No Conservative thinker of last century struck more ire and fear into the heart of the American left than William F. Buckley Jr. Author of a dozen Right-leaning books – with titles like Up From Liberalism – and his monthly periodical National Review, the fiercely anti-communist ideologue was one of the principal characters in 20th-century Conservative thinking. Alongside non-fiction, Buckley produced a number of novels about fictionalized C.I.A. officer Blackford Oakes. Like fellow contemporary and arch-nemesis Gore Vidal, the opinion is divided on whether Buckley was a better novelist or political columnist. So, using Stained Glass, the second entry in the Blackford Oakes series, we’ll try and come to a consensus.
The time is the early 1950’s. Relations between the West and Soviet East have soured, leaving Germany cracked in half by the concrete Berlin wall. A young German count, Alex Wintergrin, has called for his people to unite and overthrow their Communist oppressors. The Soviet press, in response, sounds the alarm that Wintegrin is another Hitler. The West is hesitant before making their next move. On one hand, booting out Russian troops in the name of democracy is not only supported in theory, but in policy ala the Truman Doctrine. However, prodding the nuclear holding Soviets – who already assume Wintegrin is funded by Western forces – could bring about the apocalypse. What to do? Keep a watchful eye on Wintergrin with the ace C.I.A. operative, Blackford Oakes.
Buckley once said, “We must confront the World as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Thus, Stained Glass is heavily grounded in the tense Cold War atmosphere of the 1950’s. Many actual American political characters, German parliamentary parties, and post-war situations exist freely and frequently throughout the novel. To even basic followers of Cold War history, this could be a challenge. However, these nuanced inclusions fail to curb any entertainment. On the contrary, readers receive a glimpse of the awesomely consequential internal conflicts of Germany and the World at play:
“When he rose at his alma mater to announce that if the Occupation Forces would not deliver an ultimatum to the Russian to reopen the road to Berlin, the German people should do so, he was suddenly a conspicuous figure on the European scene, a man not yet thirty years old. Until then no national notice of him had been taken, only here and there a character piece in a local newspaper about the aristocratic curio who dreamed of irredentism and talked as if he would smash the Red Army with the might of his left fist, trained at the gymnasium at Heidelberg. These efforts at caricature failed when undertaken by reporters who went to hear him talk. They could no longer bring off conventional ideological denigration. (‘Count Wintergrin seems to have forgotten the horrors of war…’) But after Heidelberg, all the major papers in Europe suddenly began to take notice of Axel Wintergrin and his – his what? they asked themselves. Here was someone who, biologically could have been the grandson of Adenauer, the de factor leader of the country (with his Christian Democrat Union, serving as chancellor under the authority of the joint occupation command.) And when direct elections came in November 1952, Adenauer would surely win – with the Social Democrats under Erich Ollenhauer talking perhaps one-third of the seats. Germany’s future would be a generation’s oscillation of power between these two parties, the analysis joined in predicting. There was no room for the so-called ‘Reunification’ Party of this Wintergin. Why so much fuss over a quixotic Heidelberg Manifesto? Why had groups in every major city in Germany suddenly invited the young count to address them: elated veterans’ organizations, cynical student associations, inquisitive business associations, wary labor unions – even, here and there, always discreetly, organizations of civil servants…why the fascination with him?”
Buckley, contrary to his conservative nature, does not conform to traditional literary styles. Rather his prose is closer to Modernist detail and description; albeit with espionage-novel suspense. T.S. Eliot labels this style ‘mythical’ rather than narrative. The author presumably chose this approach of lengthy dialogue and description to convey a personal essence so characteristic in his writing and speech. While it certainly requires some adjustment, Buckley’s winding execution of the narrative in Stained Glass reads necessary to the tense post-war atmosphere:
“Blackford left his car in the courtyard, and as he walked into the huge archway, the small door embedded in the gate swung open, releasing a shaft of yellow light in to the late-summer dusk. Someone had been waiting for him. He followed a creaky old man wearing a green vest over a white shirt, and an apron over his pants, through a cold hallway into a warm, chintzy living room, the fireplace crackling, over which a single crystal chandelier, its dozen candles lit, hung, illuminating the eight painted panels depicting the Borghese Gardens in midsummer. The countess was there in her drawing room and rose to greet him, a warm but formal smilie on her high-boned face.”
Followers of Buckley will recount that his fierce anti-Soviet nature was matched only by a devout faith in Catholicism. This religiosity ran so deep that the author even condemned the liberal views adopted by the Catholic Church in Vatican II. Naturally, this strong sentiment for the divine seeped into Stained Glass. As a cover while tailing Wintegrin, the C.I.A. assigns Oakes to facilitate the rebuilding of the local church at St. Anslem. This assignment turns into an aesthetically and soulful pet project for Oakes, as well the perfect vehicle to transmute the author’s faith:
“And then, at the eastern end, a hundred meters from the castle, the chapel. It was the Catholic church for the whole village, the churchgoing members of which came the two and one-half kilometers on foot, by bicycle, and increasingly by car and bus to attend Sunday services, weddings, funerals, and baptisms. During the final western offensive, the Nazis had installed a heavy mortar unit on the northern wall of the courtyard. On the first of April 1945, this outpost was manned by three remaining soldiers – the rest of the squad, seeing the end only a few days, had deserted. The Americans, misreckoning it as a massive resistance point, ordered up heavy artillery. The very first shell perforated the seven-hundred-year-old roof of the chapel and passed through a wooden trapdoor to the crypt, exploding beneath the level of the stone floor…And after six weeks spent removing rubble – and segregating lovingly anything that might prove useful if ever the good Lord, having attended to more urgent matters such as Berlin and the cathedral of Cologne, got around to the painstaking job of piecing back together their beloved St. Anselm’s chapel – the parishioners were attending divine services again, sitting on makeshift benches, and using a borrowed table from the castle as an alter.”
Presumably, Stained Glass and the novels of Bill Buckley should be an extension of his outright Conservative views. This is not so. Though full of quips about Soviet policy (‘The Five-Year Plan will have to be postponed, once again’) the second Blackford Oakes novel is more an investigation of politics post-1945. Not only are readers privy to what covert intelligence operatives and Washington officers were probably thinking – and undoubtedly doing – but also the complexity of these decisions:
“‘What we cannot know is exactly when or how the Soviets would move. We know what they are in a position to do on the ground. We’re fighting a war in Korea, where we’ve concentrated practically everything we have. We all but demobilized the army during the panic to get home after the war. We wrote a treaty that forbade West German participation in a joint military command. The French economy is on the floor, and the French military is completely absorbed all to hell and gone, off in Indochina. The British are exhausted, and engaged in full-time decolonization. We put up a good front about NATO, and Ike made some nice speeches over here but here are the facts. The Russians have three million men on their western border, comprising one hundred and seventy-five divisions facing west; East Europe has sixty to seventy divisions under arms. We have ten divisions in West Germany – most of them under strength, backed by commitments for twenty divisions. The Russians presence in Korea is negligible. So they have available to fight in Europe the whole of their military machine.'”
Published in 1978, the 1980 paperback edition of Stained Glass would win the National Book Award for Mystery. Buckley would continue ‘Blackford Oakes’ (which started with Saving the Queen in 1967) until 2005, the year before his death. The following novels, predictably, confront further Cold War exigencies that affected the American public and policy makers. While a committed Conservative, the writer famously lambasted the War on Drugs and famously derided fellow Right-leaning thinkers like Ayn Rand.
Having also read Buckley’s memoir Overdrive, it is easy to see why readers have a divided literary preference. For this reviewer, however, the consensus remains unanswerable, so my only contribution is to edify.