HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

February 15, 2013

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.

The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court by Ford Madox Ford

September 27, 2011

The court of King Henry VIII provides a fascinating framework on which a master stylist such as Ford Madox Ford (or Hilary Mantel) may hang their art. There is intrigue enough for a thriller, marriages enough for romance, and high ideas enough in the politics, religion, and literature of the time to supply, and possibly overwhelm, even the most gifted writers. Mantel focused on Thomas Cromwell, bucking the historical trend of villainizing the man, investing him with a noble, even democratic, constitution. The man, in Hilary’s telling, pulled himself from nothing to be the maker of kings on an unbendable will and almost limitless talents:

He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (Wolf Hall)

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is, reputedly, the first of a planned trilogy. My hunch is that she took more than a little inspiration from The Fifth Queen, also a trilogy.

Where Mantel gives us Cromwell’s perspective, Ford Madox Ford chose Katharine Howard for his lead. Like Mantel, Ford lists the considerable talents of his star:

She had some Greek, more than a little French, she could judge a good song, she could turn a verse in Latin or the vulgar tongue. She professed to be able to ride well, to be converseant with the terms of venery, to shoot with the bow, and to have studied the Fathers of the Church.

The resonance between the passages is but one example of many where Ford’s version is amplified in Mantel’s rendering. Mantel made Cromwell her hero, but Ford held him in some regard as well. In his non-fiction, Ford approvingly cited a scholar who described Cromwell as “a mighty minister & a consummate diplomatist, skilfully [sic] balancing the Powers one against another & crushing out seditions with a strong but necessary & beneficient hand.” (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 7) The essay excoriates Professor Goldwin Smith for, among other things, condemning Cromwell on no better evidence than “the accusations of his enemies, for Cromwell was not even tried.” (p. 7). The implication is that Cromwell was, at least, no worse than other men.

Ford says about Henry that he “was a man very much of his age.” (p. 8.) Ford’s characters take a very similar view of Cromwell, such as when Katharine Howard expresses distain for him:

“Men are not such villains.”

“They are as occasion makes them,” [Throckmorton] answered with his voice of a philosopher. “What manner of men these times breed you should know if you be not a fool.”

Mantel’s Cromwell was ruthless when circumstances demanded it and Ford’s characters have a similar view. I like this particular admonishment of Katharine for her idealism.

“It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world’s weapons.”

Mantel’s minute focus on Cromwell is matched by Ford’s examination of his fictional Katharine Howard. Katharine arrives at Henry VIII’s court idealistically naïve. The spy Throckmorton tries to disabuse her of simplistic notions of good and evil:

”But your eyes are so clear,” he sighed. “They see the black andwhite of a man. The grey they miss. And you are slow to learn. Nevertheless, already you have learned that here we have no yea-nay world of evil and good…”

“No,” she said, “that I have not learned, nor never shall.”

“Oh, aye,” he mocked at her. “You have learned that the Bishop of Winchester, who is on the side of your hosts of heaven, is a knave and a fool. You have learned that I, whom you have accounted a villain, am for you, and a very wise man. You have learned that Privy Seal, for whose fall you have prayed these ten years, is, his deeds apart, the only good man in this quaking place.”

The conflict in this first installment of the trilogy is between Katharine’s uncompromising views on good and evil and the realities of English politics. One gets the sense that she will be every bit as tragic a figure as Mantel’s Cromwell. Katherine’s are good and laudable principles, but either she or they must be ground down between the stones of national and religious politics.

Ford’s style is impeccable. The above quotes capture his ability to put passably 16th Century language into the mouths of his characters without sounding either ridiculous or counterfeit. The dialogue is simply beautiful.

Likewise, his treatment of minor characters adds depth and flavor to these high level intrigues. An old man is angry with Cromwell for building a wall through his garden and gives vent to his son and a printer. The scene feels intimate and real.

“A wall,” [the printer] muttered; “my Lord Privy Seal hath set up a wall against priestcraft all round these kingdoms—”

“Therefore you would have him welcome to forty feet of my garden?” the old man drawled. “He pulls down other folks’ crucifixes and sets up his own walls with other folks’ blood for mortar.”

The printer said darkly:

“Papists’ blood.”

The old man pulled his nose and glanced down.

“We were all Papists in my day.”

Early vignettes like this one acclimate the reader to time and place sufficiently that the novel feels dark and dank. However accurate the history presented is, it becomes a lived history and, for better or worse, all the more real because of that. Ford would say this as it should be:

For in their really higher manifestations History & Fiction are one: they are documented, tolerant, vivid; their characters live & answer & react one upon another each after his own sort. Fiction indeed, so long as it is not written with a purpose, is Contemporary History & History is the same thing as the Historic Novel, as long as it is inspired with the Historic Sense…the Historic Novel with a wide outlook upon peoples & upon kings. (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 13)

The Fifth Queen is, certainly, a Historic Novel. I would recommend it to anyone awaiting Mantel’s next installment. As proof of my sincerity, I plan to read the remainder of the two trilogies in tandem.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

May 17, 2010

I discussed this book during my coverage of the 2010 Tournament of Books, but, until now, had not posted a stand alone review. This book was too good to pass by without my writing a full review, notwithstanding that there are already numerous, excellent reviews on the web. Forgive my self-indulgence.

The story is that of Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him he is still a child suffering under the tyranny of his abusive father, Walter. Neither Cromwell nor the reader remain with Walter for very long.

What is clear is his thought about Walter; I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason.

Mantel’s dark wit suffuses the book, providing welcome relief to the tense struggle for power and survival in Henry VII’s England.

The narrative picks up when Cromwell has returned to England and is beginning his upward climb through the Royal Court. Cromwell serves Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, another very ambitious man. Of course, Thomas More is an enemy and the clash between Cromwell and More is central to the book. Mantel takes her time in getting us to that crucial point, though. Her deliberate speed is offputting to some, but the prose is so well written and the suspense so carefully, steadily built that I quite enjoyed it.

History has been more kind to Thomas More than to Cromwell. Mantel brings some balance to the comparison by heavily favoring Cromwell. The reader is brought inside the mind of this man of (relatively) low class birth as he strives to achieve on merit alone. Because of Cromwell has to earn his social status, his wealth, and his power, he is a very practical man. Where Thomas More takes pride in unbending adherence to religious duty, Cromwell values efficacy.

The conflict between Cromwell and More is not just that between a practical man and a principled one. Cromwell is more than an opportunist. Mantel has created a true Renaissance Man. Cromwell and King Henry discuss Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura”; it is clear to the reader, if not to King Henry, that Cromwell is the embodiment of Castiglione’s ideal. Cromwell is reputedly able to quote the entire New Testament, he speaks multiple languages, he is a fearsome fighter, and he is knowledgeable about textiles, packing, falconry, canines, and people. He exercises that “dignified public restraint” urged by Castiglione, openly asserting himself only when necessary.

Cromwell himself places less stock in his “sprezzatura”. He does not believe his graceful excellence in a breadth of fields is what allows him to succeed where lesser men fail.

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook…

So is Cromwell the good guy or a crook? He is both. He is easily the hero of this book and, in fact, is painted with perhaps a bit too much humanity (e.g. the scenes of caring for animals, children, and/or the elderly where others are more cold-hearted). He sees himself as a “subtle crook” and he is. He is a crook like Robin Hood. Those he swindles are the powerful, the overbearing, and the undeservingly rich in either wealth or esteem. Cromwell’s crookery is heroism. He beats the bad guys at their own game.

The re-imagining of Cromwell as the good guy and Thomas More as the bad guy is not just a charming story of a bad boy hero, but corresponds with a shift in cultural and moral standards. Thomas More’s dogmatic religiosity is disfavored in today’s society, whereas a modern reader will almost certainly laud Cromwell’s rise on merit and his questioning of received wisdom. Mantel most clearly defines the contrast between the men in this paragraph in which Cromwell attempts to understand More:

Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

While I may be particularly situated to appreciate Cromwell’s aversion to received dogmatism, Mantel is tapping into a vibrant strain in current culture. In important ways, Mantel is telling us more about our world and our century than she is about the 16th century. This is a narrative about the England of the 1500s, but the questions it poses are modern ones.

Mantel manages the large themes well and supports them with sometimes stunningly intricate details. For an example, take the scene in which Cromwell and Rafe Sadler, Cromwell’s son by upbringing if not by birth, play chess.

For a long time they sit gazing at their pieces, at the configuration which locks them in place. They see it coming: stalemate. “We’re too good for each other.”

“Perhaps we ought to play against other people.”

“Later. When we can wipe out all-comers.”

Rafe says, “Ah, wait!” He seizes his knight and makes it leap. Then he looks at the result, aghast.

“Rafe, you are foutu.”

For those who know little about chess, the scene works excellently, I suspect. Rafe tries too hard to win and goes from a draw to a loss, a tempermental difference also shown by their relative interest in playing other people. Rafe is eager where Cromwell is cautious to wait until sure of his advantage.

I tend to waste far too much time playing chess, so the details of literary descriptions of chess games interest me. Books so often get chess wrong.

A stalemate is a very specific type of position which modern rules declare a draw. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the technical definition of stalemate with this accurate explanation of the circumstances in which it generally arises:

During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive.

What initially bothered me about the scene is that the implication is that both players see the stalemate coming and cannot avoid it, proving how equally matched they are. “Draw” would work, at first glance, better than “stalemate” in the scene because a draw without stalemate is the much more likely result in the case of evenly matched opponents, particularly in complex positions. Specifiying a stalemate invites the chess-literate (obsessed) reader to speculate as to what sort of position has arisen. The position must not involve a swindle or they would not both see it coming. The position must be complex. In a simple position, even a moderately experienced player would not try to avoid a stalemate if the only alternative were an losing move because it would be easy to see the alternative move was losing. It is extremely difficult to imagine a position where both sides have equal material and equal advantage but the game is headed to an inevitable stalemate absent error. “Draw” is less jarring than “stalemate”.

What works is that such a position is possible. And “stalemate” is the better literary choice because a stalemate is precisely what occurs in the larger story. King Henry VIII is left without any legal moves in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The parallel is nicely done. The coordination between this otherwise insignificant game and the subject of the novel would be lost if Mantel had written a more pedestrian draw. “Stalemate” is necessary, really, to her artistic purposes.

But there is another potential problem: historical plausibility. My examination of stalemate possibilities resulted in my stumbling across the history of the stalemate rule. It has not always been treated as a draw. In fact, in England stalemate was not considered a draw until the 19th century. Mantel is saved, however, because Italy adopted the rule that a stalemate was a draw in the 13th century. Cromwell spent considerable time in Italy and, therefore, could have adopted that rule and taught it to Rafe. Again, Mantel’s scene achieves, barely, plausibility.

And so my initial questioning of the scene resulted in a vindication of Mantel’s choice. The parallel between the game and the narrative is beautiful and, importantly to me, does not come at the expense of accuracy. My faith in Mantel’s research and fidelity to plausibility is strengthened; my admiration of her artistic achievement is enhanced.
Of course, most readers will care little about the chess details of that very short scene. It is only a very small reason why I am so impressed with the work. I tried to point out a number of the larger reasons before launching into my chess pedantry. But there are still more.

The use of “he” as usually referring to Cromwell is a pleasingly original narrative technique that has been pointed out and discussed by others. Likewise, Mantel’s ability to draw the reader into the King Henry’s court has been eloquently lauded before.

There is a great deal more to love about this book too. I found the prose always excellent and sometimes delightful. Rather than try to continue cataloguing all Mantel’s successes, I will leave you with one of my favorite snatches of her prose:

Anne struggles to sit up, she sees him clearly, she smiles, she says his name. They bring a basin of water strewn with rose petals, and wash her face; her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.

The March by E.L. Doctorow

October 5, 2009

Some of my favorite books are war novels. One of my first “big” books (300+ pages) was a fortuitous find on my school’s library shelves: Newberry Winner Rifles for Watie. I loved that book. I did not realize at the time, but it was my first introduction to a more nuanced understanding of the Civil War than the traditional southern “Lost Cause” mythology that seems to get passed down nearly by osmosis to those who grow up in the American South.

I read a few other novels set during the Civil War as a child, but mostly moved on to other things. In my teens, I read some war novels, usually set in Vietnam, and Clancy’s military-techno-thrillers (my mother brought home The Hunt for Red October for my brother and me; we loved it). As an adult, my experience with “war novels” includes these favorites: A Farewell to Arms, Slaughterhouse Five, Killer Angels, and Catch-22.

At the time I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, I would not have consciously thought of what a “war novel” would or should look like. Most of the novels I had read to that point, however, had been told from the grunt’s point of view and had taken the reasonable view that war is hell. Killer Angels has a different feel, as explained by D.G. Meyers in his interesting review of Killer Angels. In the review, Meyers argues that Shaara freshly demonstrated with his novel that “a war novel need not be a ‘trauma novel.’”

Killer Angels is told almost exclusively from the officers’ point of view, rather than from the grunts’ point of view. This does make for a different sort of “war novel.” I think Meyers makes a good point. He closes by saying “there has been no other novel like it in forty years.”

TheMarchWhile The March is not exactly like Killer Angels in elevating the war to “a conflict of strategies and philosophies – a continuation of policies rather than an uninterrupted anarchy”, E.L. Doctorow perhaps learned something from that earlier book. Doctorow gives us multiple views up and down the chain of command, both inside and outside the military. And though The March is unlikely to leave you feeling that war is anything other than hell, it also recognizes and gives homage to the strategies and philosophies motivating the conflict.

Doctorow achieves this latter effect by drafting into his cause actual participants in Sherman’s march through the South, including most prominently, General Sherman himself. Several other historical figures, including President Lincoln and General Grant, are included in Doctorow’s large cast of characters. The character of Sherman is embellished with idiosyncrasies such as insomnia and dislike of conventional beds. Doctorow’s President Lincoln is perhaps a bit too hallowed by the other characters, wringing visible sympathy from the normally cold Wrede Sartorius. Still, Doctorow must have extensively researched his material because he, like Shaara, is able to explain and convey both the military strategy and the military tactics of the battles he relates.

If you are not familiar with the American Civil War, General Sherman took over as Union commander in the Western Theater of the war when General Grant was elevated from that post to general-in-chief of the Union Army in 1864. General Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. His victory helped secure Lincoln’s election to a second term.

From there, Sherman followed a “hard war” policy while marching southeast through Georgia to Savannah and then up through the Carolinas. Sherman’s “hard war” consisted of destroying the Confederacy’s infrastructure and, he hoped, eviscerating the Confederacy’s will to continue the fight.

The March opens from the point of view of a southern plantation owner, John Jameson, preparing his family for flight as General Sherman is beginning his march from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. The slaves are left behind. The most important of those to the novel is Pearl, a young female slave who, by outward appearance, is white. We soon learn that she is the daughter of John Jameson. Sherman’s army does get to the plantation and Lieutenant Clarke finds Pearl:

Her chin lifted, she regarded him as if she were the mistress of the house. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, barefoot, in a plain frock to her knees, but caped by the shawl into a shockingly regal young woman. Before he could say anything, she darted past him and down the stairs. He caught a glimpse of smooth white calves, the shawl flying behind her.

Clarke and his men burn down the plantation and pillage everything of value. When they leave, the slaves go with them, there being no shelter or food remaining. Pearl stands apart from the other slaves who have piled into wagons and joined the procession. Clarke sees her and pulls her up on his horse. With this, Pearl is pulled into the march to stay.

It would take too long to properly introduce all the other major characters, so I will summarize. Lieutenant Clarke’s storyline soon intersects with that of two Confederates slated for hanging by their own side. The older, cynical, and cunning Arly fell asleep at his post, while the young, naïve, homesick Will deserted. Before the march has reached Savannah, Will and Arly will have switched sides several times. Emily Thompson is the daughter of a respected Judge and, eventually, joins the march as a nurse for Europe-educated Colonel Wrede Sartorius. Sartorius is a brilliant, if somewhat cold, army surgeon. In fact, he is the most respected surgeon in the Union. Perhaps, in Doctorow’s rendering, he is a little too brilliant.

Even so, Sartorius is a particularly interesting character. While not uncaring, his sympathy is almost exclusively expressed as efficiency. A typical show of his compassion is the amputation of a limb in nine seconds, a Union army best. His sex scene will send shivers through anyone with a modicum of romance. He is dissected best, perhaps, in these lines:

It is a cold, dark life, the life of principled feeling.

Sartorius is a principled man and his principles all serve to advance medical science. In one example, he refuses to operate on Albion Simms, a soldier with a spike on his head and, instead, takes him along on the march to study his deterioration. Albion Simms loses his memory along the way:

Yes. That is why my head hurts. It’s always now. That’s what hurts. Who did you say I was?

Albion Simms.

No, I can’t remember. There is no remembering. It’s always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it’s always now. What did I just say?

It’s always now.


Albion, in tears, held his bar and nodded. Then he rocked himself back and forth, back and forth. It’s always now, he said. It’s always now.

This patient and his condition act as a metaphor for the march and war. In war, Doctorow points out, it is always now.

But to give any idea of the scope of the novel, I should mention the many other characters. Wilma Jones and Coalhouse Walker are slaves freed by Sherman’s army who meet and try to survive by following the march. Coalhouse is the father of a character in another of Doctorow’s novels. Roscoe is a distinguished black slave to John Jameson. Jameson’s wife Mattie searches for her two Confederate soldier sons. Then there is the photographer Josiah Culp and his assistant Calvin Harper who have a run-in with Arly and Will.

Gen. Judson Kilpatrick is a dandy and heads one of Sherman’s cavalry units, seducing and being seduced along the march. Stephen Walsh is a Union soldier who finds his way through to Colonel Sartorius’s surgery. Hugh Pryce is an English journalist who becomes involved in events which hinders his reporting. And there are numerous other minor characters. From Generals to slaves to “white trash”, Doctorow examines all strata of those affected by the march.

Yet, while each of these characters is important, the story is not about any particular character. The story is about the march. When Sherman muses at the march’s end:

Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing – not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.

And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.

This hearkens back to Albion Simms and his condition. In war, as with Simms, it is always now. Immediate survival and, hence, immediate gratification are the primary aims of the participants and those caught up in its horrors. Arly and Will exemplify that approach. Their sympathies lie with the South, but, in the always now war, they will put on whatever uniform is most conducive to survival. For generals, though, their own survival is rarely an issue. They have bigger goals which become their “always now”. The devouring beast of war is a means not only to an end, but to meaning.