The Guns of August

First, my thanks to Deborah for recommending this book!

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, is the first (it probably won't be the last) book on the Great War (the First World War) for which I have written a marginal commentary. Tuchman, incidentally, is surprisingly only the sixth female author about whose work I have written some kind of post. I have written essays on each of J. K. Rowling's books in the Potter septet, and have written marginal commentaries on works by Emma Donoghue, Kate Pullinger, Debbie Macomber, and Jeannette Walls. Once I have finished the marginal commentary on Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, the ratio of 'boys vs. girls' in terms of authors on whose works I shall have written posts will be twenty-nine to seven, or just over four to one.

The edition of The Guns of August from which I am quoting passages is the edition published in 2012 by the Library of America (the publisher is Literary Classics of the United States); the book was published originally in 1962 by MacMillan. This book also includes The Proud Tower, Tuchman's work on the quarter-century preceding the First World War. Incidentally, Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919 (a great book; MacMillan, by the way, is a Canadian and great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George), is the editor of the Library of America edition of The Guns of August and The Proud Tower. As an editorial note, all italics in passages quoted are original to this edition of The Guns of August; save one or two most consist of quotes from or scraps of other languages.

Tuchman's style reminds me of that of Piers Brendon in The Dark Valley: in fairness I should say that his style is reminiscent of hers. Both The Dark Valley and The Guns of August are written in a novelistic, witty style. And, even though The Guns of August takes a closer look at a shorter period of time than Brendon's work, it is still to an extent panoramic.

My focus with respect to The Guns of August will be on its opening chapters, as to how Tuchman skillfully builds dramatic tension, despite the fact that the results of the deliberations, arguments, diplomatic to-and-fro, and so on, which characterised the opening act of the War, are well known. '[O]n Juy 28 [Austria] declared war on Serbia, on July 29 bombarded Belgrade. [p. 89]' With those acts, the Great War began. But it was not to envelop Western Europe until the beginning of August, when one by one Germany, France, and Great Britain (responding to the German violation of Belgian neutrality) were 'dragged... forward' over 'the brink' by 'the pull of military schedules. [ibid.]' Tuchman might have put it as Brendon did when he wrote, 'One by one... the great powers slid into the fiery chasm of conflict. [The Dark Valley, p. 689]'

It is a credit to Tuchman's craft that she is able to generate dramatic tension about events the course of which are known; actually, this is one of the appeals of well-written works of history, I think. In any case, let's see if we can't perceive some of the means by which Tuchman enables us to enter into the tense, calamitous decisions (and, to coin a word 'indecisions') that provoked the definitive historical event of the twentieth century.



First, my thanks to Graham for recommending Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver!

In the Acknowledgements, Stephenson writes about some of the books which he used as sources for Quicksilver. 'Of particular note', he writes, 'is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill's six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh. [p. x; italics original].' Running over nine hundred pages, Quicksilver is big. (So was Cryptonomicon.) Stephenson, it would appear, is in full agreement with Treebeard the Ent's remark to the effect that anything worth saying is worth taking a long time to say.

My early impression of Quicksilver is that Stephenson appears to be using fiction as a vehicle for celebrating the achievements of the modern: he is, it seems to me and in other words, an apologist, if not an apostle, of modernism. (Some confirmation for this impression can be found in the early goings of Cryptonomicon, in which Stephenson, describing Randy Waterhouse's life with his ex-girlfriend and her academic chums, pillories post-modern thinking and behaviour.)

Another impression of the work, reached much further in (if you'll pardon the double entendre), is that it depicts sex in a fashion more cynical than that which was expressed in Cryptonomicon. Whatever your view of the sexual goings-on of the characters in Cryptonomicon, all but one of their sexual interactions possessed a certain kind of innocence: namely, they were innocent of motives other than the mutual consummation of a relationship, however quirky. (The one exception was Laurence Waterhouse bedding a young woman who was a presumed spy for the Germans, but by the time they got around to getting around, it is a foregone conclusion that he won't be giving up any secrets to her.)

By contrast, several of the notable sexual escapades in Quicksilver signify more than just the consummation of a relationship (although they also do that), and their additional significance is never better than morally compromising, even if the results further the plot and lead to good things, overall, happening.

So, my approach to Quicksilver will focus on two aspects; first, Stephenson's apparent apostolate (as it were) with respect to modernity, and, second, how sex is used to control and corrupt - to put it baldly. Whence the label 'sex' on this post, because I'll be quoting passages in which it is somehow a feature. So, with respect to the latter, you have been warned.