Archive for May 2013

Martin Gilbert, The First World War – A Complete History

May 19, 2013

Saul hath slain his thousands
But David his tens of thousands
– Memorial to British Machine Gun Corps, Hyde Park Corner

This is not the book to read for grand strategy, for sweeping panoramas of the Great War’s great forces and clashes. Gilbert does not spend much time in palaces and cabinet rooms. This is the little person’s view of history — what it was like in the trenches and to be a mother, wife, or sister of someone on the battlefield. Gilbert includes frequent diary excerpts and verse of the British War Poets¬† — Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg. A little of this is a useful check on the Great Man view of history; too much (and it is too much), and the reader feels stuck in the mud.

Gilbert has a funny way of using footnotes. The book has a 10-page bibliography and a 32-page index. Footnotes are Gilbert’s way of adding little asides, often to let the reader know what happened to someone after the war. Page 448 n.1: “In 1921 Roosevelt was stricken by polio. From 1929 to 1933 he was Governor of New York State, and from 1933 to his death in 1945, President of the United States.” Page 467 n.1: “In 1948 Truman was elected President of the United States, the position to which he had succeeded (as Vice-President) on the death of Roosevelt in 1945.” Too much detail, maybe? I will allow for the possibility that Gilbert was thinking of his primarily British audience, as he feels no need to identify Anthony Eden so precisely. On the other hand, even Hermann Goering gets a mini-biography by footnote.

The book really is overwhelming in its accounts of maimings, blindings, and blasts of human flesh to smithereens. If you weren’t a pacifist before this book, you might look more reasonably on such cases once you heave it back up onto the shelf. It is an encyclopedia of death. What are we to think of this: Good friends at Cambridge from two different countries, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, each felt compelled to take action once the war began. Wittgenstein returned to Vienna and saw years of fighting on ship and two battlefronts, while Russell became a leader of the conscientious objection movement in Britain. Both are giants in the development of modern logic.

414px-Tractatus_title_page_1922_Harcourt

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The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

May 19, 2013

I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.
-Stevens, “The Plot Against the Giant”

The first lines can’t be read without hearing that other Well(e)s: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” There are few greater openings; perhaps only Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness can compare:

¬† I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell the reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic — with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain. . . .

The novel (let’s call it that) is remarkable for its local detail and achieves much of its terrible effect through the accumulation of place and road names — Horsell, Maybury, Chobham, Woking, Ottershaw, Weybridge and Shepperton, the Byfleet Station. As though writing for a friend in the next village, the narrator describes without elucidation the burning of trees by the Oriental College and the disappearance of the “pinnacle of the mosque.” (The Shah Jahan Mosque was built in Woking in 1889.) This is Joycean naturalism avant la lettre.

The last four chapters of the First Book shift the narrative perspective to the narrator’s unnamed brother, who is caught up in the attacks in London and witnesses a naval battle with the tripods. The skills that Wells brought to this early science-fiction work did not include a Conradian facility with shifting perspectives. Even the narrator admits at the beginning of the Second Book that he has left his own story suspended for four chapters while he put his brother’s experiences at the forefront. This is only the slightest of blemishes on the face of the book — the kind that could be painlessly excised with a heat-ray.

Man with a Conley Folding Camera, from antiquecameras.net