Monday, October 15, 2018

Titans of History: The Giants who Made our World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Paperback, 640 pgs, Pub: October 16th 2018 by Vintage (first published June 1st 2009), ISBN13: 9780525564461

This Vintage paperback original published this October is just the kind of thing people slaving away in their individual silos might like to read in snatches to put major figures in history in their proper perspective. I always wanted something like this when I was learning history: ordinarily we look individually at parts of the world. This book integrates history.

Each figure Montefiore chooses to introduce ordinarily gets a page or two. This is just enough to tell the major contributions of figures you may have only heard of but didn’t know why they were remembered. What was so interesting for me was that the history is chronological so we can see widely disparate events, discoveries, inventions with their contemporaneous personages elsewhere in the world, Walter Raleigh was roughly contemporaneous with Tokugawa Ieyasu and Akbar the Great.

In one memorable entry, Montefiore places the Borgias together: Pope Alexander VI and his children, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia. The details of this family are so gruesome—the face slowly destroyed by syphilis and covered with a golden mask—that we wonder their foothold lasted so long and the conditions of society that produced it. Rodrigo Borgia, who eventually called himself Pope Alexander VI, was reputed to be seductively charming in person but that hardly seems enough to sustain a reign of debauchery and vice. Montefiore gives a few clues which the interested reader might pursue to a more rigorous study.

Women, South Americans, and Black Africans get relatively short shrift, but then so have they through time. These are names we for the most part recognize already, giving us a few short details about the lives of each. Isaac Babel and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov have back to back entries, Babel being noted for his Red Calvary stories relating the brutality of Lenin’s 1920 war on Poland. Yezhov is remembered for the frenzy of his arrests as a secret policeman under Stalin, anticipating the direction of the leader without explicit instructions. “He doesn’t know when to stop,” is how a colleague described him.

In the modern day, relatively few people are singled out, and those are mostly politicians or government leaders. JFK, Gorbachav, Elvis, Saddam Hussein, Muhammed Ali, Pol Pot, Thatcher…there are a few others, but the weighting is clear. In the end this book is grist for the mill. We can argue about what the author has chosen, but we would have to put together a series of arguments. It could be a fruitful endeavor for someone interested in how individuals shape events.

This is dinner party material. Random facts and random choices of famous figures within the range of possibilities can be interesting. The most damning bit would be that a page or two or even three for any major figure is not nearly enough space to explain that person or their effects. But if you just want to quickly understand what a person is known for, this could be a good choice. And it might be good for teens when paired with other work.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy

Hardcover, 144 pgs, Pub July 10th 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN13: 9781635571912

Deborah Levy is a woman for our times. She is up to her neck in this moment, stewing like a teabag. One can imagine calming a stressed constituent by sitting her down and handing her a cup…a copy of Levy’s slim new book, a working autobiography, a quiet, private, assessing look at a life which tries to keep the love from leaking out.
“Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.”
Levy is an adult. If she hasn’t seen it all, she seen plenty enough to make judgments. While she doesn’t “have it all together,” she is confident enough to know that is not always the most salient fact in a well-lived life.

I particularly appreciated the description of riding her e-bike to an appointment with the movie people on a rainy day. She wasn’t aware she had several wet leaves caught in her hair from pushing under the apple tree by her writing shed. The movie people want to make a film of one of her books. She tried to convince them she had a technique to present the past alongside the present without the use of flashbacks. She'd in fact learned it from watching favorite filmmakers.

Within this short memoir Levy treats us to several examples of her no-flashback technique. Each is ingenious, and would be an excellent challenge for students of writing. She is inventive enough to have thought of several ways.

The notion of mother is a meditation topic in this memoir. Levy is a mother, divorced now, with two teenaged girls. Her own mother dies during Levy's period of mourning for her old life, pre-divorce. Thus, she is doubly bereaved.
“We do not want mothers who gaze beyond us, longing to be elsewhere. We need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs.”
She recognizes motherhood is some kind of impossible condition, open to fulfilling the needs of others while reneging on what one owes oneself.
“When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.”
Just so.

Born in South Africa, Levy travelled to England as a young girl. Once Levy’s mother made a return visit to SA without her; her postcard back to Levy in England sounded to my ear more like sister than mother. The years fell away. She'd visited friends who supported her during the years of political turmoil during the transition form apartheid to democracy, of which she had been an active participant. Moments like these accordion lives—is this not an example of flashback without flashback?

We read on, only to discover more and more instances of the collapse of time. Levy has indeed given us several ways to view history rather than through a distancing lens.

Perhaps my favorite moment of many which worked beautifully was a description of finding something in a store that would suit her mother--but shortly after her mother’s death. She temporarily forgot the death part and brought the item to the counter to purchase. When her mind suddenly kicked into the present from the past, she cried out Oh No No No No and ran from the store.
“At that moment, I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words. I mean, not just the actual words, but how he might sound when he says them.”
These moments come rarely in a lifetime. When they do, we must mark the insight.

I loved this slim volume so full of someone else. Levy is just interesting.

Postscipt: Levy mentions Nadine Gordimer in one description of her mother and I am reminded I’d never understood, or perhaps never had the patience to understand, Gordimer’s writing. She reminds me this may be a good time for me to experience her again.