The Con-fusion

I’m probably the last blogger still reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and chances are good that I won’t take on the third part, The System of the World, immediately after finishing the second, The Confusion. Not because the books aren’t good, just that it is a lot to read consecutively.

The good news is that the main characters, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the Improbable Welshwoman, are much more interesting than they were in Quicksilver.

Jack acquires more dimensions, and as Eliza develops, she becomes less improbable and more of a comprehensible person as well. Additional good news is that there’s much more of a plot than in the first, and it drives the book rapidly forward. In fact, there are a number of plots, all conspiring to move the narrative along, which it mostly does at a good clip. In Jack’s half of the book, the plot involves escaping slavery, stealing precious metals from Spain’s Viceroy in the New World, and being pursued around the world by the consequences. In Eliza’s half, it involves court intrigue at Versailles, the war between England and France and the establishment of money.

That brief description makes Eliza’s part of the book — the two are interwoven, or con-fused as Stephenson would have it — sound drier, but I tended to enjoy it more. There’s a terrific epistalatory novel tucked in among everything else, and it’s all in Eliza’s half. The characters are more clearly drawn, more rounded and more sketched with a slightly more subtle hand in her half as well.

In Jack’s half, there is more out-and-out swashbuckling, but the wheels of the plot are also sometimes too visible. Further, the machinations necessary to get some things into place for Cryptonomicon are also sometimes too plain. The annoying authorial winks at the reader are still there, though fewer this time around. At one point, though, a character declaims, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo.” It’s apropos of not much, but stuck out like a sore thumb. The last long section of Jack’s story concerns a sea voyage; Stephenson is not nearly as good at this as Patrick O’Brian (who is?), whose books I have been reading steadily of late, so I tended to skim a bit more in that section.

In fact, I made my peace with skimming for pages at a time in this section of the Cycle. The author may have found every word necessary, but I didn’t, and I enjoyed it more for having leaved through several sections going ok, ok, not much to see here.

Unlike, say, Dorothy Dunnett, Stephenson does not put significant sympathetic characters in existential danger. As this is the second book of three, there is no chance that Jack and Eliza will not survive. Some of the villains were dispatched unexpectedly, which was nicely done. But even apart from characters that the books are not built around, i.e., Jack, Eliza and Daniel Waterhouse, or the ones history tells us survive, e.g., Louis XIV, George I, sympathetic characters are seldom in real danger. This tends to lessen the suspense of the book and expose the structural challenges in the middle part of a trilogy.

There is less of an Argument in this book, the author being content to develop what he set up in the first one. The Hanoverians are coming to England; France’s structures are straining in ways that will lead to 1789; rumors of the Enlightenment are heard as far away as Mexico City; and the greatness of Asian civilizations is sketched — Edo (Tokyo) is said to be the largest city in the World, the Great Mogul’s empire in India is depicted — but the clear interest is Europe’s rising.

The third book is set up as a conflict between Jack and Isaac Newton; symbolically of chaos and order, although Jack has to bring about chaos methodically and Newton is rather disordered himself. At the end, I suspect we will see the modern world on stage and all of the treasures buried that will be dug up in Cryptonomicon.

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Don’t pick of a copy of Stasiland, by Anna Funder, if you have work to do. I did the first time, and I nearly missed a deadline. I did it again this morning, intending to write a review, and my productivity dropped like a rock again. Consider yourselves warned.

It’s not exactly the kind of book one expects from a young Australian working in television.

The book’s first conversation takes place in a public restroom. The author gets caught by the old lady minding the loo, who brags that a prince once came in and then invited her to his palace. But that was before the Wall fell, so she couldn’t go. Had she traveled since the changes, asks Funder. “Not yet. But I’d like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China. You know what I’d really like to do? I’d really like to have me a look at that Wall of theirs.”

And it is to the Wall that everything in the book sooner or later returns. The Wall built to keep people in, the soldiers to stand guard on the Wall, the secret police to keep people in line, to spy on their fellows.

While it is fairly easy to say, yes, this is all well known. One in six of the GDR’s inhabitants was in some way connected to the Stasi. They ruined careers, wasted lives for no reason. In their latter years, they were not prolific murderers, but accomplished deadeners of the human spirit.

It’s another thing, though, to see the details. What imprisoning someone at 16 and excluding her from society afterward does to a person. How the state kills a nonconformist and then tries to cover it all up. The lies that informants told themselves. The evasions that they produce when confronted with their past.

‘A great many people were at the funeral [of my husband, who died in police custody],’ Miriam tells me, ‘but I think there were even more Stasi there.’ There was a van with long-range antennae for sound-recording equipment parked at the gates. There were men in the bushes with telephoto lenses. Everywhere you looked there were men with walkie-talkies. At the cemetery offices building work was going on: Stasi agents sat in pairs in the scaffolding.
‘Everyone, every single one of us was photographed. And you could see in advance the path the procession was to take from the chapel to the grave: it was marked at regular intervals all along by the Stasi men, just standing around.’ When they reached the grave, there were two of them sitting there on a trestle, ready to watch the whole thing.

Miriam’s husband, Charlie, had been brought in for questioning because he had applied to leave the GDR.

Fund talks not just to victims, but to former officers, and to nearly all stages in between. Including the Stasi people who went into private investigation afterward, the ones who went into intimidation, and the ones who pretended to do one or the other or both.

The reporting is first-rate, and the stories are simply told, though anything but simple in their repercussions. Just don’t pick it up if you have anything else on your agenda.

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Two on Turkey

With Turkish accession one of the most important issues facing the European Union, people interested in the question could do much worse than read these two recent, and reasonably short, books that focus on the country: Crescent and Star, by Stephen Kinzer, and The Turks Today, by Andrew Mango. Both illustrate and explain contemporary Turkey, and both have accession as a theme throughout their books.

Kinzer was the first New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, serving from 1996 through 2000. The book reflects that period; it was published in 2001, and obviously the last four years have been eventful in Turkish politics and for the country’s EU prospects. But in less than 250 pages, he tackles the history of the Turkish Republic, many facets of its society, the forces driving its politics, and its outlook for the future. After each chapter of exposition, he offers a meze, an intermezzo, more personal anecdotes that illuminate a corner of the Turkish room.

Here’s a bit from the second one:

The first friends I made in Turkey told me that if I really wanted to understand their country, I would have to drink a lot of raki. These were wise people, so I took their advice. Every year the annual level of raki consumption in Turkey rises by slightly more than one million liters, and my contribution to the increase has not been inconsiderable. …
Many countries have national drinks, but raki is much more than that because it embodies the very concept of Turkey. The mere fact that a Muslim land would fall under the spell of a powerful distilled drink is enough to suggest this nation’s unexpected and tantalizing appeal. …
My excitement rose with each glass as I realized how much Turkey has to share with the world, to give the world, to teach the world.
I should have stopped there, but you never do with raki. That is its blessing and its curse. As months and years passed, raki began to work subtly on my mind. Slowly the delight I had found in discovering Turkey became mixed with other, more ambiguous emotions. No longer did my evenings end with the exhilarating sensation that I had found a jewel of a country poised on the brink of greatness. Raki led me inexorably toward frustration and doubt. It never shook my conviction that Turkey is a nation of unlimited potential, but it did lead me to wonder why so much of its potential remains unrealized. Turkey is undoubtedly the country of the future, but will it always be? Can it ever become what it hopes to be, or is it condemned to remain an unfulfilled dream, an exquisite fantasy that contains within it the seeds of its own failure?

Kinzer alternates modes, sketching with broad strokes and painting sharp miniatures. Because he draws on his reporting, even his sketches have firm lines. It’s too bad that Erdogan only gets one line in the book, but Kinzer does show where his party came from.

His basic thesis is that Turkish society is ready for the future, even ready for the EU, but that its institutions were not willing to recognize the need to change. It’d be interesting to know what he thinks today.

My favorite meze touches on the theme of opening. It starts like this:

Everyone in the seaside village of Adrasan knows Ali Tasgan, but not by his real name. Nearly half a century ago he exchanged it for a one-word moniker that he shares with ten thousand of his countrymen: Koreli. …
Koreli is theh Turkish word for Korean, but neither Ali Tasgan nor any of the other Turks who bear that name has a drop of Korean blood. They are veterans of the Korean War, the first and only foreign war in which soldiers of the Turkish Republic have fought. The bravery they exhibited on Korean battlefields earned Turkey a permanent place in the grateful memories of South Koreans. It also deeply impressed countless soldiers who were part of the Allied force fighting North Korea and China on that remote Asian peninsula. …
Time has shown, however, that the true legacy of the Korelis had nothing to do with their willingness to race across minefields or charge uphill toward machine-gun nests. They were the first large group of Turks since the founding of the Republic who left their country and saw the world beyond. With their return, Turkey changed forever.

Mango’s writing is not as felicitous as Kinzer’s; he’s more scholar than reporter. (I’ve been trying to read his biography of Ataturk since the paperback edition came out. It’s on the back burner.) The book was finished in May 2004, and the change from the immediate past covered by Kinzer is visible from the first paragraphs:

In January 2003 a mass-circulation newspaper in Istanbul published a letter from a young doctor who had been put in charge of a health centre in a remote mountain village of south-eastern Turkey. He had been sent there under a programme which prescribes compulsory service in deprived areas for newly registered doctors. But the administration had failed to equip the health centre, which it had set up as a political investment. There was no dispensary in the village, and local people preferred to travel to the nearest market town for medical care. The doctor was underemployed. His living and working conditions were primitive. … Electricity and telephone connections were intermittent. But the doctor could access the internet through his mobile telephone. Surfing the net one day, he learned of a competition to take part in a seminar organized by the European Union in Brussels. He applied and was successful. A few months later he was in the building of the European Parliament meeting colleagues from other countries.
This simple personal story encapsulates some of the main traits of Turkey at the beginning of the third millennium: an inadequate administration with limited means at its disposal which it uses to provide social welfare and at the same time to garner votes; improved communcations which allow villagers to travel in search of better services; working wives; a powerful military deployed in the south-east to defeat a Kurdish nationalist insurgency; a young population eager to reach out to the outside world, enthusiastic for new technology and, above all, determined to achieve success for themselves and their country.

Mango’s first 100 pages give a better and more systematic history of the Republic than Kinzer does. He filled in gaps in my knowledge, particularly post-WWII and pre-1980. If understanding Ataturk is essential to understanding modern Turkey, understanding the post-Ataturk transition reveals much that was hidden.

The second half of the book covers themes and places. He’s particularly strong on “catching up” and on high culture. I thought he was weakest on Kurdish issues. Not that I could cite chapter and verse on problems, or refute an acknowledged expert, but his rhetoric so closely parallels narrow nationalist rhetoric from other countries that I can’t help but be suspicious that there’s more to the story than Mango is letting on. Kinzer–for all that he is generally focused on Istanbul–is a good complement here, particularly because he was a reporter during the period surrounding Ocalan’s capture.

On the EU, Mango makes key points:

No country can replicate another’s experience. But similarities exist. In the case of Turkey, the most important similarities are with southern Europe and not with the Middle East. Like the countries of southern Europe, Turkey has copied the laws and institutions of republican France. Its social networks are similar to those in Italy. Its economic development through the agency of large family-owned conglomerates was paralleled in Portugal. The kulturkampf fought in Turkey between securlarists and religious believers has ranged [raged?] throughout continental Europe. If the Turks speak of ‘Europe’ as a place outside their borders, so too did Spaniards, Greeks and other peoples now within the European Union. Just as Turks tend to say bitterly that they have no true friends outside their community, so too Greeks saw themselves as a ‘people without brothers’ (anadhelfo ethnos)

Neither author glosses over Turkey’s problems. Both provide considerable information and insight; both are well worth reading.

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Joseph Vissarionovich and the People Who Loved Him

Because some of them undoubtedly did, even people who knew him quite well. In his heyday, millions professed their love, sang his praises. Even those he had condemned in show trials, or in no trials, wrote to him of their devotion, wrote of their faithfulness, wrote of their belief. Perhaps they meant it, perhaps it was the only hope they had to continue living.

One person who does seem to have loved him in something like the normal sense of the word was his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Perhaps that is why she shot herself.

Simon Sebag Montefiore opens Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar with a private party to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The party was held at the Kremlin apartment of the Defense Commissar, Voroshilov, and the very inmost of the Party elite was there.

They ate well, though not as lavishly as would later become the court custom. They toasted, they drank copiously, they danced and sang and flirted. The upper reaches of the Bolsheviks were tightened by kinship, by conspiritorial years together and by numerous affairs. Nadya, as Stalin’s wife was known, danced with her godfather, “the official in charge of the Kremlin who was already shocking the Party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.” Stalin, in Montefiore’s account, was busy with his own flirtation with the wife of a Red Army commander. Stalin and Nadya quarrelled, loudly, visibly at the party. Eventually, Nadya stormed out, returning in time to their apartment. Sometime in the night, she took a small pistol her brother had given her and shot herself in the heart.

Accounts differ about what Stalin did in those hours. He may have gone to one of his dachas, where he may have pursued a dalliance. He may not have done either, and returned to the apartment to sleep in his separate bedroom.

“Stalin was poleaxed. This supremely political creature, with an inhuman disregard for the millions of starving women and children in his own country, displayed more humanity in the next few days than he would at any other time in his life.”

It would not be right to say that everything changed after Nadya’s death. Famine gripped the Ukraine before she died, and after. Stalin sent close comrades to their deaths before and after. He was ruthless, bloodthirsty and calculating before and after.

Yet Montefiore chooses the incident as the crux of his biography because there were discernible differences, magnified two years later by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Kirov, who might reasonably be described as a friend of Stalin.

The book is an intimate portrait, based on access to archives and interviews with the few survivors of the inner circle of that period. It captures the Bolshevik ethos, the continuous conspiring, and the servility of true Stalinism. His intimates’ power and total dependence are clearly on display, perhaps most clearly in the careers of the heads of the secret police. Yegoda succeeded by Yezhov succeeded by Beria, each pushing the previous master out of power and into the grave. Beria survived Stalin, but was shot within a year.

Those poisonings and shootings are but a snippet. Very few of the people who appear in the books pages die natural deaths. Anastas Mikoyan is remarkable in the Politburo for having served from Ilyich to Ilyich–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. Millions die off-stage, in the terror famine, in the gulag, in the war. Stalin knew and approved of it; much of it he directed himself.

One particularly chilling chapter details how Stalin proceeded to have the wives of his close comrades either executed or sent to the gulag. Molotov was practically the only one who stood up even a little for his spouse.

The cruelty on a personal level, the industrial scale of murderousness, the amount of torture and death are almost enough to make one favor the invading Germans. Except that their victory would probably have been even worse.

One good aspect of the book is its thorough coverage of Stalin after the War: his pursuit of the bomb, the dangerous game of succession among the Soviet magnates, and his final purges. It’s a period that I didn’t know much about, and one that often seems a bit of a blank in other histories. Another strong point is its 30-page index, a model of the art. Finding almost anything in the 660+ pages of text is a breeze.

Montefiore give a sense of the personalities of the people closest to Stalin, the intimate details of their holidays, their habits, their jealousies. He portrays a convincing Stalin and lays bare the logic of the regime. It captures the small and the sweeping. It’s a gripping, sickening, astonishing work.

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Catching up with Greatness

Not mine, of course, the 50 novels from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung‘s list. Since several of my recent book reviews have been negative or lukewarm, I’ll say here above the fold that the latest batch has indeed brought me in touch with literary greatness.

In the order I have read them, not of publication or anything else:

The Lover, Marguerite Duras, no. 49. As slender, lithe and desirable as its protagonist in her youth, as insightful as she became in her later years. Steamily tropical, rooted in its era, a topical examination of colonialism and exploitation. Yet also a timeless story of love, growth and madness.

The Judge and His Executioner (Der Richter und sein Henker), Friedrich Duerrenmatt, no. 42. A much more tightly crafted whodunit than the Simenon book that preceded it in the series, Duerrenmatt’s book follows a murder in a Swiss village not far from the capital. The location allows him to contrast his country’s self-image to its actual situation, with the country-city divide paralleling many others in Swiss society. He also sketches the Swiss role during the war: his protagonist was fired from a position in Germany for an anti-Nazi remark–an unbelievable affront in the mid-1930s, understandable if tactless by 1942, and by 1945 the only honorable course for a Swiss policeman. The title is also a play on a common statement about Germany’s transformation after 1933, that the land of poets and thinkers (Dichter und Denker) had become one of judges and executioners (Richter und Henker). The story is ultimately less political than psychological, as themes of morality, guilt and greed come to the fore as the action proceeds. (Unfortunately, the summary on the dust jacket gives away a little too much of the plot; skip it if you don’t want to figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through the book.)

Under the Wheel (Unterm Rad), Hermann Hesse, no. 46. When I was drafting a stand-alone review of this book, I called it “Old Europe,” for the world that Hesse sketches is what the phrase conjures in my mind. Small villages, horse travel, pervasive influence of one church or another, generations passing with little change. Three of the four Hesse books I have read (this plus Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund) try to paint some sort of timelessness. The book is heavily autobiographical, and the plot is predictable. On the other hand, Hesse subverts the timeless vision as well, showing the cracks in the setup through which modernity will soon come bursting through: the trains, the new ideas of science, the application of historical scholarship to the Bible, the decline of the guilds and the rise of technology. Though he could not have known it, the Great War was less than a decade away. But looking in the other direction, Hesse’s idea of an unchanging society proves an illusion, too. Less than a hundred years before his story is set, Napoleon’s armies had marched through the area, upending the political order and much besides. The mid-century revolutions had not left this corner of Germany untouched either. The only way he can present a tableaux as enduring is to ignore the evidence all around. The book is much better at painting a picture of Europe at the start of the twentieth century than, say, The Magician, but its aspirations are all askew.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, no. 20. One of Brad DeLong’s commenters wrote that no one can appreciate Marlow before reaching age 40, but I think I’m early. This is a great book, and the overlay from having seen “Apocalypse Now” only adds to it. In the framing story he suggests there is not much difference between what the Belgians did in the Congo and what the Romans did in Britain. The lead character isn’t all that keen on Brussels either, calling it “the sepulchral city.” Brilliantly written, portraits of greed, privation and madness, provocative about the meaning of civilization itself. Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m 40 and report back on what strikes me anew.

Couples, Passers-by (Paare, Passanten), Botho Strauss, no. 38. Clever, deft, but I’m not sure what it adds up to. Microportraits from the late 1970s, headed mostly nowhere. A timelessness not unlike Hesse’s, one in which the Wall would be up forever and the problems of consumerism would be much more pressing than the great questions of history. Also like Hesse’s, it outlasted the publication of the book by less than a decade.

The Periodic System, Primo Levi, no 48. Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist from Turin (though not necessarily in that order) tells his story, that of his forefathers, his extended family, his profession and much of his surroundings in 21 exquisite chapters. Each one is named for an element in the periodic table, and the metaphor organizes not only the book as a whole but each section. Precious metals, many of the chapters, rare earths that yield jewels of expression, of human stories and the press of time. He brushes lightly on his time in Auschwitz, which he wrote about in another book, yet that fate is constantly present, and the dramatic climax of the book involves a later encounter with someone from that time. This is one of the books from this list that I would move into the adjacent list of the 50 greatest novels of the twentieth century.

The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, Andrzej Szczypiorski, no. 41. Szczypiorski saw the war from another of its hottest forges, Warsaw. The novel’s main action follows how Mrs Seidenman, who is Jewish but living in disguise outside of the Warsaw Ghetto, falls into the clutches of the Gestapo and emerges shortly afterward. That she survives is told in the first pages, but the questions of how, and perhaps why, are engrossing throughout. This small story is the springboard for encounters with almost every type of person present in wartime Warsaw, from Volksdeutsche who have lived in Poland all their lives, to young religious, from revolutionary workers to petty spies. Yet none is purely a cliche. Szczypiorski follows many of his characters to the end of their lives–some ends much closer than others–so that the arc of the story seems to have rays springing upward from it, some reaching into the mid-1980s. The book was published in the emigre press, as it has scathing things to say about Communism, too. (Szczypiorski was elected to Poland’s Senate as a Solidarity candidate in the first free elections.) Each of the characters is a rounded person, and Szczypiorski does not present any easy answers. In fact, Mrs Seidenman’s survives because of a particularly unlikely person. A metaphor for Poland?

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Very Old Europe

New work by Sophocles? Hesiod? Lucian? Euripides? A precursor to the Illiad?

All coming up, thanks to satellitte imaging technology and a century-old trove of manuscripts brought to Britain from Egypt.

In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament. …

Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work – the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.

Exciting time to be a classicist, no?

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Because I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver a couple of times earlier this year, I will now add that I’ve finished reading it. The pace picks up a bit around page 800.

To be slightly less unfair, I should say that a number of people have told me that the second and third books are better. And the narrative pace does not detract from the argument about the beginning of modern Europe, which is an interesting one.

Also, Body of Secrets drags towards the end, too. The last two chapters seemed to be mostly proving that he had walked around inside NSA-land and talked to a bunch of people about things that had largely been secret before. It read like he was paying his sources back for the access they had granted. I think the basic problem is that the details from the late 1990s are still close for Bamford to have worked out the historical importance of what he learned. That’s a real contrast to the parts of the books that cover the period from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Anyway, Bamford’s new bookis about intelligence failures that preceded 9/11 and the misuse of intelligence in the runup to the Iraq war. If he’s still got his good sources, it should be a knockout.

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As Trains Go By

The New Republic has published a long review of three novels by Georges Simenon. The thesis is that they are “are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.” Simenon wrote more than 400 novels, under his own name and various pseudonyms.

One of them, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, was published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s set of great novels from the twentieth century. It’s apparently of a piece with the three reviewed by the New Republic — the reviewer called it “insouciantly gruesome” — and will soon be republished by New York Review Books.

I’ll agree with the insoucance and the gruesomeness, but I’m not sold on the greatness. Each chapter has an odd and cryptic heading — “On the difficulty of getting rid of old newspapers, and the usefulness of a fountain pen and a wristwatch” or “Kees Popinga experiences a remarkable Christmas Eve and, towards morning, selects an automobile.” I had the sense that Simenon wrote the twelve headings and then put the novel together to tie one to the next.

TNR’s reviewer sees books “more philosophically profound than any of the fiction of Camus or Sartre, and far less self-conscious. This is existentialism with a backbone of tempered steel.” Maybe it’s a sign of how both existentialism and Simenon have aged; I just saw a quickie mystery.

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A Little Less Magical

I’m not sure what possessed the editors of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung to add Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to their list of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. In the preface to the edition that I have, the author admits that when it was republished, he had not read the book in nearly fifty years. “I had completely forgotten it,” he writes.

The book captures the atmosphere of early-twentieth-century Paris, and specifically of upper-class Britons visiting the Continent for outr? pleasures not to be had at home. As such, it’s better as a historical document than a novel. The protagonist failed to arouse my sympathy, the villain sparked no anger or horror, and the development of the plot was plain to see from about twenty pages in.

I suspect that I passed the proper age for reading this novel at least a decade ago. I had a similar problem with John Fowles’ The Magus, another book dealing with appearances of magic in our mundane world. Fowles’ story had been praised to me as life-changing; I found it wavering between silly and dishonest. (Basically, after all of the setup, The Magus does not take its conjuring seriously either as mysticism in an essentially non-magical world or as an actual manifestation of the supernatural.) Brad DeLong and his commenters have some thoughts on books and their sell-by dates.

The Maugham strikes me as an apprentice work. Maybe it’s somehow much better in German translation.

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Echelon Back Story

The British edition of Body of Secrets, James Bamford’s second book about the US National Security Agency, gives equal billing to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the subtitle, but that’s just marketing, making the home audience feel good. The same subtitle also alludes to Echelon, an eavesdropping program that was on its way to being notorious, particularly in Internet circles, when the book was first published in 2001.

Both get their due, of course, but the book is really a history of the NSA, the agency that does the lion’s share of America’s electronic intercepts, cryptology, cryptanalysis, signals intelligence and so forth.

I haven’t finished the book, but there’s a lot in it. Factually, it’s dense, with very precise details that show how thoroughly Bamford had done his homework.

Lessons abound. First, how little is new in the fraught world of spying and democratic decision-making. Korea and the early Cold War period produced examples of leaders who did not want to hear what people on the ground were reporting. Resources were allocated to the wrong places; the country was caught flat-footed by events that shouldn’t have been unexpected; there was a critical shortage of personnel who could speak crucial languages. In the early 1950s, it was Korean; half a century later it’s Urdu or Pashtu or various branches of Arabic.

Then there’s involvement by the top leadership in operational issues. Bamford presents convincing evidence that Eisenhower was personally deciding and signing off on the U2 overflights of the Soviet Union. When Powers was shot down, the White House first lied about what happened, and then covered up its own involvement. According to Bamford, some of the officials perjured themselves before Congress. (There are recurring examples of how the mantle of national security is used to cover political embarrassments.)

A less than candid relationship with Congress is another emerging theme. The NSA expected the people to sign the bills and no questions asked. Bamford also presents compelling of far-right influence at the top of the US military establishment. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower appointed just before leaving office comes in for particular scrutiny; he was a thorn in the side of an incoming Democratic administration. The Clinton team might have done well to reflect on this example when they came into power in 1993.

Bamford also notes that the Soviets had stationed 161 nuclear warheads in Cuba during the missile crisis. This was not known in the wider world until the 1990s.

Bamford, by the way, is an extraordinary reporter. For his first book on the topic, he fought off legal threats from the NSA and discovered boxes of interesting material lying around, unclassified but unread. That enabled him to put together a good picture of an agency that officially didn’t exist.

Amongst the skulduggery, self-righteousness and partisan slant that Bamford digs through, there are positive signs as well. Foremost among them is the existence of the books themselves. Without the US Freedom of Information Act, they could never have been written, and if there were a US Official Secrets Act similar to the one in Britain, they could never have been published. Between the first and the second, the attitude of the NSA changed, too. They are no longer “No Such Agency,” and Bamford received a reasonable amount of cooperation for the second book.

Back in the late 1980s, the then-director of the NSA came to talk to a class I was taking on intelligence and the history of the 20th century. He said there was a “lot of bone poop” in The Puzzle Palace. But then that’s what he would have to say, isn’t it? A decade and a half later, much has changed, but the problems of oversight, of balancing spying and democracy haven’t.

Speaking of reviews books I haven’t finished yet, the second ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a bit of a slog. The lead characters in this section, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the improbable Welshwoman, aren’t yet interesting in and of themselves, their dialogue tends to exposition (worse, exposition of history I already knew), and there isn’t much suspense in their exploits. I’d been warned about this part of the book, and friends say the second and third volumes are much better. Here’s hoping.

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