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gibbon decline and fall horizAs a now former and once long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists, I was taught — indeed, had it drummed into me — that the best prose style was invisible, that it disappeared like window glass, letting the matter and substance of what was being written be transmitted from one mind to the other effortlessly, almost telepathically, as if it had no need of linguistic intercessor. One should never notice that there were words — black tadpoles — darting across the white expanse of page.

Yet, that was never how I felt in my deep heart’s core. I came to writing through love of reading, and that which I loved to read were words that gave me pleasure in the reading. Certainly, the stories being told carried their own power, and the ideas expressed fertilized and pruned my own ever-growing and expanding sensibility. But for utter pleasure, it was the words. I enjoyed writers who used those words and fashioned elegant sentences with a joyful abandon. I loved those sentences that could fill out a printed page with dependent clauses, semicolons and parenthetical interpolations. Hemingway made a distinction between those writers who were “taker-outers” and those who were “puter-inners.” My heart always went lost to the puter-inners, the piler-on-ers, the expanders and expatiators. I frequently crack a book not for what it has to tell me but for its way of telling it, for its personality, its sparkle.

Until recently, for instance, the New Yorker magazine had two primary and alternating film critics. One — David Denby, who recently retired from the ring — was a sober and thoughtful critic, whose judgment I valued, and whose taste was undeniably similar to my own. I could trust his opinion when I meant to put down my peso for a ticket. But the other — Anthony Lane — gave me joy in the reading. Each week, when the magazine materialized in my mailbox, I opened to the final pages to see who was writing. If Denby, my heart sank a little, not because he was a bad writer, he wasn’t — he was actually a very clear and intelligent crafter of words — but because Lane’s reviews, even when espousing views antithetical to my own, sparkled with wit and inventive phrases; the page bubbled. I looked to Denby for discernment and taste; what I got from Lane was a kind of naughty tickle to my brain, as if he were sharing some ripe piece of villainous gossip. I learned a lot from my schoolmasters, too, but I loved going to the amusement park.

Or, consider author Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers, where he warns them away from what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle:”

“Rule No. 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characters head, and the reader either knows what the guys thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This is all well and good for Elmore Leonard, who wants to make the reader turn the page, as if the last one were worthless, but maybe there was gold in the next. And that is fine for a certain kind of book. It reminds me of the advice given by film director Sam Fuller, when asked what makes a good movie.

“A story,” he said, with a cigar in his teeth.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story.”

But it isn’t the story that gives me the pleasure I seek, it is the hooptedoodle.

Here are a dozen of the books that satisfy my addiction to hooptedoodle, the books I return to over and over just for the sybaritic enjoyment of chewing over their words, gurgling their wine on my palate as I suck in a bit of air to pick up the notes of wood and chocolate, words I can inhale and breathe out like the curl of smoke from a good cigar. I recommend them to you.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


gibbonThis monumental tome, in six volumes, follows its subject with intense scholarship. Gibbon had read all the sources, so that we don’t have to. After all, how much Procopius or Irenaeus have you actually imbibed? But it isn’t the history itself that propels the work, it is Gibbon’s propulsive prose, a piling on of detail and irony that keeps me buried in the pages. I can pick up a volume and dip into it at any point and come away with a full belly. Such wonderful, rich, cream-filled sentences:

“If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”gibbon decline and fall

It is Gibbon’s theme that the empire fell because it embraced Christianity. He reaches for his highest caliber irony when discussing what he calls its “superstition.” And although he lives in an age of an established church in England, when everyone was nominally pious, he uses his irony to express what he felt he could not say outright. About the claim of miracles, and of resurrection:

“But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event: that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterward, amongst them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.”

As the Duke of Gloucester said when the author presented him with a copy, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

nabokovA wicked and malicious book, all verbal skyrockets and Roman candles, there is no more sustained example of literary pyrotechnics in English in the 20th century (the requirement for English disqualifies Finnegans Wake). It tells the story of the nympholept and child molester Humbert Humbert in his own words, which drip with irony from start to finish, yet with a second layer of irony underneath, provided by Nabokov. Humbert freely admits his crime, with charm and erudition, but Nabokov lets us know that however forthcoming Humbert seems to be, there is an imposture in self-revelation. All in virtuoso prose: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says.

There is misogyny and misanthropy in Humbert, which you can read in his description of a dalliance he has with another amour, Rita:nabokov lolita

“She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back — I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood.”

“She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.” 

“When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband — and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant — and others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was — and no doubt still is — a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never enter great little Grainball City.”

A little later:

“Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

joyceJoyce has a reputation for being difficult, but when he wants to be clear, there is no better stylist in the English language. His prose is clear and direct and redolent of the things of this world. If I were to choose a single sentence (or two) that sums up everything I love most in a book, it would be:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

joyce ulyssesBut he can make dire fun of his other protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, and the way the scholar can drown in Aquinian scholasticism. Going down for the third time, Daedalus says:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, though through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

melvilleThere is no more perfect example of the “putter-inner” than Melville. He expands; he exfoliates; he swells with words on words. I love his best work like little else in American literature. I can reread I and my Chimney or Bartleby or The Piazza or Benito Cereno over and over again, sucking up the juices. But it is Moby Dick that is the champ. I had trouble reading it at first, not because I found it hard going — quite the opposite — but because I loved its opening chapter so much that each time I picked it up, I found myself not reading where I had left off, but starting anew each time with “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read the first chapter a hundred times before I managed to break through and get to the end.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. melville moby dickThis is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The pith of the book can be found in Ahab’s description of his hatred of the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.

sterneThis must be the funniest book in the English language. Sterne manages to make fun of the human condition without ever seeming mean about it. There is a gentleness to it, even when he is close to obscene, as when he opens the book with the very moment of conception for its hero, and the discomfiting dialog between his mother and father at the moment of ejaculation:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. sterne tristram shandy— Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

 James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

ageeWhile ostensibly, this is a book about white tenant farmers in Alabama in the 1930s, it is almost more about Agee’s guilt over the fact that he is using their misery to make a book, and his empathy for their condition, and his righteous insistence on not falling back on stereotypes and formulae, but to get it absolutely right, to be absolutely accurate, which leads him to vast circumlocutions as he tries to find just the right words.

It is a very hard book to describe, so unlike anything else in the literature, and must be taken in long draughts to get the real flavor of it. Short quotes will not do.

A long section describes him late at night in the Gudger cabin, fretting over his relationship with them. He describes the lamplight and the bare wooden walls, all in minute detail, so we don’t too easily generalize, which, he feels would be a lie. All the while, on the other side of that wall the family sleeps, husband, wife, sister-in-law and four children. agee let us now praise

“.. and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister and four children, a girl and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body: George’s red body, already a little squat with the burden of thirty years, knotted like oakwood, in its clean white cotton summer union suit that it sleeps in; and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s, slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such a beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shirts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, not yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; …”

It goes on. Nothing is easily said in this book; it is all tortured and parsed: allie mae for agee

“The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle that it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly noticeable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung, or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely ‘pleasant,’ some are ‘unpleasant’; their sum total has great nostalgic power.”

Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Mickey Spillane said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. “The first page sells the book,” he said, “the last page sells the next book.”spillane the big kill

But there is a vigor in his prose, tinged with kitsch, for sure, but still vivid in the extreme. You could find examples in almost any of the books, but this is from The Big Kill:

“It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world.
The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

If there were ever an author who required you to have a dictionary beside your reading table, it was Durrell. He would choose “pegamoid” and “objurgation,” as a dare. In his books, language is the readers’ usufruct, somewhere in the banlieus of usage. durrell justine

The Alexandria Quartet are four novels that tell the same story, each from the point of view of a different actor. We find out that no one really understands what is happening, but it is happening in Alexandria, Egypt, and is populated by espionage, love-sickness, sex and camels. Durrell’s prose is as perfumed as it comes, and the books, as a unit, are perhaps best read when the reader is still young; older, you have less patience for the exoticism and the verbal barnacles crusting the pages. I love it.

I’ll give only a short tasting, from the last volume, Clea:

“The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it in their slender invisible stalks — appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

thoreauThoreau mixed ancient Greek writers with agronomy; no philosopher had so much to say about beans since Pythagoras. What elevates his style is a mixture of close observation with nature and the ability to fly, like Icarus, up to the heavens in vast sweeps of inspired hooha. Metaphors grow like weeds in his paragraphs, and we are all the richer for it. There is something Shakespearean about his means of expression: A rich overflowing of imagery, mixed, we might say, like a salad, and unpruned like a feral apple tree. He simply can’t stop making new metaphors:

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. But there is power in it. Kerouac set out across the country in the late 1940s, with peanut butter sandwiches and a part-of-the-way bus ticket. He ended up a sorry, alcoholic travesty, ruined by the popular image of the beatnik. kerouacBut his book is better than that. Even if he sometimes forgets Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Good Writing: “Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, Dean said, was exactly like Rollo Greb. Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socket it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play is chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat. These were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial.”

H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Series I-VI

menckenMy personal hero, Mencken was a sour old pessimist, a journalist through and through, who never let sentiment cloud his prejudice. Almost anything he wrote is worth reading, not so much for the ideas therein, which are sometimes lamentable, but for the vigor and spark of their saying. I can read his work endlessly, like eating popcorn or Fritos, and never get tired of it.

“Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture theaters, or to listen to Socialists, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating, simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost — he will hear music if hell freezes over. But if it isn’t, then no amount of education will ever change him — he will remain stone deaf until the last sad scene on the gallows.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

burton 2Finally, there is Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great magpie of English literature, who put everything he could stuff into his one big book. It purports to be about melancholy — depression, as we know it — but really, it has no boundaries. Burton cannot say something once, but must, like Walt Whitman in his cataloguing mania, say it three, four, five times over, in slightly varying phraseology, just to make his point, to emphasize it, to make it clear, to ram it home, to buttonhole you and make sure you have got it.

This is a particularly juicy section, in which he discusses sex and the contemptus mundi of the sallow-skinned blue-stockings that in our own day, as much as in his, make our lives less gaudy and fleshy.

“Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a Bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a College. I am truly a very unfit person to talk about these subjects, I confess ‘tis an indecorum and as Pallas, a Virgin, blushed, when Jupiter by chance spake of Love matters in her presence and turned away her face, I will check myself; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.

burton anatomyAnd yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two on behalf of Maids and Widows, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannizing pseudo-politicians’ superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will), those careless and stupid overseers, that, out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends, (because, meanwhile, it is well for him), can so severely reject stubbornly neglect and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries, of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish Monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence to, to suppress the vigour of youth! by rigourous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls’ health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans! Stupid politicians!

Stupid politicians, indeed!

 

treblinka sign

I’m wearing a virtual foam collar around my brain stem, suffering from a kind of whiplash, having finished one book, so devastating and depressing, and having begun another so invigorating and life-affirming — really, brain-affirming — that my poor psyche feels like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson.

I recommend both.

The first is a recounting of the inhumanity humanity deals to itself; it is a tale of humankind seen not as individuals, but as an aggregate of categories. The second is a memoir of humans seen as individuals, with all their flaws and foibles. It is the macro view vs. the micro view.

The most distressing thing is that we all have to live in both worlds; we have our families and friends, but we also cannot escape the things our governments, our religions and our employers do in our name.

bloodlandsThe first book is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which recasts the central story of World War II — really from 1933 to 1948 — in a way which finally makes sense to me, and is a needed antidote for all the triumphalist D-Day feel-goodism you are weighed down by in endless TV documentaries about the war.

We are too often deluded into thinking that World War II was a time in which America waged a “good war” against Nazism and won. I had always found this view indefensible, simple minded and ultimately jingoistic. The U.S. certainly had its part to play — and I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and those on the homefront —  but when I looked at the figures, it was hard to reconcile the idea that we were the major player when our war dead totaled half a million but the Soviet Union’s dead exceeded 12 million. Either they were terrible soldiers and ours were magnificently efficient, or the real war was not in Normandy, but in the Eastern Front.

But even my own prejudice about the war really being between Germany and Russia turns out to be a gross simplification.

The book is an accounting of all the dying that took place in the shifting-border areas between Germany and Russia — the areas that were sometimes Poland, sometimes Ukraine, Belarus and parts of the Baltic states, Romania and Hungary — death caused by the political choices and policies first of Stalin in the Soviet Union and then Hitler in Germany.Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

By the accounting of the author, they are culpable in the deaths of 14 million civilians. This is above and beyond the military deaths caused by the war itself. This was the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers in the 1933, the “Great Terror” of 1938, in which Stalin wiped out his political enemies, rivals and phantoms of his paranoia, followed by the mass shootings in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1941, the starvation policy used by the Germans on 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and the intended extermination of Jews by Germans from 1941 to 1945. It is a dismal story of humanity’s inhumanity. These were not accidental deaths, but deaths of central planning and political purpose.

The overwhelming bulk of death during those years took place between the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided pre-war Poland in half, and the eastern borders of Ukraine and Belarus.

Snyder footnotes the exact counts, often village by village, with anecdotal horror stories of those shot, burned, gassed and garroted. One hardly turns the pages without choking and weeping.

From Snyder’s view, the war in Europe was not merely one between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, but rather one in which Hitler and Stalin colluded in first wiping Poland off the map, splitting it between them in 1939 (the aforesaid Molotov-Ribbentrop line), and then, when Hitler’s plan to evict all the Poles and Jews from what was formerly western Poland got bogged down in difficulty (the plan to deport them all to the east, vaguely somewhere in the Soviet Union, perhaps Kazakhstan was nixed by Stalin), it turned into a plan to murder them all.

It should be noted that in Russia, the official dates of World War II are 1941 to 1945. They don’t acknowledge the invasion of Poland by Germany on Sept. 1, 1939 as the start of the war, because they were equally culpable in that dissolution of the state of Poland. But they start the conflict in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Except, of course, that Hitler didn’t first invade the Soviet Union. He invaded what used to be eastern Poland, on the other side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but had since been declared to be part of the Soviet Union — the formerly Polish part. For Stalin it made no difference that this was formerly Poland; now it was de facto part of his Soviet Union.

When Hitler’s army failed to take Moscow quickly, as his Blitzkrieg model had planned, the war turned into a protracted and mass slaughter of German and Soviet armies.

While we in the West call World War II “the good war,” in Russia they remember it as the Great Patriotic War, but in reality the whole thing should be called the Soviet-German war over the dismemberment of Poland.

To that bloody conflict, D-Day, Sicily, North Africa, Dunkirk, the Battle of Brittain were all basically a side-show. Our propaganda portrayed Hitler as seeking “world domination,” but that was never more than a comic-book arch-villain sort of plot. France and England were brought into the war because they had a defense treaty with Poland. Hitler would have preferred to avoid war with England and France. His beef was with Stalin over the land he wanted in Poland for German expansion — primarily to provide farming land and food for an expanding and industrialized Germany. Having to deal with England and France in the west was a pesky bother to him.

(The war in the Pacific, which happened concurrently, can be seen as primarily a separate war, beginning with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and ending after the war in Europe. The Pacific war was essentially America’s war, unlike the war in Europe.)

Back to the book: What makes it so dismal is not just the magnitude of the statistics — how many million shot in the back of the head here, so many million run through the death camps there — but the documented stories of individual deaths, or whole villages prisoned in churches that were then burned down, or men required to dig pits the length of two football fields, and then told to lie down in the graves, where they were shot, and layered like lasagne with another pile of bodies, shot, and another, and another, then covered up with dirt.

One fears turning the page in Bloodlands to find more starvation, more cold-blooded planning of mass murder, more mothers torn from their babies, more husbands worked to death in labor camps, while their parents were shipped off to Treblinka or Chelmno.

We too often think of the concentration camps as the place of the Holocaust, but Snyder makes clear that as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, and that the version of camp death we most often think of — say Auschwitz or Buchenwald — were not actually death camps, but rather holding camps in which death was a too-common byproduct. The real death camps were small facilities with no barracks, just changing rooms. The victims arrived by train, stripped of clothing and possessions and were herded directly into gas chambers where internal combustion engines piped carbon monoxide in, killing all in about 20 minutes of terror, and then the corpses were carried out an burned in huge pyres, kept fired up like so many charcoal grills. Treblinka was built exclusively to empty out the Warsaw ghetto. When that was accomplished, Treblinka was closed down. The extermination camp at Chelmno did the same thing for the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. The industrialized purposefulness of such factories is all the more chilling. deportation to treblinka 1942

We tend to think of Hitler’s atrocities as being 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. And in terms of ethnic cleansing, it is one of the most ghastly in human history, but the suffering was also spread out in the period Snyder covers, from so-called kulaks in Ukraine to Polish officers massacred after the division of Poland in 1939, to dissidents and potential dissidents in the Soviet Union. Some 60 million people died in those years from political violence, less than half of them were military. That was 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the arguments one hears from the so-called Holocaust deniers, is that the Shoah was simply too vast to be believed. No humans could possibly have exterminated that many people in that short a time. Yes, they say, Hitler had anti-Semitic policies and maybe a few were killed, but the vast numbers were not believable. One has to laugh at this argument, not only in the face of Snyder’s careful accounting, but in the long view of history, and the slaughter of conquered peoples from the dawn of time. The Holocaust was not a singular event, but something like the standard order of things. This is what people do to each other, over and over and over. One must remember the wholesale extermination of city populations by Genghis Khan, the pyramids of skulls of Tamerlane. The slaughter of Cathars in the 13th century, or earlier, of the Wu Hu in China in the Fourth Century. One voice echoes through history: Carthago delenda est. So, ethnic cleansing continues in our own time, whether in Rwanda or Sudan or Cambodia.

I have gone on is rather more length than I had intended. The book is overwhelming, the pessimism it engenders is oppressive. I do not hope for a brighter future; I cannot knowing the lessons of history.

But I can put the book down when finished, and pick up another, one that gives me as much pleasure as Bloodlands gives me pain.

And here’s where the whiplash may hit you, too.

trilogyBecause the next tome I picked up was H.L. Mencken’s three autobiographical books, published as a single volume by the Library of America. I cannot convey to you quite the pleasure to be had by reading Mencken. His writing is full of the vigor and intellectual energy of a man in love with life and in love with the way language can convey that love.

It is not that everything is wonderful in Mencken’s life, but rather that the failings of human existence — seen as the acts of individuals, rather than classes of people — are at bottom so entertaining.

It is particularly his volume on his early newspaper work that fills me with joy. Newspaper Days covers the years from about 1899 to 1906, and lets me know that journalism hadn’t changed much from his day to mine (that it is now nearly extinct is another sorrow I feel).

Just as I dreaded each new chapter in Bloodlands, I check to see how many more pages I have left of Mencken and dread instead the final page, when my pleasure will come to its end. Prejudices

The Library of America had previously published his six series of  Prejudices, which were collected essays, always a joy to read, even when what he says might be outrageous and, well, prejudiced. At bottom, Mencken is clear-eyed and unbowed, and we value his fellowship, even in print, as we might value it sitting on a barstool next to him, sharing banter over a foamy beer. You might not agree with Mencken’s opinions, but they were always magnificently expressed, in a kind of journalistic language raised to the level of poetry.

I have his three volume The American Language, which is about as entertaining a scholarly book as you could find. Thorough, amused and amusing, it is indispensable.

The best way I can convey to you the qualities of Mencken’s writing, and of his mind, is to quote him. Here is a section from Newspaper Days, in which he talks about the artists employed back at the turn of the century to illustrate newspaper stories, before the days when photographs could be easily reproduced. As editor, he had to deal with their eccentricities.

After a few anecdotes about artists getting themselves into trouble and drink, he reminds us that:

“The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks [obsolete slang clarification: bookies]. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shinning red through the cobwebbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to discover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.”

mencken 3The book moves forward with speed and irony, full of vivid expressions and entertaining stories. Mencken recalls cops and judges, editors and pressmen, drummers for patent medicines and press agents of dubious veracity, kindly murderers and scapegrace yobs of all descriptions, many of which Mencken counted as his special angels of the kind of humanity he most valued. He detested all cant and corporate or governmental doublethink, and anyone who would put life into a file cabinet alphabetically.

It is the pleasure of coming across his book after reading Bloodlands that restores the oxygen to a world otherwise noisome with the mephitic stench of death. And reminds us that it is a grace that we live in a world of individuals rather than in the statistical world of categories and proscription lists. Grace is what keeps us alive.