New books — From the January 2010 issue

New books

As the historical-scholarship industry expands, certain subjects, and not only the most interesting ones, have become so weighed down with bibliography that the historian wishing to create a coherent picture of a famous epoch, episode, or personage will soon be as overwhelmed as a man trying to hack his way through the Amazon with a pair of nail scissors. To remind us just what attracted so many writers to these subjects in the first place—to reanimate corpses that seem thoroughly vulturized—thus becomes a difficult challenge, one rarely met as well as in Frederick Brown’s sweeping reevaluation of late-nineteenth-century France, FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE: CULTURE WARS IN THE AGE OF DREYFUS (Knopf, $30).

In less than 300 pages, Brown, a biographer of Zola and Flaubert, brings together a host of characters who have themselves spawned thick biographies—Napoléon III, Gustave Eiffel, Alfred Dreyfus—along with others less known today outside France, such as Ernest Renan, a former seminarian whose pioneering scientific study of Christ, La vie de Jésus, earned him papal opprobrium and bagfuls of hate mail, including a letter from a countess declaring that “the corruption flowing from your soul is even more hideous than its fleshly envelope, revoltingly ugly though that is”; or the vigorous engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, a sixty-four-year-old widower with five sons who, after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869, “married an eighteen-year-old and fathered twelve more children during the next sixteen years.”

Brown opposes two famous buildings—the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur and the Eiffel Tower—to illustrate a pitched battle in fin-de-siècle France. The former, championed by royalists and reactionary Catholics, was meant to rededicate the nation to a faith the right wing felt had been abandoned with the Revolution, and was advertised as the grave of “the principles of 1789.” The nationalist party, on the other hand, insisted with increasing hysteria that the thousand-foot iron tower “embodied a Jewish conspiracy.” The two factions—one secular and republican, the other ultramontane and dedicated to the restoration of the ancien régime—clashed most memorably in the Dreyfus affair, but, Brown shows, the matter was not put to rest with Dreyfus’s pardon. Indeed, years after Dreyfus’s death, the Vichy government would incriminate him a second time.

The name Dreyfus came to designate so much more than its rather unremarkable owner that when the actual man appeared for his second trial at the Rennes lycée, he was something of a disappointment. This was not the case with Charles II of England, a man who, Jenny Uglow shows in her new biography, A GAMBLING MAN: CHARLES II’S RESTORATION GAME (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), knew how to make an entrance. Born to all the luxury appropriate to one who expected to inherit a kingdom, he found himself, in his early teens, caught up in England’s terrible civil war, which resulted in his father’s execution and his own exile, in poverty and disgrace, on the Continent.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the nation threatened to descend into anarchy, and the royal heir was summoned from Holland, reaching London at last on his thirtieth birthday, in 1660. His years as a beggar had turned him into a consummate performer whose true personality, if he had such a thing, was impossible to discern. “It is hard to find the secret, non-performative self,” Uglow writes. “Our modern obsession with the inner self was alien to the people of the Restoration, except in terms of the soul’s relationship with God, something that Charles does not discuss.”

Rather than undertake a (doubtless futile) search for that self, Uglow concentrates instead on the modes of Charles’s performance, his virtuoso way of being everything to everyone. In a time when it was hard to dissemble on matters religious, no one could really tell where his sympathies lay, and he “rather encouraged the view that he took his faith lightly: that he slept for the sermon, but woke for the music.” Charles produced at least twelve children with his various mistresses but none with his wife, Catherine of Braganza, whose dowry included Tangier and Bombay; and was devoted to the theater, which blossomed in the Restoration era after decades of prohibition under the Puritan Commonwealth.

If the king himself seemed flippant, Uglow thinks his slippery personality served him well when faced with the relentless crises that marked the 1660s: the Great Plague of 1665, which killed tens of thousands of people across England, including an estimated 20 percent of the population of London; the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed almost the entire capital; a devastating war with the Dutch that resulted in the invasion of the Thames and the loss of almost all the country’s navy. Despite these setbacks, Charles managed to continue British expansion abroad (New York was one acquisition) and re-establish the monarchy that nearly died with his father.

The great affairs of state trickling down to the man in the street are the subject of an early work by the great Belgian poet, novelist, and sometime pornographer Louis Paul Boon, whose MY LITTLE WAR (Dalkey Archive, $12.95) is a vivid example of the style that made him an icon of Flemish literature: earthy and unpretentious—“a little writer writes his little war”—yet able, precisely because he did not strive for literary permanence, to convey sweeps of history with economy and humor. Beneath the clashing armies, invaded estuaries, and scheming courtesans are always the village witticisms. “And the decline of public morals is increasing so alarmingly, an old whore wonders what the world is coming to: in my day . . .”

The novel weaves the narrator’s observations into a tale of a town under occupation, being alternately bombed, evacuated, starved, not-quite-liberated, and then finally liberated, the human comedy spinning along with its usual mixture of tenderness, humor, and self-serving: “And Philomène who worked in Germany and came back with a kid, a German’s of course, now goes out dancing with Canadians while the planes pass overhead on their way to bomb Berlin—and she says: you can’t go on mourning FOREVER, can you?” The mocking narrator catches popular attitudes before they congeal into dogma: “And no one knew anything about the Resistance during the war, but four days after the liberation everyone’s saying: I was in the Resistance. And now they’re also already saying: I’m glad I was never in the Resistance, they were a bunch of fucking communists.”

Boon died thirty years ago, but his work still stokes passions in Belgium. In 2008, bowing to political pressure, the Antwerp Photo Museum had to cancel an exhibition of his photography collection, which included more than 22,000 dirty pictures. My Little War is the fourth book by or about Boon that Dalkey Archive has published; his massive photographic epic, the Fenomenale Feminateek, would make a splashy fifth. Boon’s collection of naked ladies was more spectacular, and certainly more extensive, than those belonging to boys like Kevin Sampsell, constantly spiriting their precious cargo to safer hiding places. In A COMMON PORNOGRAPHY (Harper Perennial, $13.99), Sampsell describes an ordinary Pacific Northwest childhood punctuated with perversions far creepier than any found in Playboy.

Sampsell’s father, we learn at the beginning of the book, was a child molester who impregnated his own daughter, but Sampsell does not dwell as much on this unpleasant figure as on the elaborate maneuvers he undertook to keep his stash of porn away from the old man, a pious Catholic and sentimental whiner who befriended the neighbor girls and whose funeral stunned the family into embarrassment: nobody could think of a single thing to say. But this is not a misery-and-addiction memoir of the daytime talk-show variety: it’s the story of an average American childhood, and despite it all, “I thought Kennewick was the ideal place to grow up,” Sampsell writes at the beginning of the book. “Of course, this was before I even saw anywhere else.”

Sampsell captures this place, somewhat less than ideal when viewed from adulthood; but despite the book’s dreary white-trash setting and its sometimes tragic or unappetizing characters, its droll style and its archaeological attentiveness to the debris of American life—the remote controls, video recorders, tight ends, and one-hit wonders of yesteryear—combined with Sampsell’s talent for observing the ordinary, infuse the most “common” incidents of growing up with wit and meaning. This talent is perhaps best displayed in chronicling the cringing inelegance of adolescent sexuality: the embarrassing hookups, the acne-cream-flavored kisses, the obsession with pornography, and the preoccupation with discarding one’s virginity (“I didn’t feel any hot sexual vibe from her at all,” he writes of the cheap hooker to whom the honor fell, “more like a ‘Can I smoke my Marlboro yet?’ kind of vibe”) that take a story rooted in one place and individual and make it universal.

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