I purchased a biography of the Duke of Wellington by Rory Muir prior to Christmas that was thick and heavy and I thought that I might enjoy the odd ten pages every now and then to learn more about the time period at the turn of the 18th century. In fact, it has turned out to be quite a gripping read if only because of the fractured politics of that era and the incredible back biting that went on in the government. Sound familiar? Wellington had his work cut out for him not just on the battlefield but also in Parliament which dithered about as much as you can dither and still not lose a war.
Wellington was born Arthur Wesley. His oldest brother Richard changed the name to Wellesley thereby forcing his siblings to do the same. Since he was not in line to inherit, Arthur chose to go into the military where he served on a very brief and disastrous sortie to the continent, India and then to the Peninsular Wars and finally to Europe and Waterloo. Wellington understood that an army required logistical planning if it was to be fed, clothed and generally well supplied. This required never venturing into battle without the understanding that the army could be supported logistically in all practicable ways.
Wellington’s second rule of thumb was discipline. On his arrival in Portugal, Wellington realized that the Portuguese troops were incapable of supporting the British as they just were not trained. One of the great successes of his campaign was in the training of local troops to support and even lead expeditions against Napoleon’s troops. The French were feared for their formidable fighting force scything through Spain and Portugal before finally encountering Wellington. But Wellington needed trained soldiers and the training of the Portuguese gave him those men. It was a turning point in his campaign.
Finally, Wellington knew that strategy was the last element of successful soldiering. He was a meticulous planner and well understood the strength of his troops. His men responded well to his prompting because they trusted his decision making. During battles, Wellington was everywhere at once, determining position and reinforcements at every moment. Some thought Wellington was heavy handed with his men in being abrupt and occasionally harsh, but the stress on him must have been extraordinary.
None of these rules mattered, however, if the British government and populace were not behind him. Politics at that time period consisted of a lot of young and ultimately famous characters, but there was no William Pitt (died in 1806) to guide the Parliament. As a result, Wellington was in constant contact trying to get more money and soldiers, a daunting task for the government when the war was hardly popular. A great many of the British saw no value in saving Portugal from Napoleon. Indeed, this is what is so interesting in this book—Wellington’s navigation of the politics he had to endure.
Donna Tartt has written a compelling novel in “The Goldfinch”. The story is of the quest of Thomas Decker, a casualty in a terrorist bombing and whose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, undiscovered by all and sundry, is the fuel that drives his escapades throughout the book. Ms. Tartt takes her character through hair raising experiences, mostly self-inflected, but I guess that is the point. The young character never gets a chance to be himself as his world reels into chaos.
The only rub that I have with the novel is, however, the choice of profession that her young hero ends up pursuing which is as an antique furniture dealer. Her descriptions of restoration, the trade and even the furniture are trite. The business is both deeper, knowledge-wise, and shallower, size-wise, than she describes. I want to say that this is my bailiwick, but I know this is a novel and it is a good one and she has license. But the antiques industry is just so easily caricatured. It is a tedious punchline.
Ms. Tartt writes about art with tremendous verve, on the other hand. I could listen to her describe paintings and drawings all day long. Her philosophical musings over the last fifty pages, whether it is to discuss the good that is engendered by evil (or vice-versa) or about art and from whence it comes, are sophomoric. They don’t take away from the novel, but she certainly didn’t want a happy ever after ending and so she chose instead to wax lyrical. That said, I enjoyed it immensely.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” was published posthumously in 1980, eleven years after the suicide the author, John Kennedy Toole, who was distraught at the rejection of his novel by Simon and Schuster. The novel won him a Pulitzer in 1981. It is easy to see why as the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is unique in literature. A fabulist, glutton and prurient sloth, he engenders havoc wherever he goes. His obsession is his pyloric valve which, when failing, prompts eructations (belches) that are disruptive to his world view which is guided by geometry and theology.
Reilly has few peers as far as I can tell. Furthermore, his character reflects contemporary America in myriad forms. His self righteousness is worthy of contemporary political commentary let alone a reflection of some of the worst aspects of mid-20th century America such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the House on Un-American Activity Committee (HUAC) to name just one. Reilly is such a malleable malefactor that you almost feel sorry for him—but not quite.
The title of the book is a partial quote of an epigraph from Jonathan Swift’s, “Thoughts on Various Subjects: Moral and Diverting”, the full quote reading, “When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.” Oddly, I could not help but think about Swift as I read Toole even though I did not know the source of the title. The genius here is, of course, John Kennedy Toole.