The other day I was having a spirited discussion with a friend of mine in Toronto. He cautiously started a sentence: “The fall of Constantinople in the 16th century…”
“1453.” I said
He gave me a doubtful look. It’s not one of those facts you expect a half drunk guest to have at his fingertips, and I kinda feel for him there. It was sort of unexpected. “Are you sure?”
“1453, April to May, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the 2nd laid siege to the city, then took it by storm. It marked the end of the Byzantine empire and the flood of émigrés to western Europe was supposed to have helped fuel the Rennaisance.” And I buffed my nails complacently, had some more of the excellent rum I was filching from his stocks, and smiled like a cherub.
It takes more than guts to tackle some of the tomes in my library: it requires a genuine love for good writing as well as an interest in the world. By carefully parsing that sentence and the conversation above, you may gather that I’m not talking about fiction, but histories. I’ve got quite a few that handily exceed a thousand pages, and can be comfortably used to serve as foundation stones of your new house: A History of the World by J. M. Roberts, for one, and Europe: A History, for another. It was Europe that informed the discussion above.
Much of the blame (or credit, depending how you see it) for the accumulation of such massive works that take weeks, if not months, to get through, belongs to mon pere, who early on in my life suggested I never let a history class pass me by. Years – decades! – later, I still follow this dictum. And of all the works of the human past I have read, Europe: A History by Norman Davies, stands out as one of the most original, complete and readable presentations in the genre. Yes it’s long, yes it is daunting, but as with all well written works, treasures are there for the tireless reader who perseveres.
Three things make Europe stand apart from the herd. The first is the fact that here, for one of the few times I’ve ever seen, an author takes the time to go beyond the rather timid interpretations of what and where Europe actually is. Not limiting himself to those places where barbarians invaded – Britain, France, Germany plus a few extras — Davies remarks “For some reason it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars. All this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” And so he takes for his canvas northern, southern, eastern and western Europe…the continent in totality. What in effect this means is that previously ignored portions of the continent (or those that are the subject of specialist books on their own that do not integrate them into the larger canvas) are given equal weight with the more commonly written about countries.
Secondly, there is the oddity and charm of the “inserts” as I call them. These are boxes, bordered small essays, on one particulary tiny detail that is of interest in the period he is discussing, like time capsules. One describes why cheeses are similar across Europe; another discusses the origins of the word “jeans”, and yet another talks about the history of printing. These inserts help break up the admittedly monolithic text and keeps the narrative flow quirky and interesting. In fact, if you ignore the text and just read the three hundred plus inserts, that alone (in sheer informational and entertainment value) might justify a read of the book.
Lastly there’s the quality of the writing. Davies has a subtly ironic and quietly humourous style that is actually very readable (as the above remark on the Magyars should illustrate). He tends to take the overview, discussing mass movements, ideas, trends, and then delve in here and there for something more detailed. He avoids the bias of “western civilization” in the central portion (giving equal weight to other parts of Europe), covers the prehistory to the fall of the Soviet Union in twelve dense chapters, but for all that volume, it’s an entertaining read, however limited in its own way, and the prose helps the mass go down. I may be a bit strange this way, but I’ve read it twice so far, and it looks like a reread is in the cards this or next year.
No one book, no matter how weighty or long, can possibly cover the entirety of the history of such a large area, over such a long period of time, without getting bogged down in minutae or detail or length. That Davies has done as much as he has, is astonishing in itself, but he himself remarks that it’s an overview, and not much primary research was required. The book is best used as a sort of central point to gather all threads of other more detailed works into a cohesive whole, maybe as a research tool for students.
Professor Davies is a leading English historian who made his reputation with the book God’s Playground (1981) where he comprehensively reviewed Polish history (he studied in Poland and his doctoral dissertation was about the Polish-Soviet war). He has written much about Poland, also wrote The Isles: A History, much in the same vein as Europe, with numerous capsules dotting his pages and consistently writes for the mass media. His interpretation of the Holocaust has been criticized by some (this led to Stanford controversially refusing him a tenured position in 1986).
At 1400 pages and weighing in at 1.6kg (3.5lbs) Europe: A History is absolutely not for the faint of heart: but those who delve into its depths and brave its scope, will surely not be disappointed…always assuming they ever get to the end. I’ve dived into the deep ocean of Davies’s work twice now, and have always emerged months later, dripping, exhausted and tired, but also enervated, and always educated by some new thing I overlooked the last time. It may not be your thing, but what the hell, I highly recommend it anyway. You may only want to read the capsules, or you may brave the whole book, but whatever you read, you will absolutely come out with more than you went in with.