Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Eric Ambler's The Levanter

"My name, Michael Howell, may look and sound Anglo-Saxon, but, with a Lebanese Armenian grandmother and a Cypriot mother, I am no more than fractionally English."

Michael Howell is the Levanter. He's the son in a third generation running Agence Howell, a successful trading business in the eastern Mediterranean. It's around 1970, and Syria, where a good deal of his business takes place, has gotten much more difficult to work in. He struggles to keep on the good side of Syria's various government factions.

One faction is supporting the Palestinian Action Force, a group splintered off from the PLO, led by Salah Ghaled. Without quite realizing what he's doing, Howell gets lured into assisting Ghaled. One of Howell's initiatives in Syria is the manufacture of ceramic batteries, but his wife notes there have been some purchases by the factory that don't quite jibe with what they're supposed to be making. What's up?

The novel comes out in 1972, written before the attack at the Munich Olympics. So you can probably guess the sort of thing that's going to happen.

The novel won Ambler's second Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers Association in the UK, and I saw Alan Furst said it was one of the spy novels he most admired when setting out to write his series. But for me, while I enjoyed it, I wouldn't say I thought it one of Ambler's best: his later novels start with fifty pages of exposition (the union of Egypt and Syria in 1958, anyone? industrial engineering?--a subject Ambler knows about, but still...) that don't feel entirely useful. Once the story does get going, though, it's a good one, but you do have to plow through a bit at the beginning.

Good for a couple of challenges:

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Shadowy Figure. I'm going to call that Arab in a keffiyeh a shadowy figure. I'm not entirely sure what's supposed to be in those bottles, but they could just be the raw ingredients for batteries.


Most of the novel takes place in Syria or Lebanon and the grand finale at sea, but a couple of key scenes do take place on Cyprus.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sunday Salon


Last Week

Blogged about Robert Gerwarth's November 1918 here.

Thinking about what rhymes with pigeon here.

I also finished Hernan Diaz' Trust, a novel which came out last year. Andrew Bevel is the scion of a wealthy family and a brilliant investor in first half of the 20th Century. His wife Mildred (née Brevoort) is a psychologically fragile woman who spends her time supporting artists. Or are they?

Trust was a pretty buzzy release from last year (New York Times, Barack Obama's lists). It tells the story of the principals from four perspectives. In film, think Kurosawa's Rashomon; in books, Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, or Lessing's The Golden Notebook. I thought this was alright, I guess. It's a good way to complicate and ironize a story, as in my examples, but it's also a good way to be dull. I'm afraid it seemed more the latter than the former to me. 

From the Library

Peter Stothard's Crassus yet to go. I've also watched the Doctor Who. Pretty fun. Good-bye, Jodie Whittaker.

Quotes from recent reading

"To me it seems youth is like spring, an over-praised season--delightful if it happens to be a favoured one, but in practice very rarely favoured and more remarkable, as a general rule, for biting east winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and whatever loss in flowers we more than gain in fruits."

-Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

We're not quite to spring yet, but getting close. Definitely more biting east wind around here than genial breezes...

On the Stack

Chuck's standing next to Terence & Eric Ambler in addition to Samuel Butler.

Hope all's well with you!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Song of the Three Jolly Pigeons


(from She Stoops to Conquer, Act 2)

Let school-masters puzzle their brain
  With grammar, and nonsense, and learning;
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain
  Gives genius a better discerning.
Let them brag of their heathenish gods,
  Their Lethes, and Styxes, and Stygians;
Their Quis, and their Quaes, and their Quods,
  They're all but a parcel of pigeons.
    Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!
When Methodist preachers come down,
  A-preaching that drinking is sinful,
I'll wager the rascals a crown,
  They always preach best with a skinful.
But when you come down with your pence,
  For a slice of their scurvy religion,
I'll leave it to all men of sense,
  That you, my good friend, are the pigeon.
    Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!
Then come put the jorum about,
  And let us be merry and clever,
Our hearts and our liquors are stout,
  Here's the Three Jolly Pigeons forever.
Let some cry woodcock, or hare,
  Your bustards, your ducks, or your widgeons,
But of all the birds in the air,
  Here's a health to the Three Jolly Pigeons.
    Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!

-Oliver Goldsmith

This is sung by Tony Lumpkin. He's the good-hearted but somewhat incompetent bad lad who'd rather spend his time at the pub; he helps the heroes get married so he won't have to marry the girl himself.

After reading The Vicar of Wakefield in the fall, I went on to She Stoops to Conquer, and have had this in mind ever since. Let us be merry and clever! Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!

You know? There aren't very many words that rhyme with pigeon. Hmm...

You got me down to the pub
  where I swear I'll drink just a smidgen.
Oy! Instead I guzzled a tub:
  that's life at the Three Jolly Pigeons!
-not Oliver Goldsmith

Other possibilities...  

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Robert Gerwarth's November 1918

"In the early morning hours of 10 November 1918, a small convoy of cars crossed the Belgian-Dutch border near the village of Eijsden, carrying the last German Kaiser and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II, into exile. The previous day, his head of government, Chancellor Max von Baden, had publicly announced, without the Kaiser's authorization, that Wilhelm had abdicated."

And thus ended the German Reich, a revolution of sorts that led to the founding of the new German Republic, centred in Weimar. Robert Gerwarth's book is about that revolution. 

The revolution that led to the Weimar Republic is usually viewed as a failure, but Gerwarth wants to change that, at least a bit. "...commonly referred to in the existing historical literature, political speeches, and journalistic op-ed pieces as a 'failed' or 'half-hearted' revolution, the events of late 1918 have long been viewed as part of Germany's 'special path' towards the abyss of the Third Reich...This book suggests an alternative interpretation of the November Revolution--one that does more justice to the achievements of the events of 1918-19, which constituted both the first and the last revolution in a highly industrialized country worldwide prior to the peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989-1990." 

Gerwarth notes that the new German republic was the first large industrial country to give women the right to vote, that three quarters of the electorate voted for parties committed to democracy, and that the initial government was a coalition of centre-left parties. That while homosexuality was still illegal, the atmosphere was considerably liberalized. 

The book covers the years from 1917 to 1923. Gerwarth starts with the revolution in Russia, which was both example and warning. But it also considerably changed the battlefield situation. Lenin took Russia out of the war; the generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided to gamble on complete victory--and lost their gamble. Germany went from its strongest position militarily to its weakest quite quickly in early 1918. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been running the country as well as the army, but after the collapse of their attack in France, Kaiser Wilhelm appointed the liberal aristocrat Max von Baden as Chancellor in an attempt to salvage things.

The war was clearly lost, and the left hoped to negotiate with the allies, particularly with Wilson, on the basis of the Fourteen Points. Gerwarth suggests there was considerable optimism in Germany in the first half of 1919 until it became clear that the Treaty of Versailles would be punitive.  Friedrich Ebert, a moderate socialist, became Chancellor, succeeding von Baden, via some extra-constitutional juggling in November of 1918, but when elections were held in 1919, he was legitimately elected to the office.

There were challenges over the next few years, violence instigated by both the Communist left and by the nationalist right. Gerwarth thinks it was managed adequately, though the use of the Freikorps soldiers of the right to put down the Communists, though maybe necessary, was also problematic in the long run. The book ends with Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, which was successfully quashed.

This book came out in 2020. I wanted to read it because I enjoyed his book of 2016 The Vanquished about the years after World War I. While I found this book pretty interesting, I don't think it was quite as fascinating as his earlier one.

Friday, February 17, 2023




(for Isaiah Berlin)
A lake allows an average father, walking slowly
  To circumvent it in an afternoon,
And any healthy mother to halloo the children
  Back to her bedtime from their games across:
(Anything bigger than that, like Michigan or Baikal,
  Though potable, is an "estranging sea").

Lake-folk require no fiend to keep them on their toes;
  They leave aggression to ill-bred romantics
Who duel with their shadows over blasted heaths:
  A month in a lacustrine atmosphere
Would find the fluvial rivals waltzing not exchanging
  The rhyming insults of their great-great-uncles.

No wonder Christendom did not get really started
  Till, scarred by torture, white from caves and jails,
Her pensive chiefs converged on the Ascanian Lake
  And by that stork-infested shore invented
The life of Godhead, making catholic the figure
  Of three small fishes in a triangle.

Sly Foreign Ministers should always meet beside one,
  For, whether they walk widdershins or deasil,
The path will yoke their shoulders to one liquid centre
  Like two old donkeys pumping as they plod;
Such physical compassion may not guarantee
  A marriage for their armies, but it helps.

-W. H. Auden

Well, that's only the first half of the poem, but since I'm typing this late, that's all I'm going to do for now. 😉 It's a favourite of mine, since I've lived most of my life near lakes, though more of the 'estranging sea' variety--first Michigan, and now Ontario. 

The Ascanian Lake is an allusion to the First Council of Nicaea. Widdershins and deasil are Auden using show-off-y words for clockwise and counter-clockwise. But who am I to complain?

A Northern Ontario lake that one could actually halloo across:

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

There's going to be some spoilerish things in this, so be advised.

Gabriel Syme wanders into the London suburb of Saffron Park, a 'place not only pleasant, but perfect.' 'It had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art.' Syme is himself a poet, 'a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was a poet of respectability.' He gets into a verbal squabble with red-headed Lucian Gregory, the established poet of Saffron Park, who is none of those things, but rather the opposite. (While at the same time, Syme admires Gregory's sister Rosamond, equally red-headed.)

Syme is also a detective, working for Scotland Yard. He was approved at joining by a mysterious man in a dark room.

Gregory proclaims himself a radical anarchist, but Syme accuses him of being a wannabe. Gregory refutes this charge by introducing Syme to a secret society, the leaders of which are named after the days of the week; at the very next meeting, to which Gregory takes Syme, Gregory expects to be elected the new Thursday. Sunday is the leader of this anarchist society.

Syme launches into a speech that results in his being elected the new Thursday. Aha, thinks Syme! I will now be Scotland Yard's man on the inside. But he has confessed his status as a policeman to Gregory, and sworn not to denounce him, so he has to figure out how to use his new insider-dom without breaking his vow.

At the very first meeting of the seven weekday leaders, Sunday announces one of them is a policeman. Yikes, thinks Syme, I've been found out already. But no, it turns out Gogol is also a policeman in disguise, and while Syme is mostly relieved he hasn't been detected, he's also a little ashamed he didn't do more. Gogol is escorted by thugs off the premises to some unspeakable fate.

On leaving that first meeting, Syme is pursued by another anarchist principal, the Professor de Worms. Does the Professor know Syme's a policeman? Syme tries to escape, but is eventually cornered by the Professor, who...reveals he's also a policeman. That makes three out of the seven. If only they'd organized!

I was perfectly ready to generalize after this, and yes, it quickly turns out six of the seven anarchist leaders are policeman in disguise. Is Sunday as well? 

Of course he is. (I have to say I saw that a mile away, or at least 90 pages away out of the 160.) But Chesterton handles it amusingly and suspensefully enough, and, in fact, Sunday is exactly that unseen policeman who first approved Syme's joining the force (and the other five policeman/anarchist leaders, as well.) The six pursue Sunday (or maybe Sunday is pursuing them) until a final recognition and no crime is actually committed, no dynamite thrown, the Czar not assassinated, even Gogol turns out to be alive after all.

It is Chesterton, and the name Sunday might be a clue. This is fairly early in Chesterton's career (1908), Father Brown is in the future, and Chesterton has not yet converted to Catholicism. Wikipedia tells me he was suffering a crisis of faith as he was writing this. Sunday is a deus absconditus. He tells his policemen, "You heard the voice in the dark, and you never heard it again. The sun in heaven denied it, the earth and sky denied it, all human wisdom denied it. And when I met you in daylight I denied it myself." Sunday goes on to explain why he allowed this, and so the book is a kind of theodicy, a justification of God, and an explication of why there is evil in the world. Like all theodicies, I didn't find it very convincing myself...

But until it got there it was a pretty amusing thriller.

There are the usual Chestertonian provocations. Only someone who's meat-eating and beer-drinking can be a proper Englishman, and not a lowly anarchist. Well in fact, I eat meat and drink beer, and have no desire to be a proper Englishman, so this should slide right past me, but I admit to being bothered by it, a little. But it is Chesterton, so one has to either not read him, or not be bothered by that sort of thing.

Do I dare call it a crime book? Well, in the end, it is a bit more Piers Plowman than Bulldog Drummond, but it does start with a Scotland Yard man trying to prevent a murder, so...

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Two People.

I actually read it in a copy from Project Gutenberg, but found online the cover shown above which fits the book pretty well.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

A Supermarket in California

A Supermarket in California

   What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
    In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
    What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

    I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
    I hear you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
    I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
    We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

    Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
     (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
    Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
    Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
    Ah, dear father, greybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

-Allen Ginsburg

We're going to California later today & I was browsing around among California-ish poets for the occasion before reminding myself of this. This is from Howl and other poems, (1956) issued by City Lights Press. 

Will I soon be wandering down Columbus Avenue, poking among undersized volumes of poetry with boring black and white covers, and dreaming of you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Wandering in and out of the brilliant stacks of books? Possibly!

I once saw Allen Ginsburg give a reading, accompanying himself kind of tunelessly on a harmonium. He was actually pretty entertaining, that lonely old courage-teacher.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Henry James' The Wings of the Dove (#ccspin)

"We shall never be again as we were!"

Four young people and their watchful elders, first in London, briefly in Switzerland, and for most of the last third of the book, in Venice, where there's a death.

Kate Croy, the 'handsome girl', starts us off. She's maybe 25, has £200 a year from her late mother's estate, though she gives half of that to help her widowed (and impoverished and ungrateful) elder sister with four kids. Our first scene shows her hunting up her scoundrelly father and proposing to move in with him. Her father's a bankrupt and has done something (?) that makes him unpresentable in society. Still, she prefers him to her controlling aunt. But he refuses her, because if she can squeeze money out of the rich aunt maybe some of it will drift on to Pops. Why does she not want to live with Aunt Maud? Is it because Kate's in love with somebody inappropriate? Well, yes, she is.

Merton Densher, a 'bland Hermes' according to Henry James himself in The Art of the Novel, seems like a nice enough guy. He has a respectable job as a journalist, but does not come from money, does not have money, and, then as now, as a journalist, does not have much prospect of acquiring money. But he's definitely in love with Kate, and though the coy Croy generally hides it, she's in love with him. £200 a year, even £100 a year, plus the income of a steady job, oughtn't be so difficult, but Kate wants more, and then Aunt Maud does have money. But will Aunt Maud fork over or does she have other plans? Ah, she has other plans.

Meet Lord Mark. ("...he was, oh, yes, adequately human.") Mark's a pretty minor lord, and doesn't have any money himself, but he is a Lord, and Aunt Maud has more than enough money, and Maud's determined to propel Kate (and presumably herself, by connection) into aristocratic circles. If Kate wants to live with adult protection, and not in her sister's Chelsea hovel. she's going to have to entertain and encourage any overtures Lord Mark might make.

(I've been to Chelsea. Not hovels no more.) It is amusing that Chelsea means hovels to the Londoner Kate, but for our next character, the American, it means Carlyle. (Well, I'm an American, of sorts, too.)

Introduce into this circle Milly Theale, in her early 20s, an American orphan from New York, rich beyond any European's furthest imaginings. She's traveling about Europe (Switzerland at first) with her older companion, Susan Stringham, a writer from Burlington, Vermont, 'which she boldly upheld as the real heart of New England, Boston being "too far south"'. We learn almost right away that Milly had been sick in the States before she started traveling, and it's not giving too much away--it's the one thing I was sure of before I read the novel--that it's her death (in Venice) that provides the climax.

(Boston is not too far south to be the heart of New England.)

Milly decides to go to London where Susan's old school friend Maud lives.

In Lord Mark's family estates there's a Bronzino portrait of a young woman, whom everyone says looks exactly like Milly Theale. And maybe the woman looks rather ill? Anyway, Milly has a fainting fit when she sees the portrait. The internets agree the portrait James intends is that of Lucrezia Panciatichi, so you can imagine that's our American heroine above on the left. 

Sir Luke Strett, a noted London doctor and surgeon, shows up to look after Milly, though everyone pretends he's just a great friend.

You can see the outlines of a plot taking shape and I don't want to give away too much; as I said, I didn't know how it would go exactly myself--I have not (yet) seen any movie version--and while this is one of those novels much discussed--it's a major example in Sontag's Illness as Metaphor--it may be possible to come to it naively, as original readers did. And as I mostly did. There is suspense, surprising perhaps... 😉 in late James, and I'll leave it there. Though I can say, as a good friend of mine frequently does, it's all about the money. Well, almost all.

It is late James, and I have occasionally snarked about that prose style before. Here's an example from around halfway through the novel. Merton Densher is back in London; he's been away in New York, working, where he had met Milly. (From Book VI, Chapter 5, near the beginning)
"She [Milly] had been interesting enough without them [Kate and Aunt Maud]--that appeared to-day to come back to him; and, admirable and beautiful as was the charitable zeal of the two ladies, it might easily have nipped in the bud the germs of a friendship inevitably limited but still perfectly open to him."
This is Merton thinking, but yet it isn't Merton. We'll set aside that nobody thinks in such rounded phrases because everybody does that in James. One of those 'two ladies' is Kate, with whom Merton is more or less secretly engaged. Would he think of her as just one of 'two ladies'? And 'admirable and beautiful' and 'full of charitable zeal', Aunt Maud is not, and Merton knows it perfectly well, since she's the reason he and Kate are keeping their engagement secret. As well as the fact that Aunt Maud's zeal is about pimping Milly on the social circuit for societal advantage. (We'll come to have our doubts about Kate, too.) As for that 'friendship inevitably limited but still perfectly open', well, it's limited by that secret engagement, but Milly's already half in love with Merton (though it's not clear how well Merton understands that at this point) and 'friendship' and 'perfectly open' mean very different things to Milly and to Merton. 

So James is ironically complicating our relationship with the characters in ways we have to work out to get there, while at the same time sounding like 'Everything is Awesome.' (Cue that Lego movie song here...)

It must be said that James knows:
"'Then what,' he demanded, frankly mystified now, "are we talking about?"
That's Merton Densher. 

I don't know if Thom Gunn was thinking of The Wings of the Dove when he wrote this couplet/quip, but he very well could have been. (Though it would apply to other late books as well.)


Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.

It also struck me how close in theme this was to The Ambassadors, James' novel of the next year (1903). It's Lambert Strether from that novel who advises, "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to," a statement also deeply ironic. It could have fit into this one. Sir Luke Strett to Milly:

"My dear young lady, isn't 'to live' exactly what I'm trying to persuade you to do?"

I reread Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor now that I've read The Wings of the Dove, (well, the Sontag at least is short) and I do think she's a little hard on James, whose irony complicates everything, but, of course, Sontag's basic point is correct: a will to live might help Milly, but what she really needs is antibiotics, and putting too much emphasis on her will feels like blaming the victim. (Way oversimplifying Sontag here.)

I'll leave you with a picture of the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, which becomes the Palazzo Leporelli in the novel, rented by Milly as her (modest) domicile when she was there. I understand it's used as the set for scenes in the movie version with Helena Bonham Carter. James used a writing desk still there to compose The Aspern Papers.

It was my spin book. (I somehow had it in my head the spin ran to the 31st. Oh, well.) It is late James, with all the noodliness that implies, but I quite liked it, after having dreaded it a bit, and I think it's replaced The Ambassadors as my favorite of that period. 

If you've read it, what did you think? Are our couple actually redeemed? What, in fact, do you think was their final decision? (Because, of course, it ends without entirely telling you, as I, too, am now doing...)