Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

(This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

Aristos a la Lanterne!

When the rage of downtrodden French peasants, living-on-the-edge city dwellers and frustrated bourgeois towards the ruling nobles and royalty final exploded into a kind of civic wildfire, there was no appeasing their collective anger. A handful of wary and fleet-footed aristocrats, or those who had made a good living out of serving the royals and the nobility fled from France in all directions. The slow and unwary made a humiliating appointment with Madame Guillotine before a contemptuous and jeering crowd, if they had not already run afoul of a mob with pikes and knives, and ropes at the foot of civic lampposts. (The fury of the French Revolution flamed so furiously that it that eventually it burned a good few leading revolutionaries themselves. As the Royalist pamphleteer Jacques Mallet Du Pan remarked pithily, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.) For a long time, my sympathies as regards parties in the French Revolution tended to be with those who fell out with it, sympathies formed by popular literature and music: The Scarlett Pimpernel, A Tale of Two Cities, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and other tales which basically tut-tutted the madness which overcame all reason and discretion, and championed those who had the brunt of it fall on them, either justly or not. How fortunate that our own very dear revolution had been able to escape such conflagrations: Loyalists in the colonies might have suffered being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town or having to leave in an undignified rush when Yankee Doodle went to town and made their independence stick. But the jailhouse regrets of those who called up and inflamed that conflagration, even inadvertently is not my concern here.

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The French Army in 1940…and the American CDC in 2021

Andre Beaufre, later a general, was in 1940 a young Captain on the French general staff.  He had been selected for this organization a few years earlier, and had originally been very pleased to be in such elevated company…but:

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

It is interesting that Picasso had somehow observed the same problem with French military culture that then-captain Beaufre had seen. As the German forces advanced with unexpected speed, Picasso’s friend Matisse was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.

“But what about our generals?” asked Matisse. “What are they doing.”

Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

I was reminded of this history by a sequence of posts at twitter.  Joanna Masel, a theoretical biologist, says the CDC contacted her (following an NYT story) about an app she helped develop to notify people (anonymously) about possible covid-19 exposure. Her group put a very informal preprint on github nearly immediately, and a more formal one on medrxiv soon after. A CDC coauthor was added to shepherd it through MMWR, which is described as “CDC’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, authoritative, and useful public health information and recommendations.”

The preproposal was rejected. Informal feedback was that they liked it but were so backlogged that a peer reviewed journal was likely faster. This initiated 6 months of clearance procedures needed for CDC coauthor to stay on paper.

What CDC staff spend a LOT of time on: rewriting manuscripts with meticulous attention to style guides. Eg, Methods must follow exactly the order they are used in Results, all interpretation must be in Discussion not in Results, etc. to a point truly unimaginable in my field.

and

6 months and endless CDC work hours later, after new CDC edits overclaimed efficacy in ways we deny, at CDC’s urging we removed the CDC coauthor in order to terminate clearance to instead make the deadline for a relevant CDC-run special issue…On top of minor revisions from reviewers, more style guide edits required by CDC journal editors. Eg because style bans reference to an individual as a primary or secondary case, we now refer to individuals who test positive v. infected individuals v. those infected by each. After resubmission in <30 days, rejected months later despite green light from peer reviewers. Bottom line from CDC editor: because our data is now too old, we longer conform with journal guidelines….

So after the manuscript spend the vast majority of the previous 12 months on CDC desks not ours, we were rejected by the CDC because the data had become >12 months old.

Doesn’t this sound like a replay of what Andre Beaufre observed?

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

See the costs of formalism and credentialism.

1/4/2022:  Updated to correct name of Picasso’s artist friend.

Dangers of National Dependency

I recently read a history of the French Air Force–The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force, Greg Baughen–which includes much analysis of aircraft design and construction.  One historical fact I thought was interesting: in 1939, the French licensed the design of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (the engine that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane, among other airplane) and contracted with the Ford Motor Company to manufacture these engines.

But when war was declared on September 3 of that year,  Henry Ford–who had strong neutrality and ‘antiwar’ beliefs–pulled the Ford equipment and people.  No Merlins for you, Mr Frenchman!

Closer to our own time, during the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch Group refused to supply contracted components for the JDAM missile.  In this case, there was a US company that could provide the items, and the Swiss refusal was ultimately overcome by diplomatic pressure.

In this retro-reading post, I cited an old copy of Mechanical Engineering magazine, which discussed the shortage of certain chemicals for which the US was largely dependent on Germany:

America did not make much progress (with aniline dyes) owing to certain complications and the lack of consolidated action.  What was produced here was in most cases equal to the imported product, but owing to the greater facilities for producing the color, the greater attention given to research, substantial government financial aid, and, primarily, the exceedingly low labor cost abroad, competition was out of the question.  Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.  

This problem was solved by intensive efforts during the First World War.

Prior to 1914, most people, including government people, probably thought (if they thought about it at all), “Well, dye for fabrics isn’t exactly a strategic resource…sure, we like wearing & seeing attractively-colored clothes, but it’s not really a matter of life and death”…but missed the connection to the pharmaceuticals and the explosives.

If we do wind up in a military conflict with another major power, the time constants are likely to be relatively short–more comparable to the time pressures the French faced in 1940 than to our situation in 1914, separated by oceans from any immediate threat to the country.

And today, we have a report on US companies investing significantly in Chinese semiconductor companies and related software providers.