The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin

Posted March 26, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate . . . .
–Ben Jonson, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

I have an edition on the shelf that packages Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France with Paine’s Rights of Man. This is a natural pairing, especially for the classroom, to compare and contrast. This book by Yuval Levin provides a discussion of the writings of Burke and Paine, not only the Reflections and Rights of Man, but also Burke’s letters and speeches and Paine’s Common Sense.

Burke is often invoked by contemporary American conservatives as their inspiration, but Levin makes clear that Burke never renounced his Whiggery. Recoiling emotionally from the cold logic of the French Revolution, Burke attempted most famously in the Reflections, but also in his letters, speeches, and other works, to articulate a political philosophy of small “c” conservatism–appreciating what the culture had inherited because it was inherited, while admitting incremental change where necessary. Paine, on the other hand, was ready to make a new world order and had no patience. They are the bookends of American revolutionary thought and practice–America continued the legal system and terminology that had come with Englishness (did the courts of the Revolution consider themselves bound by a Gallic Rule in Shelley’s Case?), even keeping the outlines of the colonies for the new states, while at the same time breaking the claims of the British Crown. Contrast this to France, where units of measure were digitized, provinces were suppressed in favor of departments, and for a time, even the days of the week and months of the year were relabeled. The American method never let the novel entirely have its way.

What may be new to the reader familiar with the major works is the personal relationship between the two men, who if not friends, were at least well acquainted and exchanged some correspondence. Paine, especially, wrote several articles that were specifically in response to Burke. In Levin’s telling, despite the chasm that yawned between them regarding how the world was and should be, they got along tolerably well, and each maintained some esteem for the other. Levin holds them up as an example to the talkers of today–it may really be possible to have great disagreements without wishing the other person the worst. As for the substantive influence of his subjects, Levin writes that the Democrats have more of Paine in them than the Republicans do of Burke.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book resembles a Ph.D. thesis between covers, what we used to call a “close reading of the text.” Levin needed to put Burke and Paine in context for their own times (with discussion of other contemporary philosophers and politicians, which he never really does in any detail) and today (which he finally does in the last chapter). This is disappointing, in that Levin’s articles are always very good. Expanding to book length requires other kinds of writing–the digression, the colorful anecdote, varying tone to maintain interest, etc.  He lets loose a bit in the footnotes, where there is some textual discussion, though not quite in a law-review style.



The End, by Ian Kershaw

Posted March 16, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

It was not dying–no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”
–Randall Jarrell, “Losses”

This book does not look at the big picture.

Taking Nazi Germany as the historical subject, The End chronicles its last ten months, from the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, to the imprisonment of Reichspräsident Dönitz and his cabinet on May 23, 1945. Germany is the center of gravity of the story, so that what is outside (the strategy and tactics of the Allies, the hardships of civilian populations in occupied countries, even the casualties of the opposition) gets no treatment. Looking at Nazi Germany as a dying entity, this book examines how it died and what it pulled with it on the way down.

Hitler’s determination not to repeat the “stab in the back” of World War I, along with the decision of the Allies at Casablanca to accept nothing but unconditional surrender, meant that the last year of the war was especially deadly. Kershaw calculates that 49 percent of German battlefield deaths occurred during the last 10 months of the war. At the very end, German casualties numbered 300,000-400,000 per month.

The book corrects some matters of conventional wisdom. Dönitz was a devoted Nazi, not a mere career Navy man doing his duty. The picture emerges of a large portion of the Wehrmacht officer corps who, having taken a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler (and seen the reaction to Stauffenberg’s July 20 attempt), never seriously considered insubordination. It was only when the Red Army was about to overrun their men and Hitler was giving nonsensical orders without any realistic view of the battlefield situation that any of the generals would seek a modification of orders from Berlin.

Most strikingly, the book lowers the deaths from the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, from 250,000 to perhaps 25,000. The larger figure originated in Nazi propaganda: “Goebbels magnified the number of victims, by the simple device of adding a ’0′ onto the official figure. Instead of 25,000 dead–itself a vast number–Goebbels created a death toll of 250,000. From horrific reality, he created even more horrific–and long-lasting–myth.” In and endnote, Kershaw describes an historians’ commission that came to the 25,000 figure in 2010, agreeing with the official investigations of 1945-46.

The totality of the German state was devoted to the war effort and would not cease until Hitler was dead (and not even then). No one was allowed to slip away from his ranks, no matter how close an overwhelming invading force may have been; no civilians could put out a white flag to try to protect themselves from the opposition; no mercy could be shown to prisoners, taken on the road by their jailers for no coherent purpose, except that they might be useful some day; no criticism of the Führer would stand. To all such sensible ways of dealing with the coming end, the response was a “flying” (summary) court-martial and prompt hanging for the servicemen, and a bullet in head for the civilians.

To his credit, Kershaw addresses the obvious objection that The End focuses disproportionately on the hardships borne by the Germans themselves in the war’s last year, when they were entirely to blame for the war itself. He does not give them that way out, observing that many of them accused themselves and could say, “We had it coming for what we did or let happen.”

Nazi snare drum


Mozart, by Paul Johnson

Posted February 23, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Don Giovanni, thou hast me invited
To come to supper tonight,
The rum the rumdum.
Ulysses, “Lestrygonians”

“Too many notes” was the notorious critique of The Abduction from the Seraglio by Emperor Joseph II, but this book avoids the error of most biographies nowadays of trying to cram in all history surrounding the subject. Johnson takes only 131 pages to cover the life. The book is a bit padded out by an Epilogue by the author’s son, Daniel Johnson, on “Mozart in London.”

There is a short index and a “Further Reading” page, but no bibliography. This is a confidently written essential life set down by someone with his own strong opinions about his subject.

The Mozart in these pages is a working man first of all–or once he grows up, anyway.  A childhood spent touring royal capitals with his sister, Nannerl, and his father, Leopold, soon becomes a professional’s very busy career. Mozart didn’t stop for long. An assignment to the Archbishop of Salzburg was unhappy, and Mozart got away from his difficult boss as soon as he could.

Mozart had to work to keep himself and his family above water, so his legendary fecundity was a blessing there. Johnson notes that Mozart had a confident religious faith and regularly composed pieces for holidays and name days of his family. It is our loss that Mozart lived to be only thirty-five, but Johnson sings no dirge, noting that because Mozart began composing at age five and never stopped, we have thirty years of constant production from him, which is more than we have from many composers who were with us longer.

Mozart’s achievement in opera is amazing to Johnson because there was so little in his background to show that he would have any interest or skill in the form. Yet Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Cosi are central to the modern repertory. Each of the six major operas (also The Abduction, The Magic Flute, and Tito) gets little more than a page in the biography, so it may be my imagination, but Johnson seems not to have The Magic Flute as his favorite.

Other interesting details include the fact that Mozart preferred the viola to the violin for his own playing, but had difficulty with it because his arms were too short. Johnson also pooh-poohs the old tale that Mozart was poor all his life, explaining that a “shortage of currency in specie” made a certain amount of debt inevitable at this time. Johnson vigorously defends Mozart’s wife, Constanze, against the charge that she dissipated his funds: “Indeed most of the over two thousand books [sic] written on Mozart, when they have mentioned her at all, have taken an unfavorable view. The evidence is slight.” (Again, there is no bibliography.)

This is a book that you might want to read with YouTube open nearby, so that you can sample K. this or K. that as Johnson effuses over each work.

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio

Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now, by Mark Steyn

Posted February 2, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Oh, lean from the window, if the train slows down,
As though you touched hands with some ancient clown,
–A little while gaze absently below,
And hum Deep River with them while they go.
–Hart Crane, “The River”

This book is based on Steyn’s work as Musical Theatre Correspondent for the London Independent, so it’s a Canadian’s look at Broadway from London. (Britishisms are on display throughout–the intermission is an “interim,” etc.)

Broadway Babies is not really a systematic work, though divided into chapters on various aspects of the form: The Op’nin’, The Show, The Music, The Lyrics, etc. It’s not an encyclopedia; think rather of a standing date for lunch with a Broadway fan who can tell you what the great shows really were all about and why today’s shows can’t measure up–Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, and Miss Saigon, no thanks! Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the nitty-gritty of putting a show together–what works on stage, how a song lyric succeeds or fails. Steyn shows some familiarity with Puccini and Verdi, but invokes them only sparingly, to show that opera composers were always focused on what worked.

As the book proceeds, Steyn more and more indulges his Chestertonian weakness for the bon mot. You like this sort of thing or you don’t. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a “profit without honour.” After someone tells Steyn that Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune also had its difficulties on opening–”Well, as they say on Broadway, don’t faune us, we’ll faune you.”

Published in 2000 with a 1997 copyright, the book suffers a bit from age and could use an updating. Though Steyn takes the long view and compares all current offerings unfavorably to Show Boat, any Rodgers & Hammersteyn, and his choice for best musical of all, Gypsy, he is writing very much in the present of the 1990s. The “jukebox” musical (Mamma Mia etc.) was just looming into view with Buddy [Holly]. Steyn fires much of his scorn on the “through-composed” musicals of Lloyd Webber and the Les Miz crowd, which suffer for lack of any tunes to stand up to the Great American Songbook.

Since this is getting posted on Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll wrap up with Steyn’s recollection of seeing Carol Channing closing Hello, Dolly! at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway in 1996, the same day as SuperBowl XXX:

The Super Bowl is mass culture, one of that select group of annual rituals that binds the nation together; the theatre, on the other hand, is elite, sophisticated, exclusive. No matter that the Super Bowl is a promoters’ gimmick cooked up in the late sixties; that whatever “sport” might once have been involved is now entirely subservient to the needs of television; that the teams are steely business franchises for whom the home-town label is good only until another municipality pitches them a more favorable tax deal; that the players earn so many gazillion dollars a year they’ll never have to encounter anyone as lowly as you ever again; that the only seats worth having are reserved for a corporate nomenklatura and that Joe Schmoe with his Bud and his pizza slumped in front of the TV has as much chance of getting to the moon as to the Super Bowl. No matter, too, that theatre sends its shows out to nowheresville towns that will never see an NFL team, much less the Super Bowl; that its leading players play eight games a week not for millions but for a few thousand, and spend their lives in hotels and dressing-rooms a football star wouldn’t hang his spare jockstrap in. No matter, none of it: the Super Bowl is mass culture; theatre is elite, exclusive.


Principles of Catholic Theology, by Joseph Ratzinger

Posted November 8, 2013 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, Bk. 11

Subtitled “Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology,” this book was published in 1982 and is made up of previously published and unpublished writings of the author from 1969 to 1981. The Preface is dated, “Holy Saturday, 1982,” the author’s movable birthday.

The author admits in the Preface that this collection is “but building stones, not a finished structure . . . a tentative sketch, a preliminary draft.” Probably he was being over-modest, but the book could have used more editorial work to smooth over the joints; some chapters contain sections that obviously weren’t written to go together. Others were originally speeches and could have used some reworking for their present status as book chapters. Still, the effect is more of a book of essays than a textbook.

One can’t help but read these essays in light of the developments and controversies of the last forty years. For example, Ratzinger writes of the Creed “that the ‘I’ of the credo-formulas is a collective ‘I,’ the ‘I’ of the believing Church, to which the individual ‘I’ belongs as long as it believes. In other words, the ‘I’ of the credo embraces the transition from the individual ‘I’ to the ecclesial ‘I.’” (23) One could wield this passage in support of the recent re-translation of the Nicene Creed to “I believe” from “We believe,” or even use it to argue that the previous translation was acceptable. This also is a common theme in Ratzinger–the receptive quality of Christian existence, the acceptance of the gift rather than the construction of something that feels comfortable. This applies most obviously in infant baptism, which he explains as “neither the imposition of burdens about which we should have been allowed to make our own decision nor acceptance by a society into which we have been forced without being consulted in advance but rather the grace of that meaning which, in the crisis of self-doubting mankind, can alone enable us to rejoice in being human.” (43) A similar theme is his appreciation of simplicity, which he illustrates with the diary entries of Pope John XXIII in The Journal of a Soul, apparently plain and even banal, but “it is precisely in pursuit of this way, of this simplicity and this patience with the daily routine, which can succeed only if one lest oneself be changed daily–it is precisely in pursuit of this way that that spiritual simplicity finally grows to maturity which enables one to see and which can make a short, fat, elderly man beautiful by reason of the light that radiates from within.” (66)

Still, the reader who didn’t live through those forty-plus years as a theologian has some catching up to do in order to put these essays in context. Like radiation left over from the Big Bang, old disputes leave a faint sign of what was once loud and immediate. A chapter on “short formulas of faith” obliterates the attempts of Karl Rahner and others to use the language of modern advertising as a more relevant substitute for the ancient Creeds. Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith also feels the pressure of Ratzinger’s close attention, which shows how the so-called “anonymous Christian” (Christian merely by being human, without having heard the Gospel or submitting to baptism) is a solution to Christian particularity that does away with Christianity altogether. If “he who accepts his existence says Yes to Christ,” then there is no longer a “sign that is rejected.” (Lk 2:34.) Refreshing as this may be to the theologian weary of disputes and eager for ecumenical progress, the “anonymous Christian” may well wonder, “What’s the point of religion, then?”

A related essay traces the beginning of the term “salvation history” in Catholic thought and attempts to show that it does not mean an alternative to fact, nor does it require, as with some Protestant theologians, an elevation of Paul and John over Luke, so that only those Scripture passages that stress the meaning of salvation are to be valued and the particular events of the life of Jesus, his incarnational accidents, are of little account.

With regard to ecumenism, Ratzinger carefully describes the difficulties for a reunion of East and West. Despite the high hopes for something great after the meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras and the removal of the excommunications, nothing much happened after that other than some warming of relations. Nearly fifty years on, no realistic prospect of reunion is in sight. Reunion with Protestant communities will be even more difficult because of the varieties of beliefs and practices among these groups. (There is a provocative section on using the Augsburg Confession as a common creed.)

This leads into several essays regarding the priesthood and the concept of “community” vs. the “Church,” which has implications for intra-Catholic relations. Ratzinger had seen an overemphasis on the “Gemeinde” (community) in German Catholic practice, specifically criticizing the new rite of Baptism, in which the minister is to say, “The Christian community welcomes you . . . .” He comments: “According to this ritual, the catechumen is not baptized into the one Church that transcends time and space but is made a member of a parochial congregation and is signed with the sign of the Cross in its–and only in its–name.” (308) This comment is especially interesting in that the new rite has just been amended so that it now says, “The Church of God welcomes you . . . .” This was one of the last initiatives of Benedict XVI, put into effect by Francis.

The reader a half-century after the last Council can scarcely appreciate the chaos of the time. This peritus who ghost-wrote the famous speech of Cardinal Frings of Cologne criticizing the preliminary Council documents, drafted by a Curial committee, soon found that the freedom granted was being used as an opportunity for fresh theologians to move beyond good and evil. In a chapter near the end of the book, written in 1975 but never previously published and circulated only privately, the author contrasts his view of the Council at its beginning as a “new Pentecost” with his more sober belief that, nine years after its close, the Council proved right Gregory of Nazianzen, who declined to attend the First Council of Constantinople, explaining, “To tell the truth, I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any council; not even the abolition of abuses . . ., but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place.” (368)

Ratzinger’s summary of what went wrong links the ecclesiastical with the political:

“The Council understood itself as a great examination of conscience by the Catholic Church; it wanted ultimately to be an act of penance, of conversion. This is apparent in the confessions of guilt, in the intensity of the self-accusations that were not only directed to the more sensitive areas, such as the Reformation and the trial of Galileo, but were also heightened into the concept of a Church that was sinful in a general and fundamental way and that feared as triumphalism whatever might be interpreted as satisfaction with what she had become or what she still was. Linked with this excruciating plumbing of her own depths was an almost painful willingness to take seriously the whole arsenal of complaints against the Church, to omit none of them. That implied as well a careful effort not to incur new guilt with respect to the other, to learn from him wherever possible and to seek and to see only the good that was in him. Such a radical interpretation of the fundamental biblical call for conversion and love of neighbor led not only to uncertainty about the Church’s own identity, which is always being questioned, but especially to a deep rift in her relationship to her own history, which seemed to be everywhere sullied. In consequence, a radically new beginning was considered a pressing obligation. The second point to which I referred stems from this fact: something of the Kennedy era pervaded the Council, something of the naive optimism of the concept of the great society. We can do everything we want to do if only we employ the right means. [Here he drops a footnote to Being a Christian by his former colleague, Hans Küng.] It was precisely the break in historical consciousness, the self-tormenting rejection of the past, that produced the concept of a zero hour in which everything would begin again and all those things that had formerly been done badly would now be done well. The dream of liberation, the dream of something totally different, which, a little later, had an increasingly potent impact on the student revolts, was, in a certain sense, also attributable to the Council; it was the Council that first urged man on and then disappointed him, just as the public examination of conscience at first enlightened and then alienated him.”

One sees here the rare combination of plain speaking and deep insight that made Ratzinger so attractive to so many, and so threatening to others. In 1975, he was still a professor in Regensburg, and not yet a bishop.

Bl. Pope John XXIII with Mrs. Kennedy

Bl. Pope John XXIII with Mrs. Kennedy

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, by Samuel Johnson

Posted October 13, 2013 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon . . .
–Walter de la Mare, “Arabia”

In the Augustan Age, “Abissinia” was as mythic a place, or nearly, as Lilliput or Brobdingnag. Dr. Johnson required no primary research on how the far-off Musselmen lived, but made his hero Rasselas a man on the quest for truth in strange places, using a common philosophy.

Rasselas is especially blessed to live in the “happy valley,” where all strife and discord are unknown. This bores him. We learn that he is the first to have this reaction to the gifts of the happy valley. He decides to see the miseries of the world in order to value sufficiently his happiness.

Rasselas learns from the poet Imlac, who has traveled the world, the venality of mankind and that deserts are not always just. Rasselas is scandalized to learn that evil can conquer good despite the best laws and magistrates.

So he makes an escape from the happy valley with Imlac, taking along his sister Nekayah. They go first to Cairo, where Rasselas falls in with a group of young men, whose constant pursuit of pleasure spurs him to a lecture of sorts: “The first years of man must make provision for the last. He that never thinks never can be wise. . . .” He makes no converts. “They stared a while in silence one upon another, and, at last, drove him away by a general chorus of continued laughter.”

A great professor of philosophy is plunged into despair at the death of his only daughter. Rasselas points out that the professor’s own philosophy should comfort him: “Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same.” The professor replies, “What comfort can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?” The prince learns from this encounter “the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.”

They then meet a hermit, whose reputation for wisdom runs far and wide. As it happens, however, the hermit has decided that by removing himself from evil influences, he at the same time has avoided the good. He gives up the solitary life and travels with Rasselas for a bit. (At this point, the reader will notice that Rasselas has a kind of quantum effect on those he meets.)

Nekeyah goes her own way for a time to investigate domestic life and reports on her findings: “Parents and children seldom act in concert: each child endeavours to appropriate the esteem or fondness of the parents, and the parents, with yet less temptation, betray each other to their children; thus some place their confidence in the father, and some in the mother, and, by degrees, the house is filled with artifices and feuds.”

In the last chapter, “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded,” each of the party makes a choice of life–Nekeyah will found a college of learned women, Rasselas will have a “little kingdom,” where he can observe all the effects of his administration (but this soon runs afoul of his desire to expand his holdings), and Imlac and his friend the astronomer “were content to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port.” But all concede that their wishes are unattainable, and resolve to return to Abissinia.

This isn’t much of a story–more of a walking Platonic dialogue, or series of dialogues–but fits in a tradition with other picaresque tales–Don Quixote, Candide, Huckleberry Finn–that generally do better at putting fiction before philosophy. Johnson had the freedom to imagine the happy valley and to describe Arabs and Easterns as he expected them to be, or as projections of British predilections and whimsies; an author today would have to write science fiction and invent inhabitants of other planets to express these thoughts. This is eighteenth-century science fiction, then–or better, science fiction is today’s adventure yarn, when an author who sets a story in another country is staked down by ropes and ropes of little facts.

Islamic astronomer

Islamic astronomer

Two novels and a novella by Graham Greene

Posted September 2, 2013 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty . . . .
–Robert Lowell, “Memories of West Street and Lepke”

1. The Third Man

In the Preface, Greene writes, “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.” This is really his novelization of his screenplay for the Carol Reed film. This might be a case of protesting too much, especially where Greene writes, “The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture.” Those who enjoy the film will also enjoy the story, which seems to stand on its own–I say seems because the film, with those dark alleys and dutch angles, is so familiar that it takes over the story when read, as if the story were illustrated. One little detail–Harry Lime’s friend is named Rollo Martins in the book and original screenplay; when he was changed to an American for the film, the actor Joseph Cotten objected to the name (which objection Greene found no fault with), and he became Holly Martins. The story is just over 100 pages, and in the Penguin edition is paired with the very short story “The Fallen Idol,” which also became a Carol Reed film, starring Ralph Richardson.

2. England Made Me

This early novel is full of little details that make it fun, if less than satisfying by the end. It takes place in Stockholm, where Kate Farrant works as assistant to successful businessman Erik Krogh. Kate’s brother Anthony, a long-time exaggerator once again down-and-out, follows her there at her suggestion and takes up a job with Krogh’s. We soon find out that Krogh’s business is on the brink, and he hopes to avoid disaster by papering over some embarrassing details. Anthony would seem to be the man for the job, if he is totally without scruple; but this is a Greene novel, so the rub is there. The relationship between Kate and Anthony is extremely close and intimate, but never blurs into Siegmund-Sieglinde territory. Kate has her own moral compromises in her relationship with Erik. An English journalist, Minty, is a minor character whose little foibles are so numerous that he threatens to tip the story out of balance. He has hung on for twenty years in his assignment in Sweden without doing much and observes all Anglican requirements with scrupulous attention to detail. There are some amusing scenes where Anthony’s assumed identity as a Harrow man meets the unfortunate coincidence that Minty actually attended the school and recalls it as the highlight of his life:

“It’s good to have a fellow-countryman to talk to. And what a coincidence that you were at the old place, too.”

“The old place?”

“The old school,” Minty said, stirring his coffee, squinting upwards with sudden malicious amusement. “Kicking a fug about, eh. What a life. Were you a fez?”

Anthony hesitated. “No,” he said.

“And whose house did you say–”

Anthony looked at his watch. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to be off. I have to be round at Krogh’s this morning.”

The narrative is largely third-person, with some chapters thrown in seemingly at random in the first person of one character or another. England Made Me became a 1973 film with Michael York and Peter Finch, though set in 1930s Germany.

Harrow Crest

3. The Quiet American

The narrative of The Quiet American is told in a straight first-person by the English journalist Thomas Fowler, though the respect to Modernism is paid by jumbling the narrative out of sequence–the novel begins with the death of American Alden Pyle in 1950s Vietnam and then goes back over events of the previous months, then jumping forward again to events after Pyle’s death.

Pyle and Fowler compete for the affections of the young Vietnamese Phuong (“which means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes”), who would seem an obvious symbol for the nation itself. Phuong is always portrayed as an empty-headed plaything, with interests no higher than the latest glamor shots of Princess Margaret.

Pyle is not much better–a naive Yankee (Alden for the pilgrims, Pyle for the famous WWII correspondent) whose expertise has its source in a single book that he’s read shortly before the trip over and whose theory of a “third force” has unpleasant and unintended results when Pyle tries to put them into practice. The pleasure of The Quiet American is in its detail–a section set at the temple of the Caodaists, a syncretistic sect, could only have arisen from the author’s own observations.

Because Fowler is the narrator, his unpleasant aspects can’t help but color the book itself:

“I began–almost unconsciously–to run down everything that was American. My conversation was full of the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics, the beastliness of American children. It was as though she were being taken away from me by a nation rather than by a man. Nothing that America could do was right. I became a bore on the subject of America, even with my French friends who were ready enough to share my antipathies. It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.”

The novel has come to be seen as a bit of anti-American or at least anti-imperialist propaganda, and perhaps can be enjoyed by those of that bent. But to do so requires that one wave away all the sordid details about Fowler himself, who neither in his own eyes nor in others’ is anything heroic or even admirable. This mixture of ginger and mint with the chili, if you will, gives the novel its character, but may not be for every appetite.


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