Thursday, 13 February 2014

Book review: Citizens, Simon Schama (1989)

Apart from bibliographical material and an index there are 741 pages of text in this book and I read 559 of them, which is not a criticism of the book, rather to openly acknowledge the brevity of my attention span; just getting me this far as a reader is testimony to Schama's superior style. In any case it's a story I already knew in many of its details; I gave up in the lead-up to the murder of the king, Louis XVI. Of course there's a lot of killing and shouting in this book, and these are the most likely candidates for my disinterest rather than familiarity but in any case the earlier parts of the story are those I had less knowledge of and getting to learn why the French people were able to move so quickly from loyalty to the king to the establishment of a new form of government formed, for me, a major new plank in my understanding of communities in general.

Most of us know something about the history of the early 20th century so will recognise something familiar in Citizens, where we learn of the wound to common amour-propre resulting from the loss of territories in the Seven Years' War adding a need for retribution to the stresses and strains associated with the nation's near-bankruptcy following the American Revolution, which was what forced the king to call his parlements to Paris to consult. Schama's achievement is to add to this equation the animating dynamic belonging to the age. As I wrote a few days ago:
Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille.
And also, he says on page 465, there was animating the community "the confluence of the neo-Roman obsession with exempla virtutes and the Romantic infatuation with the Promethean will".

Schama quotes relevant actors in order to locate those elements in the narratives animating people, especially in Paris, and so links a kind of interior monologue - which is of course an invention of a much later era - with the most terrible acts of murder as well as expressions of the sovereign will of the people. The irrational fear that people felt immediately after the National Assembly was constituted is probably nothing more complicated than popular understanding of the novelty of the situation people suddenly found themselves in but in many ways it was this fear that decided so many outcomes in the months and years that followed, and that eventually resulted in pan-European war.

So what is striking in this book is the author's ability to show not only how people felt but why. Schama's style lets him include a wide range of authorial responses to the material, as well, which brings the reader even closer to what's happening, so that you have a many-leveled narrative in which the author is as much a participant - if not the most important one - as any of the people whose lives are chronicled. Schama uses English in a sophisticated manner, as well, and employs complex linking sentences, usually placed at the beginning of paragraphs, that synthesise what has already happened while allowing the reader to segue to what is to come. Unlike the straight narrative of events, for example, these difficult sentences demand - and deserve - the reader's close attention.

Schama also often takes a lofty view of his material, ascending to a vast height above current concerns so as to add perspective to them, throwing on them the light of what lies in the future. At times this can be exhilarating but there are other times when he goes up too high and you lose sight of what's currently on the workbench. Names of gatherings of people blur, the timeline warps, and things generally tend to become fuzzy around the edges. However when this holistic method works, for example near the beginning of the book, the result is that Schama is able to construct the kind of expansive narratives that we enjoy in truly superior history books.

For those who are interested, Grant and I will be covering this book in Book Chat Oz at the end of this month, so you can get more feedback about it then.


George said...

I don't know whether I made it 560 pages in, for it was some years ago when I tried it. I do remember thinking that he played fast and loose in his calculation of pre-revolutionary literacy rates in France.

A book that is somewhat thinner and covers more ground very readably is Francois Furet's Revolutionary France 1770-1880.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks George, I think I have that in my library ...