'Library After Air Raid': On the Survival of Culture Amid the Barbarity of War

Burt Lancaster as Maj. Abraham Falconer in Castle Keep (1969)

War is a science, science is an art and art, as Library After Air Raid attests, is everything.

In June of 2011, I purchased a postcard reproduction of Library After Air Raid (London 1940) (depiction, following page) at Vroman’s Books in Pasadena, California, and for the duration of that year, 12 months that were as hellish and chaotic for me as the events memorialized in the anonymous photographer’s lens from 1940, that postcard was always within arm’s reach; sometimes I employed it as a book mark for books I never finished reading. When I dwelled for seven months in a roach-infested, squalid communal hotel above a seedy strip club in San Francisco’s North Beach district (formerly the infamous Barbary Coast) Library After Air Raid was Scotch-taped to the wall near my mattress.

And now, as I pen these words, the postcard hangs by a magnet on the refrigerator in the mini-kitchenette of my studio apartment in Las Vegas, Nevada. Obviously 2011 was a year of a great many migrations in my life.

Library After Air Raid is a haunting iconic image from the Archive of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. The identity of the photographer remains unknown but the overall composition, framing, and depth of field leaves little doubt that the author was no amateur.

In Library After Air Raid the admirer observes the concentrated piles of debris in what was once a human chapel devoted to knowledge, culture, and art; the roof has collapsed, revealing a somber gray sky overhead; in the center of the picture two charred wooden roof beams extend upward from a mound of detritus like wounded limbs beseeching the heavens for mercy. To the left and right of the photograph, remarkably, shelves of books, perhaps thousands of them, remain intact, protected from shrapnel as if by providential intervention.

In the midst of the aftermath of chaos stand three gentlemen in an almost preternatural calm; they are yards apart from one another, wearing heavy overcoats and hats. One man is exploring a book he has extracted from a shelf; another has been caught in the act of reaching for a volume; and the third chap stands off to the right of the frame, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his woolen overcoat, carefully considering which title might strike his fancy.

Library After Air Raid speaks to the survival of culture amid the barbarity of war (and serves as a reminder that Dresden, once the proud cultural capital of Germany, did not fare as well when bombs from the sky fell on her institutions of art and literature during World War II, as observed in a remarkable bitter essay by Kurt Vonnegut in the posthumous collection of essays, Armageddon in Retrospect.)

Western Outposts

Both vocationally and recreationally I have always been an avid and critical reader. But the year 2011 witnessed literature evading me like Rommel’s Panzer forces in the North African desert slipping out of U.S. General George S. Patton’s grasp. The chosen analogy is not mere hyperbole. It was a year of prolonged personal battles and skirmishes with chronic illness, law enforcement (a conflict with a roommate turned unexpectedly violent late one evening), the spectre of homelessness on more than one occasion, and promising creative projects abandoned as I fled from one western outpost to another in a mad, desperate attempt at finding peace, a cease-fire in a year-long war against sometimes existentialist forces.

Recent statistics reveal that 48 million – one in two – Americans are living at or below the poverty line. As has been proven by the Arab Spring, uprisings in the EU and Moscow, a series of protests in the fishing village of Wukan in China, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, there is a war going on between the oligarchs and the serfs and just who’s winning is still uncertain. But a lot of folks are struggling with what their new identity is in a 21st century that is increasingly favoring the wealthy few over the poverty-stricken billions. Yes, billions.

“I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer,” Georges Simenon observed in a Paris Review interview, “who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else.” ( "Georges Simenon: The Art of Fiction No 9" by Carvel Collins, Summer 1955)

Simenon was on the money. In our modern society, thanks to the so-called “democratization of the arts” brought about by the easy access and ubiquity of the internet, and the smoldering desperation of the unemployed seeking to reinvent themselves, there are a lot of people who do not need to be writers but who persist at it regardless, leaping athletically at any opportunity to acquire a byline somewhere on the web, too willing to work for free for the exposure, driving down the monetary value of the craft and art of writing.

In 2011 I only enjoyed two professional credits: an article for a medical arts trade journal and a runner-up entry, Bluebeard in Latex, for a PEN Center short fiction competition. I was, however, one of the truly lucky few to receive generous writers emergency relief grants from the PEN Center, the Author’s League Fund, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors; the validation from my peers was almost worth more than the cash aid. When a professional writer with nearly 30 years of by-lines cannot find gainful freelance employment, the task of reading someone else’s words sewn together between the pages of a book becomes an exercise in frustration – sort of like gifting a eunuch with a subscription to a skin magazine.

In 2011 I read in-full only two new fiction releases, as opposed to the dozen or so I would devour annually when I was penning Deconstruction Zone for PopMatters. One title was Anthony Horowitz’s fantastic, evocative, and ultimately dark Sherlock Holmes novel, House of Silk. Horowitz, creator of Foyle’s War for the BBC, arguably the best television detective drama since Prime Suspect, provided respite from my mounting troubles and illnesses for the brief eight-day period it took to breathlessly race through the pages of his, as the Brits say, “ripping good yarn”.

The other contemporary work I read, purchased out of desperation for reading material at a Target department store in Las Vegas days before Christmas while I was en route to an Urgent Care clinic for a severe sinus infection, was the horrendously overrated and saccharine-laced melodrama The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, following a humanized Golden Retriever named Enzo as narrator of a poorly-conceived and wholly unoriginal plot that is equal parts Love Story and Marley and Me with a brief detour, oddly enough, to filmmaker Sydney Pollack’s underrated 1977 Al Pacino auto racing romance film Bobby Deerfield, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s Camille-esque novel Heaven Has No Favorites.

Sydney Pollack passed away in 2008 after directing and producing over 40 films, many of them literary-minded fare such as his classic adaptation of Horace McCoy’s bleak Depression-era Hollywood drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. As a producer, Pollack was responsible for sterling book-to-film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Pollack knew story like few filmmakers before or after him.

My personal favorite in Pollack’s impressive oeuvre, however, and the story that concerns and informs this treatise, is the 1969 release Castle Keep based on a semi-autobiographical WWII novel by William Eastlake of the same name, a quirky novel that Time magazine praised as a “Gothic mystery, savage modern satire, [and] heroic epic.” (02 April 1965, as cited at the publisher's website.)

Captain Beckman, one of Eastlake’s many laconic and equally poetic and profane narrators, would disagree with one part of the Time critic’s assessment: “Despite the ancient castle this cannot be a Gothic tale because it was the Second World War.” Beckman’s single, seemingly innocuous line of narrative summarizes the moral center of Castle Keep (both book and film): the immediate needs of the present and the future exist in blind disregard to the past. (A most stupefying example of this was U.S. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s proposal to remove protections against child labor in America, suggesting in one television interview that a read of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist would prove the truth and value in his recommendation; Gingrich was either forgetting the horrors that the exploited titular character endures or, more likely, was banking on the assumption that most Americans haven’t read Oliver Twist.)

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