Friday, June 15, 2012

Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower - preparing the mental battlefield

The idea that reading a Zola novel set in Paris or a 16th century French play on a Biblical subject is preparation for a visit to southern France is questionable.  Rather than read about the subject that will be in front of me – I mean, I am doing a bit of that, and thanks for the suggestions – I just spend a month or two reading French literature more broadly.  "Broadly" has turned out to be kinda narrow actually, since a number of the books are about Madame Bovary.

Regardless, the hope is that the operation of the mental space I label France will be alert and active whenever I set foot in France.  The goal, I guess, is not to guide my experience in France but to be receptive to whatever I encounter.  I mean, whatever I encounter that is not pulled from the Mediterranean and sautéed in olive oil.  For that experience, I am amply prepared.

I recently read Barbara Tuchman’s history (or “portrait”) of the years before World War I, The Proud Tower (1966), to help with my mental battlefield preparation.  Multiple fields, I hope.  Tuchman’s book consists of eight long chapters, some focused on the politics of a country, some with international movements.  So France gets a chapter (on the Dreyfus Affair, mostly) and England gets two, but Tuchman also assembles chapters on anarchism, international socialism and pacifism.

All in all, I would guess that the content is about a third French, so excellent prep.

The trick of the book is that it is not about the path to or causes of World War I, even though it obviously, inevitably, is.  A good part of Tuchman’s work as a historian was to clear her own mental space of the presence of the war.  Catastrophe was, for most people, not just around the corner, no sirree.  For me, then, some sections read like Greek tragedy, where only I know what Oedipus is about to discover, while representatives of the major powers agree to forbid the dropping of explosives from airships, and to revisit that and other questions at the next Peace Conference, to be held in 1915.  Don’t you fools see, Oedipus is married to his own mother!

Although an interest in French history led me to the book, the most dazzling chapter was on Germany.  Apparently finding a narrative of the activities of Kaiser Wilhelm II too stupefying to stand on its own, Tuchman begins with Richard Strauss and ends with Igor Stravinsky, visiting Hofmannsthal, Nijinsky, Debussy and other avant-gardists in between.  The vulgar and brilliant Strauss continually dances around the idiotic Kaiser and his militaristic “Nietzschean cult.”

It is all very strange, actually, art history lashed to political history.  It should not work so well.  The political part of the story turns out to be not about the Prussian elites' actions but their tastes, their culture.   Some of Tuchman’s ideas about the changing taste for innovation are quite subtle, and I need to work through them more.  I do not read a book like Tuchman’s to answer questions but to help prepare new questions.  I loathe Strauss, honestly, but Tuchman has convinced me that I should try to get a handle on him some day.

The Proud Tower was just republished in a Library of America edition, although  I read an old paperback with a ludicrous psychedelic cover – look, the Kaiser is melting!  I feel a bit bad for not including a single example of Tuchman’s writing, although much of her skill is less evident at the sentence level than in the careful and even ingenious structure and balance of the book.   “She always believed that history was a branch of literature,” Tuchman’s editor says.


  1. I read the book with expectations formed on The Guns of August, and felt let down, on a couple of points. First, she had too often taken to writing in units of phrases rather than in words. Second, there was the the tendency to hype contests as the irresistible force v. the immovable object, for example Balfour v. Asquith.

    Having said that, I should say that most of what I know about the Dreyfus case comes from that book, and there are other bits, as for example about Tom Reed, that I have not forgotten in 30 years.

  2. "The idea that reading a Zola novel set in Paris or a 16th century French play on a Biblical subject is preparation for a visit to southern France is questionable."

    It is. :-) I suggest you try Jean Giono, if you've never read him. That's the South of France.

  3. George, thanks. I can reverse your comment - what nice news that Guns of August is even better written than The Proud Tower!

    The Tom Reed section was surprisingly good, a great example of how to build a history around a personality.

    Giono writes about Provence, so where I'm going that'll be much too far north. Although it must still be a good idea in general.

  4. History *is* a branch of literature! The slightly-less-fabricated (or, if you like, slightly-more-footnoted) branch.

  5. One can write well about truth just as one can write well about lies, nonsense, fiction, and similarly enjoyable subjects.

    By "one" I mean "hardly anyone."

  6. Carlyle in "On History" is interesting: he decides that history is not only a branch of literature but the branch of literature, the trunk and also the root of literature: "History, as it lies at the root of all science."

  7. I had forgotten about that. I think Carlyle means it, to the extent that he is not merely talking about History as written by Thomas Carlyle.