The Accomplishment of Charles V, What Held Europe Together, and the Pleasures of Historical Novels
Sad but not unexpected news from abroad: Christopher Tolkien has died. “Tolkien, who was born in Leeds in 1924, was the third and youngest son of the revered fantasy author and his wife Edith. He grew up listening to his father’s tales of Bilbo Baggins, which later became the children’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit. He drew many of the original maps detailing the world of Middle-earth for his father’s The Lord of the Rings when the series was first published between 1954 and 55. He also edited much of his father’s posthumously published work following his death in 1973. Since 1975 he had lived in France with Baillie.”
The ambition and accomplishment of Charles V: “In late 1555 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the house of Habsburg, returned to the Low Countries, where he was born: there, he began the long, slow process by which he abdicated in favour of his son Philip and brother Ferdinand. It was abundantly clear why such a transfer of power was necessary. It was a cold winter and Charles, white-haired, with shrunken gums exposing blackened teeth, his joints so crippled by gout that he was unable to sign documents with his bandaged hands, was exhausted, infirm and, in his mid-fifties, prematurely aged. The act of renouncing power seemed to bring relief. The following March, he told a Venetian ambassador that he felt better. Many people, he told the ambassador, had said that ‘I wished to make myself monarch of the world,’ but such a thought, ‘I assure you, never came into my mind’. Charles protested too much. Over the preceding four decades, he had attained power on a scale unparalleled in medieval Europe . . . By the age of 19, Charles had come into his inheritance. Co-ruler of Spain with his mother, he was also Holy Roman Emperor: Maximilian had, before his death, wangled his grandson’s election to this semi-divine office by the expedient of huge bribes to the various ‘electors’. To many observers, however, the young emperor seemed to possess neither the physical nor the mental attributes necessary for such an exalted role. He displayed signs of physical weakness, and even compliant courtiers struggled to portray him in a flattering light. Dilating on his blond hair and beautiful blue eyes, they passed over Charles’s prognathism: the pronounced lower ‘Habsburg jaw’ which was so out of alignment that his teeth couldn’t meet, with the result that he slurred his words and couldn’t chew his food properly. One Venetian ambassador described the effect with brutal honesty: ‘his mouth is always open, which makes him look very unbecoming.’ Others thought he seemed passive, ‘bossed around’ by corrupt advisers; to one English representative, he was ‘but an idiot’. Yet Charles would prove them all wrong.”
Varlam Shalamov’s “harrowing” Kolyma stories: “After Stalin’s death in 1953, Shalamov set out to chronicle life in the camps, producing 1,000 pages of what Masha Gessen, the Russian–American author and translator, has aptly called ‘the most harrowing and claustrophobic descriptions in the history of literature’. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, an avowed atheist, despite being the son of an Orthodox priest, refuses any redemptive narrative.”
Librarian and bookseller plead guilty to stealing texts worth $8 million from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh over 25 years: “Library staff discovered the deception in April 2017, when a routine insurance appraisal revealed 320 missing items, including atlases, maps, plate books, photograph albums and manuscripts, as well as 16 damaged works. When a formal investigation began in 2018, library spokesperson Suzanne Thinnes said the culprit was likely someone familiar with the library’s rare books room who had stolen items over an extended period of time.”
Clair Wills writes about the pleasures and lessons of novels set in medieval times: “What these novels by Meek and Townsend Warner share is an ambition to touch and taste the world of the 1300s. They are both works intensely interested in what it means to use fiction to understand human nature in history. ‘A good convent should have no history,’ Townsend Warner writes. ‘Its life is hid with Christ who is above.’ She lays down the challenge for herself, and her reader, early on in The Corner That Held Them. The principal storyline of the novel begins where Meek’s ends, in the late 1340s, as the Black Death courses through southern England; it draws to a close in the early 1380s, in the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt. But it takes place inside an inconsequential convent established in a leaky manor house, situated in a marshy, out-of-the-way corner of England—when the villagers there talk about the past, they argue over how far up the local river the Vikings got. ‘I still incline to call it People growing Old,’ wrote Townsend Warner to a friend about her work in progress. ‘It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant.’”
Essay of the Day:
What first brought Europe together was not the fear of another war nor the promise of the free exchange of goods but culture. Brooke Allen reviews Orlando Figes’s The Europeans:
“The advent of railroads in the 1840s marked the beginnings of a seismic cultural shift for the European continent. The first continuous international train left its station in 1843; just three years later, with the inauguration of the Paris–Brussels line, it became apparent just how much the new technology would affect the individual’s interaction with the larger world. The 205-mile journey between the two capitals took twelve hours—none too speedy by modern standards—but its first riders, a group that included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, already understood the social implications. ‘Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone,’ marveled Heinrich Heine: ‘I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries are advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea breakers are rolling against my door.’
“Natural and national boundaries appeared to dissolve; Europe entered its first period of cultural transnationalism since the Roman Empire. Writers and artists, books and paintings traveled easily, now, across the continent. Operas, orchestras, and theatrical productions could tour everywhere under steam power. Commentators at the time, very much like those who hailed the possibilities of the internet in the 1990s, saw the new technology as ushering in a period of peace and brotherhood, democratization and universal harmony. And like the boosters of the internet, they were soon to be disappointed. Nevertheless, something important did grow out of this new internationalism: what we now think of as ‘European culture’ (as opposed to the ‘Christendom’ of earlier centuries) was created, with a distinctive canon of classic works created by improved communications and emerging market forces.
“Orlando Figes, who has spent most of his career writing on Russian history (A People’s Tragedy, Natasha’s Dance, The Crimean War), has in his newest book provided an exhaustive chronicle—sometimes over-detailed, but often moving and enlightening—of these decades of fruitful cultural sharing and, yes, ‘appropriation,’ a word now uttered with contempt, but a process that is of course essential in any civilization’s development. The ideal of European brotherhood and harmony, tested by the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, would blow up completely in 1914, less than a century after the Congress of Vienna. Still, European culture as a focus for identity has to a large extent survived, as the existence of the European Union—however troubled—demonstrates. In The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, Figes has focused largely on the arts as a “unifying force between nations.” His aim, he writes, is to ‘approach Europe as a space of cultural transfers, translocations and exchanges crossing national boundaries, out of which a “European culture”—an international synthesis of artistic forms, ideas and styles—would come into existence and distinguish Europe from the broader world.’
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