EAST AND WEST(ERN) (Book Report: 12/17)

Last month’s reading was an all-time great spy novel, a treatise on the “Custer controversy” and another of the Louis L’Amour novels I began picking up last month…All proof that the past never ceases to speak to the present and the present never ceases to ignore the past.

Judgment on Deltchev (1951)
Eric Ambler

Ambler was the twentieth century’s greatest spy novelist. He took John Buchan’s basic premise (ordinary Englishman caught up in larger events he barely comprehends: see The Thirty-Nine Steps) and wound it tighter, gave it more dimension.

Never more than here, in what might be his masterpiece (there’s heavy competition from any of the five novels he wrote between 1937 and 1940). Deltchev was his first novel in more than a decade and his first since the War.

The War had changed things. Though perhaps never as deeply committed as the typical idealist, Ambler had been what was known as a Man of the Left (i.e., pro-Soviet). He was soured by Stalin’s duplicity in his dealings with Hitler and wound up a Man of the West (despite being in his thirties, he volunteered for the Royal Artillery when the War came…as a private). Judgment on Deltchev is his judgment on the police state, one that rings truer and is far more entertaining than say, 1984. Perhaps for that reason, those who had followed wherever Stalin led never forgave him.

History certainly has. On a re-read, I didn’t feel this had quite the tragic weight of Dystopia’s two real stomach-punchers: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. But it still induces plenty of dread and–given the long arc of history no one could have foreseen with any confidence in 1951–may not be the lesser achievement for ending on a note of earned optimism.

Earned or not, Ambler paid a price. He was a different writer after Deltchev. He had stared into the abyss and the abyss had stared back. The Cold War had changed things, too.

Essential.

Custer and the Great Controversy (1962)
Robert Utley

Robert Utley is one of the great historians of the American West. This is an early work, basically an extended monograph on the cult of celebrity that rose around George Armstrong Custer and had already sustained for nearly a century when this was published.

Utley just about defines the term “sober historian,” so he’s a good man to tackle the legacy of Custer and the Little Big Horn Massacre.

That is was, for decades after, known as “the Custer fight,” is a testimony to Custer’s force of personality, living and dead. Very few commanders get their name attached as an honorific for leading their men into an unmitigated military disaster. The book is not after debating Custer’s military acumen (though Utley doesn’t short-shrift it), but simply detailing the steps by which Custer and his “fight” passed into legend. On that level, it’s hard to imagine a better treatment of the subject. It’s a book by a cautious and fair-minded man, and, despite its brevity, has more than a little to say about the ways in which history and myth are forever destined to shape each other no matter how often we tell ourselves we’re past all that.

Heller With a Gun (1955)
Louis L’Amour

An early effort and solid. I have no idea what the title means. Once I figured out no one named Heller was going to show up, I thought I might run into some old coot saying somebody or other (hero or villain) was “A heller with a gun!” That didn’t happen either so I’ll assume it was implied.

As per usual, the gunman–heller or not–is reluctant to use his gun, or to be drawn into helping tenderfoots (in this case a second-rate theatrical company barnstorming the wilds) who have bitten off more than they can chew and fallen in with bad company to boot.

L’Amour’s style wasn’t yet fully formed. But he could already pack a lot into a phrase:

Then one night when drinking, Forrest bragged. He knew what a reputation could do to a man, but he was drinking and he bragged. A tough puncher from down on the Pecos started hunting the kid to prove Forrest wrong.

They buried the tough puncher on a windy hilltop near old Tascosa...

It doesn’t get any cleaner or swifter than that.

Anyway, the basics are here and well-managed. Notable for a complicated love quadrangle which–against odds I had decided were insurmountable long before the denouement–sustains interest to the last sentence and works out beautifully. Never underestimate a pulp master.

AND THEN THERE’S THIS…

I’m not sure reacquainting myself with Eric Ambler’s Judgment on Deltchev was the smartest practical means of dealing with a blue funk….but it has reconfirmed my belief in it belonging with the great, unsettling tradition of  espionage/security state novels that do more than thrill: with The Princess Casamassima and Under Western Eyes and Bend Sinister, then.

From Chapter Fourteen, on the affect of “leaks” in a free state (a subject not without interest these days, when spin and counter-spin compete so furiously that merely keeping up with the fundamental narratives would require abstinence from all other normal human behavior, including sleep, forget the additional effort involved in trying to decide which are “true”):

It is, I find, extraordinarily embarrassing to be described in print as a member of the British secret service. The trouble is that you cannot afterwards convince people that you are not. They reason that if you are a member you will still presumably have to say that you are not. You are suspect. If you say nothing, of course, you admit all.

(Eric Ambler, Judgment on Deltchev, 1951)

Well, merry freakin’ Christmas to you too!

I KNEW ALL THIS REMINDED ME OF SOMETHING…

During a much needed week off, whilst re-reading one of my favorite novels, Eric Ambler’s Judgment on Deltchev, and keeping up with the “news” and “social media” on reading breaks, I came across this:

Petlarov’s comments were not reassuring.

‘After sitting for three days in that courtroom,’ he said, ‘you may realize that not one single piece of evidence that could be called evidence in a civilized court of law has been offered in support of the charges and that the only piece of sense uttered has been supplied by the the prisoner in his own defence. And yet already much damage has been done. The grocer I now visit again–thanks to you, my friend–is an intelligent man and a supporter of Deltchev. He detests the People’s Party and suspects what he reads in the controlled press. Yet the trial is important to him, and as he cannot attend in person, he must read official reports in the newspapers. He reads with great suspicion, of course, and he discounts much of what he reads. But where is his standard of measurement? How can he discriminate? He reads that Minister Vukashin’s evidence proves conclusively certain accusations against Deltchev. Can he ask by what rules of evidence Vukashin’s statements are held to constitute a proof of anything except their own dishonesty? Of course not. He is a cautious man and hard to convince, but when I asked him today what he thinks, he is uneasy and does not like to meet me my eye. “Evidently,” he says to me, “there was much evil that we did not know about. Even if these pigs must find it out, it is best that we know. We are in a mess all right.” And you know, Herr Foster, for the Vukashins and Brankovitches, that is success. The disillusioned do not fight.’

Ambler’s novel is set in a fictional country behind the Iron Curtain at the dawn of the Cold War, during the show trial of a deposed political leader.

These days, it reads like straight reporting from the New York Times….If reporting is the word.

And I think that grocer is on my Twitter feed.

There’s nothing the Overlords can do to us that we haven’t already done to ourselves.

Or, as Conway Twitty once put it….”My reasons for cheating, they’re as good as lies can be….”

Our only salvation thus far is that the Overlords are still too stupid to ban spy novels and country music.

Get it while you can…

LITERATURE FROM THE GOOD OLD TWENTIETH CENTURY

[In the further interest of acquainting my loyal readers with my general frame of artistic reference–and just for fun–here are a few notes on “My Favorite English Language novels of the 20th century that I actually read in the 20th century” (and actually compiled at the end of it because, hey, that’s my idea of fun!)…Among books I’ve read for the first time since, I would add Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Among books I’ve re-read since, I would add Charles Portis’ True Grit and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve come to realize is at least as conveniently misunderstood and widely abused by the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate as Gone With the Wind is by the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve. But I’ll stick with the ten I picked at the time. It’s not like anything that’s happened since has made me think any less of them!…These are in no particular order.]

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway 1926)

The book that not only made Hemingway’s reputation but placed in on such a firm foundation that it was able to more or less survive everything that happened after 1939. Which is saying something.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929)

This sort of made Faulkner’s reputation and certainly justified it. It also put Joycean invention at the service of compelling narrative, the very thing Joyce himself took such pains to avoid. Afterward, Faulkner took considerable pains to avoid such things himself, but once, at least, he was the equal of the old masters.

Old New York (Edith Wharton, 1924)

I felt like I had been there. And that Ms. Wharton was the only person who could ever make me want to go back.

A Mouse Is Born (Anita Loos, 1951)

Is it mere coincidence that the best, funniest and most effectively absurdist novel I’ve read about Hollywood is also among the most ignored? Somehow, I never think so when I’m reading it.

The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)

A man solves a murder (in a Hollywoodland not so far removed from Ms. Loos’) using little more than the very same attitude that will refuse to let him pretend the solution–or any solution–ever had the slightest chance of changing anything that might have been worth changing.

Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler, 1952)

The greatest of the world’s seeming endless supply of spy novelists, defining the Twentieth Century, thusly: To participate was to lose.

The Man In the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick, 1962)

When I first read this, I was still young, and I thought Dick’s vision was a touch hyperbolic (though still genuinely unsettling). My subsequent running engagement with reality has long since brought me around to his way of thinking.

Burr (Gore Vidal, 1973)

Most of the reasons America was bound to come up a bit short, winding their dry, anecdotal way through what is likely the best historical novel written by an American.

A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1924)

Tragicomedy about children and pirates. Its original American publisher insisted on calling it “The Innocent Voyage.” For as long as it stood, that represented the least accurate title in the publishing industry’s long, ignominious history of mislabeling things.

Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

The Old South taken apart more thoroughly and savagely than Faulkner, General Sherman or James Baldwin ever could–meaning by a more or less sympathetic insider. Interesting–and subversive–that Scarlett O’Hara, every genteel southerner’s living nightmare, has come to represent their “way of life” in the public imagination so thoroughly. As the century’s most famous English-language literary character by a wide margin (and the only American literary character of any era who is both fully three-dimensional and undeniably iconic), she will probably do so forever. Believe me, they deserved less.