After reading very little for the past few months, I'm now slowly reading two hefty books at the same time. The first is an ancient classic, Homer's Iliad (in English translation). For centuries, apparently, it was standard reading for school boys learning classical Greek, and they had to read it in the original Greek. (Girls, if they learned to read at all, read more gentle books in modern languages.) Now it's one of those books that is often referred to but seldom read. I can't remember when we bought a copy, but for years it has been serving as a useful book end on our bookshelf. (The equally hefty and unread Odyssey has propped up the other end.)
I've found reading the Iliad both stirring and frustrating. Stirring because of the beauty of the language and the fast pace of the story. Frustrating, not because it's written as a long poem rather than as prose, nor because the handful of women mentioned in it seem little more than loot to be battled over by the men, nor even because it is graphically violent a lot of the time. No, it's frustrating because I'm used to the modern western novel, in which the characters are expected to make things happen by their own ingenuity, strength or virtue.
It seems as though the decisions and actions of the characters in the Iliad are being constantly undermined and thwarted by the gods, who have their own little conflict going on. No matter how heroic or intelligent a man might be, if Zeus or Hera or some other god or goddess decides to favour his opponent, he'll fail. It seems quite acceptable for an opponent to be suddenly and mysteriously whisked off the battle field by a goddess just as he is about to be killed, or for a spear thrust that should have been lethal to glance off the opponents armour at the whim of one of the gods. The first rule of modern novel writing is "no deus ex machina", but in the Iliad, the quarrels, schemes and machinations of the gods is an important sub-plot.
The second book I'm reading is a biography of Albert Speer, who was Minister of Armaments and War Production in Hitler's government during the war. Speer was one of the few people close to Hitler who was not hanged after the Nuremberg trials, spending 20 years in prison at Spandau instead. The question the author tries to answer is "how much did Speer know about the fate of the Jews?" At Nuremberg he convinced the judges that while he was aware that Jews were being transported and used as forced labour under harsh conditions, he was not told about the terrible fate of so many of them. He was apparently appalled when he found out and spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with what had happened and his unwitting part in it.
The book (by Gitta Sereny) is a depressing read. Initially there's a certain fascination as the author describes and analyses why people like Speer seemed mesmerised by Hitler. Some of Hitler's cronies were distinctly psychopathic, but Speer comes across as a normal human being, who in another time might have remained a small town architect. His relationship to Hitler and his admiration for him seemed to have blinded him to what was going on and the moral implications of what he did see and know.
As the book progresses, and the events taking place become darker and darker, it's difficult not to wonder what exactly drove the Nazi leadership to such unthinkably evil acts. I have to keep reminding myself that this is history, not the invention of a gothic novelist.
Reading this book at the same time as the Iliad has had a strange (and unintended) consequence. I've been left with a sense that, whereas the Iliad has a supernatural sub-plot that's quite apparent, in the history of Nazi Germany there's another story that explains what was going on that is not being told. Human will and activity don't seem enough to account for the sometimes quite bizarre as well as dreadful things that happened.