August 16, 2014

The 40s: The story of a decade

This isn't a review so much as a reflection on The New Yorker magazine's anthology: The 40s: The story of a decade. Divided into seven parts - The War, American Scenes, Postwar, Character Studies, The Critics, Poetry, Fiction - it totals 700 pages and resembles a thick magazine issue, minus cartoons.

As a long-time subscriber, I approached the book as I do an issue: scan the table of contents and contributors, skip to the back for the cartoon caption contest, then jump from movie and theater reviews to profiles, fiction, and so on, until the next issue arrives.

The anthology, almost seventy years old, belies how conventional we are even as we're sure we're not. Insert current conflicts and cultural behaviors, and it is jarring how we still self-deceive ahead of events about to crash through the roof: "Paris Postscript (On the Fall of France)" by A. J. Liebling is fresh and poignant.

In the September 2, 1939 issue, E.B. White reluctantly admitted The New Yorker could no longer ignore approaching disaster and delivered a last bit of magical thinking in his Notes and Comment: "Let me whisper I love you while we are dancing and the lights are low."

Reading chapters out of order helped prepare me for The War. Specifically, John Hersey's profile of civilians who experienced apocalyptic destruction in "Hiroshima." This piece knocked me around and I've found myself rereading portions as a meditation. I'm not sure, you see, what scares me more: dying, or dying like a jerk.

"Hiroshima" profiles citizens who, one hot summer day, got blown through the looking glass into a surreal life or death existence. In an instant, the world ended. Some went mad and some remained as they were before the conflagration: cynical, greedy, selfish. Many however, in spite of burns, blunt trauma, and radiation sickness, reached out selflessly to complete strangers.

We are all mortal. What we all are not is humane or brave.

I won't excerpt much here. The piece works best in its entirety, conveying multiple actions and reactions. It is both nightmarish and life-affirming. One of the profiled, Mr. Tanimoto, would repeat to himself, "Be brave," as he could not help but pull charred flesh from bone while lifting the injured. He bowed to each and constantly reminded himself, "These are human beings."

The blast triggered massive weather events: cyclones, torrential rain, floods, fires. Ironically, backyard gardens were baked the same as thousands of men, women, and children were baked by radiation and heat just hours earlier. Father Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit living in the city, noticed how pumpkins on the vine had been somehow cooked. He collected several as well as "nicely baked potatoes that were under the ground" and fed them to famished survivors.

"Hiroshima" is, for me, a meditation on life and death and how to behave.

Note: There are numerous pieces throughout this anthology worth reading. They give an important sense of time and place. Some are serious, some laugh-out-loud funny. Needless to say, terrific writing, too.