David Simon has repaid a long-held literary debt — with interest.
On Tuesday, Penguin Classics reissues "Paths of Glory," Humphrey Cobb's surgically sharp novel of the First World War. To Simon, Cobb's 1935 rendering of a doomed French assault and its calamitous aftermath has repercussions that go beyond its immediate anti-war themes. He hears Cobb's characters every time he listens to BP executives trying to explain destructive actions taken for short-term gains. And when bureaucrats assess Hurricane Katrina with "we all did our best" cliches, they remind him of French generals rationalizing the debacles of Verdun.
Simon told The Baltimore Sun recently that throughout "The Wire," "When I was writing an institutional dynamic, I was thinking of the guys in Cobb's book." Penguin asked him to contribute a new introduction, and he agreed without hesitation: "I had to write something respecting this masterpiece."
Penguin Classics hopes that fans of "The Wire" will follow its creator into Cobb's trenches. The series' editorial director, Elda Rotor, says, "People will discover this book because they know David Simon's work. Many of my colleagues think this has to be interesting, because he wrote the introduction for it."
Seventy-five years ago, critics praised Cobb's debut. The New York Herald Tribune called it "one of the great books to come out of the war." But with the waning of the Depression and the onset of World War II, "Paths of Glory" fell into obscurity. Cobb's only other novel was published as a serial, not a book.
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 movie version brought the novel back into print, briefly. It was reissued again when Kubrick's Vietnam War movie, "Full Metal Jacket," appeared in 1987. Few noticed. Rotor hopes that with Simon's help it will now land a contemporary audience. "It resonates with modern readers," she says. "It's sad that it's so pertinent."
"It was a favorite film before I knew the book," Simon says, "and then I found the book, and it was very modern, written in a smart, spare way. It doesn't feel like it's from the 1930s in any sense. This guy knew what he was doing. Some writers say what they have to say in one book, and that's it. Ralph Ellison wrote one book, and you're going to want to read it. Same with Humphrey Cobb."
A few years ago, exasperated by interviewers who viewed Season 5 of "The Wire" strictly as a roman a clef about The Baltimore Sun, Simon told a reporter that "the film template in his head" was actually "the most important political film of the 20th century, which is 'Paths of Glory.' " Simon said it spoke more eloquently than any other picture "to the essential triumph of institutions over individuals and … to the fundamental inhumanity of the 20th century and beyond."
He said his dramatic models for The Sun's top editors — and for key powers at City Hall and the port of Baltimore — were the generals in Kubrick's movie. One, the urbane corps commander (played by Adolphe Menjou), decrees that the French must take the unattainable Ant Hill from the Germans. The other, the division leader, a self-consciously dashing field commander (played by George Macready), disdains the target as a waste of manpower.
He changes his mind when the corps commander dangles a promotion in his battle-scarred face. An order that is ordure becomes gold.
"You can't help but love those characters," Simon says, "because they embody so much of what goes on in institutions. They're utterly invested in the status quo unless they see an advantage to themselves. They operate on the pain-pleasure principle: Anything that gives me pleasure is good, anything that gives me pain is bad."
Kubrick took that a step further. As Simon writes, "It is the film version that parses between the generals, with one turning on the other as [an] unlawful order to fire French artillery on French positions is revealed. These were nuances upon nuances — the gamesmanship of ambition and command brought to even greater heights."
In conversation, he elaborates: "The notion of information being power, of Menjou using his knowledge of that illegal command to be ruthless in both directions — maybe you had to be alive in 1957 to get that right."
Cobb enlisted in the Canadian army at age 17. He served for three years, then returned to the U.S. and worked in a variety of industries, including publishing, the stock market, merchant marine and advertising. In 1933, Cobb expressed his ambivalence about his own soldiering: "What I feel and have felt for some years is pride in my physical and mental stamina, shame in my mental blindness, in my ignorance." He died in 1944.
Simon says he initially referenced the movie, rather than the book, because he assumed it would be more familiar to his audience. The novelist's granddaughter, Annie, was delighted anyway. She alerted Penguin. When Rotor took a look at Simon's comments, she says, "They were exactly what we'd hoped for –- a gorgeous reference to our title by someone who says it inspired him to do great work himself."
Simon saw the film in his college days.
"It was like, 'Wow, great movie,' but for all I knew it was an original screenplay — at the time, I didn't read movie credits. You walked out with your date when the credits were still running."
When he did read the book, he admired its ruthless integrity. Portraying war without making it seductive is a dilemma Simon faced in "Generation Kill," his Iraq War miniseries. "War is so dynamic and so extraordinary a human endeavor; that's the problem." Cobb's solution as a novelist (as Simon writes) is to target "the army itself as an institution, an unwieldy and unyielding organism that lurches from one murderous horror to the next, guided only by whichever combinations of ambitions and vanities are in play at any moment."
The book lucidly chronicles life in the trenches. But it pivots on the army's middle management. In every institution, Simon says, "That's where, morally, the rubber meets the road."
The book's second-most admirable character is the canny, scrupulous regimental commander, Colonel Dax. He is helpless to protect his men either from overwhelming German artillery and machine-gun fire or from the division leader, who ends up scapegoating three soldiers for the failure to take the Ant Hill (or the Pimple, as the book calls it). Dax must order his four top officers to select one man per company to take the fall for the division.
In Simon's favorite passage, one captain refuses. He struggles to express outrage, then simply writes one sentence that starts, "I am unable to comply with your instructions …" After he sends that note, he "goes for a ride," putting himself out of the general's reach. It's Dax who reminds his peers that the captain's political connections would make it dangerous to discipline him. Dax saves one soldier's life and one officer's hide. But it's his last appearance in the book.
Kirk Douglas plays Dax in the movie. Kubrick turns him into a multifaceted (and multifrustrated) hero, a renowned defense lawyer who argues to save the trio from the firing squad during their kangaroo court-martial. Simon thinks the enhancement of Dax's character makes the movie's politics even more complex. In the film, Dax blows the whistle to Menjou on Macready's order to shell his own troops.
Simon says, "That triangulation was brilliant: You realize Menjou's and Macready's characters diverge in fundamental ways — or they may be the same character, caught in different moments."
At the same time, Simon says, "the book does things the movie can't. Like depict the notion of chance in war." Cobb delivers a two-page description of a man slowly coming to full consciousness — right before he dies.
"Films can't address the randomness of war in the same way," says Simon, "because films don't really have an interior monologue." War's repetitive actions also resist movie treatment. "The weariness of the marching and counter-marching that begins the book –- they didn't use that in the movie because you couldn't be in the minds of the soldiers. You couldn't get the same feelings of futility and exhaustion and defeat and endurance."
As a fan of the novel and the movie — and a veteran of books and scripts himself — Simon says, "The razor Kubrick took to that book was brilliant."
Simon could envision "how the novel would appeal to a guy of Kubrick's mind, reading it as a young man." Readers can now see how it would appeal to David Simon. "Paths of Glory" contains no sentimentality or forced uplift. But there is something inspirational about its staying power. Kubrick gave it new life. Simon has given it an afterlife: its just recognition as a classic.