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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

“Europe: A History”, by Norman Davies

1424 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195209129

An enormous tome which I plodded through a few pages at a time and use to beat off muggers…A survey so surface-level that it leaves you gasping for more…A thoroughly enjoyable read…

These statements seem contradictory, but all apply to this book. This is as comprehensive a history of Europe as a single-volume can manage to be, and yet it still but skims the surface of the story of this magnificently diverse and dynamic continent. Davies is a Poland specialist and he uses his knowledge of the country’s intricacies to illuminate the experience of the whole continent, as indeed he does also with his native Oxfordshire. To my mind, this is strength rather than a weakness as long as one remembers that the specific often serves as an exemplar for the general. The contributions of small, historically peripheral and often forgotten parts of Europe are woven seamlessly into the weft of Davies' narrative – Ireland, Sicily, Latvia, Ukraine. Nor is the story of ideas, of economies and of science is not lost among the dreary procession of wars and dynasties. There is also a useful set of maps and raw data contained in the appendices.

As for criticism, while any work of this sweep is going to have difficulty separating people and concepts in the minds of its readers, I find the procession of minor royal figures and complex webs of intermarriage in medieval times particularly difficult. Perhaps Davies could have set out more clearly who ruled where and when, and what the relationships between them. Also, Davies finishes weakly after a strong book. Speculation is, naturally, mere speculation but Davies predictions for the future read too much like a senior common room conversation after a few glasses of wine. I’m not quite sure if the “capsule” idea – small deviations in the narrative used to spotlight small, little-known factoids – works; in 1992 it must have seemed very cutting edge, a harbinger of an internet still unknown to the general public, but now they seem a bit dated, and while they contain much of interest, they sometimes distract from the flow of the narrative.

There is a looseness to his narrative that is both compelling and frustrating. Europe reads easily, more like a novel than history, which at times made me wonder how much Davies bent historic events to suit his literary tastes. The later chapters in which he chronicles the 18th and 19th Centuries are the most compelling, tracing Napoleon’s ride through Europe like Phaethon’s ill-fated chariot ride through the cosmos to Hitler’s ignoble campaign to the rise and fall of the Soviet Empire. All the historic antecedents are here. Norman Davies charts the full width and breadth of the continent. One of the telling tests of a work such as this is how it wears, and after almost twenty years, this still reads very well.

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