March 28, 2015
Darrell Reimer, my internet friend of a decade or so (and one person of a very, very few whom I can pretty much count on to check in here, so that this infrequent writing sometimes feels sort of like a series of letters), remarks in his last on the evocative power of what in the first Star Wars film was a fleeting scene rich — characteristically, for Lucas — in perfected detail. The image that flashes by on screen is a mounted gun that must have been modeled on the Germans’ extraordinarily versatile, much feared and admired ‘88’. These days, I can’t note such a thing without thoughts turning to the infatuation with military machines that I grew up with — that the guys who created the look of Star Wars undoubtedly grew up with — and from there to the War, our great war, as lens on history and tradition in the ‘worldview’ I inherited. I think about this a lot. It’s behind a good deal of my half-serious ruminating on the American comic-book superhero, certainly.
These days, I’m not reading much comic book stuff. (Not that I’ve ever read much, I feel obliged to add, in case any real comics readers look at this.) I expect I’ll get back to the superheroes sooner or later, but the noteworthy item is that I’ve made a small, salutary return to prose fiction this past week — partly because I’ve got the commute time for it. (I don’t say that standing chest-to-chest with a bunch of strangers on the train is a good way to get in some reading, only that I am getting in some reading that way.) I’m half-way through Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair at the moment. I’ve never read Greene, though I know him a little by reputation. Wouldn’t have chosen this book for getting acquainted with him, I suppose, but it was on my landlady’s shelf, and I’ve been encouraged by her to borrow and finally got around to doing so. It’s a War book by a famously Catholic writer, so it suits my sensibility here well. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it.
I began the week with James Lee Burke’s 1985 collection The Convict and Other Stories. This was a chance find on the sidewalk dollar racks at The Strand, a favorite haunt of S.’s. I had no thought of reading Burke, but he suits my sensibility at least as well as Greene, possibly. This collection, anyhow, as I read it, is thick with ‘the War as lens on history and tradition.’ To be clear, you wouldn’t say that the Second World War is particularly a theme. I think only one of the stories is set in the 1940s. But they’re plainly the material of a writer who is conscious of belonging to the first War generation, the generation that grew up in a cultural landscape dominated by the War and its outworking. My impression, further, is that he recognizes that the American wars — and a number of them, small & great, from the 1860s to the 1980s, appear in this book — bleed into each other, generation by generation, and acquire significance from each other in the American mind. For my part, over some time I’ve begun to think of the American wars, from Independence till today, as flare-ups of a period of continuous, more-or-less world-wide war in which American interests & power came to be, or seem, really a central matter only with the 1940s, and in which the 19th century’s great European wars may be more important to understand than the 20th’s. Burke’s stories in this collection aren’t about that bigger picture, but they offer plenty of toe-holds for this kind of big-picture historical thinking, to be sure. Greene seems like only a natural thing, reading-wise, to have jumped to from there.