Saturday, November 26, 2005

BOOK: Pius II, "Commentaries" (Vol. 1)

Pius II: Commentaries. Vol. I: Books I–II. Edited by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 12. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011643. xxvi + 421 pp.

This is the first volume of the autobiography of the 15th-century pope Pius II, a.k.a. Enea Silvio Piccolomini. It's readable enough, although nothing to write home about. Much of the underlying story would be fairly boring by itself, but fortunately Pius inserts interesting anecdotes, quotations and other curious bits of information regularly enough that the reader doesn't really have time to get bored.

Book I covers Pius' life up to the point when he became pope. He started his career as a secretary to various prelates, attended the Council of Basel and was sent to various diplomatic missions. He was apparently quite a capable orator, and he emphasizes in several passages how he was able to change somebody's opinion by delivering a suitable speech at the right moment. He served for some time as bishop of various cities, and later became a cardinal. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book are the passages describing the various European countries that he visited (e.g. Britain). Much of the story, however, deals with the sort of low-level politics that was perhaps interesting at the time when it was taking place, but that makes for fairly dull reading now. Chapter 36 near the end of the book, however, is very interesting, providing a detailed description of the conclave at which he was elected pope.

Eighteen cardinals attended the conclave (1.36.2), and a successful candidate had to have two-thirds of their votes, i.e. twelve of them (1.36.9, 1.36.26, 1.36.29). Each cardinal could “submit one or two or even more names, on the understanding that the one first named is the one preferred, but if he should not get enough votes to be elected, the next is to be counted in his place” (1.36.23). If nobody had the majority even then, the cardinals could, after the results of the vote had been announced, transfer their vote to some other candidate (voting ‘by accession’, 1.36.24). Once you had eleven votes, it was usually easy enough to find the twelfth one: “someone is always ready to jump up and say ‘And I make you pope,’ to win the favor those words always bring” (1.36.9). Aeneas is very good at building up suspense during this chapter and describing the wheeling and dealing, the haggling and intriguing that was going on in the background; a group of cardinals conspires in the latrines (1.36.8), there are attempts to cheat when counting the votes (1.36.22), etc. I must admit that the more I look at democratic elections, the more enthusiastic I am about the ancient Greek method of selecting candidates by random rather than by voting. Incidentally, I was surprised that there were only eighteen cardinals; according to this interesting chart at Wikipedia, there were around 50–60 cardinals at most conclaves in the last 300 years, except from the mid-20th century onwards, when the number soars to 80 and finally to ca. 110.

One of the big topics in European politics at the time was the coming of the Turks. They captured Constantinople in 1453 (five years before Pius II became pope), and European rulers began wondering how to stop their further progress. Obviously it would be helpful if several states could form an alliance against the Turks (or even organize a kind of crusade), but the rulers didn't trust each other enough — nobody wanted to risk going to war against the Turks and returning a few years later only to find his country occupied by his neighbours. Pius felt that doing nothing against the rise of the Turks would be a serious blot upon his papal career (not to mention a serious danger to Christendom), so immediately after becoming pope, he called for a conference at Mantua, where various European rulers should meet and discuss how to proceed against the Turks. Book II describes Pius' journey from Rome to Mantua; he stops at a great many Italian cities on the way, and takes his time to describe various notable things about them, as well as going into boring details about the inevitable party squabbles, bickering between cities, and so forth.

There are a couple of curious anecdotes from his journey to Britain. He spent a night just south the Tweed; after sunset, all the men “were going to withdraw to a distant tower for fear of the Scots, who often crossed the river at low tide to make raids on them in the night”; they didn't take their women with them, however, “For they think the enemy can do their women no wrong, as they do not consider rape a crime” (1.6.5)! Nor would they take Aeneas along, so he remained behind with the women. “After a good part of the night had passed and Aeneas had grown quite sleepy, two girls showed him to a chamber strewn with straw. Such being the custom of the country, they were prepared to sleep with him, if asked.” (1.6.6.)

The Tyrolean valley of Sarntal looks like a veritable bucolic idyll: “They have no fear of war nor are they tormented by any ambition nor consumed by greed for gold. Their wealth is in their flocks, which they feed on hay in the winter and which provide them with all the means of life. There are men among them who have never tasted wine: their diet consists solely of milky porridge. [. . .] Happiest of mortals—if they would only think on their blessings and bridle their lust; but they spend day and night feasting and fornicating and no girl is ever a virgin on her wedding day.” (1.12.2.)

In book 2 there are several passages describing various delightfully notorious condottieri of that period. Perhaps not everything that Aeneas says should be taken entirely at face value, however: “In reality, these petty barons were simply watching out for their own interests, seeking to turn the chaotic course of events to their best advantage, but they made the mistake, from posterity's point of view, of trying to disadvantage the papacy during the reign of an able propagandist.” (From the editors' introduction, p. xii.) Everso of Anguilarra made his subjects work on Sundays as well, for Sunday is the Lord's day “and the lord, he said, was he. He raped their wives and daughters in his palace; he constantly indulged in adultery and fornication and was even accused of incest, as if the chastity of his own daughters meant nothing” (2.12.4). Then there's the cruel Braccio da Montone, tyrant of Perugia: “When eighteen friars in the convent of the Minorites dared to oppose him, he had their testicles beaten to a pulp on an anvil” (2.18.3). And then, of course, there's Sigismondo Malatesta: “He was a slave to avarice, prepared not only to plunder but to steal, so unbridled in his lust that he violated both his daughters and his sons-in-law. As a boy he often played the bride; later, he who had so often taken the woman's part used other men like whores. No marriage was sacred to him. He raped Christian nuns and Jewish ladies alike; boys and girls who resisted him he would either murder or torture in terrible ways.” (2.32.2.)

As the quotations from the last three paragraphs show, Pius wasn't exactly a prude. Indeed, according to the editors' note on p. xxiv, he had written a collection of erotic poems in his youth, and fathered two bastard sons, though he doesn't mention any of these things in his autobiography. Indeed I think one of the main faults of this book is that it describes the whole of Pius' life before his becoming pope (fifty-three years!) so briefly — it's all in Book I, while the remaining twelve books of the autobiography cover his six-year career as pope. This volume contains Books I and II; I wonder what the remaining books will be like. The pace will likely be quite glacial.

He fell ill with the plague in 1439; “This was the treatment: since his left thigh was infected, they opened a vein in his left foot. Then they kept him awake all that day and part of the night before making him drink a powder, the nature of which the physician would not reveal. Sometimes they applied chopped-up bits of green, juicy radish to the sore and infected part, and sometimes lumps of moist clay.” (1.9.5.) This treatment left him more dead than alive, but he eventually recovered nevertheless.

Of an opportunist (1.16.2): “Meanwhile Johann if Lysura, finding that events were not going to his liking, changed his liking to suit events.”

Aeneas was originally from Siena, from a noble family, and was disgruntled by the fact that the nobility in Siena was forbidden from holding influential political positions. Perhaps that's why he wasn't particularly fond of democracy: “The reins of government must never be handed to the people for they, as he knew, hated the rule of princes. Between princes, friendship was sometimes possible, but between the people and a king the hatred was undying.” (1.29.2.)

Supposedly, the tomb of the elder Africanus can be seen at Trajetto, “not far from the river Liri, which we now call the Garigliano” (1.30.7). And at Mantua, one could see the hill “where the divine Vergil made his home” (2.43.1).

Here is a sardonic comment from 1.36.1, referring to the funeral of pope Calixtus, Aeneas's predecessor: “In the course of the funeral ceremonies, however, the cardinal of Fermo came down with a slow fever. He had aspired passionately, excessively even, to follow Calixtus, and so he did—to the grave.”

Here's a curious quote from 2.9.1: “Of course, a good man does well to die as soon as he can.” I guess what he means is that, from a christian point of view, if you're a good man, you can look forward to a pleasant afterlife, while life before death is likely to be troublesome, painful, or to expose one to temptations. But the sentence, if taken literally, is surely unacceptable: “to die as soon as he can” means right now, by suicide; which is very fine as far as I'm concerned, but christianity, as far as I know, doesn't approve of it.

To honor Pius' passage through Florence, the Florentines “brought lions on the piazza to fight with horses and other animals, and they held equestrian tournaments in which much more wine was drunk than blod spilled” (2.31.2). I wonder what sort of fight the poor horses were able to put up against the lions...

In 2.35.2, Pius discusses possible etymologies of the name ‘Apennines’, including the theory that “the name derives from the Illyrian word for mountaintop, pianina, with a few letters changed”. He wisely refuses to commit to any of the theories. I guess that by “Illyrian”, he really means Croatian — I doubt that the real Illyrian language is preserved well enough for us to know its word for a mountain. It's a charming hypothesis, although I haven't got the slightest doubt that it's wrong.

And a curious statement from 2.36.1: “Some think the Franconians are the remnants of the Boii, but their history indicates that they are Slavs.” The Boii, according to the Wikipedia, were various Celtic tribes. I'd never heard of either of these two hypotheses; at any rate, I doubt that the Slavs had ever settled in that area.

What to say at the end? This book may have a few boring parts, but overall it's still one of the more interesting ITRL books I've read so far. It's certainly more interesting than Bruni and Manetti. I'm looking forward to reading the remaining volumes of Pius' autobiography.

[See also: Vol. 2.]

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Monday, November 21, 2005


Those Serbs sure are tough guys... (and the comments are really hilarious).

Saturday, November 19, 2005

BOOK: Richard Evans, "The Coming of the Third Reich"

Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin Books, 2003, 2004, 2005. 0143034693. xxxiv + 622 pp.

This is the first volume of a planned three-volume history of the Third Reich. (The second volume, The Third Reich in Power, has just been published). Like many historians, especially historians of the Third Reich, the author begins with a preface that compares his work to others in the field and argues why a new work in this area is necessary. I think his arguments are quite reasonable. Shirer's popular Rise and Fall of the Third Reich shows that its author was a journalist, not a historian. Many of the books written by professional historians, on the other hand, are either too academic in style or too narrowly focused. Then there's Kershaw's recent two-volume biography of Hitler, which is a fine work, but focuses (understandably enough) on Hitler himself, leaving some other aspects of Nazi Germany less thoroughly covered. Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History covers some topics more thoroughly than others, and the author is sometimes too preoccupied with condemning Nazi Germany rather than describing it. I very much agree with this latter comment, as it has already annoyed me when I was reading Burleigh's book: there is a vaguely and annoyingly pompous undercurrent in it, the author spews forth obscure words as if he had just swallowed a dictionary, and one can't help feeling that the book was written by a self-satisfied and conservative don who considers himself, as well as the ideas he believes in, to be quite clearly superior to pretty much everything else, while things he disagrees with are not to be argued against, let alone refuted, but merely brushed aside with a passing insult. His closing sentences are a truly disgusting statement of bourgeois conservatism: “There are no ‘quick-fix’ leaps to happiness, even assuming that that is a desirable objective [...] The regimes established by what have been called ‘armed bohemians’ produced nothing of any lasting moment. Their leaders embodies the negation of everything worthwhile about being human; their followers demeaned and shamed themselves. [...] the more pragmatic ambitions, the talk of taxes, markets, education, health and welfare, evident in the political cultures of Europe and North America, consistute progress [...] Our lives may be more boring than those who lived in apocalyptic times, but being bored is greatly preferable to being prematurely dead because of some idological fantasy.” That's right, kids! Keep your noses to the grindstone! We quite evidently live in the best of all possible worlds! Excuse me for a moment, I think I've got to throw up. And here's a notable harangue from ch. 3, sec. 3: “[Hitler's] claim to being an artist-revolutionary depended upon a contrast with the complacent, hypocritical and satiated bourgeoisie, a clichéd conceit of the alienated, which spares them the effort of understanding decency, dignity, propriety, self-restraint and the non-apocalyptic virtues of a contented life.” Truly the Samuel Johnson prize could not have been given to a more appropriate recipient.

Anyhow, Burleigh was a good read, but an annoying one as well. Evans is much better from this point of view; much more calm and patient, he doesn't waste his time on pointless fulminations, nor intimidate the reader with ostentatious diction. I very much agree with his comment on p. xx: “it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous.”

I think it's a great idea to aim for three volumes — it gives the author enough space to discuss things at length, to go into details, to explain enough background, to cite illustrative anecdotes, etc. The book begins with an interesting chapter on the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine periods; Bismarck left in the public memory an appealing image of a strong leader; Pan-German associations began calling for a more aggressive foreign policy; various ideologies (anti-Semitism, racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, etc.) were spreading in the Wilhelmine period that would later become an inspiration to Nazism. The end of the WW1 brought a widespread surprise at the supposed harshness of the Versailles peace terms, and the public eagerly embraced the myth (encouraged by the army) that the defeat was due to the army having been “stabbed in the back by its enemies at home” (p. 61). Inspired by the supposed spirit of camaraderie and self-sacrifice of the front generation, many who were too young to fight in WW1 would later join various paramilitary formations in the post-WW1 period (p. 69).

The fall of the Weimar democracy is a melancholy story. Basically it fell because it had so few supporters left, especially among the influential parts of society. The army wanted a more authoritarian country; so did the conservatives, including president Hindenburg (some even wanted the monarchy to be reintroduced); the big industrialists wanted to suppress the labour movement and the trade unions; the communists considered the Weimar republic to be a bourgeois thing and wanted to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat instead; and the Nazis, of course, wanted to demolish the republic so that they could take over the power into their own hands (they offered few concrete policy proposals except vague ideas of national re-unification and regeneration, but that was quite enough to gain them the votes of many disaffected people (especially among the middle classes, p. 265) in the years of the big economic crisis; indeed for some the lack of a programme was a distinct plus, p. 324). Many important institutions, such as the army and the civil service, felt loyal to an abstract notion of a German Reich, rather than specifically to the Weimar republic (pp. 100–2, 135). Only the social democrats and the Catholic centre party were consistent in their support for the Weimar system even in the early 1930s; and by then, this was not enough to preserve it. The fact that democracy is a frail thing is well known, and there are several examples of that already from ancient history; but the fall of the Weimar republic is perhaps the best illustration of this fact altogether.

In fact on reading this book (as well as when I had been reading Kershaw's biography of Hitler) I was surprised by how many occasions there were when only a slight difference in the course of events could mean that the Nazis would never have come to power at all and all the horrors of the Third Reich would have been avoided. If only Hindenburg, Papen and their ilk had been a little more patient with democracy, a little more willing to cooperate with the parliament, with the Social Democrats, they might have been a little less keen to install Hitler as chancellor, and in a year or two, as the economy would begin to recover, the support of the Nazi party would begin to decline (pp. 295, 305).

Perhaps one of the important weaknesses of the Weimar republic was the fact that the president could assume considerable powers in emergency situations, and could even be used by a government to bypass the parliament and rule by decree. Its use in the 1920s (pp. 80–1) formed a precedent that could later be drawn upon by von Papen's government, and then of course by the Nazis as well. This confirms me in my belief that under absolutely no conditions, no matter how great the supposed national emergency is, should anyone be allowed to assume dictatorial powers. Consider the Romans, for example; they meant well, and limited their dictators to a term of six months; but eventually Caesar came along and forced the senate to grant him a ten-year tenure. And just now, under the pretext that this is necessary to combat the threat of terrorism, the Britons are extending the amount of time that a person can be imprisoned without being accused of anything — I hear they are extending it to 28 days, and came very close to extending it to 90 instead. Can there be a better recipe for dictatorship than that? Needless to say, on the ninetieth day you say “oh well, looks like he was innocent”, and have a couple of policemen catch him as he exits the prison gates, and then you lock him up for the next 90 days again, and so on. Surely everybody must realize that this is how it will be done? It's the oldest trick in the book. Every totalitarian regime has done it that way. Lawmaking should always work from the assumption that, whenever even the slightest possbility exists that power might be abused in some situation, it can be safely assumed that it will indeed be abused — at the largest scale possible, and then some.

Of course, another big factor in the downfall of the Weimar republic were its economic difficulties. Unemployment grew “under the twin impacts of rationalization and generational population growth” (p. 114), and the bargaining power of workers in their negotiations with employers consequently decreased; together with the great economic crisis after 1929, this led to the dismantling of the Weimar welfare state (pp. 140–2, 254), pushed many people into poverty, drove them into the arms of extremist political parties, and encouraged the growth of political violence in the streets.

In 1934, Theodore Abel, a U.S. sociologist, asked people who had joined the Nazis before 1933 to describe their motivation for joining and committing to the Party. The resulting collection of essays shows that, for ordinary party activists, “the most important aspect of the Nazi ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity — the concept of the organic racial community of all Germans — followed at some distance by extreme nationalism and the cult of Hitler. Antisemitism [...] was of significance only to a minority [...] The younger they were, the less important ideology was at all” (p. 218). Many just wanted to belong to something and to have an excuse for brawling in the streets (p. 221).

An important factor in the success of the Nazis was the strong commitment of many ordinary party members. Their willingness to contribute money or unpaid work made it possible for the party to keep campaigning despite its lack of support from big business, trade unions, or foreign aid (such as the Communists had from the Soviet Union) (p. 224).

There is an interesting discussion of the weaknessess of the German Communist Party on pp. 241–3. The party was so firm in its rejection of the Weimar system and in its optimistic expectation of the imminent downfall of capitalism that it could not even cooperate with the Social Democrats, nor was it able to realize how dangerous a Nazi ascent to power would be; it was also plagued by lack of money; many people left the party after having been members for only a few months.

The early 1930s saw an increase in political violence both on the streets and in the propaganda. Posters of many parties featured pictures of a ‘giant worker’ pushing their competitors aside (p. 291 and Plate 19).

To make the Nazi party more appealing to the respectable middle classes who were turned off by the street violence of the SA brownshirts, the party leaders would limit themselves to violent but vague rhetoric, while the lower echelons of the party got used to reading between the lines and translated this vague rhetoric into specific violent actions (pp. 230, 337). They also tuned down their antisemitism when addressing middle- or upper-class audiences (pp. 245–6). And more generally, the Nazis were deft at adapting their message to different target audiences (p. 257). Even when Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis organised, to temporarily reassure their conservative coalition partners, a special inauguration ceremony that strongly invoked the traditions of Prussia and the Wilhelmine Reich, and showed plenty of deference to Hindenburg (p. 350). Of course, the Nazis employed a much different tone as little as two days later, when the Enabling Act was being passed in the parliament (p. 351).

After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, matters proceeded with an impressive speed. The Nazis used a very effective combination of laws (e.g. the Reichtag fire decree, p. 333, and later the Enabling Act, p. 351), illegal political manoeuvres (p. 453), and violence (beating up political opponents, etc.; the SA were enlisted as ‘auxiliary police’; p. 341); the result was “a regime whose extreme ruthlessness and total disregard for the law were difficult for decent, law-abiding democrats to grasp” (p. 361). Besides, the fact that law seemed to be on their side ensured the cooperation of conservatives, civil servants, etc. (p. 452). (At the same time, there is no doubt that the Nazis' “contempt for the law, and for formal processes of justice, was palpable, and made plain on innumerable ocasions”; p. 455.) From February to July 1933, they suppressed first the communists, then the social democrats, then the Catholic Centre party (p. 365), and finally the right-wing parties, including the Nazis' coalition partners the Nationalists (p. 372). Another thing that helped the Nazis was that the police, the courts (p. 336), the civil service, etc. all tended to lean towards the right, and were there quite keen to suppress the left-wing parties. Coordination (Gleichschaltung) of other aspects of the society, e.g. health care (pp. 376–7), the law (pp. 431–2), the civil service (p. 382), and numerous other institutions and associations (pp. 385, 389), also took place in the spring and summer 1933. Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry was established in March and led the coordination of the media and the arts (p. 396), orchestras (pp. 399–401; persecution of jazz music, pp. 402–3), cabarets (p. 403), movies (pp. 405–6), radio (p. 407), newspapers (p. 408; “Germany had more daily newspapers than Britain, France and Italy combined, and many more magazines and periodicals of every conceivable type”), literature (pp. 410–411), abstract painting (pp. 413–6), the universities (pp. 420–6; Heidegger's pro-Nazi enthusiasm is well known; interestingly, an important role in the coordination of universities was played by zealously pro-Nazi student associations, pp. 426–7: it was they who organized the notorious book-burning in May 1933). The first anti-Semitic laws were introduced in April (pp. 437–40).

Despite all the crackdown on the left-wing parties after Hitler became chancellor, they still won quite a lot of seats in the parliament at the 1933 elections. Thus, to be able to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis had to resort to such blatantly illegal manoeuvres as declaring that the (absent) Communist representatives were not members of the parliament at all (pp. 351–2).

The first concentration camp was opened at Dachau in March 1933. It was not just “an improvised solution to an unexpected problem of overcrowding in the gaols, but a long-planned measure that the Nazis had envisaged virtually from the very beginning” (p. 346). This is slightly different from the impression I received from Burleigh, but now after rereading that passage in his book I think I must have misinterpreted it somewhat (“The earliest camps were ad hoc affairs, set up by local Party bosses the police and the SA, whose object was to concentrate prisoners too numerous for the regular penal system, which was too rule-bound to be an effective form of terror”, ch. 2, sec. 4, pp. 198–9).

The book ends with a splendid conclusion (the last part of ch. 6, pp. 441–61). There is an interesting what-if scenario on pp. 442–3; Evans says that by the time Papen took over the government, the democratic institutions had become so weak that the only realistic possibilities were a Nazi takeover of power or a military coup; he then goes on to speculate on how things might have continued if such a coup had actually taken place.

During the hyperinflation of 1923: “Pilfering in the Hamburg docks, where workers had traditionally helped themselves to a portion of the cargoes they were paid to load and unload, reached unprecedented levels. Workers were said to be refusing to load some goods on the grounds that they could not use any of them.” (P. 110.)

During 1919, a Soviet-style “Bavarian Council Republic” was briefly proclaimed in Munich, led by a “ ‘regime of coffee-house anarchists’ ”. Their pleasantly bizarre ideas are described on p. 158.

I have read in Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler that his party number was not 7 as is sometimes claimed, but actually 555 (there was even a photo of his membership card). Here, however, there is the additional interesting fact: like many parties, the NSDAP started numbering their members at 501 to give the impression that the party is larger than it really was (p. 170). So he was actually the 55th rather than the 555th member.

Hans Frank (later well-known as the governor of German-occupied Poland) was a lawyer and often defended his fellow Nazis in courts in the years before 1933. “Soon after he defended some Nazi thugs in court for the first time, a senior laywer who had been one of his teachers said: ‘I beg you to leave these people alone! No good will come of it! Political movements that begin in the criminal courts will end in the criminal courts!’ ” (P. 179.) What a prophetic sentence!

Another fascinating anecdote involving Frank is on p. 454. Although the Nazis tried to cover their actions during the seizure of power by “a legalistic fig-leaf” (p. 452), much of the violence employed e.g. by the SA or SS against supporters of the left-wing parties was plainly and flagrantly illegal. Therefore, many of these Nazis were prosecuted by the state prosecutors throughout 1933 (p. 454). “The Bavarian Justice Minister who tried to prosecute acts of torture in Dachau in 1933, for example, was none other than Hans Frank”! However, these legal initiatives came to nothing and were blocked by Nazi leaders such as Himmler or Hitler (p. 454).

An observation by one of the onlookers of the torchlight procession organized by the Nazis in Berlin when Hitler became chancellor: “ ‘you see the con trick. They're constantly marching round in a circle as if there were a hundred thousand of them.’ ” (P. 310.)

Another well-known anecdote regarding this procession is that Hindenburg, watching it from his presidential residence, thought (he was 85 by then and was occasionally drifting into senility) that it was the WW1 again: “Ludendorff, how well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they've taken!” (P. 311; and Ludendorff was not even there at the time.) Evans' authority for this anecdote is John W. Wheeler-Bennet's 1936 book, Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan, p. 435.

The well-known statement usually attributed to Göring, “When I heard the word culture, I reach for my gun!” is apocryphal and is actually based on a sentence from Hanns Johst's play Schlageter: “When I hear ‘culture’, I release the safety catch of my Browning!” (P. 418.)

Unlike most of the books about the Third Reich that I've read so far, the author purposedly avoids using German terms if they can be translated into English. Thus Hitler is ‘Leader’, not ‘Führer’, his book is My Struggle, not Mein Kampf; ‘Stahlhelm’ is always ‘Steel Helmets’, etc.; even ‘Heil Hitler’ is scrupulously translated as ‘Hail Hitler’ (p. 212). When a term occurs for the first time, the German form is also provided, but after that it's always just in English. “One of the purposes of this translation is to allow English-speaking readers to gain a feeling for what these things actually meant; they were not mere titles or words, but carried a heavy ideological baggage with them.” (P. xxxii.) I think it's an interesting idea. My understanding of German is poor, but nevertheless good enough that I can usually make sense of WW2-related terms I find in books even if they aren't explicitly explained; but now that I think about it, I can imagine that readers who never learnt any German whatsoever really might find such German words opaque: “although everyone is familiar with the title of Hitler's book Mein Kampf, few probably know that it means My Struggle unless they know German.” (Ibid.)

The book also has an interesting section of plates. It ends with a curious 1933 propaganda postcard featuring Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and Hitler. The curious thing is the expression on Frederick's face: eyes wide open, he seems (in hindsight) to be saying, in shock and surprise, ‘my god, what are these madmen doing to my country?’

Anyway, to conclude this meandering post, this is a very fine book, thorough, pleasant to read, well documented, generous both with anecdotes and with analysis, and I'm certainly looking forward to reading the second and third part of Evans' trilogy on the history of the Third Reich.


  • Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge, 2000).

    Cited by Evans on p. 284: “Wilhelm von Gayl [...] had helped to create a racist, authoritarian, military state in the area ceded to Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.”

    I have long found the Brest-Litovsk treaty a most fascinating document. Russia had long been in retreat on the Eastern front, and after the October revolution the Bolsheviks were in a hurry to withdraw from the war altogether in order to focus on consolidating their grip on power in Russia. Therefore the Germans were in a position to drive a hard bargain indeed; Russia would have lost huge tracts of land by that treaty, and Germany would have become vastly more powerful in Eastern Europe.

    The treaty was signed in March 1918, but in November 1918 Germany lost WW1 in the west; the entente powers of course wanted a weaker Germany, not a stronger one, and so declared the Brest-Litovsk treaty void (see e.g. §433 of the Versailles treaty).

    Anyway, in that period between March and November 1918, some of the first steps towards implementing the Brest-Litovsk treaty must obviously have already been taken, and I am terribly curious to find out what they were; what had already been done, and what was being planned. The German war aims in the East grew during WW1 until they were scarcely less ambitious than Hitler's during WW2.

  • John Wheeler-Bennett's book Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan (London, 1936) has already been mentioned above. I'm not terribly interested in Hindenburg anyway, but in Wheeler-Bennett's Wikipedia page I found that he also wrote a book about Brest-Litovsk: Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (1938).

  • Melita Maschmann: Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self. London, 1964. Memoirs of a former “serious and idealistic young middle-class Nazi” (p. 225).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

BOOK: Tom Holland, "Rubicon"

Tom Holland: Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Little, Brown, 2003. Abacus, 2004. 034911563X. xxxi + 430 pp.

I noticed this book in the bookstore a few months ago; I think I even took it off the shelf and briefly looked at it; but for some reason, I then put it back and gave it no more thought, not even when I saw it there again during my visits to the bookstore in the next few weeks. For some reason I must have got the idea that the book probably focuses on military history (which I find boring), or that it's one of those works that tend to be too enthusiastic about ancient Rome and are often written by conservative American authors who like to imagine themselves as distant heirs of the Roman Empire and who would like to believe that the present American imperialist efforts will bring peace, trade, and prosperity to the whole world in the same way that Roman imperialism brought it to the Mediterranean in the ancient times. Anyway, since I completely and utterly hate and despise ancient Rome, and am not particularly interested in it anyway, these prejudices were sufficient to dissuade me from giving the book any further consideration.

But then, a few weeks later, the Guardian published a review of Tom Holland's latest work, Persian Fire, a book about the Greek-Persian wars. The review was very positive and also mentioned that the same author wrote Rubicon a couple of years ago. I remembered that this was the book I had ignored in the bookstore, and decided that I might give it a try after all. Besides this review, another thing that made me change my mind was the fact that the book focuses on perhaps the most interesting period of Roman history: the dramatic and unstable first century BC, when the Roman republic was shaken by civil wars, slave rebellions, conspiracies, increasingly bitter and violent power struggles on an increasingly large scale, until it was finally demolished and replaced by what was for all practical purposes a monarchy. I read, some years ago, a selection from Plutarch, containing the biographies of five or six notable Romans from that period; although I found that I am generally bored by Plutarch, I also felt that the transition of the Roman republic into empire was a very interesting topic. I later also read, and was delighted by, Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, an epistolary novel set in the last days of Caesar. Anyway, all of this persuaded me that reading Rubicon, which is a nice narrative history of that period, would be a good idea,

This is an absolutely stunning book — and I don't use that word lightly, as I'm not terribly fond of the word ‘stunning’ and of seeing books referred to as stunning. But in this case I think it's quite justified. Not since I read Gibbon some eight or so years ago have I enjoyed a work of narrative history so much. There aren't any boring passages in this book; the story keeps moving all the time; there is something arresting on every page, nay in every paragraph, in every sentence; if we could send a journalist to live among the ancient Romans for a few years or decades and send us reports about their life, their character, and their political development, he could hardly have a better overview of the persons involved, of their thoughts and actions and their relations to each other, and he could hardly write it up any better than Holland does in this book.

The topic of the book is, for me at least, a melancholy one. I consider the transition of the Roman state from a republic to an empire to have been one of the greatest and most tragic mistakes in history. When I read about the decline and fall of the Roman empire in Gibbon, I was not surprised that the Roman empire collapsed, but that it survived for as long as it did, seeing how thoroughly rotten to the core it had been for so many centuries. But then it has to be admitted that the Roman republic was, at the time of its collapse, also a rotten structure in many aspects. After reading this book, my impression is that the main reason for the collapse of the republic is in its growth, and in its failure to adapt appropriately to the growth.

For example, one major problem that allowed people like Caesar and later Augustus to seize power was the fact that too many people ended up being loyal to an individual politician rather than to the Republic itself. Perhaps it would have helped if the people had been more closely involved in political decisionmaking, if there had been an explicit written constitution (rather than just a set of traditions and customs), and if people living outside the city of Rome had been given the opportunity to feel that the republic was also theirs, not just something imposed on them by the Romans. Then perhaps it wouldn't be so easy for e.g. Caesar to return from his ten years of campaigning in Gaul with a large military force that felt loyalty only for him personally and not for the senate or the state as an abstract concept. In the distant centuries when Rome was a small city-state, and its soldiers were just patriotic inhabitants of the city, it wouldn't be so easy to get them to march on Rome and try to set up one particular person as a virtual monarch over it. But now, with soldiers coming from various parts of Italy, and probably from other areas of the Roman republic as well, what was Rome to them? Naturally enough, whether Rome would be a republic or a monarchy didn't really make the slightest difference to them. We may say that the Romans lost their freedom by losing their republic, but these soldiers wouldn't have lost anything. So when Caesar told them to cross the Rubicon, it isn't at all surprising that they did so, and without hesitation.

Another thing: as the Roman state grew, so did the resources available to its most influential people. I imagine that in the early centuries a wealthy and influential senator might have owned an agricultural estate somewhere near Rome; but later, after Rome had annexed territories all over the Mediterranean, an influential politician might command the wealth of entire provinces and use it to further his private goals. They were now dealing with the sort of vast sums of money that enabled them to practically raise their own personal armies. Roman politics had always been a fiercely competitive field, with nothing to hold a politician's ambitions back except the influence and ambitions of his competitors. But now, when some of them practically had armies of their own, this sort of competition eventually led to civil wars, and besides it made it increasingly difficult for others to hold them back. This is similar to what sometimes happens in the economy: once all the companies in a particular branch are huge and powerful, they have for all practical purposes an oligopoly, because the entry barrier is so high that it wouldn't be realistic to expect a new competitor to appear in the market. And just like such companies would tend to merge into ever larger ones, until a single one was left with a monopoly on the market (assuming there is no government to keep it in check), so did the power in Rome eventually end up gathered in the hands of just a small handful of people (e.g. a triumvirate), and finally in those of a single person.

Maybe the fall of the Roman republic is a nice example of what can happen when you allow individual people, or small groups of people, to become too influential, too powerful, too wealthy compared to others. This is not a very hopeful message for our times. I don't think it's possible, in the long term, to sustain a democracy if you have a tiny elite of astronomically wealthy (and correspondingly powerful) people. It may be a democracy in form, but it will be an oligarchy in substance, and eventually it will turn into a dictatorship (or its more genteel counterpart, monarchy).

Incidentally, I don't wish to leave the impression that I'm terribly fond of the Roman republic. I just think it's vastly preferrable to the Roman empire. Otherwise, I'm aware that the republic had many faults as well; it seems to have been more like an oligarchy for all practical purposes; it's true that many important officials were elected by the masses of the people, but (1) probably only a relatively small proportion of the people had the right to vote (no women, no slaves, and no people who weren't able to come to Rome and vote there in person), and (2) the candidates were always from the ranks of the establishment anyway, and (3) the voters were basically sheep that could always be bought by a bit of demagoguery and some bread and circuses. (À propos the voters being sheep: cynics will be delighted by the fact, mentioned on p. 94, that elections were held in “an enclosure filled with barriers and aisles, of the kind used to pen livestock. The Romans called it the Ovile, or ‘sheepfold’.”) Still, even as an oligarchy, I consider it vastly preferable to a monarchy. Surely the excesses of a Nero or a Caligula, let alone an Elagabalus, would have been impossible in a republican framework.

There are few likable characters here; but this is hardly surprising, as they are after all nothing but a bunch of dirty, corrupt, power-grubbing politicians. I almost started feeling sympathetic for Caesar as a rising politician, admiring his determination, his daring, his ability, but after all you can't help remembering that he will end up becoming a tyrant, that he'll be responsible for atrocious horrors in Gaul, etc. Indeed his assassination is one of my favourite and most cathartic moments in all of history. If only everyone who dares to set himself as a ruler over others was treated in the same brisk and efficient way!

Cicero rather disappointed me, what with his changing of sides and so on. He may have been a good orator, but as a person he lacked integrity.

Pompey was not so bad as he seemed initially; at least he fought for the republic in the last years. And amidst all the depravity of the period, the fact that he and his wife seemed to be genuinely fond of each other (p. 250) was quite touching.

My favourite character, though, was Cato. Until reading this book, I had a fairly poor opinion of him; he seemed a stern, dour person, a killjoy overly fond of the antiquated rustic virtues of early Rome. But in this book, well, how can you help admiring him? Unlike almost any other politician mentioned in this book, he was willing to set principle above expedience, honesty above corruption, virtue above decadence, and unlike almost everyone else at the time he seemed to genuinely care about preserving the old republican constitution of the Roman state rather than allowing it to turn into a monarchy. And in the end, the most admirable thing of all, he preferred to commit suicide rather than to live in a Rome that would no longer be a republic and he no longer really a free citizen. I know that in our modern culture, suicide is usually looked down upon, as a pathological and cowardly thing do to; but I think it's precisely the opposite: it's a splendid and bold thing to do; it means taking one's destiny into one's own hands in the most literal way possible; and it's based on the realization that life is not priceless, and that not every kind of life is worth putting up with.

Anyway, let me repeat once again that this is a really fine book about a fascinating period of history. I certainly look forward to reading more of Holland's work in the future.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Interesting books

Every November, a few weeks after the Frankfurt book fair, Mladinska knjiga organizes a small fair called “Frankfurt after Frankfurt”, showing a small selection of recently published books. I went to see it a few days ago, and noticed a few interesting books:

  • Patrick J. Geary: The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton UP, 2003.

    Nowadays we are often inclined to think that this or that specific present-day European nation originated in this or that set of early medieval tribes/peoples/etc. This book argues that this is a very inaccurate view that has more to do with nationalist romanticism than with historical fact. I have already wondered occasionally if our views on national origins in the middle ages aren't a little oversimplified, and this looks like just the book I should read to learn more about this subject.

  • Ray Villard, Lynette R. Cook: Infinite Worlds: An Illustrated Voyage to Planets beyond Our Sun. University of California Press, 2005.

    A nice illustrated book (on good heavy paper) on the subject of planets outside our solar system. Several such planets have been discovered in recent years. There are several fascinating illustrations showing what the view from the surface of some of these planets might look like.

  • Kay Slocum: Medieval Civilisation. Laurence King Publishing, 2005.

    This is basically a college textbook on medieval history. It looks interesting, thorough, and well organized. I wonder if it's appropriate for me to read college-level textbooks in fields where I am a complete layman, but the introduction of this book does seem to suggest that the book could be interesting for a lay reader as well. I wasn't terribly keen on medieval history in secondary school, and so I've forgotten much of what I had learnt at the time; I often toy with the idea of reading some introduction to this period.

  • Wieland Schmied: Hundertwasser. Taschen, 2005.

    A handsome book about Hundertwasser's life and work, with many illustrations. As a bonus, the price seems remarkably low for a coffee-table book (it's true that it isn't as large as many coffee-table books, however). I like Hundertwasser's wacky, variegated style, and it would be nice to have a book about him. However, on the other hand, I am of course aware that I am a pathetic philistine with absolutely no understanding of art, and so I always feel pangs of remorse after I buy any book about art: should I really own such a book? Is it not mere vanity, mere pretentiousness, for a person such as me to buy a book such as this? Wouldn't it be better to leave the book alone, to be bought by somebody who will be able to appreciate its artistic value, while I ought to save my money for some book that will not go above my head?

    Incidentally, while we're on the subject of Hundertwasser, Taschen also published a Catalogue Raisonné of Hunderwasser's work, also edited by Schmied, 2 vols., 1792 pages, sold on Amazon for the princely sum of $750 :-)

  • They also had a few books from the Clay Sanskrit Library, a series of bilingual editions of classical Indian texts (Sanskrit (transliterated into the Latin alphabet) on the left, English translation on the right) — i.e. a similar concept as the Loeb Classical Library, and indeed the books are exactly the same size. I'm not sure if I'm going to be buying any of these or not. I'm afraid that Indian literary tradition will be too foreign to me, and therefore these books will be too hard to read. Besides, they don't seem to contain much in the way of notes or commentaries. And they are being published at too quick a pace — I can barely keep up with I Tatti Renaissance Library's three or four volumes per year, but the Clay Sanskrit Library means to publish 100 volumes within five years (and indeed have already published 18 volumes this year). This will include a complete Ramayana in 8 volumes and the Mahabharata in 32 volumes (incidentally, public-domain translations of both are available on the wonderful web site). The CSL Ramayana is based on the Princeton University Press translation by Robert Goldman et al.

  • Steven Roger Fischer: A History of Reading. Reaktion Books, 2004.

    An interesting book in a curiously tall format. This is the last part of a trilogy which includes A History of Writing and A History of Language by the same author.

  • Luigi Albertini: The Origins of the War of 1914. Enigma Books, 2005.

    A massive three-volume study of the origins of the First World War, reprinted from the original edition (Oxford University Press, 1952–57), which is now scarce and expensive. Albertini lived early enough that he was able to personally interview some of the people involved in the events of 1914. I heard about his work in David Fromkin's excellent book about the same subject, Europe's Last Summer. I'm not entirely sure if I want to read a 2280-page study of the origins of WW1, but given Amazon's massive discount (the entire three-volume set would cost $60 and would ship as a single item), I am sorely tempted.

  • Gavriel D. Rosenfeld: The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism. Cambridge UP, 2005.

    Quite a few works of fiction (books, movies, etc.) are set in an alternative history in which Hitler's Germany won the Second World War (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland, which I read this summer). This book is a study of these alternative histories. It certainly sounds like an intriguing subject, and I'm amazed that a 536-page hardcover from Cambridge UP sells for a mere $20 from amazon.

I'm not sure which, if any, of these books I'll eventually get around to buying and reading, but it's nice to be at least aware of their existence. It makes me feel that my trip to the fair has not been in vain.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

BOOK: James Nelson, "Publisher to the Decadents"

James G. Nelson: Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 0271019743. xvi + 430 pp.

Leonard Smithers was a London publisher who was active during the 1890s. I heard about him in Hesketh Pearson's biography of Oscar Wilde, and in Matthew Sturgis's biography of Aubrey Beardsley. Among other things, he published Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol and the literary magazine The Savoy with contibutions by many of the English decadent authors. Beardsley worked for him as art editor of The Savoy, as well as the illustrator of several of his books. Indeed Smithers's role in Beardsley's career is very important: after the Oscar Wilde scandal of 1895, Beardsley had lost his job as art editor of another magazine, The Yellow Book, and no publisher except Smithers would give him work. But nevertheless, in these mentions I usually had the impression that Smithers tends to come across as a somewhat shady character, chiefly a publisher and seller of pornographic books, and as for his his relationship with Beardsley, this often looked a little exploitative, with Smithers squeezing every last bit of work out of Beardsley even though the latter was practically on his deathbed, and Smithers sometimes late in paying him, etc. Anyway, after all this, I was glad to see that here is a whole book about Smithers and his role in English publishing in the 1890s, and after reading it, I am also very glad to see that Smithers wasn't quite so bad as he perhaps appears from some of the mentions in other people's biographies. He did have his faults, but in many ways he comes across as almost a sympathetic character.

I guess that technically this book could be called a biography, but it has a strong emphasis on Smithers's publishing career, and contains very little information about any other aspects of his life; e.g. almost nothing of his youth or his early career before he took up publishing (he worked as a lawyer in Sheffield for some time), and fairly little about his family; similarly, his last years are told fairly briefly because his publishing business was in a permanent slump by then. But then all of this this is not really a big deficiency, because after all he is interesting because of his publishing career, not because of his personal life, and there probably isn't much information about his personal life anyway.

Smithers's publishing career started with collaborations with Richard Burton, resulting in translations of Catullus and of Latin Priapic epigrams. After Burton's death, Smithers published new editions of several of Burton's works, although this involved a lot of bickering with Burton's widow, who wanted the new editions to be expurgated while Smithers wanted to be as faithful to Burton's texts as possible. Perhaps the best known of these republications is a 12-volume “Library Edition” of the Arabian Nights. I found this chapter of the book very interesting, as I had previously been only very vaguely aware that Smithers and Burton had collaborated at all.

During Smithers's first years as a publisher, he worked together with a bookseller, printer, and pornographer named H. S. Nichols, and together they published a number of more or less clandestine pornographic titles. Their books were usually finely produced and very expensive, aimed at a rather narrow segment of wealthy customers (see Smithers's statement of his production values, pp. 43–4; see also pp. 106–7; for instance, he usually printed his books at the Chiswick Press, one of the best printers in London at the time, p. 108; and despite his undoubted business skills, he was often willing to follow his enthusiasm for some project even when it might have made better business sense to avoid it: indeed several people described him as unbusinesslike, pp. 108–9). Part of the reason for this was also that it gave them excuse, in case they should get in trouble with the law, that their books were intended for discerning readers with a scientific interest in the subject matter, and were not intended to corrupt the morals of the wider public (pp. 41–2). In fact Burton had adopted a similar approach when he first published his translation of the Arabian Nights some ten years earlier; his erudite notes, together with the exotic source of the subject matter, were an excuse to invoke anthropology and ethnology and to claim that his publication partly has the nature of a scientific work. Of course this is in a way true, but at the same time it is surely hypocritical to say that readers of such books as Burton's Arabian Nights weren't mostly reading them for the sake of the stories and the titillation rather than in order to study the anthropology of the middle eastern cultures. Interestingly, the attitude of the public towards publications of this sort had grown more severe rather than more tolerant in the period between Burton's original publication of the Nights and the year 1894 when Smithers published his edition (pp. 41–2). Incidentally, Burton seems to have made a fair amount of money from his edition of the Nights (p. 12) — the books sold for far more than they cost to manufacture. (Of course, the cost of the years and years of work that he spent translating them were probably not factored in this calculation.) This example showed that it might be possible to make money by publishing books like that, and may have encouraged Smithers to take up his publishing career.

The most important part of Smithers's career, however, was in the second half of the 1890s. After the Wilde trial of 1895, the public was in a furore against the young authors of the ‘decadent’ movement, and most publishers didn't want to publish any more of their work for fear of public backlash. Smithers was a rare exception, and his support made possible the continued career of such people as Dowson, Beardsley, as well as other less well-known authors.

During 1896 he published a literary magazine titled The Savoy. It was condemned by many critics, e.g. as being full of “the abnormal, the bizarre”, but in fact most of its contents were innocent enough (p. 74): the public and the critics were probably lashing out at the mere sight of the names of some of the contributors, rather than honestly evaluating the contents. (I remember reading in Matthew Sturgis's biography of Beardsley, ch. 6, p. 223, that he at some point made a small experiment: at the time when many reviewers were criticizing or even mocking his work, he published two drawings in The Yellow Book under pseudonyms, and a few other drawings in the same issue under his own name; the reviewers were quite critical of the latter but fairly kind towards the ones published under pseudonyms.)

This book points out in several places that, not long after the decadent 1890s were over, memoirists and commentators took to exoticizing and romanticizing the period and its leading personalities — in the spirit, I guess, of that Italian saying: even if it isn't quite true, at least it makes a good story. It's good to keep this in mind in case I eventually decide to read any of these memoirs. See pp. 94, 284–5, and also pp. 241–2, where the following books are mentioned: Bernard Muddiman's The Men of the Nineties (1920), Osbert Burdett's The Beardsley Period (1925), Richard Le Gallienne's The Romantic Nineties (1926), and J. Lewis May's John Lane and the Nineties (1936). The exaggerations of memoirists like these have also helped to establish the unfairly negative image of Smithers that is evident in many publications throughout the 20th century (pp. 284–5).

Occasionally Smithers also did some ‘vanity publishing’, i.e. when an author was willing to pay most of the costs of a publication (p. 104). For example, he published two books by Aleister Crowley in 1896, very finely produced, at Crowley's expense (pp. 104–5; Aceldama and White Stains).

There is an interesting discussion on pp. 170–2 about whether Smithers was exploitative towards Beardsley (as has sometimes been claimed), pushing him to work despite his ill health, or involving him in his drinking and carousing again despite Beardsley's ill health. But the fact is that “Beardsley loved to have a good time when his health permitted, and work was his life's blood” (p. 172). He was aware that the years of working with Smithers gave him the opportunity to produce and publish much of his finest work.

Smithers also worked with Wilde after the latter's release from prison; he published Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol and two plays. However, in later years their relationship took a sad turn. The ballad sold well, but the plays didn't; Wilde found himself unable to write any new work; desperate for money, he sold a partial scenario for a new play several times to different people, including Smithers, and in the resulting complications acted rather dishonourably towards the latter (pp. 220–3).

But the end of Smithers's career was also sad. His books were sold at high prices, but they were also expensive to produce, and too many of them failed to sell enough copies. This led to liquidity problems, debts, and finally to the bankruptcy of his publishing business in 1900 (pp. 258–61). After that he went back to publishing and selling pornography and pirated editions (e.g. of many of Wilde's works); p. 263. His health also deteriorated, and the resulting pain drove him to drinking and drugs, which of course only made his decline faster (p. 208). Eventually his wife left him and he died in extreme poverty in 1907.

Smithers was not only a publisher but also a bookseller. One of his catalogues advertises a copy of Thomas à Kempis “most tastefully and appropriately bound in human skin”. :-) P. 52.

There's a photograph of Smithers's wife, Alice, on p. 92. Donald Olson in his fictionalized biography of Beardsley, The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley, describes her in a memorable phrase as “a broad good-natured ex-trollop” (ch. xv, p. 340 in the 1994 Black Swan edition), and by looking at the photo I can't help thinking that the phrase is somehow apt, although, judging by Nelson's book, Alice Smithers was in fact genuinely fond of her husband and faithful to him despite his faults (p. 280 in Nelson's book), and calling her an ex-trollop is probably quite unkind and false. Good-natured may be closer to the mark; cf. Sturgis's biography of Beardsley, p. 285.

There was apparently a fair amount of snobbishness and elitism in the literary circles of that time. Smithers, an unpretentious man “who relished good food and drink, congenial company and conversation” (p. 94), was often the target of contempt. See the interesting comparison on p. 93 — other publishers such as Lane or Matthews would certainly never be seen drinking and carousing with their authors. During Smithers's 1899 affair with the artist Althea Gyles, “[t]he response of Gyles's arty friends to her love affair with Smithers reveals just how morally straitlaced and hypocritical people such as Yeats or Symons were (or had become)” (pp. 270–3). I was never particularly enthusiastic about Yeats, nor have I read much of this work, but after what I've seen of him in this book, I must say that I'm very disappointed and I doubt that my interest in Yeats will increase any time soon.

In the end, this kind of prejudice may have also contributed towards Smithers's poor reputation in the later decades: “Smithers's story was told largely by his enemies, men who were offended by what they alleged to be his rough Yorkshire brogue, his coarse language, his unconventional behavior, and, above all, his undisguised sexual pecadilloes. [...] he didn't have quite the right manners, the required social graces,the aesthetic tone of that so very important Nineties cenacle of young writers and artists which included Yeats, Beerbohm, and Will Rothenstein.” (P. 284.)

All in all, this is a very good book, interesting and well-written; fair towards Smithers, it doesn't hesitate to dispel exaggerations and prejudices spread by early 20th-century memoirists; you can also see that the author takes an interest in book production, typography, binding, issue sizes, etc., and always describes these things when the story of Smithers's carreer reaches the point when he published a new book. At the end there's also an appendix with a list of all the books published by Smithers. This would probably be very valuable for collectors, but unfortunately not for me, because most of these books are precious rarities and therefore well beyond my means.

I only have a couple of minor complaints about the book, both related to the endnotes. It would be good to include, in the header of each page, information about the chapter (or range of pages) to which the notes on that page refer; this would make it much easier to find the note you want. Secondly, there is no explicit bibliography in this book; instead, the bibliographic information about each work cited is given in the endnote where it is first mentioned, and from there on only the title is mentioned. The problem is that it can be difficult to find the first note that refers to a given book (and therefore contains its publication details). But this is just nitpicking. Apart from that, the notes are OK; they're good and thorough.


  • Brian Reade's 1967 Aubrey Beardsley, the definitive collection of Beardsley's work.
  • Nelson's two earlier books about English publishing in the 1890s, The Early Nineties: A View from the Bodley Head (1971) and Elkin Matthews: Publisher to Yeats, Joyce, Pound (1989).
  • Various memoirs referring to the 1890s, most of them published in the first half of the 20th century. See the list from pp. 241–2 above, as well as: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties; Will Rothenstein, Men and Memories; Edgar Jepson, Memories of a Victorian; Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde; Vincent O'Sullivan, Aspects of Wilde.
  • I also hope to eventually read more by and about Dowson, with whom I am so far fairly unfamiliar. There's Jad Adams' recent biography of Dowson, Madder Music, Stronger Wine, and the University of Birmingham recently published two books of Dowson's works (Collected Poems and Collected Shorter Fiction).
  • Many of the books, especially the poetry, published by Smithers during the 1890s might also be interesting to read. But as I said above, most of them are far too expensive. (I did get Arthur Symons's Silhouettes at an affordable price, though; see my post back in January.) Several of them were reprinted during the 1990s by the Woodstock Press in its ‘Decadents, Symbolists, Anti-Decadents: Poetry of the 1890s’ series, but unfortunately those reprints also tend to be fairly expensive. Well, at the very least, I should get around to reading Martin Secker's copious 1948 antology, The Eighteen Nineties: A Period in Prose and Verse, which has been waiting on one of my shelves for some time.

Of course, if and how and when I'll buy and/or read any of these books is an entirely open question. :-) Especially all those memoirs — on the one hand I'm curious about the period, but on the other hand if I were to go and read so many memoirs about it, I'd probably feel like some kind of ridiculous and contemptible groupie.