Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: "A Fair Maiden" by Joyce Carol Oates

A Fair Maiden (2010)
Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

165 pages

INNOCENTLY IT BEGAN. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight.
So opens Joyce Carol Oates’ slim novel A Fair Maiden; for readers of her earlier work, it will come as little surprise that the innocent beginning does not lead to an innocent end.

Mr. Kidder seeks out Katya as she stops to window shop during her walk to a nearby park with the two young children she is in charge of for the summer, as nanny for a well-to-do family on vacation in a small resort town on the Atlantic coast. He gently and carefully, but persistently pursues her, inviting her to his home with the children for tea, giving one of the children a book he turns out to have written and illustrated, and amazing Katya with his delicate works of art and musical ability. But misunderstanding and distrust arising from seemingly unbridgeable differences in cultural background, age and personality, mixed with the thrill and attraction of someone paying her so much attention, create a growing tension in Katya that must eventually find release --- suddenly and dramatically and with unexpected results. Given Katya as our narrator, we the readers can only share her confusion and uncertainty about Mr. Kidder’s intentions, fearing for her safety, but also intrigued by her new friend and his charming ways.

Similar themes of misunderstanding play out in Oates’ book of short stories that also appeared in 2010, Give Me Your Heart; this novel in fact has the feel of a story that was meant for that collection, but that grew beyond the constraints of a short story as she developed it.

Reading Oates’ novels and short stories it is hard not to either despair at the difficulty of two people truly being able to ever understand one another, or, to feel a deep relief in the belief (hope?) that we the reader at least do not suffer such a fundamental lack of understanding of those around us. And yet, especially in this election season, with what appear to be such large numbers of people screaming past each other in a frenzy to win their point --- red state versus blue state, rich versus poor, conservative versus liberal, urban versus rural --- the inability to reach a reasonable level of understanding between people as displayed by the characters in Oates’ stories can seem to be found around us at every turn.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: "Bismarck: A Life" by Jonathan Steinberg

Bismarck: A Life (2011)
Jonathan Steinberg (?-)

577 pages

Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Otto von Bismarck reveals the complex personality behind the historical figure best known for having united Germany in the late 1800’s. Described by Steinberg as “a political genius,” Bismarck “held office for twenty-eight years and transformed his world more completely than anybody in Europe during the ninetieth century with the exception of Napoleon, who was an Emperor and a General. Bismarck did it while being neither the one nor the other.” At the same time Steinberg finds that “the words ‘tyrant’ and ‘dictator’ occur again and again in the letters and diaries of those who lived under him,” while “an Austrian diplomat commented bitterly on Bismarck’s tactics, ‘we appeal to the noble sentiments: patriotism, honour, principles of law, energy, courage, decision, sense of independence, etc. He reckons on the lower motivations of human nature: avarice, cowardice, confusion, indolence, indecision and narrow-mindedness…’” Steinberg’s biography examines these two aspects of Bismarck, the political genius and the petty tyrant.

The biography focuses on Bismarck’s political life, making extensive use of his papers, letters and memoirs, as well as those of people around him, including friends, colleagues and political opponents. There is little discussion or description of his family life, beyond where it intersects with Bismarck’s political career, --- his wife earns mention for the influential and critical friendships early in his career through which he met her, but his two sons only first enter the telling as adults, when their actions and careers affect Bismarck’s political life. A more appropriate title may have been Bismarck: A Political Life, but then the work makes clear that for Bismarck his life and his political life overlapped nearly completely.

Bismarck’s life in politics began already at the university in Göttingen where he enrolled in 1832 to study the laws and science of statecraft. After university he prepared for and passed a pair of state examinations. The first was a legal exam, required to enter the Ministry of Justice; after a short time working in the court system however, he lost interest in that path and took the second stage exam in the area of Civil Service, to enter the Diplomatic Corps, which he subsequently did in Potsdam, outside Berlin. This also failed to inspire him and by 1940, after a brief stint as an army reservist, he has left government and returned to the family estate, taking up a common role among his Junker (nobleman) class: managing the work of the share croppers who farmed the estate lands he had inherited. Though Bismarck traveled during these years, and entertained with enough bravado to become known as the “mad Junker,” Steinberg describes him as “lonely” during this period, and that “he had begun to feel the need for something deeper in his life.” He gradually finds the meaning he seeks through growing involvement with his fellow Junkers on local community councils. Through the connections he makes, he meets the friends and supporters who will help launch his political career --- to their eventual regret, as Steinberg foreshadows and later makes clear.

This very local political activism lights a fire in Bismarck that propels him into his career in first Prussian, then German politics, in the Germany he plays the primary role in creating from the many small Germanic kingdoms of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1847 he achieves an elected position in the Landtag of Magdeburg, and two years later in the Prussian Landtag. Now on the national stage, he manages to use the connections of his class to become close to the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, which eventually earns him, in 1851, the appointment as Prussian envoy to the Bund, the German confederation in Frankfurt.

Steinberg describes how, on this new stage, at the heart of the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the future of the German federation, and the resurgence of France under NapolĂ©on III, Bismarck’s political genius begins to shine, and he “shows his unconventional and acute sense of political possibilities;” practicing what would come to be known as Realpolitik. At a time when official Prussia hated France, and would have nothing to do with the French government, Bismarck, though he shares these sentiments, sees the possibility of using France against what he considers the true enemy of Prussia (i.e., Prussian control of the German states): Austria. He writes to his “friend and supporter, and confident of the Prussian king: “I am convinced that it would be a great misfortune for Prussia if her government should enter into an alliance with France, but, even if we make no use of it, we ought never to remove from consideration of our allies the possibility that under certain conditions we might choose this evil as the lesser of the two.” An early example of his willingness to consider any option to achieve his goals.

Even as Bismarck’s political ability and agility show itself at this early stage in his nation political career, Steinberg points out an episode that demonstrates another side of Bismarck’s personality. Though he has been ordered to write status reports for his chief in Berlin, he only passes them along after providing them in advance to a friend and confident who has the ear of the king, what Steinberg calls “a contemptible betrayal by Bismarck of his duty as a diplomat toward his chief and an act of gross disloyalty to [his chief], who had helped to arrange his appointment.” As Steinberg documents, Bismarck carries out this kind of “betrayal,” and others, many times and in various ways throughout his long career and even after he retires, his first loyalty always to himself, or, one could say, to the success of what he wants to achieve.

After some ten years as a Prussian envoy, Bismarck, with King William now on the throne and the Prussian government at a point of deep crisis between the crown and the parliament over a controversial military budget bill, is appointed in 1862 to the post of Minister-President of Prussia. He would hold that position until March 1890, when Emperor William II forcse him to resign.

During his first ten years as Minister-President, Bismarck engineers wars first with Austria, to drive them out of the German federation, leaving Prussia as the dominant state in the alliance of kingdoms, and then with France, to force the German federated states under Prussian control and into a single country, Germany, with the Prussian King William becoming German Emperor William. Steinberg describes in fascinating detail the careful and complex balancing act that Bismarck carries out to achieve his successes, all the more amazing given he had neither absolute power over the government, nor any direct influence over the army. (The description of the lead up to the Franco-Prussian war I found particularly engaging, as the initial sparks come from a sequence of events that saw the Spanish government requesting a Hohenzollern (i.e., German) prince to become king of Spain, something the French could never allow. As Steinberg writes, this opportune event “gave [Bismarck] a chance to transform European history again.”)

In 1871, with the Franco-Prussian war over, and a united Germany in hand, Steinberg describes the remaining 18 or so years of Bismarck’s career as Minister-President (now of Germany) as a struggle to maintain control over his new creation: “Not even he could run a modern state by himself and he would allow nobody to share it with him.” During these years in particular, Bismarck the “tyrant” comes to the forefront, as he fights with, dismisses, humiliates and dominates anyone who gets in the way of his plans, even at times directing this treatment toward his own sons. The biography breaks these years into two periods: the first roughly 1871-1878, during which Bismarck pursues a more liberal policy, battling the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually breaking with the Protestant conservative friends who had helped him to power. The second, 1879-1890, during which he “drops his liberal allies, makes peace with Roman Catholic Church, attacks Socialism, and introduces welfare and social security.” Steinberg describes a litany of battles during these years that Bismarck has over policies large and small, in which a wide range of political figures, friend and foe alike, suffer his wrath.

Steinberg details also Bismarck’s repeated threats to resign during his career as Minister-President --- resignation being his only lever with which to coerce his Emperor --- often “over absurd, trifling, and insignificant issues.” And then there were Bismarck’s on-going health problems, which reared up any time he felt slighted by the king or crossed in his wishes, and that Steinberg convincingly argues appear to have been caused by the mental stress on an otherwise healthy body; a kind of hypochondria with very real effects.

And yet, Steinberg describes another side of Bismarck, traits that seem in contradiction to the cruelty he could show: “He had many virtues. He was courteous to visitors, irrespective of status…. The modest way the Bismarcks lived struck everybody as remarkable, and his irresistible sense of humour could win over enemies.” He “enjoyed the love and affection of his family and friends,” and, for all the pain he could cause those with whom he worked, “his successes in his career rested as much on the faithfulness, love and loyalty of friends and patrons as well as subordinates,” as on his innate ability.

With his resignation in 1890, Bismarck returned to his family estates, though, unable to go quietly, he continued to stir the political pot through articles planted in the press, almost to his death in 1898.

At several points in the biography, Steinberg states (or cites Bismarck’s contemporaries as having stated) that Bismarck had “no principles:”
Waves of nationalism swept Germany but Bismarck was no nationalist. Liberals saw unity and liberty but Bismarck was no liberal, and, as [German conservatives] now knew, he was no conservative either. Bismarck changed colour like certain deep pools of water which refract the light in various hues.
This lack of “principles” made his practice of Realpolitik extremely effective, because he left open to himself any line of attack that might be effective. As Steinberg convincingly demonstrates, however, through citations from letters and diaries of those around Bismarck, this freedom of movement that Bismarck allowed himself extended to his colleagues, friends and supporters; if he needed to sacrifice them to achieve his goals, or he found them standing in the way of the political direction he wished to pursue, he would clear them out of his way with little or no sentimentality. He had firm goals: the expulsion of Austria from the German federation, the unification of the states of the German federation under Prussia and finally the organization according to his conception of the German sate he created, and any means to achieve these goals was seemingly permissible.

Despite his political genius and flexibility, Steinberg points out that Bismarck could not avoid to
fall victim to that maxim of Edmund Burke about unforeseen consequences:
‘that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operations; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.’
A fascinating example of this that Steinberg describes, and that to me at least has some resonance in the modern day American electoral situation, concerns Bismarck’s timely call for universal suffrage in the German federation. Steinberg states that
Bismarck had seen that the ‘masses’ in France voted for order not radicalism and had given Louis Napoleon Bonaparte an overwhelming mandate. Would not the German people play the same role in Bismarck’s scheme to strengthen the position of Prussia? He intended to use nationalism … to achieve his goals.
And later that
Bismarck had seen democracy and conservatism could be compatible and he intended to use universal suffrage as he used everything and everybody to achieve his end.

His 'end' in this case: unification of the states of the German federation minus Austria, under Prussian control. He predicted correctly that the people of the states of the German federation would vote against their unpopular sovereigns, and that Austria, with its many minority populations could never accept universal suffrage. Through his call for universal suffrage and other steps, he intentionally ignited the Austro-Prussian war, which the Prussians won, forcing Austria to finally withdraw from the German federation, and transferring into direct Prussian control several of the German states that had sided with the Austrians. At this point Bismarck’s use for universal suffrage was over, but he could not easily put the genie back in the bottle. Over the succeeding decades of his political life as Minister-President of Prussia and then Germany, he experienced the “unforeseen consequences” of his choice to allow universal suffrage, and, what had been a master stroke in his maneuverings against Austria gradually came back to haunt him, as “the people turned out to be Catholics and Social Democrats [who gave Bismarck no end of difficulties], not obsequious peasants.” Bismarck had been correct that the people will vote based on nationalist and conservative feeling, but he had failed to anticipate that they could, and would, at a different time and under different circumstances, vote in support of his Catholic and Socialist enemies. How like politicians of today, who rile up citizens with extreme views to achieve a short-term goal, then find themselves with voters they can no longer control, if admittedly for more petty goals.

Steinberg’s approach in the book is to illuminate Bismarck’s character, his political decisions and his times with extensive quotes from his writing, as well as the writings of those around him. This has the wonderful effect of making the biography feel very alive. The large number and often significant length of the quotations do not seem at all forced, but rather give an immediacy to the story, and add authority to Steinberg’s surrounding discussion. This is enhanced by the variety of sources from which he selects his quotations.

One minor quibble with Steinberg’s style: he will introduce or focus on a particular person, quickly summarizing their background, and then carry their story into the future over a few paragraphs, before suddenly again resuming from where he left off in the overall timeline of the biography. I found this confusing at times, especially early on before I recognized the approach, as he would describe someone, for example, up to the point of their death, and then suddenly a page later they were alive again. I will say that this way of writing the biography likely makes it more readable in a way, less a simple sequence of facts. But, when trying to keep track of the timeline in detail, I found it distracting at times. Another quibble is with the index, which is structured around the major personalities, with events listed under those person’s names. Thus, many minor characters are not even included in the top level index, and events can’t be looked up directly. This choice of structure has the advantage of making the index a kind of outline, but I prefer the more ‘standard’ approach to indexing items. (I admit that I seldom find an index in any book to be as complete as I would like it to be.)

These minor concerns aside, Jonathan Steinberg has written a fascinating biography of one of the major figures of the 19th century, in a manner approachable even to someone who has an interest in history, but is not an expert. Bismarck is revealed as the political genius that he is commonly described as being in the histories about his times, but also to have been a complex man, a charming host in private, but who could in public life also be devastatingly cruel and mean-spirited when someone, whether friend or foe, countered or stood in the way of his political will.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION