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Letters

Vol. 19 No. 9 · 8 May 1997

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Salud y República!

The way Martha Gellhorn’s memory works (LRB, 12 December 1996) is admirable. I was both grateful for and alarmed by what it awoke in mine. In 1937 I was a médecin-lieutenant in the 14th (Franco-Belge) International Brigade. I remember very well that day on the Madrid front when I dropped back to Field Headquarters near Torreled-ones to see Colonel Domanski-Dubois, Principal Medical Officer of the 35th Division. But that day, because important visitors were arriving, no one could deal with my problems. I found myself a few paces away from a knot of people in the centre of which was a scruffy man with an eye-shade who wanted everybody’s attention. He was like a man in the Ritz who had left his theatre tickets lying around in the public rooms and had only discovered that they were missing when he and his girl were about to get into the taxi. He was claiming instant personal attention as of right.

This man did indeed have a girl with him; while his fidgets made him most unamiable, her poise and detachment, together with a wonderful freshness, had me instantly and totally subjugated. I was not envious because the unflashy perfection of the noisy fellow’s companion made me think of my own compañera, who was the nurse in charge of the operating theatre of the Brigade’s surgical unit. Her calm Welsh beauty had a quality that this visitor shared.

I wondered how it was that the scruffy man took so little notice of his celestial companion: I wondered why a girl like that was tagging along with this bundle of self-importance. She had quite transcended the scene which he seemed to be aggravating, though I could not perceive what it was all about. He was lucky to travel with that freshness and tolerance and I supposed that there must be another side to him. As we had been in Spain since the end of August 1936 I had learnt my way around and soon found someone to enlighten me. I was taken aback: I could not believe that the author of A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon could really be so self-regarding. I edged in on the group of which he was the nucleus; and I supposed that I might even be able to interest him in our Brigade; my eyes crossed those of that very calm girl; I understood that her patience was greater than my impetuosity and I simply went back to the Front to get on with my job, strangely satisfied after a single exchange of glances with that cool perceptive presence. It is wonderful to confirm, 61 years later, that my decision to leave well alone was right in respect of E. (to use Martha Gellhorn’s cryptonym) but I still regret it in so far as she is concerned. There are no words to remember but I do have that glance.

A week or so later I was in the cellar of the Hotel Flórida with Cyril Connolly. I was dead tired and very depressed. I mentioned my disappointment, not only at my failed contact with a man whose work I admired but just as much at the spectacle of his curmudgeonly behaviour. Madrid was under sporadic artillery fire. The shells were landing near enough for one to feel the shake. Dr Johnson said that when a man knows he is going to be hanged it sharpens his mind wonderfully. We in the civil war had all been living closer to the fact of death than we cared to recognise. Cyril said that E. was in love with death ‘so when near it, no one should expect him to be comfortable company.’ I was not much consoled by this and he went on to tell me to stop thinking of the past and of the future; that was all a waste of time, just so much esprit d’ escalier. ‘All we must do is perfect our present, concentrate on our own immediate performance; both the past and the future can be left for the appraisal of others.’ Connolly quoted Aeneas’ words of comfort to his crew – of which the translation: ‘We have long been no strangers to affliction and have had to bear worse than this.’ Often enough they can seem appropriate. In Madrid, on this occasion, I took them to mean: ‘If you think it is bad now wait till you see what is coming.’

K. Sinclair-Loutit
Rabat, Morocco

‘The Clash of Civilisations’

In Stephen Holmes’s review of The Clash of Civilisations (LRB, 24 April) one word is almost entirely absent: ‘race’. In the first half of this century, readers of colonial and imperial literature would have been familiar with the kind of argument we now find in Samuel Huntington. The context has changed, but the central thesis has not. In the earlier period, race and civilisation were synonymous. Now race is dropped. Imperial writers were concerned about the future of their civilisation, about morality, miscegenation and the innate superiority of their own race. Ideas about race lurk uncomfortably in Huntington: the decadence of his own civilisation, the dangers of crossing civilisations, the soul within civilisations are just a few of the key notions where the word ‘civilisation’ could easily have been replaced by ‘race’.

‘Holmes’s criticisms won’t make any difference to the Huntingtons, and their followers. The race concept was always a slippery one, without any very precise meaning and Huntington’s concept of civilisation is not much clearer. Both are articulations of belief – most often in the inherent superiority of the believer, which is no surprise in this case.

Roger van Zwanenberg
Pluto Press, London N6

Under the Loincloth

Frank Kermode (LRB, 3 April) points out that many Renaissance representations of the Holy Child show adults contemplating the baby penis with awe, ‘as if the presence of the infant member was considered a particular miracle’. It would indeed be a particular miracle, supposing the story of the Virgin Birth to be literally true; for the fruit of parthenogenesis could only be a clone of the mother – and therefore female. Otherwise, whence came the human Y chromosome to provide male characteristics? Hardly from a bodyless spirit appearing in the form of a dove.

Barbara Smoker
Bromley, Kent

Corncob Caesar

Murray Sayle’s review of John Perret’s biography of Douglas MacArthur (LRB, 6 February) missed one of the most irritating and disturbing details in the book: the use of inflated casualty figures for the proposed invasion of Japan in late 1945. Perret claims that President Truman’s Joint Chief of Staff, General Marshall, ‘feared’ there would be ‘275,000 dead and wounded’ in the campaign to seize Kyushu, which was to have started on 1 November and was known as Operation Olympic. Marshall was indeed worried about high casualties but the figure Perret quotes does not appear in the documents put before Marshall by military planners. The plans for Olympic were very detailed and have been studied by a number of historians.

MacArthur’s first submission estimated a total of 125,000, which would represent thirty thousand-plus deaths if the battle continued until March – about the same rate of loss as at Okinawa or on the Normandy beaches. The figures do not come close to Perret’s 275,000. MacArthur submitted another estimate which amounted to 105,000 casualties. These were the figures Marshall found disturbingly high. MacArthur assured him that there would be no ‘excessive losses’. After the war, both Truman and Churchill referred in their memoirs to deaths and casualties – the two have long been interchangeable in this dispute – of between 500,000 and a million. Even to reach the lower end of the range, the invasion of Japan would have had to entail far more losses than throughout the war in the Pacific and Europe combined.

It may well be that the total losses on both sides, including civilians and POWs, would have amounted to many hundreds of thousands if the war had continued well into 1946, but it has to be said that the motive for revising the figures upwards has been and still is to make the case that atomic bombs ‘saved lives’ – the more the better – and to discredit arguments that Japan might have surrendered before an invasion.

Tony Barrell
Sydney

Bad Company

Jamaica Kincaid is better appreciated as a prose stylist in different company from that which she keeps in Dale Peck’s review (LRB, 6 February). Perhaps Joan Didion, who receives more careful attention in Wayne Koestenbaum’s piece (LRB, 3 April), would have been a better companion. Koestenbaum seems untroubled by some of the features in Didion’s work which bother or bore Peck in Kincaid’s: de gustibus, but Peck had the disadvantage of reading Kincaid off the wrong list. Give her the same attention you gave Didion, or at least put her among the appropriate crowd, and she comes through much more attractively.

Scott Herrick
Madison, Wisconsin

Fatties

John Lanchester (LRB, 20 March) seems to be unaware of the fact that Nicole Kidman is an Australian with a background that suggests a thorough education in wine appreciation; hence the choice of the expensive Penfolds Bin 707. Much as I would like the reason for her husband Tom Cruise’s choice of wine to be that the Hollywoodites, Scientologists and their hangers-on were ignorantly choosing the most expensive wine on the menu, I’m afraid it is more likely that Nicole chose the wine, and that she knew what she was about.

Robin Lucas
Melbourne

Wrong!

Michael Heseltine did not visit Greenham Common in 1983, as Simon Hoggart claims (LRB, 24 April). He went to the other place, Molesworth in Northants, the base to which the missiles were never delivered. Nor did he have to confront the Peace Women, because Molesworth, unlike Greenham Common, was not gender-specific.

Peter Cadogan
London NW6

Race v. Gender

Frank Lentricchia’s logic (LRB, 3 April) – endorsing the first Simpson jury while condemning the jury at the first trial of Medgar Evers’s murderer for exactly the same behaviour – escapes me. But then I am incapable of the fine calculation needed to judge the rival claims to justice of, say, a Catholic black victim and a disabled Native American defendant. The truly interesting thing about Lentricchia’s article, however, is his choice of representatives of the moaning and whining white American population. Ironically, he selects white feminists and Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor (as well as some magazines, journals and the police). None of the women in his article is named, not even the black female jurors whose ‘thoughtful’ demeanour is approved.

How can he be sure that white feminists are racists? They are ‘well dressed’ and ‘fashionably coiffed’ (and Marcia Clark appears to go to a health club). Blind to the symbolism so clear to Lentricchia, they focus on the facts of the case: a woman’s ‘nearly decapitated’ body and the ‘issue of male domestic violence’ that ‘may be the “real" story here’. True, a man playing the race card can trump the gender card played by a woman. White men originated this tactic with the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, black men won the right to vote; women of all colours had to wait another fifty years, and the powerful alliance of people struggling for the rights of blacks and women was shattered. Recently, black men have played the race card in the same way: it has secured Americans a Supreme Court Justice and the Simpson acquittal.

M.S. Burgher
Copenhagen

Apparently Frank Lentricchia believes that if one is unlucky enough to have a black celebrity as one’s killer, one forfeits one’s ordinary rights to seek redress in court – rights most civilised people prefer to the alternatives: vigilantism, vendettas and blood feuds. Would the Goldman family’s rights have been forfeit if they had been black themselves, rather than Jewish?

Jeff Smith
University of California, Los Angeles

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