‘Travels Through The 20th Century’

Originally posted July 23, 2008

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I just have to tell people about.

(And it’s a good thing I have outlets with which to do so – this blog and my monthly meeting of Bookcrossing – or I fear I’d be out on the streets, gripping folks by the elbow, showing them a book: “Have you read this? You need to read this! It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.” It would not take long before I’d either be warned by the police to quit or else taken away for some observation.)

Anyway, during my regular stop at the public library last weekend, I spotted a book on the new reading shelf that looked interesting enough to take a chance on: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Max. I sifted the pages quickly, and got the impression that it was a collection of travel pieces from through the years. It sounded interesting enough, so I dropped it in the book bag and brought it home.

I’ve shared a few books here over the past year and a half, and always with the note that the book in question is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Not wanting that claim to be diluted, I should note that I read – at a guess – six to ten books a month. I’m a rapid reader, and even with the blog and my other writing and my househusband duties, I have a good chunk of time every day for reading. So in the past year and a half, let’s say I’ve read eight books a month; that comes out to 144 books.

Some of those were just okay, a couple I recall as actually very bad. Most were good, and there were a very few that were superior. In Europe is one of them. It turned out to be something far more interesting than an anthology of travel journalism.

In 1999, Max – a writer for the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handlesblad – was assigned to travel Europe for a year, researching and writing pieces on the history of the Twentieth Century on the continent. The book is arranged in chronological order, beginning with his January 1999 travels, during which he covered the years from 1900 to 1914. For that segment of the century, Max traveled to Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna, the four main capitals of Europe during the time when the stage was being prepared for World War I.

Using diaries, histories and publications from the time, and combining those accounts with his observations of the current state of the various locales, Max (aided, no doubt, by what appears to be a remarkable job by translator Sam Garrett) weaves a readable and fascinating history of Europe in the last century. His February travels shift from Vienna and focus on Belgium and northern France, as he chronicles the lives and deaths of millions of young men in the carnage that was the deadlocked Western Front during World War I.

And as he tours a Belgian war cemetery at Houthulst, he brings that long-gone war back to the present:

“I hear a dull thud. A blue mist comes floating across the frosty fields. In the field behind the cemetery, the DOVO, the Belgian War Munition Demolition Service, has blown up another heap of First World War ammunition. They do it twice a day, one and a half tons a year. When the farmers find grenades they leave them at the base of the utility masts, and the miners collect them. And so it goes on here. Generation after generation, this soil continues to vomit up grenades, buttons, buckles, knives, skulls, bottles, rifles, sometimes even a whole tank. The Great War never ends.”

I am tempted every day to rush through my obligations – or to ignore them – so I can that much sooner pick up Max’s book and continue my explorations through the history he found on his travels.

As I read his account of World War I, I thought – as a writer tends to do – about the only time I ever wrote about that first great war. It was in 1978, a piece timed for November 11, Veterans Day, which would be the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the brutal battle of attrition in France. Still rather new to Monticello, I asked around a bit and found a veteran of World War I who was still alert and was willing to talk about his experience in France.

Frankie was never at the front, but he said he saw enough of the work of the battlefront as wounded and dead soldiers came back through the rear echelons. I took notes and reported his words, our photographer got a picture of Frankie and his wife, Marie, and we borrowed a 1918 picture of Frankie looking every inch the doughboy in his uniform. But I could not find a way as deadline approached that week to describe the look in Frankie’s eyes as he cast himself sixty years back and recalled for me the dirt, the fear, the noise, the blood, the horrible waste that he saw from the edges of the war.

Some things are too profound for words. In In Europe, I think, Max uses his finely chiseled prose and his eye for fine detail to come closer than most can to finding a way around that barrier.

As sometimes happens here, there’s no graceful way to move to the music. Here’s a generally random selection from the year when I wrote about World War I:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1978, Vol. 2
“Do You Wanna Dance” by Janis Ian from Janis Ian

“Heavy Horses” by Jethro Tull from Heavy Horses

“Lookin’ For A Place” by Chilliwack from Lights From The Valley

“Don’t Look Back” by Boston from Don’t Look Back

“Shattered” by the Rolling Stones from Some Girls

“Is This Love” by Bob Marley & the Wailers from Kaya

“Lotta Love” by Neil Young from Comes A Time

“You Belong To Me” by Carly Simon, Elektra single 45477

“The Darker Side” by the Lamont Cranston Band from El Cee Notes

“Here Goes” by the Bliss Band from Dinner With Raoul

“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town

“Never Make A Move Too Soon” by B.B. King, ABC single 12380

“Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food

A few notes:

I have a soft spot for Janis Ian. Anyone who can chronicle high school desperation the way she did in 1975’s “At Seventeen” deserves a pass now and then. Her 1978 self-titled album, though it had its moments, generally deserved that pass, as it was her third album in three years that didn’t come up to the quality of 1975’s Between the Lines. On the other hand, not many albums from anyone else can meet that standard, either. Luckily, “Do You Wanna Dance” is one of the better songs on the 1978 album.

Heavy Horses saw Jethro Tull continuing the back-to-the-roots shift that the band had started with 1977’s Songs From the Wood, with both albums celebrating English folk. Horses, as All-Music Guide notes, is “chock-full of gorgeous melodies, briskly played acoustic guitars and mandolins, and Ian Anderson’s flute lilting in the background, backed by the group in top form.” That’s not to say the album is lightweight, just noting where its inspirations came from.

In the two years since the release of its self-titled debut, Boston hadn’t changed much. “Don’t Look Back” is a decent song, but it – and any of the other seven songs on the album Don’t Look Back – has the same sound as the debut album. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but I kind of wonder why the group bothered.

If I had to go through my 1978 collection and rank the albums, I think that every time, I’d come up with Neil Young’s Comes A Time in the top spot. Far more country-ish than most of his other albums, it’s also the one that Young seems most relaxed with. It sounds like he had fun making the record, and I rarely get that sense about his music.

When I did my long post for last year’s Vinyl Record Day, I wrote “the Bliss Band sounds to me a bit like Pablo Cruise or the Little River Band, both of which were hitting the charts about the time Dinner With Raoul was recorded. There’s a touch of Steely Dan in there, too.” I stand by that, but it’s a sound that’s grown on me in the past eleven months. (A note: This year’s blogswarm for Vinyl Record Day, August 12, is once again being organized by JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.)

“The Promised Land” is one of my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. (I suppose I should do an all-Springsteen post someday, listing my favorite thirteen.) He’s done some that are a little better, but what makes “The Promised Land” work is its setting: It’s an anthem that carries at least some hope amid the desperation and drear of the rest of Darkness at the Edge of Town.

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