Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Snyder’

Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

On holiday reading

April 13, 2019

What sort of things do you take away to read when you go on holiday? I’m thinking about this because I’ll be off on a walking holiday soon, and it seems that every year I find it harder to decide what to take with me to read…

Sometimes I’m attracted by the idea of easy reading, re-acquainting myself with something I’ve read before. Then I remember that in my student days, when I had to ration myself because I was backpacking and there was only room for one book, that I’d save a real doorstop of a book especially for the summer holidays. Some of the reading from those heady days: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which I remember buying in Amsterdam, because I’d run out of things to read; War and Peace; Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; the two volumes of Yevgenia Ginsburg’s gulag memoirs (there’s light holiday reading for you!); Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don; Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz… The other thing I remember about holidays is I used to treat myself to Le Monde every day, because they used to have special summer series, lengthy articles on a historical or cultural theme that ran for a week or two.

So I look at the shelves and there are plenty of thick tomes awaiting my attention: shall it be one of them? The problem is that, in my younger days, holiday reading was always fiction, so a long novel fitted the bill; nowadays there’s far less fiction I’m interested in, and the weighty volumes of history or about religion are not quite the stuff of holiday relaxation. Stymied again.

What usually happens is that I start a pile a couple of weeks before I go, as I’m gradually gathering together all my other kit. The pile of books gets bigger and bigger until the day before I go, when I have to finally plump for a couple of them to last me the ten days or fortnight that I’ll be away. So, they get packed, and then I’ll find myself buying something far more interesting in a local bookshop while I’m away: I can never pass up the chance to scour French bookshops for things that aren’t going to make it into English.

On my current pile (awaiting weeding) for the upcoming holiday: R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – novels set in the Great War – and the Selected Writings of Alexander von Humboldt. I’m also contemplating Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, which I know has had mixed reviews, and Jan Potocki’s Travels.

I’d be interested to know if I’m the only one with such dilemmas, and how any of my readers make their choices.

My A-Z of Reading: H is for History

November 15, 2016

With the arrogance of a sixteen year-old, I decided that I wouldn’t study History for A-Level, I’d do English Literature instead, reasoning that I could always just read the history… and if ever there was a life-changing decision, that was one. I have always read history, but I’m not a historian; sometimes I wish I were, but that’s for another existence, someday. With more mature reflection, I still approve of that decision so long ago, since my love of literature has been lifelong, and the basis of three degrees and an entire and very enjoyable career as a teacher.

I can’t count myself a historian because my reading has been haphazard and wilful, because I’m not trained in the evaluation of source material, and I have no way really of knowing if the knowledge and understanding I think I’ve acquired is sound, although it seems to have suited my purposes.

I have read quite widely in the history of Poland and Eastern Europe, and have authors on whom I choose to rely: Norman Davies on Poland I find excellent, and Timothy Snyder on the borderlands and ethnic mishmash that was Eastern Europe before the 1945 ethnic cleansing. I’ve read quite a lot on the Soviet Union, an experiment which has always interested me, perverted though it ultimately was, as well as unsuccessful. This has been as a background to my reading of the literature of those areas and countries: my training as a literature expert taught me the importance of context and background.

I’ve read widely in religious history: I’m particularly interested in the earliest years of Christianity and how it developed before it became an official state religion and more interested in temporal power than spiritual soundness. Again, my reading is rather unsystematic: I have found Geza Vermes very interesting, and Diarmaid MacCulloch most knowledgeable and thought-provoking, but whether that counts as balanced study, I know not. Similarly, the rifts in Christianity that resulted from the Reformation have long gripped me. I studied that period several times in history lessons at school, both from a Catholic and an Anglican perspective. Since then I’ve read more widely; again, MacCulloch has impressed through his thoroughness and contextualisation, but I have also gained much from the work of the relatively little-known Catholic historian Philip Hughes, who wrote serious tomes in the 1950s, particularly on the English Reformation. I have the abiding feeling that an awful lot was lost in the cultural vandalism of those times in England. But is my knowledge and understanding balanced? And then I comfort myself with the realisation that my knowledge and understanding of literature, wide and broad as it is, is hardly balanced or comprehensive, and nor is it capable of so being.

As and when the whim has taken me, I’ve branched out: I needed background on Arabic literature I was reading and so took in Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples; I’ve found E P Thompson’s history of revolutions very thought-provoking; I have had an enormous tome on the history of the United States on my to-read list for over a decade.

Why history: the triteness of ‘those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it’ is nevertheless true; I want to understand why we, as a species, have made such a hash of our world and ourselves, and to discover some hope, perhaps, that we aren’t permanently doomed to be in a mess, even though we will surely not draw nigh to utopia in my lifetime. At the moment, my feeling is that the tension between the individual and the group or collective is not being given sufficient attention, that competition rather than co-operation is not good for us, and that meddling in the affairs of others rather than just getting to know and live peaceably with them, isn’t helping either. And those are probably not the conclusions of an historian…

My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

Modris Eksteins: Walking Since Daybreak

March 5, 2015

41NX3WWBQ5L._AA160_This book adds to the territory covered by Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, with a specifically Latvian perspective, but overall, it’s rather flawed in its execution. But over here, in the (relative) security of western Europe, we know very little about the Baltic nations, and we ought to know more. For centuries, Latvia and Estonia were German-ruled provinces, athough often subject to Russian supervision and control: this is still an issue today, when Russia may seem to regard the area as its own backyard, much in the way that the US regards and treats Latin America…

It’s the structure of the book that’s ultimately at fault, I feel: Eksteins wants to bring out significant parallels between what went on pre-1914 and post-1989, along with recounting the sufferings wreaked on the small nations by the Second World War. Interwoven into his historical account is his own family’s history, which is fascinating, but there’s rather too much going on for the book to retain clarity.

Small nations caught between the German and Russian steamrollers inevitably suffer from both sides, and their suffering is accentuated by picking the wrong side to support. The history, both national and racial, of the region, is very complex – as Snyder has clarified so expertly – and Western oversimplification of the issues, and naivete in response to the Russians, betrays a total lack of understanding which the people do not deserve, and which is, ultimately, potentially very dangerous.

I had not known about the horrors of the wars between Russia and Germany over the Baltic region in the aftermath of the Great War. Eksteins also manages to clarify an issue I had wondered about, namely the Latvians’ support of the Nazis during the Second World War and their collaboration in the killing of the Jews, which seems to have resulted largely from the previous Soviet occupation, where many of the leaders and powerful figures were Jewish…

Ekstein’s family ultimately end up as displaced persons in Germany before they eventually are accepted as immigrants to Canada; again, I learned much about the trials of displaced persons at the end of the war, their horrendous treatment by all sides – that’s Germans, Russians and the Western Allies – but the focus gets lost towards the end of the book as the family story leaves the centre-stage and the author expresses his indignation at the Allied atrocities of carpet-bombing of German cities. He is absolutely right about the moral swamp that both sides were mired in, though: yes, the Germans started it all, but war corrupts all who engage in it.

It’s a useful, harrowing and challenging book, and it’s easy for me to say that the structure is a problem, as I’m not sure how else he might have done it. In the light of current events in Eastern Europe and the gross oversimplifications and posturings of our leaders, it was a timely read.

Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

Philip Marsden: The Bronski House

June 30, 2014

51Z75D307VL._AA160_Given my family history, I read any tale of the wanderings and travels of Polish emigrés I can lay my hands on; this one sat around for several years, but I finally got around to it. It’s a tale with a difference: it’s told by an English writer who came to know the Polish woman whose story he tells, rather than by the woman herself, and this means there’s a certain interaction between the two of them, which can get in the way at times. And, although it’s a fascinating story in itself, it feels odd coming from someone outside the events…

It’s a memoir from the Kresy (that’s the Eastern borderlands of the old, pre-War Polish Republic) as many such memoirs are, because they are about a world and a country that has vanished forever, and the story-teller cannot return, but it’s a memoir with a difference, because Helena is a member of the landed gentry, not the peasantry or lower classes, and her story begins rather earlier than the 1940s, which is when they usually begin. Many trials, tribulations and war lead to exile, but what interested me most of all was the picture of Poles as landlords, masters, overseers, not much liked by the local inhabitants who were Poles, Belorussians, Ukranians, Jews, and I could see into the complexities which led to the various killings and ethnic cleansings during and after the Second World War. This is all superbly documented by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, both of which should be required reading before anyone has the temerity to sound off about recent events in Ukraine.

The story of Helena’s eventual return to her childhood haunts in contemporary Belarus were very moving; traces of a vanished world are still visible (just) but will be gone forever when a generation finally dies out. And she was lucky, in being able to get back to visit.

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