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

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.)

A Castle that Stands

Castle Keep is set in December of 1944 in the closing days of the Second World War in the European theater. A ragtag group of reluctant American combatants, led by the one-eyed, taciturn Major Abraham Falconer (a stellar performance by Burt Lancaster in Pollack’s movie) have been assigned “the unique privilege of occupying a monumental tribute to man’s concept of beauty”, the 10th century Maldorais castle in the Ardennes Forest, inhabited by an eccentric Count, his beautiful young wife (who is also his cousin), and countless priceless artifacts and works of art.

Eastlake writes that Maldorais is “a castle that stands for, that symbolizes, all that’s being destroyed, that can never be replaced.” The Count and Captain Lionel Beckman, an art historian before the war and author of Early Twelfth-Century Ivory Miniatures, hope that Falconer’s command objective is to defend the castle and its invaluable treasures against the advancing German army, but when a counteroffensive puts Falconer’s soldiers directly in the gun sights of the enemy, art and artifacts mean nothing to the one-eyed warrior. (Falconer is also the only character in the tale conforming to the stereotypical traits of a war hero: No retreat, no surrender, fight to the last man standing.)

Writing for the Turner Classic Movies website, film critic Rob Nixon astutely concludes of Pollack’s adaptation of Castle Keep: “What emerges most strongly from the film now is the culture clash between Old World and New. The sense of American practical can-doism for the present and the future versus European decadence and attachment to the past is best summed up in an exchange between two of the soldiers. ‘Europe is dying,’ says the captain played by Patrick O’Neal. ‘No, Beckman, she’s dead,” replies Lancaster’s Major Falconer. ‘That’s why we’re here.’” (“Castle Keep” on Turner Classic Movies.com.)

Once Upon a Time

The isolated, lost-in-time Maldorais castle is a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and also evokes the Renaissance and Baroque, complete with a moat, battlement towers, gargoyles, and stained glass windows (“with angels soaring … cherubs singing mightily”).

It is, simply, something out of a fairy tale, underscored by the narrator’s opening line in the film: “Once upon a time”, abbreviated from the following passage from the novel: “Doesn’t it [occupying the castle] give everything another dimension? Doesn’t everything seem to be once-upon-a-time? Can’t you see it as once upon a time the American Army captured a castle and therein hangs the tale?”

This would seem at first blush to contradict Beckman’s later refutation of the narrative as “a Gothic tale” (because there is an undeniable Gothic halo around most fairy tales) but it is actually an emphatic underscoring of the contradictions and absurdities of war and there’s plenty of it on display in the film and book. “The war being played out in this novel is from the other side of the looking-glass,” the Kenyon Review observed. “It is a real war and a fairy-tale war all at the same time – ludicrous and bloody, irrevocable and absurd.” Not unlike the chilling, incompatible images in the Library After Air Raid replication.

“War,” a character remarks in Eastlake’s narrative, “is a Cinderella story where each man turns into a soldier.”

I cannot adequately articulate why the Library After Air Raid postcard and Castle Keep resonated with me so profoundly in 2011; that they are the subject of my first longform literary essay in almost a year certainly speaks of something. Perhaps the answer exists in a revelation I stumbled upon while perusing messages from friends and colleagues on social media websites on New Year’s Eve: to a man (and a woman) everyone was ecstatic to see the calendar year 2011 die on the vine. It was 12 ragged, unwelcome months of conflict, political and moral divisiveness, and war, literally in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the turbulent upheavals in the Middle East, and a war on the working class globally as cash-strapped nations attempted to balance their budgets on the backs of the common man while seeking precious few sacrifices from the privileged class.

Moreover, 2011 was a year of vast stupidity with much of the populace hypnotized by the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while US politicians suggested drug screenings for welfare recipients, repeating the conservative mantra that the one in two Americans who live at or below the poverty line achieved their ignominious status through a lack of drive, ambition, and an unwillingness to work for a living.

White Dog

War and stupidity are kindred spirits, as Castle Keep shows clearly and deliberately; only one entranced by the political rhetoric of war would allow libraries and priceless works of art to be destroyed in the name of brinksmanship.

Recently I enjoyed Romain Gary’s hard-to-find 1970 autobiographical novel White Dog, a soul-searching exploration of the explosive confrontations that fueled the civil rights movement in America, a work that the San Francisco Examiner aptly dubbed “a seething, scathing analysis of both black and white racism and what it is doing to America”. (And what it is still doing to America, for much of the book’s themes remain modernly relevant.)

The core of all human predicaments, Gary meditates in White Dog, has its roots “deep down within something to recognize as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle.”

Stupidity, Gary further extrapolates, “has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over.”

The greatest cudgel against Stupidity, which, one might argue, reigns supreme in our modern times, is knowledge and education, though Captain Beckman’s vast acquaintance with the art and artifacts of Maldorais castle – Ming Dynasty vases, paintings by Botticelli and Delacroix, legions of objects d’art — is not enough to prevent the museum pieces from becoming “beleaguered, besieged” collateral damage in the madness of war.

“The castle could be saved,” Beckman muses. “In all the murder and destruction something of beauty could remain. How could the war have any meaning if it wasn’t meant to preserve?” Beckman also believes that “war is a science and that science is an art and that art is everything.”

Culture – books, art, film, music — provide us with “privileged glimpses into the human heart” (to take F. Scott Fitzgerald out of context) and arm us against Stupidity even if, in the end, as Romain Gary dismally asserts, Stupidity will always be the victor. But we can all be served by Beckman’s vow in Castle Keep: “I can enter into a communion with life in all this death, a communion with art and everything that is vital and creative, living and alive … The function of art is to disturb and to awake. It’s something that takes you apart and puts you back together again, a new person.”

In 2012 I have vowed to never shun the composition of and appreciation for the written word as I did in 2011, to never again allow my personal troubles and the troubles of the world, those borne of politics and religious faith, intolerance, hate, and warmongering and all the other madness in the air like toxic emissions from an ever-churning smokestack, no matter how insurmountable they may seem at the time, to defeat my appreciation of and aptitude for the power of words; without the solace, insight, and wisdom of man’s vast knowledge, our trials and tribulations, personally and globally, become slippery, moss-strewn rocks in the river of life.

There’s always time to pick up a book amidst the rubble and debris and appreciate the beauty that lay between its covers.

Library After Air Raid (London 1940) Photographer unidentified. Archive of the Royal Commission on the Historical Documents of London