POLITICS AND PARIS (Quarterly Book Report: 1/18 through 3/18)

I didn’t have time to do monthly reports on the one or two books I was finishing each month in the first quarter, so I decided just to round them all up here. I’ve got mini-reviews of a ready made bestseller about Hillary Clinton’s almost successful presidential campaign and the first four novels in the Inspector Maigret series. The latter are better than the former…

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017)
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

We’ve since moved on to other things, and swiftly enough that this book is already forgotten. It probably deserves to be, but it’s not without interest.as a window on the world Hilary Clinton (and her husband) moved in for decades, a world in which the authors themselves are so thoroughly entrenched they’re hardly aware of their own insularity. It would take a skilled novelist to do the job of tackling the roiling psychodrama that is Hillary Clinton right. Allen and Parnes are barely competent as lackey journalists.

But, perhaps for that reason, they’re less likely to have any sort of filter. Expecting to do what Theodore White did for the 1960 election and what Mark Halperin and John Heillemann did for the 2008 election (i.e., insinuate themselves into history on the winning side) they were just as shocked as you were when Ms. Clinton lost. And, like many people, they were also not only shocked but hurt–not just because it was likely to cut sales in half. At no point do they draw any kind of bead on Donald Trump (the real story of the 2016 election even if he had lost). Having set out to write a book with a preconceived narrative–the first woman president’s stroll to victory–they were forced to backtrack.

When it was all said and done, they found every vindictive Clinton loyalist under every rock on the road meant to pave Hillary’s Napoleonic assault on the presidency. The Little Corporal’s field commanders were likely kinder to their fallen leader on the retreat from Moscow than the toadies interviewed here.

That said, Ms. Clinton must take full responsibility for the quality of her help. She handpicked them and, worse yet (displaying a quality Trump will never be accused of), trusted them.

This was her principal failing and the real reason for her downfall. Unable to organize a boat race in a bathtub–a fact that has been in evidence since at least those early days when her husband set her up to botch HillaryCare back in his first administration and a weakness which Allen and Parnes zero in on early and often, like mosquitoes feasting on a bulging vein–she also demonstrated, through two presidential campaigns and a disastrous reign as Secretary of State, that she had no capacity for choosing people who could do the job for her.

What that meant, in the end, was a constant need to intervene–or have blind loyalist toadies like Huma Abadin do it for her.

We all saw how that worked out.

Now it’s possible that the talent pool in our modern political parties is so dry no one can be rescued from themselves. Clinton did at least get within shouting distance of the prize. That’s more than you can say for Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who started with just as much love from the people whose job it is to limit our choices each election cycle. Trump’s nomination (let alone his election) was an Establishment failure all around–their first since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and one with, I suspect, more far-reaching consequences.

Donald Trump is president because he was/is opposed by those who, like the ubiquitous sources–named and unnamed–quoted endlessly here, tend to describe anyone who opposes them as shit-for-brains.

Like Hillary Clinton, and the authors themselves, they cannot quite grasp their fundamental error–refusal to look in the mirror.

Worth reading, then, for those who need reminding.

Pietr the Latvian (1931)
The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931)
The Carter of La Providence (1931)
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931)
Georges Simenon

These are the first four novels in Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, which eventually ran to the 1970s and 75 volumes. Simenon wrote good mysteries. Maigret is an interesting character sketch (who perhaps became more than a sketch over so many books–I’ve only read a handful of the others before so I’m not prepared to make a judgment on that as yet).

But the principal merit of the Maigret novels is in capturing a time and place–Europe, France, Paris, before, during and after WWII.

That’s a sufficiently daunting task–and broad pallete–that, in combination with Simenon’s skill in choosing, page after page, just-right details to both establish a pointillist milieu and sustain a world-weary mood, it would stand as a considerable literary achievement even if Europe, France, Paris (before, during and after WWII), were of a great deal less interest to the present and future than they are.

All the books held my interest. But that Simenon (already incredibly prolific–he published all these in the same year) was just beginning to hit his stride is suggested by the fourth, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, being by far the strongest. It’s the first to pass from standard, if well-made, mystery plotting to a brush with both psychological horror and the air of political menace we all assume was an essential component of so many personal and national moods between the wars. It’s one thing to have written such novels after the war, with the benefit of hindsight. But this precedes even Hitler’s rise to power–and you can still feel something stirring that won’t be contained by mere politics. Meaning, in a presumably pulp form, you find conversation like this, as part of an explanation for three dead bodies:

‘And it was if we were rediscovering the world all on our own, naturally! We were full of opinions on every great problem, and full of scorn for society, established truths and everything bourgeois. When we’d had a few drinks and smoked up a storm, we’d spout the most cock-eyed nonsense, a hodgepodge of Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Moses, Confucius, Jesus Christ…

‘Here’s an example: I don’t remember which one of us discovered that pain doesn’t exist, the brain’s simply imagining it. One night I became so enthralled with the idea that, surrounded by my excited audience, I stabbed myself in the upper arm with a pocket knife and forced myself to smile about it.

‘And we had other wild inspirations like that…We were an elite, a coterie of geniuses who’d come together by chance and were way above the conventional world with its laws and preconceived opinions. A gathering of the gods, hey? Gods who were sometimes dying of hunger but strode through the streets with their heads high, crushing passers-by with their contempt.

….I don’t remember anymore who shouted, “True genius is destructive!”

It ends in murder, of course. And that’s only the beginning…of course. The survivors of the blood bath learn the hard way that it isn’t genius that’s destructive but nonsense and the only thing they end up destroying is each other.

The denouement has some real emotional power, unusual in detective novels and almost unheard of in procedurals. There was a reason Simenon drew raves from the likes of William Faulkner and Andre Gide.

I’m planning to read all the Maigret’s before I die. I read Maigret’s First Case before I started on these (being under the mistaken assumption it was the first written), so I’ve got seventy to go. I’m thinking I’ll need to live a few years at least…but I’m happy they’ve been put out in handsome, uniform editions. The spines will make a nice display on whatever shelf they finally adorn en toto.

But, on the strength of these, I suspect that what’s inside will always be more valuable.

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