Category Archives: History

Chernobyl

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Chernobyl –
History Of A Tragedy
By Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane – £20.00

Mikhail Gorbachev had little to offer the struggling power plant by way of new funds as the Soviet economy was in free fall, accelerated by declining oil prices on world markets – the main source of hard-currency earnings for the state budget. He placed his hopes for improving Soviet economic performances in market reforms[…]. Inspired by a vision that dated back to the Prague Spring of 1968, when the Czech communists tried to create a communism with a ”human face,” Gorbachev believed that economic reform was impossible without some form of democratization. What Gorbachev saw around him seemed to confirm his view that the two aspects of reform were interdependent. His perestroika initiative undermined the state monopoly on ownership of property and thus the economic foundations of Soviet socialism […].

                                                                                  ‘Nuclear Revolt’

Would it be wrong to surmise that the one positive thing to have emerged from the terrible Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, was the degree and the speed with which Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms took place?

That his Perestroika initiative would have eventually happened anyway – as so much of the former Eastern block, if not the Western World as a whole, was more than ready for it – is in absolutely no doubt. But it was surely the unquestioning haste of Perestroika and Glasnot’s implementation, that, like Chernobyl itself, caught the world by relative, if not complete surprise.

Hence the hinting, if not the prime substantiation of the opening quote, which, a couple of pages later, is somewhat further enhanced when Serhii Plokhy, the author of Chernobyl – History Of A Tragedy writes: ”Throughout the Soviet Union, the leaders of the new awakened civil society, distressed by economic hardship but encouraged by Gorbachev’s political reforms, turned to eco-activism. It soon took on the features of eco-nationalism, a political movement whose leaders linked concerns about environmental protection with ethno-national agendas, presenting their republics as the principal victims of the centre’s environmental policies.”

As such, there’s no question whatsoever, as to whether or not Mikhail Gorbachev’s political agenda was highly influenced by what took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. Naturally, Ronald Reagan may too have played an intrinsic part, when in Berlin on June 22 the following year (1987), he made his infamous ”tear down this wall” speech.

To be sure, there will be those who might consider this assumption as nothing other than wild conjecture, but I personally think not. There again, if it’s an actual blow by blow account of what actually took place at Chernobyl, then this overtly dramatic, moment-by-moment account of one of the most terrifying events of the Cold War, is most definitely a book for you.

It’s 354 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) literally regale the reader with what happened, along with a technical breakdown as to why it happened:

”The introduction of the control rods with their graphite tips caused a spike in the level of the reaction and a dramatic rise of the core’s temperature. The rise in temperature, in turn, caused the cladding of the fuel rods to fracture. These tubes, less than 14 millimeters, or approximately half an inch, in diameter, have zircaloy walls less than 1 millimeter, or 0.04 inches, thick, making them thinner than a strand of hair. The fractured fuel rods jammed the control rods, which by that time had been inserted to only one-third of their length. The core and the bottom of the reactor’s active zone remained out of reach of the rods, and the reaction there spun completely out of control” (‘Explosion’).

Without wanting to give too much away so far as actual drama is concerned, the award-winning writer and historian, Serhii Plokhy (Professor of History at Harvard University), has herein written a book that is as detailed as it is gripping as it is meticulous.

In other words, quite possibly the finest book on the Chernobyl disaster so far.

David Marx

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When They Go Low, We Go High

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When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them
By Philip Collins – £16.99

”Beyond human aspiration, there is no end and no point. There is only time and chance. Perhaps this makes life absurd but there we are. Politics is the system by which we gather to accept and negotiate this ineluctably tragic fact of human existence. Camus understood that the supreme political virtue was moderation; Sartre never did, and in politics, if you don’t understand that you don’t understand anything.”

‘Revolution: Through Politics the Worst is Avoided’

”’There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space,’ said Salman Rushdie in Shame. Unfortunately, in the history of nationalism, shame is too often the appropriate emotion.”

‘Nation: Through Politics the Nation is Defined’

It might be said that moderation and quintessential consideration for others, are the two integral necessities by which most great and respected world leaders are particularly renowned.

The American likes of both Carter and Clinton had it in abundance. As did Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and of course, said country’s first black President, Barack Obama.
All of whom were Democrats.
All of whom are rightfully written about in this altogether terrific book.
That’s not to say Republicans don’t get a look in because they do, as do a number of international politicians of unquestionable repute – among them Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Vaclav Havel. The latter of whom began life as a writer/playright, and who is, for all intents and purposes, one of the few mentioned herein that doesn’t happen to be (an out and out) politician. The others being Martin Luther King and of course, Elie Wiesel – both of whom spoke and wrote with far more eloquence than most of us could ever dream of. Let alone aspire to.

To be sure, Philip Collins – columnist for The Times, associate editor of Prospect Magazine and one of Tony Blair’s former speechwriters between 2004 and 2007 – has herein compiled an outstanding and lest it be said, important book. Important, because it de-blurs the political lines and puts so many things into prime perspective; which far too much of today’s society take for granted. Outstanding, because it well…. just is.

Reason fundamentally being: not only does Collins critique and analyse all twenty-five of the most notable speeches in world history throughout When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them. But, amid its 409 pages (excluding Bibliography and Index), he also asserts his own mighty correct, crystal-clear thoughts on many an inflammatory issue.

For instance, in the ‘Gettysburg Addresses,’ he bequeaths the reader with a most appropriate take on the ghastly resurgence of populism: ”The populist utopian has all the answers […]. No sooner has he ejected the hated elite than the populist’s entourage become the elite themselves. He glosses the shift by posing as the tribune of the people. No need for a manifesto: he simply intuits the general will. Populism is a movement with no ideological content beyond its resentment of an elite. It therefore requires a charismatic leader – lately a Trump, a Chavez, an Erdogan – to glue it together. The movement gathers around the leader as if around a maypole. Its name proclaims allegiance to the people, but in fact populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader. The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing. The populist has a utopian account of political change, which is to say no account at all.”

Sound somewhat familiar?
Do such names as Adolf Hitler (”populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader”) and Nigel Farage (”The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing”) leap forth?

So far as right here, right now is concerned, it’s worth reading When They Go Low, We Go High for the above quotation on populism alone. And apart from all the high-octane, well considered analyses, it also makes for convenient, refreshing reading, to have all these marvellous speeches in just one book.

None more so than the undeniably, utterly heartbreaking words of the brave and brilliant, Elie Wiesel, which, to my mind, really ought to have concluded the final chapter ‘Revolution,’ but for some reason, doesn’t. Although Collins does lead into it with the following sentence: ”There is no more affecting passage of rhetoric anywhere than this, from Night:

”Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

David Marx

Stalin: Waiting For Hitler

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Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane – £35.00

It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.

          Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1513)

Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries… In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.

          Henri Barbusse (Stalin, 1935)

Can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?

          Boyd Maunsell (Portraits From Life, 2018)

To perhaps consider this book a testament to analytical thoroughness, would be an understatement. To perhaps consider it as a biography of someone who was forever on the move – having wrought both undeniable (social) change and suffering to the largest landmass on the planet – might just as equally evolve unto colossal understatement.

Having not long read Boyd Maunsell’s Portraits From Life, I cannot help but feel that it is increasingly and idiosyncratically clear that ”there is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative.” Wherein many ”biographers cherish the illusive essences which define characters […]. A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages” (Oxford University Press).

At 909 pages – excluding the most extensive Notes and Bibliography I have ever come across (not to mention a Preface, List of Maps, Credits and Index) – Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941 is surely to be read with an underlying knowledge that its author, Stephen Kotkin, has approached his subject with all the adroit acumen one would normally associate with a propulsive quest for the truth. A quest, which, given the most complex of ideological barbarity to which its subject wholeheartedly subscribed, really, really is no mean feat.

Kotkin himself concludes the end of the first chapter (‘Equal to the Myth’) with the words: Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”

Just as the unspeakably unpleasant, if not grotesque excuse for a president, Donald Trump, currently proves equal to that of his own egocentric, inflammatory folly; Stalin most definitely proved equal to the myth of his own (nigh impeccable) design. As if some sort of perplexing providence were enjoying a field day of reflexive history. A deadly, tempestuous hybrid of history at that: ”Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation.”

‘A mania for adulation,’ which, much like today’s Trump, was in and of itself, a self-perpetuating myth; wholeheartedly stepped within the colossal realm of far too much considered violence and vendetta. Although the prime difference betwixt Stalin and Trump is that the former ”radiated charisma” (albeit ”the charisma of dictatorial power”).

As much partially explains why one cannot help but agree with The Times‘ George Walden, when he writes: ”one of the tragedies of Kotkin’s book is its eerie and troubling relevance today.” Indeed.

With immense authority and terrific aplomb, Stephen Kotkin has herein written and compiled perhaps the benchmark of a work, by which all other works on the subject will surely be compared – for many years to come.

Compartmentalized into three distinct parts (‘Equal To The Myth,’ ‘Terror As Statecraft’ and ‘Three-Card Monte’), along with a Coda (‘Little Corner, Saturday, June 21, 1941’) each of these fourteen chapters bequeath the reader with yet another saga over which Stalin fundamentally presided.

Akin to a literary monster with yet countless more heads to essentially come to historical terms with, this book enables the reader to refer to almost any part – with fleeting random – and still become both enlightened and entranced at the degree to which Stalin unashamedly moved. Not to mention of course, the undeniable effervescence with which Kotkin is able to keep unbelievable, political pace.

Yet believable it is.
Even when addressing many of Stalin’s opposing cohorts – be they Russian, American, British or indeed German.

For instance. Chapter eleven – simply entitled ‘Pact’ – opens with the following two quotes:

In his present mood, the PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet.

          Sir Alexander Cadogan
          (British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs,
          private diary entry, May 20, 1939)

Hitler: The scum of the earth, I believe?
Stalin: The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?

          David Low
          ‘Rendevous,’ Evening Standard, September 20, 1939)

If said quotes (alone) weren’t enough to trigger a veritable tsunami of discussion, already on the second page int the chapter, Kotkin addresses the thorny issue of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (whom unsurprisingly, Hermann Goring had already dubbed ”Germany’s No. 1 parrot”).

In relation to being more than instrumental in devising and convincing Hitler to make a deal with Stalin, the author writes: […] Ribbentrop operated by intuition and strove to be ”radical,” rarely invoking limits (or consequences), which pleased Hitler no end. And what could be more radical, in its way, than a deal with Communist Moscow?”

So no matter from which angle one decides to address the vast trajectory of Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, Stephen Kotkin has a superlative, if not very substantial answer.

Thereby accounting for the second unquestionable instalment of a landmark achievement – the first being its predecessor Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which, according to Lucy Hughes-Hallett of The New Statesman was ”exhilarating, compelling, terrifying and utterly gripping.”

Lest one forget, this book concludes in 1941- the year Germany invaded Russia – so there is clearly more to come. I for one, can’t wait.

David Marx

The French Resistance

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The French Resistance
By Olivier Wieviorka
Translated by Jane Marie Todd
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £29.95

It can hardly be said that during World War II the resistance was preoccupied with rescuing the Jews. Its indifference fuelled and continues to fuel suspicion. Are we to consider silence the price to be paid for the primacy of the political or armed struggle waged against the occupier? Or are we to read it as the sign of the ideological proximity of a portion of the underground forces to the Vichy regime? In either case, the Jews of France could only rarely count on the army of the shadows to save them from death, even as the Germans and the French State, beginning in 1940, unleashed a racial persecution campaign targeting that community, which in 1939 was estimated at 330,000 members

                                                       (‘Response to Persecution of the Jews’)

Regardless of how, and what one feels about the role of the French Resistance during the Second World War, the movement (somehow) never truly relinquishes to be firmly embedded, if not stained, by gross ambiguity. A very fraught ambiguity, which to this day, remains just as equally complex and romantic, as it was back in the day: a wide-simmering-synthesis of deeply entrenched beliefs.

Were this not the case, then how on earth could it have lasted for as long as it did within the most murderous parameters as those regulated, and set in place, by the Nazi regime?

Belief, if not spirit, was surely the burgeoning clarion call – as triggered and so clearly set forth by Charles de Gaulle within the ending of his (in)famous radio address to the French nation in June 1940: ”Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not go out.”

He was invariably right.

The flame of French resistance was never (ever) extinguished, but its reasoning was oft brought into quintessential question.
Was it spiritual?
Was it political?
Was it ideological?
Or was it merely national?
If primarily the latter, then the above opening quote resonates just that little louder – does it not?

At the very outset of this overtly compelling and rather brilliant book (Chapter One, ‘The Call’), author Olivier Wieviorka – in a round-a-bout sort of way – nigh asks the very same question(s): ”By what means might resistance come into being?”

That France was only partly occupied during World War II, which in and of itself was roughly demarcated by the north and south of the country, does go some way in answering such means. As do the eighteen chapters of The French Resistance, a most concise, no bars held account of that which it’s title suggests (and wholeheartedly pertains to).

Beginning with four pages of comprehensive Abbreviations (from ACP – Assemble Consulative Provisoire d’Alger/Provisional Consultative Assembly of Algiers – to VdL – Volontaires de la Liberte/Voluteers for Liberty), Wieviorka’s book presents a most comprehensive history of the French Resistance, defiantly synthesising it’s social, political as well as military aspects.

In so doing, a number of fresh insights become known; which, without wanting to give too much away, defies conventionality.
Especially in so much as the aforesaid romanticism of the Resistance is (inexorably) concerned.

For instance, in returning to the chapter ‘Response to Persecution of the Jews,’ such embraced thinking and conventionality becomes ever more resonant: ”the deeply distressing scenes that unfolded in the occupied zone and then in the southern zone moved the population. The terrible ordeals imposed on very small children, victims of an incomprehensible obduracy, erased many prejudices or relegated them to the shadows […]. That distress was expressed, relayed, and amplified by four prelates in the southern zone, who vigorously protested the anti-Semite persecution.”

Suffice to say, these 471 pages (excluding Notes, Chronology, Selected Bibliography and Index) do, in almost every way, warrant the most acute of further investigation.

As Michael S. Neiberg, author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944 has since made abundantly clear: ”Wieviorka brings important insights into a critical and often misunderstood topic. Going beyond the myths and partisanship surrounding the Resistance, and World War II more generally, this book will help set the tone for future work on the period.”

Such is most indeed the case – although don’t necessarily take my or his word as being gospel. In years to come, The French Resistance will still probably be referred to as if something of a landmark within the genre.

David Marx

Hue 1968

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Hue 1968
A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Grove Press/Atlantic – £20.00

According to Karl Malantes – whose astonishing novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) I reviewed upon publication – this book is ”an extraordinary feat of journalism.”

Indeed, with unprecedented access to war archives in both the US and Vietnam, and in conjunction with an array of interviews with participants on both sides, writer, journalist and reporter, Mark Bowden, herein narrates each stage of this crucial battle through a fine literary prism of multiple perspectives.

Played out over twenty-four days of the most harrowing fighting – which ultimately cost somewhere in the region of 10,000 combatant and civilian lives – the Battle of Hue was without any shadow of a doubt, the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign. When it ended, the American debate was never really the same again.

It was no longer about winning the war in Vietnam per se, but how best to leave the country; which for all intents and ideologically political purposes, Bowden brilliantly reconstructs amid these 539 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Vietnamese Glossary, Source Notes and Index). This ought hardly be surprising given the calibre of Bowden’s writing, whose previous thirteen books include Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo.

While having been to Vietnam and seen for myself the relatively primitive, albeit deadly, organic means by which the North Vietnamese fought their American foes; I also stumbled upon the broad and inbred trajectory of vast humility. A quality, which, perhaps unbeknown to the Vietnamese themselves, is systematically endemic within the everyday fibre of their being.

As much is candidly brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; perhaps none more so than in a particularly pertinent if not poignant section of ‘Part Five: Sweeping the Triangle,’ wherein Bowden writes:

””I have something to say,” she said.
Quang asked her to unfold her arms. He was younger than her son.
”I am a wife,” she said. ”And a mother. These two” – she motioned to her husband and son – ”are guilty. It is known. They have done the nation wrong. As a mother and a wife, I am begging you for forgiveness.”
Quang let them go. Both father and son thanked him profusely. Puffed up with his own magnanimity, he told the son, ”Your mother has just given birth to you for the second time.”
Such generosity was the exception, so much so that Quang was later censured for it.
”Since they were aware of their mistakes and reported on their own son, it wasn’t necessary,” he argued in his defense. ”What mother isn’t hurt if her husband and son are in this position? It isn’t about one side or the other, it’s about being human” (my italics).
He forgave the police lieutenant who had nine children. The man had not reported himself; he had been arrested. Under the rules, it meant he had to be sent away. But Quang weighed the fate of his wife and children and told the man, ”You have to live to raise you r children. I forgive you because your nine kids are still too young. Your crimes are way too clear to forgive, but because of your children I here let you go home.”

Brittle as well as immensely (relentlessly) powerful, Hue 1968 traverses the Vietnam War in such a way that’ll make many readers sit-up and think. Not to mention maybe re-read what they’ve just read. Perhaps one of the many reasons being that it brings home what took place in Vietnam in 1968, as if it took place only yesterday – which really isn’t an easy thing to do. Let alone capture.

Replete with maps and a number of sterling black and white photographs, this book is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in The Vietnam War.

David Marx

White Trash

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White Trash –
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Atlantic Books – £20.00

The circumstances of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

                                       Thomas Jefferson,
                                       Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)

Disturbing in an overtly non-surprising sort of way, this fascinating read sets the record straight concerning a variant of wholly misconceived issues regarding the rather derogatory term, ‘White Trash;’ namely that of it’s umbilical, yet highly tenuous relationship concerning eugenics within the United States.

And yes, you read right: eugenics within the United States.
To say nothing of its appalling, underplayed class system.

To be sure, it might appear morosely myopic to think that Nazi Germany was the only relatively modern state to introduce eugenics as a form of socio-politico policy. A policy which promoted the biological improvement of the Ayran race (or Germanic Übermenschen) unto the everyday manifestation of Nazi political ideology.

Although make no mistake – the land of the free and the so-called home of the brave got there first: ”The British colonial imprint was never really erased […]. For their part, nineteenth-century Americans did everything possible to replicate the class station through marriage, kinship, pedigree, and lineage. While the Confederacy was the high mark – the most overt manifestation – of rural aristocratic pretence (and an open embrace of society’s need to have an elite ruling over the lower classes), the next century ushered in the disturbing imperative of eugenics, availing itself of science to justify breeding a master class. Thus not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions” (‘America’s Strange Breed – The Long Legacy of White Trash’).

Indeed, by way of overt class filtration, it’s hardly a well-kept secret that the United States had already partaken in the hideous execution of eugenics a couple of hundred years ago.

An understandably inflammatory issue, which the authoress, Nancy Isenberg, makes clear on a number of occasions throughout the thoroughly well-researched and highly analytical, White Trash – The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

In three distinct parts (‘To Begin the World Anew,’ ‘Degeneration of the American Breed’ and ‘The White Trash Makeover’), this occasionally inflammatory read, substantiates the degree to which pond-life voters – those who voted the heinous Donald Trump into the White House for instance – have nigh always been a permanent part of the American fabric.

The ideological and totally non-surprising background of which is already brought to bear in the book’s very first chapter, ‘Taking Out The Trash – Waste People In The New World,’ wherein Isenberg writes: ”The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labour in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset. It was a world not unlike the one Shakespeare depicted in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. Virginia planters felt entitled to their flesh and blood in the forms of the innocent spouses and offspring of dead servants.”

So much for a new way of thinking in a brave new world!

These 321 pages (excluding a List of Illustrations, Preface, Notes and Index) do much to show how poor (uneducated) whites, have always been central to America’s Republican Party.

To be sure, the country’s terrible Civil War itself was fought just as much over class issues, as it was slavery. And from there on, reconstruction pitted white trash against newly-freed slaves, which again, proved a mighty big factor in the inevitable rise of eugenics – a widely popular movement embraced by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, which targeted poor whites for sterilisation.

Said vicious circle of societal deprivation is majestically deciphered and explained throughout White Trash, right up to the present day; at the helm of which stands America’s current president and ultimate depiction of white trash, Trump himself.

He who lauds over a vast congregation of implausible ignorance and stupidity, which does much to suggest that the lunatics – or in this instance, white trash – have now taken over the asylum.

David Marx

Hemingway at War

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Hemingway at War –
Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent
By Terry Mort
Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton 

Money can be easy to come by, especially and obviously when it’s inherited; integrity is not.

This is a terrific book.

Apart from being very readable and very honest – not to mention flawlessly written – its fifteen chapters take the reader on a perilous journey through wartime Europe, as brought to bear by that equally perilous and utmost of seemingly blokey characters, Ernest Hemingway. Yet even if you’re not into Hemingway, which admittedly I am, it’s the sort of book that’ll have you turning the pages with all the great haste regularity of a curious gazelle.

There again, we are talking about Ernest Hemingway; who not only led one of the most interesting and colourful lives this side of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, but is perhaps someone, many would consider as among the first rock’n’roll writers of his generation. He was after all, married four times, was something of a rebel rouser (to put it mildly) and enjoyed a pint. All of which is painfully, yet marvellously captured throughout Hemingway at War – Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Indeed, so far as Hemingway’s spell as a most reticent reporter during the Second World War is concerned, Terry Mort (whose previous books include The Hemingway Patrols, The Wrath of Cochise and The Monet Murders) has herein left no stone unturned.

The author has unearthed his subject with as much truth, daring and research as is surely possible.

For instance, as the outset of chapter two, Mort touches on Men at War – which Hemingway spent much of 1942 editing and to which he also contributed three selections from his own novels – which, in and of itself, could well trigger an abundance of debate among Hemingway aficionados: ””This book will not tell you how to die.” That is Hemingway being Hemingway, but not the best of him […]. And in what surely is an unintentional visitation of irony, he writes that Mussolini’s bluster and military posing were designed to cover up the fact that he had been fearful, even terrified, during World War I. Surely Hemingway would be enraged to know today that that is almost exactly the criticism that was, and is, levelled at him, in some quarters. Worse, that same criticism is also used to question his sexual identity – does a hairy chest conceal some different needs! He would not have liked that, either. And in fairness, that sort of analysis – the defence mechanism argument – is facile and in some cases has a whiff of agenda-driven criticism. But if you, meaning Hemingway, are going to use it, you cannot be surprised when others do it to you.”

Suffice to say, the above is loaded with what many could well assume to be high-octane ambiguity; especially from the stand-point of ”Mussolini’s bluster” and Hemingway’s chest quite possibly concealing ”some different needs.”

It’s all relative conjecture of course; although in historically literal terms, there is needless to say, no smoke without fire. Or in this particular instance, no cover up without the most boisterous need to both subvert and divert.

Assorted light is further shed on such thinking in chapter eleven, by which time, Hemingway, who was involved in the Liberation of Paris, was staying at the Ritz Hotel. Mort writes of Hemingway having initiated a reunion with his old friend and occasional benefactor, Sylvia Beach. Quoting from her memoir: ””There was still a lot of shooting going on, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house […]. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street cheered.

We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake […].”

The author then goes on to (perhaps clarify?) by writing: ”Beach’s account of the meeting suggests strongly that it took place as Hemingway was entering the city. His ”bloody” and ”grimy” appearance does not suggest the appearance of a man who had just spent the night at the Ritz. And you would think he would not need a bar of soap – surely the could Ritz provide that. (Although there were shortages of everything after four years of occupation and rationing).”

The mere fact that Terry Mort writes of such open ended conundrum, is just one aspect of what accounts for Hemingway at War being such a valuable and weighty, if not quasi-inflammatory read.

Naturally, not all of the 263 pages (excluding Introduction, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index) lean toward such supposition, as the following direct Hemingway quotation from a 1958 edition of the Paris Review – one among many – surely substantiates: ”All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

It’s not often a book will have one reading on the edge of one’s seat – but hey, this Hemingway. Replete with bluster and braggadocio.

David Marx