Russia: Revolution and Civil War

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917 – 1921
Antony Beevor

Instead of revisiting more familiar battlefields, in his new book Antony Beevor looks at one of the most important, destructive, and least well known conflicts of the twentieth century, the Russian Civil War. Often seen in the West as just a coda to the First World War, the fighting in Russia drew in armies from all over the world (including Canada) to finally settle the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

The action is very hard to keep straight, with numerous armies led by an odd assortment of generals moving about a vast landscape. This confusion, in turn, was one of the main reasons the Bolsheviks emerged triumphant, as the motley alliance against them had trouble pulling in the same direction. Beevor does a great job though using biographical sketchwork and telling anecdotes to pull things into a coherent narrative that makes sense of the brutal and chaotic origins of Russia’s great tragedy.


Lifesavers and Body Snatchers

Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical Care and the Struggle for Survival in the Great War
Tim Cook

Given the number of books already published on the First World War, especially after its various centenaries were commemorated from 2014 to 2018, you might figure that there wasn’t much more to say. In particular, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cook, who has already written so extensively on the subject, would have much to add about the Canadian experience.

Remarkably, with Lifesavers and Body Snatchers he has.

In this book the focus is on the Canadian Medical Corps, which provides a different perspective on the sorts of damage done, the fallout from bullets and gas, artillery and shell shock. But the background is also well developed, and especially the often bitter political infighting.

Cook has an unrivaled mastery of the archival sources and reveals here for the first time the program of harvesting body parts from fallen soldiers for medical study, without the knowledge or consent of the soldiers and their loved ones. “This was not grave robbing in the deep of night, but an open act of forcing dead soldiers to once again serve their country: having fallen in combat they were now to contribute to victories in future medical battles.”

The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII
Suzannah Lipscomb

Suzannah Lipscomb’s little book doesn’t aim to be much more than a footnote in the family history of the despicable Tudors, but it’s still a treat. Among historians there’s long been a suspicion that the will of Henry VIII was tampered with in some way, but Lipscomb looks at the evidence and sees no grounds for believing in a conspiracy. In the family power politics of the time it was pretty clear even to court observers at the time that the Seymours were going to be in and the Howards out after Henry died.

Nor was it all that surprising where Henry’s succession plans went awry. Could anything have been more predictable than Edward Seymour attempting to take over as Lord Protector and set himself up as de facto king? Given the nature of politics in the sixteenth century I don’t think it likely that conciliar rule was going to work.

Did Henry think it would? Power does that to people. “What is most striking,” Lipscomb concludes, “is the disjunction between [Henry’s] professed belief that he would be obeyed and loved – that even after death, he would leave a forceful imprint on his closest companions – and the reality that they so quickly, and thoroughly, shrugged him off.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the will became wastepaper though. It was invoked successfully by Mary against Lady Jane Grey, and the only reason the Stuarts eventually came to power was because of the surprising barrenness of Henry’s direct line. Instead, like all such attempts to map the future – think of the money laid aside for prayers to be said for Henry’s soul, or modern naming rights to sports stadiums – it had a diminishing shelf life.

The Storm Is Upon Us

By Mike Rothschild

There’s a school of thought, and it’s one I’m inclined to ally with, that has it that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 was the result of a publicity stunt or exercise in branding that slipped the guardrails of democracy. If so, it may share something with the phenomenon of QAnon. While there are a few prime suspects, it’s still not known for sure who got the QAnon ball rolling, but more to the point it’s not clear what their aim was. Perhaps, in an attention economy, it was just a way of catching eyeballs and getting clicks. But whatever its initial purpose, even before the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, it was clear that things had gotten well out of hand.

In both cases – Trump and QAnon – the tinder had been prepared in advance and was only now, to borrow the analogy of Evan Osnos in Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, being lit. The question then becomes just why so many people adopted such a crazy belief system, one that had at its heart the idea that “deep state” elites were running a pedophile sex ring and that Donald Trump was the only one capable of having the guilty parties apprehended (and summarily executed). Rothschild has an answer for that, and I think it makes sense:

This is ultimately what brings people to Q, and what keeps them there. The promise of bad people being punished is one element of it, but the feeling of being part of something important and powerful is vastly underestimated. Q believers see themselves as soldiers fighting for the ultimate cause – and are surrounded by people who validate them, rather than insult them. Yes, Q makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and posts on a message board full of the worst people saying the worst things. But that can be explained away, or written off as just another attack by the enemy. What’s real, what’s tangible to Q believers is how it makes them feel. What questions it answers. What holes it fills that other aspects of life don’t. For some, it’s as compartmentalized as that – good feelings shared with a community about something awesome that will happen to people they hate.

In other words, QAnon is a sort of religion. Rothschild spends a fair bit of time discussing its cult-like attributes, with experts weighing in. The biggest argument against such a classification is QAnon’s lack of a clear leadership structure or org chart, but on the most basic level I think we can still talk of a Church of Q. It’s a belief system giving its adherents a meaning and purpose to their lives, a sense of community strengthened by an us vs. them mentality, the faith that justice will finally be served on the wicked, and an outlet for their frustration, anger, and hate. Of course, it all seems silly from the outside, but so does much of what goes viral on the Internet. “Bored and isolated,” Rothschild writes of Q followers, “they went looking for explanations, enemies, and entertainment. And conspiracy theories provided all three.”

The Q movement, like Trumpism, was also aided by plugging into a “rich tapestry of conspiracy theories, ancient hatreds, currency scams, moral panics, and social media rumors,” as well as anti-liberal “populist” attitudes that were becoming deeper and more prevalent at the time. Chief among these latter being a hatred of the government and the media, a hatred that would metastasize with the pandemic lockdown. But with the election of Biden in 2020 and the eventual end of the pandemic, were the phantoms of QAnon laid to rest, or only temporarily banished? Has the storm passed? The fact that the Republican Party had effectively become “the party of Q” during the Trump years and even after doesn’t bode well for the future.

Rothschild’s book does a good job covering a complicated phenomenon “touching numerous different areas of culture, politics, sociology, and technology.” Along the way he alerted me to some points that I’d missed. In particular, I was interested in how QAnon was deliberately marketed to target demographics like Boomers (“as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories” on Facebook) and women. I knew nothing at all of the phenomenon of “Pastel QAnon,” which had to do with promoting QAnon by way of female bloggers and influencers who were into wellness and yoga stuff. This is a part of the Internet that’s outside of my own media silo. But given the prominence of women in the movement – the congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, and January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt – I shouldn’t have been surprised. Q was not a movement exclusive to angry white men, but one made up of an entire class of anxiety- and grievance-filled Americans. A group that hasn’t gone, and won’t easily go, away.

Review first published online December 1, 2022.

Liberalism and Its Discontents

Liberalism and Its Discontents
Francis Fukuyama

I don’t think Francis Fukuyama is saying anything new in this little book, but what he does say is representative of a lot of mainstream elite thinking on the subject in ways that are worth taking note of.

A believer in classical liberalism, Fukuyama sees it as threatened on two fronts: from the Right by neoliberalism and libertarianism, which leads to gross inequality, and from the Left by the woke revolution and identity politics, which leads to social breakdown. Pulled to the Right the result is nationalist oligarchy or fascism, to the Left there is anarchy.

While I don’t like either extreme, I have trouble understanding the equivalence made between the different threats. Neoliberalism has been the dominant political and economic ideology, worldwide, for going on fifty years. And on the other hand we have the mobocracy of cancel culture, campus free speech drama, and Drag Queen Story Hour? The excesses of the Right and the collapse of democracies into illiberal authoritarianism continues apace, even while, as Fukuyama admits, “It does not appear at this moment that anything like the full progressive agenda is likely to be realized” in the U.S. or anywhere else.

This sort of both-sidesism is a kind of propaganda, with socialism and wokeism invoked as bogeymen by the Right to justify ever more extreme, reactionary policies. But there is no equivalence. The Right poses a very real threat to liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law, while the Left raises the spectre of culture wars that mostly exercise people in the media and universities. Fukuyama may sincerely believe that it is the undermining of “modes of cognition” and speech that is the most acute threat to liberalism today, but that’s only because he’s an academic.

The sins of the Right are grounded in vicious selfishness, those of the Left in cynical hypocrisy. The latter is despicable, and far from even being the debt vice pays to virtue, but it’s not as great a present danger.

Prisoners of the Castle

Prisoners of the Castle
Ben Macintyre

As well as being a chronicle of horrors, the Second World War also provided many thrilling stories of heroism and adventure, not all of them taking place on the battlefield. Ben Macintyre, perhaps best known as the author of Operation Mincemeat, revisits one of the most famous of these in this history of Colditz Prison, a converted castle which was used during the war to hold captured allied officers who had proven to be high risk.

Of course, every prison story is an escape-from-prison story, and Prisoners of the Castle is no exception, as breaking out of the castle became a sort of high-stakes game fought not only between prisoners and guards but between different national teams of inmates. Tunnels were dug, papers forged, uniforms made, and there was even an attempt at building a glider (that might have actually worked!).

Much has already been written about escaping Colditz, and it’s also been the inspiration for movies and a television series. Macintyre tells the story well though, and lets us marvel again at all the ingenuity and resourcefulness on display.

Mussolini’s Daughter

By Caroline Moorehead

Writing the biography of very famous people can’t be easy. For some perennially popular subjects the field is now so crowded as to put off any but the most determined or revisionist of historians. And while familiarity hasn’t stopped new biographies of Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler appearing every year, with scraps of previously undiscovered material getting turned up every now and then that lead to new perspectives, I think there’s a law of diminishing returns in operation.

One way of getting around this problem is to shift focus to someone close to the main figure in the story who isn’t as well known. One example being Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter. And now Caroline Moorehead’s account of Edda Mussolini, who was Benito Mussolini’s favourite child.

Edda’s name doesn’t appear in the title or subtitle of Moorehead’s book, perhaps signaling her secondary role in the world-historical events that follow. A famous figure in her day, I think Edda’s largely been forgotten in the years since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime. Edda lived to be 84, dying in 1995, but Moorehead’s book skims over her final 50 years in a mere handful of pages. For biographical purposes, Edda life ended with her father hanging by his heels from the roof of a gas station in Milan. “I write, I dream, I drink, I smoke,” is how she described her postwar existence to one friend. “And yet,” she would add, “I continue to live, not vegetate.” Which is setting a low bar.

Edda herself remains a bit mystifying. Moorehead confesses at the outset that “what follows is as close to the truth as I have been able to get.” But does this mean there were hidden depths to Edda’s character, or that there was actually less to her than met the eye? I’m drawn toward the latter position. She and her husband Galeazzo Ciano – for a time Italy’s foreign secretary – became the Fascist poster couple, which may have been incongruous in some ways (particularly given their louche lifestyles) but in so far as they were usually presented to the public as images without much in the way of substance, they fit the bill. Edda wasn’t particularly attractive, but she was tall and thin, while Ciano was a peacock. “Edda and Ciano were everything Mussolini had dreamt of as his model Fascist family: young, healthy, fashionable, forceful and fertile.” But did they even get along?

In terms of personality, Edda was a wild child and very much her daddy’s girl: a hothead “with a taste for dramatic scenes.” She shared many of the same mannerisms (like throwing her head back and sticking her jaw out at someone she was berating) and, even more shocking, the same sexual promiscuity. When asked how she resembled her father she replied “I wouldn’t be able to say the ways in which I do not resemble him. I am a faithful copy.”

For good and ill. She was also her father’s closest confidant and perhaps his only friend, and in this social narrowness she also took after him. I was surprised when I read Moorehead’s account of the sinking of a ship Edda was stationed on (she’d been in her cabin reading P. G. Wodehouse when it was torpedoed). Apparently “her closest friend,” a fellow nurse, died in the attack. The friend’s name didn’t ring any bells and, checking the index, I found out that this was the only mention of her in the entire book.

Who else did Edda like to hang out with? Like a lot of today’s power couples, her marriage to Ciano seems mostly to have been one of mutual convenience. It’s hard to say if she was ever in love with any of her lovers. Apparently she got along well with Magda Goebbels, which doesn’t say much in her favour as Magda seems to have been a very dull woman.

But then wasn’t Edda, despite her glamorous profile (which included an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939), a bit dull herself? Fiery, to be sure, but still an uneducated peasant girl whose shallowness is evident throughout Moorehead’s account. In Edda’s defence, her position in the Fascist regime was one she didn’t seek and seemed to not particularly enjoy, though the evidence here is ambiguous. Meanwhile, the question of her culpability in the crimes of the Fascist state is one that exercised investigators then and now.

Was she a power behind the throne? Moorehead’s subtitle is taken from a profile of Edda that appeared in an Egyptian magazine, but it has to be given some interpretive shading:

Edda, [the profile] said, “rules her father with an iron fist.” This, certainly, had become the accepted view in many circles, but as with so much else in Edda’s life, it has to be seen in context. Her power was never of a concrete kind, not least because she was a woman, and because she was quickly bored with the minutiae of daily decisions. But her closeness to her father and Ciano’s reliance on her, together with her impatience at equivocation, made her formidable, even when she was least aware of it.

Try parsing that out. A Fascist figurehead unaware and uninterested in her own power? It seems odd, but a similar contradiction also informed Edda’s description of her father as both “feeble and authoritarian.” Which he was, at least at the end, when he’d become a sock puppet or, in Edda’s phrasing, a “rag in the hands of the Germans.”

Of course, Edda herself would deny having any influence in matters of state, though after the war there were good reasons for downplaying any role she might have had. On trial, she remarked “It wasn’t as if I was Helen of Troy.” Of some significance, though again it’s hard to interpret, is her absence from Ciano’s diaries, the preservation of which played such a large part in her escape from Italy at the end of the war. Did her husband see her as not being involved? Was he trying to protect her? Was he jealous of her? We can’t say.

Moorehead does point out that Edda was more pro-war than Ciano, which counts against her on many levels. Italy, for example, just wasn’t ready for war. As Mussolini quipped at the time, “With an army like this, one can declare war only on Peru.” But Il Duce was the decider, and he was growing feeble.

If Edda remains a cipher it’s no fault of Moorehead. As well as being highly readable this is a full and honest account that leaves much to the reader to interpret in their own way. I came away from it thinking of Edda as little more than a high-strung, Fascist fashion model who flew (or was carried) too close to the sun. That she survived the wreckage is testimony to a certain resourcefulness and resiliency, but that’s the best I can say.

Review first published online November 11, 2022.

I Just Wrote This Five Minutes Ago . . .

By Carl Watts

The title of this collection of essays, addressing not just contemporary poetry itself but its reception and what used to be known as the scene, comes from an attitude that Carl Watts (and others) picked up on when attending open mic poetry readings. What it refers to is poets showing up claiming that what they were about to read had only been written that morning, or on the drive over to the venue, or just five minutes ago.

Such a careless attitude didn’t do much to win over other poets, with Watts flagging a “consensus that this practice implied arrogance and a lack of respect for other people’s time and attention.” One of the expectations the audience at a poetry reading might reasonably have had is that there had at least been some “work put in in advance.”

It’s that notion of work that’s central to most of what Watts has to say about poetry. One of his keynotes is the famous line from Auden that poetry makes nothing happen. Poetry doesn’t do any work, and if you’re feeling in a bad mood you might even say it’s without utility or value. When you get right down to it, these are all variations on the question of What’s poetry for?

Watts has a complicated answer to this, seeing the time we spend (or, less charitably, waste) reading poetry as having both a personal and social value:

I see contemporary poetry as a form of expenditure that forges links among disparate practices and parties, sustaining a civil society of (mostly) good-faith engagement that resists value defined as monetary, based on an end product, or instrumental in that it is socially beneficial in some directed or predetermined way.

The critic has a role to play in all this. He does work too. A big part of that work just amounts to reading: digging at the rock face of contemporary poetry. And this is where Watts stands out, as his essays are grounded in a sensitive, eclectic, and intelligent reading of various poets and poems, the majority of whom I was unfamiliar with. Among those I did know, I’ve never found much that’s interesting in the poetry of Rupi Kaur – and Watts himself is “not exactly a fan” – but the essay “recuperating” Kaur is the best analysis yet that I’ve read of her oeuvre and makes a case for her poetry’s value in a credible way, especially in terms of its broadening of poetry’s audience.

On the other hand, Kaur’s status as a celebrity and sales juggernaut – that is, a poet whose primary value is commercial – makes her sui generis. Is her popular, participatory message a poetics, I want to ask, or a brand? Watts does well reading her poetry, but I still came away wondering, as I have for a while, how much Kaur is writing social media and how much social media is writing her. This gets to a larger point about how much Watts sees poetry merely as a vehicle (or perhaps cultural lens), and how much he sees it as expressing its own message (that is, doing work).

Good poetry criticism and good poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. Great poets need great critics. Canada has been blessed with a number of the latter over the last twenty years or so, including names like Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista (a line-up Watts refers to as the “slash-and-burn” reviewers). I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Canadian poetry has had so many highlights during this same period, and I’m only disappointed I haven’t read more of it, knowing there are so many good Canadian poets out there.

Meanwhile, there has been very little quality criticism directed at Canadian fiction. And I suspect there is some connection here to the fact that our fiction, especially the novel, has been in such a depressing rut, with so little recognition either academically or in the media of the best that’s out there. But I digress.

Watts is doing important work (yes, work), though my own preference is for a critical voice closer to what used to be known as literary journalism, back when that was still a thing. I had the sense that Watts was being pulled in two directions, and it was noticeable when he drifted into a more academic style, with the sort of frustrating false precision typical of that kind of writing. Nevertheless, what he’s given us is a well-informed snapshot of poetry today and a vision for how it fits into a larger cultural picture that remains very much in flux. If poetry makes nothing happen, things still happen to it. It’s a story worth our attention.

Review first published online October 24, 2022.

The Lost Battles

By Jonathan Jones

There’s a line of thinking that has it that what made Florence such a cauldron of genius in the Renaissance, indeed what made the Italian Renaissance, was the fury of artistic competition. Competition, and this is a related point that’s rarely remarked on, which was often very public in nature, and judged to the highest standards.

If competition was this important, the contest between the two titans of the day, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who were commissioned in 1504 to paint battle frescos in the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, might have been the defining event of the age.

It might have been, but neither of the frescos was painted. All we have are designs and reconstructions, most notably Raphael’s of the Battle of Anghiari and Aristotele de Sangallo’s of the Battle of Cascina (a reproduction of the latter strangely missing from this otherwise well-illustrated book). And yet, the imagination can dwell just as much on a painting lost. At least that’s what Jonathan Jones concludes at the end of his captivating account of the great duel:

The lost Battles of Leonardo and Michelangelo are as available to us, as real, as any work of art, for all art requires imagination and thought to truly enjoy it. Almost because the originals are not visible, the process of reconstructing these great works in our minds can gives us a stronger feeling for them than we might have for many a well-preserved painting. Their first audience responded to the concepts and images that were in them, not to details of execution. So can we. There are enough preparatory drawings, copies, written descriptions, and allusions in later works to make these vanished pictures astonishingly real. In the end this is simply the immediacy of the greatest art.

There’s something to this, though I think contemporary viewers responded to details of execution as well. Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, is only a blur even after restoration, but the concept makes it iconic. And it’s possible Leonardo was aware of this, as he did have trouble finishing things.

Review first published online September 27, 2022.

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
Edward White

Alfred Hitchcock has long been a favourite subject for biographers, and I’ve even reviewed a couple of the more recent ones by Patrick McGilligan and Peter Ackroyd. But there’s always room for another, so . . .

The attraction comes from Hitchcock’s cultural impact and the air of mystery that he both cultivated and came by naturally. Personal contradictions are fertile ground for biographers, and Hitchcock had plenty. Was he a man of deep faith, or no faith at all? Was he asexual (“Hitch . . . without the cock”), lustful, or gay? Was he auteur (that is, an artist, a label he rejected) or entertainer? Even in terms of Hitchcock’s working style we can get into arguments. Did he really storyboard every shot in each of his movies, so that he could just snooze through the actual filming? Was that how he worked, or was it just a myth fed to the media? It all depends on whose anecdotes you value more.

There’s evidence pointing in every direction, and Edward White looks at a lot of it in chapters that present twelve different ways of looking at the Master. He doesn’t resolve the contradictions, but then nobody else has and I think it’s safe to say that no one ever will. What he presents instead is a range of entry points that deepen our understanding and appreciation of Hitchcock’s life and work in a fresh way.