Friday, March 10, 2006


Early flight.

Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).

The summer of 1909 found young Franz Kafka working as an Aushilfskraft -- a temporary assistant -- for the General Accident Insurance Company in Prague, a job with office hours from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., which gave Kafka plenty of time once the work day was done, but which left him ineligible for vacation time. He had not taken a vacation for three years. Claiming that he was suffering from a nervous condition, Kafka obtained permission to take a nine-day vacation. He and two friends, Max and Otto Brod, set off by train for Riva, "on the north shore of Lake Garda, the last outpost of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and deep in Italian-language territory."
Between swims they liked to read, enjoying their little Italian, and the Sentinella Bresciana, the Italian daily published across the border. The issue of 9 September, to which Kafka later referred, immediately caught their interest. It would have been impossible, anyway, to ignore the headline splashed over page one: La Prima Giornata del Circuito Aereo (The First Day of the Air Show).
In 1909, aviation was new, modern, unreliable, dangerous, exciting, and the Brescia airshow was the first chance many Italians had to see the new aviators. Louis Blériot was the first to fly across the English Channel; he was there. American aviator Glenn Curtiss was there too. And so were cultural figures. Kafka and Brod had not published their novels yet, but Giacomo Puccini and Gabriele D'Annunzio were well-known, and wanted to see the new new thing. (Indeed, both Puccini and D'Annunzio both wanted to experience flight. Puccini was too large for the planes of the day, but D'Annunzio prevailed upon Curtiss to take him along, and when that flight barely left the ground, he persuaded Italian avaitor Mario Calderara to take him.)

Peter Demetz has done an admirable job of piecing together a picture that week in Brescia, and of something of the lives before and after of many of aviators and other figures who were there. But it's plain that he had to work with disparate sources, none of them as comprehensive as one might wish. You can see him working within the limits of his sources, straining to gain speed, and then he's up off the ground for a few graceful moments before he touches back down. Had he been Curtiss, almost a hundred years ago, one might watch him and think that time was on his side. But the Circuito Aereo is falling behind us now as we gain speed and altitude.

Amazon is selling new hardcover copies of this book right now for only $5.99 (or click through the box).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Churchill, once more.

John Lukacs,
Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. (Yale, 2002).

I picked up this book because John Lukacs wrote it. I previously read two of his books about Churchill and Hitler, Five Days in London and The Duel, and there may have been others. I also bought Krisztian Ungvary's The Siege of Budapest after having read a version of Lukacs' Foreward published in The New York Review of Books. So, I'm a Lukacs fan.

That said, this book was something of a disappointment, though it had its moments. Each of the nine chapters stands alone as a short essay: Churchill the visionary; chapters about Churchill 's relationships with Stalin, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower; Churchill, Europe, and appeasement; Churchill's historianship; a chapter on his failures and critics; one on two recent biographies; and a final piece remembering Churchill's funeral in 1965. I'll confess that I didn't even read that last one, figuring that I would leave it until I finally get to Roy Jenkins' recent biography, as a coda. Maybe this is what I should have done with the whole book, since this volume clearly was not intended as a comprehensive account of the man.

Notwithstanding, there were points here that stick with me. For example, the glimpse of Eisenhower captures something of the man that departs from the usual portrayal. Discussing the correspondence between Churchill and Eisenhower from 1953-1955, Lukacs writes that these letters
reveal serious flaws in Eisenhower's judgment and his character. In none of his numerous biographies is there a substantial description of how and why this seemingly simple (though in reality complicated and calculating) military man, with his easygoing and liberal reputation, shed his pro-Russian and and sometimes pro-Democratic opinions to become a rigid anti-Communist, a Republican, and eventually even a self-styled "conservative." But then Eisenhower's conversion only accorded with the conversion of much of American public opinion, and with a revolution in American political attitudes that began in 1947 and developed fast thereafter. In 1948 Eisenhower was still suggested for the Democratic presidential nomination; four years later he declared himself a Republican and an anti-Communist (and, during the campaign, a churchgoer -- for the first time in his adult life).
Churchill 68-69.

Lukacs' discussion of Churchill the historian makes me want to turn to some of those works, although not his six-volume history of World War II, which Lukacs suggests is unreliable at crucial points, as one would expect from the memoir of a participant, which this history approaches. For example, in 1952 Churchill assured Eisenhower that he would soften (or, indeed, remove) portions concerning their disagreements in 1945, which in retrospect could have been used to paint Eisenhower as soft on Soviet communism. I'm sure it's well written -- Churchill did win the Nobel Prize for Literature for it -- and maybe I'll come around again. But the Churchill work I want to read now is his history of his ancestor, Marlborough, one of England's most successful generals. I'll have to add it to the pile.

Books mentioned above:

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