LK on “The Butcher’s Cleaver”

Jona_st_michael "Dear Col. Lang — I’ve now read "The Butcher’s Cleaver." It’s both a remarkable and a very unusual book, with those qualities being inseparable, I believe. In particular, there is its pervasive, perambulating, almost dreamlike air — both in narration and description. That is, everything that Claude takes note of (but not only Claude, Bill White as well) is presented to us as though it were preserved in amber — estimates of men and situations but also the then-existing "look" of things, natural and man-made. Of course, to capture or evoke the "then-existing" as it was then felt is the great yet elusive goal of historical fiction, and that you have accomplished. In addition, a feel for, or a need to evoke, the "then-existing" implies a no less powerful sense that much of what existed then is lost. It is here, without ever becoming too explicit, that "The Butcher’s Cleaver" is — sorry for term — so poetic. Again, this is present I feel in the most seemingly ordinary descriptive passages (as time seems to slow down a bit to allow Claude to notice the look of a street, a piece of architecture, etc.). After a while one begins to feel that that all this noticing — this verbal and visual "touching" — amounts to a continuous farewell on Claude’s part, and not only because he almost certainly knows that his cause and way of life are doomed but also because we know (as he anticipates) what acts Claude himself will bring to pass after the span of the novel itself is completed (i.e. Lincoln’s assassination). Two more things: The perambulating, near dreamlike quality of the book comes to a climax of course in the scene where Claude and Patrick observe Pickett’s charge. I can’t praise the writing here — and I assume the decisions that lay behind it — enough. Again, one would think that in the face of such a famous scene of "action" that the tempo of the writing would have to accelerate, but instead, if anything, it slows down a bit more, to convey what probably does occur in the minds of trained men who are observing combat but also to convey, in this case, their awed, horrified reluctance to take in what they cannot avoid seeing. Further, the death of Patrick in the midst of this is a beautifully handled grace note. One suspects that it is coming; one doesn’t expect that it will take place almost offstage, as I think it needs to. (Patrick is a beautifully modeled character; his role in the double game the Devereux brothers are playing is at times almost heartbreaking — in part icular when we are told that Patrick now understands just how Hooker’s intelligence staff has come to form accurate estimates of CSA troop strength and that he hopes to put this knowledge to use upon his hoped-for return to Richmond.) Finally — and this is a shot in the dark — much that I’ve said above about "The Butcher’s Cleaver" reminds me of a superb short novel by the Austrian writer Alexander Lernet-Holenia, "Baron Bagge" (1936). In that book, the title figure is a cavalry officer serving on the Eastern Front in World War I (as was the case for the author). Riding eastward on a vague, dubious mission into Hungarian territory, under the command of an especially impetuous officer, the Baron and his men come to an enemy-held bridge and are ordered to charge across, which they do under heavy fire, despite the Baron’s belief that the order to charge was unwise and merely a function of the commanding officer’s need to precipitate something bold and glorious in what all suspect are probably the final days of the war. The cavalry charge prevails, and the unit then moves on into the Carpathians, where (without going into too much detail) a subtle sense of strangeness begins to prevail when they arrive in a welcoming town and are entertained by th e townspeople, and Baron himself meets a beautiful but elusive woman with whom he falls in love — all this as though the Baron and his men have wandered into another, ideal world. Finally (and while this gives things away, I’m sure anyone who reads "Baron Bagge" already will know this) it becomes clear that the Baron and all his men were killed in their charge across the bridge, and they have been existing for some nine days hence in a kind of dreamlike purgatory that is reserved for men who have died in battle in the way that they have. With all that in mind, while I’m sure that it would be erroneous to literally think that all that follows from the opening 1853 scene in "The Butcher’s Cleaver" is more or less a dream and that Claude did not survive the duel, I am sure that the striking of that initial elegiac note is no accident. Again, my congratulations on a remarkable achievement. Best,"   LK


The picture is of the head of Michael, archangel and patron saint of the Confederacy.  His face looks down on us from the front of an insignificant Catholic Church, the kind of place in which Devereux and his family might worship.

Larry K has done me the honor of writing this memorable review of TBC.  There have been a number of memorable reviews but this one captures something of the psychology of the composition.

Writer’s of fiction should avoid "explaining" their works to death.  I owe LK a debt.

I have never heard of "Baron Bagge" but am sure I would like the book.  pl

This entry was posted in Prose. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to LK on “The Butcher’s Cleaver”

  1. anna missed says:

    Such a great and interesting review. Myself, having a small phone book of reviews of my own (art)work know the rarity of of such commentary – as to actually expand the scope and breath subtly implied by the work. When most often, even the simple facts are reflected bassakwards toward the reviewers vanity tics of the moment.
    Most interesting, is the shot in the dark connection to the Bagge book. A theme most subtly addressed by works exploring the deeper psychological effects of war, but usually not as explicitly as in Baron Bagge – or in the film “Jacob’s Ladder” (which scared the crap outta me) – as a metaphore for the effects felt by the survivors, as in survivors guilt, or for PTST in general.
    Nonetheless, many thanks for LK’s review in entertaining another layer of interpretation on to TBC – which like all formitable art, has an uncanny knack for doing so.

  2. Larry K says:

    Used copies of Lernet-Holenia’s “Baron Bagge,” coupled with his novella “Count Luna,” can be found here:
    and elsewhere.
    One of my favorite novelists, Anthony Powell “(A Dance To The Music of Time”) was an admirer of Lernet-Holenia’s work and wrote of it in the fourth volume of his memoirs, “The Strangers All Are Gone.”
    Larry Kart

  3. My simple mind concentrated on the story. Which shows what a good work it is – the reader decides how deep or shallow to keep it. LK, you went much deeper than I ever could. Very, very interesting.

  4. Larry K says:

    I concentrated on the story too, almost breathlessly at times, but the modes of telling began to speak in such unique and insistent ways that I had to bend an ear in their direction too, and when I did, the book seemed to open up a good deal more of what it had in mind. BTW it certainly helps to have maps and day-by-day good factual accounts of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg close at hand. They don’t get in the way but serve as ready points of reference.

  5. David Habakkuk says:

    Larry K
    Fascinating comments.
    I very much hope you will post your view on Amazon.

  6. Larry K says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, David. Should have thought of that myself. I just posted it on Amazon, edited for space and with all “spoilers” removed. It should crop up there in 48 hours or so, they say.

  7. taters says:

    Very well done, Larry K.

  8. condfusedponderer says:

    Asia Times’ Henry C. K. Liu writing on US populism in two articles, with the second article delving into his view on the heritage of the American civil war. Interesting read.
    THE SHAPE OF US POPULISM, Part 1 – A rich free-market legacy – for some
    THE SHAPE OF US POPULISM, Part 2 – Long-term effects of the Civil War
    The series will then continue on the progressive era.

  9. Lars Moller-Rasmussen says:

    Larry K’s review made me even more eager to read “The Butcher’s Cleaver”, but he seems to be wrong on one point concerning Lernet-Holenias short novel, “Baron Bagge”. I just re-read it, and it begins with the baron telling the whole story to some other people so he must have survived the storming of the bridge in Hungary. Towards the end, he describes coming out of a long coma at an Austrian field hospital.

Comments are closed.