Contents | July/August 2002
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2002
Books & Critics
Six Days of War
New & Noteworthy
The making of the modern Middle East; grimly absurd humor in two reissued novels; the last word on Napoleon
by Michael B. Oren
Oxford, 446 pages, $30.00
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "The Roots of Our Discontent" (June 12, 2002)
Michael Oren, the author of Six Days of War, talks about how a short but momentous conflict forged the modern Middle East.
his is a masterly book. To produce his account of the Six-Day War the historian Michael B. Oren drew on thousands of pages of previously classified documents in Israeli, U.S., Russian, and British archives, and on interviews with diplomats, decision-makers, and commanders in Washington, Moscow, Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, and Damascus. With a remarkably assured style, Oren elucidates nearly every aspect of the conflict—the historical background, the strategic and domestic political context (in Israel and in the Arab world), the diplomatic negotiations in Washington and the UN, the military and political deliberations within Israel and the Arab capitals, and the air operations and often desperate and bloody ground battles. Most successfully, Oren dramatically and cleanly depicts the combination of self-doubt, hubris, and dread that accompanied Tel Aviv's decision to go to war, and the confusing and contingent nature of Israeli military and political calculations in the midst of the conflict. In writing his strategic chronicle, Oren has also drawn the most penetrating and subtle assessment of the Israeli mind that I've encountered. Despite his no doubt sincere assurances that his is an objective account, Oren plainly takes the Israeli side, and his book refutes revisionist historians' interpretations of the 1967 war as a deliberate act of Israeli expansionism. Nevertheless, Oren is far too honest a scholar to treat Israel as a plucky David; he depicts Tel Aviv's military and political leaders as largely cunning and opportunistic realists (his pen portraits are elegant and revealing). Unless and until Egypt, Syria, and Jordan open their archives, Oren's will remain the authoritative chronicle of the war. His achievement as a writer and a historian is awesome.
—Benjamin SchwarzGreat Granny Webster
by Caroline Blackwood
New York Review Books, 128 pages, $12.95
by Caroline Blackwood
New York Review Books, 328 pages, $14.95
s good as these two novels are (and Great Granny Webster, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977, is so funny, mordant, and harrowing that it might be a lost novella by the young Evelyn Waugh), both still risk being overshadowed by the notoriety of their author. The Anglo-Irish Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931- 1996) bewitched many of the most creative and intelligent men of her time: she married the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Robert Lowell, obsessed the moody critic Cyril Connolly, was photographed by Walker Evans (who may have fathered one of her daughters), and had affairs with the editors Alan Ross and Robert Silvers, among others. Blonde, with intense, staring eyes, she could be disorientingly silent in company and then, after a few drinks, ribald, witty, and by all accounts irresistible.
Still, being a muse to genius wasn't enough for the glamorous Blackwood: she wrote nine books, including a highly imaginative study of the Duchess of Windsor, and when she died (alcoholism, cancer), she was embarking on a study of transsexuals. Dryly unemotional, almost reportorial, her matter-of-fact style enhances the deliciousness in her depictions of stiff-backed old ladies, London playgirls, Irish con men, and fatuous journalists.
In the semi-autobiographical Great Granny Webster, set in a fifteen-year period soon after World War II, the ancient matriarch is a model of somber rectitude who spends most of her afternoons sitting bolt upright in a darkened drawing room. "Never having wished to receive pleasure, or give it, she forced one to admit that there was something admirably robust in the way she was totally devoid of any newfangled and slavish desire to please." Still, her daughter ends up talking to elves and fairies, her granddaughter takes "nothing serious except amusement" (at least until she commits suicide), and her great-granddaughter tends to stare disturbingly into space, looking "goggle-eyed and tongue-tied."
Throughout, Blackwood's humor tends toward the grimly absurd. In one scene a psychiatrist nearly rapes a semi-conscious woman who has tried to kill herself. Rebuffed, he is so ashamed that he remarks self-pityingly, "'Have you ever wished you were dead?' ... apparently quite oblivious of the tactlessness of his question." The longest chapter of the book evokes the sheer awfulness of the family's damp, crumbling ancestral pile, Dunmartin Hall: think of Gormenghast inhabited by characters out of Monty Python or Cold Comfort Farm.
In Corrigan—Blackwood's last novel—the widowed Mrs. Blunt finds her life reinvigorated when she meets the wheelchair-bound Corrigan, who the reader soon realizes is a quotation-spouting fraud out to charm the old lady for her money. So what? says the widow's cook, after Corrigan disappears. "Corrigan was no different from most men. They all try to get the most that they can squeeze out of a woman. But he gave her a lot." At the end of this cleverly twisted tale Mrs. Blunt's daughter is herself inspired by the absent Corrigan to dramatically change her own unhappy condition.
Yes, Caroline Blackwood was quite a siren in life, but these handsomely reissued novels show that she possesses the power of enchantment even now.
by Paul Johnson
Lipper/Viking, 208 pages, $19.95
he Penguin Lives series of short biographies has produced some provocative pairings of author and subject. Some of the choices have been solid and serious: R.W.B. Lewis on Dante, for instance, and Jonathan Spence on Mao. Others, such as Wayne Koestenbaum on Andy Warhol and Francine du Plessix Gray on Simone Weil, have been clever and slightly offbeat. Some—Roy Blount Jr. on Robert E. Lee and Kathryn Harrison on Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—are a bit of a stretch. The selection of the venerable British historian and right-wing gadfly Paul Johnson to write on Napoleon (who has been the subject of more biographies to date than any other human being except Jesus Christ) has turned out to be a wise one: Johnson is succinct, critical, and deeply skeptical of the Napoleonic legend.
Nearly twenty years ago Johnson's Modern Times attacked the notion, long current among twentieth-century intellectuals, that "leftist" dictators were somehow more acceptable than the rightist or fascist variety; a dictator is a dictator, he asserted, irrespective of professed ideology. Now Johnson turns to Napoleon, the anti-idealist who believed in no principle except that of power, yet paved the way for the preaching ideologues who would take the stage more than a century after his death. Johnson finds Napoleon to be the originator of all the major aspects of modern totalitarianism: faked elections and plebiscites, government propaganda machines, large-scale espionage, and secret-police forces. "No dictator of the tragic twentieth century—from Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong to pygmy tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Perón, Mengistu, Saddam Hussein, CeausŁescu, and Gadhafi—was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype," he observes.
Johnson sees Napoleon as the ultimate opportunist, and believes that subsequent history has proved the narrowness and shallowness of his vision: "In the end, force was the only language he understood, and in the end it pronounced a hostile judgment on him." The great soldier's downfall, when it came, was spectacular. It is true that he changed the map of Europe, but the results were dubious, because in smashing up the decrepit Holy Roman Empire he cleared the way for the unification of Germany and the ensuing nationalism that would threaten and eventually eclipse France. And the achievement that made him, for a brief moment, the hope of liberal Europe—the apparent destruction of royal legitimism—turned out to be a chimera: the principle was authoritatively restored by the Congress of Vienna and lasted another century before it finally self-destructed in the maelstrom of World War I.
Although Napoleon was not evil in an obvious way, like Hitler or Stalin, he was surely one of the most ruthless men in history: in 1813 he told Prince Metternich, Austria's Foreign Minister, that he would rather sacrifice a million French lives than accept terms he considered dishonorable. Despite France's worship of this megalomaniac as the personification of its national gloire, history's judgment on Napoleon will probably, in the end, be close to Johnson's. "Had these events occurred at the beginning of the present century," Johnson comments, "there can be little doubt that Bonaparte would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with an inevitable verdict of 'guilty' and a sentence of death or life imprisonment. The evidence then produced would have determined, forever, in the minds of reasonable people, the degree of guilt he bore for events that had cost four or five million lives and immense loss of property."
—Brooke AllenThe Art of Seeing
by Cammie McGovern
Scribner, 288 pages, $24.00
reading group would have a field day with this elegant and complex study of two sisters: Rozzie, who works before the camera, and Jemma, who works behind it. Though the plot depends on a couple of elements that could easily lead to melodrama (Rozzie, the elder sister, becomes a movie star and then loses her sight), Cammie McGovern never strays even remotely in that direction. She remains focused, in this unusually accomplished first novel, on the intricate dance between siblings. Cleverly highlighting the differences in their perspectives, she explores the sisters' intense interdependence, the roles they require each other to play, and the unintended influence of their expectations and experiences on each other's lives. The conceits in The Art of Seeing—the sisters' professions, for instance, and Rozzie's blindness, which enables them to see beneath the surface of their relationship—can be a bit too heavy-handedly artful. But McGovern develops her literal story—in which Rozzie and Jemma alternately, and sometimes even simultaneously, support and betray each other—with such sincerity and sensitivity that this flaw is easy to overlook. In one of the best aspects of this novel, these extremely self-reflective characters tend to question their own motives. Wisely, McGovern doesn't give them all the answers.
—Christina SchwarzThe Boom and the Bubble
by Robert Brenner
Verso, 303 pages, $23.00
n this careful study of "The US in the World Economy" (his subtitle), Robert Brenner includes more than fifty full-page tables documenting arcana such as "Manufacturing net profit rates indices: US, Germany, and Japan 1978-99" and the riveting "Index of corporate profits after tax net of interest versus New York Stock Exchange Index, 1980-2000." This strenuous statistical display is in the service of a question: Has the U.S. economy transcended the dynamics that led to more than twenty years of stagnation, 1973-1995, or will these re-emerge now that the economic boom and the stock-market bubble of the 1990s are over? Karl Marx, unmentioned by Brenner, defined the basic problem that afflicted the economy in the years leading up to 1973. It is the "anarchy of production," which leads capitalists to keep making things even when no market exists for them, leaving too many goods for too few customers. Brenner argues that this—not the spike in world energy prices brought on by the Arab oil embargo of that year—caused the plunge in manifold measures of economic progress after 1973. Glut resulted in stagnation, and glut, according to a 1999 survey in The Economist, is returning: In cars alone "[there is a] 30% unused capacity worldwide—yet new factories in Asia are still coming on stream." Over-investment and overproduction are the specters haunting the world economy.
For a hundred years after Marx the anarchy of production was sidestepped by the extension of markets within and among economies. Of equal importance was the invention of market arrangements—monopoly and oligopoly—that curbed the inherent disorder of capitalism. These inhibitions on the systemic tendency to glut weakened after the recovered European and Japanese economies began to export goods on a large scale to the United States. From 1965 to 1973 the rate of profit on the fixed capital assets of U.S. manufacturers fell by 43.5 percent. For worldwide manufacturing it fell by about 25 percent. The relative growth of the postwar era yielded to product-by-product competition between economies—Toyota versus Ford, for instance. The goal of U.S. economic policy over the next two decades, Brenner shows exhaustively, was to preserve our manufacturing base by manipulating the dollar, by enforcing selective protectionism, and by cajoling our trading partners into bailing out our manufacturers. U.S. manufacturers could have reacted to overcapacity by shifting resources "[from] over-supplied lines into new ones, where potential profitability was higher." Instead they chose to make more of the oversupplied goods. To compensate for falling profits they cut costs, especially wages, which from 1979 to 1995 grew by only an average of 0.65 percent a year—the result, in part, of management resistance to organizing drives. Union membership among manufacturing workers declined from 38.8 percent in 1973 to 17.6 percent in 1995. But restraining wages, however sensible for an individual industry or company, was irrational for the economy as a whole, threatening to shrink even further the falling or debt-haunted demand that is oversupply's invariable companion.
In Brenner's account, the boom and bubble of the nineties expansion was a holiday from the underlying crisis, a triumph of euphoria that merely served the celebrators' own ends. Alan Greenspan emerges as a kind of Ponzi of the money supply, who fed the stock-market bubble to sustain the boom, inducing the "irrational exuberance" he decried.
If the uneven development of the postwar era allowed the United States and the recovering industrial economies to grow in tandem, the "uneven development in reverse" of the 1980s and 1990s was more like a beggar-thy-neighbor growth, with the manufacturing economy of one nation flourishing only at the expense of another's. In the 1980s the Japanese and the Germans had to "rescue a crisis-bound US manufacturing economy that was being brought down by a fast-rising dollar in the context of international over-capacity and over-production." In the mid-1990s it had "become similarly necessary" for the United States to rescue the Japanese. Brenner is too much the scholar to venture beyond his evidence, but its implications are portentous. Future economic historians will make manufacturing in 2000 analogous with agriculture in 1900: just as the productivity revolution in farming meant that fewer farms and farmers were needed to supply growing numbers of people, the productivity revolution in manufacturing—robots in the role of tractors—means that manufacturing will be able to employ only a fraction of its current work force. The resulting shake-out will have incalculable social and political reverberations in the century ahead. Until it ends, the anarchy of production is likely to continue unabated.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2001; New & Noteworthy; Volume 290, No. 1; 188-192.