'Paths of Glory' gave the spine to 'The Wire'

David Simon argues for the greatness of Humphrey Cobb's book and Stanley Kubrick's film in a new edition of the novel

June 26, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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