When Paul West took from a shelf of history's étagère the story of an assassination attempt on Hitler, he sidestepped the mere anecdotal reporting in lieu of more spiritual significance.
He stated in a brief “Preliminary” that he fashioned it after The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry, a book of hours, a spectacular work of illuminated manuscript, commissioned around 1410 by Jean, Duc de Berry. Knowing that West came of age at the time of The Black Humorists, self-irony, pastiche, the antics of Philip Roth, the shenanigans of Thomas Pynchon, besides the humor of West’s own raucous and ribald Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, one could expect him to desacralize it the way John Barth desacralized ancient myths in Chimera. But West is surprisingly serious. Of course a book of hours is somewhat impervious to pastiche, it’s not a narrative genre like the western or the pirate story whose tropes the novel can zoom in on to “subvert expectations”, and unlike the picaro its tropes can’t be resettled in modern-day New York where conmen are as common as in Siglo de Oro Salamanca. At its essence, a book of hours is a time table, it has no dramatic thrust, nothing rises and falls in it, it reaches no dénouement since its cycle starts anew every day. It’d probably be easier to hector Loyola's Spiritual Exercises into a novelesque shape.
But Claus von Stauffenberg’s life and a book of hours did crisscross tangentially: Rainer Maria Rilke, who makes an epigraphic cameo in the guise of a letter to Clau’s mother, Countess Caroline von Stauffenberg, wrote Book of Hours in 1905, two years before Claus’s birth and twelve before telling his mother that she was blessed for having “three beautiful and gifted boys, each of whom will develop in his own way in the years to come.” That is irony.
The poetry in Rilke’s Book of Hours, like a genuine book of hours, is filled with praise to God, or whatever Rilke called God, complete with nostalgia for monastic retreat, as the poem “The Book of A Monk's Life” attests:
Thou Anxious One! And dost thou then not hear
Against thee all my surging senses sing?
About thy face in circles drawing near
My thought floats like a fluttering white wing.
A book of hours, with its partitions of psalms, prayers, and praises to God, designating rest areas of devotion during the day, restoring ritual amidst material life, allowed the laity to find balance between spiritual withdrawal and worldly business, to feel inside a monastery in the thick of the mundus, the world, the soul’s mundane trap. It instilled in the believer a sense of gravitas, it cajoled him into making himself available to devote his life to something not just bigger than himself but that expected self-improvement from his devotion. As it happens, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg is narrated by a man all spirit, a crusader in his final breathing moments, now a dead man, a witness not of this world anymore, although Claus’s narration suggests that he was no longer much in it prior to his death.
Claus is raised a Christian, his mother was a “lady-in-waiting to the Queen” who treated him to a fairytale childhood: “Never quite in touch with court protocol or family mundanities, she lived in a world of Goethe and Shakespeare, quite often answering someone’s question as if she were speaking from within a play or a poem, and making an illustrious line (or even a speech) do duty for her in the world of everyday.” His father “supervised the abdication of the King and Queen of Württemberg in 1918.” An aristocrat, he carries an ancient surname, holds a title, descends from Hugo von Stophenburg, “who showed up in a document dated August 21, 1262, which seemed almost as close as my boyhood itself, and I was also tiny Hugo waddling through the Middle Ages with a wet bottom even while my elders’ lances clashed.”
Glowing glimpses into his idyllic life before his going to fight in Africa as an officer in the German army portray him as breathing art and poetry, worshipping with his brothers the poet and mentor Stefan George, a known anti-Nazi whose poetry Goebbels defiles by turning it into Nazi propaganda. Claus’ circle of friends is composed of artistic people: the sculptor Frank Mehnert, who casts a head modelled after Claus, the poet Wolfgang Hoffman, both killed on the front.
Claus’s interrupted happiness is inseparable from an interrupted generation: before the war, rooted in worldly pleasures, he loves and marries Nina and makes babies. But he’s born in a Germany written by the Grimm brothers, with ogres, witches, wolves. Very often West gives them good lines: here’s Hitler after the botched assassination, instructing Roland Freisler, President of the People's Court, on how to bludgeon the accused in his kangaroo court: “As soon as they appear, indeed long before, these men are dead, and their minds must be schooled into being dead.”
As if the Fuhrer’s command had broken time’s barrier and spilled in both directions, Claus already starts showing in the desert an inclination toward self-effacement: “Words themselves were the meagerest signs in that enveloping fug. You felt very much on the surface of a planet, one of whose wastelands we were plowing up to no visible end.” Later he says: “I knew only that in the desert you were always present at the hypothesis of your own absence, and your actually being there made hardly the slightest difference.” When the airplane carrying him is attacked, Claus loses an eye, one hand and two fingers from the other one, for which he receives a medal that only reinforces his sense of not being anymore: “It dawned on me that my bits of colored ribbon honored me for two things only: for being somewhere, as a tourist is here or there, and for having been a passive recipient of aircraft fire.”
His eye loss, like Odin bartering an eye for enlightenment, gives him a higher perception of Nazism’s folly. By the time he starts plotting against Hitler, or S’gruber as he nicknames him, he’s steadily drifting into a feeling of absence, a feeling reinforced by his loneliness during long trips away from his family to attend meetings with Hitler: “I thus performed my duties with my mind and heart invested in another planet, from which no news came, six hundred kilometers from Berlin.” Hitler himself is depicted as a creature sharing the same physical plane as Claus only in appearance, since at one point he says that his “words came from another world.”
After Claus arms the bomb he thinks he’s killed Hitler with, he behaves as if he had committed a sacrificial deed that releases him from the world: “I didn't want to be anywhere, in fact. I wanted to be consumed, transubstantiated, made into a knightly flame of hymnlike dignity, with no airspeed, no ground speed, no future. I was twitching mad.”
Moonlighting at nobility of spirit while pretending to be a loyal Nazi, Claus scriggles his way into Hitler's close circle wherein he plays a sconce, waiting for an opportunity to start a fire. For months he lives only to assassinate Hitler, so when he learns of his failure, “I felt oddly denatured, as far from my original or initial self as Berlin from Brazil.” Claus, then, is a man at odds with the world given to him and whose way of rebinding himself with it paradoxically implies killing himself through an act that would cleanse it in order to make it habitable again to a mind that loves peace, freedom, goodness, art.
The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg is very much West’s own humanist apologia, an indignant exposé of evil and a celebration of humane, ethical behavior. West also stated that he had in mind René d’Anjou’s Livre du cuer d’amours espris, a medieval allegorical romance, and in the same way allegory has characters like Cupid, Sweet Mercy, Jealousy, Claus stands for Sacrifice in this clear-cut medieval schema of a story of Good versus absolute Evil, although the purity of folktales also gets a nod: Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s redoubt, a name already rife with fairytale connotations, is a “dank, lugubrious redoubt hidden in the depths of a pine forest like the witch’s home in Hansel and Gretel”.
The novel accuses rather obliquely the plotters of incompetence. They’re undone by a crescendo of amateurism, before, during and after the attempt. They tarry, they doubt, they miss chances, they build crummy, unreliable bombs. Bad luck pursues them as if a witch had it in for them: a volunteer to give Hitler a suicide hug is unexpectedly sent to the front; another time Claus’s meeting with Hitler is cancelled and he goes back home like a “spurned Santa Claus”. They bicker internally: at first they want to win the war and only then kill Hitler; or else they want to kill him to gain leverage in dealing a surrender without humiliating terms, but the Allies refuse the plotter’s unrealistic terms and conditions. They tergiversate so much that by the time they’re ready to act D-Day has been a success and the Russians are pushing towards a Germany so devasted by Allied bombings that they’re in no condition to refuse unconditional surrender, the part bothering them being the “unconditional”.
When the seditious officers realize victory is impossible, they go on with the plan anyway because they need to show the world that not all of Germany had succumbed to Hitler’s madness. On hearing the news of D-Day Claus’s cousin Peter Yorck asks, “We can still do something symbolic, can’t we?” General Tresckow says: “The point now is not whether the coup has any practical purpose, but to prove to the world and before history that German resistance is ready to stake its all.” On the day Claus arms the bomb Hitler has been informed that the Russians “had broken through and were not going to waste the breach. It was all over, bar the next few thousand explosions.” With the war nearly lost, they represent a symbolic sunray illuminating them from under the shadow of shame, they can only enlimn on this black page of history a fragile act of refusal.
Wests shows that in parallel to the plot many officers were carrying out sabotage, hampering the war effort, saving POWs’ lives, misplacing supplies to slow down the army, letting to linger unsaid the suggestion that this indirect method would have been more efficient in the long term, since the moment their madcap plot was exposed and the conspirators executed lots of useful sabotage was lost.
The plotters are mostly high-raking officers, many are noblemen like Claus, they want to conduct the coup close to the military code, without civilians, without letting the power fall into the streets. Doing things in an orderly fashion inhibits them. During the brief period when they think Hitler is dead, they hesitate to kill key targets because unlike the brownshirts they don’t want to behave like bloodthirsty “gangsters”, choosing the wrong time to worry about honor. One officer, Clever Hans Kluge, says that it's not “seemly to shoot” Hitler at lunch. At times they don’t even seem to realize who they’re up against: “A row with Goerdeler followed, who still wanted us all to march in to S’gruber and state our grievances; then S’gruber, as a rational man, would get the point.” Claus himself is vulnerable to his aristocratic weakness: “Revolt from within is the business of responsible people in high places, not of people at large. Agreed?” he asks. With the dithering and missed opportunities, their composure begins to crack. One officer, Olbricht, tires of waiting for the bomb to explode and threatens to withdraw support if Claus doesn’t act quickly: they’re testy, nervous, rush things up. After the botched affair Olbricht turns against Claus to save himself.
However, the aristocrats have reasons to be paranoid, they know they’re an endangered species. Himmler and Hitler hate them out of an inferiority complex. Claus’s Uncle Nux belittles Hitler for being a corporal who became chief of state. Claus himself doesn’t hide his contempt for him: “I concluded that I was too softhearted for the mauling of Europe, befouling it from end to end in order to gratify the demented dream of a failed painter and wallpaper hanger.” For him he’s just a “petit bourgeois”, an embodiment of philistinism, an insult that had gained popularity since the early 19th century and denoted “l’homme médiocre”, as Ernest Hello called him, the natural predator of all things excellent, beautiful, spiritual and superior.
The Nazi echelon reciprocates: “They don’t seem to believe Himmler told his masseur that after the war he’ll stage a mass execution of the aristocracy in the Lustgarten. ‘The lords are no better than the Jews,’ he said.” Hitler’s hatred of horses is hierarchical: “Emblems of the decadent landed upper class!” Claus by turn excels at equitation, riding Jagd as if he were creating artwork: “Dressage was articulate rhythm, embroidery done with an instrument of brute force, and I became expert at it because it always had this metaphysical side.” Hitler seizes the opportunity of the plot’s fiasco to expunge the army of this recalcitrant class, “gobbets of slime from the festering bowls of the royalist aristocracy”. To his puppet judge Freisler he exhorts, “You have to deal once and for all with such offscouring from a dead past.” His lackey is only too glad to oblige him in wiping out the “slobbering pigdog aristocrats!” Hitler, then, doesn’t just stand for malevolence, conquer and extermination, he’s also an unsophisticated lout whose harm oozes past the biological into the aesthetic and the psychic, for he wants to degrade the world in his crude, philistine image.
The plotting polypidom starts disintegrating as rumors conflict about Hitler's death. “Someone should be dead beyond resurrection. Is that too much to ask?” says Witzleben, in on the plot. “General? Colonel? Am I dealing with real soldiers? Or chocolate ones on a very hot day? Answer, gentlemen: I am damned if I deal with you at all, any further, in this. And damned if I don’t. Damn the lot of you. You have strung us up. Bombs! Poetry! Colonels! Counts! I would have done better to train a squad of thoroughbred dogs. Goodbye. I’ll see you when the hangman entertains.”
And does the hangman entertain!
Since Hitler is one of history’s most famous figures, the reader knows from the start that Claus failed to assassinate him on July 20, 1944. West, in the fashion of old Greek tragedies whose outcome were a given for the audience, doesn’t bother too much with plot, the minute events of the chronology simply and straightforwardly reenacted. Instead he favors ambience, imagery, insight, a character study of a guilt-ridden soul, a good man who tries to save Germany at the cost of his own destruction and in the process damning family and friends when the wolves come howling for revenge.
When it comes to language, I found the early part of the novel rather restrained in comparison to what I know of West’s linguistic prowess. At first I thought his phrasemaking was defanged by the need to stick close to historical facts, although I now have another theory. Mind you, his language consistently combines and recombines itself into finespun syntactic surprises; his metaphors alone are always uncanny and precise: “Himmler smiled that wintry smirk of his, like a wound reopening.” Stefan George “invented our minds and made them work life waterfalls.” Albert Speer “looked so dapper, so buttoned-up, that one almost looked for the key that wound him, the table on which he’d dance.” Talking to the chummy Buhle, one of Hitler’s sycophants, is “like befriending a waxwork.” Hagen, under Freisler’s brutish interrogation, stands “pliable as a skein of cobweb between a door and its frame, stretching and shrieking each time the door opened, but never breaking or falling”. The banality of bombings is thus rendered: “Raging fires and streets jammed with rubble had become so commonplace, like the jumble of toys in some untidy nursery, that we hardly looked at them twice”. I particularly like this metaphor because it does the opposite of what it claims to be doing: although Claus says that such sights have become commonplace, and that the Germans have become desensitized to destruction, he himself uses an image that individualizes and estranges it, making us visualize it in association with the jarring image of an innocent nursey, so out of place amidst that barbarism, and thus renewing our perception.
Up until the bomb fiasco West has used language mostly to describe, he was a hyper-realist at heart, in love with palpable details; he ran a tractor over triteness, confecting ebullient sentences, moving past automatized language to renew our vision of things. Claus uses words not with attention to verisimilitude, but in abeyance to the Elizabethan Stage Dialogue School, everything uttered must sound remarkable. However, even West’s subdued self is too good a phrasemaker to join the “gestapo of the plain prose party”, you can expect him to let rhetoric at some point to run over like a river. That happens when Hitler instructs Freisler on how the trials must be carried out; when they start rhetoric goes off the rails and off the charts, languages becomes a performance, a stage from which justice is absent, leaving only bombast, a choleric cannonade, a circus. The stench of revenge fills up the final part, like a rotting corpse underneath the gorgeous floorboard of phrases. “Freisler, I want the first trial to be a model. Intimidate them all you want - insult and interrupt, ridicule them and call them names - but make sure they are tried at lightning speed”, orders Hitler. The apery at the end, conducted by the bullying Freisler, is a master class in abuse, insult, intimidation, a series of vignettes of vileness. When Freisler interrogates Witzleben in one humiliating session, Claus remarks: “Men had been kinder to butterflies, lettuces, bits of quartz.” Hitler makes it clear he wants the accused to end their days in a performance: “After all, they will end their lives as film stars!” Indeed performance-related metaphors abound. Hagen’s face is “Pagliacci white”. Witzleben strives not to look like a “humbled derelict clown”. And Claus asks: “Had they drugged Hoepner with a script in hand?” Freisler is not concerned with truth or law, he wants to entertain, delight his audience, which he knows exactly who that is: “Be pure in doom. Wear your best robe. Make them quake. I am your main audience, my dear fellow”, Hitler tells him. In fact we all are, we’re complicit, paradoxically delighting in language used to transmit death orders and to foul the accused’s moment of honor.
This verbal grand guignol has the effect of muting the novel’s earlier, more lyrical part. Many have remarked that evil seems more artistically stimulating than good; evil brings out eloquence in a writer the way happiness and contentment seldom do; that was more or less the point William Blake was making when he noted that John Milton was “of the Devil's party without knowing it.” When I read Paradise Lost I certainly thought that it’d lost steam once Satan was silenced and the scene moved over to Adam and Eve. The problem with beauty is that it’s morally neutral, all language is inherently deceitful, as Goebbels turning Georges's poetry into propaganda shows. Evil has its own alluring aesthetics. Before the attempt, Claus is taken to see corpses of Jewish women kept in vats for medical research: “All the way home to Wannsee, I kept wondering why the concept of beauty is so arbitrary, why exposed intestines are called ugly but the amputated Venus de Milo its opposite, and on and on, and so forth, all of it maudlin, trite brooding out of trauma by disgust. The floating women had come home to roost all right, and, I harangued myself as the warm air laved my face, they even had an unearthly beauty which reminded me that life is not essential to the body’s beauty – oh no, nor human to land- or seascape, nor God’s blessing to a planet empty of humankind.” In a 1989 essay West, whose father was a war veteran, recalled how he and other boys, “in the darkest days of World War Two”, dressed up, “pretending to be SS, in our whitest shirts, our darkest blue blazers, our shiniest leather belts, and cracking the toy whips with which we otherwise trashed tops. I think we wanted to be on what seemed the winning side, but we were also flirting, obscenely, with the trappings of a power which ‘our side’ seemed to have no access to, whether in their sloppy battledress of that same mustard-gas brown, or in quiet tunics of blue serge.” West was aware of the paradox that the compassionate sentences he puts in Claus’ pure mouth are made of the same matter as the thuggish but captivating speeches he gives Nazi henchmen. Language can particularize and generalize, reveal and conceal, protect and kill.
Pretty words are not by themselves incompatible with terror, but they seem more at home with the remnants of Claus’ aristocracy, a realm that doesn’t yet reek of the Reich. It’s in fact his belonging to this receding resistance that charges his language with the power of testimony; Claus has no refuge from the hylic, hellish Hitlerite mindset that has sullied Goethe’s fair Germany with a satanophany. It is the glimpse of this world devoid of beauty that makes Claus risk his life, he wants to show megalopsychy is still possible.
He’s sacrificial, but not suicidal, he’d rather kill Hitler and survive if possible, although eventually he realizes that for once vanquishing evil won’t be like in fairytales: “Maimed for nothing in a desert war already lost, I wanted to come unscathed through the biggest thing I'd known or done; Claus the ogre would be the young prince once again, admired and loved.” Seeing how the Nazis covet material things, territory, supplies, gold, fuel, lives, Claus yearns for its corrective. The sense of alienation caused by living in Hitler’s world eggs him on to want to cling not to an otherworldly dimension, but the same real, material world, except better, with gentler, more humane values. This brings us back to the book of hours and Rilke. By holding on to his praise of God, Claus finds it worth fighting for the world, whereas the masses that praise Hitler can’t wait to blow it up. In an incident in which two civilian women in occupied territory are executed for being mistaken for spies, Claus remarks on Hitler’s effect on others: “These women had died because of him; he enabled people to get careless with other people's lives.” It was Rilke who wrote in a poem:
Oh speak, poet, what do you do?
But the monstrosities and the murderous days,
how do you endure them, how do you take them?
What he had in mind when he said “praise” is made clearer in the ninth “Duino Elegy”:
You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the grand cosmos
where he so intensely feels, you’re just a novice. So show
him some simple thing shaped for generation after generation
until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it’s ours.
Tell him about things.
Talking about things that can be talked about is what Claus does in his sensuous language. The most commonplace thing is released from its sepulcher of automatization and given individuality, made anew. Language can make us bask in the operatic materiality of riding a horse: “Working Jagd day to day was a delight, and the finest register of our movements together - all that bunched muscle flexing and tapping with butterfly precision - brought me to the point of ecstasy.” “Jagd was my Stonehenge, my Beethoven, my Rodin.”
Claus can make himself look strange, a thing, a toy, explored by his children elated at the novelty that his derelict body constitutes: “The worst part was that the hand which reached up to mop the eye was a scarecrow remnant, evoking its missing partner, so that almost everything I did reminded my family of what else was wrong with me. At first gravely impressed, rather than horrified, the boys and little Valerie began to regard me as some special phantom, almost a big toy to be appreciated since there were so many ways in which they could help me, guide me, see me through. Other fathers were much less interesting to look at, they felt, and I suddenly realized that, in some bizarre way, I appealed to the side of them that responded to little steam engines, model planes, the erector set which made bridges and tractors bloom in strips of perforated metal.”
But in a pragmatic world, women become cattle prized for their fertility, like Nina, who receives a medal for bearing five children to the Reich’s death machine; decrees such as “Night and Fog” are issued to make enemies disappear; throngs of armed people are mobilized here and there to fulfil the State’s whims; and individual life is reduced to a purpose outside of its volition, to a cog in a grinding routine that serves itself at the expense of personal purpose. As such, beauty is particularly revolting since it flaunts its own independent existence, like orchids, sunsets, bird singing, unpragmatic, useless things.
Neutral language nauseates West, he’s grateful to language and tends it like a garden. This antipathy is ethical too. Totalitarian thinking, like reliance on cliche, is a sign of herd mentality, of distaste for individuality and personal experience; it’d rather cover reality with readymade formulae. Like a benevolent dictator, West shuts cliches into exile causing harm to his harmonious idealist world of gentleness, aesthesia, curiosity. To the coarseness of brownshirts he ripostes with sedulousness: alliteration, puns, metaphors, the reenchantment of the plain world.
West’s affabrous diction comes full force when Claus is describing the jubilation at having killed Hitler: “I trembled with self-loathing and delight; I had just converted human beings into flame and charcoal. Faces had turned into a flash of light traveling much faster than their minds had. The texture of the explosion was that of a shredded rainbow pouring upwards as a reverse waterfall. I thought I felt the heat. I knew I smelled the reek of burned hair, and my first thought, pardonable in an assassin, was That is S’gruber burning; his ideas are shriveling on the pyre of himself, his mustache has gone, his eyes are like those of a dead lake trout, matt and grayish green. I could taste his death on the still summer air. His sundered heat was lodged up in the treetops with the aghast birds. Ants had already floundered in his half-congealing blood. The trademark forelock had gone off with a foaming crack, like guncotton, and the outside snakebite of his nostrils no longer channeled air. Others lived, but clearly he was dead, destined to befoul no further, with his mouth, or his mind, or his hands, or his traumatized eyes.” And it continues: “He would never be photographed again. He would never make another orgasmic speech. He would never sign another order, or lose another army, or call another conference. Something foul and rank had gone, a fungus kicked off a tree trunk. He was gone and I was new. My mind warmed up, and that entire sense of having done things by remote control faded away. I was Claus. What a bomb had blown apart didn't come together again. Very well, then: I was ripe; I was top dog; I was the only one in the whole world who had ever killed him, shredded him, peeled him, splashed the bright-check curtains with his blood. It was time to take pride in what I'd done; but what grew first, and fast once it has started, was relief that I'd never have to do it again. Many killings would have to follow, but that would be others' work, not mine. The murder of Wolf in his Lair with his whelps was mine alone: more than enough to haunt me, never mind how many confessor I had.”
What this hyper-realistic detailed style provides is precision, the antipode of that carelessness that gets innocent people killed. Praising the world is paying attention to its details, it’s a sign of respect for it. Constant acuteness and euphoria over its richness demonstrates comfort in being part of it, unlike the flashy, tacky Hitlerites who piss swastikas in every corner to claim it theirs.
Rilke once wrote:
Praise, my dear one.
Let us disappear into praising.
Nothing belongs to us.
This implies the modesty of man in relation to something bigger. The Hitlerites would rather exalt a leader of their own stature, an idol, a race, a skewed utopia instead of concrete reality. One mindset is tranquil in the world, the other seeks to violently change it. One is one with the world, the other stands above it.
West was a good student of the Modernists and was attuned to their feeling of loss of meaning in the world. Writers like Rilke believed that since the rise of the bourgeoisie a turn to debased materialism and pragmatism had amputated the everyday from poetry, beauty and meaning. That feeling was related by Dietrich von Hildebrand, a Christian theologian and anti-Nazi, in the second volume of his Aesthetics. Dietrich, son of a sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand, in his eclectic mix of aesthetics and memoirs brought back a world still free from form following function: “The expression of the spirit, the gift of giving form in such a way that was not practically indispensable, penetrated all the practical sphere of life up to that time. A knife should not only cut well; it should also possess a noble form. A chair should not only be comfortable and solid; it should also be beautiful, in fact it should sooner be a little less comfortable than be sober and prosaic. Practical life as a whole possessed an organic character and was therefore united to a special poetry of life.”
The opposite is seeing life as means to ends, to turn people into objects, to be careless about their lives, to turn them into automata that even on the brink of destruction can be assuaged by a pretty-words-spewing puppet-master: “The bombing fused the people together into a self-righteous acquiescence that needed only a public appearance from Goebbels to refuel it. He personified maniacal will and handed out bits of his unholy grail in the shape of handshakes and autographs, telling everyone there was plenty of food and medicine.”
And yet although the Nazis tried to relieve the world of beauty in detriment of pragmatism, a tell-tale sign indicates that evil and ugliness are self-defeating if people are saturated with them. Hitler orders the executions of eight plotters be filmed and exhibited as the crowning touch of the performance, but “when the film was tried out on cadet audiences in Berlin the effect on morale was so awful that all copies were eventually destroyed on S’Gruber’s and Goebbels’s express command.”
Novelists try to make the reader empathize with the character, but West made the character be passive like the reader, watching unfold a horror that he can't change. After dead he's forced to witness the pain his actions bring to others, those who commit suicide, are tortured, executed, flee, the families that are rent apart. The adjective “existentialist” shows up at least twice in the novel, and it’s known that West was interested in existentialism, his Sheer Fiction volumes of literary criticism are filled with reverential nods to the French existentialists, and the criteria he used to evaluate books were existentialist at their core. He once claimed that his teenage life in a small British town changed after he read Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. But in my view what interested him was, thankfully, mainly the superficial, self-help skillset that speaks to choice, personal responsibility, and guilt. Claus wrestles with himself whether or not he wants to take a life, even if it’s a monstruous one, and in classical existentialist exercises weighs one death against many. At this point he’s still in Sartre and Malraux territory, but West’s stroke of fabulation genius is forcing the ghostly Claus to witness from a limbo of guilt the ramifications of his deeds as they affect his co-conspirators and family, a chore heroes are usually exempted from.
Fortunately, unlike many other novelists who debuted in the 1960s, his admiration for existentialist philosophy didn’t translate into a belief in the impotence and dimming of language and literature. Claus wonders if mankind will ever turn away from barbarism: “All I could think just then was It's no use being alive. Maybe a hundred years hence, mankind will have improved, will be – humane. Yet I doubted; the monster which had slithered out of the abyss would not go back, any more than my lost eye would grow in again like a crab apple in late May.” West knew this was unlikely; the belief that art could play a role in this improvement was the cornerstone of classical humanist education, which the horrors unleashed by totalitarianism made quite unpopular and corny. Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism was in fact an invective against classic humanism, culminating in the charge that it was fascism’s handmaiden. Although humanism’s dismissal was building up before the war, it congealed into a postwar certainty when many went looking for the origins of totalitarianism: what was once seemly became seedy overnight; around the same time Karl Popper was assuring us that Plato was a proto-fascist too. Thanks to these authorities ethical criticism became, in the phrase of Wayne C. Booth, “a banned discipline”. Since then we've had two approaches to art and the world in general: nihilistic mockery versus giddy enthusiasm.
The nihilists made, and still make, boring books in plain prose about ennui-filled limpid bourgeois, or else they trounced language until it meant nothing and referred to nothing concrete outside the reveries of solipsistic narrators in love with their inhuman pathologies. Sartre himself went from being a political activist who believed in the writer’s engagement to decrying his usefulness, cementing his apostasy in the final pages of his biography The Words, in which he declared that his belief in the power of literature to change the world had been misguided. His imitators, as if out of resentment at being lied to, gave us a benumbed, nihilistic, cold, detached world of fugacious figures incapable of forming meaningful relationships with others and the world, effectively churning out just another artificial genre with its own tropes, and not as they weirdly thought showing real existence as it really is; pamphlets, really, containing a pinched worldview. West made a remarkable contribution to the canon, Alley Jaggers, basically Camus’ The Stranger relocated to debris-covered austerity England, and whose Arab is a woman who besides being murdered is subjected to necrophilia. Stephen King taught that if you can’t horrify, go for the gross-out.
The worst part of this subgenre’s output is that it was jotted down in the same stenographic, humdrum style slithering toward silence, as befitted aphasics who learned from Sartre that literature should eschew flamboyance and be as simpliste as a pebble. Language was the primary target I suppose because it’s the axis of the Humanities. We call it the Humanities because the Romans believed that specific activities could make us more human, that is, pull us away from our beastliness. Cicero, who so much of this is to thank and blame for, wrote in De Inventione that what made us superior to beasts was language, a sort of divine gift, which is why the Humanities are synonymous with reading and writing skills. But the most lucid writers know that language was the most horrifying thing to happen to mankind: it lies, it cheats, it misunderstands, it cadges, it cages, it bosses around, it ridicules, it intimidates, it kills, and we’re stuck with it. I assume that’s why attacks on humanism from within the Humanities themselves usually tend first to lock in on language, syntax, order, the meaning of ordinary words, either forcing them into rancorous minimalism and perforce silence or mocking and mucking them up so much that any utterance becomes indistinguishable from our lower cousin’s moos and meows.
One of the mysteries surrounding West is how, given his background, he managed to avoid this trap. In the “Preliminary” he claimed that he was attracted to the detail that the conspirators identified themselves via George’s apocalyptic poem, “Antichrist”: “It was an innocent enough thing to have in your pocket: what harm could a poem do? To whom?” asks Claus. For West this was a way of countering the “idea that poetry makes nothing happen”, the kind of popular postwar tenet that was born in part from a reaction against the early optimist of littérature engagée. But West disagreed: fiction could be political, ethical and artistic; just because it had not achieved the high expectations Marxists had demanded from it, it could still be treated seriously. Old-fashioned humanist stylists like him continued to think it's worth praising the world, and in so doing used language in inventive manners, were stimulated into using its graphic and aural properties to attain that equally old-fashioned delusion called beauty, in stark opposition to the dull, colorless neutral tone that marks disenchantment. Since neither approach solves or saves anyone and anything, the criterion for my preferences lies in which one produces not so much better literature as better language. If fiction makes nothing happen, and I'm quite comfortable with that, it may at least look and sound fabulous in the meantime. The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg excels at both criteria.