19 August 2005

The Breaking Point by Stephen Koch

Below is the latest in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is David Schwartz, author of one of my favorite stories from 2004, "The Lethe Man" (in Say...Why Aren't We Crying?), as well as stories in such places as Strange Horizons and Fortean Bureau.


The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles by Stephen Koch
a guest review by David J. Schwartz


A novelistic account of the disintegrating friendship between American modernists John dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, set during the Spanish Civil War, The Breaking Point is as frustrating as it is fascinating. In attempting both literary and personal biographies of his protagonists, Stephen Koch ultimately falls short of doing either very well; the result is an odd hybrid between cloak-and-dagger novel and critical psychoanalysis. Yet as a chronicle of the machinations at work behind the conflict itself, the book points at the deeper resonances of the war. Both as shadow-play and as dress rehearsal for World War II and the Cold War, the conflict between and among the Second Spanish Republic and Nationalists under Franco is at times eerily predictive. In the end it's difficult not to imagine that Koch would have preferred to write a different book; a sobering and sympathetic examination of how well-meaning Americans of letters like Dorothy Parker and Archibald MacLeish were fooled by Stalin's Comintern operatives into believing they were aiding the working class, and in the process laid themselves open to the McCarthy witch hunts. But this is not that story.

The breaking point of the title has to do with the murder of John dos Passos's close friend José Robles Pazos sometime in March of 1937. The particulars of the case are still unclear; the official version was that Robles was arrested, tried, and executed as a fascist spy. Considering that Robles was a lifelong leftist who left his teaching job at John Hopkins University to aid the Republic, Dos Passos didn't buy it. The more likely scenario is that Robles was killed by Stalinist agents because of uncertainty over what he knew and might subsequently report about the real agenda of the Soviet "observers" in Spain. The Republic was not a united front, but a coalition of interests struggling for ultimate control even as they fought the fascists. But again, the death itself is not Koch's focus, nor even are the intrigues behind it. He is most interested in the way Robles's death affected the friendship between "Hem" and "Dos."

By 1937 Dos had reached the apex of his career; he'd appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and his watershed U.S.A. trilogy was complete. Hem, though slightly behind Dos's curve, had no legitimate reason for professional jealousy; nonetheless, something had already gone very wrong in their friendship. Koch states that much of the original draft of To Have and Have Not contained scathing and libelous attacks on Dos: "[He] is presented as an (of course) unmanly blowhard, a political and artistic poseur, a cuckold, a masochist, and a deadbeat. The book sneers at Dos Passos's method as shallow and artistically trivial." Koch argues that these attacks were a product of Hemingway's insecurity, and the interactions between the Dos Passos character (Richard Gordon) and the Hemingway analogue are clashes between aspects of Hem's own personality. "The key to the novel's dominant bitterness is of course Hemingway's own self-contempt. . . . It is Richard Gordon who glimpses Hem passing by [and] invariably looks down on his rival's wretchedness with contempt. . . . In other words, in To Have and Have Not, Dos Passos is made into the vehicle of Hemingway's own self-loathing."

The book is full of this sort of literary psychoanalysis, and while at times it sheds light on the texts, set against the larger conflict it begins to seem rather beside the point. What is certain is that when Hem and Dos traveled (separately) to Spain to cover the war, their attitudes had already become quite different. When Robles turns up missing, Dos searches for him; Hemingway tells him to leave the matter alone and stop asking questions. "'Don't put your damn mouth into this Robles business,'" he tells Dos upon the latter's arrival in Madrid. "'The fifth column'--covert Franco sympathizers in Madrid--'is everywhere. Just suppose your professor took a powder and joined the other side.'" When Hem learns, thanks to the intercession of one of the Comintern's many pawns, the official "truth" of the matter, he takes great pleasure in humiliating Dos both politically and artistically by casting suspicion upon Dos's friendship with the "fascist traitor."

I must confess that I am one of those who find Hemingway more interesting as a character than as a writer; but the fact that Koch appears to feel similarly does not service his book particularly well. He is less interested in Hem's motives than in the dastardly nature of his betrayals, be they of Dos or of the women in his life. None of which is to suggest that Koch vilifies Hemingway, or that he bears no admiration for his work. There's an air of rueful admiration behind the reportage of Hem's lies and libels--as if the author were shaking his head and smiling as he researched, saying to himself, "That magnificent bastard!" And the lambasting of works like the aforementioned To Have and Have Not is largely motivated by disgust at the waste of indisputable talent. Nevertheless, the text's sympathies lie ultimately with Dos Passos, who is after all the wronged party. Dos is not a legend, though, only a minor modernist with two or three great books to his credit. Hemingway is the larger-than-life figure careening through this story, the self-styled realist taken in by the proletarian fantasies woven by Joris Ivens and other guides and mentors, most of whom Koch believes to have been Comintern operatives.

Koch seems unwilling to peel back the labels of "sadist" and "misogynist" to even guess at Hem's deeper motivations. Describing Hemingway's expectations that a woman "focus exclusively on him and his needs," Koch cops out by saying "The man was just that selfish; and the truth was just that simple." In the end, we are given the archetypal Hemingway and little more, and Dos Passos is--if possible--even less illuminated by the narrative. Cast in the role of the quester, his search is his virtue; his flaw, if he has one, that he is too trusting, too idealistic. By choosing to approach these events as a narrative, Koch makes Hem and Dos into characters; but by only attempting the shallowest of dives into their psychologies, he leaves them flat, unformed, and ultimately not that interesting. (Also frustrating is the inexplicable lack of an index--though there are endnotes--in a book packed with real-life personalities and events. It's as if everyone involved chose to treat this as a work of fiction.)

The character which most stands out in The Breaking Point is the war itself. Even presented in profile, its beginning and end lopped off, limited primarily to the intrigues of Stalin and the left (the Nationalists get off easy in this book), it still comes through as a fascinating microcosm of the Twentieth Century. At times it bears the lingering flavor of tragic romance, at others it reads as a collision of hopeless naïvete with cynical manipulation. Perhaps it was the resonance of this latter opposition which Koch hoped to parallel with his tale of Dos and Hem; I only wish he had scratched deeper beneath their surfaces.

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