I am not, in general, a big reader of historical fiction. Not anything against it, I think I’d just rather read the history itself. Nonetheless, when Hilary Mantel died last year I thought I probably ought to check out some of her work. A little leery of wading directly into the Thomas Cromwell books I scanned her bibliography and saw a book called The Giant O’Brien. It rang a small bell and, after a bit of poking around, I found it was about, perhaps, a distant relative.
Said giant was Charles Byrne, who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall. As chronicled in Mantel’s book, he leaves rural Ireland to go to London and become an attraction. What’s really interesting about the man in the book (whether it tracks reality I don’t know) is that he was very much in control of his exploitation. He’s not a simpleton dragged away from home by someone out to make a quick buck. Rather, he’s well aware of what’s going on and happy to make his way in the world in that manner, with the possibility of a young death hovering over him the whole time.
In the book, Byrne is pursued by a surgeon, John Hunter, who is a collector of “specimens” and wants the giant’s skeleton once he’s dead. Byrne makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want this to happen, but is betrayed by the hangars-on that have come with him to London, who eventually make the deal with Hunter for a few hundred pounds. The result was that Byrne’s skeleton was put on display at Hunter’s museum, where it became the most famous part of its collection.
There is some dispute as to how, precisely, Byrne’s bones came into Hunter’s possession – let’s hope he wasn’t so cruelly betrayed – but there’s no doubt Byrne didn’t want to go on display like a museum piece. Nonetheless, he was and there he hung for the next two centuries.
Until just recently. The museum is nearing reopening after several years of renovation and have announced that Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on public display:
“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”
The real question now is what else, if anything, should be done with it. On the one hand, if we’re rectifying historical wrongs and Byrne wished not to be a specimen that should be the end of the discussion. On the other, there is something to be said for having Byrne’s bones around for scientific study:
“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.
The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.
Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.
“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.
I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, since I believe that a body after death is just meat and bone and the person who it once was is gone, I don’t get too worked up over what people do with dead bodies, particularly at the remove of a couple of centuries. And if there is some broader benefit for mankind that’s a good thing, right? On the other, disrespecting a person’s wishes is a shitty thing to do and it seems if you’re going to right that wrong you have to go all the way.
In the end, there’s no good answer, given the proven good that having Byrne’s skeleton around has done, although I could see a compromise – since we’ve gotten more out of him than we ever should have, maybe it’s time to say “thanks” and let the guy rest? It’s the least we can do for cousin Charlie.
One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.
The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.
It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.
Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.
All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:
Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.
What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.
The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.
To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.
I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.
I’m not going to say that finding a great story to tell is easy, but in some ways coming up with the story itself can be easier than figuring out the proper form to tell it.
I’ve been thinking about this as the wife and I have been watching Gaslit, the Starz series about Watergate that wrapped up this past weekend.
See, the thing about Gaslit – from its title to its marketing (as you can see above) – is that it promises a new angle on Watergate. It was supposed to be focused on Martha Mitchell, a political celebrity and wife of Nixon’s one-time Attorney General John Mitchell. She knew all about Watergate and told the truth about it, only to be destroyed privately and publicly by, among others, her husband.
That is a fascinating story, horribly relevant in the world of #MeToo, that would provide some interesting insight into the general Watergate story we’ve all see over and over again. Only it really isn’t. Instead, Martha’s story is buried in the mix, forced to share or cede time to a cast of characters we’ve seen before and about whom the show has little to say.
Take the penultimate episode, which splits time about equally with Martha’s testimony before the Watergate committee – behind closed doors, ambushed by accusation of mental illness – and the struggle of Gordon Liddy in prison to kill a rat. Really, is that what the series is about? It doesn’t help that every time Liddy opens his mouth it sounds like he’s just one step away from lapsing into Doctor Evil’s meat helmet speech.
In other words, there’s a pretty good movie struggling to escape from an eight-episode limited series. A tight two hours or so that trusts the audience to already know what Watergate is and focus on the relationship of the Mitchells (played well here by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn), how it pulls apart, and the effect that daring to tell the truth had on her. It’s particularly sad that we didn’t get that movie, given that we’re in the fiftieth anniversary year of Watergate and we’re going to get lots of other general retrospectives on the scandal, including the one currently on CNN featuring John Dean (who gets a goodly amount of screen time in Gaslit as a Porsche-driving climber who kind of lucks into doing the right thing, eventually).
It’s entirely possible that Gaslit was only ever supposed to be a big ensemble piece and the purported focus on Martha came later, which would explain why much of it is not her story. It’s also possible that the Martha story was what drove the creators, but the network guided into a more blown out story. Obviously, you can’t tell at this point.
What you can tell is that whatever Gaslit is, it’s not what it wants to be or purports to be. Which is a shame, because with the talent on screen it could have been so much more if it had been so much less.
To wrap up the months of lists, it’s only natural to turn our attention to books. Just choosing ten favorite books is tough – so I’m going to cheat. A few years ago I did a post about ten books that were “particularly important to me,” spun off from a Facebook thing that was going around. Those are all favorites, right? Sure. There’s a difference between “favorite” and “important,” but I’m not sure that’s a hair worth splitting.
That said, I’ve read an awful lot more books since I did that, so rather than take apart that first list, I’m just going to add to it. So, these ten books are all recent favorites (recent to me, at least) and I love these and the old ones so much I don’t want to knock any of those off to make room. It’s my list after all, right? Speaking of, if Saga, by Bryan K . Vaughn and Fiona Staples was complete, it would be on this list in a heartbeat, but I worry about them sticking the landing (it’s still only about halfway through, after all). Thankfully, that leaves an open spot on the list (for now).
The only other cheat for this list is that I decided to consider series as a single entry, so I could consider those in their entirety. Other than that, no rules. Also apologies for the wonky order, as I originally had them listed by series title but the formatting looked awful. Honestly, they’re in alphabetical order! That said, let ‘er rip . . .
The Mechanical (2015) – The Rising (2015) – The Liberation (2016)
QUOTEIt’s 1926, but not the 1926 we remember. There is no Lost Generation following the First World War, no Jazz Age, no impending economic collapse. Instead, the world, or at least the largest part of it, is ruled over by the Dutch. How have the Dutch managed this feat? Magic, of course.QUOTE
That’s the basic setup for the Alchemy Wars trilogy – one of the “clakkers” created by a combination of Dutch magic (here called “alchemy”) and steampunkish technology gets a case of free will and a war of liberation is on. Along the way, we get a heavy dose of live in the world’s only non-Dutch outpost – a rump New France based around Montreal. The Mechanical is a brilliant opening book, full of world building and questions on the nature of being. The Rising gets a little too action heavy, at the expense of the philosophical questions, but The Liberation rebounds, bolstered by some temporal sleight of hand that shouldn’t work as well as it does.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (2016)
by Jeffrey Toobin
Just by growing up when I did and sitting in the culture I knew the outlines of Patty Hearst’s story – she was a rich young woman who was kidnapped by radicals and eventually wound up taking part in some of their violent activities. I was vaguely aware of the debate about whether she was really transformed into a believe or just going along out of fear. Toobin’s (yeah, I know) book does a really good job of filling in not just her specific story, but the time period out of which it arose. I had no idea bombings were so common in the 1970s! He also manages to dig into the argument on Hearst’s culpability deeply enough to allow people to draw their own conclusions, if you even can (I’m not sure I have). Super bummed that any adaptations of this book apparently aren’t going to happen.
The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer (2006)
by David Goldblatt
While soccer is my favorite sport, I admit that I’d not really dug too deeply into the history of it. I had a handle on the big stuff – Uruguay’s early success, our upset of England in 1950, Pele – but the development of the game itself was mostly a black hole for me. No longer, having absorbed this deep history of the development of the beautiful game. What amazed me is how much of the game’s reach today is the result of British influence overseas, both through empire and commercial power (Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs have English or Scottish origins). There’s such a wealth of interesting history that plays into the current state of the game that it’s easy to overlook some of the “you are there!” portions that try to describe game action but can only come up short.
The Fifth Season (2015) – The Obelisk Gate (2016) – The Stone Sky (2017)
by N.K. Jemisin
I mean, these books only won the Hugo Award back-to-back-to-back, a feat never before accomplished, so it’s safe to say they’re pretty good. The Fifth Season is flat out brilliant, a structural bit of leger de main that completely reconceptualizes all that came before when you reach the end. The other two can’t quite reach that height, but that’s no slight. The world building is amazing. Jemisin has an amazing knack for brilliant scenes, the basic building blocks of writing. They’re not light reads, but well worth the emotional toil they’ll wreak upon you.
Children of Time (2015)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The main characters in this book are spiders. That is not a joke. They’re jumped up, hyper-evolved spiders, benefiting from a fuck up in human settlement on another planet. Science fiction has the ability to put readers in the head of truly alien creatures and Tchaikovsky did that here. But there’s also a second story line, of another ship full of humans (some on ice) where things are going to shit. They cross paths, of course. The next book in the trilogy, Children of Ruin, is just about as good. The only think keeping me from putting the whole trilogy on here is that it isn’t finished yet!
I’ve sort of concluded that the trilogy is the ultimate best length for a series. It’s long enough to tell tales of grand scope, but tight enough not to get away from the author. As a result, I rarely go more than a couple of books into a lengthy series unless I completely love it. Clearly, the fact that I’ve read all nine books in the Expanse series (and consumed all of the excellent TV adaptation) means that I loved this. It’s not all brilliant (looking at you, Cibola Burn), but the world that’s built is amazingly realistic (it feels that way, at least) and it’s full of characters I came to really care about. And, I have to say, I think the writers really nailed the ending in a way that was satisfying and felt complete. If you’re looking for a near-future space opera to simply lose yourself in, this is it.
The Half-Made World (2010) – The Rise of Ransom City (2012)
by Felix Gilman
The world of The Half-Made World looks a lot like the American west during the late 19th century, with white settlers streaming into “untamed” territory and finding conflict with the natives, not to mention each other. What really distinguishes this world is an ongoing (never-ending?) conflict between The Line (the embodiment of technological process in sentient train engines) and The Gun (chaos and immorality) that plays out in a world that is literally still in the process of being made. It’s a brilliant setup and serves to bring to life one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered, John Creedmore. An agent of The Gun, Creedmore is a killer and a thug, but he’s also in thrall to a demon that lives in his gun. His struggle to leave it behind is exceptionally well done. Set in the same world and sharing some characters, this is more a pair of great standalone books (with The Half-Made World getting the nod) than an ongoing serious. Unless Gilman decides to give us another glimpse.
by Terry Pratchett
Generally speaking, I don’t reread books. It happens every now and then, but for the most part I’d rather move on to newer things, given the increasingly absurd size of my to-be-read pile. That is to say, Hogfather has a special place in my heart as I read it every year during the Christmas season. It’s a story of Hogswatch, the Discworld variant of Christmas, in which someone is trying to kill the Hogfather (i.e., Santa) leaving Death to fulfill his duties and Death’s granddaughter to stop all of existence from coming undone. It’s funny, sweetly nostalgic without overlooking how narrow nostalgia can be, and just all over brilliant. It warms my holiday cockles in a way that nothing else much does.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2018)
by Patrick Radden Keefe
Speaking of rereading books. I just went through a jag reading about Irish history, finishing up with a history of the (provisional) IRA, so I decided to dive back into Say Nothing, which covers The Troubles but on a more personal and street-level way. It also deals with questions of memory and how we talk about, and study, the past. It’s simply brilliant on every level. I can’t recommend it enough.
Sex Criminals (2014-2020)
by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
When I saw a story somewhere about a comic called Sex Criminals I thought it might be about the kind of people I represent in my day job as a defense attorney. How surprised I was that it was about people who had sex and then committed crimes! That’s because time literally stops when the two main characters (and several others, as things go on) have an orgasm, allowing them to get up to all kinds of nonsense (one of them takes the time to drop a shit in a plant in his boss’ office). If that was the entire joke the series couldn’t have run for more than thirty issues, but the series builds into a deeper exploration of relationships, depression, and other things. It wrapped up in 2020 in pretty satisfying fashion.
That’s it! The end of lists! Regular programming returns next week (probably).
Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.
While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).
This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.
But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.
What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?
I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:
Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)
Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.
So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.
As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.
Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!
Beginning in 1955, Donald Campbell piloted Bluebird K7, the world’s first functional jet-powered hydroplane, to a slew of water speed records. He didn’t just break the record, he shattered it over and over again – the record he initially broke was 178 miles per hour, while his last complete run, nine years later, was over 276 miles per hour.
On January 4, 1967, Campbell took Bluebird to Coniston Water in England’s Lake District for another run, hoping to hit 300 miles per hour. After making the run one direction at over 297 miles per hour, Campbell began the return run. Then, tragedy struck:
It was big news in the UK, big enough that young Steve Hogarth, while not quite grasping what had happened, noted the emotional impact Campbell’s death had on his mother. Flash forward three decades and Hogarth, aka “H,” and his band Marillion release Afraid of Sunlight, my personal favorite album of theirs. One track, “Out of this World,” is about Campbell and his fatal voyage, complete with some snippets of radio traffic from that day.
So far not that interesting, right? A band writing a song about a tragic historical event is hardly rare (Marillion themselves have jokingly been referred to as a band specializing in songs about “death and water”). What’s really cool is what happened afterward. Bill Smith was not just a Marillion fan (he even sort of promoted a solo Fish show in Newcastle!), but an experienced salvage diver. Inspired by the song, he led a team that found Bluebird and raised it from the depths. The official photographer for the event? Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist. You can hear more about that day on the latest episode of Hogarth’s podcast, The Corona Diaries, which includes an interview with Smith.
Again, that would be an interesting enough story, but it goes even further. Smith and his team restored Bluebird and, in 2018, it was in the water again, on Loch Fad in Scotland, where it hit 150 miles per hour.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of things. There appears to be an ongoing legal dispute over where Bluebird should make its final landing. According to the BBC, the Campbell family promised Bluebird to a local Coniston museum (that has built a wing specifically to house the restored craft). Smith, however, argues that because some of the restored craft is made up of new parts, he “co-owns the craft.” Interestingly, in the podcast, Smith points out that the usual finders-keepers salvage law of the open ocean doesn’t apply to inland waterways.
I suppose it’s inevitable that when someone’s legacy is at stake the parties involved wind up at odds. I don’t think it’s a matter of money more than it is pride and obligation. I hope there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, a resolution that can please all the parties involved, if not completely.
All in all, there’s probably at least another song in all this.
When I went to college most of the music I had was on cassettes recorded from the record collections of my brothers. As a result, I didn’t have the liner notes that came with those albums and, thus, no lyrics to pore over. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did always wonder what Jon Anderson was singing about on old Yes albums.
I got online during my junior year of college and quickly discovered primitive websites devoted to bands I loved. Some of them even had song lyrics on them! So I dutifully dove into some of those old Yes albums and . . . didn’t really get any better understanding of the lyrics. Turns out Anderson was more focused on what words sounded like rather than meaning, so they were pretty vague on purpose – what on Earth (or beyond) is “cold summer listening” and how does “hot color melt the anger to stone,” anyway?
Still and all, Anderson never wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. And he never inspired , one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:
The joke works, of course, because nobody really knows what the words to “Louie, Louie,” are, which is pretty amazing given how much the song has seeped into our culture. How exactly did that happen? Turns out, it’s precisely because purveyors of moral panic can try to make the lyrics be any old thing they wanted.
This article in Reason tells the tale. The song was written in 1956, but didn’t really breakthrough until it was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart) and even then it took a while to get rolling. As the article points out, it’s not a particularly deep song:
It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation.
My favorite overreaction to this comes from the governor of Indiana who “claimed that the record was so obscene it made his ‘ears tingle’” and used his connections with radio stations to effectively ban the song in that state. That’s peanuts to the multi-year investigation that the United States government launched into the song, via the FBI and the fellas at the freakin’ FCC, among others. Even with all that time and all those resources involved, investigators couldn’t figure out what the Kingsmen were on about!
My other favorite detail is this – it took the crack investigators at the FBI 18 months to think to go look up the actual lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office! Mystery solved, at least, right? Not really. There were “other versions” of the lyrics circulating in schoolyards and such, which seems to say less about “Louie, Louie” than it does about the hyper sexed minds of young adults everywhere.
There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the article, so I recommend the full read. I will go ahead and spoil the ending, though – “Louie, Louie” won, in the end, becoming its own kind of classic. Did you know that April 11 is International “Louie, Louie” Day? Now you do, just in time to celebrate and tell the censorious prudes to go fuck themselves.
The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?
I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.
What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.
In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.
I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?
The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.
As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.
I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”
The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.
While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.
My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.
Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.
The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.
Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?
I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.
A couple of weeks ago I talked a little bit about how, in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people and businesses had been cutting ties with all things Russian. Some of these make sense, as a way to starve the Russian economy and isolate/shame people with close ties to Putin, but some of them are pretty stupid, like pouring out (presumably quality) Russian vodka that you’ve already paid for. That’s a fairly pointless gesture, after all.
Which brings us to the weirdness revolving around Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first human in space, an icon of the Space Race . . . and died in 1968. Putin was a teenager when Gagarin died, so it’s fairly safe to say he had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine.
So imagine my surprise when I saw on Twitter over the weekend that Gagarin was being cancelled. Actually, what Tweet after Tweet said was that he had been “stripped of his honours” – complete with British spelling:
Where was this coming from? Even during the height of the Cold War I don’t remember Gagarin being treated as anything other than a pioneer. What would lead to his cancellation due to a war that started four and a half decades after he died? Turns out it’s slightly more complicated, at least in terms of the reach.
As it happens, there is a thing called the Space Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an American nonprofit organization that advocates for all sectors of the global space industry through space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events. It was founded in 1983.” At the beginning of April they’re having a Space Symposium (apparently a yearly event) that, according to Futurism, was supposed to have a night or panel called “Yuri’s Night.” Now, per a now deleted Tweet (cowards) it’s been renamed “A Celebration of Space: What’s Next.”
So it’s a schmoozy meet and greet cocktail party thing and, to me, sounds like it’s primarily geared toward fund raising. As explained in the Futurism story:
The nonprofit Space Foundation announced in a now-deleted note that ‘in light of current world events’ it would be changing the name of a fundraiser from ‘Yuri’s Night” to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’ at its Space Symposium conference.
‘The focus of this fundraising event remains the same — to celebrate human achievements in space while inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars,’ the deleted update notes.
I agree with the author of the Futurism piece that this is a “rather dubious show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people” and is ultimately a dumb move, but I can see how it happened. In an environment when every corporate entity has to take a stand on current events, you’re going to have places that decide to avoid any hint of controversy as much as possible (and trigger the inevitable backlash).
But let’s keep in mind what this is not – there is no cancelling of Gagarin going on here. He’s not being erased from history books. There are no “honours” the Space Foundation has bestowed upon him that they could now revoke. How could they? Gagarin will always be the first person in place.
My point here is not that the Space Foundation was the right one. I think it’s pretty stupid, but I think equally stupid, or maybe even more so, is the reaction to it which is fairly divorced from the initial decision. It feels to me like it’s one of those minor stupidities that blows up over social media based on details that aren’t accurate. Dealing with the fallout from the Russian invasion is hard enough without reacting to stuff that didn’t actually happen.
Plus ca change Plus c’est la meme chose The more that things change The more they stay the same – Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres
Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.
Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.
Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.
For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.
This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.
That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.
Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.
One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.