Posts Tagged ‘European history’

Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found In Saragossa

June 15, 2022

     I dug this out to re-read at least a couple of years back, and finally got around to it: why did I take so long? I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it apart from the fact that I’d really enjoyed it first time around. Now I can’t wait to watch the film, which is apparently a 1960s cult classic.

You won’t get much of a summary of the plot, because there isn’t really one, and because it would be impossible. It centres on the bizarre adventures of an officer in the Wallonian army while travelling through Spain in the eighteenth century, but he’s really only the vehicle for an astonishing series of interlinked fantastical tales narrated by a group of different characters, ranging from a gypsy chief, various Spanish nobles, the Wandering Jew and many more. It’s a picaresque ramble rather than a novel, very reminiscent of the nested tales which are the famous Thousand Nights and One Night; it’s fluent, easy reading which rapidly draws you in, and you’re hooked, with no real idea where you will be heading…

The history of Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is woven into the backcloth, but where truth ends and fantasy begins, I have no idea.

Potocki – and if you read any biographical account of his life, you’ll quickly discover what a curious character he was – creates a very wide range of interesting characters who all have tales of varying degrees of complexity to share; the tales are broken off regularly, in the same fairly simple fashion, every evening, and someone’s tale will be resumed, or a new one will start, the following day. Thus there is some suspense of a sort, if you can retain all the different tales and characters in your head.

I found myself wondering what Potocki was trying to achieve, since when he wrote (early 19th century) the novel was rather more developed in terms of plot, style and characterisation in quite a few countries. He certainly comes across as a freethinker in terms of both morals and religion, via the activities and attitudes of his characters. There is also a certain amount of self-reference in terms of the nature of narrative, its complexity and how stories should be told; he engages with his readers, somewhat in the manner of Fielding.

Potocki’s great learning is clearly in evidence, as are his wide travels, and various Faustian aspects are woven into some of the tales: we never know whether the devils are real or not, and our hero never reveals the secret to which he is sworn in the earliest chapters. It works its way to a fair whirlwind of an ending; the whole thing is quite a stunning tour-de-force, and I’m intrigued now to see how on earth anyone managed to turn it into a film. I may report back…

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol1)

April 9, 2022

     It’s well over thirty years since I first came across and read this monumental work by Norman Davies, who is the current expert par excellence on Polish history, so much so that all of his works have been translated into Polish and seem to rank alongside native-born historians’ work…

He begins by making it clear that it’s not merely the physical/ geographical location of Poland in the Central European plain sandwiched between Germany and Russia that creates many of that nation’s difficulties, but also Poland’s rule, and lack of it, too. He manages dexterously to pick his way through the minefield of the borderlands, national allegiances and historical changes in a way only recently paralleled by Timothy Snyder; he also demolishes a good number of nationalist myths and sacred cows along the way. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this history was written in the days of the People’s Republic, too.

There was much intermingling of races and peoples back in the days before the earliest origins of the Polish state in the tenth century, along with mobility of all frontiers: here is an aspect of the region’s history that the British, safe on our little island, repeatedly prove unable to understand. Reading for personal reasons, I’m still trying to unpick the history and geography of the region of my ancestors, on the verges of Poland/Lithuania and Belarus.

The maps are mostly excellent: one really can attempt to understand the complexities of the past millennium with their help, although the chaotic politics and regional warfare over centuries do still go over my head.

There are still surprises to this experienced reader of Polish history: from the stridency and bigotry of the 21st century Polish church, you would never deduce the spirit of toleration during the Reformation era, the lively debates that took place, and the strength of Calvinism at the time. Davies shows us how the nation eventually developed into a bulwark of Catholicism, and this was obviously reinforced by the resistance to Soviet rule, and the election of a Polish pope, some time after Davies was writing this book.

Poland’s economic and political problems seem to have stemmed from its being a decentralised state for much of its existence, as well as a complex, multi-ethnic mix, with its borders in pretty constant flux; the country was seriously anarchic during the crucial 17th and 18th centuries when most nation-states were consolidating themselves, with an over-emphasis on individual liberties for nobles and magnates which impeded the development of a strong centre which might have more successfully resisted Russian and Prussian encroachment; the nobility waged many of their own private wars, and paralysed the state through their use of parliamentary veto; magnates could also be bought up, and were, by the nation’s enemies…

We can clearly see the origins and development of Poland’s deep-seated mistrust of Russia, its rulers and their methods; recent events justify this wariness. Equally, we can see the origins of anti-Jewish sentiments which developed over the years, and about which the current regime is in denial.

Davies tries very hard to enable his readers to make sense of centuries of chaos, but at times, even to this seasoned reader, it became dull, overloaded with (probably) necessary detail. Nonetheless, the necessary broad outlines are there. This volume ends with the disappearance of Poland from the map in 1795; I shall take up the second volume when I can find it (it’s in a box somewhere…).

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

%d bloggers like this: