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Archive for December, 2017

Latest Reviews (19xii2017)

Mobile MetalBattleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

Allum’s Album – The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013)

Aschen PassionDeath in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Battleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

A big, solid book about a big, solid weapon: the tank. But tanks are mobile too. Their contradictions are part of what’s so fascinating about them. On the one hand, they’re terrifyingly powerful. They can crash through houses, wreak havoc with a single shot and grind human beings to bloody pulp. On the other hand, they’re horrifyingly vulnerable. The same armour that protects the crew can trap them:

On the defensive side, the T-72’s armor was vulnerable to the Abrams 120mm gun and its unshielded ammunition meant that penetrations usually led to catastrophic fires which incinerated the tank, often too quickly for the crew to escape. These spectacular explosions were profoundly demoralizing to the crews of neighboring tanks, who sometimes abandoned their own vehicles after witnessing such frightening conflagrations. (“M1 Abrams vs T-72: Desert Storm 1991”, “Analysis”, pg. 355)

That’s from the final section of the book, which covers the confrontation between American and Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War of 1991. Before that, the expert contributors discuss “T-34 vs Panther: Ukraine 1943”, “Tiger vs Sherman Firefly: Normandy 1944”, “M26 Pershing vs T-34-85: Korea 1950” and “Centurion vs T-55: Golan Heights 1973”. This is a work of serious military history and there’s a lot of technical, technological and tactical detail. But tanks aren’t just interesting: they’re exciting too and this book is also about the “mortal danger and adrenaline rush of combat” (pg. 119), whether that’s explicit or not.

And the first two sections are about the dark glamour of Nazism. Aesthetics and associations always mattered to Hitler’s death-cult, which is why exotic Panthers were fighting utilitarian T-34s in Ukraine and menacing Tigers were fighting feeble-sounding Fireflies in Normandy. German weapons and uniforms looked good too, as you can see in the short biography devoted to the “Tiger tank ace” Michael Wittmann:

… Wittmann served in the bitter defensive stands the Germans enacted in and around Caen during July [1944]. Yet on August 8 – by which time the now SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wittmann had claimed 139 combat kills – the Panzer ace met a warrior’s end during a desperate counterattack launched against numerically superior Allied forces. (pg. 133)

Tanks are the modern equivalent of cavalry and the glamour that went with the latter now goes with the former. Like cavalry, tanks can transform battles in a single sudden burst of speed and violence. But cavalrymen were often thought of as gallant but stupid, as Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard proves. Tankmen have to be clever and courageous. And cool under pressure. As technology advances, the minds of the men who use it have to adapt. Those who adapt best, fight best and survive best.

War has always been about technology and technological advance, whether it was iron weapons surpassing bronze weapons millennia ago or computer viruses wrecking centrifuges in the 21st century, but tanks were a particularly big innovation. They combine the killing power of artillery with the mobility of cavalry and the toughness of fortifications: what could Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon have done with them? As it was, they appeared in a war whose generals are generally regarded as buffoons, not geniuses. That was the First World War, which this book acknowledges but doesn’t discuss at length. Tanks weren’t a perfected weapon then, after all.

They still aren’t, but they had got a lot closer by 1939 and the Second World War, which was their first great chance to show what they could do – or rather, what they could be. And what could they be? The difference between victory and defeat in battle. They were the basis of the Wehrmacht’s initial success, then of the Allies’ fight-back and eventual triumph. After that came the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and Desert Storm. All of these are covered here and all have their lessons for the military historian and their excitement for the tank-buff. The text enlightens and the graphics illustrate. You even get to look through the gunsights. If you like tanks, you should like this book.

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The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013, paperback 2015)

“A regular on [the] BBC’s Antiques Roadshow”, Marc Allum knows a lot about antiques and history and can write compellingly about what he knows, from mudlarks in Victorian London to the names of drinking-vessels in ancient Greece by way of the formula for the value of diamonds (Wt2 x C). Antiques are inanimate, but part of the point to them is that they’re tokens of life. People don’t last for centuries, but their playthings and practicalities do. Some antiques were valuable from the moment they were made, because of the skill or the precious materials that went into them. Others acquire value by their associations. Ordinary things like toothbrushes and hats can take special power from being associated with extraordinary people:

Napoleon’s toothbrush. On display at the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London, Napoleon’s silver-gilt and horsehair toothbrush is engraved with an ‘N’ under a crown. Apparently, he used opium-based toothpaste.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is the lance that pierced the side of Jesus while [he was] hanging on the cross. There have been several contenders over the centuries, but the main one is the example displayed in the Imperial Treasury of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which has a long and fascinating history. It also contains an object that has been tested scientifically and is thought to be consistent with a 1st-century Roman nail. (pg. 117)

The entry before that is about Star Wars and Darth Vader dolls: it’s impossible to guess what will turn up next as you turn the pages of this book, which makes it like a cellulose version of Antiques Roadshow. But books make you think much more than TV does. Antiques raise all sorts of fascinating philosophical, aesthetic and sociological questions. Are they like secular relics, for example? In lots of ways they are. One way is that that many of them aren’t what they claim to be. Allum writes a lot about fakes and forgeries. As value rises, so does the need for verification.

Or the need to obfuscate on verification. Dealers can collude with forgers or not care whether they are. The world of antiques is the world full stop, because every aspect of human behaviour, endeavour and interest is represented there. If human beings use something, it can become an antique, from toys to microscopes, from stamps to swords. This is a good short introduction to a very big subject.

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Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

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