It Made the Shelf: Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a misleading title, in that Sassoon’s stand-in George Sherston is neither a man nor fox-hunting for most of the book. The focus in this first book of the trilogy is Sherston’s pastoral upbringing under the auspices of his Aunt Evelyn and Dixon, the groom. There’s fox-hunting, but there’s also cricket and a horse race, the Colonel’s Cup, that Sherston wins in Sassoon’s anticlimactic narration:

After that really remarkable recovery of mine, life became lyrical, beatified, ecstatic, or anything else you care to call it. To put it tersely, I just galloped past Brownrigg, sailed over the last two fences, and won by ten lengths. Stephen came in a bad third. I also remember seeing Roger Pomfret ride up to Jaggett in the paddock and inform him in a most aggressive voice that he’d got to “something well pay up and look pleasant.”

Paragraphs like that, the capper to about two pages describing the race, are the problem. Sassoon piles up details without attending to thematic importance. Should I be surprised that Sherston won? Sad that Sherston’s friend Stephen lost? Or is it more important that Pomfret threatens Jaggett?

Things pick up at book’s end, when Sherston joins the army and ships off to France. Though Sherston experiences no traumatizing combat in this book, both Dixon and Stephen are killed. That yields this penultimate paragraph:

Back in the main trench, I stood on the firestep to watch the sky whitening. Sad and stricken the country emerged. I could see the ruined village below the hill and the leafless trees that waited like sentries up by Contalmaison. Down in the craters the dead water took a dull gleam from the sky. I stared at the tangles of wire and the leaning posts, and there seemed no sort of comfort left in life. My steel hat was heavy on my head while I thought how I’d been on leave last month. I remembered how I’d leant my elbows on Aunt Evelyn’s front gate. (It was my last evening.) That twilight, with its thawing snow, made a comfortable picture now. John Homeward had come past with his van, plodding beside his weary horse. He had managed to make his journey, in spits of the state of the roads…He had pulled up for a few minutes, and we’d talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. “Ay; Tom was a good chap; I’ve never known a better…” He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him…

That’s a hell of a “good-bye to all that” before the character has even been put through the line.

I had marked Siegfried Sassoon as a Great War also-ran, and he really is. Compared to Wilfred Owen’s experiments with consonance and form, Sassoon was a traditionalist in the Rupert Brooke vein who just happened to write angry. Memoir (in the older politician’s sense) is an appropriate frame for this book; the first chunk of it appears to be thinly fleshed out diary entries. But that closing chapter suggests Sassoon was just setting the stage for what’s to come.

The Centennial: July 1, 1915

His very own cubicle. Not quite as good as his carrel in Wilson, since it had no door. His very own phone. Not quite as good as his cell phone, since it wasn’t on VOIP and not integrated into the directory.

His very own paycheck. $20 an hour. Better than his assistantship.

Eran reported to Sunitha. She wasn’t much older than Eran. They traded stories about educational paths. Her parents had hoped for a lawyer and had advised her to do computer science for security; Sunitha had obliged by going to Cal Tech and getting a dual option in political science. Admitted to law school at the U, she had left after one year and gotten an MFA at Mankato. “I’m the disappointment,” she said. Her sister was a microbiologist and a veteran.

“You have a humanities degree and your title includes the word ‘Director,'” Eran said. “Makes you a hero to me.”

Eran had thought market research would involve advanced statistical analysis of the kind that he hadn’t done since considering a minor in sociology. “Market research” turned out to involve searching Google Maps and feeding profiles of potential clients to the sales team. It mostly involved the ability to sit still and read for an hour at a stretch. Eran had honed this skill, thanks to grading.

The sales team had already landed a new client based on Eran’s research. They asked whether he’d want to make sales calls. The answer was no, except the prospect of commissions turned it to “Yes.”

“You’ll do fine,” Sunitha said. “All you need to have is a killer instinct.”

“But I don’t.”

“At all?”

At the sound of a crash, Oxana bolted from her chair. In the front room, she found what she knew she would: the windowpane, shattered onto the floor. If Leysa hadn’t taken Ivan to the market, he would have been cut to ribbons. For Kliment.

(Ivan – her grandson? Leysa – her daughter-in-law? Eran recognized no thought of a son or a husband.)

She stormed out into the sunshine. The streets of L’viv thrummed. The Russians had as much as evaporated – good riddance – and their sympathizers, their triumph turned to ash, were flinging sacks and trunks into any wheeled conveyance they could rent.

Like Kliment.

You could have killed my grandson! Oxana shouted. A tendril of shame curled into being. A lie. But it could have been true. The shame disappeared in a puff.

Kliment, tall and stout  like the father of the current tsar, slammed his family’s heavy table into the cart. An accident.

You don’t have accidents – you have policies. You closed our schools. Now Ivan speaks only Russian at home. 

A splay-fingered hand rested on the cart. I didn’t do that.

You sent Sheptytsky away. Is he still alive?

Kliment ducked inside his house. I didn’t do that either! he called back.

Oxana lifted a chair from Kliment’s cart. Your priest in the church. Your language in the schools. Isn’t that what you wanted?

No response.

Oxana heaved the chair. Kliment’s window gave way. No one on the street even glanced at her.

She waited for Kliment’s bellowing voice. There was not a sound from inside. So Oxana went through the black rectangle. In the room stood Kliment, his beard folded upon his chest, his fingers threaded in supplication. He was afraid of her.

Go, she said.

“None.” Eran prayed that his face remained neutral.

“It’s this simple,” Sunitha said, grinning. “Pretend.”

When the Russians occupied Galicia in September 1914, they instituted a policy of Russification on the local Ukrainian population, with the support of local Russophiles. This policy was aggressive, involving the imposition of Russian education and religion, and carried out by administrators who were often incapable and unloaded on the region by their home offices elsewhere in Russia. Austria-Hungary retook the region in June 1915. As a result, many local Russophiles fled to Russia.

Abandonment Issues: William T. Vollmann, Europe Central

Under other circumstances, I might push through to the end. But my time is short and trying to finish Europe Central is getting the way of other reading I want to do.

Also, the beginning of the chapter titled “Breakout” is as follows:

With few but courageous allies…we must take upon ourselves the defense of a continent which largely does not deserve it.

—Joseph Goebbels (1944)

Until July 1942, Lieutenant-General A. A. Vlasov, Commander of the Second Shock Army of the Volkhov Front, remained one of those heroically immaculate men of Soviet marble, each of whom bears a glittering star centered in his forehead like an Indian woman’s caste mark (why didn’t German snipers shoot at it?), each holding his gleaming black gun in white hands, aiming with confidence.

And if I turn to the footnotes, I get a source on that Goebbels quote, plus the following note from a couple pages later:

Footnote: Vlasov’s wife: “Andrei, can you really live like that?” —Catherine Andreyev, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 39. Vlasov’s wife was actually not the allegorical Moscow figurine of my conception, but a doctor from a tiny village in the province of Nizhni Novgorod. She was indeed arrested and executed after his defection. They had a small son, whose fate I don’t know.

There are a number of problems with these passages, but they all fall under one rubric: quasi-history isn’t an approach to fiction I particularly like. The Goebbels epigraph could work under other circumstances, but senior Nazis are players in the book and so it’s too close to reality. People don’t generally render their experience of time as “Until July 1942”; that’s a historian’s construction. And finally, I’m glad Vollmann is careful with his sources – but I’m not, because it’s fiction, where remixing and adapting is important. In short, Vollmann’s attempts to minimize disbelief interfere with my suspension of disbelief, which is an important part of reading a novel. (It’s not like I think Crimean war veterans can visit Jane Eyre.) Europe Central is an interesting experiment, but not interesting enough to make it worth my time.

The Centennial: May 29, 1915

Cam’s old company’s CEO was a friend of Cam’s dad, who recommended Eran to the CEO, who interviewed Eran, who pretended that he really wanted to do market research for a logistics firm, which was being swallowed by C. H. Robinson, which would “promote” Cam’s dad’s friend from a CEO to a senior VP, thereby sparing the ego and reputation of Cam’s dad’s friend, who would make a graceful exit after a decent interval.

Whereas the only part of the summer internship Eran really wanted was the money – the chance to make more than $15 an hour, which he hadn’t seen since 2009. But he didn’t tell them that, and he was hired. Start date: June 1.

“What can I buy your dad as a thank you?”

Cam, who had been up all night with Rosamund, almost opened one eye. “Cocaine. Lots of it. Now.”

“Not you, your dad.”

She stabbed a hand out. It bobbed in the air. Taking pity, Eran pulled her into a seated position. “Thanks,” she said. “He likes Brad Thor novels.”

“I’ll send him cigars.”

“Good call. Do you know what they’ll have you doing?”

In a room that suggested its own sepia-hued Instagram filter, the aide read and reread the document. Phrases of ambassadorial outrage seemed to swim off the surface.

requests following notice be given

connivance and often assistance

Armenian quarter is besieged

implicated in such massacres. Unquote # Communicate in paraphrase

Eran could tell, through the century, that the aide felt as if he were in a prison of his own body. (He was young. Probably appointed as a political favor. Considering a career in the foreign service. Or, building a work history before cashing in on Wall Street. However young people did that in 1915.) It was impossible to reconcile the form of the communication, bearing the elegant signature of that do-nothing Bryan, with the reality on the ground. It should have been transmitted as an artillery blast to the face. How did you convey that with a document?

How did you convey, in a document, that it was wrong for people who were there to be made not-there? How would a document make it better?

“I don’t know,” Eran said. “Whatever needs to be done, I guess.”

“So, nothing, then.”

“Pretty much.”

May 29, 1915: Following the beginnings of the Armenian genocide, the Allies warned Turkey that they would hold members of the Ottoman government responsible for these crimes.

Read-in-Progress: William T. Vollmann, Europe Central

While I admire sprawling, convention-defying novels, I don’t necessarily think they’re goodEurope Central isn’t necessarily good.

I probably should have guessed that Vollmann was a comp lit studentEurope Central skims the surface of German and Soviet historical and artistic currents in a way that suggests breadth, not depth, is the goal. And those footnotes! Especially in a novel, they’re a way of showing off your work. But in fiction, you shouldn’t show your work; you should bury your work, so that the illusion only breaks when the reader comes up for air. I will grant that, theoretically, a footnoted novel could be a great work of art, but it’s as much of a distraction for me as an author who toggles between dialect and textbook English.

I’m gonna finish, but: it’s a throwaway. National Book Award be damned.

The Centennial: May 7, 1915

Eran had imported two other calendars to his Google account. One was UMN’s academic calendar. The end of the week glowed neon pink: “Last day of Spring 2015 instruction.” Eran had no idea what he was doing that summer, but he was already planning his first post-teaching ice cream.

The other listed key dates in the centennial of World War I. Sepia-toned blocks, paralleling the quieter period of early 1915, were scattered sparsely among the weeks. The transports had become less frequent, and therefore less predictable – but no less intense. After late April’s transport to the beginning of the Armenian genocide, he had canceled class for a feigned flu and watched reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati all day.

Mildred had rolled over to talk about summer plans. She had been denied a summer research fellowship. She hadn’t officially switched her advisor to Xiaoyu yet, but she had told Xiaoyu about Stefan’s Hawaiian misadventure; the story had made the rounds, and had ended up tainting his students as well as him. The department had awarded the money to one of Xiaoyu’s official advisees. Eran hadn’t bothered to apply. He didn’t know what he would do, or what he wanted to do.

“So I’m going back to California,” Mildred said. “I’m thinking I’ll pick up a coding job while I’m there.”

“You’re going to end up driving for Uber.”

“I’ll be coding for Uber, thank you very much. What about you?”

Eran shrugged. “Cam said her old office has openings for temps this summer. She could put in a good word. Apparently they love her over there.”

Mildred glanced around at the remodeled patio. “Obviously they pay well. Must be nice to have upwardly mobile relatives.”

“Don’t you?”

“I have the kind of relatives who think I need to pull myself up by my bootstraps.”

“But you already did, Stanford grad.”

“Yeah, but they want me to keep going, even when I’d just like an assist.”

Fire.

The torpedo was away. Hans – Eran remembered him, and knew what was about to happen – practically levitated with excitement. From the first sighting, to the moment Captain Schwieger decisively declared, It’s not many ships, it’s one ship, the entire afternoon had been historic. In Hans’s own memoirs, he thought, he would identify this afternoon as the one that led to his becoming head of the imperial navy.

(Eran spared a moment of sympathy for Hans, whose memoirs, if ever written, would have to take a different tack.)

The distant ship, Raimund reported, suddenly stopped. Moments later, the muffled boom reverberated off the hull. Hans flinched.

There’s a second explosion, Raimund announced. And moments later, another boom. Hans concentrated: had they launched two torpedoes? He didn’t dare ask.

She’s heeling over.

How many people, do you think? Hans whispered aloud. The captain swept his eyes in Hans’s direction. Hans held his tongue.

“Was that one of them?” Mildred asked. She had gone still, intent, as she did when she found her thesis. “You went fuzzy there.”

“Sinking of the Lusitania.”

“That’s right, it’s the anniversary.” Mildred offered a moment of silence. “What was it like?”

“German perspective. Good, I guess? I didn’t have to see anyone die.”

“But they died anyway.”

Yes, they did.

May 7, 1915: The German U-boat U-20 sinks the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people.

Abandonment Issues: Damages

The moment I realized Breaking Bad sucked was Walter White’s first line of dialogue:

My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 87104. To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I am speaking to my family now.

The series’s stated mission of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface doesn’t work: he was already Scarface. He thought about the cops before he thought about his family. There was no journey to go on.

I have two problems with anti-heroes in television. One is that, when it comes to TV, I want mostly comfort food. Books and movies are where I look for depth, complexity, and experiment. In TV I just want a good hang. Anti-heroes don’t provide that; they eat all the Pringles and let the cat out.

The second problem is that TV anti-heroes are often an excuse for lazy writing. I’m not sure why this is. Either the writers’ room starts chortling at its own trangressions and forgets to create characters, or the network demands splashy, teaseable moments and the writers sell out their characters in acquiescence. Either way, the pilot of Damages features the most conventionally hateful opening sequence I’ve run across. A teary, bloody, haphazardly clad Ellen (Rose Byrne) runs from an elevator into the streets of New York. Later, in an interview room, a male detective sneers about Byrne’s dishevelment. A defendant lowballs a settlement offer, to which Glenn Close’s Patty responds with a smug, “They don’t have the stomach for a verdict.” Patty lies about the status of the jury’s deliberation, manipulating the defendants into an exorbitant payout (but apparently the defendants’ actions killed children, whose stories Close trots out opportunistically – so I guess it’s okay). These scenes don’t even attempt to imagine the characters as human beings. They use sensationalism and tired dialogue to shorthand Patty as a badass and Ellen as a vulnerable innocent. As a result, neither Close nor Byrne seems to bring their A-game, since it’s hack work. Close is on the steely autopilot that seems the default mode of every CBS-crime-drama investigator. Byrne just sort of shows up.

My editing brain kicked in to wonder how Damages could have gotten off on a better foot. Ellen declines an interview with Patty because it conflicts with her sister’s wedding, but then mopes about the lost opportunity. What if she were at peace with her decision, knowing there would be other opportunities down the road? Patty becomes a cartoon character who stalks Ellen at the wedding because she’s turned on by being turned down. What if she actually saw an asset in Ellen? I found myself retooling Damages as The Veronica Mars and Irina Derevko Legal Hour – Ellen less the naïf and more the hypercompetent tyro who realizes she’s in over her heard, Patty the brash negotiator who sees no conflict between cracking skulls on the job and having a warm, satisfying personal life.

Possibly this is what the show becomes. The pilot doesn’t inspire me to find out. I watched about 15 minutes of Damages before I had to take a break, and the prospect of finishing it off is like a special form of torture. Why watch entertainment if you don’t enjoy it? I’m going back to Due South.