The 1915 9/11

Photo: Joe Scafuro

A brilliantly sunny day, and then the explosion; on what had been an ordinary weekday, there is suddenly fire, smoke, confusion, bodies, panic, all in what seems like a surreally small space of time. And then, the poignant aftermath: the pathetically hopeful notices everywhere, pleading for news of the dead (“Wanted: any information regarding … ” “Missing … missing … ” “Height, 5 ft. 10 in… . high forehead, blue eyes … “); the desperate catalogues of tattoos, of any identifying marks; the dreadful realization that most of the bodies are unrecoverable; the wrenching, erroneous reports that loved ones have died. And, even worse, the erroneous reports that they’ve survived.

It would have been impossible to predict, a year ago, that a book about the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania could still make people weep, but you may well find tears in your eyes as you come across the above description in Diana Preston’s Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, an authoritative new account of the disaster that helped bring the U.S. into World War I. On a sunny Friday afternoon in May, the great British liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat as she neared the coast of Ireland; of the 1,201 souls that were lost in the sinking, which took all of eighteen minutes, 128 were American. (Two years later, American doughboys would shout “Remember the Lusitania!” as they marched into battle.) The Lusitania disaster has always languished in the Titanic’s long, photogenic shadow, but Preston’s panoramic account – not only of the attack but of the geopolitical turmoil that led to it and the international crisis (and wrenching private trauma) that followed – reminds you that it’s the former, not the latter, that’s far more relevant today.

Indeed, if Preston’s book is “epic,” it’s not just because it boasts such impressive avoirdupois. To appreciate the real meaning of the Lusitania incident – then as now, an unlikely ambush on a huge, civilian-filled target by an improbably small group of men – you need a thorough understanding of the unseen forces that inexorably produced it. This Preston admirably provides. You don’t even glimpse the great ship (“more beautiful than Solomon’s Temple”) or meet the colorful cast of characters on her last voyage (which included a Vanderbilt, some showbiz celebs, and some spies) until nearly 50 pages into the book. Instead, the author cannily opens with brisk but engrossing accounts of the forces that set the scene for that terrible May 7: the growing rivalry between Germany and England in the early years of the century, the superpowers’ increasing interest in submarine warfare and torpedoes (the Brits balked at first: “damned un-English,” they thought), the Germans’ controversial decision to attack nonmilitary shipping, the smug American isolationism that led people to ignore the German ads in U.S. papers warning neutrals not to travel on Allied shipping.

And, of course, there’s the inevitable Titanic-esque overconfidence in technology. “We knew no submarine could chase us and catch us,” a surviving crewman of what had once been the world’s fastest liner said.

But Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy hardly feels like a history lesson. Preston’s archival thoroughness is nicely balanced by a novelist’s sense of pacing. As the narrative’s focus narrows to the fateful day itself, the author keeps up the suspense by crosscutting between descriptions of opulent life onboard the liner (with all of those eminently quotable statistics, like the 40,000 eggs and two tons of coffee consumed on each crossing) and scenes inside the U-boat, where the crew grimly stalked its prey under rather less opulent living conditions. (Among other things, the toilets often “blew the contents back in a user’s face.”) Gradually, horrifyingly, the two narratives converge. When Kapitän Schwieger finally gives the order to fire the single torpedo that sinks the ship – which was secretly loaded with arms, a fact that the British subsequently went to great and disturbing lengths to conceal – there’s a genuine sense of climax.

It’s good, in the age of James Cameron, to be reminded that what followed happened to real people, not actors. The climactic centerpiece of Preston’s book is the attack itself, and to her credit, the author doesn’t attempt to improve on the eyewitness accounts, which convey the horror of the event in terms more memorable than any special effect could (not least because the whole thing transpired, surreally, in broad daylight: Passengers strolling on deck could see the torpedo approaching the hull). The “grand lady” who straddled a floating corpse while awaiting rescue, corpses stacked “like cordwood,” the sound of survivors’ teeth “chattering like castanets”: Such images and sounds make an unforgettable impression – as does the creepy revelation that the U-boat’s crew took turns watching it all in their periscope.

But, of course, Preston’s grand saga doesn’t end with the attack and sinking. The last third of her book pulls back once again to provide the wide-angle view, this time of the aftermath: the political maneuvering by American hawks, the eagerness to blame, the inevitable cover-ups and evasions. Survivors reported hearing two torpedoes hit, unaware that the second explosion was actually the detonation of the huge amount of arms the Lusitania was secretly carrying; during the inquest that followed the sinking, the authorities brought fierce pressure to bear on various witnesses, going so far as to try to confuse the grief-stricken captain on the witness stand. He ended up an embittered recluse.

The captain’s fate is merely sad; it’s an awareness of the larger dynamics at work in his, and his ship’s, stories that transforms the sorrows of 5/7/15 into real tragedy. Preston may claim, in her preface, that the great ship’s destruction is a story that is “above all, about people,” but her own excellent account, broad in scope and rich in devastating detail, reminds us that the tragedies of individual people result from larger, more epic failures. However improbably, her terrific new book is a story for our time.

Preston’s book may well be this summer’s beach-blanket behemoth; with any luck, Alessandro Boffa’s deliriously funny riff on Aesop, You’re an Animal, Viskovitz!, will be the delicious bonbon that gets gobbled up in an hour of bliss and then passed around your Long Island share until it disappears. In each of twenty tiny chapters, the soulful Viskovitz becomes a different animal, always in love with a female of the species named Ljuba, always taking away a different bittersweet lesson. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about, say, narcissism from hermaphroditic snails, capitalism from dung beetles, intimacy from scorpions, or – memorably – about language from a, um, fish. “Even an act as simple as swallowing a cuttlefish could be misunderstood,” the fish-Viskovitz laments. “Someone could see it as a metaphor.” There’s little doubt what Boffa’s metaphors are about: Although the only species that doesn’t appear here is Homo sapiens, you never doubt for a minute just who the subject of all the buzzing, braying, neighing, roaring, and hooting that you find in this delicious new fable really is.

By Diana Preston.
Walker & Company; 532 pages; $28.
You’re an Animal, Viskovitz!
By Alessandro Boffa.
Alfred A. Knopf; 176 pages; $18.

The 1915 9/11