Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Guns Of August Is Overated

I have head so many good things about Barbara Tuchman's first novel that I expected it to be a very moving and powerful account of the first month of World War I, as you can tell from the title of this post I could not understand what all the fuss is about. One of my problems is with her using French phrases through out the book. Back in the day when I read Jane Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray, Dumas it did not bother me that they would throw in the odd French bon mot since in their time all middle and upper class folks learned that so their readership understood what they were saying. Also for all those English writers who lived right next to France I could understand why they would throw in words like tete a tete, beau or even a French sentence or two. However Ms Tuchman was not writing in the 17th or 18th centuries as an 20th century American who wrote a book for the hoi polloi, where many folks do not learn French it lessens the impact of her book. I think that she could have blinded us with her knowledge, wit, and culture by writing in English I don't understand why she also did not render more quotations from the German or Russian generals in their vernaculars as well.

My second problem has to do with her writing style. I know that Ms. Tuchman was born around 1900 so her style was probably formed when by the time she hit her mid thirties, and I know how hard it is for us middle aged dogs to learn new tricks. Imagine some one who grew up with an upper class world view and education adjusting her writing style & personality to the vastly different culture of 1962. I think it can be very difficult. For example nowadays no writer would refer to a French general as having "peasant's eyes" because of the classist implications it might have as well as people clearly not knowing what makes a peasant's eyes different from a professor's, or a count's. Maybe it was a phrase that she read or heard as a child that stuck with her unconsciously. However I have read Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote much earlier than she did and I found his style much more engaging. Also from reading Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That there is a very good example of an turn of the century writer whose work seems very contemporary. Much as I love him George Orwell's style seems dated to me also yet I have read all his books. In some ways this criticism might be unfair since I respect what she does and as I try an improve my writing I try very hard to study the work of good writers like Ms. Tuchman.

However maybe my biggest problem is not with her style or her Gallophilia but her neglect of the Austrian side of the conflicts. Out of more than 300 pages its' my recollection that she devotes fifty to the Russian invasion of Prussia, which I think is appropriate since the Russians were beaten very, very badly. My question though is why does she mention the Russian defeat of the Austrians only in passing, she devotes only two sentences in the whole book to that. She also completely neglects the battles between the Austrians and Serbs such as Cer. If you were examine it there are some parallels between the Serbian defense and the Belgian ones but she does. Could it be that like most Americans & Western Europeans she could be dismissive of the Balkans?

Anyway despite my complaints I think that for its' time her work was very good but modern scholarship might do a better job covering the same subject. Like
Xenophon in his A History of My Times she glosses over her own personal experience during the August conflict. However on many things Xenophon is unreliable and very biased. No one can say that Barbara Tuchman was grinding any axes in her book which is one of America's seminal works of popular history. Despite my complaints I think that the book was very readable and captured the ethos and feel of the time very well.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

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