Tag Archives: History

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.



Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

Some cities have an aura of glamour–Paris, Venice, Vienna, St Petersburg, Budapest … perhaps that disappears when you live there, but for this armchair traveler, the city of New Orleans also makes the list of glamorous cities. Of course, the images of New Orleans took a hit with Hurricane Katrina–a natural disaster which lifted the lid on some very ugly behaviour. I’ll never go to Mardi Gras, and I’ll never go to New Orleans, but I’m interested enough in the history of the city to pick up Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist.

I expected an extraordinary history of this city. I expected a lot of vice & crime, and in this, the book, although occasionally dry, did not disappoint. Author Gary Krist presents a convincing portrait of a unique city built on vice. Eventually, as the title suggests, the powers within the city split into two camps–those who wanted to clean the place up (partly for tourism, partly for business reasons, and partly for the moral crusade), and those whose vested interests lay in Vice, and who knew that at least a large portion of the tourists were there to party!

Empire of sinThe prologue begins in 1918 with the mysterious axe-man murders (which are returned to later in the book), and then it’s back to the 1890s. A large part of the book explores the city’s history of Vice with some of the most infamous names of the day: Josephine Lobrano, one of the more successful brothel owners who’d been “driven into prostitution as an eleven-year-old orphan,” Lulu White, & entrepreneur, restaurateur and brothel owner Tom Anderson whose rise and fall mirrors the ascent and curtailing of the vice elements within the city. Josephine Lobrano seems to be one of New Orleans more colourful characters who decided to “turn over a new leaf” not by retiring but by upgrading her brothel to attract higher end clients. This was considered “going respectable” which says a lot about the place and the times.

Krist explains that this was the “era of High Victorianism” and that not even New Orleans was “impervious to the stringent ideals of the day,” and argues that “in nineteenth-century New Orleans, however, respectability was arguably more difficult to achieve and maintain than in almost any other place on the continent” as “threats to decency were everywhere, and the city’s lax cosmopolitan ethos hardly conformed to mainstream American norms of behaviour.” This seems to be the book’s main thesis–what passed as normal in New Orleans was certainly not normal elsewhere in most of America (San Francisco was pretty wild, I’d argue), and that due to the “unique history” of New Orleans, the city “scarcely seemed American at all.” Krist states that the city at the time was “largely Latin, Catholic

a strange and disturbing place to many–a place where married white men attended ‘Quadroon Balls’ to find mixed-race concubines, where macabre voodoo rituals occurred in shanties and back alleys, and where even prominent politicians might meet in City Park to duel with pistols or épées at dawn. In the city’s notorious tenderloin districts, brothels specialized in all manner of interracial mixing and arcane sexual practices, while narcotics, alcohol, and loud degenerate kinds of music filled the salon’s and dance halls, promoting deviant behaviour of all kinds.

The city was founded as a “French outpost in the early 1700s” but by the “latter half of the eighteenth century” was under Spanish rule. There’s a brief history sketched of the city’s shifting population, and I would have liked more, but the point is well made that New Orleans was a “confluence of races and ethnicities” that was decidedly different from other protestant, Lutheran or Baptist cities in America. I recently read 10 North Frederick by John O’Hara, and The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and even though both books (one fiction, the other non-fiction) were set in different centuries, the very fundamental protestant nature of the setting (Pennsylvania) was made quite clear.

Krist argues that by the end of the nineteenth century “respectability had become [such] a burning preoccupation among the ‘better element’ in New Orleans.” And although “gambling, prostitution, street violence, and bawdy entertainment had been a prominent feature of the city’s life for its entire history” many citizens wanted things to change. Part of the problem was that post-Reconstruction, “vice areas” had spread to both residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and it was not unheard of for a family to buy a home in a ‘decent’ neighborhood, but then wake up one day to find a brothel had sprung up next door.  By the “late 1880s, criminality of all types in the city seemed virtually out of control” with blacks and Italians frequently “scapegoated” for the rampant spread of crime.  Crime and Vice added to a corrupt city government burdened with debt left New Orleans, with open sewers and only a few homes with running water, “hopelessly backward, at least in terms of urban development.” The election of Joseph Shakepeare voted in on promises of reform began the “equivalent of an all out civil war” for the city.

There were plenty of casualties in the war, including police chief David Hennessy who’d cracked down on the wave of crime amongst Italians. This led to the infamous Parish Prison lynching–an incredible event–not only in its execution but in its complete lack of consequences in this so-called “spontaneous uprising of the people.” This is hardly the first or the last instance of vigilante justice in American history, but it’s certainly an extraordinary tale for the sheer number of people involved and the lack of anonymity in the face of frustration with the legal system.

Another large portion of the book, and for this reader the most interesting section of the book, follows the history (and the more famous inhabitants) of Storyville–an eighteen block area in which prostitution wasn’t legalized as much as it was made illegal outside of these limits. Also covered quite extensively is the rise of Jazz. Louis Armstrong’s memories of playing music in the brothels of Storyville are wonderful. Other salient sections include the exploits of the Black Hand and the crime spree of Robert Charles.

These are wild times, and of course, we know as we read the book that the wild times had to end. The demise of Storyville was celebrated by many, but there’s still a pervasive sense of desperation when we read about the secondhand dealers who flocked to Storyville to pick up antiques and opulent furnishings from “distressed prostitutes and madams.”

Louis Armstrong was there to witness the exodus. “It sure was a sad scene to watch the law run all those people out of Storyville,” he wrote years later. “They reminded me of refugees. Some of them had spent the best part of their lives there. Others had never known any other kind of life.”

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction

The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J Meyer

I found the Borgias fascinating long before it was fashionable to do so–I refer of course to the current Borgia mania fueled by Showtime’s mini-series, which, incidentally, I haven’t seen. G.J Meyer’s book The Borgias: The Hidden History is a highly readable revisionist look at one of the most notoriously rotten families in history–we’ve heard the stories of the orgies, the incest and the poisonings, and Meyer’s fascinating book takes an intense, fascinating look at the Borgias while arguing that they weren’t so bad after all….

Author G. J. Meyer (The Tudors) begins by saying that “this is not the book I set out to write,” and that his research led to an “entirely new understanding of who the Borgias were.” Meyer makes a strong argument for his case stating that the Borgia “myth” is largely built on “the acceptance as true … of accusations of the darkest kind” made by “discredited” historians and Borgia enemies. It’s an interesting premise, and while Meyer makes a cogent argument, there were times that the pendulum swung too far towards an image make-over. More of that later.

The BorgiasIn spite of a few problems I had with Meyer’s thesis, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s richly detailed and reads very well. In my limited knowledge of the Borgias, I knew only of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his infamous illegitimate children which included Cesare and Lucrezia. The book takes us back farther into Borgia history with Alonso Borgia, the “dark-horse candidate,” elected as pope Calixtus III more or less because he was so elderly and not expected to hold the office for too long. This, of course, opened the door to Borgia power. The book delves deeply into Alonso’s career–including his long, significant employment as Alfonso V’s secretary. This background information is invaluable as it illustrates Alonso’s intelligence and diplomacy, but we also see the weaved network of friendships, wars, and obligations that became so critical in matters of succession–specifically just who was the heir to the throne of Naples. Alonso’s reign as pope was complicated by a constant threat from the Turks even as he tried to “regain control” of the Papal states. With the Orsini and the Colonna families as bitter enemies, Alonso’s goal of uniting the Papal states was not easy. Alonso understood that alliances were of paramount importance, and so it’s with this Borgia, we see Rodrigo begin to rise in power within the church. According to Meyer, Alonso/Calixtus III’s approach to regaining control of the papal states was “novel” as other popes had simply thrown in their support with either the Orsini or the Colonna against whichever clan was left out of favour.

The result was an endlessly repeating pattern in which, as pope succeeded pope, the fortunes of the Orsini and the Colonna became like two pistons in a reciprocating machine, with one side up whenever the other side was down.

I had always known that these were wild times, of course, but the book brings those times to life with relevant details:

In Rome itself, disorder and danger became chronic, the Orsini turning the parts of the city that they controlled into killing zones. They showed no reluctance to shut down the highways leading to the city’s gates and so cut off its supplies of food, fuel, and other essentials whenever it served their purposes to do so.

Nepotism, according to the author, was the modus operandi of the times–not something that just the Borgias were ‘guilty’ of, and that makes perfect sense, so it comes as no surprise to see Alonso’s nephew, Rodrigo climbing to the top of the church hierarchy, and it’s with Rodrigo that Meyer first addresses the “accusations of greed.”  Meyer argues that while Rodrigo’s wealth rose to “stunning levels,” this was absorbed by his growing expenses and responsibilities. Rodrigo eventually became pope after being passed over several times, and the book details the various election processes. One delightful scene recounts how one cardinal “stationed himself in the latrine,” ambushing other cardinals as he desperately lobbied for votes.

Close to the 40% mark of the book (on my kindle edition), Cesare and Lucretia finally appear–but not as Rodrigo’s illegitimate children but rather as his grand-niece and grand-nephew. The author presents his arguments for this complete with scholarly backup, and after all these years, who knows the truth? I’m not about to argue with Meyer’s research or his scholasticism–I’ll leave that for the experts. My biggest issue with the image makeover of the Borgias came in the details regarding some of the scandals, rumours and gossip. Clearly the wickedness of the Borgias became legendary as the years passed, and there’s no argument from this reader that some of the stories are grossly exaggerated. However, and here’s one instance–at one point, there’s a discussion of a letter dated August 10 to the papal court regarding Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was ill, and the letter includes the line “the physician who saw him first says that he has little hope for him, principally because he had, shortly before, not slept alone in bed.” The author notes that this was “interpreted as meaning that Rodrigo had been indulging in sexual adventures” and was dying as a result.

As for the cardinal’s not sleeping alone, as recently as the nineteenth century it was not uncommon even for men of importance to share beds, and it may very well have been necessary for senior members of the pope’s entourage to do so in the grossly overcrowded conditions of Ancona that summer.

The author is an apologist for the Borgias and at times provides a weak defense of this notorious family. We don’t know, for example, and we will never know, who was in Rodrigo’s bed when the physician showed up, but to argue that it was another member of the pope’s entourage is belaboring the point. The question of whether or not Rodrigo kept his vows of celibacy seemed petty, but then of course, this later leads into the argument that all of Rodrigo’s mistresses weren’t his mistresses after all. There are many points the author makes that seem very valid when questioning some of the more outlandish accusations against the family, but at other times, the defense of the Borgias goes a little too far with the result that they seem vastly morally superior when weighed against their contemporaries. On the other hand, the depiction of many other vile characters, including Ferdinand I of Naples and the impressively vengeful, strong-willed Caterina Sforza did a great deal more towards convincing me of the relative ‘normalcy’ of the Borgias than some of the claims of their total innocence. By detailing the actions of the Borgias in the context of their turbulent troubled times, in effect, this is revisionist in itself, and niggling over some of the details which really cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt one way or another seems unnecessary.

That complaint aside, The Borgias really is a wonderful book, very readable, and a book in which many characters come to life and are not just faded images in century-old portraits.  These were incredible people living in incredible times. The author clearly loves his subject and it shows in every line, every explanation of time and place. The book includes a family tree, maps and a timeline.

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction