Daniel Larison, senior editor: I have been reading a new biography of the 16th-century Habsburg ruler, Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker. Parker is a leading scholar of early modern history, so when I saw that he had written an account of the life and career of Charles V, I knew it would be worth reading. Parker does an excellent job of weaving together the massive amount of evidence left behind by Charles and his contemporaries to make sense of the emperor’s reign over his complicated domain inherited from his Spanish and Austrian ancestors. A recurring theme in the book is the role of chance and luck in shaping Charles’ life. As Parker notes, he acquired so many territories because of a “sequence of marriages, births and deaths between 1488 and 1509” that left him in control of four states that had never been ruled by the same person before.
In the process, we get a picture of the man who was devoted to his family, but could also be remarkably cruel and domineering in his dealings with his mother and siblings. Charles was a very observant Catholic inclined to punish heresy, but was willing on many occasions to accommodate the Lutheran princes of Germany if it meant they would help fund his wars. The emperor was fluent in several languages out of necessity given the diversity of the lands and peoples under his rule. His far-flung territories around Europe required him to be frequently on the move, and over the course of three decades he traveled more than any other ruler of his time.
Most the emperor’s time and attention concerned his ambitions and interests in Europe, so the bulk of the book covers Charles’ many wars and his efforts to contain the spread of Lutheranism. But Charles was also the ruler of Spain’s overseas territories, and Parker takes time to delve into how he ruled over the newly conquered territories in the Americas. The emperor’s role in overseeing the creation of the colonial administration of these territories was arguably his most enduring legacy.
Drawing on the title of one of his earlier works, Parker points out how Charles’ career shows that “success is never final,” as the domain that he strove to rule all his life would begin to crack apart not long after he abdicated and retired to a monastery.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Why does it always seem like what I read is preparation for future reading? I suppose that’s the Talmudic (or solipsistic, if you’re not feeling generous) nature of literature. In this case, I’ve been back through Michel Houellebecq in anticipation of the translation of his Serotonin: A Novel, which will be published in November. I’d read a few of Houellebecq’s works before, including his fascinating early book on Lovecraft (why do the French always appreciate American horror as much if not more than Americans?) and Submission, which I found to be hilarious and true and touching and sad in all the correct proportions. But I’d never read his most famous work, The Elementary Particles.
I guess the short version is that The Elementary Particles is about two disaffected aging half-brothers, one a brilliant physicist and the other a jaded liberal arts bureaucrat of the sort that is much more common in Europe than America. They both inhabit the hellish, nasty world that is modern France post-1968 sexual revolution, and despite seeming to have such different personalities, suffer the atomization of society in similar ways. The book is often brutal, offering soul-sucking descriptions of sex untethered from intimacy or love and disgusting depictions of cult crimes that would make de Sade blanche. But, as with all Houellebecq, your disgust is exactly the point. And artistic renderings of nihilism always come with perceptive social commentary, such as:
It is interesting to note that the “sexual revolution” was sometimes portrayed as a communal utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the historical rise of individualism. As the lovely word “household” suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.
The quote could have just as easily come from an interview with Christopher Lasch or Augusto Del Noce. And the argument could be made that Houellebecq is as sensitive to recent social history as thinkers of their caliber. But what sets him apart is that he’s also a poet: “Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit. All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal.”