March 23, 2009
Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke
Nicholson Baker is a writer attracted to detail. His first book, The Mezzanine (1988) was a novella devoted to the minutiae of a man’s thoughts as he rides the escalator to his office one lunchtime, all tricked out with obsessive-compulsive footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes. A similar idea was used, to diminishing effect, in Room Temperature and A Box of Matches, though they were still pleasant reads. Attention to detail also featured in his memoir and paean to John Updike, U & I. Then there were his books to be filed under ‘controversy’: Vox, the ‘novel of telephone sex’, famous for having a hand – or thereabouts – in the Clinton-Lewinsky tangle; The Fermata, where a man used his ability to pause time mostly for the purpose of undressing women; and most recently Checkpoint, where two friends discuss the possible assassination of George W Bush. I have never really felt that any of his books matched The Mezzanine – until now.
Human Smoke can be filed under both ‘attention to detail’ and ‘controversy’. In it, Baker uses diary entries, newspaper reports, speeches, and official papers to attempt to overturn some preconceptions about the Second World War. The presentation is notable: one or two discrete paragraphs per page, white space around, each block of text containing a coolly related fact.
Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D., the assistant secretary of the navy, were invited to a party in honor of Bernard Baruch, the financier. “I’ve got to go to the Harris party which I’d rather be hung than seen at,” Eleanor wrote her mother-in-law. “Mostly Jews.” It was January 14, 1918.
I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened in 1974: “I imagined a man who was making an enormous statue out of sheet metal. He was shaping it with millions of identical taps from a ball-peen hammer. Each dent was a fact, a depressingly ordinary fact.” Here, the mesmerising quality of Heller’s prose is in some way echoed by the blank style, and the detailing of the date in each paragraph. “It was January 14, 1918.” “It was March 14, 1935.” “It was December 31, 1941.”
Baker presents the facts blankly, but he has chosen which ones to include, and he has a message to convey: that England and America were not dragged unwillingly into war. The suggestions which Baker’s facts communicate, hypnotically, like an incantation, are that in the 1930s and 40s America was intent on flexing its muscles against Japan, with ostentatious displays of military might in China and the Pacific; and that Winston Churchill was itching for another battle with Germany and, like Bush in Iraq, had already determined that it would happen long before the ostensible casus belli arose. Both governments sold arms to Germany and, even while regarding Hitler as “insane” (like Hitler’s own generals), they disdained Bolshevism more than Fascism: Churchill wrote admiringly of Mussolini (“amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance”) as late as 1937. Once England declared war on Germany, Hitler repeatedly made offers of peace towards England, though speculation on his motives – through sincere intent, or as a trick and a tactic, or because he feared losing the war – is something Baker declines to address.
However, when challenging our preconceptions, Baker does not seek to overturn basic truths such as the barbarism of Nazi Germany, and its express ambition to “destroy and exterminate the Polish people” – though there is doubt raised as to whether Hitler at this stage wanted to kill all European Jews or, instead, transport them to Madagascar (advanced plans apparently were made). But Baker does draw attention to the blight of anti-Semitism around the world: in Romania, one commentator reported on the “brutality” and “venomousness” of anti-Semitism “which makes effective comparison with Nazi Germany.” In Poland, the government sought to relieve itself of its three million Jews, investigating mass shipment to Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. Churchill himself, like Eleanor Roosevelt, expressed the casual anti-Semitism of the times, and it seems that the only people who gave a damn about Jewish refugees (‘refugees’, one commentator notes, was not the right word, as they had no refuge to go to) were the pacifists.
By making the peace campaigners the heroes of his story (the last words of the book, when Baker speaks directly to the reader about the pacifists, is “they failed, but they were right”), Baker is able to emphasise the mass hysteria of Nazi Germany where pacifism was regarded as a disgusting weakness (which seemed also to be Churchill’s view). In 1930, Joseph Goebbels led brownshirts in violent campaigns against the showing of the film All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque later wrote:
Nobody was older than twenty. None of them could have been in the [first world] war – and none of them knew that ten years later they would be in another war and that most of them would be dead before they reached thirty.
The question must be, whether all Baker’s meticulously researched text (there are around 1,500 references) amounts to propaganda in itself. Would pacifism, if practised by the allied governments, have had the effect which Aldous Huxley anticipated in 1937?
We have all seen how anger feeds upon answering anger, but is disarmed by gentleness and patience. We have all known what it is to have our meannesses shamed by someone else’s magnanimity into an equal magnanimity.
Is this ridiculously naive, given Hitler’s stated policy in 1933 that “our enemies will be ruthlessly and brutally exterminated”? Or would Hitler have had no enemies if only Britain and America had agreed to his proposal to divide the world into three empires? Christopher Isherwood, who allied himself with the pacifists, reflected on the central question that it was easier to determine what pacifists should not do than what they should. “Does one open all doors to the aggressor and let him take what he wants?” This seemed to be the view of Gandhi, a recurring source in Human Smoke: his view of the ultimate expression of non-violent resistance was to “allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered.” When apparently supporting this view, Isherwood was challenged by Klaus Mann: “If you let the Nazis kill everyone, you [allow] civilization to be destroyed.”
The case which Baker makes most successfully is against Churchill, as a military leader unconcerned with the niceties of the Hague Convention, keen to develop chemical weapons and to bomb indiscriminately. (The Prime Minister of Australia observed that Churchill “positively enjoys the war”.) Under his leadership, his Generals took the view that
[t]he 99 per cent [of bombs] which miss the military target all help to kill, damage, frighten or interfere with Germans in Germany and the whole 100 per cent of the bomber organisation is doing useful work, not merely 1 per cent of it
and that the ineffectiveness of bombing on German morale was not the point: “the morale of the British people requires that the Germans be attacked in some way.”
It is when Human Smoke discusses the fate of the Jews in Europe that its tone varies from the dispassionate. Amid the powerful, gripping narrative Baker has created in the strangest of ways, there is, occasionally, black humour:
A Jew is riding a streetcar, reading the Völkischer Beobachter, the main Nazi paper. A non-Jew sits down next to him, and says, “Why are you reading the Beobachter?” The Jew says, “Look, I work in a factory all day, my wife nags me, my kids are sick, and there’s no money for food. What should I do on the way home, read the Jewish newspaper? ‘Pogrom in Romania.’ ‘Jews murdered in Poland.’ ‘New laws against Jews.’ No, sir, a half hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter. ‘Jews the World Capitalists.’ ‘Jews Control Russia.’ ‘Jews Rule in England.’ That’s me they’re talking about. A half hour a day I’m somebody. Leave me alone, my friend.”
There is also an elegiac tone. This arises when a commentator reminds us that the horror and tragedy of the pogroms and the Holocaust and the war was not just what the Jews lost, and what Europe lost – a past and a future – but something else besides.
Never before in history has a country lost practically all of its poets, novelists and essayists at the same time. Within one year Germany lost the overwhelming spiritual influence its famous thinkers and writers had exerted over the whole world. It was a kind of death – the body stayed where it was, the soul was spread over the world.
I could go on about the book and its subjects and texts for another thousand words, but limitation of space requires me to end it here, without formal conclusion – following Baker, who stops on the semi-arbitrary date of December 31, 1941 (semi because it clearly follows the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the official US entry into the war). But please read Richard Crary’s valuable post on the book, which discusses the critical – in both senses – response to Human Smoke, and sums up the book much better than I could.