Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)

where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

This 2002 work is a tremendous novel. It is the story of a man’s life, of Logan Gonzalo Mountstuart who experiences the turmoil of the 20th century. It is told through an intermittent journal: from high school to college, from London before World War II to his wartime service, from that service in the Bahamas to a mission in Switzerland, and from post-war London to New York to retirement in France.

The journal approach works perfectly. Indeed, Boyd uses it to enhance a sense of reality, in fact suggesting that this might be a work of non-fiction. This is emphasized by footnotes that explain the real people whom Logan encounters, which include Picasso, Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cyril Connolly, Ian Fleming, and many others. It is further emphasized at the end with an index that highlights the historic events of Logan’s life as well as those individuals of history and art whose life he walks into on these pages.

All of which offers a verisimilitude that I enjoyed—and little of which seemed forced. The long encounter with the Duke and the Duchess, for example, works for me, perhaps because they are brought alive as they welcome this fellow golfer into their life, try to use him, and then dismiss him when rebuffed. Correction: one episode with London anarchists and German terrorists in the 1970s seems extraneous and artificial. What was that all about?

Actually, it is about Logan’s obtuseness, I think. It goes along with a snide reference to Tender is the Night that made me wonder. Was this an opinion of Boyd himself, or, as I hoped, was it to portray a certain shallowness in this hero who calls himself a critic and a writer, but who produces only two early works of criticism and two novels he derides—but talks about being a writer for the rest of his life. In fact, Logan’s dismissal of The Waste Land and his complaint that Ulysses is difficult to read re-enforce this conclusion.

What holds this novel together through all of Logan’s adventures is this voice. He is honest and objective, even if he does not fully understand himself or those around him. And he does not write for effect, at one point criticizing Nabokov’s Ada for its stylistic flourishes. Indeed, one senses this is Boyd defending his own style. Richard Eder in The New York Times Book Review sums up the author’s approach: “Boyd endows his narrator with no special quality of perception or sensibility as he recounts his…exuberant gains, painful reverses, and long-term decline. What he does give him is integrity of voice if not of spirit, the lightest mockery of his own inconsequentiality, and a gracefully chiseled play of sentence and phrase.”

What always impresses me about Boyd is that he takes a different approach to each of his novels. No, the journal form is not itself original, but it works perfectly here. Not least because each journal, each period in Logan’s life, centers around a dramatic development. Such as three student challenges that makes high school interesting. Such as murder and the changing attitudes of the Windsors in Lisbon and the Bahamas. Such as Logan’s lengthy imprisonment in Switzerland. Such as the art gallery he runs in New York for a friend, only to find the friend’s son is embezzling funds. And such as the partisan bickering he encounters in France long after World War II.

What is remarkable about this novel is that Boyd has captured each era that his story covers, as well as the character of Logan from an eager youth to a retrospective old man. Here are bits and pieces of high school and college life, of the Spanish Civil War, of the Blitz, of a Swiss prison, of London literary life, of the New York art world, of revolution in Nigeria, and of French provincial life. But more than that, here are the ambition and confidence of youth, the frustrations of love and professional recognition, the gradual acknowledgement of a thickening, sluggish body, and finally the awareness of aging as the precursor to one’s death.

It is this awareness of growing old that particularly impressed me. It is a remarkable achievement for a writer only in his sixties. Indeed, I wonder if this achievement will be understood by comparatively young critics, who will not have experienced what I myself have in my advanced years. As the New Yorker review said, “He allows Mountstuart’s voice to age like port.”

On another level, this novel captures in one life the experience of an entire era. It is about life in the literary world and the art world. About life in both the military and in marriage. About a life searching for love, finding love, and being denied love. About life that reaches its youthful peak in war, and then its decline as friends die and the body weakens. As Time reported, it carries “the full, devastating force of a lifetime of intermingled joy and pain.”

The title is taken from Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Which precisely reflects the portrait of Logan that we read. Indeed, Logan does not always understand either himself or the world and the people around him. He thinks he has earned high marks at his Oxford graduation, but has not and cannot understand why. He calls himself a writer, but he does little writing. He seeks love but fails largely to understand women, and does find love for only one brief period. He is even deceived into collaborating with German terrorists. He is an imperfect hero for such a perfect and powerful book—which is, of course, a tribute to the author.

As Boyd himself said in a Book Browse interview: “I wanted to invent my own exemplary figure who could seem almost as real as the real ones and whose life followed a similar pattern: boarding school, university, Paris in the 20s, the rise of Fascism, war, post-war neglect, disillusion, increasing decrepitude, and so on—a long, varied, and rackety life that covered most of the century.” He also said: “I wanted the literary tone of each journal to reflect this, and so the voice subtly changes as you read on: from pretentious school boy to modern young decadent, to bitter realist, to drink soaked cynic, to sage and serene octogenarian, and so forth.”

To sum up, Boyd has become one of my favorite authors. I think this novel may be his best, for its broadness and deceptive depth. That is, it breaks the rules, with its imperfect hero and its episodic journals—each with its own little drama—that reveal more than its hero suspects. (July, 2015)