A tale of three cities, Bethany Hughes

Bethany Hughes is the British equivalent to Lorent Deutsch. She may have studied enough history to style herself a historian but what she writes says more about her than about her subject matter. She does have a great literary writing style. 

When reading this book I found myself stopping quite a few times and sighing in exasperation. A few examples (compiled as I read) why:

– she claims that the protests after the aborted coup in 2016 when people were waving (red) Turkish flags turned the city red (fair enough) and that this red mark was visible from space. Until someone shows me a satellite photo of that day with Istanbul reddish, my reply will be « Yeah, right »;

– she claims that Istanbul is the oldest political entity in the world, dating back 8,000 years. Now 8,000 years as a political entity is a very long time. I think Athens can only claim half that length. And her justification for this is that the oldest human remains found in Istanbul date from 8,000 years. I’m sorry, this doesn’t make Istanbul the longest political entity. It may make it the place with the longest uninterrupted human settlement, but a settlement isn’t a political entity;

– on Constantine’s adoption of Christianity with a dose of sun worshipping she says « and that’s how sabbath became Sunday ». Nice little sentence. Yes Sunday comes from sun. In English. English which is a Germanic language. Constantine spoke Greek and Latin. In Latin languages (French, Italian, Spanish), the name for Sunday comes from « lord » (dominus). So with the conversion of Constantine, sabbath became « the day of the Lord », not the day of the Sun;

– her insistence that pagan traditions were misogynistic and that Christianity offered a better life to women. Yes (Greek and Roman) pagan traditions were misogynistic, no debate there (well with graduations, i’d rather have been a Spartan woman than an Athenian one) but to imply that Christianity was better is a lie. The attraction of Christianity for women was the promise of a better after life (a concept lacking in most pagan traditions), because their daily life sure didn’t improve much. Of course 3 chapters after saying that Christianity is good for women she acknowledges that their life were still fairly miserable except if they were high born or rich. This just gives the feeling of a book written as she goes along with no proof reading for consistency;

– her insistence on telling the reader that she travelled to the places she talks about and when. Being a historical tourist doesn’t make you a better historian. Spending days in an office with hundreds of first hand accounts in Greek and Latin does. Checking the bibliography it seems she doesn’t read Latin or Greek but instead relies on old translations (from the early 20th century or the 60s/70s). I would have thought reading Latin and Greek (not to mention Arab…) being a minimum requirement when writing about Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul;

– the way she makes false parallels with the present such as saying that Justinian’s system for registering refugees was better than the current one in place in Istanbul for the Syrian refugees. I doubt that Justinian had to deal with millions of refugees so let’s not compare (which is not saying that the current system is good, but this comparison is simply stupid, wrong and helps no one)

– her statement that after Whitby, Christianity in Britain became less eastern. Whitby was a synod opposing Roman Christianity to Celtic Christianity. Yes, maybe Celtic Christianity was closer to Eastern beliefs than Roman one, but it is quite a stretch to make Whitby an east/west discussion, or to talk about eastern Christianity having any real influence in Britain. Come to think of it, the whole chapter about Constantinople and Britain is preposterous. From a tiny link (the tin trade) she makes a chapter to explain that Constantinople influence could be felt in Britain. I can’t decide if it’s a way to enlarge her subject matter – Constantinople – or the cliché British arrogance about being the centre of the world. If memory serves, Charlemagne had real ties to Constantinople. So if you want to talk about 8th century Europe and Constantinople, you talk about him, not about the tin trade from Tintagel!

– her disparaging comment that « Viking rehabilitation does not deserve to be absolute ». Historians do not advance any Vikings rehabilitation. They give a more nuanced picture of what the Vikings were, insisting that western ecclesiastical sources only give their side of the story and that the Vikings should be seen not just as the bloody raiders that they undoubtedly were but also as a traders and as a civilisation complete with its poetry, religion and way of life. She does seem to have an issue with any civilisation that does not fit her beloved monotheist Islamo-Christian world. The sentence « the young girls they [the Vikings] offered as human sacrifice to the gods were gang-raped by Viking nobility before they died. It is hard to imagine the horror. » is a disgusting twitching of historical facts. Women servants were offered up in sacrifices to the gods when their master died. They were put to death and put on the ‘coffin’ ship with him. I have read accounts of the nobility (the warriors of the dead lord) having sex with these servants before they were killed, as a sort of offering to their lord. Calling it gang rape is tabloid speak. Yes it would be called gang rape now, but it was to all purpose a (cruel) sacrificial/religious act. But no decent historian would use that sort of description. This is not to say vikings were not raping and killing on raids, but mixing up that violence with religious acts is just historically wrong. She also doesn’t use the term gang rape to describe the systematic sexual assaults perpetrated by the Crusaders and later the Turks when they took the city. It seems only pagans « gang rape ». War rape is apparently not an « horror ». Neither is the making of eunuchs in huge numbers. Instead she goes at length to describe as « the third sex » and develop the ideas that eunuchs were perceived as angels. Sex slavery is also presented career prospect. Of course it was in a way, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. In that again I get the feeling that monotheist violence is alright but pagan ritualised one isn’t. 

– « Montesquieu, Choderlos de Laclos and Racine had written excitable harem narratives ». I don’t know which ones she speaks of for Laclos and Racine but I guess she means Montesquieu’s lettres persanes. You know that satirical work which is about denouncing the French court and the politics of the country while pretending to be speaking as someone from another country? Of course there is a harem in it, but as Cyrano would say « c’est un peu court ». The Persan letters are so much more than an excitable harem narrative!!

– the way she deals with the Armenian genocide: it’s unclear, badly written and she does her best not to take any position, simply mentioning some theories and saying that anyway Ottomans were tried for war crime and that the estimate of 600,000 to 1 million dead is available in Ottoman archives. It’s a convoluted way to avoid using the « g- word ». And i can’t decide if it’s cowardice, lack of university knowledge on crimes against humanity or just supporting the official Turkish government line. 
For someone who claims to write about the history of Istanbul she spends little time on the Byzantine time, being more at ease with Christian Constantinople. Overall she seems happier to talk about monotheist culture than pagan ones (even if Julian the ‘apostate’ and Hypatia do get a decent mention). That’s fine but then don’t pretend you write about « three cities ». 

Her treatment of the role of Byzantium during the Peloponnese war is so quick that even though I have read Thucydides I had troubles understanding what she was saying.  

Also her insistence on calling Herodotus « the father of history » is grating. Yes he’s called like that but no point saying it every time you mention him. And if you want a father of modern history, Thucydides is your man. Herodotus was better on travellers’ stories than fact based history. But maybe that’s revealing as her book is more in his vein than in Thucydides’s.
So it’s a well written book. But it’s a story, not history. 

Publicités

Flamboyant Second Empire, Xavier Mauduit et Corinne Ergasse

Le livre résumé par son éditeur (Armand Colin)

Napoléon III a longtemps été décrié mais l’homme est plus complexe qu’il n’y paraît. Sous le Second Empire, entre 1852 et 1870, la France connaît des avancées spectaculaires qui la font entrer dans la modernité et dans la révolution industrielle.

Que ce soit dans les sciences et techniques, les arts et la littérature, la politique, la vie quotidienne, l’éducation et la santé, l’architecture et l’urbanisme, le Second Empire a transfiguré la France.

Xavier Mauduit et Corinne Ergasse nous invitent à redécouvrir, avec plaisir, l’histoire méconnue de ces vingt années flamboyantes.

Parmi ses nombreuses escales, ce voyage à travers le temps nous conduit notamment à Paris, que le baron Haussmann transforme en ville lumière ; à Compiègne, pour assister aux somptueuses réceptions du régime ; à Bordeaux, qui envoie ses meilleurs crus à l’Exposition universelle de 1855 pour leur premier classement ; à Deauville, où le duc de Morny crée la station balnéaire emblématique du développement des lieux de villégiature, et partout en France où les hommes ont cru le progrès sans limite.

 

Le résumé si je l’avais écris

Ringard le Second Empire ? Dépassé, uniquement préoccupé de faste, d’opérettes d’Offenbach et de robes de Charles Frederick Worth ? Pas du tout !

Le Second Empire, c’est l’entrée de la France dans la révolution industrielle, le développement du chemin de fer (toutes ces nouvelles gares parisiennes), les expositions universelles, les grands projets d’urbanisme, les débuts de l’impressionnisme ! Le Second Empire c’est donc le début de la France moderne.

Embarquez pour une découverte expresse du Second Empire, entre grandes avancées techniques et petites histoires.

 

Critique

Se tient en ce moment à Orsay une exposition « Spectaculaire Second Empire ». Ce livre est le compagnon idéal de l’exposition. Organisé autour de grands thèmes (le quotidien, l’urbanisme, sciences et techniques etc…) il présente sur un ton dynamique et souvent humoristique et ironique (« la politique agricole impériale » ; « Al2O3, quoi ! Apparition de l’aluminium ») ces inventions ou ces pratiques que nous tenons pour normales et qui sont nées durant le Second Empire.

Comme le style est enjoué (et enlevé), le livre se lit très vite. On est bien loin des cours d’histoire de Première où le Second Empire se résume à « Coup d’Etat de 1852 – Guerre de Crimée – Expédition du Mexique – Défaite de Sedan ».

C’est une bonne introduction à l’histoire du période mal connue, une sorte de Que-sais-je qui pour une fois ne serait pas indigeste (ni écrit en arial 9).

 

Vous aimez les crinolines ? Vous voulez savoir pourquoi il y a une station Pereire du RER C ? Pourquoi la gare d’Orsay ? Qui est à l’origine du Salon des Refusés ? Flamboyant Second Empire a les réponses !

14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard

Petit conseil en passant, si vous aimez la fiction historique, le premier vendredi de chaque mois, l’émission la Fabrique de l’histoire sur France culture est consacrée aux nouvelles parutions (livres, BD, films) en terme de fiction historique. C’est comme ça que j’ai lu:

Et donc ce week-end (plus exactement en à peine deux heures dimanche soir), j’ai lu (dévoré) 14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard chez Actes Sud (existe aussi en version électronique, très pratique pour connaître la définition de certains mots tombés en désuétude. Vous saviez qu’un charron c’était quelqu’un qui fabriquait des charrettes? À replacer au scrabble).

 

Résumé sur le site de l’éditeur:

La prise de la Bastille est l’un des évènements les plus célèbres de tous les temps. On nous récite son histoire telle qu’elle fut écrite par les notables, depuis l’Hôtel de ville, du point de vue de ceux qui n’y étaient pas. 14 Juillet raconte l’histoire de ceux qui y étaient. Un livre ardent et épiphanique, où notre fête nationale retrouve sa grandeur tumultueuse.

 

Résumé si on m’avait demandé de l’écrire

Le 14 juillet 1789 comme si vous y étiez. Un récit presque heure par heure (ou même minute par minute) de la prise de la Bastille par le peuple de Paris. Toute la litanie des oubliés de l’histoire, ces petits commerçant, ces artisans, ces chômeurs de la place de Grève qui en ce jour caniculaire de l’été 1789 ont fait tomber le symbole du pouvoir royal.

 

Verdict

J’ai un vague souvenir d’un texte de Michelet étudié pour mon bac de français (je pense qu’on devait avoir un thème « peuple » parce qu’on a aussi fait un extrait du Cri du peuple de Vallès) qui narrait un épisode de la Révolution française, les femmes qui donnaient leurs bijoux pour que l’or serve à acheter des armes pour les soldats de la République. Ma prof avait eu ce mot « Michelet ce n’est pas de l’histoire, mais c’est un merveilleux romancier ». Personnellement, le style Michelet ne m’avait pas enthousiasmée plus que ça. Mais c’est à ce texte du bac de français que ce livre m’a fait penser.

Vuillard a fait un travail de recherche documentaire énorme pour ce livre, pour avoir des noms à donner à certains de ces hommes (et femmes) qui ont fait la Bastille, mais il reste surtout un romancier qui conduit son récit sur un rythme haletant. Je n’ai posé le livre que parce que mon train entrait en gare et qu’il fallait bien quitter ma place. Je l’ai repris dès que possible une fois rentrée chez moi.

14 juillet c’est un tableau de Bruegel mis en scène par un cinéaste avec un sens du détail hors du commun. Je n’ai jamais rien lu de pareil. Renvoyant Michelet à ses placards d’écrivain nationaliste glorificateur de la République (rien de mal à cela, Michelet est de son époque je suppose), Vuillard montre que l’Histoire n’a pas de besoin de Chevalier Bayard ou de Jeanne d’Arc pour être passionnante.

Pour voir la prise de la Bastille et la Révolution différemment, prenez 2h30 de votre temps (allez, 3h si vous lisez lentement) et lisez ce 14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard, c’est une petite merveille.

Stupor Mundi, Néjib

Résumé du livre (sur le site de l’éditeur, Gallimard)

Au début du XIIIe siècle, Hannibal Qassim El Battouti, un éminent savant arabe, débarque dans les Pouilles à Castel del Monte, refuge d’érudits en tout genre. Accompagné de sa fille Houdê, paralysée, et de El Ghoul, son serviteur masqué, il a dans ses bagages une invention extraordinaire: la photographie. Pour obtenir la protection de Frederic II et continuer ses recherches, il lui faudra retrouver une formule chimique disparue, […] et lutter contre les forces ennemies liguées contre lui. Une aventure médiévale digne du «Nom de la Rose».

 

Résumé du livre si je l’avais écrit (le résumé, pas le livre)

Dans un château du nord de l’Italie vit une étrange communauté de savants, rassemblés là sous la protection de l’Empereur Fréderic II, la « Stupeur du monde ». Ils sont rejoints par un savant arabe, tout autant mystérieux et étrange qu’eux, et qui semble détenir la clef d’une invention prodigieuse qui permettrait à l’Empereur de résoudre ses conflits avec le Pape. Une intrigue digne du Nom de la Rose avec un soupçon de géopolitique moderne.

 

Verdict

Pour être franche, je n’ai pas aimé le trait. Ce qui pour une bande-dessinée est un peu problématique. J’ai également sciemment retiré une ligne du résumé officiel afin de ne pas gâcher l’histoire à toute personne qui déciderait d’acheter ce livre après avoir lu cet article. Je n’ai pas eu cette chance (merci au chroniqueur de la Fabrique de l’Histoire qui a présenté le livre), et cela a un peu gâté mon plaisir.

Ceci étant posé, j’ai beaucoup aimé l’histoire. Même sans « spoiler » on comprend très vite quelle est l’invention sur laquelle compte El Battouti pour gagner les faveurs de l’Empereur et l’on retient son souffle jusqu’au bout en attendant de voir s’il va réussir. La découverte de l’histoire de sa fille, de l’origine de sa paralysie, et de l’identité de El Ghoul apporte une dose supplémentaire de suspens.

C’est une bande dessinée assez touffue au niveau des thèmes abordés, mais qui se lit rapidement. L’histoire est bien ficelée et on ne peut s’empêcher de penser au Nom de la Rose, mais un Nom de la Rose plus sombre et plus cynique. Ces savants ne sont pas des personnages sympathiques. Ils peuvent même être aussi cruels, égoïstes et arrogants que le commun des mortels. Quant à la « Stupeur du monde », il est peut-être encore plus cruel et arrogant que tous les autres.

Stupor Mundi est donc une très bonne bande dessinée historique, très différente de ce qui se fait dans le genre (où la mode semble être au dessin très travaillé et colorisé avec soin), une sorte de court essai mis en image sur le thème « science, morale et religion ».

 

Stupor Mundi, Gallimard, 26€

ISBN : 9782070668434

 

Euphoria, Lilly King

Summary as quoted on a well-known books selling website

Euphoria is Lily King’s nationally bestselling breakout novel of three young, gifted anthropologists of the ‘30’s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives. Inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is « dazzling … suspenseful … brilliant…an exhilarating novel.”—Boston Globe

 

Summary if I had written it

Love triangle on the Sepik river. Nell Stone – a well-known ethnologist and writer – and her husband Fen – an ethnologist as well but not as well-known as she is – meet with Bankson who is also studying the tribes of the river. Jealousy, science, violence, love, and lust all mix up to provide a surprisingly entertaining novel which doesn’t end as you thought it would.

 

Review

Euphoria is loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead who was a pioneer of ethnography in the 1920s-1930s. However, it is not a biography, even though the two other characters are based on Mead’s second and third husband.

I found the book well written. It is not a page-turner but it’s good book. The « romance » part of the story is well thought through and very sensitively written.

The science part is great. Ethnography is a relatively young science and in the 1920s it wasn’t even recognised as a science. People like Mead were pioneers and I thought the novel was a very clever way to show what it meant for these people to work on the field and to invent their own methodology, their own rules.

The description of the societies of the Sepik river, their complexity is also very well researched and makes the book very interesting.

All in all, it’s a good book. The story is original, it’s well researched and well-written. You should really give it a go if you have an interest in ethnography.

Hotel Florida: truth, love and death in the Spanish Civil war, Amanda Vaill

Summary as written on the site of a well known online retailer

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe―a conflict one writer will call « the decisive thing of the century »―six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of the Spanish government’s foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause―a struggle that places both of them in peril.

Beginning with the cloak-and-dagger plot that precipitated the first gunshots of the war and moving forward month by month to the end of the conflict. Hotel Florida traces the tangled and disparate wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history: a moment that called forth both the best and the worst of those caught up in it. In this noir landscape of spies, soldiers, revolutionaries, and artists, the shadow line between truth and falsehood sometimes became faint indeed―your friend could be your enemy and honesty could get you (or someone else) killed.

Years later, Hemingway would say, « It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by. » In Hotel Florida, from the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, the celebrated biographer Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it, telling it, and living it―whatever the cost.

Summary if I had written it

The story of 3 couples caught in the Spanish Civil War and of how the consequences of the war on their lives and loves.

Isa Kulcsar the austrian communist sympathiser and Arturo Barea the Spanish businessman who wants to help the Republic, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, and of course Gerda Taro and Robert Capa.

It is a story of love, but also of death, of the relation to war, and how to tell the truth of a war, if such a thing exist.

The three couples are very different, with Kulcsar and Barea the most sympathic, and Hemingway the most unpleasant in my view. Taro and Capa are a bit more complicated to understood. Theirs seem to be a reverse Pygmalion relationship. She created him, but he’s the one who fell madly in love. And of course, their love story is the most tragic of the three told.

Review

I found the book very well written. It’s not a novel, but a novelized account of the lives of the 6 main protagonists. Sometimes I was a bit wary of the statement of the book (e.g. when the author says that Capa paid for the Giacometti sculpture on Taro’s grave) but the notes after each big chapter corroborate them (in that case, he said so in a letter to his mother), so no worry here.

Not all character are as likable. I found Hemingway frankly disgusting. A man more interested in his own glory than in the world around him. Taro as usual is hard to understand because she left so little writing about her thoughts and her feelings (most biographers now agree that Capa and her had made up after the hiatus of the Spring 1937. Whether he had again asked her to marry him, what she had said, only them know and they didn’t say anything to anyone). That she loved Capa a lot is not in doubt, that she was torn between her feelings and her ambition to establish herself as a war photographer in her own right is also very clear. It’s not easy being recognized as a war photographer when your lover is « the greatest war photographer of all time ». The striking thing about the Capa/Taro couple is how young they were, and in a way how naive. Capa was barely 23 in 1936 and it’s heartbreaking to think he would see (and document) so much suffering in such a mature way, and also suffer so much himself.

Kulcsar/Barea was for me the most interesting story as it’s the one I knew almost nothing about. I really enjoyed reading about them.

The book also opens very cleverly a discussion on intellectuals and the war. Kulscar and Barea are deeply involved because they care about the Spanish people (also because Barea is Spanish). Taro and Capa first get involved because it’s a story of a fight against fascism, and as Taro grows as a photographer, her photos take a more militant turn (although the photos of the Valencia morgue are shocking, I can’t help thinking they look like shots that can be used for propaganda purpose). Capa on the other hand, slowly becomes more involved with the people and less with the politics. He too really becomes a photographer in Spain, but his photos are growingly apolitical. You feel that he cares about civilian casualties more than he cares about the politics behind. As for Hemingway (Gellhorn seems to be mid-way between Taro and Capa on that point), he appears at the typical intellectual who uses a cause to serve his profile. He cares about the war, but he’s ready to swallow any propaganda if it gives him public exposure. He reminds me of BHL (a French intellectual), although he is a far better writer.

All in all, I think the book gives a very good account of the Spanish Civil War, undeniably a more readable one than Beevor’s account.

Warmly recommended.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

Summary (as written on a well know online bookseller)

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan displays the gifts that have made him one of the most acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction. Moving deftly from a Japanese POW camp to present-day Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo Evans and his fellow prisoners to that of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

 

Summary if I had written it

Dorrigo Evans, a well-known Australian surgeon was a commanding officer in one fo the POW camps charged with building the Siam-Burma railway during World War II; Towards the end of his life, he remembers his youth, his time at the camp, those who died, those he saved, the love he lost, the men he couldn’t save. The story of a man who wasn’t supposed to be extraordinary but was made so by the exceptional circumstances in which he found himself.

 

Review

I hadn’t read a good novel in a while and simply devoured this one in one day (granted, I had to stay indoor for the whole day). The style is a bit puzzling at first, jumping from one time to another, without the change of era being due to flashbacks. Life at the POW camp is described in all its horror and makes for bloodcurdling reading.

One of the great strength of the book in my view is also to show the Japanese point of view (although how completely accurate and true is that point of view only a Japanese in charge of a POW camp could say) where violence, cruelty and downright sadism are simply a way to ensure the Emperor’s will is done. The hypocrisy of the allies after war, when they pursued and judged some officers – those in charge of allied POW camps – bu not all – in particular those responsible for the atrocities in China – is also very well exposed.

All in all, I found the love story to be the weakest and most boring part of the book.

 

 

In short, it is a very good historical fiction, on an episode of World War II history that, if not quite forgotten (think Bridge upon the River Kwai ) is not talked about very often in Europe.

 

ISBN: 978-0804171472

 

Magnum, Fifty years at the frontline, Russell Miller

Summary as written on [a well know book-selling website]

Since Magnum was founded in 1947, its members have been on hand to bear witness on the front line of world history. From Robert Capa’s stark photograph of a Loyalist soldier being shot in the head during the Spanish Civil War to Eve Arnold’s astonishingly intimate portraits of well-known faces – from Joan Crawford to Malcolm X – Magnum has changed how we perceive our political leaders, social crises, and the communities next door.
Magnum’s photographers are some of the most talented, brave, and resourceful in the world: the founders, Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger, and Henri Cartier-Bresson; and recruits, including Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Inge Morath, James Nachtwey, Eugene Richards, and Sebastiao Salgado. Magnum follows them on assignment, facing bodyguards and visa troubles and taking to the risk-filled trenches of several wars for the perfect shot. Full of wonderful stories and heroic feats, Magnum is an essential volume for anyone interested in photography or photojournalism.

 

Summary if I had written it

The first fifty years of Magnum is the story of a very dysfunctional family. A bunch of very talented individuals who have nothing much in common except talent for photography and a complete unwillingness to be told what to do. A tale, or rather tales, of daring deeds, brilliant ideas and petty fights, punctuated by some of the most important photos of the second half of the 20th century.

 

Review

The idea behind Magnum is fairly straightforward: photographers, and in particular photoreporters, should be free to choose their subject and how they want to treat it and should retain the rights to their photos. It sounds obvious now but it wasn’t the case before 1946. The idea of a photographers’ cooperative had been in Capa’s mind since the 1930s but he only got round to founding it in 1946/47. If the idea behind is great, there is an initial flaw in the setting up of Magnum, that is putting the photographers completely in charge. Photographers are not businessmen, and therefore since its creation, Magnum has suffered regularly from financial trouble (the book covers the first 50 years, I would hope that since the agency is still around, they have finally found a way to solve their perennial money issue).

Miller’s book is an uncompromising portrait of the dysfunctional family that Magnum is. One anecdote in the book summarises the atmosphere of Magnum very well: when Cartier-Bresson was chairman of the annual meeting, the minutes apparently read « the chairman is asked not to do watercolours during the meeting ». From a sociological point of view Magnum is the equivalent of the peasants’ commune in Holy Grail and as such shouldn’t have lasted more than a year or two. But 70 years later, Magnum is still there, and Miller’s book gives us some answer: yes they couldn’t manage a balance sheet to save their lives; yes they’re full of themselves and spend their time quarrelling, but in the end the people there are not just « good » photographers, they’re brilliant ones and they all value their independence too much to let Magnum sink.

After a first thematic chapter that sets the environment (Miller’s account of the 1997 Annual meeting, with its little fights and slammed doors, a typical meeting as we soon discover), the book is organised chronologically, starting with a brief summary of the founders’ (Capa, Chim, Rodger and Cartier-Bresson) lives. It makes for fascinating reading as the story of Magnum’s first 50 years is also the story of the second half of the 20th century, with all its wars and social changes.

It’s an uncompromising portrait, but a very touching one too. No matter how awful these photographers seem to be to each other and to the staff working in the agency, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be fascinating to work for one of the bureaux for a year, just to see it from the inside (I do think that after a year, you’d need another one to get your health back).

As I said earlier, given how it is organised, Magnum shouldn’t have lasted 50 years, not to mention 70. That they did is a testament to the greatness of the basic idea behind it: photographers’ independence. And I think that’s what makes this portrait so touching too. Independence is a much touted word nowadays, but very few people can afford to live by this principle (to the sound of « you’ve got to serve somebody » by Dylan), and it creates a lot of problems when talking about the media. To read about 50 or so inveterate, old-fashioned photographers who value their independence above money is refreshing.

My only regret at the end is that I couldn’t find a book that takes over and covers 1997-2016. To be written one day I hope!

 

A warmly recommended read for anyone interested in photojournalism (ok, confession time: as a teen, I wanted to be a war photograph).

 

Date of publication: 1999

ISBN: 978-0802136534

 

Low life, lures and snares of old New York by Luc Sante

Summary as presented on the book

Low life is a portrait of America’s greatest city, the riotous and anarchic breeding ground of modernity. This is not the familiar saga of mentions, avenues, and robber barons, but the messy, turbulent story of the city’s slums and teaming streets, scenes of innumerable cons and crimes, whose cramped and overcrowded housing is still a prominent feature of the cityscape. (and breathe)

 

Summary if I had written it

A very disjointed account of the life in the slums of Manhattan from the city’s birth to the first World War.

 

Review

Over the Christmas holidays, I had read « The Other Paris » from the same author (review to follow), so the disjointed structure of the book wasn’t such a surprise, but it was still difficult to get into it, even more so than for The Other Paris. Probably because Paris is my town whereas New York is just a city I visited twice.

Low life explores the slum life of New York through 18 thematic chapters (e.g « Home »; « Streets »; « Saloon culture »). They are very unequal in their quality which makes reading rather difficult.

The picture painted of New York is that of a very violent city where daily life is not just harsh but cruel. It is a story that is not normally told when you study the history of the United States. It does not shy from showing what daily life was for the « poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free». It makes for a very grim reading, which I have to say surprised me. The level of misery is the same as that described in the Paris of the time, but Paris is less violent and more joyous. There also seem to be more hope in Paris than in New York, which I wouldn’t have expected. After all, it’s the « New World ». Another striking feature of the New York described in the book is how little place there is for women there. New York is very much a man’s world.

Overall, I think it is a very interesting book on a little known topic. I wish it had been easier to read. I also wish it had covered the Prohibition era, as I would think it had a very big impact on the life in the slums of New York. Nevertheless, if you’re into history and sociology, it’s really worth the trouble.

ISBN: 978-0-374-52899-7

Cher Pays de notre enfance, Benoît Collombat et Étienne Davodeau

Petite critique d’une bande dessinée, histoire de changer

Résumé tel que présenté sur le livre:

En partant à la rencontre des témoins des heures sombres de la Veme République, en retraçant les assassinats qui l’ont marquée, en nous faisant visiter les archives de la milice du parti gaulliste, Étienne Davodeau et Benoît Collombat nous emmènent là où la vie politique d’une grande démocratie s’est parfois égarée…

Résumé si je l’avais écrit:

Il était une fois un pays sorti meurtri de la deuxième guerre mondiale, plongé peu après dans une sale guerre et dont certains citoyens avaient une conception assez extensible et flexible de la notion de violence légitime. Le problème? Ces gens là étaient au pouvoir.

Verdict

À lire pour toute personne née après 1981 et qui ne sait donc pas ce qu’était les années 1958-80 en France. Pour toute personne née après 1960 et qui en garde un souvenir un peu flou. Et pour tous ceux qui ont vécu cette période et ont choisi d’oublier. 

La génération de mes grands-parents a vécu ces années de plomb, et cela ne les a pas empêché de voter pour ces gens. Par fidélité à l’image de de Gaulle, certes comme beaucoup de gens qui ont vécu la guerre. Mais tout de même. On parle d’un système politique corrompu, entre françafrique et hold-ups, d’une époque où un juge est assassiné sans qu’on fasse beaucoup d’effort pour retrouver les commanditaires, où l’assassinat d’un ministre en exercice est maquillé en suicide. 

En lisant l’enquête de Collombat, je me suis demandé comment un tel système avait pu se maintenir, ce que les gens savaient. Je suppose qu’à une époque de plein emploi et de croissance les électeurs ne se préoccupaient pas trop de politique. Et que la peur des « rouges » empêchait ceux qui avait des doutes de les exprimer trop clairement.

N’empêche. Cette France des années de plomb mériterait bien son opération mains propres. Pas pour mettre en prisons des vieillards de 90 ans, non, mais au moins pour dire la vérité. 

Qui a tué le juge Renaud?

Qui a tué (« suicidé ») le ministre Boulin?

Et surtout, quel est l’héritage de ce système dans la France du 21ème siècle?