[Content Warning: This post quotes vivid descriptions of World War I battles.]

I mentioned I had read this book in my review of Jünger’s novella On The Marble Cliffs. I hadn’t planned to review it, but my friend Joy Spicer asked me about it, and so, well, how could I not? By the way, Joy has also written a review of a different translation, which you should definitely read.

But there’s a reason I don’t often review memoirs. It’s hard to do. I can’t claim “I didn’t like this” or “The author should have done that.” It’s his life. Who am I to say how Jünger should have lived it?

Because the way he lived it is simply astounding. The Storm of Steel tells of his service in World War I in the 73rd Hanover Regiment.

Maybe I should start by briefly describing World War I. The best executive summary I ever heard was, “Because a Serbian shot an Austrian, Germany invaded France.”

Is that an oversimplification? You bet. But it succeeds in conveying one important truth about World War I: it was insane.

Jünger could clearly see it was insane. And he wasn’t necessarily against it, either. Indeed, throughout the book, one gets a sense of him as a strongly patriotic German, who fought bravely for his country:

“[T]here is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, ‘If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever blush at every word of praise.'”

In many ways, Jünger fits the stereotype of the well-drilled, almost machine-like German soldier. There is little sentimentality in his reports, and almost no questioning of his duty, save the occasional gripes about senior officers out of touch with the front line reality.

This is a big reason I read memoirs, especially old, relatively obscure ones. You “meet” people, strange people, people to whom you can barely relate. While reading it, I ask myself, what would I have done, in Jünger’s world? What would he make of mine, if he could see it?

My sense is, almost all people from the past would find the modern world unbelievably luxurious. Everyday people caught up in wars, like Jünger, had it especially hard, but even the Kaiser himself lived a life that was full of many more day-to-day inconveniences than, say, mine.

We are all familiar with so-called “First World Problems.” People will complain about something, and then add that phrase to signify their recognition of their own privilege. And then usually go right on complaining.

Funny thing, though: prior to 1914, Europe was the “First World.” Germany, France, England… all were thought to represent civilization at its most advanced. Civilized comfort is always a state of exception; more fragile than many realize, and easily giving way to barbarism.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live in more material wealth and comfort than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived could imagine. If nothing else, I owe it to them to read what they experienced.

I don’t want to come across as glorifying Jünger excessively. He fought for German Imperialism, and he was, by his own admission, a harsh and even callous man. How could he not be, after everything he lived through? After everything he did? The fact is, it’s close to impossible for me to relate to Jünger, or almost anyone who lived in his time, or before. Their world was so different; their experience of life so alien to that of most modern Americans.

I’m as guilty as the next guy. This very morning, I was annoyed by a little plastic flange on a bottle of bug repellent that didn’t work right. What a trivial problem to be concerned with, right?

We humans are problem-solving creatures, and if we have no real problems to complain of, we’ll invent some new ones. What would a world without problems even be like? Would it be paradise, Shangri-La, Nirvana, Heaven? Or would it after all turn out to be “the other place,” as that old episode of The Twilight Zone implied?

A life of comfort can breed a taste for destruction, as Jünger well understood:

“The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.”

I’ve written before about how, in the early 20th century, it was almost like the people of Europe could sense something was brewing. The artistic movements of the period all pointed the way towards decline or catastrophe, as though people had grown tired of the century of Pax Britannica that prevailed after Waterloo, and had developed a kind of perverse wish to see a true crisis.

If so, they got it. What does it look like when an advanced civilization turns its resources to the primal urge for war? What does it look like when a decadent aristocracy, long removed from concern for the people it governs, decides to throw its full weight behind creating the very thing it was intended to prevent?

I don’t know the answers. But Jünger did, and therefore I give him the last word:

“Thus all the frightfulness that the mind of man could devise was brought into the field; and there, where lately there had been the idyllic picture of rural peace. there was as faithful a picture of the soul of scientific war. In earlier wars, certainly, towns and villages had been burned, but what was that compared with this sea of craters dug out by the machines? For even in this fantastic desert there was the sameness of the machine-made article. A shell-hole strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two bodies on its edge… this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men. And it seemed that man, on this landscape he himself had created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle…

[…]For I cannot too often repeat, a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and month after month. What was a man’s life in this wilderness whose vapour was laden with the stench of thousands upon thousands of decaying bodies? Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”

This is a bizarre and unnerving novella that combines fantasy, magical realism, and horror. It is written in first-person by an unnamed narrator who, along with his brother, Otho, live a peaceful and serene existence studying the flora that grows in the region. I couldn’t tell if Otho is actually his brother by blood, or if he is a “brother” in a sort of religious sense. Either way, the two of them live essentially as monks.

But, soon enough, their lives are disrupted by the activities of the Chief Ranger, a sinister and charismatic figure who hails from the dark forests, and who marshals evil and violent gangs as part of some grand scheme of conquest.

The book slides swiftly from pastoral dream to unholy nightmare. There are many passages in this book, especially later on, that are easily as disturbing as anything Lovecraft or Poe ever wrote. Such as this, describing the Chief Ranger’s HQ, a place called Koppels-Bleek:

Then we heard the wind rocking itself as if in accompaniment among the pines so that the pale skulls on the trees rattled in chorus. Into its lament was mixed the swaying of hooks and the twitching of the withered hands on the barn wall. The noise was that of wood and bone, like a puppet show in the kingdom of the dead.

Of course, this is only a translation from the original, but I can’t imagine anything, in any language, sending a harsher chill down the spine.

It is a strange, disturbing, and deeply unsettling tale, though at the same time it is not without its moments of beauty, particularly in the loving descriptions of things like flowers and cool morning mists.

At times, it was hard for me to follow the story, to the extent that there even was one. But it hardly mattered, because I was so thoroughly swept up in the sublime eeriness of the whole thing. Maybe this is the best you can hope for with translated books. It’s certainly the same vibe I got from, say, The Master and Margarita.

Jünger also made many keen observations about human nature. For example, this description of a character who appears late in the book to challenge the Chief Ranger:

His was a cold, rootless intelligence, and with it went a leaning to Utopias… he conceived of life as the mechanism of a clock, and therefore in force and terror he saw the gears which drive the timepiece of life… Creation had died in his heart, and he had reconstructed it like a mechanical toy.

The climax of the book is dark and bloody, and involves a huge battle between packs of demonic canines. Even if I wanted to completely spoil the book for you, I couldn’t, because the ending was so vague and strange I couldn’t say what exactly happened. Nor does it particularly matter. This is a book about creating impressions and feelings, not telling a coherent story. It’s almost poetry.

You’re probably wondering how I came across such a strange and relatively obscure book. Well, I have been reading a lot of war memoirs, one of which was Jünger’s The Storm of Steel, about his experiences fighting in the German army in World War I, and I discovered he had also written fiction.

His experience in the war is probably why the battle scenes in On The Marble Cliffs feel so shockingly real: the horrors Jünger encountered as a soldier clearly stuck with him. Other details from his life may have found their way in as well, such as the narrator of On The Marble Cliffs referring to his old teacher “van Kerkhoven,” which I think might be a reference to a corporal mentioned in Storm of Steel, a man named Kerkhoff.

On The Marble Cliffs was published in 1939. Some critics have suggested that maybe, just maybe, something was going on in Germany in the 1930s that might possibly have influenced Jünger in writing the book. But I’ll leave it to the reader to draw their own comparisons between the world of the book and actual historical events.

Finally, since I’m sure you’re all wondering about it: no, Jünger was not a Nazi, though he did serve the German regime early in World War II. He was dismissed from the army after being tangentially connected with the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He is, in short, a very ambiguous and complicated individual.

All of this makes the book an extremely weird and generally gut-wrenching experience to read. At the same time, it’s a vivid picture of the darkest depths of human nature and the apocalyptic ruination of a society that must have seemed all too immediate at the time of its writing.

A final technical note: I could only find a copy of the book at the Internet Archive. I recommend reading the scans. I downloaded the file in Kindle format, but it was in rough shape. Weird paragraph breaks, page numbers showing up at random in the middle of the text, and occasional duplicate pages. It was a pain to read.

Before I actually review the book, I have to share the story of how I found out about it. Recently, Peter Martuneac introduced me to the book website Shepherd. While reading about Shepherd and its founder, Ben Fox, I came across this interview Fox did with Phil Halton, which led me to poking around Halton’s site, which is how I discovered this book.

I’m telling you this story to illustrate (1) that Shepherd is cool and you should use it and (2) how I find books, which is generally to read a lot of authors’ blogs and pick the ones I stumble across.

But okay, so what is the book about? It’s a novel set in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. It follows a mullah who runs a madrassa in a remote and rural part of the country. The mullah struggles to instruct his students in Islam all while defending them, and the residents of the nearby village, from marauding bandits and brutal warlords who continually terrorize them.

The Mullah is a fascinating character: intelligent, wise, but also very harsh, and strictly adhering to the fundamental precepts of his religion. At times he seems quite sympathetic, at other times downright heartless; but no matter what, it’s hard to doubt his conviction.

Some of his students are dutiful and faithful, others are impulsive and reckless. But of course, one feels for all of them, growing up as they are in this brutal and war-torn environment.

This book is incredibly dark, and while it is a novel, there can be little doubt that events similar to those described took place, which makes it all the harder to read. It is gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting, which makes it all the more unsettling.

It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it does give a westerner such as myself a great deal of insight into the recent history of Afghanistan, and how it came to be the way it is. Halton has also written a non-fiction history of the country, which I am considering reading as well.

This Shall Be a House of Peace is an unforgettable look at a region and a culture which, despite having been a focus of American geopolitical power for two decades, many of us know very little about.

[Audio version of this review available here.]

The first thing I had to do before reading this book was try to forget everything I previously knew about James Bond. It’s not easy. Even if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you probably have absorbed some things about him from pop culture references. I’ve seen most of the films, so I had to consciously purge all memories of Bond-related media I had seen before reading this

Because this is the first Bond book, the one that started it all, and it seemed best to try to view it through fresh eyes as much as possible. Fleming’s original character is a cold, efficient secret agent, and his mission is to defeat the communist operative Le Chiffre at baccarat in order to disgrace him in the eyes of The Party.

The first half of the book involves long and fairly complicated descriptions of baccarat, as well as some other casino games. Also, many of the terms are French, and Fleming assumes that his readers would be familiar with the language. Probably they were, because his intended audience was well-educated, not savages such as myself.

“He made a high banco at chemin-de-fer whenever he heard one offered. If he lost, he would ‘suivi‘ once and not chase it further if he lost the second time.” 

Uh… ‘kay? To be fair, some of these terms get explained later on in the book. Vesper Lynd, Bond’s assistant on this mission, serves as much as a plot device to have this stuff explained as she does a love interest.

At first, I found it a little dull, but after a while I got absorbed in the high-stakes game. Fleming did a good job building the tension and making the reader sweat right along with Bond.

And so, from the blank slate I’d consciously developed, the character of Bond as Fleming saw him starts to come into focus. It’s funny to think now that the name is so iconic that Fleming’s reason for naming him “James Bond” was because it seemed to him such an uninteresting and ordinary name.

As for his looks, Vesper compares him to Hoagy Carmichael, who I had never heard of before, although Bond himself doesn’t see it. Myself, I started picturing someone on the order of Basil Rathbone: not bad-looking, but not terribly remarkable either.

Maybe it’s because Bond evokes another iconic English hero whom Rathbone did portray: Sherlock Holmes. He surveys everything with a calm detachment, and largely avoids falling prey to emotional entanglement. Or so he tells himself. But, during the first of those signature 007 car chases, his actions betray him. Sure, he may say to himself the woman he’s racing to save means nothing to him, but he is driving 120 miles per hour at night to catch up with her kidnappers.

In the end of course, it’s not just Bond’s actions that betray him. This is a spy thriller after all, and at the end of it, Bond is even more of a heartless, misogynistic, unsentimental S.O.B. than he was at the beginning.

Okay, I lied. I didn’t actually erase all my preconceived notions about Bond before reading this. But I promise, I did my best to forget about Connery, Craig and everyone in between. Who I kept in mind was Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British intelligence officer who served under Fleming’s command during World War II, and whose memoir, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, I recently read.

Dalzel-Job is thought to have been Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond. Although his service seems to have been, if anything, way more exciting than Fleming’s fiction. Dalzel-Job’s memoir records no glamorous casinos, expensive meals, or fancy cars, and quite a lot of hiding out night after night on the coast of Norway, spying on the activities of the Kriegsmarine.

On the other hand, Dalzel-Job does describe reassigning himself after the war without consulting his superior officer, in order to be closer to the woman he would eventually marry. Such roguish defiance of his superiors may have been in Fleming’s mind when he was crafting his fictional spy.

Anyway, I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Casino Royale, but I really do have to recommend From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy to anyone who enjoys reading about history. Dalzel-Job gives a clear, well-written and extremely humble account of his heroic actions during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and some of his real-life adventures are more breathtaking than any Bond story.

But, back to Casino Royale. The last quarter of the book makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but in essence, a bunch of suspicious stuff is going on, and Bond is blithely ignoring it. It’s totally out of character for him based on how he behaved in the first part of the book, where he was meticulously paranoid about security measures, and proud of it. Then at the end he’s reckless about obvious threats, and the only reason for this seems to be that he needed to be to make the plot work.

I didn’t care for the ending at all, which was too bad, because I really liked the rest of it. It’s well-paced, interesting, and Bond was a good character… until he wasn’t.

To me, the book really should have ended with a fascinating conversation between Bond and his colleague, Mathis, where Bond is waxing philosophical about his profession:

“Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Can you imagine any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond saying that? I can’t.

Even better is Mathis’s parting advice to Bond:

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

This was my favorite chapter in the book, and really made the characters feel much more real and interesting. And then Fleming had to go and make a mess of it at the end!

Oh, well. It was still a good book and I’m glad I read it. All told, I’d say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the Bond movies I’ve seen, including the 2006 adaptation of this very story. Even if you don’t like the Bond franchise generally, it’s still worth giving the book a try if you like thrillers.

All right, that’s the end of the book review. What follows is just me going off on one of my hobbyhorses. Don’t feel like you have to read it unless you are interested in minutiae.

At one point, Bond is described as arming himself with “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip,” which he checks by removing “the clip.”

This is apparently a Beretta M418. There is an interesting behind-the-scenes story about how Bond ultimately swapped it out for his signature Walther PPK, but what I’m interested in is the use of this word “clip.” In this context, it sounds like he’s talking about a magazine, not a clip. Peter Martuneac (who, incidentally, I have to thank for recommending Casino Royale to me) has written a post about distinguishing the two. But Fleming was a navy officer, so I’m reluctant to automatically assume he was ignorant of the difference. Perhaps it’s a difference between British and American lingo? Or am I missing something, and it really is a clip? This picture of the 418 shows a pretty definite  magazine, though.

Anyway… well, if you read all this nit-picking and found it interesting, perhaps you’ll also enjoy this clip (pun intended) that I stumbled across while researching this. While it might be too big for a spy to carry discreetly, I think it’s worth noting that a few years later, a .44 magnum revolver would become an iconic cinematic weapon in its own right.

[Audio version of this review available below. This video is dedicated to the memory of all the French words I slaughtered trying to pronounce them when making it.]

It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.

The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.

And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.

And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated?  After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.

The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.

I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.

Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.

Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.

If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.

The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.

As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.

A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.

There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.

The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.

This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver. I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.

A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.

Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.

The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.

And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.

The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.

If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.

[Part I is here.]

You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.

Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?

Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.

Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.

I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:

Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)

Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.

Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.

But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born?  So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.

Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.

The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.

But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.

Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.

So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.

To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them. 

This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.

This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.

Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:

Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.

In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?

But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?

I’ve never formally reviewed Deus Ex for one reason: because Ross Scott did it better than I ever could. If you want a masterclass in reviewing, Scott is your man. Gamers reading this should absolutely check out his videos on Deus Ex.

But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.

Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.

Are you thinking back to our earlier discussion of Repairer of Reputations and getting a little deja vu yet? Why do these nightmarish dystopias always feel so familiar?

In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.

It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.

Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.

Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.

By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “there’s something happening here” even if “what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I’ve used the two examples of Vox Lux and Deus Ex–two separate works, in separate media, nearly two decades apart, to try to demonstrate that this aesthetic exists in modern culture.

But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)

Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.

Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:

…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”

“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”

“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”

It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do.   It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.

But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉