måndag 24 januari 2011

Rediscovering history

I used to take a keen interest in history. I even majored in it. During my university studies, I didn't mind ploughing through tomes of less-than-scintillating course material - maybe because it was my main occupation, my job so to speak. But something happened once I had my degree. I had to read up on the social history of 19th-century Prussia for a writing project, and I hated it. It has to be said, German historians aren't known for their gripping prose. Not even Bismarck was enough to inspire them, and as for "everyday" history which isn't that thrilling to begin with - every minute I spent boning up on it felt like a waste not only of time but of quality of life.

It has taken years to get over the shock. Even the history I used to like - "political" history as it's called, i.e. the lives and actions of colourful personalities - lost its charm for me. All I could see when reading a historical article, or a review of a historical book, or the book itself, were the tiresome tics of historians I'd endured during my studies. There it all was: the instinctive distrust of anything resembling a good story; the inability to express a clear opinion on what actually happened; the wooden reasoning which turned the actions of historical personages into an abstract game of money and power, played by lifeless men and women without any feelings, not even noticeable lust for power or greed; and last but not least the dry prose style that could turn the most fascinating life to dust. What didn't help matters was that I still had to browse through some books on "social" history, and found the subject did not grow on me. Some plucky historians - English ones mostly - have tried to make something of it. Instead of showing graphs depicting how much porridge was consumed in average by brick-layers under 37 in Munich on a Thursday, they would jolly things up with little narratives, like, say: "Most days when Franz Müller, a brick-layer approaching his thirty-seventh year, staggered to the breakfast table after having got up at five in the morning, he would find a portion of coarse-grained porridge prepared by his long-suffering wife (and we can only imagine how early she had to get up)" etc. These are brave attempts, but I think Franz Müller (if he had existed) would be the first one to admit that his life was not as fascinating as Bismarck's, or Robespierre's, or Elizabeth I's. Our lives are full enough of boring routines: what's the point of reading about other people's?

Political history is not quite dead, however, and I'm determined to rediscover my interest in it. I'm reading a book on the Habsburgs at the moment by Andrew Wheatcroft which is promising, and full of figures like the wily first Habsburg Emperor, Rudolf, who knew exactly when to be ruthless and when to be gracious; his son, Albert the One-Eyed, a tough egg who was killed by his own nephew; Frederick the Fat who was not exactly the shining hero the Electors hoped he would be but an honest-enough plodder; and the restless Maximilian I who was better at starting projects than at finishing them. Wheatcroft's cover for writing this kind of history, contemptously dismissed by Swedish historians as "kings and wars" (it sounds better in Swedish), is the trend for "cultural" history. Like Peter Burke in his enjoyable "The Fabrication of Louis XIV", Wheatcroft spends a lot of time on his subjects' image-fashioning. It's not so much the kings and emperors themselves that are important, see: it's their "image" and the myths that surround them. Whatever, though I could have done with more political intrigue and less descriptions of Triumphal Arcs etc. Any excuse for writing about the Albert the One-Eyeds of this world is to be welcomed.

I also have high hopes for a documentary series I've started watching on an otherwise quite impossibly high-brow Swedish channel (it normally features things like Russian TV series, classical concerts and analyses of global capitalism). It's about Henry VIII (again) and narrated by David Starkey. Is he for real? Do they still make historians like that? With the exception of the treatment of the Princes in the Tower, which I think even the sainted More would have found slapdash, I liked the first episode a lot, and I hope the series goes on in the same style. Kings and wars (or even better, kings and love affairs), bring them on!