed.

The band of mercenary soldiers had been on the move through hostile territory for several months when they were told they had enlisted under a lie. They weren’t marching to put down a rebellion; they were instead marching in rebellion. Offers of special duty pay from their leader, Cyrus the Younger, however, calmed their anger and doubt, and on they advanced, dusty boots through the desert, as the heat of late-summer Persia rose around them in shimmering waves. The villages they passed by were hostile and strange: alien languages, customs, religions. There was little fresh water.

They has assembled under Cyrus in order to overthrow his brother and rival, Artaxerxes II, king of Persia. Before they reached his defensive line, they were harried on their flanks and from behind, depleting morale and using up their supplies. At a small village named Canaxa 50 miles north of Baghdad, they finally met the Persian king’s forces, on a day when the noon temperature could have fried a pork chop. As the battle began, Cyrus rashly charged Artaxerxes himself. He was pierced through by a javelin thrown by one of Artaxerxes’ guards, and died on the spot.

With heavy casualties and no reason to continue fighting, the mercenaries fell back. They were bleeding deserters. Those who had been recruited near Sardis and Smyrna, and who spoke some of the local languages, melted away. The remainders built camp and waited, parlayed, moved camp, skirmished, and waited some more. In the pitiless heat, now without communication or direction, they discussed their next moves with no particular conviction. After nearly a month of this, an envoy came: would their unit leaders please come to Artaxerxes’ tent and converse about their plans? The leaders agreed. The encamped troops waited for word on the parley. It was not until they saw Artaxerxes’ riders carrying the heads of their former leaders that the truth dawned on them. The campaign was lost. In order to survive, they must disperse.

So began this band of about 10,000 mercenaries’ two-year journey out of hostile country, from the heart of Persia to the shores of the Black Sea. Among the most important of the new leaders was a youngish Greek named Xenophon. By journey’s end, when he finally returned to Athens, Xenophon would have served the equivalent of six consecutive modern deployments and, like any modern soldier sent repeatedly into combat zones, he would be marked for life by what he experienced on that doomed expedition and the subsequent long march through winter mountains to the sea.

RTWT

I read it recently myself (in the Greek, using a translation open on my knee for a trot) with considerable pleasure.

Xenophon, who also wrote treatises on Hunting and Horsemanship and Cavalry Tactics, was a gentleman who would have been right at home in a British Imperial regimental mess.

Just before the battle at Canaxa, Cyrus notices the Greek mercenaries whispering among themselves. The would-be-king becomes suspicious and asks Xenophon the Athenian: “What were they whispering about?”

“They were only exchanging the watchwords.” explains Xenophon.

“What were those?” inquires Cyrus.

“Zeus Soter kai Nike.” [Zeus the Savior and Victory!], Xenophon repies.

05 Jan 2019

“Pan Tadeusz”

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Someone shared with me today a nice review, published in the Spectator, by Boyd Tonkin of a new translation of the great work of Polish literature, Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz.

In remote Soplicowo, its flower-filled meadows, ringed by deep woods where bears, auroch and bison — ‘the forest’s emperors’ — hold sway, family quarrels echo in miniature the convulsions of Europe. Young Master (‘Pan’) Tadeusz returns from his studies in Vilnius to the manor where his uncle, the Judge, runs the estate. The fate of Tadeusz’s absent father Jacek, a fabled hell-raiser, casts a long thread of suspense that Mickiewicz spins at the close into a deftly-managed coup.

As the callow heir falls first for the sophisticated Madame Telimena and then her teenage ward, the garden-loving Zosia, a Romeo-and-Juliet motif sounds. A match between the pair might ‘reunite two feuding houses’. For now, the Soplicas — Tadeusz’s lot — and their Horeszko neighbours, Zosia’s clan, remain at daggers (and cudgels, broadswords and muskets) drawn.

The rough-hewn gentry let off steam through hair-raising bouts of scrapping and drinking. In these parts, ‘lawsuits will always be superfluous’. Vodka-fuelled posses enforce court orders in ‘forays’. Think Henry Fielding’s rambunctious squire-archy, with a steeper body-count, and higher alcoholic proof.

24 Nov 2018

New Must-Read Nietzsche Bio

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This must be the European edition dust jacket.

Hugo Drochon, reviewing Sue Prideaux’s new Nietzsche biography, I Am Dynamite in the Irish Times, explains that this one is a revolutionary revisionist bio that fans of Fred will have to read. I bought mine.

On the morning of January 3rd, 1889 a half-blind German professor, sporting a luxurious moustache, left his lodgings on the third floor of Via Carlo Alberto 6 in Turin. He was used to taking his daily walk through the famous arcades of the city, which shielded him from the light, and along the banks of the river Po. He would walk up to five hours a day, which explained his muscular frame: somewhat in dire contrast to the various illnesses that notoriously plagued his life.

But that day he did not get very far. He walked less than 200m to the Piazza Carignano, and what happened next is the stuff of legend: seeing an old recalcitrant horse being flogged mercilessly by its owner, the professor threw his arms around the horse to protect it – perhaps even whispering “Mother, I have been stupid” in its ear (how can anyone have heard that?) – and collapsing. He was saved from being escorted by two policemen to the asylum by his landlord, Davide Fino, who brought him home. We might never know exactly what happened on that fateful day, but one thing is certain: the productive and intellectual life of the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had come to an end.

In her wonderfully gripping new biography of Nietzsche – the type you stay in bed all Sunday just to finish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. Indeed, the horse only makes an appearance in the legend 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death – when a journalist interviewed Fino, the landlord, about the events of the day. And only in the 1930s – more than 40 years later – do we hear about the horse being beaten and Nietzsche breaking down in tears; this time in an interview with Fino’s son, Ernesto, who would have been about 14 at the time.

Despite no corroboration on the German side – from neither his sister nor his friend Overbeck, who brought him back to Basle – the “Nietzsche horse meme”, to put it in today’s terms, has proved hugely popular. It features in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the horse itself has got its own biopic in the form of an 2011 film The Turin Horse by Hungarian film-makers Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, which proposes a storyline of what happened to the horse after the event. To make things even stranger, the story of a horse being flogged to death appears in Nietzsche’s favourite author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, written when the latter was 44: exactly Nietzsche’s age when he broke down.

Prideaux casts even more doubt on the cause usually attributed to this insanity: syphilis. Popularised by Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which has a Nietzsche-like character contract syphilis in a brothel, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up. Although diagnosed as such when admitted to the asylum in Basle, Nietzsche showed none of symptoms now associated with it: no tremor, faceless expression or slurred speech. If he was at an advanced stage of dementia caused by syphilis, Nietzsche should have died within the next two years; five max. He lived for another 11. The two infections he told the doctors about were for gonorrhoea, contracted when he was a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War.

Instead Prideaux puts forward the – correct – view that Nietzsche probably died of a brain tumour, the same “softening of the brain” that had taken away his father, a rural pastor, when Nietzsche was a boy. Indeed both sides of the family showed signs of neurological problems, or of suffering of “nerves”, as one put it at the time. Nietzsche’s younger sister Elisabeth certainly seemed prone, in posthumously making him palatable to the Nazis in her Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, to a degree of megalomania herself (she had herself buried in the middle of the Nietzsche family burial ground, on the spot originally reserved for her brother).

At stake is whether Nietzsche’s writings, and especially his theory of the Übermensch, should just be dismissed as the ravings of a madman. Here the story of the horse takes on particular importance: if true it would mean Nietzsche repented his views, asking for forgiveness for having demanded that modern man should “overcome” himself, to become “hard” by eschewing pity. This is certainly Kundera’s view, and it makes for a much nicer, more docile Nietzsche. But if there is no horse, or at least if there is no sobbing and protecting a flogged horse – that there is a mental breakdown is beyond doubt – then Nietzsche means what he says and his thinking is, in the words of Prideaux, dynamite.

RTWT

03 Sep 2018

“The Old Man and his Muse”

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Ernest Hemingway’s infatuation with the teen-age Venetian Adriana Ivancich inspired the great writer’s only awful book, “Across the River and into the Trees,” which reads, alas! like the cruelest kind of parody.

It’s nearly 60 years since Hemingway self-administered two ounce-and-a-quarter loads of number six shot, but books about him keep on coming. A bit earlier this summer, Andrea Di Robilant’s Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse hit the shelves.

In the Spectator, Nicholas Shakespear greets the British release with the kind of savage wit that the Brits are famous for.

One rainy evening in December 1948, a blue Buick emerged from the darkness of the Venetian lagoon near the village of Latisana and picked up an Italian girl — 18, jet black wet hair, slender legs — who had been waiting for hours at the crossroads. In the car, on his way to a duck shoot, was Ernest Hemingway — round puffy face, protruding stomach and, at 49, without having published a novel in a decade, somewhat past his sell-by. He apologised for being late, and offered the rain-sodden girl a shot of whisky which, being teetotal, she refused.

So did Papa, that ‘beat-up, old-looking bastard’, encounter the siren he called ‘my last and true love’: Adriana Ivancich, a mingling of Lolita and Tadzio, who appeared to him ‘as fresh as a young pine tree in the snow of the mountains’ and who went on to serve as Hemingway’s regenerative muse for his remaining 12 years.

Of course, snark is only good when it is accurate snark. Adriana Ivancich did marry well, to a rich Count, despite her youthful flirtation with the aged Papa, and her suicide in 1983 obviously had little or no connection to events nearly 40 years earlier.

RTWT

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