‘Human Smoke’ by Nicholson Baker


2008, 474 p + 53 p notes

I hadn’t heard anything about this book, or its author for that matter, until I heard an interview with Nicholson Baker on Radio National’s Book Show.  It was quite clear that he was speaking as a novelist rather than an historian, and yet he said a couple of things in the interview that resonated with my own research and narrative problems that I’m grappling with.

I wish the interview were still available or a transcript saved, but neither of these is available. From the brief notes I took during the interview, he said something like the following:

1. Find the hero in your story.  This is something that I’ve been struggling with.   I don’t consider the subject of my story- Judge Willis- to be a hero: in fact,  I don’t think I like him much at all.  So who is my hero?  Whose voice and worldview  do I trust?  Of the colourful cast of players on the Port Phillip stage in 1841-3, I’d go for  Superintendent La Trobe, I think, in spite of (or is it because of ? ) his insecurity, his anxiety, his concern not to be hasty or judgemental.

Or is the endeavour to find a hero anti-historical in itself?  In our search for a ‘hero’, are we only responding to those from the past who display elements of a 21 century sensibility that we recognize as kindred spirits.  What about the men of their time who are thoroughly imbued with attitudes of deference or unruffability that we find unacceptable today?  Or are we looking for a common humanity beyond this?   Inga Clendinnen, in her Dancing with Strangers introduces the writers of the First Fleet journals she is basing her work on, and shares with us her own emotional responses to her informants’ writing:

Jane Austen exclaimed that her naval-officer brothers ‘write so even, so clear, both in style and penmanship, so much to the point, and give so much intelligence, that it is enough to kill one’. In her novels she allowed herself to become positively girlish in her effusions of admiration for naval men like Fanny’s brother William or Anne Elliot’s Captain Wentworth, and quite lost her characteristic irony when she considered the nobility of their profession.

I confess that as I read John Hunter’s journal I felt something of the same flutter.  I liked what he said and I liked his silences too.  (p 37)

and in relation to Watkin Tench:

He is one of the handful of writers who are an unshadowed pleasure to meet on the page.  Through that familiar miracle of literacy where pothooks transform into personality, it is not so much his information as his presence which delights us.  His parents are said to have run a dancing academy, and it is tempting to think that their son’s grace on the page has something to do with a melodious, light-footed upbringing.  He has the kind of charm which reaches easily across centuries.  If he lacks Montaigne’s intellectual sophistication and unwavering moral clarity, he shares with him the even rarer quality of sunny self irony. (p. 57)

I think that a historian does adopt a stance towards her informants.  It’s not that you suspend criticism or disbelief, but there are some informants who have you rolling your eyes and inwardly groaning “Here we go again“; or conversely who make you sit up and think “Now what makes you say that?”

2. Sometimes what’s written in the papers is more true than what you’ll find in “secret” archives. Leaving aside the whole issue of “truth”, I’ve been thinking about the issue of temporal change and temporal persistence for some time.  And I’ve also been reading newspapers very, very closely, watching how a controversy builds, subsides, lingers, re-emergences- a sort of time-lapse examination that is elided when taking a purely thematic approach.  In my own research into Judge Willis, there were issues that  niggled month after month; there were personality clashes that played out in different contexts over time.  There were false rumours, there was bombast and exaggeration- and as Nicholson Baker pointed out, the actors themselves were reading (and contributing) to this media construction of events each morning too.

So what has Nicholson Baker done in this book?

I was interested to note that the book was catalogued with a 940 Dewey number in the university library, and lists its subjects heading on the edition notice page as” 1. World War, 1939-45- Causes  2. Jews- Persecutions- Europe-History.”  Yet the book starts abruptly in August 1892 and ends on New Years Eve 1941.  It is a series of snippets, many taken from the  New York Times,or diaries or memoirs arranged chronologically, each one a page or less in length,  separate and disembodied from the preceding one and  surrounded by much white space on the page.  There are no chapters, no commentary, no debate, no authorial interjection.  There is a long series of  sources at the end of the book.  And that’s all.

And yet the author is very much there.  His selection of the closing days of 1941 (immediately post-Pearl Harbour) reflects his American worldview, and there is a degree of artifice in treating newspaper articles written in real-time with memoirs written after the event.  He has found his heroes: Gandhi, pacifists, Stefan Zwieg, Victor Klemperer.   He’s found his villains too, and you can almost hear his sharpening his knife. He selects his events without a stated rationale, but with solid intent:  the anti-semitism and blood-lust of Churchill, Britain’s food blockade of Europe,  the testing of chemical weapons in the Middle East,  America’s refusal to take Jewish refugees, the insistent voices of pacifists throughout the war, the commercial entanglement of America in the war through supply of technology, planes and arms,  America’s goading of Japan to enter the war.  Even though he presents these as snippets,  there is an argument here: an argument that debunks especially Churchill but also Roosevelt; that blurs the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”;  that has a whiff of moral superiority in relation to the pacifists.  You are very much aware that it is written with a  post-9/11, post-Iraq sensibility.

Inga Clendinnen also had this to say in Dancing with Strangers:

It is a commonplace rediscovered every decade or so that individuals see what they see from their own particular perspective, and that perspectives change through time.  These disenchanted days we know that there are no I-am-a-camera  observers, and we also know that even cameras lie.  This recognition has not stopped would-be historians from piecing together snippets derived from a range of narratives, perspectives and sensibilities in chronological order, and  calling the resulting ribbon patchwork ‘objective history’. (p. 12)

Nicholson Baker has done exactly this- pieced together snippets derived from a range of narratives- and has reworked them into an almost formulaic vignette, often ending with the date “It was 15 March 2009”.  There’s a flatness of tone, a disembodiment that is unnerving and yet oddly compelling too.

Many historians and academics hated this book.   John Lukacs (who has written several books on Churchill) didn’t hold back : “This book is bad”.  Louis Menand (who wrote The Metaphysical Club) writes:

Baker is trying to eliminate the historian’s interpretive gloss in the interests of respecting the rawness of the primary experience. He seems to think that the facts speak for themselves. But facts never speak for themselves. We speak for them. The historian’s gloss matters (not to mention all the facts that are left out): it provides the reader with intellectual traction, an ability to weigh the claims being put forward to justify the selection of facts. Baker’s presentation may seem empirical—these things happened, you can look them up, no varnish has been applied—but the effect is entirely emotional, because there is no nesting argument, no narrative, to give events a context. It’s a tabloid technique: a six-word quotation or a single image is all you need to understand any issue. The pretense of no manipulation is completely manipulative.

A. C. Grayling was less critical, largely because he agrees with Baker’s intention and argument, rather than his methods.  Dominic Sandbrook likewise, approved the endeavour  but excoriated the methodology

In the end, then, its unorthodox style cannot compensate for the basic mendaciousness, even fraudulence, of this extraordinarily self-righteous book. In my student days, I was taught that a historian should aim to represent the past as fairly and honestly as possible. Of course opinions matter; there is nothing duller than a history book without an argument. But by presenting us with such skewed and partial material, Baker gives us a book that cheapens the serious moral arguments he tries to make. Whatever its merits as a work of literature, as a work of history it is virtually worthless.

So, among such exalted and vociferous opinion, what do I think?  I’m not a WWII historian, so I cannot dispute the facts as, say, Lukacs does.  This book has a broad sweep- not unlike a searchlight scanning the skies- lighting up India, Iraq, even Bob Menzies has his moment in the spotlight.   It represents a slow unfurling of events, rather than a shaped and honed argument.  I found it more compelling than I would have expected- we do, after all, know how it all ended.

But I am wary of something that purports to be “just the facts” and there is a dishonesty about the deliberate absence of the author- he’s there alright, it’s just that he’s pretending not to be.

3 responses to “‘Human Smoke’ by Nicholson Baker

  1. That book, although I haven’t read it, and that subject can not, and can never be, “just the facts” without emotions involved in the writing and consuming of the book as the very war that surrounded it was driven and fuelled by raw emotions of the civilians.
    Charles La Trobe is very easy to like, he was artistic, imaginative, he had a talent and recognised the same in others, and he was a genuinely liked bloke despite the fact he left the Port Phillip colony bankrupt.

    • It’s an odd book in that emotional things are told in a flat tone, yet there’s barely suppressed emotion in the author’s choice of snippets- his anger at lost opportunities; his sorrow at the Jewish exterminations; his disgust at the hypocrisy and bloodlust; his admiration of pacifists and his ‘heroes’.

  2. Pingback: ‘Talking Books: Novel History’ « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s