Sunday, September 30, 2007
Our book today is “Big Weather” by Mark Svenvold, and its subtitle is ‘Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America.’ Which, in this case (a rarity among hyperventilating subtitles), scarcely does the book justice. Because it turns out there are lunatic-fringe mortal men and women who don’t just study tornadoes, don’t just obsessively collect data on them, but actually chase them, for all the world as though they wanted to be CAUGHT by one, even though such an event would almost certainly spell their doom.
Svenvold makes it his business to meet all of these people, and they present an extremely motley assemblage of neurotics, nutjobs, and off-the-grid desperadoes. They’re saved from the taint of simply being latently suicidal by dint of their obvious zest for living, however bent and twisted.
Years ago, there was a great little TV show called “Eerie Indiana” (it starred a 14-year-old roasting tobacco addict named Omri Katz, who, for all we know, is meagerly subsisting on Paypal porn as we speak, but who did absolutely first-rate comedic work as a kid caught on the suspiciously thin boundary between suburbia and the supernatural), and one episode featured the delightfully frenetic Matt Frewer as a gonzo tornado-chaser prone to uttering Ben Kenobi-isms about ‘the big twisties.’ The impression the viewer is left with – aside from the fact that ‘Eerie, Indiana’ was a damn funny show – is that anybody who intentionally chases tornadoes must have a few too many singers in the choir.
And yet, there they all are in Svenvold’s raucous account, gulping down coffee in some no-name South Dakota diner and then hurrying off at news of a late-breaking sighting, the pots, kettles, and ‘seeing stones’ of their previous generation replaced with sleek cell-phones, GPS monitors, and other state-of-the-art gadgetry.
Part of this is, in fact, understandable. It’s not entirely insane to feel the pull of such awe-inspiring phenomena of nature as tornadoes. Their gigantic, unthinking grandeur is compelling, and it can often do funny things to the powers of judgement. Why, even we here at Stevereads have been known to be affected! Once upon a time, in the dinged-up little town of Elk City, Oklahoma, we were minding our own business when we became gradually more aware of all the telltale warning signs – the sickly green overcast the sky takes on, the vacant feel of the air, and more than anything the sound, like the roaring of a freight train, only seeming to emanate from everywhere at once.
And that’s where the lapse of judgement can become almost hypnotic, because even after we’d seen these signs, even after we knew what they meant, we still rushed out into the street in the hopes of seeing the great thing. And we did! Not Hollywood-movie clear, but unmistakable nonetheless, a black stain of pure ferocious kinetic energy, prowling laterally along the horizon on a thick cloud of destruction. And even then, even then, there was the mad urge to move toward that destruction, instead of seeking shelter.
Svenvold’s subjects yield to that mad urge, and he goes along for the ride as much as he dares. His portraits of these nutjobs are unfailingly endearing, but the book’s best, most effective prose concerns the phenomenon itself, rather than the lunatics chasing it. Svenvold, it turns out, is a superb nature-writer, starting with the book’s wonderful first line, “Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its season.”
He’s at his best, hands down, when describing tornadoes themselves. Here he shows the quintessential characteristic of the best nature-writers, the ability to convey scientific information in fluid, energetic prose:
“Tornadoes occur at the ‘storm scale,’ which is an entirely different sort of ball game. Small though they are relative to the mesoscale and synoptic scale forces surrounding them, storms are immense structures, which required a special orienteering savvy. Towering five to ten miles high, often sprawling across several counties, a storm is composed of many different constituent parts, moving rapidly in three dimensions, and often too large to take in. All of it is working as a single process in time, creating its own mini-environments, or boundary layers, which rise and fall, emerge and then vanish.”
He’s virtually exuberant about the sheer impossibility of his central subject:
“A tornado represents many things, beginning with its own extreme unlikelihood. Every tornado represents a supreme, if momentary, trouncing of the second law of thermodynamics, the glum law of entropy that states that all things move from order to chaos. Tornadoes move the other way, from a chaos of cloud swirl, from a mixture of lines of force, density, temperature, lift, speed, and convergence, a set of initiating conditions whose exact ingredients are still unknown, to a near perfect level of order and organization, capable, paradoxically of delivering immense destruction, an order that creates widespread disorder, confusion, and chaos.”
Mark Svenvold has written a powerful little punch of a book, something as energetic and light-footed as the monstrous things that comprise his subject. It’s well worth your time to find and read (we seem to be on an extended roll of such books lately – which will no doubt make the inevitable smackdown of some poor slob’s life-work all the more seismic when it finally happens).
And there’s something else we recommend, although it isn’t anything you can find on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. It’s this: if you should ever find yourself in tornado country (it can be anywhere, although your chances increase significantly if you’re in the United States, south and east of the Dakota badlands) and experience all those telltale warning signs, do yourself a favor you’ll be happy about for the rest of your life (no matter how short it might be as a result!): go outside and look at the horrible, beautiful wonder bearing down on you. Don’t chase it, like Svenvold’s lunatics, but likewise don’t seek shelter until you’ve at least taken a look. After all, as the saying goes, you only live once.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
There are words we live by, words that become the creeds by which we live our lives. Those of us with any heart at all assemble them gradually, over a lifetime. They form our most intimate book, the essential text of our heart. The Phoenicians believed there was a specially designated being – neither angel nor god nor demon precisely, but charged nonetheless – whose job it was to read this book that each thinking person wrote with the pen of their life. Perhaps this is just as well: even among the very young (such as ourselves), that book is apt to be unbearably personal. Not something anybody would want to share even with those who know them best.
So imagine our surprise here at Stevereads when we read this week’s New Yorker and found one of our own basic heart-texts paraded out in the open for all to see. Usually, it’s safely buried in random obscure anthologies. But here it was, in James Woods’ very, very talented review of Robert Alter’s frankly stunning new translation of the Book of Psalms (a gorgeous production complete with commentary).
The lines in question come from the busy quill-pen of George Herbert, whose works lie largely forgotten today except by students forced to read him. George Herbert, who was shy and well-spoken and endlessly sympathetic to everyone who ever told him a sad story. If ever in the sad history of mankind there was a person whose life directly depicted the struggle between avid, inconclusive flesh and the thing Christians call the soul, George Herbert was that person. On the naked membrane of his life the age-old struggle was hammered out daily, and he was spared none of it, and he, in his turn, spared us none of it. His poetry is therefore harrowing, and yet always there is light in it, and so very belatedly, one of his little lyrics made its way into our own innermost book. Only a hyper-intelligent young mortal caught in the coils of the faith-virus that has plagued mankind since its inception could bleed out the words we saw so callously printed for every bored dentist in Larchmont to read:
“Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
So will I do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.”
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, not the whole but at least one single page of our own personal book (those of you in a position to know will perhaps be able to guess a couple of others, although, as is only fitting, nobody knows the whole text). ‘I will lament, and love’ … the forlorn yet somehow valiant hopelessness of such line … we can honestly say: George Herbert taught us that.
(the implicit challenge here is to you all: append one line, one segment, one verse that forms a plank in your own existence … we promise not to tell)
Monday, September 24, 2007
Our book today is "The Interpretation of Murder" by Jed Rubenfeld, and it presents us with a puzzle here at Stevereads: we have an abiding weakness for UK paperback editions of books. And not just books we've already read and enjoyed, but ALL books, even those we read and disliked. It's a curious little wrinkle in an otherwise perfect package (for future reference, it was at 'perfect package' that Beepy started paying attention), and we've always wondered if it doesn't have its genesis in the slight hint of PROMISE a foreign edition of any book holds.
After all, isn't the physical makeup of a book part of its allure, even part of the extended process by which we receive it into our minds? Who's to say whether or not - and to what degree - a boring or clumsy design has materially lessened our enjoyment of its contents? Isn't such a thing true in all other areas of aesthetic appreciation? A perfectly condimented Manhattan street cart hotdog (that got us Jeff) surely tastes better if eaten while you're sprawled out on the grass in Central Park than wolfed down in an elevator on the way to a job interview? Surey quick, meaningless sex (that got us Sebastian) is more enjoyable on a blanket deep in the forest (that got us Elmo) than in the cramped public bathroom at a comic book convention (hi Kevin!)?
Surely likewise reading, or at least that's what we've always told ourselves when in the grip of our particular weakness. And "The Interpretation of Murder" is a perfect case in point. We read it before its American publication in 2006 in an galley copy that was both bulky and awkward (it had one of those gatefold covers with an opening in the front flap that's just ideal for snagging on everything in Creation), and we found it bland and uninvolving. As memory serves, we donated it to the nearest teen drug rehab center (that got us Swippey!) and thought no more about it.
Until now, that is. Until we happened upon a UK trade paperback and were moved to buy it and read it again. The UK packaging was in every way superior - a smaller, squatter form, an evocative sepia-tinted cover commanded by the Flatiron Building, cheaper and yet more satisfying paper. And so we were off!
"The Interpretation of Murder" is Rubenfeld's first novel, and it tells a fictionalized version of Sigmund Freud's one and only visit to America, in 1909, to collect an honorary degree from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Something happened on this trip that left Freud with a lifelong aversion to America, and Rubenfeld makes merry use of the fact that no Freud biographer has ever been able to figure out what happened to sour the good doctor's impression.
His explanation involves a few murders, all the various stratum of turn of the century New York, and some intrepid derring-do from a wide cast of characters (including Freud's disciple/colleague Jung, who steals every scene he's in, mainly by being the kind of jerk who could never carry a story on his own). In other words, the pattern here is pretty much identical to Caleb Carr's "The Alienist," only in place of Carr's alienist Lazlo Kreisler, Rubenfeld finds a way to incorporate the real deal, the father of psychotherapy himself. The real-life Freud was at least as interesting as any of his fictional representations (up to and including Alan Arkin's virtuoso performance in "The Seven Percent Solution"), so Rubenfeld would seem to have come up with an ingenious gambit.
It didn't please us much in 2006, but here in 2007, in this UK edition, it won us over. As did the technique, also on evidence in 'The Alienist,' of grounding the story in a likeable third party, in this case Freud's American colleague and devotee Stratham Younger, who gets to give us many of our first impressions as the story unfolds.
A great many of those impressions impressed us much more this time around than they did when the book's cover was catching on every random corner and tearing just that much more.
For instance, the first time Freud encounters an American subway system (and not just any subway but a Manhattan one):
"As we descended the stair to the IRT, Freud's mood darkened. 'He is terrified of your underground trains,' Ferenczi whispered in my ear. 'A bit of unanalyzed neurosis. He told me so last night.'
Freud's humor did not improve when our train lurched to a violent halt in a tunnel between stations, its lights flickering out, plunging us into a pitch, hot darkness. 'Buildings in the sky, trains in the earth,' said Freud, sounding irritated. 'It is Virgil with you Americans: if you cannot bring the heavens down, you are determined to raise hell.'
'That is YOUR epigraph, no?' asked Ferenczi.
'Yes, but it was not supposed to be my EPITAPH,' answered Freud."
There's a good ear behind such dialogue, not only Ferenczi's subtle pride at his privileged status as a confessor to the great man, but also in the portrayal of the great man himself, intellectually clever even in the grip of a personal fear.
Naturally, when trotting out a character like Freud, any writer worth his salt will feel the urge to write a showpiece of psychological deduction now and then - what would a Sherlock Holmes story be, after all, if he didn't periodically astonish poor hapless Watson with feats of seeming mental prestidigitation?
Rubenfeld produces a delectable example of this sort of thing, when a society matron puts Freud on the spot at a lavish dinner party by asking him "Can you psychoanalyze anyone, Dr. Frued?"
"What women want," Freud replied to her question, as the guests took their seats at a table shimmering with crystal, "is a mystery, as much to the analyst as to the poet. If only you could tell us, Mrs. Branwell, but you cannot. You are the problem, but you are no better able to solve it than are we poor men. Now, what MEN want is almost always apparent. Our host, for example, instead of his spoon, has picked up his knife by mistake.
All heads turned to the smiling, bulky form of of Jelliffe at the head o the table. It was so: he had his knife -- not his breadknife but his dinner knife - in his right hand. 'What does that signify, Dr. Freud?' asked an elderly lady.
'It signifies that Mrs. Banwell has aroused our host's aggressive impulses,' said Freud. 'This aggression, arising from circumstances of sexual competition readily comprehensible to everyone, led his hand to the wrong instrument, revealing wishes of which he himself was unconscious."
There was a murmur around the table."
All that's missing is a hearty 'Good Heavens, Holmes!'
And what would a smart, able historical novel be without at least one knowing wink at the future? The great Mary Renault has a scene in which an actor in ancient Athens experiences a fever-dream in which he's acting in 'Hamlet,' and likewise Rubenfeld has his fun, in this case with a pet theory long held by his narrator, that all the revolutionary developements of any century happen in its first few years. The character's father - an altogether appealing character, although you get the impression this would come as a shock to Rubenfeld - discounts the idea, but our narrator won't let go:
"But my enthusiasm was vindicated. In 1905, an unknown Swiss patent agent of German-Jewish extraction produced a theory he called relativity. Within twelve months, my professors at Harvard were saying that this Einstein had changed our ideas of space and time forever. In art, I concede, nothing happened. In 1903, a crowd at St. Botolph's made a great fuss over a Frenchman's water lilies, but these proved to be the work of an artist who was merely losing his eyesight."
Haw. Didn't Billy Zane say something like that in TITANIC?
In any case, what we have here, obviously and despite our first impressions, is a pretty good novel, far better than it we thought it was in its American manifestation.
Nay, more than that! The book, the book itself, its interior, its words and ideas, is better in the UK version than in the American. The book itself changed, and changed for the better.
Impossible, you say? Well, let us ask you this: which is less likely, that a book could change its contents and essence from the American edition to the UK edition, or that we here at Stevereads could have been WRONG back in 2006?
We thought so. That'll be enough of that now.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
As some of you may know (and as all who know have complained about at one point or another), we here at Stevereads have taken to spending time with all the pretty young people (like ourselves) over at Open Letters Monthly. Not all our time, mind you - oh, don't get us wrong, it's a fine site, the best arts & literature review website anywhere in cyberspace, and we're proud to contribute our widow's mite to its content. The only problem? It's such a (echh) DEMOCRATIC place, where problems are often as not solved by (echh) MAJORITY VOTE and where people OTHER than ourselves are sometimes praised, despite their non-Steve statis. Needless to say, a little of such nonsense goes a long way, and so we're always drawn back here to Stevereads, where the trains always run on time and all your little squaajes know your place.
Still, we can't help but feel a comradely pride at the continued and expanding success of Open Letters. Strange and gratifying indeed, to be part of a website that has established itself to a point where it can refer to the mighty Times Literary Supplement as a SISTER PUBLICATION.
And in the case of this week, a somewhat laggardly sister publication. In the latest TLS, Paul Duguid reviews Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur," which, as all of you may know, was already ably reiewed in Open Letters by our very own grumpy Greg Waldmann.
Duguid's review, it must be stated up front, is simply not as good as grumpy Greg's. Part of this is outside Duguid's control: few indeed are the review organs that give their reviewers the space and support to do books the justice Open Letters does. And to a certain extent, Duguid and grumpy Greg agree, as when Duguid points out the obvious:
"...before summoning the Feds, we might notice first that Keen's bill of complaint is not particularly coherent."
But Duguid takes some low shots from which grumpy Greg refrained. For instance, in order to maintain the deceptively highbrow level of his condemnation, grumpy Greg makes no mention of most of Keen's more egregious howlers, which Duguid dutifully pounces on:
"When he [Keen] approaches the foothills, he is unsure: HIGH FIDELITY, for example, was not written by Hornsby. As he climbs, he stumbles more: THE DECLINE AND FALL was not written by Gibbons; nor did Dickens go on a reading tour of America in 1842."
As we said, the two reviewers tend to agree on the big-ticket items. Duguid's most damning summary reads very similar to grumpy Greg's minus, well, the grumpiness:
"Furthermore, while Keen deplores the cult of the amateur for it's 'superficial observations', seen as replacing 'deep analysis' with 'shrill opinion,' he himself is not free from these failings. As he acknowledges in his conclusion to 'The Cult of the Amateur', he too is an amateur, and by the time we get to this concession, we do not feel either that his argument is profound, or that his tone is calm. As bloggers generally draw on much the same stock and use it in much the same way, Keen's approach works more to vindicate them than to damn them."
This is a tea-and-crumpets version of the bare-knuckled hammering Keen's book gets from grumpy Greg on Open Letters, and the plain fact is, it's less fun to read.
In one sense this is terrfically jarring: the TLS has been presiding over the literary landscape of the West for more than a century, Open Letters is less than a year old, and yet on this particular book, the works speak for themselves - the TLS is simply out-reviewed. For a moment, it's sobering - until we all remember that this isn't a competition, and that the emergence of another strong voice of cultural criticism enriches everybody.
Of course, sometimes the thing is just deserved: shame, shame on the TLS for printing Richard Dawkins' snide, fawning vanity-notice of Christopher Hitchens' "god [sic] is Not Great," and entirely justified, the heat their taking for it in their current letters column, with writers excoriating the free pass thus given to a book that richly deserves all the criticism it's got coming to it.
Dawkins gives the book a free pass, but as some of you will know, Open Letters serves it up on a silver platter with its legs still kicking, courtesy of Amanda Bragg in the June issue. Her excoriation of the Hitchens book remains the most thorough we've yet read in the non-religious press, and it is so only because the TLS handed the job over to a bunkmate of Hitchens. Their shame adds to Open Letters' fame.
A fame that grows apace! It's a sweet enough thing, and the smart boys and girls over at that site are suffused with the quiet joy of it - you can see it on their faces in their dumpy little waterfront office, full of cardboard boxes and second-hand Ikea furniture (and something resembling food which they referred to as 'Chinese take out'). Why, on more than one occasion, we've returned from an editorial huddle in those dank confines, had wide-eyed porter boys take us in our private elevator to our office suite overlooking the teeming bullpen that is the working heart of Stevereads, with harried stringers and incompetent interns constantly scurrying to and fro, and we've caught ourselves wondering if we're missing out on something, foregoing the spit-and-bubblegum scrappiness of a site like Open Letters for the ducal splendor of our own little corner of the Internet. The massage-sessions with Theo Epstein? The all-night theologizing with Peter Gomes? The constant pleading calls from Tom Brady, seeking guidance? The VIP passes to everything, everywhere, at all times? Sometimes we wonder if we've sacrificed too much to achieve the indoor wave-pool, the daily jen-situ lessons, the helipad ...
But no! Such a life, though filled with a kind of Grub Street glamor, is not the stone-cold super-hottie way. At least, not all the time. And in the meantime, here's to Open Letters Monthly! A newborn player on the big stage!
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Our book today is “Natural Acts” by David Quammen, and it’s a peppy and heartening little masterpiece.
The field of natural history – a field this book adorns – is gratuitously freighted with literary masterpieces. This is understandable in a way, of course: great minds all start out as young people, and all right-thinking young people are fascinated with the natural world around them. Our young friend Elmo has the brain capacity of a Cray computer and the literary talent of a young Robert Silverberg (strange as it feels for those of us who are accustomed to thinking of Robert Silverberg as a ‘young’ Robert Silverberg … alas, hippy afros fade, and even wunderkinds grow older), but he has felt the sublime wonder of working back to stillness in a natural setting and simply watching as wild wonderful things resume their private activities all around him.
We here at Stevereads have also experienced this, and joyfully: swimming with whales off the coast of Hawaii, knowing the whole time that they were studying us out of simple curiosity; standing on an icebound ridge in Alberta, watching young timber wolves cavort in play under a dying sun; hearing the gorgeous melody of the ‘dawn chorus’ of birdsong on a beautiful chilly morning in the lovely countryside of Kent … the experience is the same, the wonderful rush of viscerally, visually understanding that nature, the wild world, happens without humans, happens all the time around them with no more notice of their bus and trains schedules than of their literary journals (or – gasp – their blogs).
Every naturalist knows these things (even the ones who learned them through the blast of a gun, although Elmo might be slow to allow for that), and quite a few of them have wanted nothing more than to write something that captured their experience. But precious few of them have had the literary ability to pull it off. This has resulted in a vast library of very dull books written about very fascinating things, a curious phenomenon found only in this particular branch of the sciences. Old little libraries dotted around the country have shelves filled with books titled something like “Sixty Years in the Yukon” or “Boating on the Danube” that were written by people who saw and experienced untold wonders (many of which have since vanished from a world increasingly bent on killing its wonders), and yet the books themselves are gaspingly dull. For every William Bartram, there are sixty prospectors with leaden prose styles. For every Theodore Roosevelt, there are eighty cowpokes who couldn’t write a compelling sentence if their lice-infested heads hung in the balance.
Still, there have been giants. Aristotle was one, and of course Darwin was another. William Beebe was one such, and in his own way so was the verbose Stephen Jay Gould. And surely one of the 20th century’s giants is David Quammen.
And Natural Acts is one of his peppiest essay collections (most of these first saw print while Outside magazine was lucky enough to have Quammen writing for it regularly). A collection as zestily written as this one tempts even our steely will here at Stevereads to simply quote its best bits for the next two hours, and we shall only partially resist. The urge anybody feels when they read this book (or, for that matter, most of Quammen’s other books) is to rush up to the next person they see and urge it upon them, and we see no reason to falsify that urge by substituting our own prose, brilliant though it is. Sometimes quoting an author is the best way to recommend him.
For instance, here’s Quammen on bats:
“Clearly the bat has captured human imaginations, and that may be because it seems triply oxymoronic: a flying mammal that sees in the dark by listening to its own silent screams. It is in truth an extraordinary animal, equipped with some startlingly sophisticated evolutionary adaptations, and represented around the world by a wild variety of different forms. If the bat is grotesquely improbable, so is Pablo Picasso.”
And here he is on the disturbing (to humans, anyway) personal presence of the octopus:
One of [Jacques] Cousteau’s assistants adds: ‘I have often had the impression that they are reflecting.’ Other divers and lab researchers make the same sort of comment, describing the same eerie sense of encounter, recognition, even mutuality. Lately I’ve had occasion to experience it myself, during three evenings of octopus-watching in a small university room filled with quietly gurgling tanks: the potent, expressive gaze of the octopus. These animals don’t just gape at you glossily, like a walleye. They make eye contact, as though they are someone you should know.”
And then there’s this, on the often sadistic playfulness exhibited by crows and ravens, a trait we’ve mentioned once or twice here at Stevereads:
“There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: ‘… this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.’ This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore’s favorite species amuses itself, she says, by ‘dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.’ What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.
For page after page, he’s like this: funny, insightful, and empathetic. His essays go by like the happiest of quick dreams, and his longer works wear their considerable learning so lightly they uniformly invite the reader, like having a happy, enthusiastic guest at dinner who just happens to know more than you do about komodo dragons, or coyotes, or jellyfish. Quammen’s writing approaches the natural world with the unembarrassed open-eyed wonder of the very young, and through his words, every reader is encouraged to do likewise.
So exit the computer for a moment, go outside, and look around for some leaping, living nonhuman thing. Once you’ve walked far enough to find one, stand still for a few minutes and just watch it, with no hurry in your head and no harm in your heart. Then when you’re done, come back inside and pull this book down off your shelves (or order it online, if you must). We here at Stevereads heartily recommend it.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Our book today is “The Temple at the End of Time” by Len Wein, and what is that you say, all you over-privileged egg-headed little ewoks out there? ‘There’s no such book! We’ve skimmed them all and worked up our best ways of bullshitting about them! There just CAN’T be one we missed!’ But your focus is too narrow, you miserable squajes, for our book is a four-issue story-arc from the ‘Mighty Thor’ comic book of the 1970s, a story-arc as full of pathos and drama and glinting moments of humor and insight as novels three times as long.
This particular story-arc will be immortalized and made available to you all in the next volume of Marvel’s ‘Essential’ series (or perhaps the volume after that, depending on how many extra titles the editors pull in), but oh! That subsummation will happen without the gorgeous, thought-provoking coloring talents of Glynis Wein, and that’s a heartfelt shame. Who knows how long it’ll be before Marvel Comics resurrects or freshly creates a full-color reprint series of their great old stuff? And even when that happens, who’s to say the powers that be behind such a series will see where the quality is? The ‘70s at Marvel were a golden age, the last age in which workhorse creators like Len Wein, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Rich Buckler, Joe Kubert, and John’s unjustly underrated brother Sal (as well as such rejuvenated old-timers as the mighty Gene Colan and the mighty Gil Kane) would have the freedom and relative anonymity to craft radically different great storylines in completely different titles. In today’s overpaid fanboy-inflated atmosphere, John Buscema would draw one issue of Conan every other month and periodically miss an entire year for undisclosed personal reasons. In today’s convention-fueled mindframe, Roy Thomas could only write a gut-wrenching storyline about Reed and Sue Richards if the Marvel Comics suits gave him permission to kill Sue Richards, preferably by means of gang-rape.
Thankfully, such was not always the case. Once upon a time, comics creators were long-haired hippies who actually believed in what they were doing, and at Marvel, once Stan Lee finally eased his zombie-fingers off the nominal ‘writing’ and ‘editing’ chores, they were free to spread their wings and really dig into the creative legacies they’d been left.
So Len Wein finally came to Thor and the story-arc we here at Stevereads are choosing to call ‘The Temple at the End of Time’ is the first full fruit of his inspiration (in the first issue - sorry, chapter, of our book, he’s referred to as ‘spanking new’ editor/storywriter).
First, a little big background, for those of you pitiful enough to know nothing about the character Thor in Marvel Comics: he’s the god of thunder out of Norse mythology, only refitted by the genius of Stan Lee with the trappings of a super-hero: a secret identity, a mission to fight injustice, and a big, red cape. He comes from Asgard, where Odin, his father, rules as king of the gods and is portrayed as a cartoon parody of the Old Testament God: bearded, irascible, and murderously omnipotent.
Second, a little small-background, for those of you pitiful enough not to know your 1970s Thor in every page and detail: just prior to our present story-arc, Thor’s mortal girlfriend Jane Foster was dying, and Thor’s immortal girlfriend (yep, Stan Lee’s thunder god was a playah), the goddess Sif, sacrificed her life to ‘fuse her spirit’ with Jane Foster in order to cure her. In a not particularly heroic turn, Thor appears OK with this (one’s better than none, we suppose), and he and Jane hold hands and pledge their love. Then everybody goes off to fight the Egyptian death-god in another dimension.
Our present story-arc begins on their return, when, after a brief spat between Odin and Thor, our hero heads to Jane Foster’s apartment with his gal. Odin leaves for Asgard, where in the following issues he will act even more hysterical and obsessive than usual; this is a nifty sub-plot (it builds to the stunning revelation in issue #250 that this newer, more hissy Odin wasn’t Odin at all but really - gasp! - Mangog in disguise; Mangog is one of Thor’s greatest villains, an ugly-ass monster with, as he endlessly proclaims until you just want to tell him to shut up already, the strength of a billion billion beings), but it need not concern us today.
Our concerns begin in our first ‘chapter, issue #242, which opens with Thor and Jane Foster relaxing in her apartment watching TV with three of Thor’s Asgardian buddies - these three are Fandral the dashing swordsman (think Errol Flynn, only minus the, um, wayward hands), Hogun the grim (grim guy with a mace, who was doing the whole stoic-hardass thing decades before some guy named Wolverine showed up), and Volstagg, an enormous Falstaff character, all bluster and buckling bravery.
This quintet is basically hanging out, bantering over soft drinks, when suddenly a giant HAND breaks through the wall and seizes Jane Foster. Our heroes leap to the gap in the wall and see a gigantic quasi-robot, the Servitor, with a fleshy red face, holding Jane Foster in one hand and an enormous power-lance in the other. He’s seized Jane in order to force Thor to do as he’s told, and with any other Marvel hero, it would’ve worked, and a tense parlay would have resulted.
With Thor, at least as Wein writes him, not so much. He and his friends hurl themselves straight at the Servitor (well, Volstagg does a prat-fall into some garbage, but the others leap), without seeming to care that it could get Jane Foster squished. What follows is a classic John Buscema battle-sequence, served up like a slice of Heaven. Thor fans will usually attest to three distinct periods where his artwork was at the top of its game: Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Walt Simonson (this was back when an artist stayed with a title for more than the six issues needed to generate a graphic novel - long enough, in other words, to get good at drawing the characters), but we here at Stevereads disagree. Surely for all his genius and wit (his run is probably the single best the character has ever known), Simonson can’t stand as a separate artistic category from Kirby? The one clearly learned everything from the other: big overdone figures, straightforwardly kinetic action sequences, etc. Buscema’s style is entirely different - more sinuous, more detailed (especially when matched with his perfect inker, Joe Sinnott, whose hyper-finished style would have been drastically mis-matched with Kirby’s wild, woolly scratchings) and ultimately more dignified. His Thor LOOKS big and regal, even in small panels.
In any case, Buscema’s action sequences can be grand and thrilling, despite his many static qualities as an artist (the obvious comparison is Curt Swan, but Swan’s action-sequences almost never actually worked), and this long battle with the Servitor displays the fact amply. And in short order, and without any real difficulty, Thor eventually wins and is at the point of pounding the Servitor’s pudgy red face inside out when a ray-blast shoots between him and his victim, causing Thor to pause. He looks up, and there before him is Zarrko, the so-called Man of Tomorrow, a villain from the future who’d plagued Thor a few times in previous issues. At which point long-time fans probably uttered a frustrated sigh - Zarrko is, after all, a lame excuse for a villain.
Fortunately, Len Wein is not a poor excuse for a writer. In his second ‘chapter,’ he starts shattering preconceptions right away, by characterizing Zarrko as something other than a bargain-rate Lex Luthor (they’re both bald as an egg, in case you’re loser enough not to know that). Zarrko apologizes to Thor and his friends - there was a miscommunication, his enormous Servitor was only meant to get their attention, not to attack them. Zarrko is from the 23rd century (clearly, there are some sleazeballs the Legion of Super-Heroes haven’t got around to rooting out yet), and he relates to his listeners how, after his last defeat at the hands of 20th century superheroes, he returned to his own time to lick his wounds and - and here’s the magic Wein touch at work - rethink his life.
That’s of course the thing super-villains never do: they never limp back home and re-evaluate this whole fighting-superheroes thing. The Wingless Wizard developes small, portable anti-gravity devices, but does he negotiate a contract with the DOD? Nope! He opts to keep getting his butt kicked by the Fantastic Four. The Mad Thinker can dream up the most sophisticated android technology on the planet, but does he patent his work and go public? Nope! He, too, elects to get his plush posterior pasted by the Fantastic Four four times a year. The list is endless, and the writers of Stan Lee’s time would have said that’s the whole point - that these villains ARE villains specifically because such worldly, pecuniary rewards aren’t sufficient to satisfy their craven ambitions.
Well, not so Zarrko! He got his futuristic ass kicked one too many times and, under Wein’s careful touch, he decides to do something about it. First, he re-models one of his century’s ‘indestructible mining robots’ into ‘a fitting servitor for one such as I intended to become’ - and he and his Servitor boarded a time-travelling cube and travelled FORWARD, not backward. AWAY from the Avengers and the Fantastic Four (apparently, over at Marvel there are no superheroes in the future). He goes to the 50th century - a fairly peaceful time whose inhabitants don’t stand up long against Zarrko and his enormous Servitor. Zarrko sets himself up as (relatively) benevolent dictator. Virtually any super-villain in Marvel or DC could have opted to do something equivalent, but Len Wein’s Zarrko is the very first to follow through with it.
And there he’d have stayed, happily dictating, if it weren’t for the menace he’s come to the 20th century to discuss with Thor: the Time Twisters. Once he’s got the warriors’ attention, he draws them a story - apparently, these Time Twisters appear to be travelling backward in time, touching down at Earth’s timeline every 30 centuries and bringing planet-wide devastation each time. Zarrko has used his time-travel technology to see the destruction of the 80th century, and he knows his own opportunistically-chosen 50th century is next, so he does what anybody would do if they knew the home century of the god of thunder: hop in your time-cube and go enlist his aid! His case is made all the stronger by the fact that if the 50th century falls, Thor’s beloved 20th century will be next (of course, in Thor’s case Zarrko had backup centuries, like the late 9th, or the 6th - but then, if Zarrko picked those centuries, oddly enough, he’d have had a credibility problem with Thor, who’d be a complete stranger to him).
The arguments work, and Thor and his comrades (including Jane Foster, who makes an impassioned argument for her inclusion on the mission, making blatantly manipulative reference to the fact that the goddess Sif’s life-essence is now inside her) vociferously declare their willingness to fight on Zarrko’s behalf, to save his adopted century and so their own. They all board the time-cube and head into the timestream, where trouble’s a-brewing.
That trouble soon makes itself apparent, as the time-cube runs aground on a temporal eddy and is attacked by ... a Tyrannosaurus Rex! Buscema’s rendering of the famed beast is anatomically accurate (longtime fans will recall what Kirby would have done in drawing a t.Rex - recall, and shudder), and Thor goes out to give battle. The fight is of course inherently one-sided physically, although there’s distinctly more parity mentally - because Thor TALKS through the whole of it. TO the T. Rex. Which has a brain the size of a walnut and is of course as ignorant of the nuances of spoken English as your average blogger. Thor offers the beast a chance to surrender with honor; he repeats his offer; finally he laments that his offer isn’t being accepted and hurls the dinosaur back into the mists of the timestream.
But the creature was just the beginning - from out of the mists now come hordes of enemies plucked from wildly different eras of history, from Greek hoplites to Mongol nomads to futuristic soldiers on anti-gravity sleds. A great battle ensues (Zarrko stays inside the time cube, but the Servitor fights and fights well, further increasing the favorable regard of the Asgardians) - until Thor decides to summon storm and lightning (um, yes, they appear to have weather even in the timestream .... moving on ...) to disperse the enemies. It’s having the desired effect when for just a moment Thor is distracted with thoughts of the lost Sif and is only stopped from accidentally sweeping his own comrades away when they call on him to cease and desist.
The clear import of both the T. Rex encounter and this one is that Wein considers Thor a bit of a lunkhead. But at least his heart’s in the right place.
Finally our travellers reach the century Zarrko has so recently conquered, and when they disembark, they find a squalid, wretched setting quite out of synch with the pride Zarrko takes in it all. Citizens shamble around gaunt and hungry, and when one dares approach Zarrko with a complaint, he’s rudely swept aside by the Servitor. Our heroes are dismayed but inactive - Wein usually writes his Asgardians as a little above temporal politics, perhaps even a little indifferent to them. Thor does point out that Zarrko’s world seems a fairly grim place, and Zarrko’s response has more understated, selfish intelligence to it than can be found in a dozen spittle-flecked rantings of Doctor Doom:
“It’s a simple equation, thunder god. Energy produces mobility ... mobility produces communication ... communication produces dissent ... and dissent produces rebellion. By withholding all sources of energy, I eliminate that rebellious temptation ... and insure my subjects’ safety. All that threatens them now is - the Time Twisters!”
And just that easy, the subject changes. The OTHER prodigiously powerful red-caped super-guy would have set about immediately improving the lot of Zarrko’s hapless subjects, but Thor and his buddies take it in their stride - and they’re helped to do so by the fact that just as Zarrko mentions the malevolent Time-Twisters, they appear smack dab in the middle of the street! And we’re on to ‘chapter’ 3!
This is issue #244, and its cover embodies the height of ‘70s overkill: there’s dialogue, for instance (it’s all but unknown nowadays, at Marvel or DC), and it’s emblazoned with the issue’s title, “This is the Way the World Ends,” and it includes the oddly masochistic advertisement, “AT LAST! The battle the Thunder God cannot hope to WIN!” (as though fans had been waiting for the event).
The issue itself finally brings our heroes into contact with the fabled Time-Twisters, but not before Zarrko tries to deal with them in his own inimitable style: he broadcasts his scowling visage to his poor downtrodden people, warning them about the appearance of the Time-Twisters in their midst and offering them one entire month of energy if they successfully defeat the intruders. The crowds rush to take him up on his offer, mobbing the tall, etoliated Time-Twisters with clubs and pitchforks. Again, Thor only wanly objects: he tells Zarrko he mislikes using mortals as pawns, but he doesn’t exactly fly out a window to interfere, and the crowds get decimated by the Time-Twisters, whose eye-beams work temporal havoc on their victims, reducing them to old crones or little babies in an instant.
He does go, however - they all do, walking to confront the Time-Twisters while Jane Foster urges Thor to try talking with the intruders before he starts brawling with them: “Look at their clothing, their faces - look into their eyes, Thor! These are creatures of vast intelligence! Speak to them, darling - reason with them! Try to make them understand what they’re doing!” Thor responds predictably, telling her “Such is not the warrior’s way,” but he agrees to try nonetheless, boisterously hailing the Time-Twisters, verbosely and somewhat unhelpfully:
“Aliens! Thou who dost tread the myriad pathways of time! In the name of reason - in the name of peace - the prince of golden Asgard doth bid thee halt!”
Needless to say (especially in comic book land), such stuff does no good - the Time-Twisters keep stalking along. Thor berates them and finally stoops to asking them “What manner of creatures ARE these?”
This gets a response: “A question. At our inception it was decreed all questions must be answered ... for in answers alone may the quest for knowledge be fulfilled.” Thor asks them what their purpose is, where they come from, why they plunge planets into ruin in their wake. The Time-Twisters (Buscema’s design is brilliantly counter-intuitive - they look too frail to stand, much less wreak havoc, whereas Kirby would have decked them in elaborate muscles and armor) explain that they come from time’s end to seek out time’s beginning, and when Thor reminds them that they haven’t yet answered his question about leaving ruin in their wake. They respond with complete denial - as far as they’re concerned, they bring enlightenment to the worlds they leave behind (they think this mainly because they don’t bother to turn around and look, but we’ll refrain from all potential political commentary). When Thor assures them otherwise and insists they abandon their quest, they ignore him, saying they’d rather die than abandon what they’re doing.
Well, with Len Wein’s Thor you really don’t need to say more than that. Thor and his friends yell out ‘For Odin! For Asgaaaaaaard!’ and leap to the fray with weapons drawn.
The Time-Twisters respond as they always have: they bathe our heroes in the eerie eye-beams that only moments before reduced an entire crowd to extreme old age or mewling infancy. But nothing happens, and when Fandral mentions this to Thor, he gets a refreshingly laconic answer: “What matter the ravages of time to we who are immortal?”
(Back in the ‘70s, one persnickety fan wrote in reminding Wein that the Norse gods didn’t come by their immortality genetically; they need to feast on the golden apples of immortality to keep eternally young - but it doesn’t really matter; that fan’s objections went unnoticed, as they always would, until the bright day dawned when he had a log of his own and could exact his REVENGE on ALL of those who once scorned him!!!)
Still, it doesn’t help with final victory; the Time-Twisters summon a timestream-like army of warriors from all time periods to fight the Asgardians. It’s a blatant distraction, and the Asgardians know it, but when Mongol hordes run at you screaming, what can you do but raise your weapon and dig in? Even Volstagg’s on board with such a choice, as is Jane Foster.
Ah, Jane Foster! The problem with her whole sub-plot, a problem we perhaps haven’t made clear as of yet: the choice to ‘kill’ Sif in favor of Jane Foster went down very poorly with about half of all the Thor fans out there. This half thought something like, Thor’s been in love with Sif for thousands of years, whereas Jane Foster’s been a girl-hostage simp for about a minute of Thor’s conscious life. These fans argued that if anybody should have survived a soul-infusion, it should have been Sif, not Jane Foster. Letters were written, stamped, and mailed. Letters appeared in something once called letter columns. And that faith was unbelievably taunted by one great panel-sequence right at this point in our story: Buscema draws it perfectly - one instant, Jane Foster, dressed drably in Earth-ware, has her sword raised; in the next instant, illuminated by a flash of lightning, readers are treated to a glimpse of Sif, sword raised, black hair flying; then the final panel of the triptych shows us Jane Foster completing the swing. It’s a neat little feat of visual trickery, done with a restraint that would be unthinkable to young comic book artists today.
But the battle ends up being meaningless - the distraction works. The Time-Twisters leave Zarrko’s Earth, and the planet is engulfed in flames. The ‘chapter’ ends with our heroes miraculously untouched (Zarrko and his Servitor have already chosen the better part of valor and boarded their time-cube) but despairing, because they’re alone on a ruined world.
The final ‘chapter’ necessarily opens with an explanation: how the heck did Thor & Co. survive the destruction of 50th century Earth? Thor has a theory: the goddess Sif possessed the ability to ‘transcend time and space’ (i.e. she could mystically teleport herself and passengers), and it’s possible Jane Foster was able to tap into that ability in their hour of need. It’s a dumb explanation (why don’t any of them remember being teleported? Where did they go while Earth was being destroyed? Scranton?), but it’s quickly put behind us as Zarrko’s time-cube materializes and the disposed dictator starts yelling at Thor about how he failed in his set task of saving Zarrko’s century. “We do not deny our guilt, Zarrko,” Thor answers. “Shouldst thou not do the same? Where wert thou when the moment of truth arrived?”
Irked by this impudence, the Servitor smacks Thor upside his winged helmet, which prompts a response stalled only by the making of a speech: “Thou hadst no call to do that, Servitor! I had looked on thee as an able comrade-in-arms ... mayhap even as a friend! But if thou dost choose to set thyself against me, so be it! Thou didst strike from behind, without qualm, without warning! Thus so shall mine enchanted hammer Mjolnir strike - without mercy!”
What follows is an extremely abbreviated version of the fight these two had in the first ‘chapter’ - but it’s long enough for us to see that young Derek, a downtrodden peasant under Zarrko, had secretly boarded the time-cube before his world’s destruction. He slips away to find his young wife:
“Derek shambles aimlessly thru the misshapen slag that had once been the city he called home. Granted, a city without energy, without hope, but his city nonetheless - for Derek’s wife had lived here.”
We leave him crumpled over the remains of his destroyed home, and we return to our brawling heroes, who’ve been separated by Jane Foster, who’s pointing out that while they stand around fighting, the Time-Twisters are moving on to 20th century Earth. Thor suggests they travel not backwards to the 20th but forward to, say, the 80th century, to fight the Time-Twisters there and perhaps save both Zarrko’s century and their own. The Tomorrow-Man does them one better, suggesting they travel to the end of time itself and stop the Time-Twisters before they even start, and our heroes agree.
There’s turbulence along the way (it causes Thor to let loose one of Wein’s favorite archaic outbursts, ‘Zounds!’ ... sadly, all his Asgardians blurt this out at the drop of a hat, which they certainly wouldn’t, it being a medieval contraction for ‘Christ’s wounds’), but eventually the end of time itself is reached, a solitary temple on a crumbling shelf of rock, a barren place with three Kirby-style stone statues outside its entrance.
Once our heroes breach the temple’s force field (the Servitor helps accomplish this, as he helped quell the time-stream turbulence, both times insisting he was only acting out of loyalty to his master, not out of comradeship, although Buscema’s sly renderings of his doughy face clue the reader in otherwise), they’re shocked to see the statues come alive - they’re the Protectroids, and they immediately commence firing force-beams that disperse our time-travelers. At one point Zarrko is trapped before one of these Protectroids, who raises a hand to fire (“No, you mustn’t” Zarrko yells “I can’t have come this far only to die!”), but the Servitor steps in front of the blast, lumbers forward as the energy destroys him, and falls onto the Protectroid, destroying them both. The battle is over a moment later, and Fandral urges Zarrko to come away: “There is nothing more we can do here. Thy servant hath passed beyond our power to attend him.” “He was more than just my servant, Asgardian,” Zarrko says, and Buscema has drawn touching grief in the character’s face, “He was my friend.”
Thor tells him to honor his fallen friend by completing their mission, and they all enter the temple, where they find an eerie sight: three pulsing embryos, clearly the Time-Twisters at the moment of their birth. In an act that would be unthinkable in today’s comics, Thor raises his hammer to squash these helpless enemies-in-waiting, but he’s stayed by a shriveled figure who steps out of the shadows. This impossibly old man is He Who Remains, and he first urges Thor to step back and then bathes him in a paralyzing energy-beam that leaves him helpless on the floor. He Who Remains tries to explain:
“You see, stripling, time is but a circle. From the ashes of the final holocaust, the universe will begin anew. Those who sleep are our gift to the future - three beings who are knowledge incarnate - and will teach those of the next cycle to avoid the errors we made.”
But Thor’s still recovering, so Jane Foster steps up to maintain the philosophical debate:
“But that’s the problem, don’t you understand? Armageddon is final! It cannot be breached! Your sleepers will survive the cataclysm - but somehow they’ll be twisted in time! Seeking time’s beginning, they’ll move back thru the ages - and every world they touch they’ll destroy!”
(Presumably Thor’s still too weak to point out to Jane that the very mythological world he lives in and comes from is entirely predicated on Armageddon NOT being final - as far as he’s concerned, Ragnarok will have survivors, including his two sons Magni and Modi)
Naturally, He Who Remains doesn’t believe this. “But all our hopes,” he says, “our dreams of a universal utopia...” “Are you willing to murder countless trillions of living beings to make those dreams come true?” Jane Foster asks him. “That’s what it comes down to, you know. Can you be that selfish?”
Before he can answer, the planet’s final upheavals begin, and Zarrko and the others run to the time-cube. Thor offers safe passage to He Who Remains - “Comest thou with us, old one. Thou hast discharge thy duty most nobly. Leave thy sleepers to the spinning fates and flee!” “There are things left to be done here that only I can do,” the old man responds. “Save yourselves while you can, and know that you take with you an old man’s gratitude - for more than you could ever realize.”
Our heroes bolt the scene, with only Thor pausing long enough to “bid farewell to one far nobler than we,” and then they’re off, back into the past. They don’t see He Who Remains shuffle around his tottering sanctuary, they don’t see the solitary tear slip down his withered face, and they don’t see him abort the unborn Time-Twisters.
What they do see, when they return to Zarrko’s 50th century, is a flourishing wonderland of flying craft and gleaming towers, a place bursting with wealth and vitality. Zarrko is more stunned than anybody, especially when he’s taken before the first citizen of this utopia: Derek, who’s been elevated to benevolent supremacy by the whims of reconstructed time! Zarrko sputters and sputs at this comeuppance, but our Asgardian heroes don’t seem particularly eager to help him - especially since they themselves are fading, disappearing back into an altered timeline in which they never came forward at all.
Our ‘book’ ends as it began: a calm afternoon in Jane Foster’s apartment, everybody settled in and chatting happily. No gleaming metal hand bursts through the wall, no wild time-straddling adventures ensue. All is as it was before, but Wein and Buscema’s readers have been taken on an exotic and fascinating ride. Thor’s comic title would shortly after this fall on some hard times and a fallow period of creativity, but that doesn’t change the wonder and wit of this particular run. When it comes available in a mass-market format, we here at Stevereads will cheerfully recommend it to you all - and in the meantime, if you’re desperate, those four wonderful issues are probably available online from some mouth-breathing virgin living in his mother’s rumpus room. You’ll be glad you went to the effort.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
As long as we're mentioning good off-site stuff to read, we'd be remiss if we didn't inform all you bloodthirsty little ewoks that Brian over at MovingPictureTrash has posted another damn funny bad movie review, this time of 'The Sound of Thunder,' which was based on the famous Ray Bradbury short story of the same name - and which differs from it mainly in that the Bradbury story didn't suck ass. So click on over and let Brian give you the lowdown, and be sure to toss in your two cents worth in the comments field!
It's that time again! Open Letters Monthly is live for September, presenting its usual blend of wit, sophistication, insight, and fashion tips! Our young savant Sam Sacks examines the career of the uber-young savant Junot Diaz; Garner Linn reviews two maverick graphic novels; Ravi Shankar (no, not THAT Ravi Shankar) offers a poem; our very own Greg Waldmann serves up a delightful roast (the first of many, we hope) of an idiot luddite; the lovely Leah Lambrusco writes about the now-obscure John Evelyn; Adam Golaski debuts the concept of footnotes on Open Letters; and we here at Stevereads natter on and on about one damn thing after another. So click over and dig in - you'll come away with your mental bellies stuffed and distended!
Monday, September 03, 2007
Our book today is that tried-and-true classic, ‘The Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides, experienced this time around in the latest Norton Critical edition, with a new translation by Walter Blanco.
It’s a very good translation, but can we pause for a moment here to praise the Norton Critical editions in general for the worthy work they do? They present a generally fine edition of their central work, and then they provide a marvellous spread of context, not just contrary versions and contemporary responses, but a wide variety of responses prompted over time, so the reader gets a great one-stop visual of the central work’s impact on the canon. It’s a winning approach aimed at students, but it works wonderfully with the general population - mainly because the general population has over time degenerated to roughly the stupidity-level of the average college freshman and now NEEDS to be provided with the context they would otherwise know already. Plus, it’s dashed convenient, even for the expert, having so much great secondary material assembled in one place.
And oh, the material that’s been generated by this book! This immediate, intransigent example of the old adage that the winners write the history books. Thucyidides’ subject is the decades-long war between Athens and its maritime Delian League and Sparta and its land-based Peloponnesian League, and he was an Athenian general. Granted, his relations with Athens were anything but smooth, but still: you could hardly expect him to write a pro-Sparta account of the war (it would be a singularly revelatory discovery if a full Spartan history of the war were ever uncovered).
Still, Thucydides makes a conscious attempt at objectivity, and that in itself is so remarkable he’s remembered for it almost to exclusion of Herodotus, who also made efforts toward that new historical idea and never gets credit for it (we’ll get to his book in the fullness of time here at Stevereads).
What often gets lost in discussions of Thucydides is how enjoyable he is to read. You could scarcely be otherwise and survive twenty five hundred years.
He has a wonderful story to tell, but you’d hardly know it from the ripples it’s inspired in other art - it lacks all the dumb, simple elements that help wars to be remembered. There’s no simplistic signature battle, no standout hero or villain (massively charismatic Athenian general Alcibiades would have been perfect, except he switched sides a half-dozen times, which renders him less than John Wayne-ish), and although the whole black-and-white comic book rendition of Athens=brains/freedom v.s. Sparta=force/facsism has an eternal appeal, the Peloponnesian War continues to defy the easy categorization our idiot age requires.
So much the better, then, that its foremost historian is this man, this sour, cynical, dispeptic, exacting, and conscience-haunted man. This book is an eternal masterpiece not because it stands as almost solitary record to the world-changing events it chronicles (that ‘almost’ would have galled Thucydides, but its truth stands nonetheless: Thucydides, the seminar teacher you least want - for his tough grading - will forever be joined to Herodotus, the tenured old duffer undergraduates sign up for in droves not for his classes but for his laughing willingness to buy them the beers they need to stay up late with him laughing at his stories) but because its author is as unforgiving with himself as he is with everybody else. And he knows how to tell a good story.
It IS a good story, although only Mary Renault’s sweet, bittersweet, and ultimately heartbreaking novel “The Last of the Wine” captures it in fiction. There were endless betrayals, countless little victories, and (as befits the era of not only Demosthenes but that great immortalized-but-eloquent oaf Pericles) lots of great rhetoric. All of Greece rose (belatedly, but still) together to face the prospect of total annihilation at the hands of the world-straddling Persian empire, but when that threat faded and the banding-together inevitably soured, all that centralized power had to go somewhere, had to do something. It split, and it eventually brought Athens and Sparta slamming against each other, each cloaked in a cloud of allies, but each bespeaking an essential character: the Athenians with their unmatchable navies and their savant’s grasp of geopolitics, and the Spartans with something even more elemental - the fact that in their age, wars were won by land-battles, and in Sparta there lived the greatest army-infantry the world had ever seen (and would ever see, until, alas, the stunned 20th century experienced the almost inhuman proficiency of the Wehrmacht ... proving if nothing else the insulating propensity of the centuries, falling like snow).
It doesn’t stay that restorative, of course; Sparta eventually acted as craven and back-stabbing as all fascist regimes always do, in this case taking back-door money from Persia, the very arch-enemy everybody had fought against only a generation before, but that hardly matters. For participants (well, Ionian participants anyway), the jingoistic thought-v.s.-force living metaphor held a kind of illusionist’s comfort.
Thucydides knows all about that illusion, as he knew first-hand about the realities behind it. He was an Athenian general, and he it was who lost Amphipolis to the Spartans for the one unpardonable sin of any general, being late when you absolutely need to be on time. The Athenians banished him for twenty years, which was very probably worse than a death sentence for a man as proud as Thucydides.
So he wrote his book, a large fragment of which is left to us - and how could it not be an intensely personal book, given the circumstances of its genesis? Indeed, one of the most consistently harrowing threads of Thucydides’ work is watching him violently suppress everything he himself is feeling in order to write his own idea of history, as coldly analytical as anything his near-contemporary Hippocrates was trying to bring to the study of the body’s ills (a tip to those of you in search of an utterly fascinating reading experience: read the Penguin Classics edition of the writings of Hippocrates - you’ll come to them quite unconsciously bearing the miracle-burden of the last five hundred years of relentless medical advances, a hundred thousand simple things that were black-shrouded mysteries to us twenty-five hundred years ago. Oh, not the simplistic stuff, don’t get arrogant - we knew perfectly well that the brain was the seat of consciousness, and we knew that the stomach was where all the important and grotesque stuff happens. We knew of course that the lungs held their vital cargo, just a couple of wineskins full of air. We were less sure about the heart, and we knew nothing of what you all take for granted, the creep of invisible infections, the devil-work of viruses and bacteria, the arcane inter-connectedness of the body’s various smithies. YOU take such things for granted (although even in the United States, the full details of such knowledges seem to have escaped the proletariat, judging by the number of tools out there who slather themselves in antibacterials in defense of viral infections) and we were no less intelligent per capita than you are - we lacked only the mindframe, the technology, and the subsequent schooling ... it’s chillingly, thrillingly fascinating to watch Hippocrates - and all of his uncredited junior writers - try to WORK THROUGH the shroud of this technological ignorance, case after case, symptoms carefully noticed, crazy theories ruthlessly dismissed, everything measured ... we have the bulk of Hippocrates’ writings, and reading them ought to bring about a very unaccustomed feeling in you bloodthirsty little ewoks: a feeling of being daily GRATEFUL for the age and nation in which you live.
So too Thucydides, who tried first and hardest of his day to understand and extricate the PROCESS of history, its tendons and tensions. True, he largely adhered to the style of his time while he was doing it - most noticeably, the speeches. We all know about speeches: both Thucydides and Herodotus, and generations of ancient historians after them (most skillfully and memorably Livy), they all put long and eloquent invented speeches in the mouths of all their historical players major and minor, and they did so without footnote or qualifier. They did this not only because their written records were so spotty as to be nonexistent but also because even when there WERE semi-accurate records of what important people said at important moments, the quotes they actually spoke were no different than the ones important people speak today: largely boring. Who wouldn’t like a President Clinton who didn’t always sound like he was parsing a legal document? Who wouldn’t think better of George W. Bush if he spoke every day the way he does every year at the State of the Union? Quotability and eloquence on demand are enviable traits given to very few, but Thucydides’ Athenians, like every other audience in history, wished their forefathers all had the gift, as befits their exalted place in history. Hence the speeches.
Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, in her fine introduction to this Norton Critical volume, makes the essential argument pretty cogently:
“To Twentieth Century readers, this habit of Greek and Roman historians appears peculiar; today it marks a work as historical fiction - or as history written for children. Ancient readers thought differently. They knew perfectly well that the words they encountered in these speeches were not likely to be the actual words spoken, even in those rare cases where the historian was actually present (as Thucydides surely was, for example, at many of the speeches given in Athens prior to his exile). By the insertion of speeches in dramatic form, Thucydides and other ancient historians were able to give their text a transparent feel, breaking down the barriers that divided their readers from the actual events described.”
Take for instance the pep-talk Athenian general Nicias gives his men on the eve of their doomed expedition in 413:
“Always remember, men, that you must be good soldiers, because there is no place nearby where you can be cowards and still find safety. If you escape your enemies now, those of you who are not Athenians will get to see the homelands you long for, and the Athenians will restore the fallen greatness of their city, because a city is its men, not empty walls and ships.”
(for curiosity’s sake, here’s the same speech in the workhorse Rex Warner translation that Penguin Classics has been using roughly since the time Thucydides wrote it:
“In a word, soldiers, you must make up your minds that to be brave now is a matter of necessity, since no place exists near at hand where a coward can take refuge, and that, if you escape the enemy now, you will all see again the homes for which you long, and the Athenians among you will build up again the great power of Athens, fallen though it is. It is men who make the city, and not walls or ships with no men inside them.”
To our ear here at Stevereads, Blanco’s version is clearly better - cleaner and less verbose, although the Warner has a kind of stateliness to it)
Our translator Blanco is very good with the speeches, and indeed his translation does him extreme credit even in a field crowded with illustrious contenders. His may very well be the most readable Thucydides in English, and his translation is very well-served by the selection of essays chosen to support it. Albert Cook and Glen Bowersock are here, and of course R. G. Collingwood’s famous passage on Thucydides is trotted out again in all its incomprehensible glory:
“If history is a science, why did history share the fate of the arts and not of the other sciences? Why does Plato write as if Herodotus had never lived?
The answer is that the Greek mind tended to harden and narrow itself in its anti-historical tendency. The genius of Herodotus had triumphed over that tendency, But after him the search for unchangeable and eternal objects of knowledge gradually stiffened the historical consciousness, and forced men to abandon the Herodotean hope of achieving a scientific knowledge of past human actions.
This is not a mere conjecture. We can see the thing happening. The man in whom it happened was Thucydides.
The difference between the scientific outlook of Herodotus and that of Thucydides is hardly less remarkable than the difference between their literary styles. The style of Herodotus is easy, spontaneous, convincing. That of Thucydides is harsh, artificial, repellent. In reading Thucydides I ask myself, What is the matter with the man, that he writes like that? I answer: he has a bad conscience. He is trying to justify himself for writing history at all by turning it into something that is not history.”
OK, R.G. Whatever you say. ANYwaaaay....
Getting back to our book today, we here at Stevereads can heartily recommend the Norton Critical Peloponnesian War. In addition to a lively translation and a thought-provoking bouquet of essays, it has a chronology, a glossary, and a nice selection of maps (although for the ne plus ultra of mapped Thucydides, the winner and still champion is and will remain “The Landmark Thucydides,” still in print and findable at your local soulless big chain bookstore staffed by idiots). This book is where so much of your culture’s underpinnings come from; isn’t it time you explored it, or explored it again? We thought so.