March 23, 2009

Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Posted in Baker Nicholson at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

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44 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    I read the David Cesarini review in The Independent when the hardback came out, and it put me off. Here are the two resoundingly negative excerpts from it.

    ‘On the strength of his ruminations and some basic, if voluminous, research, Baker has decided that he knows why the Second World War happened. He has then selected the most powerful, emotive and, yes, entertaining bits of history and pasted them into a sort of scrapbook that pretends to be a narrative. In fact, it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker’s paranoid view of history.’

    ‘I suspect that Baker is really writing about Iraq. What we have here is 1933 viewed through the lens of 2003. However, while there is credible evidence that Britain and America were misled into the Iraq war by a conspiracy of unscrupulous politicians and greedy industrialists, to find the same explanation for the Second World War requires the talents of, well, a novelist. But history is too serious a thing to be left to novelists.’

    One or two contentious lines there, but the basic suggestion was that Baker had bitten off more than he could adequately chew. Admirable, in my opinion, and I will read this at some point in the near future, despite the general kicking it got in the press. But, as you touch on, John, is it merely propaganda?

  2. I’ve heard an awful lot about this book. Not much of it good.

    Is this ridiculously naive, given Hitler’s stated policy in 1933 that “our enemies will be ruthlessly and brutally exterminated”?

    I’m guessing “yes”. Averting war at all costs might have prevented the death camps. The final solution was a wartime decision — before the war, the Nazis may have settled for deporting the Jews.

    But we don’t know. I think we can be fairly sure that, without the war, a brutal, racist, murderous, totalitarian regime would have become an unassailable nuclear power. I’m glad I’m not in that world.

  3. John Self said,

    Lee, the answer is that it must be considered propaganda, on a basic definition of that word: “information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause.” What the cause is, in this case, is another question. In an interview which you can see here, Baker denies seeking (as he has been accused of by some) to present the Allies and the Nazis as being somehow morally equivalent:

    The bad [reviews] seem to follow the teeter-totter school: that if a dictator and the nation he controls is evil, then the leader of the nation who opposes the evil dictator must be good. Life isn’t that way, of course. There is in fact no “moral equivalence” created by examining coterminous violent and repulsive acts.

    He also argues, I think persuasively, in favour of his format, which is to present snippets of information largely out of context (which again has been criticized by others):

    It helps sometimes to look at an action–compassionate, murderous, confessional, obfuscatory–out of context: as something that somebody did one day. The one-day-ness of history is often lost in traditional histories, because paragraphs and sections are organized by theme: attack, counterattack, argument, counterargument. That’s a reasonable way to proceed, but I rejected it here for several reasons. First, because it fails to convey the hugeness and confusion of the time as it was experienced by people who lived through it. And, second, because I wanted the reader to have to form, and then jettison, and then re-form, explanations and mini-narratives along the way–as I did, and as did a newspaper reader in, say, New York City in September, 1941.

    I think generally that hostile reviewers are seeking to attribute aims to Baker that he didn’t have: to write a comprehensive overview of the approach to, and first years of, the Second World War. His two main aims do seem to be (a) to suggest that Churchill and Roosevelt were not reluctantly dragged into the war, and I think he does succeed in that (and I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial viewpoint anyway), and (b) to suggest that fighting the war did not help those who needed help, particularly the Jews. For me he did not make that case successfully, though I may be conflating that with the suggestion that the war should not have been fought at all – the point Jonathan addresses also – which is not quite the same thing. However, I don’t think one has to agree with everything Baker wants to put across in order to admire the book.

  4. Richard said,

    Nice post. And thanks for the link to mine. I hope this will give me the reason I need to finish the long-gestating follow-up to that post (the composition of which was interrupted by the birth of our baby).

    I would like to say briefly here that people seem to overlook the fact that Baker doesn’t begin his narrative abruptly in 1933, with Hitler already in power. At that point, it certainly seems likely that war of some kind was inevitable. But in 1914, with WWI just beginning, did WWII have to be inevitable? Of course not. Or even in 1919, or 1925. Choices are made. (I highlighted the role of big business for a reason, too. Choices are made!) Etc.

    Thanks again.

  5. deucekindred said,

    Great to hear that Baker is on form, to be honest, with the exception of The Mezzanine I never found any of his novels (or non fiction for that matter) to be ‘complete’ and in due course i got a bit tired and stopped reading his books after ‘A Box of Matches’. I always get this feeling that his books are half arsed or, in the other extreme pretentious (the worst being the everlasting story of Nory)

    After reading this review i’ll check out Human Smoke. Thanks!

  6. Lee Monks said,

    I had a cursory look through it the other day with half an eye on buying it (despite the grumpy reception) and I have to say I did like the way it was laid out; of course, one has to read it fully to see if that works, but I thought it was a great way to approach such a subject, such stark segments no doubt forming a cumulative power. I guess my main reluctance hinges on the nagging feeling I may have that it would be too determinedly and transparently trammelled down a specific path in order to fulfil pre-conceived notions. That sifting through the archives and cherry-picking appropriate material renders the whole objective redundant, and leaves instead an easily deconstructible argument that historians would willingly line up to demolish the validity of. These would not obscure the enjoyment of the writing but it would seem to be a dangerous conceit, and a queasy prospect over that length.

  7. Sam said,

    ‘without the war, a brutal, racist, murderous, totalitarian regime would have become an unassailable nuclear power.’

    But America got their instead (boom boom).

    If a war is all it takes to destroy ‘brutal, racist, murderous, totalitarian regime[s]‘, then whither Darfur, Afghanistan, Somalia, Wazirikistan, Kayin, Burma, Uganda, Nagaland, Phillipines, Balochistan, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Niger…

    • I almost made that gag myself. The problem is, some people take it seriously — and forget that present day America and 1930s Nazi Germany could hardly be more different.

      It would be great if we could easily overthrow all the world’s worst dictatorships. As the Iraq War has proved, even overthrowing one is staggeringly difficult and expensive.

    • Sam said,

      How can I still, when so late in the game, still be getting my ‘theres and theirs’ wrong?

  8. Trevor said,

    When the book came out I was fascinated by the concept and was on my way to purchase it when I ran into one of the unfavorable reviews that made it sound like Baker was a hack historian. My interest evaporated. From the reviews, I thought it sounded like he muffled the context like a freshman at university, a weak, self-serving strategy, hoping that enough people will not look into it. Baker’s quote you pull above, however, not only refutes that this was his motive but also makes the book attractive again.

  9. JRSM said,

    As Trevor said, I was also going to buy this until all the negative kerfuffle put me off. Now I’ve been convinced by your review to go and get it. And that marvellous quote you use: ‘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.’ So true. But the work those writers and artists produced in exile is some of the best last century has to offer.

  10. I would like to weigh in on the opposite side — I will not be buying this book and I don’t think others should. Historians write history, novelists write fiction. As the excellent review here shows, this is a book where someone who knows very little about the subject has engaged in a bunch of (I presume) worthwhile research and produced a very bad book. If you want to read something that has more than propaganda value, I would suggest Tony Judt’s Postwar. It not only deals with the after war years in a very engaging, and well-researched, fashion — it does a go job of explaining what produced the war. With all respect, I think Baker’s book is a better candidate for the dustbin than it is for reading. I truly resent when novelists exploit their station to make arguments that are iffy at best. If he wants to be a propagandist or journalist, then let him enter that trade — don’t hide behind the blinds of his own and then make arguments like this. I would not recommend a Tony Judt novel (as much as I respect him); I certainly would not recommend a Baker history.

  11. Richard said,

    It’s interesting how sure you are it’s a bad book.

  12. It is true that I have never read Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard and I still consider both to be bad writers — and I’m pretty comfortable with my opinion. I don’t dispute anyone’s right to publish but I do think it is quite fair to say why you don’t believe people should read the book.

  13. Lee Monks said,

    I instinctively side with KevinfromCanada here. I actually rate the oft derided Baker as a fine writer (‘A Box Of Matches’ was something that seemingly me and 3 other people worldwide liked!) but this looks like it might be a well-meant mis-step. Baker seems to be a more than decent writer continuously struggling for what to say, hence the minutae scrutiny and wildly divergent subject matter. I will not throw idle dismissals, though. I will give it a try.

  14. Lee Monks said,

    That last missive wasn’t aimed at you, KevinfromCanada, by the way! Having re-read it it might look that way. But I’m just emphasising the fact that I will give it a read and see what’s what before I commit totally to a viewpoint, as only seems fair…

  15. Richard said,

    That’s fine Kevin, but it’s not really the same as Rand or Hubbard. Your distinction between “novelists” and “historians” is entirely bogus. And Baker is not “exploiting his station” (how obnoxious) to produce an argument that’s “iffy at best”. He’s approached the material from an atypical direction and ended up writing something that adds to an understanding of the period. I’m going to leave it at that, since I said more in my own post, which John was nice enough to link to.

  16. John Self said,

    Kevin, I think my difficulty here is with the definition of Baker as a ‘novelist’, which I think is somewhat limiting. I would describe him simply as a writer (as indeed, checking back, I did in my first words of the review above – phew). He has written six novels and four non-fiction books, and indeed his book Double Fold (which begins “This is not an impartial piece of reporting”) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction in 2001. So I think he can reasonably be defined as more than simply a novelist.

    The Hubbard and Rand analogy seems to me to be something like a false syllogism, as I take it you are not saying Baker is a bad writer (as you are with the other two, and on which I would agree with you, also not having read them), but rather that you believe this to be a bad book from a writer who is otherwise not (or not necessarily) bad.

    I must admit that although I was aware of the criticisms of Human Smoke, I did want to read it in hardback and only waited for the paperback because of size issues. So I will be very interested if anyone such as Trevor, JRSM or Lee – who thought they would not be interested but now may want to read it – thinks that it was worth their while in the end.

  17. Trevor said,

    Unlike Richard, I believe there is a distinction between a novelist and a historian. Historians, as in any academic field, have a certain disciplinary methodology to follow. A novelist can easily not just bypass these standards due to prominence and the fact that the publisher has no such standards but can also, because of prominence, bypass any kind of peer review. Of the book reviews I read, not one was by a historian (though I’m sure they had something to say about this book and that I just missed it). All were by the same people who review the fiction I read (and even most of them admitted the argument was “iffy at best,” though compelling).

    However, I follow the idea that this type of book, like every piece of fiction, serves at best only to enrich, not to prove. I don’t mind having a novelist or nonfiction writer (still different than a historian) attempt to straddle both worlds, though sometimes they look foolish doing so.

  18. Richard said,

    Well, what I meant was that the distinction is irrelevant to this discussion, to Baker in particular (not least for the reasons John ably supplies in his comment–chief among them, Baker is a writer). Certainly historians do, as a group, have a certain disciplinary methodology they follow. I’m not discounting that. Although it’s worth noting that plenty of great history has been written which not according to strict adherence to methodology.

    Most of the reviewers did “admit” (how odd to put it that way) that the argument was “iffy at best”. In their rush to such judgment, however, they generally failed to notice that an argument, as such, is not advanced. My argument is that such reviewers did not do a good job of reading the book.

  19. Trevor said,

    I’ll have to “admit” that was an odd way of putting it. Just an off-the-cuff word in a blog comment, though. Nothing odd meant by it, though. Substitute the word “said” or “wrote.”

  20. Ack, a slip of the keyboard and a lengthy post just got deleted.

    Right, well. Roth in his 1933 essay Auto-da-Fe of the Mind discusses the destruction of Germany’s intellectual classes, an essay that’s all the more powerful for being written by one of them. He takes if I recall correctly five pages, and it’s an essay well worth reading. Roth would have called himself neither author nor historian, but simply journalist.

    On Churchill, he’s long been a controversial figure. His sympathies for fascism are well recorded, my (far from unique) impression of him is as an extremist figure – far right and highly militaristic, a dinosaur really but one who when the war came proved to have a mix of talents peculiarly suited to the occasion. Without WW2 I suspect he’d be a footnote in British history, and not a distinguished one, but with WW2 and his contribution to Britain’s survival his many faults (and they were many) do rather pale by comparison.

    Popular history makes a saint of him, so do politicians of the right, but historians as a rule do not and I think the people of the time did not either. He was a failing politician before the war, his aggressive and warlike tendencies were hardly disadvantages in the face of blatant German aggression (regardless of Hitler’s ostensibly pacificist overtures) and as soon as we had won we got rid of him again. He served the purpose to which he was suited, and surely it was his failings that suited him to it as much as his strengths.

    But as I say, none of that is new, which makes me wonder what the point to this book is exactly. It sounds to me that Baker is pushing a door that those who were interested in the period already knew was open.

  21. Trevor said,

    Despite the risk (a great risk) of sounding petty, and despite the fact that this has little to do with this thread, I’d actually like to now defend my use of “admit.” When I posted my concession above, I thought, I’m not pro at finding le mot juste, but why did I type “admit”? And then it came to me that it is not odd at all. The reviewers mostly argued the book was good and worth reading, but they admit into their own argument (or concede, probably a better word) that the book’s premise is shaky (whether they actually understood the premise or not). So as a “concession” or an “admission of a fact,” “admit” is not an odd word at all in my comment. It is only odd if you read it to mean that the reviewer has something personal at stake with the book’s argument. What they have at stake is their own argument in their own review.

    Sorry about that. Who knew I’d be fretting about the word “admit” today? It was kind of fun, though.

  22. Your usage of admit seemed to me a perfectly ordinary one in that context Trevor, clearly the reviewers liked the book (or at least found it interesting) despite being unpersuaded by what they saw as its central argument.

    Similarly, the book I’m presently reading is A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. I like it and think it is a fascinating evocation of the life of African-Americans in the Harlem of the 1960s, although I admit I’m not wholly persuaded by two fairly central characters in it.

  23. Just remembered something that got lost in my deleted post, I hate the cover. I keep seeing at the moment these rather tasteful covers suggestive of World War 2 (at least more justifiable here than on some) making the whole thing look like a wartime romance or piece of chick lit. This is precisely in that mode of cover design, it’s pat and predictable and patronising and other things beginning with p. I look forward to when the fashion moves on.

    And if I see one more cover featuring a man in a long overcoat walking through mist in what seems to be a vaguely Central European location, I shall surely cry, though there I digress (slightly).

    • JRSM said,

      This is off the topic entirely, but I’ve just read ‘The King in Yellow’ by Robert Chambers, and now realise the AWFUL SIGNIFICANCE of Max Cairnduff’s avatar/image thingy…

      But you’re right about the covers!

  24. Trevor said,

    You might like the North American cover more, Max. The hardback had a vellum cover, if I remember correctly, and the soft cover has the same image.

  25. Sorry about a late posting when I was the guy who loosed the fox in the hen house — I am quite a few time zones behind. It certainly seems to have sparked some interest.

    I don’t think distinguishing between novelists and historians is “bogus” in any way, shape or form. I would “admit” that I harbor negative thoughts about those who think they are the same. In the same vein, I have questions about those who think that authors of negative reviews “did not do a good job of reading the book.” My comparison with Rand and Hubbard was probably unfair when it was originally made, however I would point out that fans of both feel readers who don’t like them “did not do a good job of reading the book.” Sounds pretty defensive to me.

    I’d also critique my own argument by pointing out that I am placing Baker in pretty good company when I make it. I raise the same objection to Updike (The Terrorist), Delillo (Falling Man), Roth (The Plot Against America) and LeCarre (Absolute Friends). That’s not a bad group to be lumped in with, I’d have to say. (See also John’s review of Brian Moore’s attempt at historical journalism on the Quebec FLQ crisis, The Revolution Script, another “novel” i would prefer had not been written.) On the other hand, I would cite the historical example of John Milton (happy 400th John). He certainly wrote some wonderful polemics as well as poems — he didn’t use his poems as political polemics.

    Novelists do have the right, perhaps even duty, to examine history. Pat Barker did it with the Ghost Road trilogy, Sebatian Faulks looks at a number of conflicts and Tim O’Brien has dissected the Vietnam war as effectively as any historian did. Everything that I have read about Baker’s book (and I do admit that I have not read it) says that he does not deserve to be included in that group. And I would continue to argue, as I did in my first post, that a reader would be far better served by reading Tony Judt as a practising historian than Baker, arguably trying to masquerade (that may be too strong a word) as one.

  26. Richard said,

    Trevor, apologies for highlighting the word “admit” like that. I read it as “the book has x iffy argument, and the reviewers were simply forced to admit that on their way to saying something else” (or something similar). And I don’t consider it at all petty to elaborate on or clarify your intent. I do it all the time. (Meanwhile, I’m still annoyed that I completely mangled the last sentence of the first paragraph in the very comment in which I did that!)

    Kevin, I think you’re largely missing or sidestepping my point. What is meant by “readers being better served” by reading Judt or someone else? That they’ll get a better or more complete picture of the war? Is that always what’s called for? What is the purpose of reading history? Is it an either/or prospect? Is it just so we can read a swell story and gain knowledge of the past? Or does it perhaps have something to say about how we approach and understand the present? Baker’s written a book that listens to a lot of voices we rarely hear from, and in doing so he suggests a lot about how that war is used in current situations, and about how we fail, continuously, to learn from the past in any useful way whatsoever.

  27. Point taken, Richard. All I was trying to say was that I think a reader would be better served by investing time in an historian like Judt. One of his more interesting arguments (relating to what I think is one of Baker’s points — I have read your post, if not the book) is that the reason the U.S. is willing to engage in wars is because none (except for civil conflicts) have ever been fought on domestic turf. He argues that modern Europe has learned from the last century that war has no winners, only losers (hence they have French fries, not freedom fries) — which seems to be a point of agreement with Baker.

    I guess I should stop being down on efforts like Baker’s. I’ll concede that as a former journalist I don’t like it when novelists invade this turf — obviously for some people that is not an issue and I should probably just keep my opinions to myself.

  28. Trevor said,

    I should probably just keep my opinions to myself.

    Not true, Kevin. I think the discussion here has been illuminating. I don’t think enough people take what you’re saying into account when reading a book like this. Even if the commenters here read the book with the right frame of mine, many more do not. They read it as straight history and they will force the book to disclose some conclusion, even if they were not supposed to. And then they spread that unwarranted conclusion for ages! For me, that’s the real annoyance with such works.

    It sounds like Baker might be aware of the difficulty here, and that’s why he puts disclaimers at the front to say the reportage is not unbiased. Then again, isn’t that an excellent rhetorical technique to get the reader’s respect? If so (and my suspicion is that it is), that statement does the exact opposite of what it purports to do. And that is why historians have a rigid structure to arguments: so that the rhetoric is forced to be tamed by highly theorized methods.

  29. Okay, Trevor, me and my opinions are back again. I agree completely with your observation and think it captures what I have been trying to say — books like this ignore the rules of scholarship, make “rhetorical” disclaimers and lead readers to unjustified conclusions. Richard’s post on this book ends with a final para that includes “by finally understanding the dictates of amoral capitalism (“If you can pay, you can buy”), perhaps then we can see how we are maniputlated into each new military adventure.” As much as I might agree with that sentiment (I pretty much do) it is a conclusion that the author has disclaimed in his forward, yet it has been drawn from the book. That is my problem with books of this nature — readers reach conclusions based on rhetoric, not scholarship. I have no problems with novelists using their format the pose those kind of questions; I do have problems with books that “answer” them. I think that is bad scholarhsip.

  30. See John, being a parent is not a problem. Just find the right book. say a few things and your blogging friends will fill up the space. All the best to Mrs. Self and your son. I’ve certainly had a great time opining on this one. Keep up the good work.

    • John Self said,

      And I’ve enjoyed reading the debate, Kevin (and Richard, and Trevor, and others). Yes, there’s no denying this book has attracted more discussion than the Independent Foreign Fiction longlist titles. For my next trick: Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child. (Though that has probably not been as ubiquitous in the media in North America as it has here.)*

      Anyway after my next review, of a poetry book, I have a few backlogged titles coming up which I read before parenthood descended, including Geoff Dyer’s new novel. I shall therefore have some breathing space, blogwise. Maybe time for Proust at last…

      *For anyone thinking of removing this blog from your RSS feeds, be assured that I will not be writing about The Lost Child.

  31. Richard said,

    In the book, Baker presents a variety of material, with only the occasional editorial aside. And of course, he has selected the material. But if you tried to reduce the book to this or that message, as many reviewers did (message 1: Churchill was a monster; message 2: the pacifist case against US entry into the war is correct; message 3: etc…), you are doing the material a disservice. This is why I noted above that the book does not begin in 1933, but most reviewers wrote as if it did, as if nothing which happened before that had any bearing whatever on subsequent events.

    I don’t think the book answers questions. It does raise them, by the nature of the material selected, and of course I believe the material suggests some answers of a kind, but I they aren’t obvious and Baker doesn’t drive them home (and much of the material directly resists the reductive message many reviewers tried to saddle him with). And so on.

  32. I am sorry that all of the reviewers misread the book. I guess that is the problem with reviewers; They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

    And I am certainly hoping that this site will not review The Lost Child. Yet another book that was better off not written. I am looking forward to thoughts about Jeff in Venice on the other hand.

  33. Do you think then Richard that the point of the book is to cause the reader to question established narratives, but not necessarily to provide a narrative of its own?

    Or am I now creating my own misreading…

  34. But it does provide a narrative of its own, doesn’t it?

    Of all the ways to give your representation of history a particular ideological slant, cherrypicking suggestive quotations and displaying them out of context must be one of the most blatant.

  35. Lee Monks said,

    I wonder if Baker might, for his next trick, write a book about sleep, maybe call it: ‘Wasted Hours’.

    I am very much looking for ward to the new Dyer. One of the best writers in the country doing battle with the novel again.

  36. Linda Grant said,

    I’m sorry but it is nonsense to suggest that no-one apart from pacifists cared about the refugees. The Joint American Jewish Distribution Committee had been agitating on their behalf from the late 30s. The right wing in Palestine were running the British blockade from about the same time.

    Meanwhile on a memorable broadcast on the BBC to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, there was an interview with a pacifist who had spent the war denouncing the leaked news from the death camps as government propaganda.

  37. John Verity said,

    Like Baker’s thesis or not, his book is difficult to put down once you start reading it. I certainly couldn’t. It’s incredibly captivating – because it’s so well written and revealing and, in fact, precisely because we already know what and where its snapshots of history are leading to.
    I agree that Baker is also making a point about war-making today, and in general, arguing in his roundabout way that many elements of society, though not necessarily the generals themselves, really do enjoy military adventures. War is made for many different reasons. Alas, we really have to wonder what Obama is thinking as he pushes more troops into Afghanistan – a big bet that history says he is bound to lose.

  38. [...] which you can follow the debate so far: I’m thinking of John Self’s positive review, including the related comment thread to that review, and Max Dunbar’s generally negative [...]

  39. [...] titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman [...]

  40. […] are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman […]


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