Robert W. Whalen
Most political commentators now consider WWII as a mere extension of WWI. There just wasn't time to repair the human and emotional damage of people ruined between 1914 and 1918. The theme of Bitter Wounds is that there were bitter wounds to be healed --- and no time to heal them. The book documents in compelling detail the price paid by the citizens of Germany after the battles were over. The crippled soldiers, the insensitive bureaucracy, the political turmoil, the ravaging of the German economic system (partially in the vain attempt to repay --- in pensions --- those who had fought in the war.) And most haunting of all: the widows and orphans:

    So, how many women are there then? Two million, maybe, who sit in their rooms and, like me, think of their dead husbands. Look out the window, and think of their dead husbands. Do the dusting, take care of the kids, knit the socks, do the cooking, go to work, and think of their dead husbands. Go to bed at night, and think of their dead husbands...

There is a chapter of the rebellion of the war victims, which puts us in mind of the battles that the Viet-Nam veterans and the disabled would wage in this country a half a century later.

    "The War Cripples are Starving!" One-armed men carry these signs. Men follow, led by guide dogs. After them come men with just one eye, men with torn faces, with no noses, with mouths ripped and jagged, with no jaws, with holes where mouth and nose once were, men with a single red scar where once their face had been. After them come row on row of leg amputees. Then come the "shiverers" [those suffering from what was then called "battle fatigue --- now called post-traumatic stress disorder].

This is an honest account of the events and the life of the 25,000,000 wounded that made Germany ready for the coming of Hitler because of poverty, perceived neglect of an "at risk" group, and anger at defeat.

The Butter
Battle Book
Dr. Seuss
Here is #43 in the popular series of children's books written by the late Dr. Seuss. Seuss' playful way with words and mild social satire made him America's Favorite Juvenile Author.

Many people confuse Dr. Seuss with Dr. Spock, and credit him with molding the minds of a generation. His work has received the sort of warm, broad-based admiration that is usually accorded to the likes of the Bushes (Senior and Junior). Mr. Seuss (he wasn't really a doctor) again employed his familiar plot device:

Characters --- We/Them.
Story line --- Set'em up/Knock'em down.

Once more we encounter the oddly repulsive characters, neither avian nor simian, rendered in the mussy, clotted colors of his h. m. p. Relentless rhyming flogs us along to the predictable denouement.

Do the people who buy these books share Seuss' bizarre vision? Can they really believe that children are attracted to it? Seuss' rheumy artistic eye and full-throttle materialism are reflected throughout our culture; maybe he's just an effect --- not a cause.

There are many beautiful children's books. Ignore this grotesquerie. Pick something warm and witty and real and beautiful. Beauty may be only skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.

--- Cese McGowan

The Seven
Mountains of
Thomas Merton
Michael Mott
(Houghton Mifflin)
This is a major biography of Thomas Merton, the celebrity monk. In most meticilous detail the author recounts, almost on a daily basis, the life of this trappist monk. Although Merton was bound by his vows to a life of poverty, chastity, silence and contemplation he managed to travel the world, maintain a wide correspondence, publish over forty volumes of poetry, criticism on theology, and, of course, his best selling autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. He also had a love affair with a woman referred to in this volume only as "S."

Clearly Merton was a man of many talents but deeply conflicted. He appears to have been seriously neurotic and he was a constant pain-in-the-neck to church authorities.

Mott's book suffers from too many facts and too little analysis. The reader who would like to know what made Merton tick will not find it here.

--- H.G.G.

Growing Up
Russell Baker
Some of us have a feeling of déjà vu when we hear the raves of the East Coast literary gluepots for a book by a man so long part of the establishment. Because of that, we waited a long time before giving Growing Up a try --- almost fifteen years! --- and now we apologize for waiting so long. Baker is a great autobiographer, far better than he is a columnist. His clear and haunting pictures of poverty, a mother who dedicated a life to him, his own bitter treatment of her and his step-father when he was a teenager --- all are carved so lovingly and so well that this is an autobiographical classic --- perhaps in the style of the autobiography of another newspaperman, perhaps one of America's greatest, that of William Allen White.

Baker certainly is no White, but try to jibe a somewhat fluffy New York Times columnist with this aching description of his reaction to his father's death:

    After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone's God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke.

The pacing of the book is lean and artistic --- except for one tedious chapter dealing with letters from his mother's would-be husband Oluf.

For those of us who grew up in the depression and WW II ---this is the best kind of déjà vu: without self-pity, with that peculiar American strength, which is straightforward journalistic writing at its best.

Lolita Lark

Samuel Beckett
French scholars have turned up a new play by Samuel Beckett, probably written in the late 60's or early '70's. Aficionados of the author will recognize the pun on the previous work All That Fall which, in turn, was a pun on "Fall" --- as in the season --- and "fall" as in collapse. In the present drama "spring" serves the same function.

The play takes place in a nuclear waste plant in an unspecified country. The stage is bare, except for an eerie glow, and a teapot. There are three characters: Homonum, an executive of some sort; Wagram, a Parisian junkie; and Petite Pois, the deposed queen of a mythic country called "Nullius." Homonum wears a pair of antlers.

Apparently none of the characters can be rescued since they have been exposed to so much radiation that it would instantly kill non-irradiated humans to be in their presence. However, through some miracle, they don't harm each other physically but --- obviously --- they can (and do) affect each other emotionally:

    Wagram: Mr. Homonum, certainly you can explain why we are forced to stay here, in this plant, perhaps forever.

    Homonum: I'm sorry, all I can say is that there's been a collapse, a complete collapse. Does anyone want a compote?

    Petite Pois: What do you mean --- "collapse?" I'm eating my heart out, and he calls it a "collapse!" Did you say "compost?"

    Homonum: The Master won't --- or can't --- let me say any more. There has been a Universal Collapse. I want compote.

    Petite Pois: See, what did I tell you? He's a dictator, a dictator. Didn't your mother beat you unmercifully as a child? I want compost.

    Homonum: I want you to see me in my perambulator, some --- say --- fifty (or sixty, or a hundred) years ago. I rise up, there in my swaddling clothes, pushing away the hands of my mistress, or nurse, or whatever you would call her. At that moment, I look out --- and there, before me, as far as the eye could see, were castles, filled with what they my country people call un pape sanguinaire.

    Wagram: And what does that mean?

    Homonum: The country-folk would translate it as a self-satisfied potato.

    Wagram: I wonder what that means? Did you say compost?

Any reader familiar with the works of Beckett will recognize the usual by-play, with its overtones of Christianity ("un Pape"), its criticism of excess ("sanguinaire") --- along with a pun which might be made by those unfamiliar with French ("a self-satisfied potato") --- and the hints of chaos and destruction ("Universal Collapse" and the real translation of "sanguinaire" which is "blood-thirsty"). All of this is sly Beckett at his best.

The change, in comparison with his other works, is that he has chosen not a slag-heap, nor a garbage can, nor a sleezy apartment in which to set this play --- but the inside of a nuclear waste plant. For the first time in his apolitical life, it would seem that had decided to take a stand on the physical as well as the emotional horrors of the 20th Century. However, the characters seem to revel in their surroundings. For instance, at one point Wagram, the heroin addict, says,

    I love it here. There is no way they can harm me now. I am free, truly free: for the first time in my life. When I was a child, I used to think...think that I was a penguin. But now, now...I'm free. [Pause.] As free as a madman can be.

    Petite Pois: Or a Brazil nut.

Lolita Lark

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up