March 23, 2008

Nicholson Baker's Scummy Little Book

Abu Muqawama has a question: why have both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times enlisted two radical leftists -- Mark Kurlansky and Colm Toibin, respectively -- to review novelist Nicholson Baker's new revisionist history of the Second World War (in which Churchill is revealed to be a madman and the Nazis apparently responsive to non-violent negotiations)? Why not get a serious historian of the Second World War, who might be able to point out, as Glenn Altshuler did -- not a serious historian of WWII, per se, but a very serious academic historian nonetheless -- the book's infuriating methodology and selective use of sources?

Instead, in the New York Times today, Colm Toibin has high praise for Nicholson Baker's new account of the Second World War II, calling it "an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified."

What a bunch of rubbish. You don't need to cherry pick the facts to make that argument. You do, however, need to be delusional to make the arguments Baker makes about pacifism in the face of the Nazi threat.

And Abu Muqawama wonders what Toibin's grandfather -- a veteran of the IRA; Toibin hails from a staunchly republican family -- would have thought of his grandson's idea that civilians should never be targeted in wartime. Because targeting the British civilian infrastructure is exactly what the IRA did in the years after WWI (when Toibin's grandfather was interned in a Welsh prison).

Abu Muqawama wishes a book review editor would do as the Boston Globe did and hire an actual academic historian (Kurlansky writes good pop history, though his book on 1968 is one long love letter to the soixante-huitards) -- preferably one of the Second War War, such as Tom Childers or John Keegan -- to run roughshod over Baker's fantasy history. What a bunch of -- oh, Happy Easter, everybody.

P.S. This title is stolen from the way in which Leon Wieseltier describes Baker's last novel, a fantasy about assassinating George W. Bush.

Update: FFT (Former Flatmate Theo) points out that William Grimes smacked Nicholson Baker around in the New York Times Arts section a week ago. Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill.