The Cromwell Trilogy

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Mirror and the Light

By Hilary Mantel


Most of the time, when we say that we love a book, we mean that we love the literary work as a whole. We love the book: the plot, the characters, the prose, the descriptions and pacing, the resolution, the lessons, the intersection of the book and our selves and our lives.

But sometimes, when we say we love a book, what we really mean is: I love the character that animates this book. It isn’t that we don’t like or appreciate the other stuff; it’s that that stuff is really just the medium through which the character is communicated to us. Sometimes the love of a book is really a love affair with a character.

The first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, ‘Wolf Hall‘, came out in 2009. Its critical reception was ecstatic: it won the Man Booker (as did its sequel, ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘, the only pair of novel and sequel to have ever done so) and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Guardian named it the best book of the 21st century.

I read it when it came out, and found it exactly as flabbergastingly excellent as everyone else. It is rare that a book lives up to the hype, right? The problem with books that unite critics in rapturous consensus is that, while you may love them when you finally get around to reading them, it’s almost impossible for them to take you by surprise. You approach them, necessarily, waiting for them to justify themselves; you read them in a state of constant anticipation, on the lookout for excellence.

Wolf Hall‘ did surprise me, though.

The protagonist of the Cromwell trilogy is Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, the man who served as chief minister to Henry the VIII for eight years until he was executed on orders from his king in 1540.

What is clear from these novels is that Hilary Mantel loves Thomas Cromwell, and, because she loves him so much and because she is such a good writer, the result is that I love him just as deeply. A reading of the Cromwell trilogy becomes, therefore, an experience of profound love, not of books, but of a man: the love of the author for subject, communicated to her readers.

I suspect that I am not the only reader for whom this attachment to the fictionalized person of Thomas Cromwell was the salient experience of reading the ‘Wolf Hall‘ novels. Mantel’s Cromwell (I am, at this point, totally unable to disambiguate her character from the “real”, historical man) is one of the most persuasive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is measured, sardonic, wise. Humane, possessed of a capacious memory and an eye for detail. He’s brave, sentimental, effective, and ruthless. He is so lovable that Mantel’s readers may easily fail to notice that he has become, over the course of her books, a monster.

Cromwell, by Holbein

After a brief glimpse into his childhood, the Cromwell trilogy introduces us to Thomas during his employment for Cardinal Wolsey, who was, at the time, first advisor to Henry VIII. The reader’s first real impression of him is his love for this man, the Cardinal, his admiration and loyalty.

Wolsey fell from grace when he was unable to secure a divorce for Henry from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell manages to secure this divorce, and further secures the crown for Anne Boleyn, thus earning himself a place in Henry’s confidence. These novels are about that relationship: between Cromwell and his king, the obsession, the love and the fear, the minute study a subject makes of his ruler.

I will never be able to explain why I have loved Mantel’s Cromwell so deeply. I can only say that I loved him from the first chapters of ‘Wolf Hall‘: his immovability, his wit, his clarity about everyone except himself.

Mantel is a great writer, really magnificent. Her prose is plain, sometimes almost like a sermon, but she shows, doesn’t tell. The only person who tells is Cromwell, and he tells beautifully. That’s why, perhaps, when the books are through, it is Cromwell you love, and not Mantel. This is maybe the surest sign of her achievement: you, as reader, can’t help but confuse her grace for her protagonist’s.

But the fact that Mantel shows and doesn’t tell means that some of the most important emotional developments of the book happen slowly, subtly, and might be missed: there is no announcement, no climax.

Cromwell was a Protestant, a sincere follower (according to Mantel) of Luther and Tyndale. One of the animating relationships of the book is the one between him and Sir Thomas More. More, who, in real life, was a complete fuckhead, is a complete fuckhead in ‘Wolf Hall‘ as well: a Catholic zealot, a one-man English Inquisition, he spends most of the book burning Protestants.

More and Cromwell are respectful enemies: both are men of the law and of the Holy Book, but one requires that the book be written in Latin, the other longs for it to be written in English. Cromwell, like Mantel’s readers, deplores More’s methods: the torture, the burning of heretics. So right is his opposition to Thomas More that readers will continue to feel themselves on his side, to find him persuasive, when he himself begins to have people executed (indeed, burned) for papacy, under the charge of treason.

I think that Mantel does this on purpose, because I believe, I really, really believe, that she loves Thomas Cromwell, and that she has endeavored to make us love him. And just as his love for his king requires a certain, side-eyed blindness to his foolishnesses and weaknesses, just as all love requires some blindness to fault, so our love for him will require blindness to his faults, apologies for them, sympathy with them.

Hilary Mantel

So we will notice that he has become a murderer, but we still fear for him as his enemies gather and gain momentum, and we will rage when they surround him and have him arrested, and we will grieve when he is executed, and the third book ends. And I know that I, personally, will never quite be able to forgive Henry VIII.

There is probably a more rigorous discussion to be had about the three individual books; I suspect that ‘Wolf Hall‘ is by far the best of the three, but I’m frankly unable to discern a difference, because it is the man that I love, not the books, and the man is in all three. As I mentioned above, I read ‘Wolf Hall’ when it came out, and then ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘ in its turn, but I reread both before picking up ‘The Mirror & the Light‘, read all three in one go, and I can no longer tell them apart; I can’t even remember now where one ends and the other begins.

But I know that he, Thomas, is dead now, in a way he was not, for me, last week. And in this way the Cromwell trilogy has been, truly, more of a relationship than a reading experience: I do not feel that I could go back again, read them from the beginning, start with him from his youth. He is dead, he died, I was there, and there is no going home again.

I am quite used to having relationships with books – relationships with people are more complicated. But they are, ultimately, richer, I think, the relationships with people. I don’t know whether how I feel about the Cromwell trilogy is richer than how I feel about books I have loved, but it is simpler: I just love its main character. That’s all. The language, the descriptions, the vivid imaginings, all contribute to my understanding of, relationship with, love of the man at its heart.


By Sir Walter Scott


I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.


By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

Gore Vidal.jpg
Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.

And The Band Played On

Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, it’s tough to belly up to a big, heavy history book.

You know the kind of book I mean: a magisterial, dense tome dealing, in depth, with some somber human chapter.  Hundreds of pages on a topic about which serious adults always seem to know more than you.

You feel that you should read them, the way that you should eat well and exercise, but every time you contemplate actually cracking them open, you think, ‘Yikes, I’m not going to laugh once during this,’, and so go and watch another episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ instead.

And The Band Played OnAnd the Band Played On‘ has been weighing on my conscience for a year or so now, squatting on my ‘To Read’ shelf and glowering at me.  Every time I reach for a novel, it’s red-letter title gleams at me, as though it were asking, ‘Do you really need to read another Graham Greene novel?  Don’t you care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic?’

Well, I do care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels, and so I finally buckled down and read ‘And the Band Played On‘.

First of all, let me say that ‘And the Band Played On‘ is not what I thought it was going to be.  It is not a dry, magisterial history; rather, it’s part narrative history, part journalism, part advocacy.  It does endeavor to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and a little in Western Europe), but it does not pretend to objectivity.  It has a viewpoint, and it is forthright in assigning blame and giving praise.

Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and, as the epidemic developed, he became one of the first reporters in the country to cover AIDS as a full-time beat.  San Francisco did not have the largest absolute number of AIDS cases in the United States (New York City did), but it did have the largest and most civically powerful gay male population, and the largest number of cases per capita.  Shilts was therefore witness at one of the population centers hardest hit, and most responsive, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and he manages to imbue his book with the sense of creeping dread and unnameable fear that he himself must have felt.

It’s not a book for the faint of heart, or for the easily outraged.  If Shilts is to be believed*, then the unfolding of the AIDS crisis in America was a clusterfuck of every kind of human recalcitrance, incompetence, and malevolence.  Racism, classism, homophobia, cowardice, complacence, narcissism, over-weaning ambition, and bureaucratic inertia all combined to slow realization of, and effective reaction to, the crisis.  And many, many people died because of it.

That is the most difficult part of ‘And the Band Played On‘: most of the characters to whom you are introduced, the real people for whom you root and to whom you become attached, perish.  They die, slowly, and in agony, and there is nothing you can do to help them.  You, from your vantage of thirty years on, know exactly what’s killing them, but there is no way to alert the people around them, to persuade them to abandon their biases and their prejudice and to see what’s really happening.  It’s heart-breaking, because so few of the obstacles in the way of an effective response to the AIDS crisis in the United States were, in hindsight, legitimate.  Most stemmed from human bungling, callousness or, worse, evil.  And this powerless on your part to alter the past makes the reading of this book claustrophobic, and very upsetting.

This is not a book which will leave you with good feelings about your fellow man.  Of course, it’s not a chapter in our history which was going to leave you feeling good about your fellow man, and you probably knew that going in; I certainly didn’t expect this to be a fun read.  Nevertheless, there are details in here which are so dismal, petty and caustic to the soul, that they will stay with me for the rest of my life.  This, for example:

‘Haitian Americans suffered multiple indignities in the two cities where they were most concentrated, Miami and New York.  Just trying on a pair of shoes in Florida sometimes became a traumatic experience, because salespeople declined to let anyone who looked Haitian near any merchandise.’ (p. 322)

Or this:

‘The guide to British aristocracy, Burke’s Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve ‘the purity of the human race,’ it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. (p. 565)

Or this:

‘Two AIDS sufferers were scheduled to be part of an ‘A.M. San Francisco’ segment whose goal was to ‘demystify’ AIDS and calm the fears.  However, the two patients couldn’t appear on the show because studio technicians refused to mike them.  Then, cameraman said they would not shoot the show if they had to walk onto the same sound stage as the two gay men.  The two patients instead talked through a telephone in a separate room.’
(p. 321)

Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, an early and controversial AIDS activist, features prominently in the text.  He was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and is the author of, among other things, ‘The Normal Heart’.  As of writing, he is still alive.

But just because something is emotionally difficult to read isn’t an excuse for avoiding it.  It’s important to know about our national moral failures as well as our glorious successes.  And I would argue that, if you’re determined to learn about the AIDS crisis, or about modern epidemics in general, this is a good book to read.

There are arid portions – there is a lot of policy building, lots of CDC budgets, which will alienate non-wonks – but, for the most part, Shilts has made this subject matter as riveting as possible.  The focus is almost entirely on individuals, which, while distressing, will help you stay focused.  It is exhaustive; there is an astonishing amount of information in this book – the amount of reporting work Shilts must have done boggles the mind.  In that sense alone, it really is a colossal achievement.

But though it has a clear point of view, I think that the best compliment that I can give this book is this: I did not even suspect until I looked him up when I finished – it didn’t even occur to me to ask the question – that Randy Shilts was a gay man.  He refused to be tested for the AIDS virus until he had completed this book, fearing that a positive diagnosis would compromise his objectivity.  He tested positive in March, 1987.

Randy Shilts died of AIDS complications in 1994.  He was 42.

*I don’t mean to imply personal disbelief; I mention it only because I am aware that there has been some controversy surrounding the book.  As I understand it (and my understanding is superficial at best), the controversy involves Shilts’ treatment of Gaetan Dugas, a gay man who came to known, in part because of Shilts’ work, as Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic.  Genetic studies conducted nearly 30 years after his death exonerated Dugas.


A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Why is it that only men write books like this?

It’s never a great idea to deal in generalizations, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but women usually don’t (to their credit, I think), write books like this one, making global, grandiose claims about the human condition.  A woman might write a book examining, say, the thickness of weft threads of linens woven under the late Egyptian Pharaohs; down the hall, her male colleague will write a book about why humans strive, or some such garbage.

I have just read one of those male-authored garbage books.Sapiens

It’s my own fault, really: I had plenty of warning that it was going to be.  I was informed about what sort of book it was not only by the author, Dr. Harari, himself (the subtitle is, after all, ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘), but by its many adoring readers: ‘Sapiens‘ (and Harari’s next book, the nauseatingly titled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘) have become the latest favorite texts of exactly the sort of male, Silicon Valley hardos who eat up these kinds of superficial, explain-all Theories of Everything.

OK, but, let’s at least try to be fair: a book should never be discounted simply because it has terrible fans.  There are nice things to be said about ‘Sapiens‘, including:

  1. Harari is not a bad writer.  He does tend to the overly-colloquial at times, which makes him sound a little like your dorky history teacher trying to connect with you (‘Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs.  The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first…Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go‘ (p. 92).  It makes you cringe).  But this is a venal sin, and, in general, his arguments are lucid and succinct.
  2. He covers an astonishing amount of material, even if he does it, by necessity, cursorily.  And he is excellent at choosing supporting examples; he draws from an enormous range of historical anecdote, and deploys his anecdotes interestingly and well.
  3. A few of his many, many arguments are thought-provoking and unusual in today’s academic atmosphere.  For example, he makes a pretty spirited case for the idea that bigger, more consolidated governments (i.e. more Federal), and empires in general, are better at promoting peace and prosperity for more people over historical time.  In a time of increasing Balkanization and more focus on local self-determination, it is worth reading an intelligent, measured defense of this idea.

Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

However, these good points do not add up to a successful venture.  The trouble with any project of this kind is that, since the scope is so wide, the conclusions must be glib.  In fact, even when Harari makes perfect sense, you are left with the disconcerting sense that he is making too much sense, that he has dispensed with something complicated and important too quickly and out of hand.  It makes him seem tricky, like he’s rushing through his argument so you don’t notice its holes.  Like he’s selling snake oil, and not waiting around for you to discover that it doesn’t work.

Here is an example:

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural.  But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.  Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.  A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.  No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.” (p. 147)

At first read, that paragraph makes perfect sense; more, it seems like rather a good point, doesn’t it?

It isn’t; it’s shallow and pat.  His argument hinges on a deliberately obtuse reading of the word ‘unnatural’.  Harari is insisting that ‘unnatural’ means ‘impossible in nature’, when clearly it means no such thing.  In fact, humans now do things all the time which are ‘impossible in nature’ (to see how disingenuous he is on this point, just substitute ‘faster than the speed of light’ above with ‘faster than the speed of sound’, another ‘impossible’ thing which we now do regularly).  Some formerly ‘impossible’ things have become taboo (genetically engineering children which glow in the dark: totally possible, taboo); some have not (supersonic travel).

More than that, when people indict a behavior as ‘unnatural’, they clearly do not mean that it is impossible – they mean that it isn’t in accordance with the goals of biology (usually stable sexual reproduction) as they understand them.  That may be a stupid standard (I think it is), but deliberately misunderstanding ‘unnatural’ to mean ‘not possible’ so that nothing that can be done can be ‘unnatural’ is equally stupid.  This is a complicated problem of morals and language; it should not be done away with in one paragraph.

FullSizeRender 3.jpg
This is what I’m talking about: a diagram of resource flow during the scientific revolution, with only three nodes (p. 250).

There are many problems like this, places where something thorny and nuanced is dispatched too quickly.  And, to be fair to him, Harari might well answer that that was intentional, that he simply could not cover what he needed to cover and do everything justice.  He would probably be right.  If you’re trying to get from Homo erectus to cyborgs, you can’t stop and smell every rose.

But I question the very project: did we need this book?  I came away with the impression that Dr. Harari is a good thinker; did we really need him to survey human history for us?  Is human history the sort of topic best understood in survey form?  Might his mind have been better tasked with answering one of the many interesting questions that he poses in more depth and, frankly, with more integrity?  Isn’t it almost always better to acknowledge complexity than to gloss over it?  I think so.

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I do not regret reading ‘Sapiens‘, and I might even recommend it to other readers of certain tastes.  But you’re going to have to put a gun to my head to get me to read ‘Homo Deus‘.