Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Mosier

John Mosier is a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in film, modern European literature, and the eighteenth-century novel. His books include The Myth of the Great War (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), The Blitzkrieg Myth, The Generalship of U. S. Grant, and Cross of Iron.

His latest book is Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, 1914-1918.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading.  Mosier reply:
Putting myself at risk of being accused of boasting, I must say that I’ve always been both a voracious reader, and a very fast one, at least in English. Either as a result, or because I have a short attention span, I’ve always been involved in a dozen or so books at the same time. Nor is there any particular logic to my choice.

The appearance of ebooks and readers has only worsened an already bad habit, since I can carry around a hundred or so at once. So, simply to give a feeble attempt at organization, I’ve categorized what I’m reading.

Dr. Johnson observed that most readers prefer biographies (or something like that), and I’ve just finished an autobiography by an exceedingly curious fellow: Hans Christian Andersen, The True Story of My Life. I haven’t found it gives me the slightest clue as to his tale telling, but the narrator is, frankly, just plain weird; you start reading to find the answer to one puzzle and instead find more.

I started reading Thomas Wright’s The Life of Sir Richard Burton after wading through Burton’s own accounts. I can’t say I enjoyed them. As Macaulay once remarked, “Compared with the labor of reading these volumes, all other labor, the labor of thieves on the treadmill, the labor of children in the mines, the labor of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.”

But this biography is excellent. I would say it’s one of those perfectly balanced works in terms of achieving a critical appreciation. It’s also unexpectedly funny. Here’s Wright talking about Burton’s mother’s attempts to learn French. She studied diligently, “and with such success that in less than six months she was able to speak several words, though she could never get hold of the correct pronunciation.”

Having managed to get a doctorate in English without reading much American literature, in a guilty fit, I have taken up Frank Preston Stearns's biography, The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which, at the risk of being lynched by Hawthornians everywhere, I must say is a considerably more fascinating work than any of his novels, written by man who was a devoted fan and immersed in the to me musty superficialities of New England intellectualism.

By the same token, I’m about two thirds of the way through Ferdinand Christian Wilhelm Praeger’s Wagner as I Knew Him, an 1892 adoration of the great musical genius. The music’s not to my taste (although very much to my wife’s), but Wagner comes across as an engaging fellow. Hard to dislike a man who carries on conversations with his dog. And the accounts of Wagner’s directing are impressive: Beethoven’s Ninth from memory!

As far as fiction goes, I’m exploring and re-reading. In the latter category, I’m about halfway through Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I last read in college, where I wasn’t much impressed. I suppose now that I’m a grandfather it makes more sense; at any rate, it’s a lot better than I remember. Surrounded by professors who seem to think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the greatest thing ever written, I’ve always taken a perverse pleasure in The Secret Agent.

Rereading it once again, I’m even more taken with it as the first and greatest of all the novels of intrigue and spying. I think anyone who’s ever worked in a bureaucracy, much less in higher education, can sympathize with Mr. Verloc’s consternation at hearing Mr. Vladimir’s wonderful oration. He developed “his ideas from on high, with scorn and condescension, displaying at the same time an amount of ignorance as to the real aims, thoughts, and methods of the revolutionary world which filled the silent Mr. Verloc with inward consternation. He confounded causes with effects more than was excusable ... assumed organization where in the nature of things it could not exist....”

As a Pole, Conrad didn’t have much use for Russians, and I don’t know he would have thought of a Russian novel I’d never even heard of, Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev’s Sanine. In its day it caused quite a scandal, and Sanine, the chief character, is the sort of man both Turgenev and Dostoevsky liked to write about. But it’s a remarkable novel, not as bitter as The Devils and without the tragic pathos of Turgenev.

I would say that a good deal of my reading is travel literature, and there are real gems lying around. I’ve been spending times in Provence for thirty years, but as I’ve been reading Francis Miltoun’s 1906 account, Rambles on the Riviera, I hardly recognized the place. I plan to take it with me on my next trip, use it as a guide. It’s always sobering to discover how little you know of a place you regard as being familiar.

I’m wading through two really formidable multi-volumed works. Jules Verne’s Celebrated Travels and Travellers (yes, that Jules Verne) is three massive volumes that starts with what he ingenuously calls “The Exploration of the World,” and then continues with two volumes on the “Great Navigators” of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The English translation is apparently a very rare work, as I haven’t been able to find it after a search of all the major libraries, courtesy of WorldCat. I’m glad I found it, as it is difficult to believe there’s any navigator Verne doesn’t discuss in exhaustive detail.

But Verne, as a marvelously prolific novelist, has a great eye for story telling, which is more than I can say for Henry Yule’s extensively annotated edition of Marco Polo’s travels, an 1870 work updated in 1920. This is a ponderous work: the introductory biographical sketch of Henry Yule, written by his daughter, is a book in itself. But then Yule was a fascinating Englishman who spent most of his life in India. His scholarly productions were a sort of hobby, as he spent most of his time modernizing the sub continent. Among other things, he developed the extensive railroad system, which gives an idea of his significance.

Unfortunately, his literary skills were nonexistent; but then Polo was, at least for me, one of those men whose exciting life is hardly matched by his prose, so it’s a perfect match.

One of the unexpected discoveries is the enormous numbers of travel accounts written by women. They went to all sorts of strange places, from Burma to Patagonia and everywhere in between. Beth Ellis went to visit her sister in Burma in 1890, and An English Girl's First Impressions of Burmah is a marvelously comic tale about her non-adventures there. Her account of trying to make traditional English pastries is related in a deadpan way that puts Mark Twain to shame.

On a more serious note I’ve just finished Lady Barker’s account of a lengthy sojourn on a sheep ranch in New Zealand. I don’t know anything about this woman, or why she and her husband were there, but she was an admirable person. She was apparently enceinte when she made the lengthy voyage, gave birth in a new country. A few pages later, she records, without any obvious emotion, that the baby took sick and died. The lack of any of the emotionalism we usually associate with Victorian tragedies makes the passage deeply moving.

As a sometime military historian, I do read history on occasion. When I was younger, I though that C. V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War was one of the best books of its kind, and I referred to it in one of my own books, contrasting her description of the devastation it caused with the more recent studies—much to their advantage.

So I’ve been both surprised and impressed to find a much earlier work, written by Samuel Rawson Gardiner way back in 1874. With all due respect to Ms. Wedgewood, as a work of history Gardiner is far superior, and, again to my surprise, I’m finding it to be a much more lucid and comprehensive explanation.

But then as we work backwards, it does seem that these older histories are much better than their successors. I’m in volume two of John Fiske’s The American Revolution, published in 1891, a work in my view hardly surpassed by anything written since, both for the clarity of the prose and the depth of the research.

It was Voltaire who made sarcastic remarks about entrusting the writing of history to intellectuals. He knew whereof he spoke, since he was, among other things, no mean historian himself. I’m reading his History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, which, to be blunt, is a considerably less turgid account than the recent one by Massie. Voltaire, like Verne, has a genius for compressing complex events into a succinct narrative. He gives you the forest, doesn’t stop to count the acorns.

And of course he had a considerable advantage, since he had extensive personal knowledge of the subject. A few ounces of Voltaire is weightier than several pounds of anyone else.

I think we sometimes forget these giants of the past. If we see further it is because we’re standing on their shoulders. The subject of a delightful book by Thomas Merton, which I’m currently rereading. Interestingly, it’s the only physical book of the lot.

Our ancestors were a lot smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. I’m plowing through William Osler’s The Evolution of Modern Medicine in 1913. It’s astonishing how much of the human body was mapped by the Greeks and the Romans, while at the same time, how many of their assumptions were wrong. In that regard Osler has a refreshing comment that’s a useful counter to much of what passes for science today: “I believe it was Hegel who said that progress is a series of negations— the denial today of what was accepted yesterday, the contradiction by each generation of some part at least of the philosophy of the last; but all is not lost, the germ plasm remains, a nucleus of truth to be fertilized by men often ignorant even of the body from which it has come. Knowledge evolves, but in such a way that its possessors are never in sure possession. ‘It is because science is sure of nothing that it is always advancing’ (Duclaux).”

Learn more about John Mosier's Verdun at the publisher's website, and visit John Mosier's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: Verdun.

--Marshal Zeringue