05 April 2012

The Beauty & the Sorrow (Peter Englund)

Sometimes the test of a book's greatness is simple: while I was reading Peter Englund's unique WWI history, The Beauty and the Sorrow, I kept going to bed early (we're talking 8:30), just to spend more time with the twenty voices he's collected--twenty ordinary people caught up in a cataclysm that changed them all.

(I'll admit I had heard of one of these folks--Willy Coppens, top Belgian air ace--but only because I once made my dad a poster featuring every top ace from every country in the war. Cause I'm a great daughter. And he's a great dad--this book was his Christmas gift to me, purchased from my very own bookstore! Thanks, Papa!)

These men and women (and one girl--Elfriede Kuhl was only twelve when the war started) come from all over Europe and beyond. They fought, observed, nursed, and drove in all theaters of the war, including colonial Africa, Mesopotamia, and Persia, fronts I'd known about only vaguely. Some joined up out of nationalist pride, like Vincenzo D'Aquila, who left New York City to join the Italian army (and was jeered at for a fool by the native troops). Others had no choice, like Kresten Andresen, a Dane drafted into the German trenches. Some simply wanted adventure--like Olive King, an Australian who drove an ambulance for the Serbian army, or Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan globetrotter who tried and failed to join several Allied forces and then ended up serving with the Ottomans (witnessing many scenes of the Armenian genocide). And fifteen others, diverse, unimportant, often eloquent individuals whose stories will echo in my head for years.

Englund weaves together letters, diaries, and memoirs with astonishing skill (I think about just the translation required and my mind boggles), jumping chronologically from one narrative to another. He tells us in his introduction that he is less interested in writing about "what [the Great War] was--that is, about its causes, course, conclusion and consequences--but . . . about what it was like. . . not so much events and processes as feelings, impressions, experiences, and moods." The result is (as the subtitle promises) an intimate history and easily the best book written about WWI since Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. An absolute treasure.

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