Paul Kennedy: "It’s my contention that the story of the 'middle people' hasn’t been told"

The Books Interview.

You claim in your new book that the turning point in the Second World War occurred much later than is often argued. Does that put you at odds with the views of many of your colleagues?

It puts me at odds with many works! There’s a colossally stupid kind of claim, which is to say, “Moscow, December 1941, the battle that won the Second World War”. That would have surprised the Americans and the Japanese!

I’m also tilting against a very popular strand of literature that says, “The decisive battle, the decisive intelligence breakthrough” – I’m saying that history is much more complicated than that.

So I’m tilting against a) a historiography that is very populist and makes large claims and b) the notion that, by late 1942, it was downhill all the way for the Allies. I’m saying, “No, there were some really significant problems to be solved.”

You argue that the problem solvers were those you call the “middle people” – engineers rather than strategists, on the one hand, or troops, on the other.

It’s my very strong contention that their story hasn’t been told. When I was writing the book, I kept bumping into characters and organisations I didn’t know about.

For example, trying to find out about someone you’d think would be an American national hero, Ben Moreell, the founder of the Seabees, was so difficult. Weirdly, the best summation of who Moreell was and what he did is in a Wikipedia article by some anonymous buff.

Can we infer from this that you’re sceptical of history that concentrates on the doings of “great men”?

Yes, indeed. Not that I don’t think someone like Churchill wasn’t extraordinary – but I felt that there was too much history of the great man.

Some individuals emerge from the book with their reputations intact – Viscount Alanbrooke, for instance.

He recognised that without Winston, the British war would not be won. So he recognised that there was a great leader, someone who could articulate, lead, have ten ideas a day, eight of which were really awful but two of which were worth considering.

Alanbrooke’s great qualities were the toughness of mind of the Ulsterman, scepticism, a dislike of flashy people and a profound suspicion that if he and the British chiefs didn’t work every day, Winston would do something really stupid. He was very sceptical about trying to invade France as early as 1943; he just didn’t think it was possible.

One of the things you’re trying to do in the book is to explain how the Allies got themselves in a position to win the war, starting from the low ebb of January 1943.

I’m not just interested in trying to explain how you got out of the stasis of late 1942 and early 1943 but also in who did what. It was about developing a culture where the people in the middle levels could be encouraged to innovate and be eccentric. January 1943 is a good starting point. After the political leaders at Casablanca gave out the political statements – “Germany first”, unconditional surrender – there came the statements about what you had to do to achieve success.

How perilous was the situation in January 1943 when Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca?

Churchill always kept an eye on the Atlantic and said it was the battle that had to be won. So he was anxious – especially when the merchant ship losses in February and March 1943 went shooting sky high. The thing about Roosevelt was that he had this innate confidence that once the massive productivity of the American industrial machine was geared up to full strength, then no matter what the setbacks, they were just going to be overcome. So I don’t think he was as worried as his advisers.

Despite claims that the war in the Pacific had turned at Midway and that the war on the eastern front had turned at Stalingrad, you still had some massive challenges facing the Allies.

Paul Kennedy’s “Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

FDR and Churchill at the Casablanca meeting in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era