The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace

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9781250043580: The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace
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A MASTERPIECE OF LITERARY MEMORY―A POWERFUL EXPLORATION OF THE INTERSECTIONS OF FAMILY, HISTORY, AND MEMORY.

"One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father." So begins the passionate and stormy union of Mikhail Kamenetzki, aka Ugo Stille, one of Italy's most celebrated journalists, and Elizabeth Bogert, a beautiful and charming young woman from the Midwest.

Their immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage is part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and in the shadow of World War II. It is the story of a crucial, painful moment in history that reshaped much of American culture and society―but also that of two seemingly incongruous people who managed to find love. Theirs was an uneasy marriage between Europe and America, between Jew and Wasp; their differences were a key to their bond yet a source of constant strife.

Acclaimed author and frequent New Yorker contributor Alexander Stille's The Force of Things is a powerful, beautifully written work with the intimacy of a memoir, the pace and readability of a novel, and the historical sweep and documentary precision of nonfiction writing at its best. It is a portrait of people who are buffeted about by large historical events, who try to escape their origins but find themselves in the grip of the force of things.

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About the Author:

Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Benevolence and Betrayal, and The Future of the Past. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Father and Mother of Lists
 

1. THE FATHER OF LISTS
On an October evening in 1911 in a rooming house in Ithaca, New York, a young man of twenty-seven set about writing carefully in a lined notebook with a black ink pen. He was at a crucial turning point—beginning his first semester of teaching at Cornell Law School—and starting a journal marked the start of his new life.
Oct. 10. Worked at office 8:30 to 11: class in property 11–12; loafing, walking about and at room and at lunch 12–1:45. at work at office 1:45–5: getting stamps, postcards, hair cut and collars 5–6: dinner and chat with Marsh and Andrews 6 to 8:45. That schedule means just about 8¾ hours work in class and preparation and I should say is as fair an average of my days so far. Laborers work 8 to 9 hours. Lawyers (as in Elmira) work 7 to 8. Probably my quota is made out by 8¾ hours. That leaves 15¼ hours in the day unaccounted for. An hour is taken each morning in shaving, bathing and dressing. Meals take about 1½ hours. That means 12¾ hours. Of this 8 goes to sleep. We thus have 4¾ hours unaccounted for. It is spent principally in three ways—miscellaneous reading and writing letters, and walking for exercise or pleasure. All in all, not much time is wasted, except that it would be well to read a newspaper after lunch for a half hour and to devise some certain way of spending the time from 12 to 1. I am in want of outdoor activity. It seems hard to do anything in the office except mechanical detail. The evenings after 9 can well be used for reading for pleasure and profit outside of law. One or two evenings a week ought to be given to social recreation. Matters of immediate attention are 1.) a newspaper— New York Sun. 2.) Occupation at hour from 12 to 1.
The young man was my grandfather, my mother’s father, George Gleason Bogert.
My mother’s lists, it turns out, had a pedigree.
*   *   *
I remember my grandfather, whom I knew only as a child, as a man of silence. He was remote and irascible. Noise got on his nerves and the noise of small children got on his nerves exceedingly. My grandparents gathered many of their grandchildren on their farm in Michigan for most of the summer—they even built a guesthouse so that we could stay for long periods of time, albeit out of earshot—but my grandfather often found us an intolerable nuisance. Suddenly, in the middle of dinner on the screened porch, he would begin tapping a knife on a glass or banging his fist on the dinner table—“Can we please have some adult conversation around here!” he would say with great irritation when we children had begun to make a ruckus. As the youngest of the grandchildren present, I was generally the worst offender—frequently guilty of, along with talking, humming at the table. I was banished to the laundry porch and forced to finish my meals out there contemplating the washer-dryer, the spare freezer, a large mound of black walnuts, walls of my grandmother’s canned fruits and vegetables, and the pencil markings on one wall on which my grandmother had measured each grandchild’s height and age at various stages of our lives.
My grandfather had the somewhat unusual habit of watching Chicago White Sox games on an old, grainy black-and-white television set with the sound completely off. We were supposed to stay clear of or tiptoe quietly past the room where he was watching. A game normally played at a loud stadium in the presence of tens of thousands of cheering and screaming fans, my grandfather enjoyed in solitude and cloistered silence.
Grammie and Grampie (as we called them) had separate bedrooms, not unusual for married couples of the day, but he also had his own little hideaway on the farm property, known as “the Doghouse,” a little two-room shack, with an office and an air conditioner (very rare for that day) and a second bedroom, giving him an even more remote place to sleep than his private bedroom in the main house. He spent long hours there—with the air conditioner serving more to block out noise than to ease the heat—working on legal publications of one kind or another. He went bald at a fairly young age, so that he looked like an old man, with just a few wisps of white hair, early in life and remained one for what seemed like forever. He generally wore a straw hat in the form of a baseball cap, with a white handkerchief hanging down from the back to keep the summer sun from burning his neck. The cap with the handkerchief made him look like photographs I had seen of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion whose funny hats with flaps in the back were meant to protect them against the desert sun of their colonial possessions.
Grampie, who kept on working into his eighties, was the highly respected author of a thirteen-volume textbook (that later grew to eighteen volumes) known as Bogert on Trusts—the ultimate product of the hard work and efficient use of time that began that fall in Ithaca. The very name— Bogert on Trusts—suggested unimpeachable authority, and indeed, it became the standard reference and textbook in the field of trusts and estates law for three generations of lawyers. (It remains in print today, with a new coauthor.) Occupying its own shelf, like a one-man Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was, I believe, the first textbook to compile and interpret virtually every case bearing on trusts (literally thousands of cases from courts around the country)—a colossal and impressive undertaking in the age before the computer. It spoke of a highly disciplined and orderly mind, as well as a dogged spirit of unusual determination and thoroughness. Trusts were not the most scintillating specialty, although my grandfather had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the sexier field of aviation law in his youth before making his reputation with Bogert on Trusts. On the strength of his solid scholarship, he went on to become the dean of Cornell Law School, was hired away by the very prestigious University of Chicago Law School, and was elected president of the Association of American Law Schools. The short-tempered old man with the funny cap with a handkerchief was a gray (or bald) eminence in his field.
Grampie’s irascibility and need for silence were not, apparently, products of old age. My mother claimed that when she was a small child living in Ithaca, my grandfather took a gun and shot a neighborhood cat that was yowling within earshot of the house and disturbing his peace and quiet. When they moved to their house on Greenwood Avenue in Chicago, near the University of Chicago, he had his bedroom up on the attic floor, away from the rest of the family, where it was most quiet. When he came home from work, he would often shut himself up in the living room, crank up the gramophone, close the glass doors behind him, put on a record of classical music, and lie down on the couch. It was understood that no one was supposed to enter the room and disturb him.
But along with his irascibility, he had a subtle, understated sense of humor that came out from time to time when he spoke to us mysteriously about Fred the Snake, who lived down in the ravine near their house, or a made-up word he used, “chumma,” which sounded like a cough and meant “excuse me.” Poking fun at the general level of conversation among his Michigan neighbors, he would frequently say: “Sure hope the rain don’t hurt the rhubarb.” He had a good ear for mimicry and would, according to my mother, often echo the accent of whomever he was speaking with, suddenly sounding like a Southerner when speaking with a Southerner and sounding like a Frenchman when talking with a Frenchman. It was hard to tell whether he was making fun of someone or doing it unconsciously.
I don’t recall him touching or playing with us, but there is a photograph of me as a child sitting on his knee.
I was just a teenager when he and my grandmother sold their farm and moved down to Florida full-time, where he lived and died in virtual solitude.
Since I’d known him only when I was a small boy and he was an old man, the discovery of a diary that he kept while still young promised the possibility of getting beyond the formal, public facade of a reserved old lawyer and discovering the real, private person my grandfather may have been. But what is most striking is that the private and public voices of my grandfather were virtually the same. Behind the facade was another facade, the same facade—or the possibility that it was not a facade at all. My grandfather’s notebook is generally dry and impersonal, the diary of a self-disciplined young man determined to make something of himself.
Oct. 3, 1911
Today has been a bright, pleasant day, with cool air. I think coffee has played too large a part in my diet lately, since I have had a peculiar feeling of heaviness in the head and of nervousness of the stomach. I resolved tonight to stop the drink beginning tomorrow. Teaching is still such a novel work that I can think of little else but the responsibility of it and am taking things too seriously to make it comfortable for my second self, who would like a little leisure recreation. I have felt the strain of classroom work—the nervous tension from keeping things going for fifty minutes in such fashion that no breaks occur. Dr. Andrews of the German department and I bowled two sad exhibitions at McCallister alleys tonight. He is, however, a peacefully cheerful and clear minded person who lends a restful feeling to one in conversation—not a bad companion. I must decide the question of a newspaper soon. Shall it be the New York Sun or only the Cornell Sun or both? I’m desirous of becoming more observing in my walks. What pleasure can be had from forming an interest in trifles and getting to know something of them? Franklin’s autobiography has stimulated me somewhat in that respect.
Keeping a diary, for my grandfather, was not a literary activity or an effort at developing his inner life. It was very practical in its aims: to lay out a program of self-improvement and record the extent to which he was able to stick to it. This was clearly very much part of the zeitgeist in this age of self-made men, Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, and a frontier world of rugged individualism. It is a tradition, apparently, that goes back almost to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation—the writing of journals as a means of keeping a person on the straight and narrow path to salvation and of rooting out sin and evil. By my grandfather’s time, this old Protestant tradition had mingled with the popular genre of self-help and self-improvement.
At the end of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway arranges the funeral of his mysterious dead friend. One of the only people to show up is Gatsby’s father, whose actual name is Henry C. Gatz. The old man arrives clutching a notebook that shows how the young James Gatz planned his brilliant future by creating a schedule that would place him on the path to self-improvement.
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 (although the fictional notebook of the young Gatz is dated 1906)—fourteen years after young George Gleason Bogert began to put pen to paper in his diary. They both, of course, owe a lot to the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (as my grandfather explicitly acknowledged), who may be credited with founding the genre of the self-help book in America. Franklin carefully listed what he regarded as the thirteen principal virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility.
Clearly my grandfather was following some of Franklin’s cherished principles—Silence (avoid trifling conversation); Order (let all things have their places); Industry (lose no time; be always employed in something useful).
Although the form was out of Ben Franklin, the tone of my grandfather’s diary reminds me of the novel The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the narrative of an English butler who is so tightly buttoned, so conventional and under such tight control, that he seems entirely unaware of the emotional current that is stirring underneath the surface of the narrative—a story of loneliness and failed love. My grandfather’s diary is remarkably dull—full of entries such as:
Oct. 11. Rain, fog and clouds all day. Class … went finely this morning—all reciting and being attentive. Have done nothing but work and bowl a game with Andrews tonight. No mail except a notice of a faculty gym. Club meeting tomorrow night.
But it is dull in an interesting way. There are occasional mentions of young women he meets, something that clearly stirs an interest in him, but nothing ever seems to lead to anything and these brief items are subsumed in the details of his work as a young law professor. He makes an intriguing reference to his “second self who would like a little leisure recreation,” but decides that the duties of his new career allow very little room for it.
It would be easy to make fun of his earnest tone of self-improvement: “I’m desirous of becoming more observing in my walks. What pleasure can be had from forming an interest in trifles and getting to know something of them?”
But this rather rigid, scripted, programmatic, orderly approach to life is more understandable when placed against the background of the time. My grandfather had grown up in the late nineteenth century, born in 1884 in Dakota Territory (before North and South Dakota became states). The area had only recently been opened up by the Union Pacific Railroad and pacified by the war waged by people such as General George Custer against the Sioux Indians. During my grandfather’s youth, the frontier was still open, with all the promise and uncertainty of making or losing a fortune. In fact, his father ran a bank in Scotland, North Dakota, but then lost all his money (and that of several of his closest relatives) in a mining venture that failed, according to my grandfather, in part because of the unscrupulous conduct of his business associates. (There was, of course, at this time, no protection against this sort of thing, no federally insured bank deposits, no Federal Reserve, and no Securities and Exchange Commission.) After this business disgrace, my great-grandfather moved the family to Bolivar, Missouri, where, rather than running a bank, he worked as a cashier in one and tried to save money to pay back the relatives to whom he owed money. Although only forty-nine and of normally robust health, Taylor O. Bogert, my grandfather’s father, came down with the “grippe,” as the flu was known then, and, ten days later, was dead. His flu had turned into pneumonia—now easily treatable with antibiotics, but often fatal at that time, when influenza epidemics could kill millions or tens of millions worldwide in a single year.
On January 31, 1902, the Bolivar Herald published an obituary with the following headline:
HON. T. O. BOGERT
CASHIER OF BANK OF BOLIVAR PASSES AWAY
THE CITY IN GLOOM
… His death came as a shock to the community. His physique was remarked as one of singular strength and robustness. When the news flashed over the town that T. O. Bogert was dead, men stood aghast: exclamations of surprise were uttered and all had great difficulty in realizing that the death angel had made a visit in so unexpected a manner. Truly this ends a comparatively short earthly life, yet one of great usefulness. Our brother lived earnestly and accomplished his work very quickly and was summoned to “come up higher.”
When a young man, he gave his heart to Christ and never forgot his allegiance. Ardently did he throw himself into the servic...

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