Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Snyder’

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.

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 2

November 9, 2013

With the second volume, I’m truly hooked. It’s a good translation, in that it reads well, fluently and effortlessly; occasional words in other languages are left in and translated, so the feel of somewhere different is enhanced. It’s a shame that the maps (included in the first volume) are both poor and inaccurate; a couple of good maps, and also a chapter to explain clearly and succinctly the outlines of the area’s politics in the early years of the last century would have been very helpful.

The similarity in scope and intent with Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy has become much more evident as I’ve made my way through the second volume. It’s a page-turner, but gripping, too: I find myself caring about the characters and what happens to them, as they sleepwalk their way to catastrophe: by the end of the volume we are in 1910 and the clouds are definitely gathering on the horizon. The short-sightedness of the self-satisfied aristocrats can be breath-taking, and the venality of the new middle-classes and more educated people as they exploit the peasantry and ethnic minorities, as well as pull the wool over the eyes of their masters, the aristocrats seems to leave no-one any way out.

The novel clearly overlaps with the life story of the author – this becomes clearer through occasional footnotes by one of the translators, who is a descendant of Banffy’s. Much of what I have read over the years has left me puzzled about the melting-pot of nationalities and races in Central Europe, and their inextricable fates: clearly all was not well under the wing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This let to the new, post-Versailles nation-states, which in many ways were not much better (see, for example, the recent historical research of Timothy Snyder), and ultimately to the ethnic cleansing at the end of the Second World War, and again during the more recent Balkan conflicts. At the moment I have the picture that people can live together if they do not have any real consciousness of themselves as a ‘nation’ or ‘race’, but that there are always people who will play upon differences for their own, often sinister ends. I certainly don’t know what the answer to any of these issues is; what I do know is that the issues are a great deal more complex than Western nations seem capable of understanding.

Where have these novels been? Originally published in the late 1930s, they seem to have vanished for decades: looking the author up in my usual reference books drew a blank in all three; only wikipedia has information.

I’m well into the final volume now…

Hanna Kochanski: The Eagle Unbowed

June 21, 2013

The history of Poland is very complicated, particularly in the twentieth century, and this book is about Poland and the Second World War. I’m not a historian, but am half-Polish. I’ve read quite a lot about the place and the period, and also about the formation of the Polish community in Britain. So I was eager to read this book, and not disappointed: Hanna Kochanski picks her way through the minefield very deftly. Nothing is overlooked, it seemed to me: the difficulties of rebuilding Poland after the Great War, the complexities of relationships between all the races and nationalities in the country, including the Jews, the diplomacy, the invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union, the horrors of occupation and resistance, the betrayals by the Western Allies as the war came to an end…

I have a lot of sympathy with the old idea of the Polish Commonwealth and its attempts to incorporate a large area and many peoples, because my family is from the territories lost at the end of the war; equally, it seems like an idea from a bygone age, which was never going to work in the twentieth century for so many reasons. But the tragedy of what happened at the end of the war is never really going to be understood by people who have no connection with Poland – the huge loss of territory and two large cities, centres of culture and education. Nor, I suspect, is it easy to understand the deliberate attempts by two invading nations to eradicate a country and exterminate its cultural elite.

So Poland is now a much smaller country, and almost exclusively Polish in nationality, and many of the places Kochanski writes about are vanished, totally obliterated by war, or renamed, a part of history now, populated by completely different nationalities.

Is it worth dwelling on the past? It is, for the truth to be told, no matter how awkward. The Poles do not come out shining from all this: their diplomats were arrogant and often unrealistic both before and during the war; some Poles were anti-semitic; some Poles betrayed their country. Poles fought bravely on many fronts during the war, enduring great hardships; the story of how so many came eventually to be released from Soviet captivity and make their many different ways to Britain to join the allies is still being told. I learned that Poland was one of the pioneering nations in parachuting before the war, and I finally realised how chaotic the landings at Arnhem in 1944 were.

Britain does not come out of this smelling of roses either: often racist, hostile, negative towards its ally and her troops, unable or unwilling to understand Poland or its people, often belittling its contribution to the war effort. And yet, after the war, Britain allowed Polish troops to remain rather than sending them back to further captivity… and that’s why I’m British.

Kochanski’s book is wide-ranging; she acknowledges how complex the issues are; she show how small nations get ground up unmercifully in the wheels of big power politics.  Her evaluations are lucid and fair. It’s a valuable and important book, and alongside the current books of Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies, goes a long way towards giving the complete picture of the times.

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