Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski’s on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus’ book The Histories – a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski’s lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I’m sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski’s books have had “a certain advantage over the actual trip.” With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn’t be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn’t all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn’t consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote “To define [Kapuscinski’s] books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers.” In speculating about Herodotus’ way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer’s right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible… that the rhythm of Herodotus’s life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity – something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski’s motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and “colorful” descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy – lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski’s admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Halfway through Howards End, E.M. Forster describes a certain elm tree as a living symbol of that elusive quality called Englishness. “It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god,” Forster writes:In none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness. To compare either house or tree to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave.The British novelist Philip Hensher’s expansive new book, The Northern Clemency, seems at first to be steering by a quite different set of literary lights. Its coal-country setting (Sheffield: “the city that had made fire out of water”) recalls D.H. Lawrence, while a whiff of moorish bleakness harkens back to Hardy. Beneath these provincial trappings, however, Hensher has undertaken project as sophisticated – and, in its essential conservatism, as stealthily radical – as Forster’s. Tracing the lives of two families through a quarter century of recent history, The Northern Clemency aims for nothing less than an old-fashioned anatomy of regional and national character.Hensher’s formidable technical gifts are on full display in the novel’s opening section. The plot alternates between the Glovers, who are hosting a party for their Yorkshire neighbors, and the Sellerses, late of London and soon to take up residence in the house opposite. Meanwhile, at the level of point-of-view, Hensher works a more rapid set of changes. As the party lurches toward its inglorious end, and as the Sellerses drive north, his “free indirect” third person narration flits gracefully among a host of family members and assorted hangers-on.This canny layering of exterior and interior achieves the effect of an architectural cutaway, illuminating both solid surfaces and buried complexities. On one hand, both the Glovers and the Sellerses are typical, even representative, of their time and place. The party is “a good party, like other parties,” where the men talk “about their jobs, their cars, about the election even; the women about their children’s schools, about the cost of living, and about each other.” On the other hand, Katharine Glover and her three children, like both of the young Sellerses, hide secretive inner worlds. Timothy Glover, for example, will spend the entire party concealed behind the couch. And his sister Jane knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen. Hensher’s deep feeling for workaday Northern diction and syntax (“over the road”) subtly underscores the subjectivity of these private moments:”He’ll break some hearts,” someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread… He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister, no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it. Leitmotifs of flowers and snakes underscore the implication: sex is at the center of our private worlds, and will soon cost these characters their gardens. Or, as a nosy neighbor puts it on the book’s first page, “There’ll be trouble with both of those boys.”The problem with The Northern Clemency is that the promised trouble fails, by and large, to materialize. To be sure, the climax of this first section, and Katharine Glover’s fall from grace in the second, are rich with potential. But the novel is too well-tempered to let its plot complications ramify. Instead, it solves them, and in so doing, clears away the tensions that have sustained the characters’ vivid inner lives.By the time the children reach maturity, the characters, outwardly ordinary, have become inwardly ordinary, too. Only the Glover parents and their son Daniel, the aging Don Juan, retain a spark of life, perhaps because only they properly develop. By contrast, Sonia and Francis Sellers and Jane Glover are so alike in their solitude that the connection between their individual fates and the secret injuries of their childhoods come to seem arbitrary. (Why not Jane in Australia and Sonia in London? one wonders. Why not Francis in advertising and Jane with cats?) Perhaps this arbitrariness is meant to read as philosophical fatalism, but as novelistic practice, it’s merely fatal.As The Northern Clemency enters the Thatcher era, Hensher attempts to rally his fading characters by enlivening the novel’s social dimension. In various ways, the Glover men and the Sellers parents become entangled – or perhaps the more neutral “involved” is the right word – in the labor strikes that will lead to the privatization of the British coal industry.But the novelist’s negative capability should extend to history, and Hensher can’t sustain his. The supporting characters who hover at the periphery of the picket-lines are virtuous or vicious in precise proportion to their support for the unions. Thus Daniel’s girlfriend’s father, a collier who doesn’t hold much truck with organized labor, is salt-of-the-earth, a secret sweetheart, while Daniel’s brother Tim, who has become a teenage activist, collapses into a shrill caricature of the pimply leftist. (His convictions arise from perceived personal slights and inadequacies. Naturally, he will grow up to become an academic.) And at this point, Hensher’s willingness to throw his characters under the ideological bus calls attention to, and starts to undermine, the classicism of his aesthetics. As a clinic on realist technique, The Northern Clemency is impressive – impressive enough, apparently, to earn a spot on the Booker shortlist and a designation as Amazon.com’s best book of 2008 – but is there anything of much urgency here?One may wish to object, in defense of The Northern Clemency, that urgency is not the point. Like Forster, from whom he takes his epigraph, Philip Hensher understands the Englishman not as a warrior or god, but as a creature of moderation, and of limitation. To write a 600-page novel of such a comradely temperament, never straying from “the limits of the human,” is undeniably an accomplishment. Forster did temperate well, too. Still, Howards End never lost sight of its own epigraph – “Only connect…” – and beneath its every meticulous surface a deep ardor still burns. The Northern Clemency, too clement by half, rarely permits such ardor. At the risk of sounding glib, it offers too much prose, and not enough passion.