what i'm reading: overthrow, suite francaise

I'm soon going to start Jared Diamond's Collapse - and if you still haven't read his incredible book Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are you waiting for? - but first I am combing through a pile of book reviews and movie reviews. It's really a virtual pile, as I'm mostly reading them online, with the occasional hard copy for GO train time.

This, I see, is why I need to get a newspaper delivered to my doorstep. I get my news online, but reviews and feature-y things about what's happening in Toronto don't seem to filter in. I know there are plenty of websites for those sorts of things, but my preferred method is to leaf through an actual newspaper.

We were getting the Globe And Mail for a few months - we got a free map book and a $20 Loblaw's gift card for subscribing - but stopped it before we went to Peru. Now I think we'll try the Toronto Star for a while. It's certainly more in sync with us politically, although the quality of writing in the G&M is better.

Among the stack of book reviews I've been reading, two stand out.

The first is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer:
A senior member of a Washington research group once told me that he "could not believe" that the United States would ever help the Pakistani military overthrow a democratically elected government in Pakistan if that government refused to help in the war on terror. Now there's a man who really needs to read the latest book by the former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. "Overthrow" is the history of forcible regime changes by the United States and its local allies over the past 110 years, starting with the undermining of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, passing through Cuba (1898), the Philippines (1898), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and elsewhere, and ending with present-day Iraq.

Kinzer has written a detailed, passionate and convincing book, several chapters of which have the pace and grip of a good thriller. It should be essential reading for any Americans who wish to understand both their country's historical record in international affairs, and why that record has provoked anger and distrust in much of the world. Most important, it helps explain why, outside of Eastern Europe, American pronouncements about spreading democracy and freedom, as repeatedly employed by the Bush administration, are met with widespread incredulity.

What's most depressing about Kinzer's book, however, is not the drastic clash it describes between professed American morality and actual American behavior. For, after all, the historical record of other democratic imperial powers, like Britain and France, has been even worse than that of the United States. Operating in the real world as a great power is not a business for the overly fastidious.

But if you are going to use the argument that making a successful geopolitical omelet requires breaking eggs, you'd better have something edible to show for all the shattered shells lying around. As Kinzer makes clear, the problem is that all too many of the interventions he recounts were not just utterly ruthless; they were utterly unnecessary.

It should have been obvious that the damage to the countries concerned was likely to be out of all proportion to the possible gains to the United States.
The full review makes a nice capsule history lesson. Chatting with my mom and Allan last week, I was trying to remember (from Howard Zinn) what war the US started for fruit. The answer: Guatemala, 1954.

The second book is, for me, a must-read: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.
This stunning book contains two narratives, one fictional and the other a fragmentary, factual account of how the fiction came into being. "Suite Française" itself consists of two novellas portraying life in France from June 4, 1940, as German forces prepare to invade Paris, through July 1, 1941, when some of Hitler's occupying troops leave France to join the assault on the Soviet Union. At the end of the volume, a series of appendices and a biographical sketch provide, among other things, information about the author of the novellas. Born in Ukraine, Irène Némirovsky had lived in France since 1919 and had established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. She composed "Suite Française" in the village of Issy-l'Evêque, where she, her husband and two young daughters had settled after fleeing Paris. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, enforcing the German race laws, arrested Némirovsky as "a stateless person of Jewish descent." She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the infirmary on Aug. 17.

The date of Némirovsky's death induces disbelief. It means, it can only mean, that she wrote the exquisitely shaped and balanced fiction of "Suite Française" almost contemporaneously with the events that inspired them, and everyone knows such a thing cannot be done. In his astute cultural history, "The Great War and Modern Memory," Paul Fussell describes the invariable progression — from the hastily reactive to the serenely reflective — of writings about catastrophes: "The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as 'diary' or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible."

We can now see that Némirovsky achieved just such coherence and irony with an ex post facto view of, at most, a few months. In his defense, Fussell had not heard of "Suite Française," and neither had anyone else at the time, including Némirovsky's elder daughter, Denise, who saved the leatherbound notebook her mother had left behind but refused to read it, fearing it would simply renew old pains. (Her father, Michel Epstein, was sent to Auschwitz several months after her mother and was consigned immediately to the gas chamber.) Not until the late 1990's did Denise examine what her mother had written and discover, instead of a diary or journal, two complete novellas written in a microscopic hand, evidently to save scarce paper. Denise abandoned her plan to give the notebook to a French institute preserving personal documents from the war years and instead sent it to a publisher. "Suite Française" appeared in France in 2004 and became a best seller.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the back story of "Suite Française" is irrelevant to the true business of criticism. But most readers don't view books from such Olympian heights, and neither, for that matter, do most critics. If they did, publishers' lists wouldn't be so crowded with literary histories and biographies, those chronicles of messy facts from which enduring art sometimes springs. In truth, "Suite Française" can stand up to the most rigorous and objective analysis, while a knowledge of its history heightens the wonder and awe of reading it. If that's a crime, let's just plead guilty and forge ahead.
These books are tangentially related, but I'll leave it to you to determine how.


James Redekop said...

I have a really brief bit on Collapse at '77 Track 7. Meant to write a lot more, but got 'way behind.

BTW, the Four Sisters came down this morning.

I'd love to see them replaced with windmills...

laura k said...

BTW, the Four Sisters came down this morning.

I just posted that link. :)

If Blogger was working better this morning, I'd have seen your comment before I posted mine.

Potato Head said...

Stephen Kinzer wrote the canonical book on the US overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, "Bitter Fruit." He also later wrote some of the worst dispatches from Nicaragua for the New York Times in the 80s, regurgitating most of the anti-Sandinista pap that passed for reporting from that tragic country. Activists who'd cut their political teeth on Bitter Fruit could never understand how a writer who obviously understood the history of US meddling in the region could turn into such a whore for the same hegemon when writing under the NYT byline. Of course back then the NYT still had some of its Vietnam era luster left. Now, with Jeff Gerth, Jason Blair, Judith Miller and the rest behind us, the self-debasement syndrome of people like Kinzer is easier to understand.