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19 January 2013

Book Review: The Beauty and the Sorrow


The Beauty And The SorrowThe Beauty And The Sorrow by Peter Englund


The whole concept of this book intrigues me;  take twenty regular people and tell the story of the war through their eyes.  Englund has done his homework; I expected swaths of pull-quotes from their letters.  Instead, he takes source material to sketch a scene and uses direct quotes from their letters sparingly.  Mostly, this works beautifully.  But sometimes, Englund's prose is obtuse and clunky and one wishes for the original voice.  For example;

"He is a keen churchgoer and the eldest of six brothers and sisters, the two youngest of whom--the twin girls Zelma and Vida--he is particularly fond of and pays a lot of attention."

I spent too many minutes trying to rewrite that sentence in my head.  I couldn't do it so then I had to back up and rewrite the whole paragraph.  One could argue that I got distracted by a minor element of poor grammar, which I should have glossed over for the sake of the beautiful story Englund was telling.  But this exact exercise happened to me often enough that I fear the depth of its ability to enlighten me was compromised.

But despite its tedious moments and the difficulty I had as a reader keeping track of who was who, Englund's concept, for the most part, worked.  Making the war real.  "The war for them is less an event to be followed than a condition to be endured."

This war made people into statistics.  This war took away basic human dignity.  This war devalued human life.  When the German seaman uses his offshore leave to go see Lohengrin he writes, "It's a pity I can't get to more occasions like this.  They make you feel like a human being rather than just a worthless beast of burden."

"And the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise.  You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front."  American Army field surgeon Harvey Cushing after witnessing shells land at the front.

Englund writes, "An ancient truth is making itself manifest again--the truth that sooner or later wars become uncontrollable and counter-productive because men and societies will tend to sacrifice everything in their blind drive to be victorious."  Peace becomes a dirty word.  Anything less than victory would mean that "all the sufferings and losses have been in vain."  So the war grinds on, causing more suffering, more loss.

"For about a fortnight they have watched battalion after battalion dispatched towards the top of Monte Ortigara and each time they have also watched the result;  first to come are the stretcher-beares with the wounded and the mules with the dead, then--after a few hours or a few days--what remains of the battalion trudges past.  That is how it works, such are the mechanics of it.  Battalions are sent into the mill of artillery fire and remain there being ground mercilessly down until they have lost the majority of their men.  Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men.  Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men.  And so on."

This war sent humans into a roiling vortex of violence that functionally achieved nothing at all.

One of the people Englund follows reads as voraciously as he can throughout the war, "...in the slightly touching way of bookish people, who always try to read their way to an understanding of the great and incomprehensible events that are affecting them..."

The inherent and never-ending conflicts--social democracy, constitutional monarchy, individual freedoms, the class system--all of this is crystallized during the war.

"The war has developed into something that few people foresaw and even fewer desired, and the class system is one of the things that has been unmasked: where decades of socialist and anarchist propaganda failed to lay bare the lies, hypocrisy and paradoxes of the old order, a couple of years of war have succeeded in doing so."


The war to end all wars, followed by the peace to end all peace.  Followed by the rise of the Nazis.

Englund ends his book with a quote from another regular person; a German footsoldier during the war; the young man is frustrated by the terms of the peace and the fall of German power and might.  He writes, "One would have had to be a simpleton--or a liar and criminal--to hope for mercy from the enemy.  My hatred grew during these nights, my hatred for those responsible for this evil deed.  During the days that followed, I recognised what my mission was to be.  I decided to become a politician."

The soldier's name was Adolf Hitler.


Other random thoughts: Paolo Monelli is a poet with a sense of language and beauty that tells the war's story in a most effective and heart-wrenching way.

Best Random Trivia Item Learned:  Tsingtao, in China, used to be a German colony.  No wonder they make great beer.


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