Sunday, January 30, 2011

History lessons

One of my regrets from college is that I neglected to at least minor in History. Instead I mucked around in Business (thinking it would somehow be good for me). Oh, how I rue the time sucked away by Accounting and Economics -- I finally had the good sense to bail on Marketing and leave business admin behind forever. But I also took a bunch of mass comm classes, a smattering of drama, and a couple of upper level history classes, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Had I had a better focus, I could have double-majored in English and History. Of course, this has no practical implications -- I just would have enjoyed the course work more, and maybe had a better grounding for much of my later reading.

As fiction goes, although I enjoy all kinds, nothing beats really fine historical fiction for its power to completely immerse me in another world. I like having very specific moments and places to anchor the author's imaginative work. My favorite writer of the moment is Hilary Mantel. Last winter, I devoured Wolf Hall about the career and life of Thomas Cromwell in the service of Henry VIII, and just recently, I read her novel, A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution and its prime movers and shakers, Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton. Of course, there's a lot of "artistic license" that must go into these works of fancy, so I often follow up with a non-fiction counterpart, as when I read Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game after Kipling's Kim.

My only complaint about Mantel is that I find myself a bit deflated when I finish her books -- they are that engrossing for me -- and I dither for a long while on what comes after. Fortunately, my husband made a great recommendation -- going in a completely different direction -- Gary Wills' Pulitzer-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. I haven't finished it quite yet, but it's excellent. It's not that long ago that I finally read Shaara's Killer Angels and, as luck would have it, even more recently, some classical Greek literature.

One of Wills' primary goals is to refute the notion that Lincoln just jotted down some casual, off-the-top-of-his-head remarks while on the train to the dedication, a notion that has stuck in popular American myth. Wills begins by illustrating how Lincoln structured the Address on the model of classic Greek funeral speeches, most notably that of Pericles of Athens. In following chapters, Wills has traced the most important influences on the speech, including the role of the Victorian "culture of death," the rural cemetery movement, Transcendentalism, and Lincoln's view of the of the primacy of the Declaration of Independence as THE founding document of the United States, rather than the actual Constitution -- the true spirit of the American experiment as compared to the law that was created (with its flaws) out of it. It's completely fascinating.

Here's the text, if you'd like to revisit:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Reading fail - The Man Without Qualities

My ambitious book for the winter was going to be Robert Musil's masterpiece, and when I read the first few chapters, I thought it was going to be a success, but at 150 pages or so in, I'm throwing it overboard. I thought it would be one of those rich, expansive, epic stories similar to War and Peace,'s no War and Peace.

It has so far been a series of character sketches, and while finely drawn, there just isn't enough interaction, dialogue (but lots of inner monologues), or plot to keep me going -- not for three volumes (never finished!) anyway. I know that it is supposed to be a detailed portrait of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Great War and the cultural and intellectual life of the characters, but I just don't have the patience to read about what everyone is "thinking" all the time, without its being tied to some actual feeling. Tolstoy rolls out his characters and they immediately come to life, and he manages to explore ideas and important historical moments while still engaging and entertaining the reader. I'm not really getting that from Musil. So I'm starting my new year by refusing to slog through a Proustian-length novel that isn't going to hold my interest.

Oh well, sometimes you're just not in the mood for certain books. I might be diving into Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety about the French revolutionaries, especially fitting since I hope to visit France later this year.