The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.

In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature.  Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli).  He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened.  Someone did this.  Someone wrote this.  People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story.  In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.

He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different.  The stories feel grubbier.  The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book.  For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs.  Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too.  All the lunatic fringes are present.  Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.

At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read.  Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there.  Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction.  People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize.  Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.

Advertisements

Citizens by Simon Schama

18370354716_2I think there are a few ways one can approach the French Revolution.  One is a biographical focus on the main characters – Schama does not do this, although he does cover Lafayette and Talleyrand in some detail.  Another is to deal with it thematically – Schama does not do this, although he deals with themes as and when they show up in the narrative.  Another still is do give a blow by blow account of the Revolution – this, for me, is what Schama does (the book is even subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the French Revolution‘).

It isn’t a light book.  Schama’s background leads him to show a particular focus on art.  The work of Jacques-Louis David is ever present.  And this pads out the book to an extreme length with detailed descriptions of the art and culture of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution.  The benefit of this is that one gets a feel for the atmosphere, the motives and the aesthetics of the participants.  The downside is that this isn’t necessarily an easy introduction to the topic – with action dispersed among lengthy commentaries on art. particularly in the early part of the book.  Some institutions just seem to pop up, while others are given solid explanations.

Another uneasy thing here for an introduction is Schama’s judgement on the Revolution.  He thinks it was a lot of violence, horror and disruption to very little benefit.  He might reluctantly admit that the focus on rights changed the direction of post-Revolutionary France, but it had little positive material benefit.  With all this focus on the personal loss and violence of the period 1789 to 1794, he doesn’t actually spent that long on the longer term effects of the revolution.  Never mind the revolutions of 1848, 1830 or Napoleon, he doesn’t even get to the Directory.

For all that, Schama does write very well and the sections on art and culture add something different, more visual, to the history of the revolution.  Maybe it doesn’t stand alone as an unbiased record, but there’s so much to the period that it would be hard to find a book of substance that does.  Perhaps, as Schama is currently on TV reworking an old Kenneth Clark BBC series, this could be thought of in similar terms as The French Revolution: A Personal View.

February in podcasts

This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show).  There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book.  Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times.  I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.

Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects.  In fact he tweeted this the other day;

The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.

He does seem to manage the time better nowadays.  When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series.  Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes.  It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary.  Some introductions add a nice personal touch too.  The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.

The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish.  There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy.  Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show.  It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it).  I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).

Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas.  I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven.  The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good).  I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison.  The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative.  I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.

The Dreyfus Affair / The Land of Desire podcast

A while back I downloaded some episodes of a podcast that I had seen a few good reviews of: The Land of Desire.  It basically acts as a miscellany for different aspects of France and French culture.  After flicking through a few episodes, I landed on the six episode mini series on the Dreyfus Affair (from late 2016, I’m not exactly up to date here).

71avifompzlUntil recently my knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair began and ended with a vague memory of seeing a print of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse newspaper headline in a history classroom.  Then I read Robert HarrisAn Officer And A Spy – and found it gripping.  Told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart, a counter intelligence officer who uncovered the conspiracy, it is easy to be shocked by the forged evidence and military cover up.  It really is a good book.  But after the opening act of the (real life) scandal Picquart spends much of his time in exile or prison, so it is hard to see the real comings and goings.  In addition, unlike Dreyfus, Picquart was not Jewish so it hard to really get into the rise of anti-semitism.

image001That’s where this podcast comes in – The Land of Desire is able to explore the full story of the scandal, in which a Jewish army officer was clumsily framed for selling military secrets to the Germans, even as the story unravelled and the real culprit became obvious.  The need for a scapegoat coincided with the rise of anti-semitic feeling in France, and with a cultural divide between conservatives and progressives.  The podcast is at its best when covering this battle, even if it has to remain brief to avoid spamming the listener with names and sidetracks.

The problem with the podcast is that Diana, the Californian writer/presenter/producer, is so polished that her delivery comes across as blandly earnest and upbeat, no matter the material.  Part of this is the writing: she clearly can handle the big issues and complexities – as she does when describing the cultural divide in France or the continuing antisemitism – but at some points she oversimplifies (in an attempt to be accessible, I think).

I think the other part comes from a desire for professionalism, she is clearly very passionate about the material in this podcast (and rightly so) but that rarely shines through as she keeps her delivery level.  When it does come through: the anger, the frustration, the sheer exasperation at the farcical conspiracy is actually very engaging – it’s a sense of personality that I’d like to see elsewhere.  On the plus side, this upbeat delivery is great at dealing with the more comical parts of the story – the bizarre Major du Paty de Clam, the ridiculous handwriting expert Bertillon, the blocking of military judges.

I’m still in the early stages of the podcast, and there is a tendency for shows to improve over time, so I’m happy to continue listening and hope things even out.  Back on topic, the mini-series does end on a sad note.  Although Dreyfus and his supporters were ultimately pardoned, it would only be a few short decades before the Jews of France were decimated in World War Two – often with the support of parts of the local population.  And anti-semitism remains a problem to this day – many of the arguments throughout the show felt oddly familiar, even down to the less direct things like the Socialists arguing that having to deal with a case like Dreyfus would be a distraction from the main battle against capitalism.

History of Modern France by Jonathan Fenby

51hzPxe5euL._SX323_BO1204203200_[1]I got this book in the lead up to the French presidential election, and although it sat on the “To Read” pile until after Macron’s victory, I was hoping to pick up a sense of the forces involved in that election.  The French presidential election seems increasingly like a free for all with a baffling number of candidates; hardy perennials that turn up each time, and spin offs from the main parties.  I have tried to get an understanding of France before, with Graham Robb, but was just even more lost in the number of regions, subcultures, personalities and quirks of history that make up the country.  To misquote De Gaulle: how can you understand a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?

This history starts with a quick review of Napoleon and the Revolution before taking the reader chronologically through French history.  Starting with the Restoration and July Monarchy (which I was vaguely familar with from histories of the 1848 revolutions), on to Napoleon III (similar), then the Third Republic between the Franco-Prussian and First World War (my prior knowledge began and ended with the Dreyfus Affair), then on to the Second World War and the Fourth Republic, before reaching the Fifth Republic that exists today.  The tone of the book is straight faced and to the point, but the pacing is quick and it is remarkably accessible.  Single page biographical asides are dotting throughout the book, adding some colour.

Some parts that were initially obscure to me before reading remain clouded (the presidents and prime ministers of the third republic for instance); but Fenby has helped me rationalise that.  Lack of stability has often been a feature of France, as politics becomes fragmented and discontent with the system grows.  Fenby finds this tension running throughout the history, not just between left and right, but between shades of the left or the right.  Under exceptional leaders like De Gaulle or Mitterrand, these can be unified, but eventually the same tensions rise again.

Many of the candidates for the recent election feature in the book, but Macron possibly the least of them – relegated to a footnote on the PS picking an investment banker as an economic minister.  The conclusion to the book does stress the need for some innovation in French politics, a move away from the entrenched party politics and old battles, but it is not clear that Macron is that move.  With the elections for the French parliament coming up and Macron’s new party polling well, it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb

I have previously enjoyed but been disappointed by Graham Robb‘s Discovery of France and Parisians. Discovery of France was more about the geography and identity of France than I had expected – in hindsight, it was inevitable for a country with such strong regional identity. Parisians told the history of Paris through a series of short stories. It was an interesting approach, but many of the stories weren’t that compelling in themselves.

With The Ancient Paths, I looked before I leaped and was a bit worried by what I found. A startling theory about the wisdom of the druids, discovered by Robb taking a map and drawing straight lines between Celtic sites? He insists it’s not like Ley Lines? One for the library then!

His theory is that the Celts located their cities and built roads along lines of meridian and solstice, often at significant intervals.  He also looks at Celtic buildings and art and traces their shapes within solar inspired geometry.  These feats would required more scientific knowledge than they are usually credited with, and Robb is eager to give them that credit (possibly too eager!).  Robb shows his working throughout and has clearly put a lot of effort in, sometimes cycling long distances to visit sites of interest.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t sit well for me.  There are too many things that could easily be coincidence; too much complexity in drawing it together.  It’s all a bit psuedo-science.

In presenting his theory, however, he tells the history of the Celts and their defeat and assimilation by Rome.  There is a lot to like here, Robb is a good writer and the story of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and various Celtic migrations are told well.  He also gives compelling descriptions of visiting these sites in the modern day.  These do give a hint at a complex civilization that has perhaps been unfairly tarnished as “barbarians”, but perhaps Robb should have stopped there.

Post 36: Agincourt by Juliet Barker

AgincourtAgain with the poor timing: I’ve just finished reading Agincourt by Juliet Barker and was considering whether I can be bothered holding on until Saint Crispin’s Day (25th October) before I post this – obviously not. And so this post is coming out exactly 599 years after some point in the middle of the Siege of Harfleur. This book covers that as well but it’s not quite as dramatic, is it? Anyway … I thought I’d write up a bit of a review of this book, and its follow up Conquest. These books come well recommended, with Bernard Cornwell quotes on the cover and much praise from other reviewers and historians.

I feel somewhat out of place to then say that I found these books disappointing. There’s so many positives in them – they are tightly written, cover the story with an expert eye from the grand scheme to the small details, contain some wonderful anecdotes*, characters and events, and are placed at a level that should be perfect with me (not too scholarly but assuming a certain level of background knowledge for their off hand references to Lollards or Richard II’s usurpation). However, I find these positives backfire and much of this detail is delivered flatly in a tone and pace that remains unswerving whether it is covering the peak of the battle of Agincourt or the production of cloth in the pre-war preparations. I know this is unfair, it’s a very well researched book and it never strays in irrelevancy, but it just doesn’t spark into life for me when it should.

Continue reading Post 36: Agincourt by Juliet Barker