Memoir from Antproof Case [Book Review] Delusions of grandeur and grandiloquence
My wife and I review Mark Helprin's epic American classic, Memoir from Antproof Case , which I've read three times now…
Spoiler alert: You may want to read the book first before listening to our podcast.
CALL ME OSCAR Progresso.
Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name. Nor are Baby Supine, Euclid Cherry, Franklyn Nuts, or any of the other aliases that, now and then over the years, I have been forced to adopt. No one knows my real name anymore: (p. 1)
Though you may not be half as peculiar as I am, if you separate out your vanities and illusions, the petty titles to which you hold fast and by which you are defined, the abstract and insensible money in your accounts, your bogus theories, and your inane triumphs, what have you other than a body that, even if you are now as healthy as a roebuck, will eventually war against you until you are left with nothing but memory and regret? (pp. 1–2)
Was I supposed to forget what I had seen and what I had done? I attacked Berlin when Hitler was still in it. I fled from a Swiss mental institution to run away with a woman I still love even though she is dead, and we went to the Arctic Circle and stood at the foot of the aurora. I was once one of the richest men in the world, and once a kid who worked hard and saved his money for a sugared donut and some sheet music. I fought alongside the angels high above the earth where the air is as thin as helium and defeat is an exploding sun. I have tightened my grip and narrowed my eyes, rushing toward gunfire like gravity. I have been in a great army that took years to conquer half the world. I have sailed across the ocean, rocketed into the clouds, skimmed the Hudson and cut apart its lily pads with my propeller, and I have seen the demise of nations, and new nations arise. (pp. 383–384)
Writes an old American man from Parque da Cidade in Niterói across the bay from Rio De Janeiro in Brazil.
This book has influenced me
Making me a staunch individualist, nonconformist, and rule-breaker…
I went free. I escaped. I contradicted laws, disappointed expectations, and defied balances. (p. 14)
In breaking the rules, I broke other things too, including the veils of falsehood that cover the truth like thunderclouds. Were the world perfect it would always be wrong to trespass, but as the world is not perfect, sometimes one must. And when you do, you live, you break free, you fly. (pp. 272–273)
I have always been decisive. Indeed, part of the reason my life has been as it has been is that I have looked to God rather than to man for the limits of action. (p. 71)
It features strikingly beautifully writing…
I think that when I was blown backward from my plane and my eyes were filled with the fireball of its explosion, as many opposites met in the same place — speed and stillness, sound and silence, wind and the vacuum of the upper atmosphere, consciousness and dreaming — I may have become, for just an instant, an angel. (p. 148)
I have loved Marlise solely according to the tropical paradigm, which means that in our sweat-filled, screaming, gasping, semihallucinatory dalliance we have achieved a certain intimacy. Our flesh and fluids have been pressed, mixed, or imbibed with such vigor that at times we have been unsure which one of us was or was not the other. (pp. 59–60)
I loved this woman with every atom of my body and each ether of my soul. (p. 114)
Sometimes love is taken away unjustly, but not until the very end do you stop believing, and then it is very bitter. It is bitter because somewhere within you the perfect standard still lives, the pure expectation against which failure and betrayal are contrasted like the dark shadows on a moonlit road. (p. 242)
To keep your love alive you must be willing to be obstinate, and irrational, and true, to fashion your entire life as a construct, a metaphor, a fiction, a device for the exercise of faith. (p. 514)
On marrying into money
I had a wife with the grace and physique of a professional dancer, the perpetual youth of a koala bear, naturally blazing blond hair, a doctorate in economics, and the wonderfully entrancing qualities that flowed from having several billion dollars. (p. 201)
nothing is as beautiful as a promise right after it is made. (p. 31)
I was incapacitated by tenderness no longer, which was good, for although tenderness has its place, life is driven not by tenderness but by vigor. (p. 452)
Despite its connection to dance, music is nonetheless the emblem of immobility, for when it is really great it seizes time and holds it still in an invisible grip. (p. 310)
In my experience, Americans have always felt the need to amaze everyone. Perhaps that is because the New World is less tired than the Old.” (p. 52)
On New York
I remember the city then as a colossal essay in black and white, with more shades of gray than the world now knows. (p. 130)
On narrow victories
The human race is intoxicated with narrow victories, for life itself is a string of them, like pearls that hit the floor when the rope breaks, and roll away in perfection and anarchy. (p. 175)
I was young again, as if on the sea or in the air, made lively by having everything to lose and everything to gain, made content only by risk, for in the light of risk every earthly color catches heavenly fire. (p. 366)
On being hungover
I will make no metaphors to describe the pain in my head, because the brain, which makes metaphors, should not be forced to be clever at its own expense. (pp. 344–345)
Some phrases I commit to memory with the SuperMemo flashcard app. For example, invidious triumph which means, “A win that rouses ill will, animosity, or resentment.” The book is very funny, for example, on the word “expletives”
You would think that, expletives themselves being so vivid, the word for them would have a little more punch, that it would sound like something other than part of a medieval windmill. (pp. 192–193)
On being a fighter pilot
Alone over the Mediterranean, lost in skies of cloudless blue, as free as an angel, I could hear deep notes rising from fifteen hundred horses running, and I would sing in time and in counterpoint. I danced, after a fashion — strapped into a parachute, strapped into my seat, burdened with all kinds of things strapped onto me. I moved the plane in wasteful, unauthorized, dangerous, beautiful maneuvers — in banks that lifted the load to the point of almost breaking us apart, in dives that sought the hypnotic blue of the sea, and in climbs in which I thought that if I kept the throttle out I might come near the precincts of God. (pp. 167–168)
Everyone knows that young fighter pilots are arrogant, but few understand that this arrogance is merely a misguided effort to achieve the requisite state for flying an airplane in combat. To do that and survive, you must indeed have something that might seem — to a boy — to be arrogance. But what you need is not arrogance. It is, rather, enthrallment, and surrender to speed. (p. 167)
On war, peace, and luxury
I had arranged to live out my days in peaceful luxury, which seemed rather odd in that for most of my life I had detested luxury and never known peace, which is why the war, though insane, seemed to me to have been the true state of things, and the years in which war did not rage, a grand illusion. (p. 485)
The case against coffee
I went on, defending the light against the overwhelming darkness. “Caffeine, Constance, is similar to the genetic code.” “It is?” “Yes, C8H10N4O2. 3,7-dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione. As you know, DNA duplicates itself, but caffeine interrupts this holy process like a typhoon blasting all the punts on the River Isis, and explodes the genetic system. Caffeine replaces adenosine at the receptor sites of the neurons, causing the neurons themselves to fire at untenable rates. This usurpation and its unbridled effects, its attack upon the balance of nature, its liberation of the fire and light that serve as the battering ram of the soul, is a sin of the highest order. “It causes sterility in insects,” I declared. “What about humans?” Constance asked. “Humans are not insects.” “That’s correct,” I told her. “In fact, to be honest, in making sperm more motile, it actually promotes human fertility. Is this fair?” “Why not?” “Only the dullard sperm, the caffeine-using sperm, the addiction-prone sperm, get to use outboard motors. The virtuous sperm that won’t accept the outboard motors don’t get to the egg, and since the outboard motors, so to speak, are left outside the wall of the egg, what is it that gets in? A weakling, a dullard, a dunce, a non-swimmer, a tailless basket case, a slovenly jerk that got upstream because it had an Evinrude strapped to its back. Spengler missed this point entirely in understanding what ails the West.” (pp. 216–217)
“The greatest per capita consumption of coffee in the world is in Finland. True, they held back the Russians, but they’re the most nervous people on earth, no one understands their language, and they beat themselves with branches. The average American drinks seven hundred and twenty gallons of liquid a year, of which approximately half is coffee. That is, one gallon, or sixteen cups, per day. Three percent of the population drink fifty cups a day, and fifteen percent drink forty. Sixty-seven percent of American adults and twenty-three percent of children are dependent on caffeine or various coffee acids.” “Darling….” “Catherine the Great used one pound of coffee to four cups of water, which is, quite frankly, why she screwed horses, and, look, five thousand milligrams of caffeine by mouth is fatal. Someone once committed suicide by means of a coffee enema. Don’t you see? What if you lost count of your cups of coffee? You could die. And all this has been known for ages, ever since its introduction. Way back then, William Corbett called caffeine ‘a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.’ (pp. 217–218)
They drink it with zombie-like expressions that suggest the union of sexual pleasure, religious fervor, and state ceremony. (p. 153)
And coffee, of course, a drug, a filthy, malodorous poison and entirely destructive addiction, has vanquished the human soul, spoiled (p. 82)
His hatred of coffee I have not adopted — I couldn’t be a bigger fan of the dark nectar of productivity!
On his job as a banker with Stillman and Chase, a fictional monolithic institution of high finance in Manhattan
My forte was investigation. I would go to a country, put a knapsack on my back, and walk for weeks: talking to everyone I met; going into the factories, workshops, and stores; interviewing the editors of as many newspapers as I could in the medium-sized cities; studying all available statistics; poring over maps; and checking the workmanship and design of indigenous products. I would walk along the rail lines and see how well they were maintained, and at what speed the trains traveled and how full they were. In a few weeks, hardened, sunburned, with a portrait of the country’s economy fully formed in my mind, I would visit the leaders of its government and business community, and listen to them skirt around the many flaws that might have been hidden from someone who had not covered five hundred miles on foot. I was to Stillman and Chase what T. E. Lawrence had been to the English generals: they could not do without me, but they wished desperately that they could. I made or saved them immense amounts of money — in current dollars, literally billions. (pp. 109–110)
On crony capitalism
As for the moral justification, really, one need not strain to find justification for robbing an investment bank, at least as they were when I knew them. They were caste-restricted highly ef ficient cartels that escaped competition and maintained their position by relying upon reams of regulations and unfathomable established customs. The regulations were written by appointed and elected politicians either in the pay of these firms or soon to join them. The customs were protected by networks of cronies and middle-level clerks on the take. In the Treasury markets the Fed gave Stillman and Chase a license to steal. (pp. 270–271)
No way exists for a rational human being (or even an irrational human being) to fight a bureaucracy. Even when the country of the bureaucrats is conquered, they flourish, effortlessly traversing from the arteries of war to the veins of peace. Huge bureaucracies are simply invincible. (p. 277)
For a more philosophically rigorous critique of capitalism, see my review of The Man Who Risked It All.
“Oskar” is ultimately an unprincipled man at war with himself
For example, on his defining decision to become a bank robber
I decided then, on the terrace of my room at the Hassler, as Roman owls hooted at the shooting stars, that I was going to rob Stillman and Chase because it was there, because this was the right thing to do, because it would bring a ray of sunshine into my life, because virtue was its own reward, because of ars gratia artis, and because excelsior timidus protectat. (p. 272)
Ars gratia artis means “Art for art’s sake” and excelsior timidus protectat which means “higher than the timid protectat” — protectat is a fake Latin word. This is not the only invented word in the book, we also find “pertaflexions” — an invented word? I’m not sure if the invented words (and I’m sure that there are more than just the ones I found) are laziness on behalf of the author or if they are very subtle signs that the protagonist is downright mental.
On being thought crazy
She thought I was crazy, but so do many people. They simply do not know what it is like to touch heaven and then to be thrown back. The world looks very different after such an encounter, and, to be frank, I know that many of the people who think I am crazy are, in fact, crazy themselves, and that I am not the least bit crazy. (p. 249)
According to her, “Womens love you because womens loves crazy peoples.” (p. 280)
The baffling final paragraph
All this time, my heart has told me nothing but to love and protect. The message has been strong through the twists and turns, and it has never varied. To protect, and to protect, and to protect. I was born to protect the ones I love. And may God continue to give me ways to protect and serve them, even though they are gone. (pp. 514–515)
From the memoir this man who is a bundle of contradictions. In his life, he does little to protect and serve.
As a work of fiction, the book gets five stars from me for truly inspiring writing, an epic story arch, and an unforgettable protagonist — the character of whom is nothing to aspire to.