Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Geert Mak: In Europe

I'VE WRITTEN HERE about the books of Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist-historian who's produced an important sequence of studies of social history—books I think provide a great deal of objective, sympathetic, wise insight into the human condition as we find it today.

I've read a number of his books, all of course in English. There are a number remaining; if they're not translated soon I'm going to have to learn Dutch. (I append a list of his titles in Dutch, from the Dutch Wikipedia entry.)

I began reading Mak with Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), translated by Philipp Blom; a fascinating account of that city from its origins a thousand years ago to the complex, promising, troubled city it was toward the end of the 20th century. A "brief" but close inspection of a city the author loves, it also reveals much about the unique Dutch temperament, Calvinist but tolerant (particularly, a cynic might add, when there's a profit to be made). I'd love to spend a month or two in Amsterdam; I can't imagine doing it without that book at hand.

Next came a very different title, Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in the Late Twentieth Century (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), as translated by Ann Kelland. Mak's contemplation has moved here from the Dutch capital to a Fries backwater, a tiny town he knows well (he lives here) and appreciates for its opposite values to internationalism. The Dutch title, Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God went out of Jorwerd), suggests a lament on the secularization of contemporary society: but by "God" Mak means really "natural appropriateness."

Lament Jorwerd is, but the villain in the action is not some kind of Kierkegaardian atheism but contemporary bureaucratic/industrial order, combined with urbanization and the denaturalization of rural life today. Here too is a book with profound relevance to the American scene at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in areas like my own, Sonoma county California, where agriculture, terroir, and modern life-style collide.

In October I read In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), translated by Sam Garrett, truly an important book, crucial for an understanding of the century just past, and through that understanding a heightened awareness of the dangers yet to come in this century.

There are many reviews of the book on the internet: here; here ; and especially here , to begin with. The internet releases me from guilt at not reviewing the book myself, and I'm grateful: this is a book that deserves a studied presentation, and I have other things on my mind right now.

In case you don't feel moved to click on any of those links, though, and do feel moved to read a few paragraphs further, let me introduce you to the book. Mak spent 1999 crisscrossing Europe many times, researching, investigating, touring, and interviewing; and his interviews were with "important" people and ordinary folk, from the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm (a particularly memorable interview) to panhandlers in the street.

He then applied the results of these geographical divagations to a chronological retrospect of the century, beginning with the seeds of change in the waning days of colonial empire, proceeding to World War I and Versailles, to what we Americans call the Jazz Age and the Crash, Weimar and the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and the ambivalences of the nascent European Union in the aftermath of the failure of the Soviet Empire.

Much of this survey is pretty depressing, as Mak visits bunkers and madhouses and extermination camps. Much seems hopeless, as the failures of nerve during Hitler's ascendancy, the futility of resistance to Stalin and Ceaucescu, the weaknesses behind national pride in Mussolini's Italy seem to resonate with much we experience today in the United States.

But the entire panorama often settles into curiously hopeful moments, as in a dinner conversation with a Polish historian:
As the evening goes by, Krawczyk and I sink into a pleasant kind of melancholy. 'You people with your money. We're expected to accept whatever you people in the West say about us, but don't you ever wonder what we might have to offer? The assertiveness of the Poles, the curcumspection of the Czechs, the perseverance of the Hungarian dissidents, the dilemmas the East Germans have been faced with? Isn't that exactly what the West needs? Things like that? Courage, principles, experience?
You learn from this book the overwhelming extent to which the 20th century was devoted to organized murderous cruelty, assisted by amoral science and technology, financed by slavery, all perpetrated by perfectly civilized and cultured nations. But you also realize the transience of all that, the possibility of an enlightened society pausing, sorrowing, learning, adapting, and moving on.

In Europe was preceded by a book yet to be translated, De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century)—perhaps a similar book; I'm eager to find out; but about the Nineteenth Century, whose own shortcomings prepared those of the subject of In Europe.

But I'm even more eager to read Mak's most recent book, De goede stad (The good city/state). That promises optimism, for one quality entirely absent from Geert Mak is irony.

1992 - De engel van Amsterdam
1995 - Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam
1996 - Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd
1997 - Het stadspaleis
1998 - Het ontsnapte land (boekenweek-essay)
1999 - De eeuw van mijn vader
1999 - Ooggetuigen van de wereldgeschiedenis in meer dan honderd reportages (ingeleid en samengesteld door Geert Mak en René van Stipriaan)
2000 - De zomer van 1823 / Lopen met Van Lennep (met Marita Mathijsen)
2001 - De goede stad (oratie) (ISBN 9056291564)
2002 - De nachtmerrie van Steiner (samen met Felix Rottenberg) (ISBN 9072374061)
2004 - In Europa
2005 - Gedoemd tot kwetsbaarheid (ISBN 9045013827)
2005 - Nagekomen flessenpost (ISBN 9045015536)
2006 - Het eiland (ISBN 9085160693)
2007 - De brug (Boekenweekgeschenk) (ISBN 9789059650466)
2007 - De goede stad (ISBN 9789045000251)

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