25 Mar 2016


index | Colin’s home page | books: 2002–2004 : 2005–2007 : 2008 : 2009/10 : 2011... | language dictionaries

Le vie della storia nell’economia ed. by Pierluigi Ciocca

A collection of essays of mixed interest, rather vitiated by the task imposed on the authors of shoehorning economists into an empirical mould. Yet it set me thinking more than most books I read – not because of its thesis but because of what I learnt in passing. I’ve ordered Schumpeter’s Storia dell’analisi economica. (I’m afraid I ordered Ciocca’s book partly through misreading vie as vite.)

Conquistadores, pirati, mercanti by Carlo M. Cipolla

Not especially interesting and not at all persuasive. Cipolla writes as if the Spanish silver was a protagonist when its motion was no more than the backwash from the flow of goods in the opposite direction – but he justly criticises another account as more mercantilist than his own.

La dramma di Fascioda by Paolo Treves

An agreeable account chiefly compiled from French sources. The actions of two of Italy’s enemies during Treves’s time are described with an absence of criticism which comes as a surprise until you learn that Treves was an exiled opponent of Fascism.

Il giovane maronita by Alessandro Spina

I did’t get much out of this – I’d rather have been reading a history than a rather wishy-washy novel. I made a start on Tempo e corruzione and got even less out of it.

Gli italiani in Africa orientale 1 by Angelo Del Boca

He’s a very left-wing author but presents the history and his view of it without jargon or loaded terminology. He paints the Italian colonialism in a very unfavourable light, I dare say correctly (though I would like to read an account of the British in India written in a similar way). But he doesn’t entirely carry conviction. During the attempted occupation of Ethiopia the Italian protagonists are uniformly cruel and stupid, the politicians behind them fiendishly cunning, and the Ethiopians invariably wise and humane – even when they look just to be dithering.

The subsequent administration of Eritrea seems to have been blameless and Del Boca makes only mild criticisms of it. The occupation of Somalia, on the other hand, was intolerable through omission rather than commission: the occupiers did nothing to improve the lot of the people they’d invaded, either morally or physically. But it’s difficult for Del Boca to put it this way when he objects to the Italian presence in the first place. It would have been easy for the Italians to perform a civilising role there, but they preferred to bleed it dry.

L’imprevidibile piano della scrittrice senza nome by Alice Basso

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for decades. I laughed and laughed at Vani’s spikiness (though well-adjusted readers may not get the same pleasure). The detective plot – desultory, in any case – only got in the way.

Le lingue italiane by Michele Ghirardeli

More a propaganda pamphlet than a textbook. Contains some interesting information in its first half before the propaganda takes over.

Troppo umana speranza by Alessandro Mari

Hard reading because of the wide vocabulary deployed by the author. I wasn’t enjoying it especially so I baled out at half way.

1913 by Florian Illies

Supposedly ‘uno strepitoso affresco dell’anno che precede la grande guerra, in cui Florian Illies fa revivere la sorprendente vivacità di un mondo sull’orlo dell’abisso’. In practice interleaved biographical snippets of figures from the avant garde art world whose story has nothing to do with the political developments of the time.

D’ailleurs, les poissons n’ont pas de pieds by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

At first I relished the intensely poetical narrative style but its slowness and uneventfulness began to grate. Kári’s terrible story is presumably the crux of it.

La rivolta dei Boxers by Peter Fleming

Concentrates on the siege of the Legations and is as gripping as you’d expect. The author seems evenhanded when discussing the faults and merits of the Allies, though nowadays you might hope for greater familiarity with Chinese sources.

Allegro ma non troppo by Carlo M. Cipolla

Slight and whimsical; okay if you don’t hope for too much.

The essay on stupidity is marred by a rather mercenary outlook (unsurprising in someone interested in economics). Othello rather than Dubya would be his Prince of Stupidity.

French Sp/It
2016 -  2300
2015 3675  6780
2014 690  5740
2013 1590  5700
2012 4040 3050
2011 3180 1500
2010 5380
2009 7071
2008 9350
2007 5770
2006 4500
2005 6530
2004 6300
2003 5400
Les somnambules (The Sleepwalkers) by Christopher Clark (extended review)

I found this a gripping and unsettling read.

The author tells us that he intends to discuss the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ of Europe’s descent into war in 1914; he says that the desire to apportion blame has distorted the study of the subject. He then presents an account of the sequence of events which leaves the reader feeling that blame belongs with the Serbs, Russians and French; a conclusion which Clark himself doesn’t believe. He portrays the French in particular as being motivated by fears of German expansionism without investigating how justified these fears might have been. At the end, having shown the Germans in a light of almost total innocence he concludes that everyone is to blame.

His procedure can be seen as a converse to Actonism. Lord Acton regarded his characters as standing before the bar of history; but in the end the evidence never met forensic standards and the criminals were allowed to walk free. Clark, by contrast, says that he isn’t passing judgement at all, and therefore dispenses himself from any obligation to present the evidence even-handedly.

Expert reviewers of his book don’t seem to mind this; they write as if they know that Germany was a military threat and Clark was investigating other aspects: but the lay reader may feel disorientated.

While I’m making adverse comments it’s worth remarking that the ‘sleepwalking’ theme is not much developed and reads like it was bolted on at the end at the insistence of publishers who wanted a pat moral. Some of Clark’s descriptions of his protagonists’ behaviour contradict it.

On the whole I don’t like revisionist texts. It often shows in every paragraph that the author is bending over to prove a point; and you end up reading his words skirmishing against his parti pris. Clark’s book has a completely different feel; you find yourself carried along assentingly, and only on reflection do you realise that the case doesn’t quite hang together.

But in spite of all this I found Clark’s argument powerful. It’s hard to resist the view that Serbia and Russia bear a large part of the blame for the war. Another large part seems to be earmarked for France and (to a lesser extent) Britain, but if you accept the thesis of justified fears of German expansionism, this part can be redistributed (at least to some degree) to Germany. In fact I’d never doubted that Serbia merited a share of the blame, but theirs was the spark which without other actors would never have become a conflagration. It’s the implication that Russia was largely to blame and Austria largely innocent which I find unsettling.

Now Clark’s blaming the Serbians for the Archduke’s assassination has attracted a lot of criticism. I found these words in a lesauterhin review:

C’est une partie fortement contestée notamment pas l’historien britannique Max Hastings, le plus sévère : «Les sources serbes sur lesquelles s’appuie Clark ne sont pas du tout fiables. Sa démonstration de la complicité entre le gouvernement serbe et la Main noire [Organisation secrète nationaliste serbe], qui se base sur une remarque du ministre serbe de l’intérieur en 1920, est irrecevable. De plus, je ne vois pas comment le premier ministre Nikola Pašić et “Apis”, chef des services secrets serbes et de la Main noire, aurait pu faire cause commune alors qu’ils se détestaient. Bien sûr, la Serbie était un facteur de déstabilisation régionale. Mais aucune preuve ne nous permet d’affirmer qu’elle est responsable de l’assassinat de l’archiduc François-Ferdinand.»

Now my recollection is not that Clark assigns the Serbian government any agency in the assassination. Rather he describes the Black Hand is having so much infiltrated the Serbian army and higher government as to be a state within a state, and as being too powerful for Pašić to be able to rein it back. Pašić shared its nationalistic aims but was opposed to its political direction, being a radical democrat while the Black Hand was semi-fascist.

Hastings’s argument reads like Actonism: there’s only one piece of evidence; that isn’t enough; therefore historians must adopt the opposite view to the one it indicates.

I find it hard to relate this solitary remark to any specific assertion in Clark’s book. He says that there is significant evidence that Pašić’s government had prior knowledge of the plot: on p98 we read

...le témoinage le plus eloquent est celui de Ljuba Jovanović, ministre de l’Éducation du gouvernement Pašić. Dans un petit passage de ses Mémoires publiées en 1924 – mais probablement rédigé bien plus tôt – Jovanović raconte que Pašić a informé le cabinet «fin mai ou début juin» que «des personnes se préparaient à aller à Sarajevo pour y asassiner François-Ferdinand»...

but this doesn’t correspond. (Moreover Clark tells us in note 151 that Magrini “a ajouté deux témoinages supplémentaires... ”.) All this concerns foreknowledge of the plot rather than complicity; and the foreknowledge is believed to have come from an informant. It might be hard, even on a rereading, to find what single remark Hastings is referring to since Clark does not claim that the Serbian government had a role in the plot in the first place: he accuses it of being unable or unwilling to suppress the Black Hand, of allowing the assassination to be celebrated rather than mourned, and of failing to properly investigate Serbian involvement. The fact that the head of the Serbian secret services was also head of the Black Hand is sufficient evidence for the first point. Evidence for the third comes from Clark’s statement on p650 (supported by two references) that the Serb government told the Austrians that they hadn’t yet been able to arrest Ciganović...

... ce qui constitue une réponse artificieuse. Dès que le nom Ciganović était apparu dans l’enquête menée à Sarajevo, la préfecture de police à Belgrade lui avait fait quitter la ville en toute hâte, muni d’un ordre de mission spécial, tout en continuant d’affirmer officiellement que personne du nom Ciganović n’avait jamais existé dans le capitale.

(Clark gives us Ciganović’s photo on p90.) This is quite a lot of moral responsibility falling short of direct agency: too extensive to be brushed aside as resting on a single testimony.

Clark also tells us that the Serbian army had recently perpetrated genocidal massacres in its Balkan campaigns. This is not direct evidence for official involvement in the assassination but would justify Austrian mistrust and casts a light on the Russian and French support for Serbia.

The chapters on British policy portray it as Grey’s private preserve; his allies Churchill and Asquith were allowed a little influence. When Grey heard of the Austrian ultimatum he declared “Je n’ai jamais vu jusqu’ici un État adresser à un autre État un document d’un caractère aussi terrible” and Churchill qualified the ultimatum as the “document le plus insolent de son espèce qui ait jamais été rédigé”, all of which is rather hypocritical when you consider the demands the British imposed on the Chinese prior to the Opium Wars. European history is full of wars declared on frivolous pretexts. The only atypical aspect of the Austrian response is the fact that they sent an ultimatum at all rather than invading at once.

I remember from Robert K. Massie’s Nicolas & Alexandra the story of how the Serbians accepted all but one clause of the ultimatum (presumably point 6) and how Austria nonetheless declared war. Clark will have none of it. The Serbian response, in his account, was a tissue of weasel words giving the impression of accepting the ultimatum while evading its substance. He gives examples in which the Serbs promise to do what the Austrians require as soon as they receive adequate supporting evidence, which put on the Austrians the responsibility of identifying the culprits from a distance and left the Serbs free to be unconvinced by what they were told. The truth is that without point 6 – the one which undermines Serbian sovereignty by allowing Austrian involvement in the enquiry – the Serbians were free to evade any undertakings they gave. (Indeed the Austrians seem to have taken insufficient care to make their ultimatum enforceable – the Serbs could have given verbal assent to the whole of it and still wiggled out from many of its clauses.)

It’s disheartening to see disagreement on this matter, which doesn’t rest on knowledge of hidden sources but on the interpretation of a public document which has been under scrutiny for a century. If you can’t trust historians to report it accurately, how confident can you be of what they tell you?

At the end of Sleepwalkers the French withdraw their army 10km from the German border, although apparently they were treaty-bound to declare war on Germany. German troops, presumably, were pinned down by the threat so that insufficient numbers were left on the Eastern front. If the Germans had sat tight would the French have advanced on the border and the British supported them?

I was left feeling that Clark had produced powerful evidence for blaming the Serbs and Russians for the war, but that his presentation was so partial that the reader is left more perplexed than he started. I could read other books to fill the gap but I wasn’t wanting to embark on an open-ended study, just to deepen my knowledge of a subject I haven’t revisited for many years.

It’s interesting that when the Austrians discussed their war plans with the Italians they were quite off-hand about Italians intervention (“You will of course consult your own interests”) and made no mention of the assassination as a relevant factor. I suspect that response to the assassination was a valid justification for the Austrian declaration of war but wasn’t seen as one at the time: in the Austrians’ eyes it was a pretext for a territorial adjustment and they didn’t want to have to share their gains with the Italians.

Pirates by Fabrice Loi

Engaging to read (though hard, largely in Travellers’ slang). If flags a bit around page 200 but picks up. The author has more talents than I care to admit, and the political and humanitarian viewpoint of this novel is one of its merits.

Histoire de Russie et de son empire by Michel Heller

Pleasantly written by an author who makes no effort to economise on commas and writes in the historic present except when occasionally slipping into the historic future. It told me a lot about a subject I previously knew nothing about.

Il crepuscolo della Repubblica di Weimar by Enrico della Pietra

A thesis book but readable and interesting. The author shows great soundness of judgement.

Una pura questione di mortadella by Niccolò Capponi (extended review)

A book of advice on writing popular history and a defence of it. The author prefers the term inclusive history which I don’t like at all (he says that in Italian ‘popular’ means ‘vulgar’).

I find Capponi’s outlook rather mercenary (which is part of his theme). I doubt many people write history for money or fame without a feeling that they have something to say which the world is better for hearing. I don’t want to read books by authors who don’t have this belief.

He’s damning about Macaulay. I often quote Strachey’s summary of the historical virtues which comes close to deeming Macaulay great but swerves aside at the last moment. Strachey says that a ‘point of view’ is an essential ingredient whereas Capponi almost deems it to be an adulteration. I don’t think I agree with either of them.

The trouble with a point of view is it’s something the historian imposes on the past, usually with the aim of finding evidence from history to support his own political opinions. This can hardly fail to lead to falsification.

But the alternative theory that a historian should aspire to robotic objectivity is no better, leading to lifeless studies which no one has any reason to read.

The value of history, as I see it, is that it sheds light on the workings and development of society (including the present). This is reciprocal: any historian weighing up evidence about the past will be guided by his understanding of social mechanisms, and this will be extensively influenced by his acquaintance with the society he lives in. This brings with it the risk of anachronism because almost nothing is unchanging.

An example is the debate about whether Parisian uprisings during the Revolution were spontaneous or whether they were incited by wealthy radicals such as the Duke of Orleans. An old story has it that the rioters had the Duke’s shillings in their pockets. A historian’s view of this is bound to be influenced by his understanding of similar revolutions in the twentieth century, and it is no surprise that writers with communist sympathies give credence to spontaneous revolt. (And it subsequently became clear how fraudulent the supposedly spontaneous uprisings of the twentieth century were.)

But there’s next to no documentary evidence, so what else do you have to go on except prior knowledge of how riots take place?

(The story of the Duke’s shilling, by the way, strikes me as hopelessly crude: you don’t incite riots by handing layabouts money, you incite them by getting your henchmen to spread rumours of an imminent massacre. You might find shillings in pockets but you won’t find the chain of whispered reports leading back to the Palais Royale.)

So what a historian needs is a desire to understand the past and the present together, and to use each to shed light on the other. It’s a desire which certainly puts his objectivity under strain, but history without it is lifeless. And I suspect that Capponi’s hyperobjective stance is not unrelated to the fact that he’s a military historian, which is a field somewhat removed from idealogical pressures and interests.

Perhaps I view popular history with even more favour than Capponi (who’s a practitioner) for precisely this reason. History as a science is the forensic analysis of what happened; history as an art uses it to explain the development of society. Scientific history is what academics aspire to; artistic history is an objective of popular historians; and sometimes they achieve it, at least in part.

The historian who is an artist needs to always see the present as a germ in the past and the past as a germ in the present. He will have a point of view and will be studying the past in order to refine it (not to confirm it); and where it points a moral he is perfectly entitled to draw it. Where the past needs to be judged he should judge it. Neither of these is a scientific or objective practice, but neither compromises the value of his work to readers who take a different view of society.

What, on the other hand, undermines historical writing completely is an author’s inability to describe events without his politics intruding through tendentious vocabulary. Instead of drinking in the narrative and reflecting on the lessons drawn from it, the reader finds himself skirmishing with the writer at every phrase trying to separate the facts from the attitude. A historian who cannot trust the reader with an unvarnished account is not a historian the reader should trust. But though this is not a widespread fault, I think it is commoner amongst academics than among literary historians.

Currently reading: Carnot by A. Picaud

Having read Necci’s book I thought it would be interesting to see the same period through another pair of eyes, but the book was poorly chosen: aimed at youngsters it concentrates on battles and says little about Carnot’s view of the events of his time. Somewhat declamatory.

L’Italia del miracolo by Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi

Not history but a news digest. Not without interest but not what I want. I part company at this point. I have read Roma and 17 volumes of Italia making this by some way the longest book I’ve read; but I’m not out to prove a point.

A small pile of holiday reading

La battaglia di Anghiari by Niccolò Capponi. Readable and moderately interesting, though military history isn’t my thing.

I fratelli Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Everyone raves about Dostoyevsky but this is the second time I’ve started one of his books and found it slow-paced and slow-witted. Gave up quickly.

Il diavolo zoppo e il suo compare by Alessandra Necci. Readable but a little strange. I was pleased to see Talleyrand given his due: too many authors let him off with an indulgent smile. But you’re left wondering how hard a book this was to write. The bibliography is a thumper but the citations in the text are of just a handful of authors, each quoted repeatedly, and some of them rather popular (Stefan Zweig, Duff Cooper). The film Le souper is mentioned several times whereas Lacour-Gayet’s biography gets no mention in the text.

Necci places a lot of weight on Talleyrand’s betrayal of Napoleon but she seems too much in the hands of Madelin, a staunch Bonapartist. Talleyrand would say that he betrayed Napoleon to save France; and while neither Necci nor I place much weight on this, another person could have said the same in good faith.

Consulat et Empire II by Adolphe Thiers. Cheerful trash to read when I have nothing else. Thiers is unable to express himself without tendentiousness. Napoleon’s words and actions are always noble; everyone who isn’t declaring war on him is enchanted by his proposals; and everyone who is declaring war is perfidious. I don’t know where Thiers’s reputation comes from.

A history of the English Language, eds. Hogg and Denison

A little too academic for me.

L’Italia della Repubblica by Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi

Not the most interesting of history. Well enough told except for the elections of 1948. The Communists (who were willing stooges of the USSR) seemed to stand a chance of winning which might have taken Italy into slavery. Fortunately this was averted; Montanelli was one of those who campaigned actively against the PCI. But the authors relate the conflict with an emphasis and with an air of special pleading which undermine the balance of their work.

L’Italia della Guerra Civile by Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi

A weaker volume: somewhat chaotic. The interest may fall off sharply now. I shall read the next volume (della Repubblica) but consider baling out after.

L’Italia in Camicia Nera by Indro Montanelli, L’Italia Littoria, dell’Asse and della Disfatta by Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi

Cervi says that he did most of the writing of the volumes he shared with Montanelli, and a slight change in style and vocabulary is noticeable (‘completare’ and ‘assillare’ aren’t in Montanelli’s) but the reading is still good.

The English and their History by Robert Tombs

Somewhat overrated. I’m probably in sympathy with Tombs’s toryism more than half the time – on the Civil War, the American rebellion, the Empire, the First and Second world wars – yet it’s an uncomfortable sympathy because there’s a whiff of Establishment complacency in his outlook. At times he can be a lame, as in his defence (or palliation) of the unreformed electoral system or his account of the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens or his palliation of the fire-bombing in the Second World War.

The chapters on recent decades are journalism rather than history: there’s no ability to step back and see the working out of underlying forces; everything is taken at face value, and Tory policies which serve the rich are presented as miscalculations rather than as a consistent part of their outlook.

L’Italia del Risorgimento e di Giolitti by Indro Montanelli

Two very good volumes, disillusioned as ever. I think ‘Giolitti’ may be the best in the series.

A small pile of holiday reading

Il mare in un imbuto by Gian Luigi Beccaria. Fairly interesting with Jeremiad tendencies. I’m surprised by his defence of the subjunctive. He’s right, of course, that it supplies shades of meaning, but the same shades could be achieved without the cost of additional declensions and irregularities and prescriptions for when the voice is needed. The French often use the future perfect in a dubitative sense, and, given that it’s part of the language already, this is economical and probably more effective (because the mechanism insinuates doubt rather than serving no other purpose).

Consulat et Empire vol II by Adolphe Thiers. Wars, invasions, that sort of thing. Words such as ‘noble’ leak out of Thiers’s pen whenever he brings it close to paper.

Trafalgar by Benito Pérez Galdós. Not a bad book to read in reasonably simple Spanish. It’s interesting to see the author’s contrast between the cunning and unprincipled English and the unbending Spanish. The Spanish code of honour had no virtue in it – it was as cruel as it was rigid – and the English were probably the more humane. Not only was there no virtue in the Spanish code of honour, there was no future in it either, being hostile to ingenuity and innovation.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Probably as good as Wolf Hall but it made less impact on me: there was something exciting in the way the earlier novel achieved a new form of historical immediacy.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. Good fun, well written and convincing.

Train dreams by Denis Johnson. A slight thing but beautifully written.

L’Italia del Seicento, del Settecento, e Giacobina e Carbonara by Indro Montanelli and Roberto Gervaso

I think Montanelli’s venom slightly gets the better of him in the Seicento: he has it in for the Spanish, the Jesuits, the Counter Reformation, the Papacy, the baroque, and ... the opera, which represents and incites all that’s worst in the melodramatic and histrionic outlook (he says, in addition to the servility) of the Italians.

More measured, and I think increasingly good during the Settecento and the Revolutionary period. Very long volumes; Giacobina e Carbonara would make sense split.

Le 6 Octobre by Jules Romains

I read this for the sake of keeping my French eye in, but read it without enthusiasm. I was conscious during Le rendez-vous that the author was treading water.

L’Italia della Contrariforma by Indro Montanelli and Roberto Gervaso

Marvellously venomous on the Counter Reformation and its effect on the Italian character:

And this is when our countrymen developed the aptitude for the ‘servile’ professions which they possess to this day. They’re the world’s best manservants, butlers, hotel porters and shoe shiners because that’s the course they set for themselves four centuries ago.

And just when you expect an encomium on Giordano Bruno you read that he was a crank.

The treatment of the Reformation is masterly, quite the best I’ve read (though I don’t know how much of it comes from Will Durant, who seems to be the authors’ main source).

I’ve counted three epicentres and three metaphorical ‘literally’s.

A small pile of electronic holiday reading

La formula secreta by Fabio Toscano. Very readable.

Consulat et Empire vol I by Adolphe Thiers. Well Thiers was certainly no historian. His uncritical admiration for Napoleon belongs with the Bollandists. When emissaries from the exiled royal family offer Napoleon the post of chief minister in return for his bringing about a restoration he turns them down on account of the sincerity of his attachment to the ideals of the Revolution – and Thiers takes this at face value. As if Napoleon would submit himself to Louis for as long as it took a Polignac to organise a palace coup.

But I’m coming to like Napoleon. His supporters see him as the Revolution’s last defender, his opponents as its great betrayer. Me, I see him as reviving the Enlightenment ideal of the benign despot and think it a shame that he could never hold back from another war.

I ragazzi del massacro by Giorgio Scerbanenco. Slightly unpleasant (and therefore skippable) in parts.

L’Italia dei Secoli d’Oro by Indro Montanelli and Roberto Gervaso

My occasional slight doubts about Montanelli arise from the hints of militarist enthusiasm which can be found in his pages. At one point he’s quite mystical about the Swiss, saying that having been warlike until the Battle of Pavia they built the civic spirit which lasts to this day.

L’Italia dei Secoli Bui & L’Italia dei Comuni, by Indro Montanelli and Roberto Gervaso

Montanelli is not listed in the Wikipedia category of Italian historians, and that he was indeed no historian can be seen from the fact that his pages are a pleasure to read. If you can get through the Dark Ages you can get through anything.

If he is not listed as a historian, this is certainly because he was the real thing: not setting out to satisfy his peers but speaking with the authority of a mature and meditated understanding.

Lytton Strachey (in his essay on Macaulay) says some interesting things about the practice of history. He seems to be endorsing all that is worst in the subject, but gives this impression only in order to correct it.

What are the qualities that make a historian? Obviously these three – a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them, and a point of view.

Unfortunately historians with a point of view are ten a penny, and sometimes there seems no escape from the horde of writers presenting reactionary or progressive interpretations of their period. But having a point of view is not enough:

The misfortune is that what he thought was not of a finer quality. The point of view is distinct enough but it is without distinction; and Macaulay in consequence remains an excellent but not a supreme historian. His Whiggism was in itself a very serious drawback – not because it was a cause of bias, but because it was a symptom of crudity. The bias was of the wrong kind; it was the outcome of party politics, and the sad truth is that, in the long run, party politics become a bore.

Montanelli’s point of view, it seems to me, is predominantly one of disillusionment with Italy. This again agrees with Strachey, who wrote

At any rate it is curious to observe how many instances there are of great historians who have been at daggers drawn with their subjects.

And these may be compared with the Marxist hacks who write enthusiastically about the French Revolution and the reactionary hacks who write apologias for Tudor authoritarianism.

Montanelli sees Italy as a nation which never succeeded in forming itself; which signed away its vigour when the Romans handed military functions over to mercenaries; which missed out on the ennobling qualities of chivalry because the Germans settled in small numbers; and which was permanently weakened by the canker of the Papacy. An Englishman who wrote in the same way would be lynched by the popular press: “Do you love your country, Mr Montanelli?”

Storia di Roma, by Indro Montanelli

Montanelli is passed over by Galasso’s Storici italiani del Novecento, and it’s clear he was no historian from the fact that he wrote a 20-volume Storia d’Italia. The Storia di Roma was written independently from the rest as a series of newspaper articles and subsequently prepended to it. As the instalments were published Montanelli received increasingly indignant letters criticising him for ‘levity, trivialisation, defeatism and outright impiety’ but he felt that only by portraying the Romans as human could he make their history intelligible and interesting, so – although he put forward no new interpretation – this is what he did. (Shame he missed the chance to portray Eleagabulus as an early diversity champion.) And I did indeed find his account intelligible and interesting, especially after Caesar has crossed the Rubicon and his society can be seen to be made of the same stuff as our own (earlier on it has the air of being glimpsed through a veil of myths).

One of the merits of the account, especially as the barbarians move in, is its sweep – something Gibbon sacrifices to his stately pace and langourous digressions: you feel the momentum of the successive incursions.

At the end the question on my lips was “what happened next?”, so I started the following volume.

I viceré, by Federico de Roberto

Perfectly readable: more a saga than a novel with no great sense of unity. A criticism I read suggested that the theme was the decay of the Uzeda blood through inbreeding, but though a few passing remarks have this tenor the novel would be no different without them. Written with a great deal of detachment. Ciero seems to mean ‘face’.

L’Italia dei Notabili, Indro Montanelli

Makes the most of an uninspiring period.

Il fu Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello

I’m afraid it suffers the modernist vice of being more interesting to describe than to read. The conceit of someone changing identity and changing back may sound promising, but neither plot, style nor characterisation offers much reward.

L’ultimo dei Vostiachi, by Diego Marani

Less enjoyable than the Finnish grammar: too many murders and not enough irony.

Vite parallele, by Plutarco

I just read the introduction: there was too much wrong with the (Kindle) text to go further.

Eretici Italiani del Cinquecento, by Delio Cantimori

Perhaps this could be a dramatic narrative, but it’s a sequence of biographical sketches with deadly theological background. I baled out after 200 pages.

Zibaldone, by Leopardi

Long, as in l-o-n-g. I decided to pause after 116 pages, nothing having gripped me to that point. Leopardi is sometimes described as a prose master, but his style here is unbuttoned to the point of being dishevelled. You play ‘spot the full stop’ but you always lose. Eg. p74

Unlike us, however, the French language makes no bones in the world about borrowing from Greek according to its needs and in recent times has stuffed itself sickeningly, so that already people are making dictionaries of French words derived from Greek, something which is in fact unforgivable because it spoils the language horribly (as ours is debased by the common barbarism of using these same Greek words but taking them especially nowadays from French rather than from Greek, which is no less barbaric for the fact that most people don’t realise that the words are actually Greek but think of them as French, such as despot, demagogue, anarchy, aristocracy, democracy, or with Greek terminations, for example civism, philosophism, etc. etc., which for the most part have been sent out from the French republic through politics but which exist in all subject matters) and most of all because with all scientific writers taking on a nomenclature derived from Greek which had no science, and with not even the arts, crafts, rhetoric, grammar etc. being safe from being filled with Greek even to the extent that their names and those of their parts are not entirely free from Greek, Greek words being the ones we are used to seeing in scientific use, they give to the French language (and would give to any language whatever and will give to Italian if they can be viably transported from French into it) an unfitting air of technicism (to use one of these fine words) and of the geometric and of the mathematical and the scientific which provides the skeleton of the language, reducing it in a way to its joints and because nothing is more innamical to nature than something as dry as geometry, takes away from it all its naturalness and naïveté and simplicity (the source of its beauty) and its grace and elegance and fitness, and also its force and robustness and efficacy which is also completely absent from technical language which doesn’t achieve its effects through language but through what it conveys that is with its meaning and and coherence and logic, or with some concept coldly explained with it.

Well, maybe not a brilliant translation... but what a ramble!

Claudine à l’école, by Colette

Alluring at first, falls flat half way through where it becomes a sequence of schoolgirl reminiscences.

Memorie, by Lorenzo da Ponte

Moderately interesting early on, especially when he describes his career as a court dramatist; uninteresting later, when he details his financial misfortunes.

Very Venetian-inflected.

Senilità, by Italo Svevo

None of the ironic tone of Zeno, perhaps more humane, but with longueurs before it gets going.

A small pile of electronic holiday reading

Il deserto dei tartari by Dino Buzzati. I took this to be an allegory and found it rather irritating. But an allegory of what? An existentialist treatise on the need to give one’s life an external meaning? Advising carpe diem? (It turns out to be an allegory of work in a newspaper office.) I spent my time thinking that allegories are the lowest form of literature: if you agree with the writer’s opinions you have the pleasure of being flattered; otherwise you’re unlikely to persevere.

Le désastre de Pavie by Jean Giono. Highly readable.

A Trieste con Svevo by Diego Marani. Engaging, and making me want to read more of Svevo in spite of his flaws.

Storia della lingua italiana, by Bruno Migliorini

I’ve read nothing similar in relation to any other language. Much of it is fascinating; much dry. Migliorini is an okay writer, though artless in organising his material. It took me some time: coming on for 3 months (much of which I spent mountain biking).

Anna de Noailles, Coeur innombrable, ed. by Elisabeth Higonnet-Dugua

I found both Anna and her editor sympathetic without deriving great interest from what I was reading, until I noticed that the letters consisted almost wholly of compliments. I can’t read that.

A small pile of (mostly electronic) holiday reading

La vita di Vittorio Alfiere scritta da esso. I read this with increasing enthusiasm as Alfiere matures from a fop with literary aspirations to an engaging character.

Breve storia della linga sarda by Matteo Porru. As brief as it claims to be, and interesting enough.

La coscienza di Zeno by Italo Svevo.

Wonderful, though its ironic tone evaporates as the narrative proceeds and at the end I was no longer sure what to make of it.

Storia d’Italia: 1871-1915, by Benedetto Croce

Failed completely. Croce wants to give you the morals with none of the facts they’re based on.

The Romanovs: the final chapter, by Robert K. Massie

I thought it was worth suffering the author’s barbarous dialect for the sake of rounding off ‘Nicolas et Alexandria’.

Storia della storiografia italiana del secolo decimonono, by Benedetto Croce

I’ve always steered clear of Croce, whom I’ve suspected of being a Hegelian philosophaster. It’s true. Also his history is more a history of historians’ ideas than of their practice, making it rather vaporous. But there are better parts, as when he comments on the aridity of the philological school (perhaps now represented by the Cambridge Modern History) or the fashion at the end of the nineteenth century for demolitions and rehabilitations.

Travelingue, by Marcel Aymé

I guess I can live without Aymé. His suggestion that the second world war was a job creation scheme isn’t of the most plausible.

Lepanto: la battiglia dei tre imperi, by Alessandro Barberi

Very readable. Oddly the author seems not to know Turkish, making it a surprising subject for him to have chosen.

Le passe-muraille, by Marcel Aymé

Enjoyable. Aymé’s fables (whose characters exploit their magical endowments to circumvent moral constraints) cast an ironic light on humanity. One or two of the stories are weaker, but I like En attendant best for its humanity and its demotic.

Guerra e pace, by Lev Nikolaevic Tolstoj

Patchy. The debunking of Napoleon and the descriptions of war are the best bits; the social drama has fluctuating interest; the philosophy of history is insufferable. The shape of the book is weird, with the novel petering out into a philosophical discourse with no sense of an ending.

Carlo I d’Austria e la pace sabotata, by Mario Carotenuto

The author tells us (on the basis of evidence which wouldn’t persuade anyone) that the downfall of the Habsburgs and the rise of secularism are a masonic conspiracy. Chosen at random.

Uranus, by Marcel Aymé

I take a slightly mixed view of this. Aymé is obviously the real thing both as a writer and as a person, and his detached scepticism is the ideal viewpoint. But though his outrage at the communist Resistance may have been perfectly justified, you wonder whether they were the worst evil at the time.

The eternally cheerful Watrin is an engaging character. Maybe he speaks for the author when he says

Nous sommes si riches, si secrets a nous-mêmes, tant de sources bouillonnent en nous, et il y a tant de routes, de chemins, d’allées et de sentiers qui s’ouvrent a chaque instant devant nos pas, que le fait de s’égarer dans l’un ou dans l’autre n’a rien qui doive surprendre beaucoup.

Il conte di Montecristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Tripe. Very long tripe.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan

Perfect (except perhaps for its title).

Storia universale degli ultimi cento anni, by Eduardo Fueter

General history often reads like being wise after the event, and trivialises everything by reducing it to material causes. The writer sometimes tries to make his materialism look like a conclusion from his studies, but in reality it’s a methodological assumption.

If you read an evenemential history of the French Revolution you see a hundred causes of it, ranging from the colourful (Ogny’s machinations against Turgot) to material and generalisable factors (the Laki eruption). You feel wiser, but not so wise that you can see patterns in history. If you read a more materialistic account in which patterns are visible you shouldn’t believe a word of it.

A small pile of (electronic) holiday reading

Storici italiani del Novecento by Giuseppe Galasso. Fairly interesting, though I’d bought it thinking of the nineteenth century.

Bouvard et Pécuchet & Dictionnaire des idées reçues by Flaubert. An amusing ironic glance at the learning of his day. Not so good when he pokes fun at the protagonists’ desires to build a new life, and too long.

Il cane di Dio by Diego Marani.

Marani’s dystopian theocracy is a cross between the Counter Reformation, the American Evangelical Right, and Big Brother. It seems to have offended some of his countrymen, who perhaps think that the Catholic Church has spent two millennia as an example of apostolic mildness.

Faith and works. This set me thinking of the Counter Reformation, which I think of as a time of saints and inquisitors. Most secular people lie on a continuum from mild altruism to considerable selfishness. Religious fervour takes people off the scale, leading to superhuman self-sacrifice or subhuman viciousness. During the Counter Reformation it was a career decision which way a person would lean: twin brothers went opposite ways. It’s easy to see how much contempt is merited by the inquisitors, but how should we esteem the saints? To my mind they were more socially useful but no more deserving of respect.

This solves the problem of Justification. Works alone have value, and they have it only when unsupported by faith.

Quatre-vingt treize, by Victor Hugo

Very bad, verging at times on Soviet-style. Hugo makes no attempt to palliate the Terror, but instead – like Lamartine – glories in its aweful beauty. Something rotten took heart in France’s liberal intelligentsia which wasn’t expelled until Furet took a more honest view.

And apart from politics it’s just a melodrama.

Nicolas et Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie

Fine and moving, though more biography than history.

Storia di Napoli, by V. Gleijeses

A little tedious before the Swabians, then reasonably interesting. Huge pages – the 900 should count double.

The author devotes a longish section at the end of each chapter to cultural history. I have not so far read these parts with any interest. It’s fascinating to read about authors and painters whose works you value, but unbearably dull to read about figures of merely historical interest.

The evenimential history has its ups and downs. Gleijeses describes the viceregal period as ‘scialba monotona e triste’ (colourless monotonous and regrettable), which could profitably be quoted in his blurb.

Gleijeses’s conservatism may get the better of his objectivity, but in the end I read him sympathetically.

Les mots qui me font rire, by Jean-Loup Chiflet

Popular journalism. Abandoned after 150 pages.

Le grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier

Good – not cuisant like Sylvie, but memorable.

La marche de Radezky, by Josef Roth

Nothing special.

A small pile of holiday reading

The Mughal throne by Abraham Eraly. A most enjoyable read. Eraly is no Macaulay but he has some of the same tendencies – whiggish, trenchant in his judgements, and seeing history through its picturesque incidents.

Through the language glass by Guy Deutscher. Another very enjoyable read. Deutscher presents a healthy field advancing through ingenious and enlightening studes. But though it’s a good book, the interest lies in what the author reports more than in what he adds.

A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan and There but for the by Ali Smith. Two books by female authors born in 1962 which featured in the 2011 reviews; both with rather mystifying non-linear narratives. There but for the has some wonderful moments – most of all the dinner party scene – but fizzles out. The goon squad, on the other hand, gains coherence as Sasha emerges as its centre.

Louvel le régicide by Jean Lucas-Dubreton. As one would expect, a readable account of an incident of no great significance. I think I shall draw a line under JL-D.

Varété by Paul Valéry. I read ‘La crise de l’esprit’ and its ‘Note’ and a few words ‘Au sujet d’Adonis’ without seeing why I should have.

Valéry assigns the distinctive qualities of European civisation to the triple influence of the Romans, the Greeks and the Church. One might question this, but there is also a circularity when he implies that it’s having these antecedents which gives it its value.

Rome and the Church at times had pervasive extent, but I don’t think European civilisation owes much to them. Greek thought had characteristics in common with the movement in European thought which was set in motion by the Renaissance (or in truth somewhat earlier), and the Renaissance was given impetus by the exodus of Greek scholars after the fall of Constantinople; but the lines of thought which it developed owed little to them, and I’m inclined to think that the main influence of Greek thought was by means of the ancient Greeks acting at a distance through their writings rather than through any cultural continuity.

The dominant feature of western thought which has given it its quality is its breaking free from the doctrines of the reigning religion. This feature is apparent in the Renaissance (15th century), the Reformation (16th), the Enlightenment (18th) and the scientific movement (19th). The 17th century – the century of the Counter Reformation – is the century in which western society trod water.

If I was to seek a role for the Church in the development of western culture, I’d be at a loss to know whether to look for a positive influence through encouragement or a negative one through provoking a reaction. If Christianity had been more tolerant or more rational than other religions we might look for the former; if less, the latter. In fact I suspect it was less tolerant and somewhat more rational than the average religion, but a bystander in the rise of western thought.

Discussing the contrast between European and Indian civilisations with Tracey, it occurred to me that one important feature of western philosophy is that it grew up in conjunction with mathematics (as did the thought of the Islamic Golden Age). The direct influence of maths on philosophy has not always been beneficial, but its indirect influence has been cardinal: it provides a paradigm for how to settle questions which can’t be settled empirically, of how to criticise and develop abstract theories. This is what was needed to take philosophy beyond rhapsodising.

Chaleur du sang, by Irène Némirovsky

An impressive but curiously detached book, taking a forensic view of rustic amours. Another author might think in terms of passion rather than overheated blood.

La mémoire retrouvée, by Edmund de Waal

French translation of The hare with amber eyes: okay, but not as good as it’s made out to be.

Train de nuit pour Lisbonne, by Pascal Mercier

Drags a little.

Recently visited: Lettres de Madame de Sévigné

My 1775 edition is in 6 tiny volumes. I started reading it ages ago and got nowhere. So far I’ve seen nothing except courtesies and chitchat. I read 100 pages before receiving something readable in the post.

Another small pile of holiday reading

The Infinities by John Banville. Mostly enjoyable because of its style, though a little leisurely.

Breve historia de los Borbones Españoles by Juan Granados. Interesting in spite of its summariness, and not too hard to read.

Orages ordinaires by William Boyd. A good novel (plot-driven, as you might say), quite easy to read in French.

The blue afternoon by William Boyd. A waste of time (and gory at times).

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani. Quite good – I wish I’d read it in the original Italian.

Parigi Libertina by Olivier Blanc. Only a moderately interesting subject matter, but a good writer: very knowledgeable, and sympathetic to his characters without being under any illusions about the society they created and lived under. I’d like to read more by him (perhaps in the original French), but the book which sounds most interesting (about spies during the Revolution) is all but unobtainable.

Blanc grants himself the indulgence of citing characters’ names in full, sometimes occupying more than a line of print: eg. ‘Stephanie-Félicité du Crest du Saint-Aubin, marchesa di Sillery, contessa di Genlis’.

My new scheme for improving my Spanish is to desist from a frontal attack, and instead read lots of Italian, which I find much easier but which has a fair amount of vocabulary and grammar in common.

A small pile of holiday reading

A week in December by Sebastian Faulks. This was very enjoyable. I found the author’s rather conservative outlook refreshing given its honesty (living as I do on a diet of rather smug liberalism in a certain newspaper) – until the author puts into his porte-parole’s mouth the question “where did it come from, this greed for money?” as if the behaviour of bankers in 2008 was a new development in human conduct.

Revolutionary road by Richard Yates, which I started but did not finish.

Cuentos Andinos by E. Lopez Albujar, which I hoped would be in easy Spanish but turned out to contain a lot of Quechua.

Mother Tongues by Helen Drysdale, which is fairly interesting, bien pensant, but (alas) didn’t enthuse me either.

And maybe more which I’ve forgotten.

Les brigands & Le drame des poisons, by F. Funck-Brentano

I thought FFB would be a good historian to read; learned and dispassionate, but with an eye to the interest of his subject. Maybe, but these were not well chosen books, in part because of too much similarity in their subject matter. They consist of anecdotes of early modern crime, sometimes with horrible elements. The pages of les Brigands are large.

Petit traité de manipulation à l’usages des honnêtes gens, by R.-V. Joule & J.-L. Beauvois

Not my usual subject matter. Interesting enough, but longer than it needs to be.

Bohème littéraire et Révolution, by Robert Darnton

A collection of papers on the book trade during the late ancien régime, interesting but not enthusiasmant.

En esto creo, by Carlos Fuentes

Too bad I don’t know Spanish.

Marie-Antoinette, vol III, ed. Arneth and Geffroy

The interest which had picked up in vol II rather declined again.

L’invasion, by Ludovic Halévy

Well written but... yet another war.

Kléber, by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

Fairly well written, but how much does one care about the lives of the Napoleonic generals?

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