29 April 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars

Nicholson Baker, a novelist, has written a book about the Second World War, Human Smoke. A significant clue as to the book's faults is found in this interview. Baker has produced a book largely based on his reading of newspapers. Not researching newspapers in a library, but actual copies of the papers themselves, which he acquired. Baker is also a novelist. The implications of these two facts, I think, have not been entirely grasped by the reviewers I have read so far. Such as this one and that one.

The Chicago Tribune reviewer cites a quotation where a woman screams in response to a draft lottery draw. Only at the very end of the paragraph does he suggest that he perceives the novelist's art may be at work. The woman, of course, did not necessarily have to be in the room to make the artistic point. We don't even know if it is a scream of anguish, or relief. (More hilariously, the reviewer writes - "he has written a work about the past with no narrative". Welcome to modern fashions in historical writing, pal.)

David Cesarani, writing in the second review, more successfully grapples with the fact that Baker is a novelist. "it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history." However, he does not succeed so well in understanding the role of Baker's sources. "Churchill is portrayed as a Hun-bashing...drink-sodden imperialist spoiling for a fight with Germany....Roosevelt...as cynical, anti-Semitic and interested mainly in promoting wars that will supply markets for arms manufacturers." Oh yes, and if I read the papers I'll find all sorts of comments suggesting George Bush is Dick Cheney's puppet or that Hilary Clinton is sexy.

Not having read the book, nor discussed the matter with Baker himself, I can only understand it by suggesting that Baker's wider argument is more subtle than the reviewer-historians have grasped. We experience an event, such as the ongoing War in Iraq, in a piecemeal form, filtered by two editors - one is located at our source of information, whether radio or newspaper in 1939, and the other is our own selection of what to pay close attention to. Baker's book shows us how one reader might have perceived the oncoming war and decided that the cost of fighting it might not have been worth it.

I'll end this part by supporting my interpretation of Baker's motives with a quotation of his own words from the article in The Times linked in my first paragraph.
There’s no doubt Churchill was a titanic figure, a brilliant man, a great writer, a genius. But it’s a mistake to let this lead us into an acceptance of things we should feel unhappy about.

(to be continued)

EDIT: I made an error in the above post. Baker did indeed use microfilmed newspapers, as well as many personal accounts of the war, although the original impetus came from actual paper newspapers, and not microfilmed ones.

1 comment:

Jorge said...

This comment is a little late to the party, but:

I think what Baker is trying to do, and has done, is to show what sentiment to the war was before the war happened. Today we watch documentaries on the History Channel that just talk about the struggle for freedom, the big battles, the holocaust, etc. Those are important things, of course, but what we rarely get in the mainstream media (be it books, TV, history classes) is what the feeling was here in America before the war. We get the reasons we went to war. We get the call to arms. But all of that starts up where Baker's book ends.
I think the book is fantastic (though I love Baker's work, so I may be biased). The best attribute it has is that it takes such a dry, dull tone to the whole thing. The book, in essence, is his summary of 400+ articles he's read and put in a time line. It's presented as unbiased reportage, which also comes from his dry tone, but there's always a bias and always an intent in any writing. I think all he wants is for the reader to consider the precondition to the war and not let the propaganda and war time heroics overshadow what America really thought.
If you still haven't read it, I recommend it.