Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A World Undone

Our book today is “A World Undone,” G. J. Meyer’s magnificent one-volume history of the First World War, published in 2006 and now available in a pretty, hand-friendly paperback. The book is some 700 pages long, and it’s so fluently, engagingly written that readers will reach page 700 wanting more. As far as single-volume WWI histories go, this one is better than its predecessors by a margin so wide it feels slightly ungentlemanlike even to mention it.

(Needless to say - or threaten - we here at Stevereads have read all the works cited in Meyer’s bibliography, and as he points out in his introduction, a great many of those books are very, very good - in particular, Leon Wolff’s “In Flanders Fields,” Hew Strachan’s “The First World War Vol. 1, To Arms,” Rod Paschall’s “The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918,” and Laurence Lafore’s “The Long Fuse.” But nevertheless, Meyer - who naturally doesn’t point this out in his introduction, since he’s not Gore Vidal - has written a better book than any of them).

(Ah, Laurence Lafore! The author of “The Long Fuse” was also a great lecturer whose impassioned oratory on the war and its causes often brought who auditoriums of students to their feet in spontaneous, thunderous applause. We here at Stevereads took a WWI class with him when he was in his dotage and could scarcely anymore get to his own feet, much less bring audiences to theirs. In conference with him to discuss our final paper, we proposed a study of the effect the war had on whales. He became gruffly animated and grumbled, ‘Ah, good, good. Some interesting material, urm. Get on to the War Records Office. Think it’s in Cardiff, urm.’ ‘Not Wales,’ we gently corrected, ‘whales. The large mammals who live in the ocean?’ At which point the old legend grew phlegmatically irritated and barked, ‘Whales? What the devil? This isn't a game!’ We refrained from pointing out that the whales no doubt found that out the hard way. But the paper got an A).

Meyer covers the whole of his subject, from the horrific, familiar great battles - Gallipoli (an especially captivating chapter), the Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele (the book’s masterpiece) - to the lesser known sidelines (the state of the German Jews, for instance, or the Armenian genocide), and everywhere he’s as keen to expose absurdity as he is touching to illuminate heroism. Because of the peculiar nature of the Great War, he often gets to do both at the same time, as in this paragraph about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination would trigger the events that would lead to war (and who’s already had a bomb thrown at him immediately prior to this passage):

“After a standard ceremonial welcome - the mayor absurdly, didn’t deviate from a script declaring that everyone in Sarajevo adored the archduke and was delighted by his visit - Franz Ferdinand announced a change in his itinerary. He insisted on going to the hospital where the people injured by the bomb had been taken. It was the right Hapsburg gesture, a demonstration of concern for the servants of the crown. Franz Ferdinand asked Sophie to stay behind, out of any possible danger. She refused, saying her place was with him. This did not seem reckless. The military governor of Bosnia, who was riding in the same car with the couple that morning, had already declared his confidence that there would be no further trouble. If he knew anything about the Serb fanatics, he said, it was that they were capable of only one assassination attempt per day.”

Throughout the book, Meyer’s employs very effective device for organizing the vast amount of material he wants to share with his readers (the book is clearly designed to welcome first-timers): in each main chapter he advances his central story, the coming of, unfolding of, and conclusion of the war. But almost every chapter is shadowed by an ancillary essay called ‘background’ that expands on some topic covered more briefly in the main chapters. Thus subjects like ‘The Serbs,’ or ‘The Romanovs,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ or ‘Ludendorff’ get their full airings without impeding the bigger story (as an experiment, we here at Stevereads ordered an intern to read the book without the ‘background’ chapters. She reported back that the main narrative felt completely whole, and complained that she really wished we’d given her more than a day to finish her task - apparently, she’d had to skip her ‘wedding.’ We informed her that her fiancee was better off without a bride with so little work ethic and fired her on the spot, but at least the experiment was a success).

Meyer begins his big book with a long list of major characters who’ll appear in its pages, and he ends the book by telling the reader what became of many of these figures after the war. He ends this feature (and his book) with one of these figures - a young official named Winston Churchill:

“One of the war’s youngest leading figures also appeared to live too long. Winston Churchill’s career prospered in the decade after the Treaty of Versailles. He served as secretary of state for war from 1919 to 1921, as colonial secretary in 1921 and 1922, and as chancellor of the exchequer from 1924 to 1929. Along the way he left the Liberals to return to the Conservative Party, where he had begun a quarter century earlier, but the Conservatives despised him for his old apostasy and distrusted him deeply. From 1929 on he was consigned to what he called ‘the political wilderness,’ a has-been issuing warnings about the rearmament of Nazi Germany that few were prepared to take seriously.
But that is another story.”

That’s the final sentence of “A World Undone,” but we hope not its final word. We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly urge Meyer to TELL us that story, as engagingly as he’s told us this one.

That story, or any other story he likes.


beepy said...

I'd love a late night drunken phone call explaining the effect that the first World War had on whales.

To be honest, I'd enjoy a late night drunken phone call that was about anything other than what a loser I am.

beepy said...

The book sounds yummy though. How do you do it? Every day, every month, every year - another great book. It's almost inhuman!

brian said...

Steve, What are your thoughts on Keegan's THE FIRST WORLD WAR? I've read portions of it and found it pretty slow going. Is this more or less accessible?

steve said...

Brian - it's an odd off-note book by Keegan, who's usually superb. This book is enormously better than it is, as are most of Keegan's other books on their various subjects.

Sam said...

I read Hew Strachan's 330 page single volume history called "The First World War," which was very informative, but not exactly moving or memorable...but I mention it because I vaguely recall it was published to accompany a documentary. Does anyone know of this WWI documentary, and (assuming it exists) if it's good?

Snow said...

Just found your blog through googling for an image of the cover of this book.

You're right, it's very easy to read. And I never came to the full realization of just how important that war is; how much its effects resonate to this day.

Anonymous said...

Having read A World Undone, I can only hope that the author picks up the story where this book leaves off and carries it through to the end of WWII. I'm sure it would be a monumental task, but I have not been able to find a book on WWII that, in tone and scope, is anything like this one. Recognizing that, I'm almost sorry that Mr. Meyer took the time to write about the Tudors, instead.

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